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General Semiotics vs. Philosophical Fundamentalism

Date:2015-11-15 04:02Author:youzhengli
General Semiotics as the all-round interdisciplinary organizer ― General Semiotics(GS) vs. Philosophical Fundamentalism Youzheng Li (This is the original draft of this paper which is officially published i n Semiotica , Vol.208) Abstract

  “General Semiotics” as the all-round interdisciplinary organizer ― General Semiotics(GS) vs. Philosophical Fundamentalism


                Youzheng Li

(This is the original draft of this paper which is officially published in Semiotica, Vol.208)



This paper presents once again a crucial problem about identity and function of general semiotics. The latter is not only defined in terms of interdisciplinary-directed theoretical practice in comparison to the philosophic-fundamental-directed one, but also further redefined as an operative-functional organizer that does not necessarily imply some fixed theoretical doctrines. General semiotics (GS) is described as a functional entity for organizing all-round interdisciplinary-directed theoretical construction. In addition, the paper emphasizes that the interdisciplinary essence of semiotic theory is contrary to any philosophical fundamentalism and applied semiotics because of its interdisciplinary nature does not need a philosophical foundation either.


Key words: general semiotics; functional organizer; philosophical fundamentalism; interdisciplinary essence of semiotics;



1. What is the main challenge for the contemporary semiotics?

Immediately before the opening of the Sofia Congress the author received a questionnaire from the Congress Committee of the 12th IASS Congress Sofia like this: What is the main challenge for the contemporary semiotics? (2014-9-2) The author of this paper responded to it with 4 sentences that are included here with added notes. The question and answers given in the following can help explain the critical background of the thought presented in this paper that is especially prepared for the “Semiotics and its Masters” lecture series in the Sofia Congress.

a. Commercialized utilitarian academic systems turn “professional success” rather than “scientific truth” to be the genuine final aim of scholar’s practice. (Accordingly scholars tend to follow the established rules of doing scholarship whose procedures are determined by multiple external factors including the more powerful non-academic forces)

b. Nihilist ontological rhetoric is used to weaken the interdisciplinary human-scientific tendency of semiotics. (Accordingly scholars tend to search for any subjectively-invented rhetoric rather than objective validity as long as the former effectively works in academic marketing)

c. In global academic context western scholarship is far from being familiar with non-western traditional thinking and contemporary non-western scholarship about their own traditional studies is far from being familiar with contemporary western human-scientific theories. (Accordingly the truly intellectual globalized semiotic mission can hardly be attained.)

d. Commercialized cultural and academic circumstances lead to a general vulgarization of content, direction, practicing style of semiotic activities with a result that the term “semiotics” could be frequently misused as a “pop-cultural brand” for being used to search for increasing any propaganda, advertising effect and factional influence through manipulating internet media in academic-educational marketing. (Accordingly the term “Semiotics” should be more definitely used by a variety of applied semiotics and further disconnected from the general trends of theoretical advances in various major disciplines in the humanities)


2. The basic points in connection with the involved argumentation


To make readers understand backgrounds and positions involved in this paper the following basic summaries are given at first.

a.    The urgent necessity in intellectual mission of mankind today is to transform the less scientific “humanities” into more scientific “human sciences” in order to more rationally and systematically solve crucial problems of inter-conflicting faiths and dogmas in this world.

b.   For this goal an urgent related procedural necessity is to exclude the epistemological involvement of any philosophical fundamentalism in the above scientific-directed mission.

c.    The above two significant demands lead to a new conception of general semiotics as a functional-operative design for promoting the interdisciplinary-organizing tasks about reconstruction of human sciences.

d.   Philosophical history presents a constant gradual process of academic-disciplinary splitting from which have separated modern mathematics, natural science and social science respectively; it is time now for human sciences to follow the same academic-historical line.

