LINGUIST List 23.733
Mon Feb 13 2012
Review: Ling. Theories; History of Ling.: Cobley et al. (2011)
Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons
Jamin Pelkey <Jamin.Pelkey
Semiotics Continues to Astonish
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EDITORS: Cobley, Paul; Deely, John; Kull, Kalevi; Petrilli, SusanTITLE: Semiotics Continues to AstonishSUBTITLE: Thomas A. Sebeok and the Doctrine of SignsSERIES TITLE: Semiotics, Communication and Cognition 7PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonYEAR: 2011
Jamin Pelkey, Canada Institute of Linguistics, Trinity Western University
SUMMARYIn the late 1960's Abraham Maslow remarked that communication studies were beingcarried out "too exclusively at the sociological level and not enough at thebiological level" (1966: 136). He may have been surprised to learn that amovement seeking to correct this imbalance was already underway. The movement'svisionary, Hungarian American linguist Thomas Albert Sebeok (1920-2001), was aman whose contributions to ethology, linguistics, anthropology, and modellingsystems theory came to be typified in two terms - 'semiotics' and 'biosemiotics'- the latter a development of the former. Semiotics is the mode of inquirySebeok championed; Biosemiotics is the field of inquiry he established. Thevolume under review is written as a Gedenkschrift to him on the 10th anniversaryof his death, its title borrowed from a passage by Sebeok which offers thefollowing assessment: "Despite its venerable pedigree, semiotics, as practicedtoday, continues to astonish. Behind its every revelation an abeyant illusionlurks; but behind every mirage, confounding reality lies dormant. The dynamic ofsemiotics is immense in scope, seemingly all-encompassing" (1986: x).
The editors' introduction provides an overview of Sebeok's life and work.Educated at Cambridge University, the University of Chicago and PrincetonUniversity, he was a student of I. A. Richards, Leonard Bloomfield, CharlesMorris and Roman Jakobson (2-3). He went on to become Distinguished Professor ofLinguistics and Semiotics at Indiana University, Bloomington, prior to hisretirement in 1991. Among his many other accomplishments, he was a foundingmember of the Semiotic Society of America and the International Association forSemiotic Studies and founding editor of the journal Semiotica, the Mouton bookseries Approaches to Semiotics, and the Indiana University Press book seriesAdvances in Semiotics. During his lifetime, Sebeok edited 395 publications andauthored 833. Selections from his oeuvre have been translated into 17 languages(1).
The book is divided into six parts. Part 1, composed of 19 essay chapters onSebeok's scholarly contributions from the perspectives of 18 of his closestcolleagues, comprises three-fourths of the book's content. Part 2, "Vignettesand Stories" includes seven anecdotal chapters of celebration and reflection,offering biographical and (in the case of Chapter 27) autobiographical insightinto his life and work. Parts 3-4 reproduce a series of letters, includingselections from Sebeok's correspondence with Juri Lotman of Tartu University,Estonia. Parts 5-6 provide a listing of burial site co-ordinates and acollection of black and white photographs of Sebeok and colleagues. This reviewfocuses on the essays in Part 1. I will summarize the contributions thematicallybased on salient features of Sebeok's thought. Though they overlap, these themeswill be treated separately as follows: the influence of C. S. Peirce, Sebeok'sexposé of what is known as the pars-pro-toto fallacy in semiotics, his keydistinction between language and communication, his founding of biosemiotics,his transdisciplinary approach and his contributions to linguistics proper.
Extending the Influence of C. S. PeirceNumerous contributors (e.g., the editors' introduction, 6-7; Lisa Block deBehar, 39; Søren Brier, 51; Ivan Mladenov, 283; Susan Petrilli & Augusto Ponzio,307; Brooke Williams Deely, 374) emphasize the vital importance of CharlesSanders Peirce's thought for the development of Sebeok's transdisciplinarysemiotic paradigm. Peirce held that signs, far from being fixed and staticentities, are active and processual. Sebeok's identification of sign activitywith life processes should be understood with this in mind, as Petrilli affirms(299). In a 1984 address, Sebeok referred to Peirce as "our lodestar" (7).Sebeok draws on Peircean insights liberally and explicitly. As John Deely notes(125), Sebeok also synthesized Peircean thought with other sources. Brier (51),Kalevi Kull (232) and others contributors emphasize Sebeok's blend of Peircewith crucial insights from biologist Jakob von Uexküll. Kull (224) adds JuriLotman. Others, such as Williams (404), situate Sebeok's Peirce-inspired thoughtin a longer-range continuum of historical influences, especially including JohnPoinsot and John Locke. W. C. Watt (365) affirms that Sebeok went on tosubstantially extend and clarify the thought of Peirce (366). Others argue thatSebeok could have been even more attentive to Peirce (see especially Brier61-67, 72-73); yet, as Deely (136) argues, it is not likely that there would bea widespread awareness of Peirce's semiotic (i.e., his system of and approach tosigns) at all without the efforts of Sebeok. In terms of establishing a globaldialogue on the nature and action of signs, it was "Sebeok, not Peirce . . . who'turned the tide'" (140).
