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  • Author: John Deely x
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The First Postmodern Survey of Philosophy from Ancient Times to the Turn of the Twenty-First Century


Semiotics as a general phenomenon of intellectual culture took root in the 20th century. The earliest figure in that enrooting was Charles Peirce (1839-1914), but the foregrounded figure was rather Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who plotted a narrower course under the label "semiology". It was Thomas Sebeok (1920-2001) who made unmistakable the " pars pro toto" fallacy of Saussure's standpoint, and who cleared the way for the full development of a "doctrine of signs" under the broader label of "semiotics". Thus, as Susan Petrilli pointed out in her Sebeok Fellow Address of 2008, it is "we today who have lived in both the 20th and 21 st century" who "have witnessed and participated in" the original establishment of semiotics as knowledge thematically developed from the consideration of the action consequent upon the being proper to signs. This essay aims to provide a record of the 20th century founding of semiotics, through the interplay of the work of the key players in the drama that unfolded between the birth of Peirce and the death of Sebeok-such diverse thinkers as Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), Roman Jakobson ( 1896-1982), Charles Morris (1901-1979), Feruccio Rossi-Landi (1921-1985 ), Algirdas Greimas ( 1917-1992), Juri Lotman ( 1922-1993 ) , Jeff Bernard (1943-2010), along with a few survivors of the "founding era" who yet remain on the current scene of "unfolding synchronicity" - the "land of the living"-within semiotics. The essay makes clear that semiosis depends upon the being of signs as irreducibly of a triadic relational structure, as Poinsot (1589-1644) seems earliest to have demonstrated, and Peirce independently established as the "model" required fully to develop the doctrine of signs as a " science" presupposed to "science" in the modem, ideoscopic sense. Perhaps most important of all is the discovery that interdisciplinarity, wherever it occurs and to whatever extent it is possible, is a direct consequence of semiosis, and the reason why semiotics provides the only inherently interdisciplinary perspective antidotal to the specializations required for ideoscopic advances in science. How the universities, shaped by modem scientific specializations, will eventually accommodate this "semiotic singularity" remains to be seen.


By the 20th century’s end, semiotics had definitively emerged as the most historically and theoretically proper name for the study of how signs work in human experience, both in its cultural dimensions and in its inevitable dependency upon the physical environment and universe, which extends far beyond cultural influence and which the very existence of culture presupposes. Probably the single most key figure, as it were, “presiding over” this emergence was the Hungarian-American Thomas A. Sebeok. But key to Sebeok’s weaving of the “semiotic web” of a global awareness of sign-action within the intellectual culture of the 21st century was his appreciation and integration within his vision and work of two key background figures, both associated with Tartu University, namely, Jakob von Uexküll and Juri Lotman. I would like to comment on how the heritage of these two figures have proved to be the foundation stones - in some ways more important even than the, so far, more widely recognized figures of Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Peirce - for the future of semiotics within university life and intellectual life generally.