Publication:  Kull, K.; Salupere, S.; Torop, P. 2005. Semiotics has no beginning. In: Deely, John, Basics of Semiotics. (Tartu Semiotics Library 4.) Tartu: Tartu University Press, ix-xxv.



Semiotics has no beginning


Kalevi Kull

Silvi Salupere

Peeter Torop


Juri Lotman has once said that semiotics is a field that one should not begin with. Moreover, it has also been said that it is not meant for those who are not yet familiar with some field of study other than semiotics. Such a view of semiotics as a superior, highly intellectual discipline, however, brings along an unexpected and interesting conflict with statements about the role and importance of semiotics. According to some opinions, semiotics binds the methodologies of the humanities together and offers a common theoretical basis for all qualitative approaches. As such, it appears as an equivalent to the emperor of quantitative science — physics.

Alongside that timeless function semiotics also has a specific mission relating to time: it is supposed to be the knowledge of the 21st century as John Deely has underscored — and he is not the only one to hold this view.

Using the history of the understanding of the sign as his guide Deely presents a division of philosophical thought into four great epochs. These include (ancient) Greek (up to the 6th century AD), Latin (up to the 17th century), modern (up to the 20th century), and postmodern (that is at its beginning) eras. According to Deely, semiotics is definitely the philo­sophy of the postmodern age. As semiotics is simultaneously an under­standing and a way of seeing, we can find traces of it long before Charles Peirce or Jakob von Uexküll — the great founders of the discipline at the dawn of the 20th century — articulated their theories of the sign.

From a distance created by time, the simultaneous emergence of three approaches, three trends that greatly influenced 20th century thought can be detected in the 1880ies. These tendencies also represented three very different approaches to the sign. Within the first philosophical trend meaning appears as a phenomenon, as a given presence. It is the phenomenological approach as designed by Edmund Husserl and further developed by Martin Heidegger. The second trend views meaning as a relation — as is appropriate to the method of analytical philosophy in which Gottlob Frege plays a major role. The third one takes meaning to be a process, one which also engages the medium — this approach was developed by Peirce and the whole semiotic theory.

The fact of the publication of the book by John Deely, the director of the Semiotic Society of America, in Estonia is not just a formal gesture towards a country that has played an enormous role in the development of the discipline. The reason for its publication is of a much more substantial nature. Usually the books presenting the basics of semiotics attempt to give a comprehensible and complete picture of the field. At the same time it is also well known that “semiotics” is an ambiguous term and there are different possibilities to define semiotics. It could be described as a study of signs, sign systems and communication. It could also be identified as that part of various disciplines that establishes the systematic features of the object of study and enables us to speak not only about natural language but also about the language of literature in literary semiotics, the language of theatre in theatre semiotics,  the language(s) of art in the semiotics of art(s), the language of cinema in the semiotics of cinema, as well as of the language of behavior in the semiotics of everyday life, and the language of landscape in ecosemiotics. Or to discuss vegetative and animal sign systems in addition to organic codes in the field of bio­semiotics. At the same time all those “semiotics of” are parts of the discip­lines that study these objects. In addition, semiotics has also been characterized as the science of sciences, the organon of sciences, facilitating the synthesis of the methodological experience of sciences and improving interdisciplinarity. Deely says,


This […] is a reference to a strategy for encouraging a view of semiotics not as a theory in either the traditional critical sense or in the traditional scientific sense, but as what Locke called a doctrine of signs, a term which must be carefully construed. […] A doctrine of signs, within this notion of philosophical doctrine generally, specifically transcends the opposition of culture to nature, and thereby precludes an autonomously linguistic or literary semiotics […]. Semiotics is a perspective concerned with the matrix of all the disciplines, precisely as they are offsprings within experience of anthroposemiosis. (Deely in the present volume, ch. 5)


In accordance with the possibility to define semiotics in multiple ways we can also discriminate between different (pre)histories of the discipline. In a sense the whole history of semiotics has developed “inside” the history of philosophy, or is intertwined with it as currents merge in a stream. Thus we can find many of these currents, or different sources of semio­tics. In order to define our point of departure in a more particular way we could of course start with Charles Sanders Peirce as one of the most important classics of today’s semiotics. But it is usually at the moments of cultural explosion that history — as the history of culture — undergoes sharp turns. This indicates that the greatest impact of works of arts and results of research upon society does not begin with their birth or creation but starting from the moment of their recognition and acknowledgement. As Juri Lotman has put it in his book Culture and Explosion, innovation does not manifest itself at the moment of explosion but only when it is recognized and described some time after the explosion itself.

