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Review of  Semiotics Continues to Astonish

Reviewer: Jamin Pelkey
Book Title: Semiotics Continues to Astonish
Book Author: Paul Cobley John Deely Kalevi Kull Susan Petrilli
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.733

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EDITORS: Cobley, Paul; Deely, John; Kull, Kalevi; Petrilli, Susan
TITLE: Semiotics Continues to Astonish
SUBTITLE: Thomas A. Sebeok and the Doctrine of Signs
SERIES TITLE: Semiotics, Communication and Cognition 7
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2011

Jamin Pelkey, Canada Institute of Linguistics, Trinity Western University

In the late 1960’s Abraham Maslow remarked that communication studies were being
carried out “too exclusively at the sociological level and not enough at the
biological level” (1966: 136). He may have been surprised to learn that a
movement seeking to correct this imbalance was already underway. The movement’s
visionary, Hungarian American linguist Thomas Albert Sebeok (1920-2001), was a
man whose contributions to ethology, linguistics, anthropology, and modelling
systems theory came to be typified in two terms – ‘semiotics’ and ‘biosemiotics’
– the latter a development of the former. Semiotics is the mode of inquiry
Sebeok championed; Biosemiotics is the field of inquiry he established. The
volume under review is written as a Gedenkschrift to him on the 10th anniversary
of his death, its title borrowed from a passage by Sebeok which offers the
following assessment: “Despite its venerable pedigree, semiotics, as practiced
today, continues to astonish. Behind its every revelation an abeyant illusion
lurks; but behind every mirage, confounding reality lies dormant. The dynamic of
semiotics 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 Princeton
University, he was a student of I. A. Richards, Leonard Bloomfield, Charles
Morris and Roman Jakobson (2-3). He went on to become Distinguished Professor of
Linguistics and Semiotics at Indiana University, Bloomington, prior to his
retirement in 1991. Among his many other accomplishments, he was a founding
member of the Semiotic Society of America and the International Association for
Semiotic Studies and founding editor of the journal Semiotica, the Mouton book
series Approaches to Semiotics, and the Indiana University Press book series
Advances in Semiotics. During his lifetime, Sebeok edited 395 publications and
authored 833. Selections from his oeuvre have been translated into 17 languages

The book is divided into six parts. Part 1, composed of 19 essay chapters on
Sebeok’s scholarly contributions from the perspectives of 18 of his closest
colleagues, comprises three-fourths of the book’s content. Part 2, “Vignettes
and Stories” includes seven anecdotal chapters of celebration and reflection,
offering biographical and (in the case of Chapter 27) autobiographical insight
into his life and work. Parts 3-4 reproduce a series of letters, including
selections from Sebeok’s correspondence with Juri Lotman of Tartu University,
Estonia. Parts 5-6 provide a listing of burial site co-ordinates and a
collection of black and white photographs of Sebeok and colleagues. This review
focuses on the essays in Part 1. I will summarize the contributions thematically
based on salient features of Sebeok’s thought. Though they overlap, these themes
will be treated separately as follows: the influence of C. S. Peirce, Sebeok’s
exposé of what is known as the pars-pro-toto fallacy in semiotics, his key
distinction between language and communication, his founding of biosemiotics,
his transdisciplinary approach and his contributions to linguistics proper.

Extending the Influence of C. S. Peirce
Numerous contributors (e.g., the editors’ introduction, 6-7; Lisa Block de
Behar, 39; Søren Brier, 51; Ivan Mladenov, 283; Susan Petrilli & Augusto Ponzio,
307; Brooke Williams Deely, 374) emphasize the vital importance of Charles
Sanders Peirce’s thought for the development of Sebeok’s transdisciplinary
semiotic paradigm. Peirce held that signs, far from being fixed and static
entities, are active and processual. Sebeok’s identification of sign activity
with 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 Peirce
with crucial insights from biologist Jakob von Uexküll. Kull (224) adds Juri
Lotman. Others, such as Williams (404), situate Sebeok’s Peirce-inspired thought
in a longer-range continuum of historical influences, especially including John
Poinsot and John Locke. W. C. Watt (365) affirms that Sebeok went on to
substantially extend and clarify the thought of Peirce (366). Others argue that
Sebeok could have been even more attentive to Peirce (see especially Brier
61-67, 72-73); yet, as Deely (136) argues, it is not likely that there would be
a widespread awareness of Peirce’s semiotic (i.e., his system of and approach to
signs) at all without the efforts of Sebeok. In terms of establishing a global
dialogue on the nature and action of signs, it was “Sebeok, not Peirce . . . who
‘turned the tide’” (140).

