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Epistemological Turn of Semiotics

Date:2006-11-28 00:00Author:youzhengli
The Epistemological Turn in Theoretical Semiotics: From Signs in the natural/cultural world to the semantic institutions of academic discourses* (in: SEMIOTICA, V.162 - 1/4[2006] ) The strategic shift of object-domain in semiotic operation

The Epistemological Turn in Theoretical Semiotics: From Signs in the natural/cultural world to the semantic institutions of academic discourses*

  (in: SEMIOTICA, V.162 - 1/4[2006] )

                                                                 The strategic shift of object-domain

                                                                  in semiotic operation today:

                                                                  From reality to discourse


The present paper attempts to discuss a strategic shift of general semiotics owing to its global and cross-cultural development in the new century. Global semiotics or globalization of semiotics indicates a pan-comparative turn of the present semiotic studies. In result, global semiotics could be equivalent to Comparative semiotics that leads to a new reflection on general or theoretical semiotics. Semiotic Movement will obtain a new momentum in globalization era. It will be connected to both Euro-American and non-Euro-American academic/cultural traditions; it will be also linked to all social/human sciences. In fact, semiotics will become one of the theoretical bases for reorganizing and reforming the entire humanities of mankind. Signs have been the central conceptual units used for the study of meaning in semiotic history. While for the past decades the problem of meaning has been more and more expanded to the structure and formation of entire discourse of the humanities. In other words, our concern with the progress of semiotics today is closely linked to our endeavor for the progress of human sciences in general. Therefore semiotics can be regarded as a main gateway to the epistemological and methodological modernization of global human sciences. With respect to this objective, the main object-domain of semiotic operation will be gradually shifted from actual world to academic discourses.

 1. Three dimensions in global semiotics and semiotics as multi-comparative studies

 1.1 Three dimensions: the geographical, the cultural, and the academic

An expanded conception of semiotics at the era of academic globalization can be conceived in terms of three dimensions emerging in human history: geographical expansion, cultural communication and the reorganization of academic institutions. The conception of semiotic globalization involves these three different dimensions. First, it is a geographical expansion of the established scholarship of Euro-American semiotics to the non-Euro-American areas. This is the basic part of the present international semiotic activities: the one-sided spread of the Euro-American semiotic science to other areas. At the cultural dimension it indicates a more complicated but perhaps a more productive aspect: a desirability for intellectual interaction and engagement of different semiotic traditions. The third dimension means the intellectual interaction between the traditional semiotic heritages and the theoretical structures of modern human sciences. The three dimensions of global semiotics can be also described as different practices at the sociological, cultural as well as academic-theoretical levels respectively. In this sense, semiotic globalization is connected to a comprehensive program for reorganizing the current topography of human sciences of mankind. In fact, the above three dimensions of the international semiotic movement are already implied in the usual terminological expressions: the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural theoretical practice. The pursuit and realization of these theoretical goals are closely linked to the academic goal in the globalization of semiotics. 

 1.2 Semiotics as the multi-comparative studies

In result, semiotic operation is comparative in nature. The comparative methods can be applied to different academic aspects such as areas, disciplines, schools and cultural traditions. Globalization is equivalent to the topographic expansion of any kind with respect to its “spatial” integrity. The above three types of the conception of semiotic globalization should be formulated in an operative term: the comparative practice in a broad sense. Any comparative scholarly operation means an intellectual procedure performed, beyond the single-disciplinary framework, in combination with other disciplines formed at different cultural and academic contexts. [i] Globalization of semiotics is therefore reduced to a general comparative semiotics that is innately contrary to any disciplinary-centrist semiotics.

 Furthermore, comparative studies refer to the dialogue among scholars with different backgrounds, bringing about a necessity for establishing the common ground for carrying out the meaningful communication among different types of academic discourses that are determined by different scholarly constitutions and institutions. Semiotic globalization means the expanded dialogue and cooperation among agents with different disciplinary training and cultural backgrounds. The concept of sign provides with a common denominator for communication among different scholarly languages. While different cultural and academic traditions will make the formation of a common denominator in semiotic communication more difficult and accordingly increase intelligent intricacies for inquiry. In this sense, the Euro-American semiotic centrism would indicate an operative restriction on comparative studies. We cannot directly or readily apply the conceptual reservoir and reasoning patterns established in the Euro-American academic traditions into the non-Euro-American subjects. Therefore in the global semiotics there exist two different processes: the spread of the Euro-American knowledge to other areas of the world and the latter’s further creative study in a comparative term. The global semiotics means a double effort for each part: to study the original theory originating from the Euro-American theoretical sources and to creatively work on cross-cultural projects at above-mentioned different comparative levels. [ii]