        This is also what happened to the explosion of semiotics and semiology. Their acknowledgement only began after the deaths of Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure and that were so close in time that instead of a single approach a strange double identity emerged that Charles Morris attempted to weld into one. Later, however, the two strands parted until T. Sebeok, J. Deely and others started to reconcep­tualize this view.

        Semiotics therefore, has several beginnings which offer an exciting challenge  to anybody who seeks to describe its origins. It is very important that a systematic textbook of semiotics should not attempt to artificially unify the different foundations, but would give its reader an idea of the varied sources of semiotics and recognize several beginnings as normal, as this alone would be appropriate to semiotic thinking itself. And it is primarily this attitude that is characteristic of Deely’s book when he writes,


Among the human sciences, semiotics is unique in being a study concerned with the matrix of all the sciences, and in revealing the centrality of history to the enterprise of understanding in its totality. The centrality of history to understanding is revealed through the codes of culture that alone sustain, beyond the individual insight, the commens or shared mentality that defines a language (such as English), a discipline (such as physics or literary criticism), a subculture (such as the Gays), a nation (such as Israel), and, ultimately, civilization itself in all its conflicting strands of historically embedded interpretations giving structure to the everyday experience of the conspecifics capable of language. (Deely in the present volume, ch. 5)


But this is the kind of history in which the beginning may be missing or is unimportant. In relation to his concept of the semiosphere Juri Lotman underscores that each culture is preceded by another culture, and each sign system by another sign system.

One of the most significant topics in semiotic logic is the replacement of the binary structure by the ternary. It is also the central problem of Lotman’s Culture and Explosion. Though he works in a totally different part of the world, this is also important for Deely, who emphasizes that the dichotomous differentiation between subject and object which governs modern thought and culture, has to be substituted by a trichotomy. In the latter case a third — thing — emerges which is not an object. It is from this trichotomy, from the ability to see things, or differentiate between things and objects that the possibility of semiotics arises.



Introductions to semiotics


If we look at the existing handbooks of semiotics they can quite clearly be divided into three groups — encyclopedias, anthologies and monographs. Those that belong to the first group are comprehensive works seeking to offer a “complete and objective” overview of semiotics. By nature they are descriptive compilations. First and foremost, the four substantial encyclopedias of semiotics belong to this group.

The three-volume Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics (Sebeok 1994 [1986],  two editions already) gives a thorough overview of the terminology of semiotics. It was aimed as a replacement for the earlier volume  by A. J. Greimas and J. Courtés Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary, a work which despite its title is not limited to the theory of language but manages to provide a profound definition of semiotics, yet relies mainly on the tradition of semiology.

Eventually all four volumes of the capital bilingual (German and English) encyclopedia that was in preparation for a long time have been published (Posner et al. 1997). This weighty work attempts to exhaust all possible types of semiotics organized by subject areas, historically and geographically.

Winfried Nöth’s Handbook of Semiotics (Nöth 1990; 2000) is written by a single author but owing to its historical approach and an unusually profound and diverse references it rather belongs among encyclopedias than monographs.

The Canadian scholar Paul Bouissac’s Encyclopedia of Semiotics (Bouissac 1998) is a good companion volume to the former ones because of its compactness. The reference book by Paul Cobley (Cobley 2001) has less extensive scope. All encyclopedias are characterized by the exhaustive bibliographies.

