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Section Two | Semiotics

The Origins Of Umberto Eco’s Semio-Philosophical Project

Ugo Volli
p. 81-95


Umberto Eco’s semiotics, unlike that of most of his colleagues, has always claimed to be a philosophical research. For Eco, general semiotics, that is, the research on the functioning of signs, was a fundamental part of philosophy, because the knowledge of objects and the formulation of the ideas that characterize them takes place by means of signs. This paper shows how Eco’s semiotic work derives from his philosophical training and how interest in the mass media and political commitment have not changed the nature of his philosophical project. His research itinerary is compared with that of other semiotics scholars to show the originality of his approach.

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1Umberto Eco has been one of the main protagonists of international semiotics since the second half of the last century; this is clear to all those interested in this discipline. Many of his theoretical and analytical contributions are equally well known. There is a literature already rich about his work, culminating in two important books such as Lorusso 2008 and Paolucci 2017. But some factors have probably made the line of thought and the fundamental theoretical project of his work less clear to the public. The most important are probably the wealth and the heterogeneity of its production; his way of working in progress, so that there is often no identity between Italian books and their English translations; the commitment in the political and cultural debate that has often underlined urgent but peripheral issues on the theoretical one; the importance assumed by narrative production in recent years. To illustrate the overall project of the semiotic work of Umberto Eco, probably the best way is to contextualize its origin with respect to the discipline that it helped to form.

  • 1 Manetti 2013.
  • 2 Bettetini (ed.) 2009; Marmo 2010.
  • 3 Calabrese 2001.

2The history of semiotics has a rather unusual form. In a nutshell, it can be divided into three major phases. Firstly, there is a long period in which problems which we now consider belonging to general semiotics are dealt with by philosophers. In Greek philosophy Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans deal with sign theory.1 Following a clear historical and theoretical discontinuity, Christian philosophy follows, in particular St. Augustine, St. Thomas, the modistae).2 There is also important contributions in English philosophy, from Francis Bacon to Locke; and in the rationalist one, from Descartes to Leibniz.3 This long phase, which continues until today with the philosophical analyses of signification (in logic, phenomenology, hermeneutics, analytical philosophy) is characterized by the fact that semiotics is not considered an autonomous discipline, even if sometimes the name “semiotics” recurs and often philosophers talk about signs; but these “semiotic” themes are only conceived as part of the philosophical discourse, in particular of logic, philosophy of knowledge, expression and language.

3A second moment, much shorter and less crowded, pertains to the “founding fathers”, or, one might rather say, the “prophets” of semiotics. They are Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913): more or less contemporary, both rather peripheral with respect to the dominant centers of academic culture of that time, only after their death recognized as fundamental authors, influential above all for posthumous publications reconstructed more or less arbitrarily by students and admirers: Cours de linguistique générale (1916) and Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (1931-1958). Both the texts of Saussure and those of Peirce had complex bibliographic stories, which partly deformed their reception.

4Although several authors preserved their legacy in the decades following their death – such as John Dewey and Charles Morris in the case of Peirce and Roman Jakobson, Prague linguistic circle, Louis Hjelmslev and Claude Lévi Strauss for Saussure –, only two generations later, starting from the sixties of the last century, semiotics became a developed scientific discipline. The main protagonists of this birth or rebirth were Roman Jakobson, Roland Barthes, Algirdas Greimas, Jurij Lotman, Claude Bremond, Thomas Sebeok, Julia Kristeva, Luis Jorge Prieto, Christian Metz, and also Umberto Eco, followed then by their students.

5This is not the place to even briefly describe the history of the tumultuous revolution in the human sciences which was called “structuralism” and of which the affirmation of semiotics was a crucial part. However, it is important to mention here the way in which Italian culture came into contact with it, because this is necessary to better understand Umberto Eco’s intellectual itinerary. In those years, Italian philosophical culture was still almost totally dominated by what remained of Croce and Gentile’s idealism and by a Marxism that in Italy was yet more or less tied to it; then there were several Catholic voices and some minority alternatives, influenced by neo-positivism, phenomenology, existentialism. From these latter environments, and in particular from aesthetic interests, the main authors came out who were in tune with semiotic interests. Even with a very complex intellectual biography, Gillo Dorfles was in close contact with the phenomenology of Enzo Paci, with whom he founded Aut aut journal in 1951; Nuovi miti, nuovi riti (1965) was somehow his response to Barthes’s Mythologies (1957); but already Le oscillazioni del gusto (1958) and Simbolo, comunicazione, consumo (1962) were going in the same direction of attention to communication phenomena and the new popular culture. Emilio Garroni comes instead from the Gentile pupil Ugo Spirito; he wrote La crisi semantica delle arti in 1964 and Semiotica ed estetica in 1968. Other founders of Italian semiotics, such as Cesare Segre, Maria Corti, Gianfranco Bettetini instead had intellectual formations more distant from philosophy.

