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Nonwestern semiotics

Date:2011-10-05 01:35Author:youzhengli
Nonwestern semiotics and its possible impact on the composition of Semiotics Theory in future * Youzheng Li Abstract Traditionally we get used to a dichotomy of the theoretical and the applied levels in semiotic studies. Therefore there exi




Nonwestern semiotics and its possible impact on the composition of Semiotics Theory in future*           

                       Youzheng Li




Traditionally we get used to a dichotomy of the theoretical and the applied levels in semiotic studies. Therefore there exist a general-semiotics as the theoretical mode and a discipline-semiotics as the applied one.  Clearly, the existing general semiotics arises from the West and all nonwestern semiotics seem to be reduced to the category of the applied- or discipline-semiotics. However, this scholarly dichotomy tends to be incomplete or unsatisfactory in the semiotic-globalization era. This paper intends to point out that general or theoretical semiotics, far from being some original meta-semiotics or “semiotic philosophy”, is itself a synthetic body of a more general theoretical source outside the semiotic proper and various disciplinary scholarship. Thus, the composition of theoretical semiotics as such is also related to various conventional disciplines, including nonwestern ones. In this sense, a developed nonwestern or eastern semiotics would contribute also to the progress of semiotic theory in future.


Keywords: general theory, semiotic theory, eastern semiotics, philosophy,




Saussure’s revolutionary role in modernizing the humanities lie’s in its disconnection from the two traditional ways of thinking: the philological study of language and the metaphysical theorization. We may call the one the material-centrism and the other the philosophy-centrism. Structural linguistics is the theory-directed, but neither philological nor speculative. In a word, the most revolutionary role of the semiotic way of thinking based on structural linguistics is expressed in its keeping a clear distance from modern philosophy although it originated in philosophical tradition. Let me first point out a basic line of my paper in the following:


----Modern semiotic theory consists of various general aspects of different disciplinary theories, including the philosophical. But since then it has become interdisciplinary rather than the philosophy-central by nature.

---Its theoretical contents develop from the theoretical practice in various traditional disciplines of the West and the East alike rather than from any philosophical logic.


   In terms of the position we may say that the nonwestern cross-cultural semiotics will probably in turn influence the development of general semiotics in future as well. This paper states that as one of the major nonwestern semiotics Chinese semiotics as well as many other eastern semiotics will also play a constructive role in forming the global semiotic practice and make its ‘cross-cultural-directed interdisciplinary semiotic experience’ actively involved into the global theoretical semiotics in the New Century. In this sense the global semiotics consisting of the western and nonwestern parts will be further solidified and interconnected in an expanded global semiotic movement.


1.     General Theory

Modern semiotic theory is based on and preconditioned by some more general theoretical principles other than the philosophical in history, such as the most general ones: the linguistic and the logical, as well as the relatively general ones like: the psychological, deep-psychological and even the sociological. Such general subjects as the most basic disciplines in human knowledge (in terms of their ideal types rather than of their status quo) have been intellectual autonomies; they provide some theoretical fundaments to semiotics in different ways, forming various constitutional parts of so-called theoretical semiotics. Therefore theoretical semiotics is the product of the interaction between different general theories and various disciplinary-studies. Accordingly we have another more pertinent dichotomy made between the “application theory” and the “theoretical application”. The former is about those more theoretical studies and the latter about those more applied ones (for example: the distinction between film theory as such and analysis of movie pictures in terms of some theoretical principles). So we could have various semiotic disciplines such as: semiotic studies in philosophy, history, literature and arts respectively. All fields like these can be divided into the more theoretical and the more applied ones in relative terms. Usually we call the former “theoretical semiotics” and the latter “applied semiotics”. The identity of “theoretical semiotics” is already a synthesis of the general theories originally existing outside the semiotic proper and various conventional disciplines, including both western and nonwestern parts. In our classification a conventional discipline, including various disciplinary semiotics, consists of both the more theoretical and the more applied. Thus, in “literary studies” we could say: literary theory and literary analysis; the former is more about general principles and the latter more about an analysis of fictional works. Similarly we have the theoretical studies at general level and the applied studies at concrete levels in, for example, literary semiotics, historical semiotics and artistic semiotics. Without a connection to those general-theoretical aspects of disciplinary-semiotics there exists not a separate  “general semiotics”. What exists logically above those general aspects as their common higher theoretical principle can be called  “general theory” outside or independent from semiotics. Therefore, semiotics, including its theoretical ones, remains to be at a secondary level in hierarchy of knowledge.