Another type of work that is different from the encyclopedias comprises various anthologies which assemble (normally in chrono­logical order) key texts or extracts of significant texts in semiotics. Among this type one should first mention an introductory anthology by Robert E. Innis (Innis 1985) that contains also introductory comments to classic texts. In addition to this volume the collection Frontiers in Semiotics (Deely et al. 1986) with a formidable introduction by John Deely deserves greater attention with its broad treatment of semiotics. The laconically entitled four-volume Semiotics (Boklund-Lagopoulou 2002) embraces a more recent period including post-structuralism and postmodernism in addition to the excerpts from principal texts; it also contains works of the members of the Tartu-Moscow school. One should also mention the many-faceted Russian anthology compiled by Juri Stepanov (Stepanov 1983). Canadian professors of semiotics have recently compiled a few less voluminous collections of texts designed specifically for introductory courses in semiotics (Danesi, Santeramo 1999; Perron, Danesi 2003).

The third group, also including Deely’s Basics of Semiotics — covers monographic works (they usually define themselves as introductions), which first of all articulate the author’s personal point of view and understanding of semiotics. A number of introductions have been created in the course of teaching, inspired by the practical need for study aids.

Leaving aside Charles Morris (e.g. 1946), the earliest among this group is Roland Barthes’ Elements of Semiology (1964) that first and foremost introduces the terminology of the French structuralist school departing from Saussure. The pioneering role of this piece has been pointed out by Umberto Eco. He says,


In 1964 Barthes published his “Elements of Semiology” in the fourth issue of the journal Communications. I consider it necessary to recall here what this short text, that was not aimed at anything big and that was a compilation by nature, meant for all of us who were fascinated by semiotics — it is this writing that forced us to work out our own approaches to sign systems and communicative processes, while Barthes himself was moving away from pure theory. If this book by Barthes had not existed, we would have managed to do much less. (Eco 1998:4)


And it was Umberto Eco who took the next step in his book The Absent Structure: An Introduction to Semiology (1968) by posing “a question about the nature of semiotic study[1] and its meaning. In other words, the kind of study in which all phenomena of culture are viewed as facts of communication, in which individual messages become organized, and understandable in relation to the code” (Eco 1998: 27). This book, originally published in Italian, laid the foundation for an English-language Theory of Semiotics published in 1976. Eco focuses on two major issues of the theory of sign: communication and signification. Separate chapters have been dedicated to the theory of codes and the theory of sign production (including the critique of iconism). For an untrained reader this is not an easy reading. The most often quoted passage of the book defines semiotics as a theory of lying.

In 1971 the Moscow linguist Juri Stepanov published a book titled Semiotics which was one of the very few of the kind in the Soviet Union. The erudition of the author is amazing — the small book contains remarkable knowledge about the study of signs, it describes different fields of research, and offers definitions of basic terms. At the same time it does not simply summarize previous ideas but also makes its own original contribution.

One of the most well-known introductions of the present time is authored by Daniel Chandler — this is Semiotics: The Basics (Chandler 2002[2]). In the introduction the author says that the book grew out of his need to explain to his students what semiotics was. The approaches existing in 1994 were, in his words, all obscure and dull, whereas semiotics itself was nothing beyond comprehension. The book exclusively deals with human semiosis leaving aside for example biosemiotics, computer semiotics and ecological semiotics as well as the semiotics of music and architecture. The book is targeted at Europe, and therefore its emphasis lies on the structuralist approach.

In 1997 Paul Cobley and Litza Jansz issued a comic book entitled Semiotics for Beginners (Cobley, Jansz 1997, in Estonian 2002) that made Chandler modify the title of the web version of his book into Semiotics for Absolute Beginners. Indeed, his presentation of the subject makes it intelligible also for absolute beginners.

The introduction to semiotics by Thomas A. Sebeok (Sebeok 1994) differs from the rest mainly because Sebeok pays less attention to the structuralist tradition, concentrating upon the study of the sign and building his approach upon the all-embracing term of semiosis instead. In addition Sebeok suggests his own classification of signs.

The media-based course Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics by Marcel Danesi was transformed into a book in 1998 under the title Sign, Thought and Culture. As the purpose of the book the author mentions the wish to provide students with a textbook “[…] that would introduce the technical, and often abstruse, subject matter of this fascinating field in a practical way, with plenty of applications of semiotic techniques to contemporary social discourses and lifestyle behaviours” (Danesi 1998: 5). Trying to avoid complicated terminology he wants to lead his readers to independent semiotic discoveries by using what each of them already knows intuitively. He defines semiotics as a study of the capacity to create and use signs for thinking and commu­nication. The emphasis is on media and mass communication. Already in the following year Danesi published yet another book for even broader audiences, the title of which speaks for itself - Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Intro­duction to Semiotics.

