The Routledge Companion to Semiotics

By Paul Cobley | Go to book overview

5
REALISM AND EPISTEMOLOGY

JOHN DEELY

‘In semiotics, we must,’ counselled Thomas A. Sebeok (1991b: 2), ‘think of ourselves as both working within a tradition that changes over time and trying to grasp things as they “really are”’; in this effort, Sebeok counselled further (ibid.), so-called ‘epistemology’ can provide no more than ‘the midmost target’. The aim of this essay is to show why, and to do so by showing how semiosis, the action of signs, provides a path – the only path – whereon we find the means ‘to reveal the substratal illusion underlying reality and to search for the reality that may, after all, lurk behind that illusion’ (Sebeok 1985a: 21).


SEBEOK’S COUNSEL

It is not, most assuredly, that we had to await the coming upon the intellectual scene of semiotics in order to know that there is a difference between truth and illusion. This difference in principle, however confused in fact upon various occasions of attempts to distinguish the two, has been clear to human animals from the dawn of their difference from the brute animals in being able to grasp more than what reduces back to sensations within perception. So notice that I do not say that semiotics provides the path whereon the distinction between reality and illusion becomes explicable theoretically, but rather that semiosis, which semiotics studies, provides the path. For the human animal depends upon the action of signs in everything that it comes to know, from the first stirrings of external sense to the highest reaches of understanding, and every point – the realm of sense perception – in between.

Thus Sebeok’s counsel in this matter of ‘realism’ and ‘epistemology’, again as he himself put it (Sebeok 1985a: 21), is no more than an ‘abductive assignment’ which it is ‘the privilege of future generations to pursue’. Neither ‘realism’ nor ‘epistemology’ are semiotic terms, but are rather, as we shall see, in their main sense today ‘children of the modern mainstream development of philosophy’. Precisely this development with its speculative sub-developments – the mainstream modern developments in philosophy overall – semiotics begins by transcending, at least insofar as semiotics succeeds in discerning and achieving the standpoint proper to and distinctive of the study of the action of signs.

In pursuing our abductive assignment toward the future, accordingly, we need to have a sense or grasp of both of what defines modernity in the matters before us (realism and epistemology), and of what (in sharp contrast) is the ‘tradition of semiotics’ – that is, not only ‘where semiotics is today’, but how it got there,

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The Routledge Companion to Semiotics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Routledge Companion to Semiotics i
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Acknowledgements xvii
  • Using This Book xix
  • Part I- Understanding Semiotics 1
  • Introduction 3
  • 1 - Ancient Semiotics 13
  • 2 - Semiotics of Nature 29
  • 3 - Umwelt and Modelling 43
  • 4 - Logic and Cognition 57
  • 5 - Realism and Epistemology 74
  • 6 - Peirce, Phenomenology and Semiotics 89
  • 7 - The Saussurean Heritage 101
  • 8 - Sociosemiotics 118
  • 9 - Semiotics of Media and Culture 135
  • 10 - Semioethics 150
  • Part II - Key Themes and Major Figures in Semiotics 163
  • References 359
  • Index 389
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