    Unfortunately, the relationship between the terms “semiotic theory”, “general semiotics” and “semiotic philosophy” remain unclear till today. In semiotic discourse we can frequently find the ambiguous usage concerning the term “philosophy”. For example, Kalevi Kull says, “According to Deely, semiotics is definitely the philosophy of the postmodern age”. (Deely, 2005, ix) It sounds that semiotics and philosophy are something exchangeable to each other. In fact, another saying is also quite common that semiotic theory should be reduced to some philosophy of language. Many contemporary philosophers are of course the source of semiotic theory. As Petrilli and Ponzio point out, the problem of semiotic theory could be closely related to ontology and philosophical epistemology. (Petrilli & Ponzio, 2005, 22) All of these philosophy-related topics of semiotic theory indicate a traditional tie existing between the two subjects: semiotic theory and philosophy. The author of this paper, however, maintains that it is time now for us to get rid of the philosophical framework of any kind in order to reformulate a more reasonable conception of really interdisciplinary semiotic theory. (Li, 2007, 783-791)


2.     The semiotic as one of the main organizers about theoretical synthesis of human knowledge

Semiotics is a user of all established knowledge, synthetically and relevantly connecting intellectual and academic elements from various disciplinary sources. That is why we call semiotics as an interdisciplinary practice. If we have to be careful about the general philosophical terms in formulating semiotic-theoretical ideas, the traditional generic terms in semiotic discourse seem to be also not satisfactory in our theoretical construction today, such as  “sign”, “symbol” and some other generic terms. As I pointed out in my paper “Interdisciplinary/de-philosophizing orientation in semiotic theory today” read in Berkeley 1994 that “This common word (sign) is too broad to become a universal operator used in forming semiotic theories.”( Rauch & Carr, 1997, 899). If we attempt to establish a new philosophical or linguistic foundation for a general semiotics we may immediately fall in a logical self-contradiction, for philosophy itself has been one of conventional disciplines ever since the modern era. We are already far away from the ancient period when the philosophical had been the foundation for all other knowledge. Not only philosophical terms, but also many other existent general terms in different disciplinary fields should not be safely used as the basic conceptions for semiotics wrongly conceived as a “new discipline”. This author states that, “In the light of the strong heterogeneity of current semiotic studies, how can we present any meaningful design for a ‘theoretical foundation of a discipline’ (Echbach), a ‘cultural logic’ (Lotman), a ‘general semiotics’ (Eco), or a ‘semiotic philosophy’ (Peirce)? ”.(Bernard et al, 1996,76)

   Instead, semioticians search for an interdisciplinary-directed theoretical “foundation” which functions as a mere theoretical organizer in an operative sense. So-called theoretical semiotics, as we just said, is not another meta-theoretical dogmatism,  it is a synthesizer in interdisciplinary and cross-cultural academic interaction. The important theoretical semiotics available today all comes from historical practices made in various main disciplines such as: philosophy, history, literature, arts, media and others. While a theoretical semiotics across disciplines plays a role as only an external link among related general elements from various disciplines. Yes, we have linguistics and logic penetrating into all semiotic practices, but they originate from independent fields outside modern semiotics. So we can define the identity of theoretical semiotics as something partly derived from other established disciplinary sources; or exactly, it is a combination or interaction between various ‘general theories’ and the related concrete studies in different disciplines. We semiotic theoreticians should promote this kind of  synthetic practices along the same line. On one hand we depend on the existing conventional knowledge and on the other we attempt to further readjust their inner structure. In general, the semiotician is not especially qualified in playing a role as “the creator’ but rather as “the creative user” of all disciplinary-knowledge attained by different specialists. We semioticians exist dialectically outside as well as within the disciplinary-directed academic world, especially with respect to the new framework of human sciences.

   After a closer observation we find a more profound question is related to the connection between the three academic fields: philosophy, human sciences, and semiotics. Ivailo Znepolski says: “It convient que les sémioticiens prêtent l’oreille aux apprehensions croissants de Habermas, selon qui l’entrée de la philosophie dans ces types de cooperation avec les sciences humanines, qui n’excluent pas la division du travail entre elles, met en doute son identité; avec cet acte de cooperation, c’est comme si la philosophie renonçait à être quelque chose d’exceptionnel, renonçait à des prétentions théoriques d’universalité, avec lesquelles son essence est liée; ce fasit ne nous permet pas de croise que la cooperation de la sémiotique avec la pensée philosophique facilitera son identification: elle ne fait qu’ajouter certains trait supplémentaires, qui sont sujets à identification.” (Petitot & Fabbri, 2000, 231) The mentioned Habermas’ worry about the blurred identity of philosophy just indicates a semiotic-contrary position of him: a philosophy-fundamentalism. It is true that the philosophical conception of “logical universality” is certainly in disaccord with the identity of contemporary human sciences. The observation further proves that the semiotic must stand by human sciences rather than together with a philosophy-central academic system. We may even say, the semiotic essence lies in its disconnection from the traditional identity of a German genre of  philosophy.