Professors of comparative literature J¸rgen Dines Johansen and Svend Erik Larsen from Denmark have authored a balanced approach to semiotics in which the concepts of discourse and narrative occupy a prominent place (Johansen, Larsen 2002). Vivid illustrations and examples from different walks of life render the subject comprehensible, yet not oversimplified. A professionally compiled glossary and bio­graphical sketches of persons covered in the book provide a useful supplement to it.

A number of other introductions to semiotics in different languages (e.g., see for Berger 1988) complement the picture. Special reference has to be made to Kreidlin’s Russian-language introductions meant for schools (Kreidlin, Krongauz 1997). Complete textbooks of semiotics have also been published on the web, for example Tuomo Jämsä’s introduction in Finnish.[3]



About the author


Deely’s book about the basics of semiotics holds a special place among other introductions. As Paul Cobley has remarked,


It is, unfortunately, not easy to find thinkers today both steeped in the scholastic realist problematic stemming from the writings of Aquinas onwards and convinced of the relevance of this tradition to the future shaping of philosophy now that modernity, with all its cross-currents (including Analysis, Phenomenology, and Neothomism), has become a matter of historical record. (Cobley 2003: vii)


The singularity of the book owes much to the singularity of the author. John Deely was born in 1942, and this is also the year that the biblio­graphy of Thomas A. Sebeok assembled by Deely himself begins with (Deely 1995). By mentioning this association we would like to make reference to the important cooperation between these two men in deve­loping semiotics in the United States.

        The first published papers by John Deely (Deely 1965; 1966; 1969) as well as his first book (Deely, Nogar 1973) were written about evolution in relation to his interest in the origins of humans.

        Having studied in a Jesuit school Deely is well versed in Latin and has a good command of scholastic philosophy. One can detect his Catholic background also in the present volume.

        One of his earliest books was about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (Deely 1971). Well-acquainted with Jacques Maritain, Deely was also influenced by the latter. But these influences preceded his acquaintance with Thomas A. Sebeok that gave a powerful impetus to Deely’s dedication to semiotics later on.

        Deely wrote his first introduction to semiotics in 1982 (Deely 1982). Already there the main features of the present volume are visible: semiotics is seen first ands foremost as a doctrine based upon the doctrines of the sign of the late Middle Ages with Deely’s original idea of semiosis at the bottom. In 1990 that book was followed by the first version of the present work.

        Doubtlessly, Deely is above all a keen admirer of Peirce’s semiotics. But one person is even more important person for him — John Poinsot, a 17th century thinker from Spain. Deely has even translated Poinsot’s Tractatus de Signis from Latin into English — the task took him over ten years. He often quotes Poinsot also in the present volume.

        Deely has been a very productive writer having published over ten books, a number of them in recent years (Deely 1994a; 1994b; 2001; 2002; 2003; 2004). His opus magnum, a book entitled Four Ages of Understanding published in 2001 presents an overview of the history of philosophy from the point of view of semiotics.

        For an extended period he has been the main editor of the yearbook of the Semiotic Society of America, often together with Terry Prewitt (Prewitt, Deely 2003), and has also edited other collections of articles, sometimes jointly with his wife, the historian Brooke Williams. Deely is one of the long-time leaders of the Semiotic Society of America as well as of the International Association for Semiotic Studies.

        Currently he is a professor of history of philosophy at St. Thomas University, Houston, Texas.



