The Routledge Companion to Semiotics

The Routledge Companion to Semiotics

The Routledge Companion to Semiotics

The Routledge Companion to Semiotics


The Routledge Companion to Semiotics provides the ideal introduction to semiotics, containing engaging essays from an impressive range of international leaders in the field.

Topics covered include:

  • the history, development, and uses of semiotics
  • key theorists, including Saussure, Peirce and Sebeok
  • crucial and contemporary topics such as biosemiotics, sociosemiotics and semioethics
  • the semiotics of media and culture, nature and cognition.

Featuring an extended glossary of key terms and thinkers as well as suggestions for further reading, this is an invaluable reference guide for students of semiotics at all levels.


With a book like this, the reader has every right to ask, ‘What is semiotics?’ Furthermore, s/he is entitled to a straight answer. The usual one that is offered is that semiotics is the study of the sign – full stop. That might satisfy some readers; but, immediately, one gets into all sorts of technicalities about what constitutes a sign and then questions about the consequences. Some of these technicalities are covered in portions of the book that follow. But they are not appropriate for getting this book started.

Thomas A. Sebeok, who, along with Peirce and Saussure, has been the key figure in the development of semiotics, preferred another definition. When speaking to the media or to lay persons he stated simply that semiotics is the study of the difference between illusion and reality. As with so many things, he was right. Moreover, he was right for two reasons to do with the recent history of semiotics. First, the most well-known version of semiotics, which experienced immense popularity in Western intellectual circles from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, was the Saussure-influenced mix of structuralism and semiology which swept through the humanities and the social sciences along with Marxism and psychoanalysis. Derived especially from Barthes (as well as Lévi-Strauss, Greimas and Jakobson), semiology promised to reveal the semiosic machinations behind all manner of contemporary and historical phenomena, albeit phenomena that were ‘man-made’, within ‘culture’ and seemingly susceptible to an analysis in terms of glottocentrism (that is, in terms of their features which resembled the human attribute of verbal language). Often based on variants of the analysis in Barthes’ 1957 book Mythologies, which exposed the bourgeois myths that suffused the unconsidered trifles of popular culture, Barthes had actually publicly abandoned this approach as too facile by as early as 1971. Yet, the association of sign study with the exposure of illusion was already fixed.

The second reason that Sebeok’s definition is correct has to do with the much more far-ranging ambitions of contemporary semiotics, by which is meant the semiotics – not semiology – which followed Barthes’ abandonment of myth criticism and is associated with the doctrines of Peirce, Sebeok and, to a considerable extent, with Jakob von Uexküll. To be sure, this semiotics is very much concerned with ‘culture’ and the definition of what it is to be human; but it does not stop at culture’s boundaries, nor does it countenance . . .

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