e.    Fundamentalist philosophy consisting of certain kinds of classical metaphysics and ontology partly shares the similar non-empirical-scientific way in thinking with religion and poetry. Also similar to the necessary segregation between religion and politics as well as to that between poetry and natural sciences, fundamentalist philosophy should be separated from the epistemological foundation of social sciences as well. All kinds of non-empirically-oriented intellectual activities can and should be the important object of semiotics and human sciences, but they would hopefully no longer play a role of theoretical foundation for the latter.

f.     Accordingly a specially defined general semiotics called GS can help promote multi-rational operative coherence with respect to various departmental semiotics as well as theoretical modernization of human sciences

g.   In addition, GS will also undertake a related great task: to organize an institutional-semiotic anatomy of constitution and function of fundamentalist philosophy itself in terms of new epistemological-methodological perspectives derived from synthetically and coordinately advanced theoretical parts of human sciences


3.  A necessity of general semiotics as an interdisciplinary-scientific organizer


Modern semiotic movement has entered its stage of global semiotics in the new century yet. The global movement of semiotics is characterized by its three emerging consequences: the global expansion of horizon of geographic-historic-cultural territory, the comprehensive widening of scholarly-theoretical perspective from different traditions, and the deeper reexamination of the all-round relationship among society, culture, knowledge in the real world. And all three tendencies can be reflected on the relationship between modern semiotics and traditional philosophy; or, exactly, in the epistemological confrontation between something named as general semiotics and any type of philosophical fundamentalism. The fact is that a theoretically more productive conception of general semiotics urgently requested by human sciences in general and theoretical semiotics in particular has not yet been accepted generally today. This is mainly due to the prevailing professional protectionism and scholarly conservatism based on academic compartmentalization and competitive individualism.

On the other hand, the academic-institutionally strengthened mechanism supported by the commercial-technological Establishment is embodied in its solid control of human-scientifically institutionalized system and therefore in encouraging educationally standardized ways of doing scholarship of the humanities fixed in different segregated disciplines. While the desirable tasks of modernization of human sciences in the new era, by contrary, should lie in organizing horizontally comparative and extensively cross-disciplinary researches through breaking-through the academic boundaries. Accordingly there emerges a necessity of strategic goal to be guided by “general semiotics” taken as a functional-operative organizer with respect to promotion of interdisciplinary interaction not only among different departmental semiotics but also among various social-human sciences.


4.  Philosophy and human knowledge


As generally known, philosophy was the very source of all kinds of human knowledge in intellectual history. On the other hand, the existence of both modern mathematics/natural sciences and social sciences is the consequences of their respective independent developments and gradual segregations from their philosophical origin in history. This dialectic evolution finally brings about a clear differentiation between philosophy and sciences in general. Eventually the nature of science of all kinds is even characterized by excluding all philosophical elements from its constitution. The same tendency has been just emerging in the humanities today as well although the latter as an academic field still naturally includes philosophical parts as its constitutive contents. Logic, the very core of philosophy, has already become an independent discipline closely combined with mathematics; aesthetics, as the important branch in classical philosophy, have been also widely and effectively replaced by the newly shaped independent disciplinary theories in connection with literature and arts. It’s well known that the latter two have already turned to be the most important parts of contemporary departmental semiotics. Even one of central parts of philosophy—ethics or moral philosophy, as I myself particularly stress before, is better to be disconnected from its philosophical modes and even should be further closely tied with semiotic sciences in our new era. Finally, philosophy of history, another important part of modern philosophy, must be separated from any metaphysical-ontological doctrines as well from a scientific point of view and should be further included into the contemporary new discipline of historical theory which could be closely linked with a recently emerging discipline “historical semiotics”. Differently from the cases of natural and social sciences, however, the last three independent disciplines of the humanities present themselves as a scholarly-disciplinary mixture containing the social-human-scientific and the remaining philosophical elements alike. On the other hand, philosophy as a current discipline also contains a lot of interdisciplinary-scientific elements almost becoming a scholarly combination of traditional philosophical and modern scientific parts.