 2. Theoretical identity of semiotics and the semiotician as the inter-disciplinary mediator

 2.1 Interdisciplinary pluralism vs. philosophical centrism

 A deeper implication involving semiotic globalization is related to the two aspects: a) what is the more desirable pattern of the present-day semiotic studies and b) how to “use” the term “semiotics” as a methodological organizer to perform academic projects along the most desirable line. Regarding the first, the most important question is epistemological in nature: General semiotics or semiotic theory should be theoretically based on a philosophy or to be interdisciplinary-directed in its strategic design? From an epistemological point of view, the interdisciplinary-directed and the philosophy-centered theoretical constructions in semiotic-theoretical studies are mutual-contradictory to certain extent with each other. In fact, there is a self-contradiction for the theoretical use of the term in the latter. Many theoretical consequences in semiotic studies come from non-philosophical disciplines such as linguistics, anthropology, historiography, psychology and others. [iii] Furthermore, the philosophical-centrism of semiotic theory must involve different philosophical schools that differ from each other in different ways that would involve semiotic discussions into traditional philosophical disputes. The above distinction is further connected to different interpretations of the nature of knowledge in general and that of the humanities in particular. This distinction is also related to the different opinions about the status quo of the current humanities: is their present state naturally-historically justified, or something that should be more thoroughly reformed? The interdisciplinary character of semiotic theory is contrary to any philosophical reductionism. Therefore the semiotic way of thinking should become de-philosophical-centrist in character. This fact will profoundly change the traditional way of theoretical practice in the humanities as well. In addition, the cross-cultural development of semiotics will further strengthen this tendency of the new theoretical construction. One of the reasons, among others, lies in that the constitutions and functions of the western and nonwestern philosophies are essentially divergent. [iv] This divergence nevertheless can be positively used to promote the development of semiotic theory in its interdisciplinary-directed practice.

 To understand the last question is related to the statement like that “how to properly or productively grasp and use the term Semiotics?” In this sense semiotics can be operatively used as a general name for academic-organizing strategy. By justifying the status quo of the social and human sciences, the present way of semiotic studies is naturally a mere part of the former. In order to reform or modernize the humanities, (general) semiotics is interpreted first as a tool for reorganizing the humanities. With such an expanded function (general) semiotics should readjust its traditional structure and function from its side. We may try to practically put it this way: is semiotics what it has been performed actually in its present manners; or is its identity to be defined in reference with all other existing disciplines currently performed in the academic world. But global semiotics will strengthen a desideratum for forming a new type of meta-theoretical practice to treat a general theoretical problem facing current semiotic studies: this is the multi-interdisciplinary-directed theoretical practice in human sciences. In this sense, semiotic theory should be linked to the entire theoretical structure of the humanities or human sciences, and to participate in the current reorganizing process of the latter. This desideratum will be further requested when semiotics is to expand itself to the non-western academic world. In other words, the traditional philosophy-central semiotic theory should turn to be the present interdisciplinary-directed one. On one hand, the task of semiotics is much more expanded; and on the other its scientific significance could be more enhanced as well, for it now could become the very main impulse for the modernizing process of entire human sciences. Naturally semiotics lives in and merges itself with the entire humanities.

 Here the above-mentioned task becomes doubly significant with respect to the strategic reflection in global semiotics. As the non-western humanities will enrich and complicate the composition of the western as well as the global humanities, the practice of non-western semiotics will make the identity of general semiotics richer and more changeable in future. When we accept that semiotics is a useful tool for promoting dialogue between the western and nonwestern humanities, the question about what should be the more acceptable content and function of general semiotics becomes more relevantly necessary for our discussions. The regular scholarly project is mostly organized in various disciplinary-central contexts. While semiotic inquiry is always faced with the entire situation of rapidly changeable interactions between traditional disciplines. The semiotician is not only a regular operator along the fixed procedure in the certain disciplinary framework; he is also a creative adventurer working in interdisciplinary-boundary areas.

 2.2 The mediator for the multi-interdisciplinary theoretical dialogue: professional specialty and intellectual freedom

Therefore we can see a basic contrast between two kinds of scholars: The disciplinary-specialist and the interdisciplinary-mediator. In other word,

there is a problem of relationship between semiotics and other regular disciplines. In general, semioticians tend to have a special interest in theoretical interaction of different scholarly systems. We may say they are the specialists dealing with the multi-disciplinary-relational problems in the academic network.  If so, IASS should make a great use of its academic image and resources to organize international semiotic activities in a more pluralist way. In terms of this new interpretation about theoretical and applied semiotics, the former is closer to the study of the interrelationship and interaction of all discipline-rooted theories, especially those originating from the humanities implicative of semantic ambiguity. A theoretical semiotician, besides being perhaps specialized in technical details of definite disciplines, is also specialized in the intellectual relationship of epistemological and methodological theories implied in various disciplines. No any other kind of scholars can be more suitable than semioticians for playing such a mediating role in the common enterprise for reorganizing the theoretical topography of social and human sciences in the world.   In conclusion, the disciplinary-centrist scholarship and the interdisciplinary scholarship are mutual-complementary in our expanded academic contexts. In certain sense the both belong to the different strategic levels respectively: the single-disciplinary-methodological one and the interdisciplinary-epistemological one. The latter is the user or applicant of the former in a broad sense. We could say that semiotics is a new type of the learning about the multiple scientific relationships of different theories.

 3. Western basis: The European-American experience

 Semiotics can be conceived as a highly promising scientific procedure with respect to its different perspectives. The evaluation of semiotics has nothing to do with its status quo although it is related to one’s conception of the semiotics-related knowledge. The fact that one accepts a more grand profile of semiotics would be due to the stronger devotion one has for a greater academic ambition. Semiotics as the thinking about signs has a very long history, and its fruitful results have already deposited in various scientific achievements across history. The thought of signs had especially played its active role across the pre-scientific stages, promoting the progress of sciences and technologies in history. While it is only in modern times that semiotics becomes a significant academic stream following the all-round development of natural, social and human sciences since the end of the 19th century.