6Umberto Eco, a pupil of the Christian existentialist Luigi Pareyson, graduated in 1954 on an unconventional theme (Il problema estetico in San Tommaso) which also became his first book (1956), followed in 1958 by a second volume on a similar theme, Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale. At that moment, the investigation into the intersection between aesthetics and Thomism might have seemed a dead end, if not an oddness, because conventional wisdom affirmed that medieval philosophy was not attentive to the worldly sphere of beauty. But instead it identified a very fertile crossroad. Eco would continue to work for a long time the two sides of it. The Middle Ages and in particular the medieval philosophy for Eco remained a permanent interest throughout life, as evidenced by many works and most recently the large 2012 collection Scritti sul pensiero medievale. The theme of aesthetics, removed from the dominant Crocian approach, will develop for him with wide-ranging research on contemporary experimental art and mass cultural industry. Actually already in the late fifties and early sixties the theoretical interest of Eco refocused above all in fact towards the aesthetics of the contemporary, both in its “high” and experimental dimension (Opera Aperta, 1962; Le poetiche di Joyce, 1964), as well as in the “low” and mediatic dimension (Apocalittici e integrati, 1964).

  • 4 MacDonald 1962.
  • 5 Or, as was said initially, of semiology. In the following I will not highlight the difference betwe (...)

7In the texts collected in this last volume and also in a more creative and ironic form in the almost contemporary Diario minimo (1963), the rejection of the traditional contrast between a “high” or “true” Culture and contemporary pop culture is evident, in clear controversy not only with the “apocalyptic” on the right like Julius Evola, Elémire Zolla etc., but also with those on the left from Lukács to the Frankfurt School. In this attitude and above all in the rejection of the midcult nostalgic Kitsch4 Eco was close in Italy especially to Dorfles. But it is easy in his case to see an evident personal taste for certain masscult products and also for their production. For instance, in the same year of his graduation (1954) Eco won a competition as Rai television official and participated in an important way in the definition of Italian television programming, which began precisely that year. This early television experience was common, in addition to some significant Italian intellectuals (Furio Colombo, Gianni Vattimo, Angelo Guglielmi) to two other founders of Italian semiotics5 already mentioned, namely Garroni and especially Bettetini.

8In these texts, a political interest in mass culture and its effects is also central, a desire for intervention and controversy that will continue throughout Eco’s life by producing continuous interventions and numerous books. This attention to the media and their political effect is shared at the beginning with some of the main exponents of French culture, where semiotics had established itself. First among them is Roland Barthes, who had defined his first studies on the mass media, for example those collected in Mythologiques, as “sociological” and conceived his work as an engagé contribution to the ideological struggle against capitalism. But Barthes had gradually felt the need to use semiotic tools for his work of deciphering and decoding mass communications (and not only of them), consequently feeling the need of (re) building or at least to systematizing them.

9The main place of this transition from the sociology of communication to semiotics was the magazine Communications,6 founded in 1961 as an expression of the “Center for Studies on Mass Communications” established the previous year at the VI section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études on initiative by the sociologist Georges Friedmann, together with Edgar Morin and Roland Barthes. In the first issue’s programmatic editorial, semiotics is never mentioned, unlike sociology, psychology and history. Any preliminary methodological choice for the study of a field of phenomena strongly characterized as “new” is rejected. But already in this first issue there is a study by Roland Barthes dedicated to “Le message photographique” in which the terminology and above all the style of analysis is already semiotic: there are used categories like “message”, “code”, “syntax”, “connotation” (understood as “naturalization of the cultural”). Issue 4 of 1964 will then be destined monographically to Recherches sémiologiques (with two very important articles by Barthes himself: one about “Rhétorique de l’image”, which founded both visual and advertising semiotics. The other was entitled “Éléments de sémiologie”. In this text, immediately translated in Italian and published by Eco in the form of a small book of great success, the main concepts that have continued to characterize European semiotics are systematically articulated for the first time, starting from the Saussurian definition of sign. In Issue 6 of 1965 two contributions by Umberto Eco appear for the first time, translated by Apocalittici e integrati and dedicated to consumer music. The number 8 of 66 is still called Recherches sémiologiques but with the essential specification, however, of working about the Analyse structurale du récit. Barthes and Eco still appear, but with them write also Todorov, Metz, Genette and above all Greimas: it is the beginning of the narrative turn of contemporary semiotics.