Exposing the Pars-Pro-Toto Fallacy of SemiologyOne of Sebeok's major contributions was an exposé of the part-for-whole(pars-pro-toto) fallacy inherent in Saussure's theory of signs, otherwise knownas "semiology". Sebeok's approach served to "expand semiotic boundaries beyondthe linguistic" (Mladenov, 286) to incorporate the communication activities ofnon-human animals, bacteria, plants and more. This profound contribution isemphasized in the introduction (4), then again by Deely (136-137), Petrilli(295-297), and Petrilli & Ponzio (308), among others. From Williams' perspective(372), one key reason many today treat the word 'semiotics' with suspicion islargely due to its unfortunate association with a textually-bound 'semiology'.Petrilli (297) and Deely (140) review some basic ways in which semiotics is morecomprehensive than semiology. Brier (46) and others highlight ways in whichsemiotics applies to both natural and cultural spheres. Sebeok's work shows howhuman communication, linguistic and otherwise, is only one mode of signcommunication among many. In the words of Marcel Danesi (117), "Sebeok thustransformed semiotics back into a 'life science'. . . replant[ing] it into thelarger biological domain from where it sprang originally." In Floyd Merrell'sestimation (259), it is precisely Sebeok's "antiglottocentrism" that makes thispossible.
Distinguishing Between Language and CommunicationRelated to Sebeok's pars-pro-toto rejection is his important distinction betweencommunication in general and language as a modelling system that enables ahuman-specific mode of communication in particular (see introduction, 4-5;Deely, 142; Petrilli & Ponzio, 318; Ponzio, 332; and Williams, 391). As Petrillinotes (299), this distinction allows Sebeok to avoid two further reductivefallacies: biologism and anthropomorphism (cf. Ponzio's anthropocentrism andglottocentrism, 336). Sebeok sought to spread a broader awareness of the "CleverHans effect" (see Myrdene Anderson, 23; Paul Cobley, 99; Deely, 142), theillusion that non-human animals possess linguistic capabilities due toconditioned responses to unwitting non-verbal cues from humans. As Cobley pointsout, the Clever Hans effect also serves as a reminder that communication can beboth witting and unwitting (99), both verbal and nonverbal (98), both human andnon-human. Among other features, the unique presence of syntax (Kull, 237)distinguishes human from non-human communication. If language is aspecies-specific sign activity, its nature and origins can also be explored,contrasted and understood in terms of more basic communication activities out ofwhich it has evolved.
Defining BiosemioticsConsidering the pervasive nature of communication processes, Sebeok held thatthe field of semiotics must be at least co-extensive with life processes,including phytosemiotics (plant communication) and zoosemiotics (animalcommunication) in addition to anthroposemiotics (8, 308). Kull (217) provides auseful synopsis of this new paradigm - a paradigm which Brier hails as a"naturalized epistemology" (46) and "a master science" (51). Danish biologistJesper Hoffmeyer, one of the earliest contributors to biosemiotic researchtraces the co-emergence of the biosemiotic approach in Europe and America inChapter 9. Hoffmeyer sees in this approach a revitalization of human inquiry ingeneral (203). As Kull notes, biosemiotics should be understood as anenhancement of biology rather than a mere commentary on it since, throughbiosemiotics, we may "understand life and not just describe it" (226).