Exposing the Pars-Pro-Toto Fallacy of Semiology
One 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 known
as “semiology”. Sebeok’s approach served to “expand semiotic boundaries beyond
the linguistic” (Mladenov, 286) to incorporate the communication activities of
non-human animals, bacteria, plants and more. This profound contribution is
emphasized 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 is
largely due to its unfortunate association with a textually-bound ‘semiology’.
Petrilli (297) and Deely (140) review some basic ways in which semiotics is more
comprehensive than semiology. Brier (46) and others highlight ways in which
semiotics applies to both natural and cultural spheres. Sebeok’s work shows how
human communication, linguistic and otherwise, is only one mode of sign
communication among many. In the words of Marcel Danesi (117), “Sebeok thus
transformed semiotics back into a ‘life science’. . . replant[ing] it into the
larger biological domain from where it sprang originally.” In Floyd Merrell’s
estimation (259), it is precisely Sebeok’s “antiglottocentrism” that makes this

Distinguishing Between Language and Communication
Related to Sebeok’s pars-pro-toto rejection is his important distinction between
communication in general and language as a modelling system that enables a
human-specific mode of communication in particular (see introduction, 4-5;
Deely, 142; Petrilli & Ponzio, 318; Ponzio, 332; and Williams, 391). As Petrilli
notes (299), this distinction allows Sebeok to avoid two further reductive
fallacies: biologism and anthropomorphism (cf. Ponzio’s anthropocentrism and
glottocentrism, 336). Sebeok sought to spread a broader awareness of the “Clever
Hans effect” (see Myrdene Anderson, 23; Paul Cobley, 99; Deely, 142), the
illusion that non-human animals possess linguistic capabilities due to
conditioned responses to unwitting non-verbal cues from humans. As Cobley points
out, the Clever Hans effect also serves as a reminder that communication can be
both witting and unwitting (99), both verbal and nonverbal (98), both human and
non-human. Among other features, the unique presence of syntax (Kull, 237)
distinguishes human from non-human communication. If language is a
species-specific sign activity, its nature and origins can also be explored,
contrasted and understood in terms of more basic communication activities out of
which it has evolved.

Defining Biosemiotics
Considering the pervasive nature of communication processes, Sebeok held that
the field of semiotics must be at least co-extensive with life processes,
including phytosemiotics (plant communication) and zoosemiotics (animal
communication) in addition to anthroposemiotics (8, 308). Kull (217) provides a
useful synopsis of this new paradigm – a paradigm which Brier hails as a
“naturalized epistemology” (46) and “a master science” (51). Danish biologist
Jesper Hoffmeyer, one of the earliest contributors to biosemiotic research
traces the co-emergence of the biosemiotic approach in Europe and America in
Chapter 9. Hoffmeyer sees in this approach a revitalization of human inquiry in
general (203). As Kull notes, biosemiotics should be understood as an
enhancement of biology rather than a mere commentary on it since, through
biosemiotics, we may “understand life and not just describe it” (226).

Living Transdisciplinarily
Contributors such as Anderson (Chapter 2), de Behar (Chapter 3), Danesi (Chapter
6) and Jørgen Dines Johansen (Chapter 10) highlight Sebeok’s remarkable ability
to traverse and bridge boundaries between various disciplines and their
sub-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 and
intellectual openness (Vilmas Voigt, 364; Williams, 399), as someone never out
of 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 the
disciplines (see e.g., Brier, 44-45), particularly since he approached the
greatest perceived chasm of all – the one presupposed to exist between the
humanities and the natural sciences – and spanned it with flair, not only in his
approach to life but also in his scholarship (Danesi, 115; 120-121). His
revitalized semiotic is now recommended as “a new paradigm for all disciplines”
(Williams, 371).