10In short, Eco’s semiotic work appears initially linked only to the themes of mass culture and their political evaluation: at this time, semiotics seems to be a method for a research goal that still appears essentially sociological. To these topics Eco added some other interest related to aesthetics, such as contemporary art, especially architecture (which was also a privileged study object for Gillo Dorfles) images and then literature and its interpretation. However, this last theme will be developed mainly later, following Eco’s writing experience, rewarded by a great success. This line of analysis about the modalities of very different genres and communicative objects was undoubtedly the starting point of Eco’s semiotic path. And in fact in the first period of his activity as a semiologist, from La struttura assente (1968) to the Trattato di semiotica generale (1975), to Lector in fabula (1979) and Semiotica e filosofia del linguaggio (1984), the dominant theme is the exploration of the structures of a “semiotic field” (understood as the set of objects and devices with which “it is possible to lie”), that is, as a space for interpersonal, and therefore social, interaction, and of the values that were realized (or denied) in them.

11At that time, these interests would have seemed detached from any philosophical dimension, but in reality they were consistent with the extended scope of aesthetics, which Eco had illustrated about late-ancient and medieval authors. But the underlying Eco’s motivation remained theoretical and philosophical: correlatively to this exploration and explanation of the specific working mechanisms of genres and objects, Eco felt that he urgently needed to tackle the problem of the methodological and theoretical tools necessary for these analyses. This attitude is somehow similar to that of Roland Barthes, who for example resumed under the category of “connotation” some theoretical proposals by Hjelmslev on the relationship between linguistic systems, in order to adapt it to the project to demask the symbolic dimension of politics and even of advertising as “ideology”.

  • 7 According to Chambers Dictionary of Quotations (1993: 315), this quote is from a speech at the Comm (...)

12The same attitude of building a theoretical arsenal to explain sense effects is also common to Greimas (whose first field of study is lexicography, it is worth underlining it). But there is an important difference: Barthes, Greimas, most of the other semiologists at this time (and basically even today), had an extremely pragmatic, if not cynical attitude towards the philosophical foundation of their methodological tools. They would easily subscribe to the motto of Deng Xiao-Ping, which dates back precisely to those years: «It doesn’t matter if it’s a white cat or a black cat, as long as it catches mice it’s a good cat».7 The use that Greimas in particular makes of notions such as “being”, “appearing”, “meaning”, “truth” etc. appears rather naive and not problematic enough to a philosopher, despite the cultural reference Greimas proposes to the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty and his bizarre methodological idea taken from Hjelmslev, that the problems on the theoretical sense of the theoretical tools would disappear by assuming their inter-definability, as if they were just symbols of axiomatized formal logic, from which this idea actually originates. Eco instead tirelessly questions his tools, tries to clarify their order and relationships, but above all inquires their ontology and their foundation. In short, he thinks as a philosopher, not as a social scientist.

13Eco initially shares with Barthes the fundamental concepts of the first phase of the new semiotics, which are first of all that of “sign” (understood for now following Saussure as the arbitrary union of a signifier and a signified), then of “code” (namely the collection that lists and organizes these couplings of signifier and signified in a certain semantic field and therefore defines their meaning) and above all of “communication”. The semiotics of the codes was then completely abandoned in the seventies, on the basis of the evidence that this setting, essentially lexicographic, was not able to give reason for the functioning of the language (as Wittgenstein had already noticed at the beginning of Philosophical Investigations). Another important reason for giving up the use of the notion of code was the failure to extend the standard analysis of verbal language – in particular the characteristics of double articulation, arbitrariness, linearity – to other systems of communication as cinema and painting. In most European semiotics even the notion of sign was gradually overshadowed by competition from the more flexible and realistic concept of “text”. Eco did not agree with the latter renunciation. While not avoiding discussing some of his object of analysis in terms of text, he continued to consider fundamental the concept of “sign”, after redefining it according to Peirce’s analysis.

  • 8 Heraclitus, fr. DK 93.