The reason why human knowledge presents this changeable way of developing in history? It’s due to a natural demand for gradual deepening of human rational practices in historical evolution. Therefore the self-splitting and changeable process of philosophical constitution as an entire disciplinary field in history is a natural and necessary historical process. We can regard this scientific-oriented process as progressive and constructive in nature because it actually brings about multiply advanced reasoning expressed in man’s capability of doing observation, description, analysis, generalization and even predication in understanding human affairs. Thus, eventually we see the new term “human sciences” has been reasonably created after the Second World War. This completely new intellectual phenomenon indicates a more obvious scientific-directed and de-philosophical-centralist theoretical tendency in our times. It’s just in this general context that current semiotics has become more and more a methodological and epistemological guide in reconstructing contemporary human sciences. The fact has become further concretized when the interdisciplinary nature of semiotics has grown up to impact the modernizing enterprise of the non-western traditional humanities. The recent development of the latter for the past decades further proves that a de-philosophical-centrist position becomes even a necessity if the modernization of non-western traditional academic heritages would be really scientifically reformulated and advanced.


5. Philosophy as a modern professional reservoir of knowledge and philosophy as a traditional-transmitted fundamentalism with ideological implication


In spite of its philosophical and linguistic origins modern semiotic movement has been synthetically realized in different scholarly fields and disciplines, including both their traditional and the modern fields. The remarkable involvement of semiotic practices in human sciences is just due to the steadily strengthening of interdisciplinary or horizontal interaction of different scholarly disciplines. And this general academic development has been obviously caused by the progress of respective scientific-theoretical practices in various academic branches. No doubt, this semiotic turn in the humanities represents a scientific turn in modernization of the humanities. In addition, this semiotic-scientific turn exactly amounts to a de-philosophical-central turn. Yes, a lot of traditional philosophical content has been already conversed into modern scientific ones, as we mentioned above. But there is indeed an essential basis of traditional philosophy that we may call briefly metaphysics which keeps its historically unchanged fundamentalist-theoretical dogmas. Philosophy as a modern discipline has a right to keep any kind of constitutive contents in its professional discipline as long as the traditional topics are still interesting to academia. However, besides being an academic unit as an accumulating site of historical thoughts, philosophy has also implicitly reserved a historically unique privilege for organizing theoretical activities in the institutionalized humanities. This academic-typed institutional-ideological power itself silently possessed by the fundamentalist philosophy today is still quite influential at different aspects of theoretical constitution of the humanities. Owing to the traditional academic-institutional background, which is even basically encouraged by the contemporary technology-oriented social-cultural mechanism, this philosophical-fundamental-directed ideological power would continue exercising its dogmatic epistemological domination over the theoretical direction and practical methods in the entire humanities, even giving a hint that theoretical elaboration of the humanities still needs such a fundamentalist support or guidance as the “first philosophy”. This tendency, no doubt, is also directly impacting the ways of theoretical reconstruction in our semiotic world, including its departmental and general parts alike. Naturally, if semiotics, as an innovative or revolutionary tool in stimulating theoretical modernization of the humanities, accepts, implicitly or explicitly, this theoretical position of philosophical fundamentalism, a cognitional self-contradiction will occur within semiotics as the following: general semiotics based on any philosophical-central theoretical framework becomes immediately contrary to the interdisciplinary essence of semiotic science as such. Therefore any philosophical-central reductionism of semiotic theories could indicate a regressive move against modern semiotic spirit. And as I pointed out in our Nanjing Congress, this philosophy-central preference for theoretical construction of general semiotics is mainly caused by the exacerbating tendency of the present-day system of institutionalized professional competition in current social-human scientific academia, which presses scholars to more profitably calculate the cost of their research cost and the tactics-choosing profits during the process of searching for their utilitarian-directed professional aims. (Refer to Li, 2013) If so, a more convenient and profitable way for them is to appeal to this traditional privileged potential or an implicit theoretical-domineering power of some dogmatic-philosophical fundamentalism in order to save or neglect some more painstaking and complicated efforts for learning from various specialized theoretical experiences provided by other related disciplines.