Living TransdisciplinarilyContributors such as Anderson (Chapter 2), de Behar (Chapter 3), Danesi (Chapter6) and Jørgen Dines Johansen (Chapter 10) highlight Sebeok's remarkable abilityto traverse and bridge boundaries between various disciplines and theirsub-specializations. He is described as a man of "omnivorous tastes" (Anderson,21), as being both allusive and elusive (Merrell, 251), as a holistic thinker(Petrilli & Ponzio 307), as having lived his life with diversity, integrity andintellectual openness (Vilmas Voigt, 364; Williams, 399), as someone never outof place (de Behar, 33), as someone who was at home in the world (38; Hoffmeyer,198). He is also described as a pioneer for those who wish to bridge thedisciplines (see e.g., Brier, 44-45), particularly since he approached thegreatest perceived chasm of all - the one presupposed to exist between thehumanities and the natural sciences - and spanned it with flair, not only in hisapproach to life but also in his scholarship (Danesi, 115; 120-121). Hisrevitalized semiotic is now recommended as "a new paradigm for all disciplines"(Williams, 371).
Contributing to Linguistics ProperSebeok began his career as a linguist and eventually came to consider himself ananthropological linguist (Sebeok, 457). Though he began with an exclusiveinterest in verbal signs (Williams, 396; Sebeok, 1991: 40), he later came toconcentrate on non-verbal (and non-linguistic) semiosis (Johansen, 211); and hisefforts after 1960 were less and less focused on linguistics proper (Sebeok,455). All the same he is still appreciated as a pre-eminent American linguist,not only for having been the student of Bloomfield, Morris and Jakobson, to saynothing of endorsements from linguists such as Eric P. Hamp (466) and ClaudeLévi-Strauss (Petrilli, 298), but also for having contributed substantially tolinguistic science from 1942-1969 and beyond. Sebeok began his academic careeras a Finno-Ugrist (Ero Tarasti, 345; Voigt, 357), publishing books on bothFinnish and Hungarian between 1945 and 1947 and carrying out minority languagefieldwork in northern Norway and the former USSR (Tarasti, 345-346). He went onto edit more than 100 volumes in the Indiana University Uralic and Altaic series(Cobley, 88) and 12 volumes in the Mouton Current Trends in Linguistics series(Umiker-Sebeok 2003). His parallel interest in animal communication eventuallyled to his "transformation from a linguistic technician to a practicingsemiotician" (Sebeok, 455), but the implications that his later findings holdfor linguistics proper have yet to be widely considered or appreciated.
EVALUATIONThis collection is a fitting tribute to a person who, in the words of Eric Hamp,"painted on a bigger canvas than almost any of us dared to grope on" (467).Anyone groping for a handhold or toehold on the cliffs of semiotics will find inthis book not only a survey map of past landmarks and current topology but also,and more importantly, an opportunity to become acquainted with the intellect,humor and spontaneity of a remarkable human guide. The collection alreadyfunctions as a working Life of Sebeok, in lieu of a more comprehensive biography(see discussion on p. 1), and is sure to be a sourcebook for future biographers.
I picked up the volume expecting to find an assortment of articles summarizingSebeok's contributions to semiotics. This, to be sure, is provided; Kull's(Chapter 11) and Tarasti's (Chapter 17) essays are perhaps the strongest in thisregard. Some contributors, by contrast, are more interested in detailing theirown scholarly developments of Sebeok's thought; but the tone of these and mostother chapters goes beyond perfunctory professional courtesy or mere respect. Apalpable sense of gratitude emerges from the anecdotes, stories and asidesoffered by Sebeok's colleagues - a collateral index, or 'assemblage of symptoms'pointing to a life well-lived. This aspect of the book exceeded my expectations.By the time I finished reading, I felt as if I had met Sebeok personally.Various contributors highlight his generosity of character, sacrifice andaccomplishment and his unconventional wisdom, noting also how his intellectualvision emerged against strong odds at a critical crux historically. His youngercolleagues credit him with establishing their careers and bringing them togetherto collaborate on the action and import of signs. Vignettes of sharedexperiences, such as Cobley's appreciation of a multi-modal joke told by Sebeokin an Italian restaurant (425-426), and other unexpected details, such asUmberto Eco's acknowledgement that Sebeok was the first editor to publish him inEnglish (465), serve to illustrate his personality and foresight.