3.     Eastern semiotics could become part of theoretical semiotics in the Semiotic Globalization Era

Because above-mentioned academic identity of the general theory is traditionally shaped in the West, theoretical semiotics tends to be misleading in its two different theoretical practices: that from the general theoretical that is outside semiotics and that from theoretical semiotics which contains part of the former. The former originates in the West but has become the common subject in all cultures yet. In principle, modern semiotics has developed in all interdisciplinary activities in the total human academia. That means theoretical semiotics is not restricted to the European-American academic world only. The cross-cultural semiotics as the new type of interdisciplinary practice with respect to both western and nonwestern academic worlds becomes also a new academic ground for promoting scholarly dialogues between all kinds of disciplines. On one hand it is especially related to applying some western theories into the nonwestern cultural material, while on the other hand it is also part of the scholarship of theoretical semiotics in general. In other words, theoretical semiotics will become the common job of both the western and the nonwestern semiotics in future, because modern nonwestern disciplines will naturally join the common synthetic efforts for promoting theoretical semiotics. Concretely, various types of theoretical semiotics in different disciplines will be changed or readjusted following the creative and critical participation of the non-western or Eastern traditional disciplines such as philosophy, history, literature and arts. For this purpose, of course, we need to undertake a two-stepped dialectic strategy: firstly we need to apply the western analytical tool to reformulating or modernizing the traditional nonwestern scholarly discourse that had been less logically-organized, and secondly we are able to apply the reformulated discourse of the nonwestern disciplines to the present-day scientific interaction between the western and the nonwestern semiotics at various theoretical levels. That means the nonwestern semiotics, which itself is the result of the western-nonwestern scholarly interaction, involves global semiotics at the two stages: one stage for modernizing the traditional formulation at national level and the other stage for joining common theoretical inquiry at global level. The latter will be useful for both the western and nonwestern semiotic theoreticians in their separate or cooperative practices.  In this sense, semiotic practice, especially its theoretical part, must be helpful for unifying and advancing human knowledge on the whole.

   In terms of this definition , the semiotic way of thinking should first of all escape the traditional monist dogmatism or the logical monism that is related to a historical fundamentalism in reasoning and practice in European history. The classical mode of this kind of thinking has been philosophy as such that historically determines the structure of total knowledge. However this classical type of knowledge has been changed greatly since the modern semiotic movement that requests the reformulation of human knowledge in terms of interdisciplinary/cross-cultural practice. That means the theoretical practice shaped in any discipline is able to form an independent theoretical basis for scientific operations in any semiotically designed project. Accordingly, there should be a clearer distinction between the classical philosophical approach and the modern theoretical one in various branches of the humanities. For example, there appears an obvious distinction between the category “philosophy of history” and the category “theory of history” today. The latter includes naturally the theory of Chinese history containing the emerging discipline of Chinese historical semiotics in which no longer a philosophy could play a role (refer to : “On Distinction between Philosophy of History and Theory of History”, Li, 2008a, 142-149). The same thing could be said with literature and arts. As Li points out that “a historical semiotics can help make clearer the semantic composition of ancient historical discourse”(Li, 2008b, 356), that leads to a systematic reformulation of historical discourse as such. The general traits of the reformulated historical discourse will also present a new theoretical aspect to historical semiotics as part of semiotic theory in general.


4.     Semiotic Globalization towards the new unified humanities of mankind

One of the common misconceptions about human civilizations is the idea that present human history is approaching its closing stage. The fact is the contrary: Human civilizations at this globalization era remain in their beginning moment in human history. Besides the remarkable progress of natural and social sciences, the divergent and ambiguous humanities disorderly shaped in history have just reached the eve of their global renaissance that is especially symbolized by the emergence of modern semiotics. Why? The traditional flaws of the humanities have been firstly caused by a prevailing semantic disorder that has been the very origin of historical struggles among different faiths. The semiotic practice leads to the advance of semantic clarification of traditional intellectual discourse of various kinds. Without this common semantically operative ground for effective communication, people from different races and histories can hardly reach each other’s understanding, sympathy and respect.  The crucial aim in scholarship of the humanities or human sciences is first of all about the problem of semantic analysis of different traditional discourses, while semiotics is especially specialized in handling this general semantic task. Naturally, the semiotic is a science rather than an art or quasi-art. Or, exactly we should clearly distinguish between a semiotic science and a semiotic art to protect the rational essence of semiotics. The former belongs to rational praxis in human existence, just like natural and social sciences. Therefore the preconditions of cross-cultural semiotics, including Chinese semiotics, are the understanding that semiotics is of rational and scientific nature in a broad term. As we repeat often, semiotics is part of social and human sciences; that means we firmly support the identity and validity of the conception of human sciences. But on the other hand, we also need a pluralist type of rationality and science to replace the dogmatic ones frequenting human intellectual history. Now it is semiotics that opens a new horizon for the intellectual endeavors through an unprecedented bridging between the western and the eastern humanities. For realizing this great global project we should strengthen the rational orientation of semiotic practice. We may declare that: No strong rational direction, no meaningful semiotic globalization.  