The fact that semiotics becomes an international movement with the establishment of IASS in the 1960es was owing to the postwar remarkable development of social and human sciences, among which French structuralism plays a determinative role. It is noteworthy that all modern semiotic masters, such as Saussure, Peirce, Husserl, Morice, Hjelmslev, Sebeok, Benveniste, Barthes, Metz, Chomski, Greimas and many other contemporary semiotics-practiced scholars have cherished intellectually and academically more ambitious goals beyond their own respective specialties. This common tendency becomes the very source of and inspiration for their respective semiotic adventures. So why did each of them choose semiotics as a life-long devotion? [v] Because it is logically linked to such a huge intellectual ideal connected to the future development of entire human knowledge. Therefore as the followers of the same line of semiotic adventure we should be inspired by the same kind of intellectual enthusiasm when we are involved in the global semiotic practice in the new century.

 Besides, with respect to the contemporary history of semiotics we have to recognize the huge contribution of French structural movement that has been the main reason why semiotic thought in the post-Cultural-Revolutionary China has steadily spread. Not only the structural semiotics but also other related post-War French thoughts have exercised a strong influence in Chinese human sciences. Among many factors involved, its comprehensive intellectual horizon and its interdisciplinary strategy would be the most relevant factor to the intellectual development in China. At the same time, as the student of the current French thought, we Chinese are clear about the both positive and negative experience gained from French structuralism. What we emphasize in this respect lies more in its operative strategy than in its philosophical implication. The current French thought provides us with the very fruitful and instructive documents for further study. With a tendency to overview the entire panorama of the humanities the structural movement discloses, most instructively, the flaws implied in the internal logic of the humanities that can become a profitable starting point for further investigation. On the other hand, the richly formulated discourse of the French humanities provides an impressive example about the epistemological relationship between the humanities and reality at its various levels. These two intellectually serious flaws in human sciences, the internal-logical weakness and their serious disconnection with reality, are exhibited more clearly and more instructively in the structural movement than in many other modern intellectual trends. [vi] So the French way of semiotic thought becomes a relevantly stimulating source for Chinese semiotics in general because of its broader intellectual panorama and its pertinent reflection on the multi- relationship between thought and reality. [vii] Accordingly, semiotics should be regarded as the most relevant intellectual tool in dealing with the renovation of the present structure of the humanities; the vision could be further widened when the latter includes its nonwestern counterpart. In my opinion, semiotics has already become the very leading epistemology and methodology for the western-nonwestern academic dialogue in the humanities. Why does semiotics be especially related to human sciences? [viii] First, we have already much more practically reliable or objectively stable knowledge about natural and social sciences. It is the humanities that innately lack the common denominator concerning meaning and value for communication among different intellectual traditions or streams of thought. For the purpose of attaining mutual understanding and peaceful co-existence of different human beings in the globalization era, we have to find or create a common denominator for meaningful communication among different beliefs and thoughts. Semiotics has proved itself to be the most effective means for attaining this significant purpose. Thus, semiotics should be linked to all practices concerning the improvement of the global humanities. Its interdisciplinary strategy can be performed at two levels: the disciplinary-central level and the interdisciplinary-directed level. This semiotic operation at the above two levels across academia will strengthen the process of reorganizing or modernizing human sciences. The interdisciplinary-directed semiotics will also further shift the disciplinary-framed scientific projects to the question-central projects. This will help us to consider our scholarly programs without being restricted by the established disciplinary patterns, thus making them more relevant to the new epistemological desiderata regarding scholarship and reality alike.

 4. The Chinese potential: the implicated meaning of Chinese semiotics to global semiotics

 The international or global significance of Chinese semiotics lies in that its development would also influence the constitution of the existing Euro-American semiotic traditions someday in future. The development of Chinese semiotics will enrich the presentation of the above-mentioned problems implied in human sciences in general because of its intellectual ambition to become an academic movement at the global level.

 4.1 The special features of Chinese semiotics

Among all non-European-American semiotic practices the Chinese one indicates a very important character, as I discuss many times before. We should describe current Chinese semiotic studies according to three aspects:

   a)     The regular type of the activity like what we see in the West

b)    The theoretical potential in various existing disciplines which is related to semiotic thought

c)     The theoretical and practical potential in traditional Chinese and Chinese-western comparative studies

 The part a) has been still developing and not yet influential in the present Chinese academia.  But we shouldn’t estimate the significance of Chinese semiotics merely in terms of this straightforward observation that cannot be regarded as the proper representative of Chinese semiotics. By contrast, part b), in my opinion, is much more important than the part a). Not only because the potential is easily to be actualized but also because the theoretical scholars in this part indicate a more creative and more profound intellectual possibility. We could even expect more from this part with respect to its huge potential to promote Chinese semiotics. Probably, however, the most stimulating aspect of Chinese semiotics is exhibited in the part c). If the part b) can provides more theoretical knowledge required for semiotic studies, the part c) is prepared for a more original intellectual creation not only for Chinese semiotics but also for global semiotic adventures in future. Because the part c) will be even more capable of joining the theoretical dialogue with the western humanities through mediation of Chinese semiotics.