On the other hand, were he able to read the volume, Sebeok might protest that heis nearly in danger of becoming "a rather conspicuous figure . . . ofhagiography" (1991: 61) - a mild protest he once leveled against theincreasingly beatific reputation of Peirce during the 1970's and 1980's. Onecontributor, after all, credits Sebeok with virtual omniscience (as an editor,at least: Merrell, 251), another with virtual omnipresence (de Behar, 33; 421). I would have been glad, by contrast, to have had an IPA transcription of hislast name. Voigt comes close to providing as much (355); but even with hisdescription, I would still have publically mispronounced "Sebeok" the first timeI referenced him in a conference presentation (in Lund, Sweden, May, 2011) as[sɨˈbɑk]. John Deely was kind enough to correct me afterwards. For anyone in asimilar position, the surname is pronounced [ˈsiˑbiˌʲɑk].
I approached the book wondering what had become of the headquarters for Sebeok'sinternational semiotic operations: i.e., the Research Center for Language andSemiotic Studies (RCLSS) at Indiana University, Bloomington. Though mostfaculties at Bloomington appear to be richly interdisciplinary, Sebeok's RCLSS -and the study of Semiotics - both seem to have disappeared within a decade ofhis death. Could it be that what Deely dubs "the Tartu-Bloomington-Copenhagenschool" (139, see also 2010: 95) is no longer vital at its point of origin? Afew contributors to the volume also seem to share my concern (see de Behar, 33;Tarasti, 347; Donald Cunningham, 430). In addition to his UniversityProfessorship at Bloomington, Sebeok accepted 35 visiting universityappointments in 20 countries (2). While "circulating around the world spinninghis 'global semiotic net' of collaborators and sympathizers" (Mladenov, 285), isit possible that he neglected to shore up the longevity of semiotic developmentat home? The question itself is somewhat misleading since semiotics is not adiscipline of its own (see, e.g., Cunningham, 428) but "a new paradigm for alldisciplines" (Williams, 371); but neither is it too late to revitalize semioticawareness, whether at Bloomington or elsewhere. In fact, thanks to the work ofDanesi (see 117) and others, Toronto now appears to be a more vital partner thanBloomington in the Peircean-Sebeokian line of development.
A number of unsettled semiotic-internal debates surface between the essays, suchas whether semiotics should be characterized as a "doctrine" or a "science".Contributors (e.g., Petrilli, 297; Deely, 130) who address the issue directlyprefer the term "doctrine" in keeping with John Locke, C. S. Peirce and Sebeok;but this usage is not standard throughout the volume. Contributors also neglectto point out that Peirce himself seems to have been ambivalent on the matter -not only using the term "doctrine", but also using the term "science" (1908, CP8.343; 1897, CP 2.229) in reference to sign studies. As Maria Papova recalls,Sebeok insisted that semiotics is not to be viewed as a theory or model itself(448); rather, the study of signs is to be approached as a historically rootedway of thinking about the ubiquitous relationships and processes that bridgenature and culture, processes mediating "between reality and illusion" (Sebeok1991: 136). Petrilli & Ponzio provide a helpful synthesis of the problem whenthey state the following: "the doctrine of signs is the science of signs thatquestions itself" (319).
Another unsettled question that emerges is a lack of consensus on which level ofhuman perceptual/conceptual modelling is primarily inclusive of language.Whether language is a primary, secondary or tertiary modelling system depends inlarge part on the definition of language to begin with, and how distinct it iskept from speech. A further unsettled question that comes up occasionally in thevolume leads some practitioners to ask whether or not Sebeok acknowledged thereality of semiosic activity beyond life processes. Many who take up the debatehold that he did not (e.g., Petrilli & Ponzio, 313-314), but he himself seems tohave held a more flexible, open position on the matter, as can be noted inpassages cited in the collection itself (see Merrell, 253). In a (1983)discussion he even seems to unambiguously side with what Deely calls'physiosemiosis' (145) and what Merrell terms 'physico-semiosis'(261). Thispersuasion can be noted later in a 1986 letter from Sebeok to Walker Percy(Samway ed. 1995: 117) and in the various published editions of his essay "Theevolution of semiosis" (e.g., in Sebeok 2001). According to Cunningham (428),Sebeok also taught a version of this view in the classroom. Peirce himselfargued in favor of physiosemiosis (see Deely, 146). It seems important to pointout in this connection - pace Kull (232-233) - that Peirce was a decisiveinfluence on Sebeok much earlier than 1990. If discussions elsewhere in thevolume are not enough to illustrate this point, a quick read of Sebeok'sForeword to Brent (1993) provides ample evidence. See also earlierPeirce-focused publications such as Sebeok & Umiker-Sebeok (1980), firstpresented in a 1978 conference paper (Umiker-Sebeok 2003), and Sebeok (1983).
