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Semiotics is the study of signs (symbols) and signification systems.

Table of contents
1 Scope and main concepts
2 History
3 Subfields
4 See also
5 External links

Scope and main concepts

Semiotics is concerned with how minds produce, communicate and codify meaning. It applies to any kind of signs or symbols, not just words (as in semantics), and anything representative—a word, a gesture, a sound—is a sign. Even concepts, thoughts and ideas can be symbols for something else. Semiotics provides insights and tools for critically examining symbols and information in a variety of fields.

It is human beings' ability to manipulate symbols that allows them to explore the relationships between ideas, things, concepts, and qualities -- far beyond the explorations of which any other species on earth is capable.

Today four levels can be distinguished:

Rooted in epistemology, the philosophy of science, and formal logic, semiotics is increasing in importance with scientific and technological developments. It connects with a variety of disciplines:


The philosopher John Locke first coined the term "semeiotike" (from the Greek word σεμα, sema, meaning "mark" or "sign") in 1690, in An essay concerning human understanding.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), founder of the philosophical school of pragmatism, invented semiotics as a discipline, terming it "semeiotic". This form of semiotics is based on the notion of signs as triadic relations between an object, its representation, and an interpretant.

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the "father" of modern linguistics, invented, at about the same time as Peirce, a subject he called "semiology." Saussure established a dyadic notion of signs relating the signifier to the signified.

Charles W. Morris (1901-1979) achieved recognition for his Foundations of the Theory of Signs.

Umberto Eco made a wider audience aware of semiotics by various publications, most notably A Theory of Semiotics. Eco explicitly acknowledges Peirce's importance.

Algirdas Greimas developed a structural version of semiotics named generative semiotics. Greimas tried to shift the focus of discipline from signs to systems of signification. Greimas rooted his theory in Saussure, Hjelmslev, Levi-Strauss and Merleau-Ponty.

Jay Forrester developed formalisms for complex systems that are useful for noting how conflicts in mental models cause problems in group communication. In his paper, "Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems," for example, he explained miscommunication in human groups.


Biosemiotics is an interdisciplinary science that studies communication and signification in living systems.

Computational semiotics attempts to engineer the process of semiosis in a computationally tractable manner. Computational semiotics may be understood as artificial intelligence and knowledge representation examined from a semiotic perspective.

Literary semiotics applies the theory of signs (and also communication and information theory) to the interpretation of literary works. Literary semioticians often have an interest in the attempt to apply the tools and techniques of the hard sciences, such as mathematical formulae and computer analysis of texts, to literary criticism.

Others, like the French critic, Roland Barthes, and many Marxistss, employ semiotic techniques as a tool of political and social criticism and satire. Pop culture artifacts have become frequent targets of the semiotic approach, as for example when Barthes deconstructed tag-team wrestling.

Medical semiotics specifically studies the interpretation of patients' description of their symptoms, and has particular importance for the understanding of how patients describe pain or other symptoms which a physician cannot experience or measure directly.

See also

External links