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The Scientific Spirit of the Contemporary Semiotic Movement

Date:2015-04-06 10:34Author:youzhengli
The Scientific Spirit of the Contemporary Semiotic Movement Abstract: This paper maintains an interdisciplinary/cross-cultural orientation in organizing new general semiotics. In any case the traditional philosophy-centered foundation of ge


The Scientific Spirit of the Contemporary Semiotic Movement


Abstract:This paper maintains an interdisciplinary/cross-cultural orientation in organizing new “general semiotics”. In any case the traditional philosophy-centered foundation of general semiotics should be avoided to meet with the genuine spirit of modern semiotic movement. Philosophy is part of theoretical sources of semiotic theorization rather than the basis of the latter. The same thing can be said about other important disciplines such as language, philosophy, cognitive science, general linguistics, etc. The semiotic way of thinking requests a new typology of rationality.

Keywords:semiotic movement; philosophy; interdisciplinary theory

Youzheng Li:Research Center for World Civilizations, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, E-mail:

May I call the humanist-ethical thinker Confucius, who had been fabricated in ancient times as the hierarch of the feudalist academic-ideological system, an original Chinese semiotician? I say so because it was he who, in the long Chinese history, first raised the principle of distinguishing the right from the wrong through disclosing evil-intentional misuses of names or terms in talks. Here let me mention only three proverbs from The Confucian Analects, translated by James Legge.

What is necessary is to rectify names.

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.

What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothingincorrect.

It was a pity that, at the concluding assembly of the 12th World Congress of the IASS in Sofia, I didn’t find a chance to report on the progress and significance of Asian semiotics for the past two decades to the audience when I was finishing my job at the last IASS bureau. Although it is not the moment for me to give an official report here, I’d like to express some of my associated opinions and comments that could be useful for promoting international understanding about the desirable future development of current global semiotic movement.


For the sake of deeper understanding of current semiotic situations we’d better first of all perceive the mixed composition of contemporary semiotic movement. Either in the humanities in general or in semiotics in particular, there have been two different inclinations in the humanity-scholarly history: the scientific-inclined and the artistic-inclined ones. This scholarly-operative divergence concerning aims and styles in doing studies in the humanities can be traced back to the original blending of intellectual practices in their long history. Therefore it is natural that in the semiotic movement we also see the existent sharp distinction of doing scholarships between the postmodernist irrational and the modern-rational epistemologies and methodologies. In addition, there is still another kind of scholarly-operative divergence within the rational-scientific-directed semiotic practices in connection with different choices regarding strategic and tactic aspects. In general we make a basic binary classification of the applied and general semiotics; or as I suggest, we may also, under a bit readjusted terminology, simply call them semiotics-1 (theoretical-applied, disciplinary-departmental and various design-practical studies) and semiotics-2 (general, theoretical and epistemological studies). The semiotic distinction in the latter classification is meant to point out an important confusing phenomenon appearing in the semiotic movement that semiotics-2 or the generally understood general semiotics should be connected to a much larger task concerning comprehensive advancement of the entire human sciences. In terms of this, the original scholarly link between semiotic-1 and semiotic-2 has become more and more loosened. There exists almost no obvious theoretical connection between the new applied and the new theoretical semiotics, for applied semiotics no longer relies on the theoretical guidance of general semiotics now. When the contemporary academic institutionalization has been constantly strengthened, and accordingly applied semiotics tends to develop along a new-disciplinary-shaping direction, namely turning to become a professional autonomy, the mentioned categorical separation between semiotics-1 and semiotics-2 seems further necessary. The reason is that when semiotics-1 becomes narrower in its interdisciplinary range, semiotics-2, conversely, becomes further widened in its interdisciplinary-operative range; namely their scholarly operative levels and realms become less overlapped.


We do not intend to elaborate this interesting problem about evolutionary change in current semiotic ecology in more detail here; rather, we only want to point out the desirability based on this fact that scholarly-divergent situations require us to more reasonably reorganize our strategy regarding how to promote global semiotic movement. When the semiotic globalization has been further expanded for the past decades the above analysis turns out to be even compulsory because the expanded understanding of the non-western rich intellectual and academic histories must remind the western-central semiotic tradition of reconsidering their epistemological structure and the western-eastern intellectual relationship regarding our global semiotic projects in the new century.