On the other hand, we should here immediately distinguish between two different relations between semiotics and philosophy. The one is that exists between interdisciplinary-directed semiotics and philosophy also as a discipline containing its various valuable materials. In this case semiotic theory always needs to learn from philosophy and pertinently absorb as more as possible the related philosophical-theoretical elements into semiotic-theoretical construction, just as all other disciplines of humanities should do the same in their interactional relationship with philosophy. While the reversal process presents the same desirability: philosophical thinking should also pay more and more attentions to the theoretical fruits of all other humanities. For example, we see the book Main Trends in Philosophy edited by Paul Ricouer (Ricoeur 1977) and the French Philosophy Encyclopedia edited by A. Jacob (Jacob 1989-2000) indeed express a really interdisciplinary horizon and perspectives). The other is that between semiotics and philosophy that is taken as an exclusively self-enclosed speculative corps guided by philosophical centralism or fundamentalism that is actually supported by the academic-institutional Establishment with its historical-conservative ideology. This historically unchanged philosophical fundamentalism is mainly displayed in its abstrusely elaborated metaphysics and metaphysical ontology insisting in its ever-lasting fixed system of absolute values and logical-central dogmas embodied in various “first principles” originally created in remote ancient time.

We certainly recognize that fundamentalist philosophy as such is very important in human intellectual history just like religions and should continue keeping their independent academic existence in our current intellectual world. On the other hand, nevertheless, we also maintain that there is no scientific reason for its habitual authoritative intervention with theoretical constructions of other empirical-scientific scholarships belonging to the empirical historical world. Just think that because of this irrelevant engagement in causational way of thinking and ethical judging about empirical human affairs, many contemporary fundamentalist philosophers, both western and eastern, have brought about how much serious misleading interpretations and even wrong conclusions in contemporary political history. The main reason for this sad development lies in the fact that there exist no reasonable links between metaphysical-ontological way of thinking and all other empirical-scientific ways of thinking in social and human sciences. The ambiguous idea about the two ways of performing theorization is in fact caused by an epistemological misunderstanding in human history. Accordingly abstruse philosophical fundamentalism plays a special negative influence on the empirical-scientific scholarship in connection with history, society, morality and politics in the actual anthropological world. Nowadays the fundamentalist philosophy plays, in some sense, a speculative role like poetry, if not really like religion. The both spiritual kinds of activity are of course justified in their preferred ways of organizing their thinking but shouldn’t properly apply their speculative or imaginary rhetoric into theoretical practices requesting empirical-scientific reasoning. Even “science” as a modern term should be separated from its less strictly defined acceptation formed in remote antiquity although it is still used by modern fundamentalist philosophy.


6. General semiotics as a strategic designing for reorganizing interdisciplinary-directed theoretical progress of human sciences


It is evident that the humanities or even human-social sciences, rather than the entire human knowledge, should be completely readjusted or reorganized in our new century. But the point is that the readjusting process within a semiotic framework shouldn’t be organized at a substantial level; instead it should be designed at a structural, functional and relational dimension. Traditional systematical philosophy, some modern philosophy attempting to construct unified sciences, modern englobing sociology, contemporary universal historiography, all of which have tried to provide such a synthetically processing ground for reorganizing and recombining the entire human knowledge at a substantial level. As generally known, all such efforts in modern and contemporary history eventually prove a failure. One of the reasons for it is just caused by their common simplistic strategy implemented for a discipline-central unification. In fact, however, the reasonable mode of integrating and harmonizing human and social sciences cannot be understood as carrying out any disciplinary-central reductionism or a new expanded syncretism of human knowledge. The acceptable conception of an operational unification of human sciences can only reasonably refer to the deepening and widening of coordinating and coherent relationship among different disciplines each of which must firstly carry out their respective interdisciplinary empirical-scientific practices separately. This is just what general semiotics attempts to deal with.