14It is worth noting that “sign” has an important philosophical history, starting with the Heraclitus’ claim that using signs (semaniein) is the divine way of communication, different from both affirming and denying,8 then continuing with Aristotle’s considerations on expression and rhetoric and with many important conceptual discussions in the history of philosophy, until Heidegger and Carnap. On the contrary, “structure”, “code” and above all “communication” have not been, until the last few decades, objects of analysis in the philosophical tradition. This absence is explained not only by the fact that these words did not appear with the current abstract meaning until the middle of the last century. The critical point is that they are used to describe certain very general and perhaps even essential aspects of human societies, as phenomena that happen “among” human beings and do not precede them (realiter or transcendentally). They are therefore situated in a social and empirical field and not in a theoretical and universal dimension, are “applied” and not “universal” concepts. In short, semiotics appeared in the beginning as a social science, that has the ambition to describe a certain field of facts that manifest themselves differently in the various cultures, not as a universal and necessary reflection on the foundations of reality and knowledge. Most semiotics, but not Peirce and Eco, agreed.

15Furthermore, in its technical, applicative, analytical dimension, semiotics appeared rather similar to a historical competitor of philosophy, namely rhetoric, that had been strongly condemned by Plato, resumed by Aristotle as only a theory of judicial and politic persuasion, and introduced for this purpose in the classical education curriculum and then rejected and abandoned in the crucial moment of the triumph of modern philosophy over the old pedagogy of the Trivium. In modernity, until the middle of the last century, rhetoric was regarded as superficial and generally deceptive. It is no coincidence that “ancient rhetoric” was celebrated by Roland Barthes in another long article in Communications (n. 16, 1970) allusively titled “L’ancienne rhétorique. Aide-mémoire”. Then came the works of Groupe µ and many semiotic studies on metaphor. But already previously, since La struttura assente (1968) Eco had worked on this theme and will continue to return to it often until the last years of his production. Semiotics has not rejected its continuity with the ancient rhetoric in a non-explicit but clear way.

16And finally, always in this phase, semiotics seemed linked to a destiny of criticism and social intervention, rather than of pure theoretical reflection. Often during the twentieth century both these characteristics, political commitment and criticism of contemporary society, were shared at least by some philosophical streams. But in the 1960s these aspects seemed to place semiotics beyond the frontier between philosophy and social sciences.

17As has been mentioned, many of the semiotic concepts that were fundamental in the initial phase were later dropped, or at least lost importance. What has certainly remained of the theoretical arsenal of the sixties is the notion of “communication”, although substantially criticized by Greimas and his school. Today it seems that “communication” is an unavoidable concept for the social sciences, indeed an indubitable fact that combines very different phenomena such as language and images, “animal communication” and “man-machine”, “non-verbal communication” and art, religion and law, food and fashion, corporate, interpersonal, intercultural, mass communication, up to “social media” and so on. In reality, the idea that all these phenomena so different from each other were basically “the same thing”, namely communication, has only become established from the middle of the last century. This identification was followed by the project of a scientific analysis of communication, valid for all its forms. The milestones were the book by Shannon and Weaver on the mathematics of information transmission (1949) and – as regards the human sciences – an article by Roman Jakobson (1960) which reused and redefined some concepts of this last work (for example “Issuer”, “Recipient”, “message”, “code”) in order to understand the specificity of “poetic communication”.

18Eco initially adhered to the structuralist approach, at least on a methodological level. The Saussurian definition of sign implies the privilege of the differences between terms over their substantial characteristics (and from this principle of opposition he drew even the title of the magazine founded by Eco in 1971: “Versus”, a word which indicates the binary opposition between terms).9 If objects and their properties can be objective and “natural”, the oppositions between them and the structure that gathers these oppositions are cultural, therefore “arbitrary”, variable in time and space, dependent on social organization. The attempt to demystify the language and unmask its ideological charge, which was at the center of Barthes’s political and scientific project and was initially taken up also by Eco (for instance in the article “For a semiological guerrilla” of 1968, republished in 1973 in Il costume di casa), is realized just by showing that what in communication and culture appears (or rather is made to appear in the public eye) “just natural” is actually a cultural construction. This principle was applied by Eco even more than by Barthes also as regards the functioning of entire categories of signs. For example, Eco worked hard in the seventies to deny that images (“iconic signs”) produce “natural” representations, by trying to reduce their perceived analogy to the things as caused by certain persuasive “effect” induced by their sign organization.10 These themes were part of a theoretical approach that frontally contrasted the social dimension of culture from the natural one of things and therefore separated completely signs from their objects. On this point Eco’s reflection will change considerably in the most advanced part of his intellectual path, but already from the inaugural moment of La struttura assente there is no lack of perplexity.

19To understand his attitude, it is appropriate to consider also the index of this book. Its structure gives very significant indications about the positions and theoretical oscillations of Eco. It is necessary to take into account the usual fact that in his production practice of this author – a sort of continuous work in progress. Every Eco’s book takes up previous texts produced at different times and for different purposes, reworking them but not merging them into an organic whole. Because the materials used date back to different times, considerably different approaches coexist in the same book.