   With respect to the cross-cultural semiotics or eastern semiotics, our western colleagues should change a traditional bias against the distinction between the western and the eastern civilizations. Such a cultural distinction has been cherished by both the western-centrism and eastern-nationalism. The conception of semiotic globalization will further help expel such traditional prejudice that could have been effective only in the historical past. Today, the East has already comprehensively absorbed almost all fruits of western civilization and therefore substantially changed its social and cultural conditions. As a matter of fact, the East is only a geographical notion, while culturally speaking it consists of both the eastern and the western elements yet. It is absolutely true for the case with natural and social sciences; it will be also true for the case with human sciences in future. For example, either for human sciences or for semiotic studies, Chinese academia has been already open to all human intellectual heritages today. In this sense, the knowledge of the humanities originating from the West will become the spiritual wealth of the eastern as well. By comparison, our western colleagues are still lacking such a global consciousness because of their relative unfamiliarity with nonwestern history. So, in this speech I ‘d like to say to my western colleagues that theoretical efforts in the nonwestern and Chinese semiotics would be the organic part of general semiotics or theoretical semiotics someday. In terms of this prediction our semiotic family should pay a more serious attention to the semiotic solidarity at the global level. A developed nonwestern semiotics will strengthen our common achievements in semiotic science; it is far from being only a simple application of western theories into eastern materials. Instead, it will be in fact another creative ground for promoting and modernizing semiotic theory as well as human sciences in the world.

   Finally, some remarks about concrete matters in our international semiotic dialogue. Regarding the proper way of cross-cultural semiotics in future, far from being that the western is more specialized in the theoretical job and the nonwestern is more specialized in the historical one. In fact, both western and eastern scholars will handle the theoretical and the historical subjects in an equal term. That means the global semiotics requests a restructuring of the way of doing semiotics in the world; it will be engaged in reorganizing the way of semiotic scholarship through strengthening the collective or cooperative mind during various practices. Nobody is able to grasp all knowledge by himself; as we indicated above yet, a semiotic scholar is a wise and rational “user” of the existing knowledge produced by all other scholars. We need to enhance the evaluation for using different second hand knowledge more systematically; that is implied in the sense of the interdisciplinary practice as such. Everybody is the teacher and the student at the same time in our global semiotic practice. As a consequence, a genuine global semiotic era has arrived now. Or, all of us belong to the same semiotic family needing each other’s cooperation and helps.


   By the way, quite simply, why there is semiotics? Following a modern period of vertical disciplinary analysis-specialization,  there is a necessity for the horizontal interdisciplinary synthesis-combination. Why there is a nonwestern semiotics? There are three main reasons for it: the absorbed western theory, the original history, and the theoretical consequence of the interaction of the former two. This new intellectual experience will be naturally combined into the above horizontal synthesis at the global level.

   Finally we may conclude that so-called semiotic globalization or global semiotics does not request the construction of a new theoretical system as its practicing model but rather a new operative strategy within global human sciences. Thus, so-called semiotic theory is not something about a specially constructed theoretical body; instead, it means a set of operative patterns at higher theoretical practice with respect to various projects designed, fixed and performed in human sciences. So, semiotics cannot be disconnected from the extent system of human knowledge; it is the part of the theoretical practice of human sciences that focus on semantic and communicational analysis in various concrete projects, in combination with many other methodologies. The revolutionary nature of semiotics in modern times is firstly reflected in the understanding that the present-day human sciences need to be further modernized or more rationalized in face with the totally rationalized natural sciences and technology which control our world by their strong instrumental rationality. While under the critical period in human history, postmodernism attempts to de-rationalize human sciences. In terms of the disillusionment, semiotics could be an rational resistance to the spiritual domination of the technological commercialization.



* This paper is published in Volume 187, Semiotica, Oct. 2011. This paper is based on a lecture read in Nanjing Normal University in November 16, 2008 as a plenary speech for the Nanjing International Symposium for Cultural Semiotics. The revised version is finished at the first day of 2009.









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