For the past decades, besides adopting some quasi-philosophical mode of general theory the idea of general semiotics was also considered as a new type of encyclopedia about entire interconnected knowledge. The editing guides of different projects of this kind reflect constructively a comprehensive point of view of semiotic science as something epistemologically englobing and integrating as extensively as possible. Nevertheless all these efforts to systematically collect scholarly-informational materials basically amount to presenting certain co-exhibitions of semiotic-related knowledge of the existing disciplines while epistemological interconnection among which remain less theoretically explored. In other words, this kind of projects only finish the jobs of presenting huge collections of knowledge without attempting to further organize interdisciplinary-theoretical studies among them. (Refer to Posner, Roberring, Sebeok, 1998) It’s obvious that remarkable achievements of current semiotics are mostly displayed in a variety of departmental semiotics with respective to their interdisciplinary practices performed at the epistemological-methodological level. But we also need to note that the creative vigor of semiotics must be displayed and expressed in various disciplinary and interdisciplinary practices of the entire humanities. Therefore being not a mere single discipline semiotics must keep its progressive steps synchronistic with those of human sciences. At present we are faced with a serious challenge in dealing with how to relevantly and effectively develop the interdisciplinary strategies in the entire field of human sciences. Concretely, the current theoretical retardation disclosed in both semiotic practices and general human sciences could be due to the fact that the modernization of the humanities with their richly accumulated traditional heritages, the western and the eastern, requests first of all a deeper and wider interdisciplinary breaking-through? Or, exactly, what we request especially at present is something related to the general interdisciplinary strategy overarching all disciplines of human sciences. In terms of this interpretation we could reach a more suitable conception of general semiotics which, being not a semiotic type of philosophy, should be involved in creating such a more original functional-operative organizer. What I presented the concept “institutional semiotics” before (Li, 2014) can be suggested to carry out such an all-round analytic-synthetic scientific anatomy. Let’s call this type of general semiotics as GS that can be taken as a universal semantic-anatomical organizer at academic-strategic level with respect to entire human sciences in general and semiotics in particular.

Furthermore, differently from the idea of a semiotic philosophy, GS does not need to be a fixed system of theoretical discourses representing a new type of alternative of theoretical foundation with an intention to methodologically unify various concrete practices performed in different disciplines; instead most semiotic practices should be implemented in the existing individual disciplines by means of their various interdisciplinary tactics. What GS is and does lie in analyzing, synthesizing, readjusting and reorganizing the results of theoretical interaction among all related disciplines. Rather than being a solidified system of theories, we prefer to say, GS can be regarded first of all as a set of epistemological attitude, methodological position, scholarly-ethical consciousness and a scientific-intellectual mentality. And its concrete methodological-operative tools come from various departmental semiotics. The main purpose of GS is to promote or restructure the interdisciplinary interaction in the world of human sciences so as to strengthen closer and closer the tie between semiotics and human sciences. Or, more precisely, GS deals with the relational issues of both departmental and general interdisciplinary practices, regarding the interdisciplinary-theoretical relationship as the operative center for promoting the progress of human sciences in general and semiotics in particular in order to realize an important task about the systematic anatomy of the humanities in the new century. Besides, differently from the deductive-logical-theoretical type of rationality used by philosophical fundamentalism, GS adopts an empirical-inductive-practical type of rationality. The scientific orientation of semiotics should be settled with respect to historical, social, cultural and academic real experiences in this anthropological world.