Of some semiotic problems


The capacity to err


C. S. Peirce defines the study of sign processes, or semiotics through fallibilism — a field that studies the possibility of being mistaken (Deely 2001: 636). While natural laws — the laws of physics and chemistry — allow no exceptions, biological laws, on the other hand, represent regularities with exceptions. It follows that fallibilism also turns out to be the study of life, for the abiotic world is governed by laws but the biotic by rules. The formation of rules is a very general process resembling the processes of studying or habituation. Following Peirce’s idea of synechism or continuity, semiosis (or such a study of life) extends across the universe. It could include even lifeless processes, as Deely demonstrates through his concept of physiosemiosis. This is a point in which Deely sharply differs from his mentor Thomas A. Sebeok as Sebeok never considered it appropriate to speak about semiosis in any other connection than life, or maybe also machines, not mention the distance from the approach of Umberto Eco who sets the semiotic threshold at the boundary of culture. It can be presumed that regarding this matter it is indeed possible to interpret Peirce in various ways. The knowledge about atomic and molecular laws in his lifetime was very different from the knowledge in the period of the widespread emergence of semiotics during the second half of the 20th century.



Evolution (and emergentism)


The emphasis on continuity is characteristic also of Deely’s approach to evolution. Or it may well be the other way round — because of the importance of the concept of evolution for Deely throughout his academic career (see for example Deely, Nogar 1973), it can also be felt in his understanding of semiosis, i.e. it has strongly influenced the latter. Still, the focus on evolution and the significance of evolutionary explanation is a distinctive feature of the period that Deely himself calls modern.

        The emergentist views of evolution or of the formation of the new that have developed in the course of the 20th century (following Peirce), starting for example with Lloyd Morgan and represented in their con­temporary form in the works of Stuart Kauffman, could provide a more appropriate alternative to the narrowly Darwinian approach in semiotic thought. Even Uexküll who has been rendered so prominent by Deely is in a strong opposition with the Darwinian view. A possible factor that might have influenced Deely’s idea of evolution, and that is also related to his choices concerning the interpretation of Peirce in this respect, could be the anglo-american cultural situation in which the mainstream of evolutionary thought — neodarwinism — has been followed very closely and where peripheral accounts of evolution have hardly been accessible to a non-biologist.

        However, as an exception among semioticians Roman Jakobson has to be mentioned who, while in Prague, tried to apply models borrowed from biology to linguistics and found that Karl Ernst von Baer’s and Lev Berg’s models were suited to his purposes. That he was able to use those models seems to be related to the fact that he came from a different cultural background.



Modern — ultramodern — postmodern


Deely draws the borderline between modern and postmodern thought in a slightly unusual way. He is not alone in this perception, but it is important to pay further attention to his choice. Tying the beginnings of the modern period with the works of Descartes is a very widespread view. For Deely, these works indicated the apotheosis of the study of the sign of the Latin Age, leaving aside Poinsot’s account published in 1632 (in the year of the founding of the University of Tartu) for three centuries. Deely does not lay much weight on the French Revolution which is often considered as the landmark of the modern period (see for example Foucault) or used to divide the long period in two. Neither does he go along with the idea that the modern period came to an end with the emergence of French postmodernism. He acknowledges the works of Derrida, but considers them as representing the ultramodern. Deely agrees with the critique of postmodernism which for him is at the same time also the critique of modernism. According to his views the whole tradition of semiology following Saussure belongs to the late modern period.

        Deely’s framework opens an interesting perspective on the question of the position of Tartu semiotics in relation to this periodization. For some researchers the turning point from semiology to semiotics occurred in the 1980ies together with the adoption of the concept of the semiosphere and, accordingly, they distinguish for example between early and late Lotman (Mandelker 1994; etc.). But when observations are made on home turf, a lot may appear differently than from a distance. Thus it could also be claimed that seen from up close no such turn actually occurred, and the main ideas of the concept of the semiosphere were there already two decades earlier.



About Tartu semiotics and semiotics in Estonia


Estonia is a country of many boundaries. A strange story that Deely has been telling for a while now is that Tartu should become the center of world semiotics in the 21st century. The concept of the center in science structure is of a suspiciously modern nature. But still, if it does not refer to anything else, then at least it indicates that the part of Tartu semiotics not covered in the book is worth some attention.[4] And this concerns not only what is happening in Tartu, but also what has not happened yet.

        The Estonian audience has received an idea of semiotics from the translations of Lotman’s works into Estonian and from the Theses on the Semiotic Study of Cultures of the Tartu-Moscow school. Also, there are the Estonian translations of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Michel Foucault, as well as the predecessor of cultural semiotics in philosophy — Ernst Cassirer, and a kindred spirit in ethnology, Clifford Geertz.