 4.2 Chinese semiotics as one of the main developments of current interdisciplinary/cross-cultural semiotic practices

It is interesting to note that Chinese classical scholarship as such could be actually employed to join the global semiotics and international humanities at present. A semiotic transformation of the Chinese classical discourse can lead to making this heterogeneous dialogue possible.  The process should be firstly a sufficiently interdisciplinary interaction between the Chinese and Western traditional academic discourses. The Chinese tradition basically consisting of philosophical, historical, literary and artistic discourses provides a different kind of intellectual sources of mankind that could complement, enrich, and even impact the knowledge of the Western humanities as long as the former has been suitably translated to the universally intelligible language at first. Unfortunately the value of the latter can hardly present itself at its original expression plane. That is why the present China studies in the West are less productive at the level of theoretical studies because of their conservative methodological direction. Chinese semiotics set in the framework of cross-cultural semiotics will produce a double impact on the global humanities: to make the Chinese traditional scholarship more commensurable and communicable with the western humanities and to stimulate in turn a spiritual stimulant to global semiotics.

 4.3 Chinese semiotics and de-philosophical-centrism

Chinese semiotics in the sense of part c) once again implies high significance and indicates even a necessity with respect to the desired interdisciplinary direction of semiotic operation. A philosophical-directed semiotic theory would perhaps hamper the development of Chinese semiotics. Despite using the same term “philosophy”, Chinese and western philosophies are widely divergent in constitution and function. The involved negative impact would be even doubly increased for Chinese-Western comparative semiotics because the latter must be related to both interdisciplinary and cross-cultural operation.


 5. Semiotics as a general designation for the inquiry into relational structure of different disciplinary theories in global human sciences

 In its global meta-theoretical sense, far from being a mere singly identified discipline, semiotics could become a general “conductor” for the “symphony” of human sciences, with a special attention upon the multi-relational problems regarding all their theoretical resources. The existing disciplines have been naturally and practically formed in history. As long as they are needed in the academic market they have a rationale to continue existing that way. [ix] The existing way of doing scholarship can of course satisfy the intellectual interest of the professional-directed educators. But a new type of intellectual interest directed towards the inter-relational problems among different theoretical resources of various disciplines can only arise after its relatively getting rid of the predominant professional restriction. Theoretical or general semiotics could be regarded as a special “discipline” about the relationship of theories originating from various disciplines. Semiotics would be therefore understood as a study of the relationship of different disciplinary theories.

 This position presents itself as a typical rational/empirical character intellectually directed towards various domains of reality. Any type of science is directed towards some kind of reality rather than to the mere fiction. [x]Thus scholarly semiotics is in fact a science rather than an art. The distinction between the scientific and the artistic operations is also based on academic rationalism that is in contrast with the so-called post-modernism or epistemological nihilism in general. Why does semiotics be more capable of dealing with interdisciplinary and cross-cultural subject matters?  Because interdisciplinary and cross-cultural semiotic communication firstly indicates a necessity for establishing a relevant semantic and grammarian means for bridging different traditional discursive channels. For example, we must create the common units at the expression plane for communication between some heterogeneously formulated discourses. Regarding either western interdisciplinary-academic or the western-nonwestern comparative dialogues, we cannot use the terminology of one discipline to fully relevantly express the discursive content of other disciplines. That is why we cannot reduce theoretical principles of linguistics or anthropology to the philosophical one either. Similarly, we can hardly describe Chinese philosophical discourse in terms of the western philosophical terminology. The present comparative theoretical studies among all cultures suffer from the lack of such a pertinent semantic commensurability. In addition, a more epistemologically directed semiotic inquiry involves the necessity for the communicational “grammar” or codes to make the dialogue, comparison or combination between different theoretical discourses of various disciplines possible.

 Without much tracing back to the historical development of semiotic thought we focus instead on how to more productively make use of the term semiotics or general semiotics. The term semiotics is evidently far from being a sufficiently suitable designation for all studies of theoretical relations in different disciplines of human sciences, but it is at least a right name for the most crucial type among them: the multiple semantic commensurability of different academic discourses at interdisciplinary and cross-cultural levels in human sciences. In this regard no any other academic titles could be today more suitable than that of semiotics for being used this way.

 6.  The expanded object-domain of semiotics: The pan-semantic institutions of academic discourses

 As we point out before, in western semiotic history the sign is the basic concept to unify the semiotic way of thinking involving nature, culture, logic and language. In fact, logic and linguistics were the main disciplines to promote the semiotic way of thinking till its modern development primarily represented by Saussure and Peirce. No doubt, modern semiotic scholarship formed in terms of the two types of signs remains to be the very foundation of global semiotic development in future. However, the new situation in semiotic globalization requests a strategic expansion that leads to a double-structure of the elementary objects of semiotics: signs in natural, cultural and linguistic domains on one hand and semantic institutions in academic discourse on the other. This strategic turn accords with the scholarly expansion from the traditional sign-discipline to the semantic mechanism of global human sciences.

 The global development of semiotics even leads to a new fixation of semiotic/semantic units. Semiotics of discourse and of semantic analysis of artistic institutions in the current western semiotics will play a more and more expanded role for cross-cultural semiotics. In result, following further operation at interdisciplinary and cross-cultural levels, we will have an “expanded semiotics ” centered on multi-formed semantic institutions, including the traditional learning of signs and semiosis, as the main object domains of semiotic studies. The so-called semantic institutions, which are effective in forming the semantic constitution of the academic written texts, involve three different levels: the social-cultural conditional, the external academic institutional and the internal academic institutional. What we discuss here belongs to the last one, namely the semantic institution in a narrow sense. After all, the semiotic-semantic units must be enlarged to include the more increased levels of the semantic mechanism that determine the constitutions and the functions of academic discourses, especially those in human sciences.