I observed some three-dozen editing lapses, including the following: "and thatis are able to" (66), "the matter is of sensation is" (128), "have come tounderstood that" (148), "Peircean wizardy" (179), "two impresive men" (199),"and it now the ambition" (212), "with his whole of his life" (299), "Universityhas was" (346), "the key me to" (396), "It not longer" (423). Sources cited onpp. 1, 6, 68 and 308 are missing from the references. An illustration on p. 92is pixelated. These problems and others like them are distributed fairly evenlythrough 500 pages of printed text, though, and pose no substantial distraction.
As an entry (vol. 7) in the Semiotics, Communication and Cognition series, thephysical volume itself is well-bound, handsomely designed and attractivelyformatted. The length (526 pages) and cost (99,95 €) may deter some who wouldotherwise be interested. The length is at least partially justified by themultiple contextual perspectives it makes available on Sebeok's life and work.On the other hand, essays range from 6 to 47 pages in length; and vignettesrange from 2 to 10 pages. Perhaps enforcing a stricter page budget forindividual articles would have been best; this, after all, would have achievedspatial iconicity with Sebeok's own time budgeting habits, as recounted by Deely(431-434). The volume could also have been shortened somewhat by closerattention to cohesion. Certain key biographical details are repeated byindividual authors, sometimes to the point of distraction, particularlybiographical details found in the introduction. Moreover, some contributorsengage in semiotic-internal debates without registering awareness of competing,or consonant, perspectives being offered in the same volume. These are minorissues over all. A quick-reference timeline of pivotal events in the life ofSebeok seems to be the only major feature missing.
As an overview of the current status of semiotic understanding, and as apersonal introduction to Thomas A. Sebeok for those unable to meet him prior tohis death in 2001, the volume is indispensable. "The dynamic of semiotics isimmense in scope," writes Sebeok "seemingly all-encompassing" (1986: x). Since,as Deely brings to our attention (134), even experienced objects presupposesigns, to neglect semiotics is no mere rejection of culture-bound speculation.Thanks in large part to Sebeok's contributions, human understanding now has aviable (and congruent) way to bridge the chasm between nature and culture.
REFERENCESDeely, John. 2010. Semiotics seen synchronically: The view from 2010. New York:Legas.
Maslow, Abraham H. 1966. Isomorphic interrelationships between knower and known.In G. Kepes (ed.), Sign, image, symbol, 195-206. New York: Braziller.
CP = Peirce, Charles S. 1931-1958. The Collected papers of Charles SandersPeirce. Edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss and Arthur W. Burks. 8 vols.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Samway, Patrick H. (ed.) 1995. A thief of Peirce: The letters of Kenneth LaineKetner and Walker Percy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Sebeok, Thomas A. 1983. One, two, three spells U B E R T Y. In Umberto Eco andThomas A. Sebeok (eds.), The sign of three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce, 1-10.Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Sebeok, Thomas A. 1986. I think I am a verb: More contributions to the doctrineof signs. New York: Plenum.
Sebeok, Thomas A. 1991. Semiotics in the United States. Bloomington: IndianaUniversity Press.
Sebeok, Thomas A. 1993. Preface. In Joseph Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: Alife, ix-xiii. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Sebeok, Thomas A. 2001. Global semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Sebeok, Thomas A. and Jean Umiker-Sebeok. 1980. You know my method: Ajuxtaposition of Charles S. Peirce and Sherlock Holmes. Bloomington: GaslightPublications.
Umiker-Sebeok, Jean. Thomas A. Sebeok: A bibliography of his writings,1942-2001. Semiotica 147-1/4. 11-73.
ABOUT THE REVIEWERJamin Pelkey currently lives in British Columbia, Canada, where he isVisiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the Canada Institute ofLinguistics, Trinity Western University, and Instructor of Linguistics andEnglish at University of the Fraser Valley. His research interests includethe Ngwi languages (Burmic < Tibeto-Burman), the intersection of embodiedcognitive science and process semiotics, historical-comparativelinguistics, dialectology, metaphor and the philosophy of language.
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