The original contributors of modern semiotic movement in the last century, from Pierce, Saussure, Husserl, Freud, sociological-anthropological pioneers until many recent figures, especially those appearing during the 1960s, had all cherished a comprehensive horizons in their semiotic-epistemological perspectives, making great efforts, relatively by dint of different interdisciplinary attempts, at reforming the theoretical structures in the theoretical humanities. The appearance of the academic heading “human sciences” just hints that the scientific-directed, interdisciplinary-theoretical orientation in the humanities has been actively accepted, and the semiotic approaches as the most typical interdisciplinary efforts have been taken as the relevantly useful methodologies for attaining the ambitious goal. No doubt, following the multiply complicating developments of the humanities in the recently shaped postmodernist contexts, which have been mainly caused by the commercialized professionalization over the past decades, the academic surroundings and atmosphere in reference to current semiotic movement has become more irrelevant to its original grand scientific idealism, and even turned to be more under the sway of professional-profitable determinism. That’s why, in my lecture given in the 11th World Congress of the IASS in Nanjing, I emphasized the significance of reviving the subjective-ethical consciousness in connection to the current semiotic movement, particularly when the latter has entered its globally expanded era since now. That statement also implies a basic epistemological judgment about two existent different orientations and goals of semiotic practices in the semiotic family: the one for scientific-truths and the other for professional profits. The latter is eventually determined by a lot of non-scientific factors produced by the strengthened commercial-institutionalized academic-educational systems prevailing on globe. Accordingly, academic factional powers use value of scholarly goods shaped in cultural marketing, and academic-star-based judging system for scientific evaluation, etc. All of these non-scientific factors regarding the humanities could function together to create some monopoly hierarchies, which are under control of academic power-groups and do not follow objective criteria of scientific truth. A direct consequence of this commercialized scholarly tendency is firstly displayed in the weakening of scientific-democratic atmosphere in the semiotic collective activities, which could be no longer a platform for equal and fair discussions and expressions among different scientific viewpoints, but rather just become the professional-profitable ways for gaining scholars’ interests. Thus, the powerful academic groups and their leading figures, under the impact of businessman-like competitive styles, would attempt to make use of scholarly organizations and publishing media as mere instruments for searching for individual and collective materialist-utilitarian aims within the fixed institutional channels and rules. If the semiotic movement follows this cultural-commercialized ways for winning its professional gains, its scientific distance from the original spirit of master-contributors of contemporary semiotic movement would be further increased. In addition, this materialist-utilitarian tendency would be more seriously intensified with respect to the not yet mature developing situations of non-western semiotics. That’s why our Asian semiotics should be more careful and even more critical regarding the possible deviation of current semiotic practices from the original scientific idealism of original modern semiotic masters.


Without a mind for searching scientific truth the semiotic scholars must be under the sway of professional and social-cultural powerful sources of various kinds. Under this condition any successfully operated theoretical-rhetoric media could be accepted as the workable tools for professional-interest-searching operations. The ultimate judgment of scholarly achievements can only be the occasionally shaped partisan opinions, which are accepted by professionally biased authorities, rather than checked by the objective realities or truly scientific references. The powerful figures succeeding in academic marketing would become the unique determinative authorities responsible for judging quality and merits of humanity-scholarly efforts. In this case, for the scientifically weaker and practically inconsistent humanities and the associated semiotic scholarship, this professional-institutionalized system for human-scientific evaluation would hardly lead to the right route towards the great goal set up by the great original semiotic movement. That is because for any scientific missions the basic standards for evaluation should be the objectively confirmable realities rather than the arbitrarily formed subjective opinions, which could obtain the supports only by the feasibility or working effects realized in the artificially built-up and professional-institutionally regulated contexts. If so, the semiotic scholarship will become a mere intellectual game, which can of course also satisfy any fixed professional requests. Nevertheless, we will therewith lose our original expectation for making Geist-Wissenshaft the genuine human sciences.


The Geist-Wissenshaft fails out of its philosophical-centrism; the Vienna United Sciences fails out of its physicalism; existentialism has disappeared because of its irrationalism; the present-day postmodernist philosophies are indicating their cooperative penchants for destroying scientific rationalism in the humanities so as to meet with the prevailing intellectual commercialism. In terms of scientific-idealist perspective, after one hundred years’ experience and examination about the developments of natural, social and human sciences in the last century, we may very well conclude that the original semiotic movement based on interdisciplinary-theoretical epistemology is truly in accordance with the empirical-rational-scientific orientation of the post-War human sciences. The realization of the great scientific mission first of all depends on the fair and just consciousness of scholars in the semiotic family. In this perspective we theoretical semioticians prefer to belong to the academic minority in this commercialist-oriented world, whose materialist gains such as benefits and publicity must be much lower than those gained by other academic majorities. In the big family of natural sciences, mathematicians and theoretical physicists always belong to the minority but they have indeed become yet the extremely requested minority. We theoretical semioticians should cherish this dream in our intellectual-heroic mission, too.


In the light of the explanation above we conclude that any semiotic organizations are only the platform for promoting mutual scientific communication among colleagues with a common aim to increase each other’s related knowledge; semiotic organizations shouldn’t be taken as the tools for searching individual and collective interests. Members amount to be scientific colleagues rather than partners for planning how to extend common professional profits in the present global competitive humanity-academia. In this sense, all semiotic-related scholars, regardless of whether they are inside or outside the groups, should be the same kind of colleagues, just as so many great contemporary western semiotic thinkers have never joined the IASS but remain to be our respected intellectual heroes as long as their works are actively constructive for advancing our knowledge in the field. Such a proper perspective to the collective activities in contemporary semiotic movement will help us more positively plan and organize the global-scaled semiotic collaborations when the international semiotic movement has already gone beyond its original western-centrism to have entered its cross-cultural-semiotic stage.


Eco, U. (1986).  Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Indiana University Press.

Greimas, A. J. & Courtés, J. (1982). Semiotics and Language. Indiana University Press.

Li, Youzheng. (2015).Jiegou yu yiyi (Structure and Meaning) (expanded edition). China Renmin University Press.


Author bionote:Youzheng Li(b. 1936) is guest senior fellow at the Research Center for World Civilizations, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. His research interests include semiotics, phenomenology, ethics, etc. His publications includeJiegou yu yiyi (Structure and Meaning) (expanded edition) (2015), The Formation of Chinese Humanist Ethics: A Hermeneutic-Semiotic Perspective (4 volumes) (2013).


銆恘ote銆慣his paper was originally written for Chinese Semiotic Studies 2015