Contributing to Linguistics Proper
Sebeok began his career as a linguist and eventually came to consider himself an
anthropological linguist (Sebeok, 457). Though he began with an exclusive
interest in verbal signs (Williams, 396; Sebeok, 1991: 40), he later came to
concentrate on non-verbal (and non-linguistic) semiosis (Johansen, 211); and his
efforts 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 say
nothing of endorsements from linguists such as Eric P. Hamp (466) and Claude
Lévi-Strauss (Petrilli, 298), but also for having contributed substantially to
linguistic science from 1942-1969 and beyond. Sebeok began his academic career
as a Finno-Ugrist (Ero Tarasti, 345; Voigt, 357), publishing books on both
Finnish and Hungarian between 1945 and 1947 and carrying out minority language
fieldwork in northern Norway and the former USSR (Tarasti, 345-346). He went on
to 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 eventually
led to his “transformation from a linguistic technician to a practicing
semiotician” (Sebeok, 455), but the implications that his later findings hold
for linguistics proper have yet to be widely considered or appreciated.

This 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 in
this 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 already
functions 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 summarizing
Sebeok’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 this
regard. Some contributors, by contrast, are more interested in detailing their
own scholarly developments of Sebeok’s thought; but the tone of these and most
other chapters goes beyond perfunctory professional courtesy or mere respect. A
palpable sense of gratitude emerges from the anecdotes, stories and asides
offered 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 and
accomplishment and his unconventional wisdom, noting also how his intellectual
vision emerged against strong odds at a critical crux historically. His younger
colleagues credit him with establishing their careers and bringing them together
to collaborate on the action and import of signs. Vignettes of shared
experiences, such as Cobley’s appreciation of a multi-modal joke told by Sebeok
in an Italian restaurant (425-426), and other unexpected details, such as
Umberto Eco’s acknowledgement that Sebeok was the first editor to publish him in
English (465), serve to illustrate his personality and foresight.

On the other hand, were he able to read the volume, Sebeok might protest that he
is nearly in danger of becoming “a rather conspicuous figure . . . of
hagiography” (1991: 61) – a mild protest he once leveled against the
increasingly beatific reputation of Peirce during the 1970’s and 1980’s. One
contributor, 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 his
last name. Voigt comes close to providing as much (355); but even with his
description, I would still have publically mispronounced “Sebeok” the first time
I 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 a
similar position, the surname is pronounced [ˈsiˑbiˌʲɑk].

I approached the book wondering what had become of the headquarters for Sebeok’s
international semiotic operations: i.e., the Research Center for Language and
Semiotic Studies (RCLSS) at Indiana University, Bloomington. Though most
faculties at Bloomington appear to be richly interdisciplinary, Sebeok’s RCLSS –
and the study of Semiotics – both seem to have disappeared within a decade of
his death. Could it be that what Deely dubs “the Tartu-Bloomington-Copenhagen
school” (139, see also 2010: 95) is no longer vital at its point of origin? A
few contributors to the volume also seem to share my concern (see de Behar, 33;
Tarasti, 347; Donald Cunningham, 430). In addition to his University
Professorship at Bloomington, Sebeok accepted 35 visiting university
appointments in 20 countries (2). While “circulating around the world spinning
his ‘global semiotic net’ of collaborators and sympathizers” (Mladenov, 285), is
it possible that he neglected to shore up the longevity of semiotic development
at home? The question itself is somewhat misleading since semiotics is not a
discipline of its own (see, e.g., Cunningham, 428) but “a new paradigm for all
disciplines” (Williams, 371); but neither is it too late to revitalize semiotic
awareness, whether at Bloomington or elsewhere. In fact, thanks to the work of
Danesi (see 117) and others, Toronto now appears to be a more vital partner than
Bloomington in the Peircean-Sebeokian line of development.

A number of unsettled semiotic-internal debates surface between the essays, such
as whether semiotics should be characterized as a “doctrine” or a “science”.
Contributors (e.g., Petrilli, 297; Deely, 130) who address the issue directly
prefer the term “doctrine” in keeping with John Locke, C. S. Peirce and Sebeok;
but this usage is not standard throughout the volume. Contributors also neglect
to 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, CP
8.343; 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 rooted
way of thinking about the ubiquitous relationships and processes that bridge
nature and culture, processes mediating “between reality and illusion” (Sebeok
1991: 136). Petrilli & Ponzio provide a helpful synthesis of the problem when
they state the following: “the doctrine of signs is the science of signs that
questions itself” (319).