        The comic-book/encyclopedia by Paul Cobley with drawings by Litza Jansz was the first one to introduce a more comprehensive historical account of the discipline to the Estonian readership. In his foreword to the Estonian version Paul Cobley underscored the significance of Estonia in semiotics in relation to the Finno-Ugric dimension on the one hand, and the place itself, on the other. He says,


While the English-speaking world has given us Peirce, the French-speaking world has left Saussure as a legacy, and the Finno-Ugric world has not only given birth to Thomas A. Sebeok, but has also presented us a scholar of Estonian origin Jakob von Uexküll to whom we owe a number of basic concepts in semiotics. And of course, there is Juri Lotman — an exceptional Russian scholar of immeasurable significance, clearly ahead of his time, who firmly took Tartu to the world map of semiotics […]. (Cobley, Jansz 2002:2).


It is indeed peculiar that the oldest periodical in semiotics in the world — the journal Sign Systems Studies — was and still is published in Tartu. Its first editor-in-chief Juri Lotman (1922-1993) lived long enough to witness the establishment of the Department of Semiotics at the University of Tartu in 1992. Tartu is also a place where semiotics has become a separate field of study, and is taught and learned as a programme in Semiotics and Theory of Culture. The students of Lotman have become the next generation of scholars and teachers, already recognized under the name of New Tartu Semiotics. In 2002 the journal S: European Journal for Semiotic Studies published a special issue in Tartu semiotics under this very title — “New Tartu Semiotics”. The priority of this generation (soon already two generations) who represent institutionalized semiotics in Tartu is wide-ranging and systematic education in semiotics. This goes hand in hand with an active partici­pation in international semiotics. From the point of view of teaching it is vital to host semioticians from other countries in Tartu, not only when they come visiting, but also through translations of their works repre­senting different schools and points of view. At the same time we have to take into account our modest circumstances and consider carefully the weight of each new publication in the field of semiotics in our cultural and educational space.

        A multiplicity of beginnings is also characteristic of semiotics in Estonia, even from the historical perspective. Alongside Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944) there are other figures in the prehistory of semiotics that are connected to Estonia, for example, Jan Baudouin de Courtenay (1845–1929), whose study comparing the foundations of graphic and acoustic language largely took shape while he was working in Tartu between 1883 and 1893 — and the study of phonemes plays a significant role in the history of the formation of the discipline of semiotics. There is also the Estonian interlinguist Jakob Linzbach who was born in Harjumaa in 1874 and died in Tallinn in 1953. Research into his work demonstrates his notable part in the history of semiotics. Thus, for example, according to Isaac Revzin Linzbach found similar solutions to the problems of general linguistics as did Saussure, but independently from the latter (Revzin 1965). The book by Linzbach The Principles of Philosophical Language: An Attempt at Exact Linguistics appeared in the same year (1916) when Saussure’s lectures were published. In this book Linzbach establishes among other things that each language is polyglot — an essentially semiotic problem that arises from the practical need to use natural language to describe, translate and interpret a multiplicity of widely different phenomena. He writes,


There is a considerable need also in the natural language to use different viewpoints simultaneously, for because of our wish to formulate our thoughts as clearly as possible we have to rephrase them many times using different words. […] Speaking clearly and expressively requires repeated reformulation and explication of the matter from different isolated viewpoints which are located in such a manner that the assembly of images created through them evokes an image in the minds of listeners and readers which closely resembles the real. (Linzbach 1916: 201)


Linzbach compares natural language to the language of nature. He says, “It [the human language] differs from nature in that it only uses a certain limited amount of perspectives. ‘Nature’, on the other hand, can be envisaged as a conglomerate that has an infinite number of viewpoints” (Linzbach 1916: 202).