 6.1 The traditional semiotic pattern as the study of signs

Despite the universal manifestation of signs in different cultures the conception of semiotics as the thought of signs is rooted in the western philosophical traditions. When structural linguistics emerged the concept “sign” was generalized and taken as a general term with the double aspects: the linguistic and the philosophical (pre-scientific). This double identity of sign has been further expressed in the present two different directions: the French one and the American one. In a broad sense the former might be more related to human/historical sciences and the latter more to natural/social sciences. The both semiotic movements share the same traditional term “sign” while with different meanings and referents of it. The both are important for our further studies of semiotics. But the semiotic development for the past four decades urges a necessary reconsideration of the dominant role of this central concept used in semiotic studies today. Whether does the sign remain an effective basic unit to unify the semantic and pragmatic expressions now? Sign is used as the basic unit to deal with semantic analysis while this semantic analysis should involve multiple types of expressive and interpretive mechanisms in social/cultural world as well as academic discourses. A proper semantic “unit” could be larger and more complicated than what described by these linguistic and natural units; it will be related to an organizational system with signs as constituent units only.  But the multi-structured semantic mechanism makes the basic constituent units less independent and less effective in shaping the semantic organization of academic discourses. A semiotics of academic discourses requires a more pertinent set of units to describe multiple semantic mechanisms, such as the linguistic, logical, intellectually and historically pre-determined expressive, pragmatic as well as political-ideological-procedural. All such added factors could be said to be hermeneutic in operation. In other words, an academic semiotics must be related to a semiotic-hermeneutic procedure. Therefore interpretative units could be more related to the “organizational units” than to the natural (both linguistic and physical) units. We call these organizational units as semantic institutions whose original modes are what we originally learn from cinematic-institutions in film semiotics. The request for these expanded semiotic units is especially due to the involvement of cross-cultural semiotic practice that discloses more complicated factors with respect to academic-semiotic communication.

 6.2 The general concept of semantic institutions in academic discourse

This paper doesn’t attempt to elaborate the scholarship of academic-semiotic institutions as such. [xi] Instead, it intends to indicate an emerging necessity for an epistemological shift of the basic conceptions in the present global semiotic development. In brief, we may accept a binary scholarly strategy in principle: the scientific and the semiotic; namely that which distinguishes the semiotic from the scientific scholarship in a general term. Different from the nature of general knowledge of nature and society, theoretical semiotics today is first of all a study of meaning of academic discourses as well as a study of relationship among disciplinary theories. In a deeper sense, semiotics is the study on how to understand the multiple semantic institutions of knowledge. Because of this, semiotics has different degrees of involvement in various types of knowledge: for example, at present it has little involvement in natural sciences, more involvement in social sciences, and the most involvement in human sciences. The last category of knowledge is characterized by its traditional blurry formulation and arbitrary way of reasoning. Precisely, semiotics is especially about the study of the theoretical-operational institutions with respect to the semantic and pragmatic constitutions of the humanities. Therefore, the institutional analysis of semantic mechanism of scholarly discourse will essentially expand and deepen our understanding of problems of constitution of meaning in the humanities. Such a scholarly position makes semiotics much more related to the conditions of the current human sciences than to their historical traces. Compared with its present great achievements the historical source of semiotic thought becomes to be less relevant than before for characterizing the semiotic operation. Rather than being directed toward its earlier story the current semiotic strength is firstly linked to its present academic context, especially to its desirable academic structure in future. In my opinion, regarding the development of semiotic theory, the studies of the present semiotic situation is much more relevant than its historical perspective. [xii] The above-mentioned three dimensions of semiotic globalization could be further reduced to the corresponding institutional analysis at three levels: Sociological-political, cultural-historical and academic-disciplinary.

 6.3 Institutional semantics and the disciplinary-directed/interdisciplinary-directed theoretical interaction

This non-philosophical-fundamentalist and interdisciplinary-theoretical approach could be not in accord with the codes and rules of the existing academic system across the world. A deeper epistemological and methodological challenge of semiotics to the present human sciences lies in its tendency to anatomize and reorganize the external and internal academic institutions.  [xiii]The concept “institution” here can be taken in both its “hard” and “soft’’ aspects, referring respectively to the related social-economic-educational system and the related intellectually operative system. The latter is the very topic discussed here.  Of course it doesn’t mean that a “semiotic imperialism” tends to encroach on the existing academic area but rather means that it tends to organize a separate academic program beside or beyond the regular academic system. It will promote a more reasonable and effective cooperation with the traditional academic world characterized by its disciplinary compartmentalization. Semiotics will first learn from various disciplinary-specialties and then try to reorganize them or creatively re-use them at another level of academic practice. Semiotics is a synthetic practice to make use of specialized knowledge created by specialists in various disciplines. Without tending to replace or degrade various disciplinary specialties, semiotics learns from all kinds of disciplinary knowledge. But beside this, semiotics proposes to start or to continue an interdisciplinary research on the disciplinary-organized knowledge, in which semiotics has to reanalyze and reorganize the disciplinary-specialized knowledge in various newly created contexts. If so, the semiotic is complementary, rather than oppositional, to the regular systems of knowledge. The object and material of semiotic studies come from the disciplinary knowledge embodied in modern scientific progress. In fact, without weakening the degree of specialty of various disciplines, semiotics can even help advance and improve the specialized knowledge through promoting the horizontal communication among various disciplines. This holistic way of practice can strengthen rather than weaken the specialization of disciplinary practice. As we said, there are two concepts of semiotics: That as the established discipline formed in the academic history and that as the interdisciplinary inquiry beyond the existing systems. The two kinds of semiotics, namely the relatively regular one (including both applied semiotics and theoretical semiotics) and the relatively irregular one, could co-exist interactively, just as the case with the co-existence of semiotics and other regular disciplines. Once again, the conception of semiotics as the theoretical-institutional analysis hints that a general semiotics is logically linked to the structure of the entire humanities. Accordingly its scientific task will be multiply expanded too. Moreover, this epistemological turn also accords with the methodological transformation from the disciplinary-centrism to the problem-centrism. [xiv]

