Word for the Day: Semiotics

The word for the day was suggested by a former Kindergarten classmate. Carolyn, a retired university music librarian, brought Semiotics to our attention after reading yesterday’s posts on hermeneutics. She knew the word but had had to look it up at least seven times, but could no longer remember what it meant.

The request took us online to the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Semiotics.

Semiotics, also called Semiology, the study of signs and sign-using behaviour. It was defined by one of its founders, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, as the study of “the life of signs within society.” Although the word was used in this sense in the 17th century by the English philosopher John Locke, the idea of semiotics as an interdisciplinary mode for examining phenomena in different fields emerged only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the independent work of Saussure and of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.

Click HERE for the Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s one page entry, ending with references and links to the influence of Semiotics in the fields of aesthetics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, communications, and semantics. The Britannica doesn’t mention hermeneutics, although the relation between them is that of kissing cousins. Both understand us humans as meaning-makers who create meaning by means of signs and language.

Most students of hermeneutics and semiotics disagree with religious fundamentalism’s view that meaning already exists and that the human task is to find it, as in the statement often made at times of death that “God has a better plan.” The role of the divine, if one supposes it, is as creative Spirit beneath the human spirit, always creating, never finished, never pre-determined. Scholars in theology, philosophy, anthropology, and linguistics can no longer do their work honestly without going through the Semiotics door of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Tampa, FL, January 22, 2016

6 thoughts on “Word for the Day: Semiotics

  1. Don’t think I ever heard about your arrest on the playground 😕. I remember Sam Peacock as a safety, but if I remember, for the most part, the genders separated themselves except on the equipment, and sometimes even then. I really enjoyed those things. Nowadays, kids are introduced only to the relatively safe ones, or to those scaled down or modified to make it harder to seriously wound oneself on them. Probably a good thing, but when I remember jumping high on the maypole-like thing and cooperating with others to go under and over to make a maypole-like pole, just “steel-colored” steel, no gaudy colored plastic, I get homesick for my youth. Not that I would go back and try to do my life over, but there are some really great memories there. Golly, I have mattered on. What about this “arrest?”


  2. Wow! If I look up structuralism, and read the rest of the article (after the mention of structuralism) I will likely remember it next time I see it. I think the problem is that I don’t have a philosophical mind. I usually think and learn by specific examples rather than a statement of generalized principals. Or is it principles, yes, I *think* principles. Oh dear, I am getting old. I knew that once.


    • Funny thing about principles and principals. The principals I remember best are Pop Warfel at Marple Elementary, and Mr. Rathy. I’m pretty sure they both had very strict principles, and I’d bet neither of them ever heard of structuralism.


      • Yes, it’s just that principles looked better at that point.
        Pops Warfel had, I am sure, strict principles about some things, but they didn’t extend to not eating in class. He had a stash of jelly beans in his top desk drawer, and every so often he’d pop one in his mouth. I suspect, considering how very strongly he smelled of tobacco, that the jelly beans were a substitute for a cigar or cigarette. I suppose that was preferable to smoking.


      • Carolyn, You just prompted another post on Pops Warfel and Sammy Peacock who was, at the time of the story of my arrest on the playground, one of Pops’ prison yard guards, i.e. Safeties! Don’t think I ever heard about the jelly beans. Sheesh! He could have been President!


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