        When on the one hand, we could describe the development of culture as moving away from nature, we could, on the other hand, view it as a contrary movement in the spirit of Linzbach. Both as a whole and as a polyglot configuration culture is developing towards diversity and heterogeneity. The Theses on the Semiotic Study of Cultures of the Tartu-Moscow school contain the following statement, “The pursuit of hetero­geneity of languages is a characteristic feature of culture” (Uspenskij et al 1998: 20). Heterogeneity, in its turn, enables us to perceive scientific analysis not just as departing from a single unified viewpoint, but as consisting of a system of perspectives within which each scholar who studies culture has to start by explicitly identifying his or her point of departure. The disciplines and scholars studying culture therefore constitute a heterogeneous collection of viewpoints within which efforts have to be made in order to relate different perspectives to one another, to allow them interact and to unify them methodologically. As a semiotic system, research will at some point develop a need for a generalized description of itself. Lotman says, “The highest form of structured organi­zation of a semiotic system is the phase of self-description. The process of description itself completes structural organization” (Lotman 1996: 170). If this structural organization does not cause stagnation, but retains its natural diversity and prospects for further development, as exemplified by Deely’s book, then organization means movement towards under­standing and change. In his article “Humans and signs” that was published in 1969 Lotman says,


It [science] often takes that what seemed so simple and clear and discovers complexity and uncertainty there. Science does not always make the unknown known, it often behaves in a completely opposite manner. In the end, science does not always aim at providing as many answers as possible, instead it departs from the assumption that the right way of posing the question and the correct course of argument embody greater value than ready-made answers even if they are right but have not been controlled. (Lotman 1969).


A year later, in a newspaper article entitled “Semiotics and the contem­porary world” (which, however, could be published only later in a collection of articles) he wrote, “Humans learn to understand animals, prepare for contacts from outer space but they are only starting to understand themselves and those who stand beside them, only beginning to understand  what it means to “understand”. To understand under­stan­ding also means to understand not-understanding […]” (Lotman 2003: 100).

        In the development of the Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics a distinction has been observed between the historical tradition of Moscow linguistics that took an interest in simpler semiotic objects, such as chess, detective stories, theatre of the absurd etc, and aiming at the formalization of their analysis, and the Tartu and St Petersburg traditions together with the Russian Formalist School as well as the tradition following M. Bakhtin that were each more interested in studying complex objects and the whole of culture as a complex object. This direction has always been vital and vigorous in Tartu. Against this background it is only natural that the experience of formulating the basics of semiotics be brought to Estonia in the form of Deely’s book which presents semiotics as a complex phenomenon with no simplifications.

        As the text goes on, Deely shows himself to be an ever more spirited and sharp-witted thinker whom it is hard to beat in erudition. The dialogue between the book and the Tartu tradition becomes even more exciting when, parallel to the mentioning of Thomas A. Sebeok in the text, the reader recalls what Lotman has written about semiotic modelling.

        The reader finds here a complex basis for semiotics as well as a whole collection of the basics of semiotics. The reader who has finished this book  should comprehend that there are several ways leading to the understanding of semiotics and that different beginnings may still lead us in one direction — towards greater understanding.



About the Tartu edition


Compared to its previous English edition (Deely 1990), the present version has been expanded and revised. It has almost doubled in
volume — the chapters from eight to eleven are new, and the first, but especially the third and fourth chapters contain important additions.

        Earlier versions of this book have been published in Portuguese (1990), Romanian (1997), Ukrainian (2000), and Italian (2004). The Japanese and Bulgarian editions are being prepared.

        The fact that the book is published in two languages — English and Estonian — is itself significant. On the one hand, this conveys Deely’s love for multilingual books; indeed, it is similar to the book by Poinsot that he has translated, displaying the English translation side by side with its Latin original. The same pattern has been followed in the appendices to Deely’s Why semiotics? (Deely 2004: 59–69) where the original English text by Locke is accompanied by a later translation into Latin, and the English version appears next to the passages of Saussure in French.

        We could also interpret this arrangement as signifying the process of translation that is so essential for Lotman’s school. Two languages have not been placed side by side in order to check the accuracy of the translation. They are close to each other in order to speak, to interact, to be more alive as a text.





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[1]       In discriminating between semiotics and semiology Eco here follows the schema by Louis Hjelmslev, calling the general theory of communication pheno­mena semiology and individual sign systems semiotics. In a more recent edition (Eco 2002) he has added semiotics to the subtitle and substituted semiology by structuralism.

[2]       Also available on the web:

[3]       Available in the web at the following address:

[4] See for example Sebeok 1998.