 7. Several practical problems in promoting global semiotics

 The inspiring objective of global semiotics is made possible only in the Internet era. How to reorganize IASS programs on the Internet condition is a new task for semiotic communities.

 7.1 Internet Communication

The successful experience of IASS for the past four decades makes IASS become a very useful and comprehensive model for organizing multiple-interdisciplinary scholarly communication in the world. The framework of IASS today, however, has to be readjusted to more effectively develop its programs at the era of global semiotics. For this purpose, first of all, it should make efforts to establish an effective international dialogic stage for multi-dimensional communications among scholars from all areas and different fields. An IASS dialogic stage or platform should provide the possibility for the sufficient expression of all different semiotic interests and approaches. The difficulty however rests at two practical levels. First, in contrast with western semiotics, not all non-western semiotics has formed their official institutions for regularly organizing its semiotic activities. Second, because of the financial restrictions only a small percentage of non European-American members are able to go to international activities each time. These two aspects becomes the main barrier for IASS to really realize its ideal in the era of semiotic globalization. In this case, the strengthening and increase of international-directed online publishing centers in links with IASS could be one of the effective measures to promote various programs in  semiotic globalization.

 7.2 English as a universal language

In our era of Internet, the online communication should be a more useful and more effective channel to organize IASS communication across the world. For this purpose we have to first of all solve the problem of language commonly used among members from different countries. At present, English is the only universal language capable of being read, or passively accessible, by most scholars in the world. But in non-English-speaking area only a few percentage of scholars can express themselves satisfactorily in speaking or writing English. This phenomenon becomes a major practical obstacle for IASS communication at the global level.

 First, we should distinguish between the prestige or right of a national language and the linguistic necessity in verbal communication in international contexts. Members from different countries go to IASS activities not for the purpose of exhibiting their own national-pride but for introducing their thoughts effectively to international colleagues. Each language in the civilized world has its merit in its own cultural tradition and social life, but not every language can be used internationally. In globalization era there exists a general split between the domestic language used for original way of thinking and domestic communication and the English used for international communications. So every scholar is requested to employ the double-language tool facing both domestic and international situations. The reason why it is English, rather than other languages, being  accepted as a universal language, is a problem occasionally caused by history. The ideological implication of the historical fact should be reasonably distinguished from the practical utility of the chosen language in the current practical world. According to this functional point of view, the benefit of any non-English-speaking scholars lies in using English as a linguistic tool in order to effectively attain the true purpose: sufficiently effective communication among international colleagues. A feeling of linguistic nationalism here is completely irrelevant or contrary to the purpose of academic communication for everyone. So there are two different requests or criteria involving our language problem that shouldn’t be mixed as they are often be done everywhere today. As an international organization IASS is faced with this practical barrier about the effective communication tool: how to provide a linguistic service to most IASS members. Particularly regarding the promotion of the online publication and forum of IASS, the English-editing service becomes an urgent request, for many members, including some distinguished European scholars, cannot master English to the degree of academic publication. Among them, however, many are excellent semiotic thinkers. We shouldn’t miss their contribution to IASS communication merely because of this linguistic-technical barrier. In comparison with the large expense in organizing international activities in other aspects, the cost of the regular English-editing service for online publications is relatively limited. With this service, IASS can really strengthen its function as an international organizer of semiotic communications across the world. The language problem becomes especially important for IASS because it is the unique academic organization in the world that involves almost all disciplines and all cultures into a common community.

 7.3 The double role of a single player: the organizer and the scholar

A scholar’s academic prestige could be measured by two separate criteria: the achievement either in one’s specialty or in one’s organizing activity. The latter shouldn’t be mixed with the former; namely an organizer should be “neutrally” concerned about how to maintain the academic-organizational efficiency and fairness to serve all different semiotic approaches without exercising any intellectual discrimination or partiality. Therefore members with an organizing duty shouldn’t have a mind to make their own individual scholarly position to influence the intellectual direction of IASS organization and activities. For example, the lasting divergence between the American line and the French line in doing semiotics shouldn’t become a factor to determine members’ attitude and policy in dealing with IASS programs. The traditional divergence between the western and nonwestern semiotic scholarships should be treated in the same way as well. IASS should maintain and follow a true academic democracy in our big family. Without this academic democracy the semiotic globalization can never develop itself effectively. Therefore, semiotic globalization, because of the multiplicity of its tasks, urges a change of academic-ethical attitude prepared for meeting with the elaborated theoretical challenge in our time.