Another unsettled question that emerges is a lack of consensus on which level of
human perceptual/conceptual modelling is primarily inclusive of language.
Whether language is a primary, secondary or tertiary modelling system depends in
large part on the definition of language to begin with, and how distinct it is
kept from speech. A further unsettled question that comes up occasionally in the
volume leads some practitioners to ask whether or not Sebeok acknowledged the
reality of semiosic activity beyond life processes. Many who take up the debate
hold that he did not (e.g., Petrilli & Ponzio, 313-314), but he himself seems to
have held a more flexible, open position on the matter, as can be noted in
passages 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). This
persuasion 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 “The
evolution of semiosis” (e.g., in Sebeok 2001). According to Cunningham (428),
Sebeok also taught a version of this view in the classroom. Peirce himself
argued in favor of physiosemiosis (see Deely, 146). It seems important to point
out in this connection – pace Kull (232-233) – that Peirce was a decisive
influence on Sebeok much earlier than 1990. If discussions elsewhere in the
volume are not enough to illustrate this point, a quick read of Sebeok’s
Foreword to Brent (1993) provides ample evidence. See also earlier
Peirce-focused publications such as Sebeok & Umiker-Sebeok (1980), first
presented in a 1978 conference paper (Umiker-Sebeok 2003), and Sebeok (1983).

I observed some three-dozen editing lapses, including the following: “and that
is are able to” (66), “the matter is of sensation is” (128), “have come to
understood that” (148), “Peircean wizardy” (179), “two impresive men” (199),
“and it now the ambition” (212), “with his whole of his life” (299), “University
has was” (346), “the key me to” (396), “It not longer” (423). Sources cited on
pp. 1, 6, 68 and 308 are missing from the references. An illustration on p. 92
is pixelated. These problems and others like them are distributed fairly evenly
through 500 pages of printed text, though, and pose no substantial distraction.

As an entry (vol. 7) in the Semiotics, Communication and Cognition series, the
physical volume itself is well-bound, handsomely designed and attractively
formatted. The length (526 pages) and cost (99,95 €) may deter some who would
otherwise be interested. The length is at least partially justified by the
multiple 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 vignettes
range from 2 to 10 pages. Perhaps enforcing a stricter page budget for
individual articles would have been best; this, after all, would have achieved
spatial iconicity with Sebeok’s own time budgeting habits, as recounted by Deely
(431-434). The volume could also have been shortened somewhat by closer
attention to cohesion. Certain key biographical details are repeated by
individual authors, sometimes to the point of distraction, particularly
biographical details found in the introduction. Moreover, some contributors
engage in semiotic-internal debates without registering awareness of competing,
or consonant, perspectives being offered in the same volume. These are minor
issues over all. A quick-reference timeline of pivotal events in the life of
Sebeok seems to be the only major feature missing.

As an overview of the current status of semiotic understanding, and as a
personal introduction to Thomas A. Sebeok for those unable to meet him prior to
his death in 2001, the volume is indispensable. “The dynamic of semiotics is
immense in scope,” writes Sebeok “seemingly all-encompassing” (1986: x). Since,
as Deely brings to our attention (134), even experienced objects presuppose
signs, to neglect semiotics is no mere rejection of culture-bound speculation.
Thanks in large part to Sebeok’s contributions, human understanding now has a
viable (and congruent) way to bridge the chasm between nature and culture.

Deely, John. 2010. Semiotics seen synchronically: The view from 2010. New York:

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 Sanders
Peirce. 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 Laine
Ketner 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 and
Thomas 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 doctrine
of signs. New York: Plenum.

Sebeok, Thomas A. 1991. Semiotics in the United States. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press.

Sebeok, Thomas A. 1993. Preface. In Joseph Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A
life, 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: A
juxtaposition of Charles S. Peirce and Sherlock Holmes. Bloomington: Gaslight

Umiker-Sebeok, Jean. Thomas A. Sebeok: A bibliography of his writings,
1942–2001. Semiotica 147-1/4. 11-73.

Jamin Pelkey currently lives in British Columbia, Canada, where he is Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the Canada Institute of Linguistics, Trinity Western University, and Instructor of Linguistics and English at University of the Fraser Valley. His research interests include the Ngwi languages (Burmic < Tibeto-Burman), the intersection of embodied cognitive science and process semiotics, historical-comparative linguistics, dialectology, metaphor and the philosophy of language.