7.  GS and modernization of the non-western traditional humanities


Let’s turn to a more complicated challenge concerning cross-cultural semiotics and humanities in the global context. As I explained many times before, with the sharp constitutional divergence between the western and non-western historical-cultural-intellectual-academic traditions, the much more elaborated western metaphysics cannot be suitably employed for interpreting or helping modernize the latter at a theoretical level. (Refer to Li, 2008, 2011) Just in respect of this problem western semiotic theories prove to be a much more relevant and desirable alternative methodology. In essence the so-called cross-cultural semiotics is only a special type of interdisciplinary semiotics that requests scholars to obtain knowledge of both western theory and non-western history at the same time. The problems of theoretical modernization of non-western traditional humanities is not only related to advancement of the scientific level of the latter but also to a more realistic intellectual challenge that the non-scientific-characterized non-western traditional humanities, including their quasi-counterparts in the west (namely, western studies of non-western cultural traditions such as Sinology), under the contemporary situation of universal weakening of the educational conditions of the humanities, could much easily be manipulated to continue playing its less-scientific/more-ideological role within their respective circumstances with a result to seriously lead to the stagnation of scientific development of the non-western humanities. On the other hand, all non-western scholarly traditions, especially those with rich historical records, provide a highly valuable collection of historical material that is terribly useful for promoting cross-cultural development of global human sciences. Based on this understanding the global expansion of semiotic movement can be understood by us to be extremely significant for our global semiotic mission, that also requests, of course, double efforts for carrying-out the semiotic-interdisciplinary boundary-breaking.


8. GS as an interdisciplinary organizer for synthetically anatomizing philosophy as an institutionalized discipline with any logical-centralist dogmatism


General speaking, there exists still a pressing task for us to promote an active, creative interaction between semiotic theory and philosophy. Let’s be clear that philosophy remains to be the number one important theoretical source for the scientific-theorization of the humanities even from a point-view of interdisciplinary semiotics. (Refer to Li, 2013, 32) Semiotics at its general and individual levels always needs to intensify its theoretical strength through learning from philosophy. For the sake of advancing quality of theoretical studies in human sciences, first of all, we need an especially desirable preparative project of institutional-semiotic anatomy of philosophy as a traditional discipline. A very significant task in present-day semiotic-theoretical practice is to more scientifically penetrate into the mechanism and functions of this historically shaped philosophical discipline. This project is especially referred to metaphysics, ontology and some other related rhetorically sophisticated ways of thinking (even including derived nihilism and extreme relativism) in terms of modern human-scientific methodologies. In a word, this GS project will make philosophy itself an object of a theoretical semiotic analysis. In handling this project GS model as a total synthetic strategic guidance will make use of all related human knowledge, social-cultural conditions and historical experiences as its methodological weapon. Based on the remarkable progress of human knowledge in the 20th century, all scientific capability available can be converged on anatomizing this most powerful, taken-for-granted theoretical mechanism in intellectual history. Nevertheless, this challenging mission remains to be mutual in its scientific direction. Therefore we may by conclusion say that this project taken by GS will be a double-directed theoretical interaction between philosophy as a big single-discipline and semiotics as interdisciplinary assemblage functioning at operative level. The latter always needs enrich its theoretical potential by learning from the former. In return the former as a theoretical-institutionalized system should be also the analyzed object of GS model together with different theoretical achievements of various departmental semiotics. And consequences of this double-interactional practice would hopefully push forward the unifying progress of human sciences at a multi-rationally operative level.


In my last paper published in Semiotica (Li, 2014) I treated general semiotics as a tool for institutional analysis with a focus on the internal and external institutionalized objects and contexts and in this paper I treat general semiotics as a all-round functional organizer with a focus on operative relationship between semiotic approaches and reorganization of human knowledge. The both aspects of identity and function of general semiotics exclude any theoretical involvement of philosophical fundamentalism that is habitually taken as certain absolute or authoritative theoretical foundation. Such a traditional relationship between philosophy and knowledge has no longer existed and philosophy as a conception of “first theory” has disappeared forever. Instead, philosophy as a discipline should also become the object and material of theoretical-semiotic analysis today. From this point of view we can understand that either GS model or institutional semiotics implies an extremely profound potential for advancing theoretical level of human sciences.




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  (2014). On the institutional aspect of institutionalized and institutionalizing semiotics. Semiotics, 202, 81-107

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Youzheng Li (b. 1936) is current an independent scholar living in USA but has kept multiple cooperative projects with Chinese academia. He is also an associated senior fellow at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Among his a number of publications about Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Foucault, Ricoeur, Rorty recent ones includeThe Formation of Chinese Humanist Ethics:A Hermeneutic-Semiotics Perspective (2013) and translated 8-voluemes of Edmund Husserl’s Classics (2012- )