 One’s achievement in his organizing job should be separated from his scholarly work involved in the same planned program. The point lies in that one player with the double role should cherish the equal or balanced enthusiasm for his two different aims. There are two kinds of achievements in IASS activities for each member: the one for promoting the collective success of IASS as a whole and the other for attaining individual success in scholarly activities. The latter is linked with one’s other projects in his professional practice and the former with one’s chosen commitment with IASS mission.

 A semiotic organizer plays a double role as an academic organizer and as a scholarly specialist alike. The idea will be related to the substantial development of semiotic globalization. If we do not solve this problem at the organizing level we can hardly attain our goal at the scholarly level either. Let’s describe it as the stage builder and as the role-player on the stage in the following metaphor:

     The A-role: Practice for building up the stage: “A-role” as an organizer

     The B-role: Practice for performing on the stage: “B-role” as a specialist

 A and B are practiced by a single person but should be separated in one’s mind and conduct all the time during any academic cooperative project. For the A-process, every semiotic organizer should share the same idea and goal together with all other semiotic organizers. The collective effort of IASS at semiotic organizing activities would reject any organizer using his A-role to profit his B-role. Without the clear separation of these two roles in one’s mind and behavior during a collective program the progress of global semiotics will be systematically obstructed.

 7.4 Ethical attitude and academic reorientation

Therefore, semiotic studies of academic semantic institutions not only involve the analysis of epistemological structures and functions of the humanities but also involve that of the ethical choice in the related social-historical-political-cultural systems. The ethical (motivational)/ internal (scholarly)/external (sociological) triple-institutional analysis will open a rather productive and promising perspective for semiotic development at the globalization era.

 The scientific profit of a specialist is based on his specialized knowledge rooted in the academic system that becomes the basis for the professional achievements. While the semiotic approach tends to de-centralize the social value or professional protectionism of scholarly specialty: there could be different approaches to the similar topics beyond the existing professionally specialized scholarship. The specialists would be unhappy about this “competition” with an academic “stranger” whose approach is beyond his own knowledge. The disciplines are formed in connection with a number of institutional privileges such as the position, title, income, honors, control of publications and conferences and academic/social influences. All of such factors support their utilitarian motivation to do scholarship. This motivation is contrary to the spirit of the Enlightenment or the classical pursuit for truth that is totally negated by a current extreme relativism. The pursuit for common truth and the pursuit for individual profit has become the crucial divergence related to the present semiotic activities. Without an academic idealism in mind a scholar has no reason to be open to the interdisciplinary game of semiotics that must increase the cost of his academic and intellectual investment and will weaken his competition potential in the academic market. In this sense, the direction of intellectual adventure involved in global semiotics is related to one’s ethical attitude as well.


*         This paper was published in Semiotics, Volume 162 – ¼ (2006). The notes and references missed from the original manuscript by the proof are restored in this version.

 It is completed on the basis of a lecture delivered in the Finnish Congress “Global Semiotics”, Imatra, June 14, 2005. In this paper the author attempts to give a general outline of his semiotic point of view through presenting a selected bibliography. Limited by the generality of the topic the paper unfortunately can hardly organize a close dialogue with  statements of other colleagues. What given here remain to be sketchy, indicating a scope of the author’s scientific concerns. The topic in this paper is related multiply to the current epistemological discussions in the West, so several related works are put in the Reference although the paper doesn’t go to detail about those subjects such as truth, referent, reality and objectivity. Please refer to Li, Youzheng (1997) for related discussions.


[i] . In my speech in the Chinese semiotic conference of Hangzhou 2002, I state that there exist three types of comparative semiotics: that in individual topics applying multiple methods(inside a discipline); that about general semiotic theory regarding one discipline (about an entire discipline); and that about general semiotic theory concerning multiple disciplines (among multiple disciplines). Therefore the interdisciplinary can be reduced to the comparative in a general term. Refer to Li, Youzheng (2003), 250.

[ii]  Umberto Eco points out that the time for a new systematization of semiotics has not come yet today. See Eco (1999), 8.  In my opinion, the conceived systematization should be also linked to cross-cultural semiotics. The latter should be regarded as one of the main areas for semiotic frontier research today. Refer to Li, Youzheng (2003), 92.

[iii]  Many theoretical debates in western semiotics are due to this philosophical centrism, by which semiotic theory is frequently reduced to some philosophical theory: including both analytic philosophy of language and continental existentialism. Eco once said: “Thus a general semiotics is simply a philosophy of language”. See Eco(1984), 8.  Later he also expresses that: “On ne peut qu’etre d’accord avec Heidegger: le probleme de l’etre ne se pose qu’ a celui qui a ete jete dans l’ Etre-la, dans le Dasein……Dans notre Etre-la, nous avons l’experience fondamentale d’ une Limite que le langage peut dire par anticipation (et donc predire seulement) d’une seule maniere, une limite au-dela de laquelle il s’efface en silence : c’est l’ experience de la Mort”. See Eco (2000), 593. It seems that Eco tends to use the same term sign to represent both philosophical and linguistic conceptions just like he uses the same term language to refer to the related analytic and existential philosophical conceptions. Eco correctly points out that analytic philosophy is satisfied at the conception of truth but disregards what is related to it prior to the thing. Refer to Eco (1999), 19. However we may use the term hermeneutics to cover all related epistemological factors prior to the fact in order to expand our epistemological horizon.

[iv] This author says: “A complete understanding of the Chinese philosophy is far from being a mere philosophical discussion; in fact it involves different aspects such as semantic organizations, social/scholarly institutions, scholars’ motivations, intellectual conditions of the audience, cultural structures, politico-historical contexts, and the traditional academic functions in Chinese history.” See

Li (2001), 170.

[v] In my lecture given in Chinese Academy of  Social Sciences 2000 I mentioned all these great western names as the reason why we Chinese scholars should pay a serious attention to semiotic studies. In that lecture I particularly characterized the common tendency shared by all of them that they maintain a wide semiotic horizon related to the entire intellectual world. Refer to Li, Youzheng (2003), 240-242.

[vi] It is interesting for us to read Eco’s following words: “Debarrassons tout d’abord le terrain d’ une equivoque qui domine ma semiotique, equivoque que j’ai creee moi-meme, et en particulier en citant a chaque fois mon dialogue avec Barthes qui se terminait par <et surtout il faut tuer le referent !>”. See Violi, Patrizia (2000), 21. In my interpretation of the concept the term “referent” cannot be so easily destroyed; it involves many aspects which should be discussed more seriously one by one. We do not have a single problem of referent. There exists a typology of problems regarding the referent. Barthes’ brilliant criticism of the conception could lead to a more rational, rather than irrational, questioning about reality, objectivity and truth. The post-modernist analysis of the conception is a simplistic one that I have no time to elaborate here. The author will deal with it in detail in his coming-up book.  Please refer to “Verbal Medium and Constitution of Meaning ” in Li (1997), 53-74.

[vii] By writing this paper I heard the sad news of the death of Paul Ricoeur. As the earliest Chinese introducer of his thought to China I wrote a short memoir about my personal contact with him over past 25 years and my evaluation of his intellectual heritage. He is one of the few western philosophers indicating an intellectual tendency for interdisciplinary and semiotic research. As long as I translated Levi-Strauss’ La Pensee Sauvage in the late Seventies I mentioned to Chinese readers about Ricoeur’s deep sympathy with structural semiotics. When I finished my translation of his Main Trends in Philosophy in early 80’es I tried to arouse the attention of Chinese readers to the interdisciplinary orientation in philosophizing. Of course, from a semiotic point of view, Ricouer has not done enough along this line, but already done much more than many other philosophers. In my judgment Ricoeur’s semiotic tendency is obviously restricted by his ontological fundamentalism. His works disclose a typical ambiguity caused by the interaction between philosophy and semiotics.

[viii] My epistemological emphasis regarding semiotics is different from some western colleagues who maintain that semiotics can be related to all fields of human knowledge. At first, I stress a reasonable separation between the semiotic and the scientific. Sebeok says that semiotics has a task to promote the dialogue between the humanities and natural sciences. ( Refer to Sebeok’s topics in  Semiotica, V.136-1/4, 2001 and in many other places.) Instead, there should be a basic operative demarcation between the two types of scientific practice, I think.

[ix] In my recent publications in Chinese the topic about the tension between the scientific enquiry in human sciences and the related market competition has been frequently treated. The latter seriously damages the former with respect to the quality of scientific production. Refer to the titles given here and in other places.

In a less  extent the problem exists in the West as well. After truth and reality are rejected by postmodern radicals, the motivation of scholars is reduced to the mere personal search for success in academic marketing. Apparently, extreme relativism indicates a less dogmatic attitude, but in fact it leads to a vulgar commercialization.

[x] Eco, once again, confusingly applies his criticism of the term referent into two different ways: the scientific and the literary. He says  that: “La tache principale d’une ecriture de creation sera alors de nous monter que les limites de l’etre sont infranchissables.” See Petitot, J and Fabbri, P. (ed.) (2000),599. In my opinion, we have to make a basic distinction between two kinds of semiotic operation: the scientific and literary. Otherwise we are just undermining our scientific practice, reducing it into an intellectual entertainment.  But on the other hand, literary devices can be certainly used to describe some aspects of historical reality that cannot be directly treated well. In this case the literary can function as the sociological. Refer to Le Goff’s comment on Eco’s novels. See Le Goff (2000).

[xi] The author employs the conception in several projects concerning his hermeneutic analysis of Chinese historiography, including his lecture given in the IASS Congress in Dresden 1999. Refer to Li, youzheng (2000-2001, 2003), among others.

[xii] The emphasis on semiotics’ links to modern human sciences is divergent from a focus on its historical perspective. The latter is obviously more connected with signs in physical and cultural worlds. By contrast the former is much more tied with the constitutions of present-day scientific discourse.

[xiii] The author states in 1995 that there are two basic requirements in both semiotics and human sciences: “semantic reorganization in the entire field of the humanities and institutional reorganization in their research procedures/strategies.” See Li (1997), 76;also in European Journal for Semiotic Studies, V.7-3/4, Vienna 1996.

[xiv] It is a lesson from French structuralism that the problematique is prior to the disciplinary norms. The former can create its methodological combination of tools taken from different disciplines. So a semiotic project is usually based on several related disciplines rather than on a single one.






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