20The first section of the book is titled “The signal and the meaning”, with the clarification that it gives “notions of general semiology”; it starts from a very simplified communication model which consists of a system of “signals” (not real signs but discrete stimuli) that are already capable of transmitting elementary information. Hence are developed the notion of sign, those of code, of structure, of denotation and connotation. The section then develops with the analysis of particularly interesting types of “messages”: the “aesthetic” and the “persuasive” (i.e. rhetorical / ideological) ones. A second section is dedicated to another type of “messages” of particular interest, the “visual” ones, with their “codes”. Following are “checks” of these methodologies on communication genres: cinema, advertising, architecture.

21The book could certainly end here, but at this point another one begins. There is a fourth section, entitled precisely, with a certainly not accidental myse en abyme “The absent structure”, with the specification “Epistemology of structural models”. It begins with a consideration of the presence of the notion of structure in the history of thought, continues highlighting two “oscillations” in its theory, the one between “object and model” and the one between “ontological reality and operational model”. These “oscillations”, albeit drawn from different texts, actually pose the same problem, that of real existence of structures – and therefore of codes. The stakes are ultimately the value of the semiotic methods (the ones then in use) for the explanation of communication phenomena. Note that the “first oscillation” is highlighted in relation to phenomenology and “genetic” theories. The second, on the other hand, concerns the Lévi-Strauss method and its claim to find structural organizations at the basis of the “family similarities” of phenomena drawn from different aspects of different cultures. The criticism of Lévi-Strauss continues in the next chapter about contemporary art and especially about the diachronic dimension of cultural objects.

22Rejected in this way the perspective of a theory based on the real existence of universal structures, Eco’s criticism continues in the apparently opposite but in reality consequential direction “of the extreme subterfuge of absence”, that is of the “ontological self-destruction of the structure” operated in the opinion of Eco by Lacan (inspired in that by Heidegger), Derrida and Foucault. Positive and negative pan-structuralism (or post-structuralism) would essentially be based on the same conceptual error – and this is an interesting intuition that was not developed much later.

23A pars construens follows, on the “methods of semiology”, which would be characterized by “operational fictionality”, “provisionality” and even by “operating as if the structure were not there”. From these premises follows the idea of “a system in formation”, with its “limits”, based on a distinction between “semiology” (general) and “specific semiotics”, which are listed and classified in detail according to a “productive” criterion which will be better specified in later works. Until the end of his life Eco will defend the prevalence and priority of general semiotics over “specific” or “applied” semiotics, as he sometimes called them.

24It is not necessary here to analyse further the first semiotic book of Eco. What interests us is that the first part of the book, which includes its first three sections, falls within the communicative paradigm, in a certain “sociological” sense, assumed by Barthes and by Jakobson’s theory of communicative functions. Instead, the second one detaches itself by putting in the foreground an ontological and gnoseological analysis of the proposed fundamental notion. This is here is no longer “communication”, but “structure”. It is already an interesting clue, because communication can certainly be seen as an empirical phenomenon (or a set of empirical phenomena), which require a theoretical explanation. On the contrary, structure would be the founding principle of these explanations, an entity therefore of reason and not of observation, whose existence can be revoked in doubt. The question thus is no longer about the way an empirical phenomenon works (or rather a complex of empirical phenomena associated in a unitary concept do). Instead, it aims to understand whether clearly metaphysical notions such as “universal structure” and “absence” have a legitimate place in the organization of reality. And if so, exactly what is their place, with what ontological status, and ultimately if they are really necessary for the foundation of knowledge of the social facts that we classify as communicative. This is of course a philosophical question.

25Eco’s answer is negative, as is known. But it is worth noting that the justification of this position is not so much an empirical analysis (are the general abstract structures hypothesized by Lévi-Strauss found in the cultures of “primitive” societies or not? Is Lacan’s manque-à-etre is really a universal characteristic of the human psyche?). These would be anthropological or psychological problems, which were not of particular interest to Eco – on which, in any case, his studies do not focus. Semiotics, according to him, must take a position on these issues from a philosophical point of view, and thus becomes very close to ontology and gnoseology. Without making it too explicit, at least initially, Eco’s point of view takes up the “moderate” positions of the old Thomistic (and therefore Aristotelian) culture of its formation: after all, it is not wrong to see the question of structures as a contemporary variant of the old dispute of the universal. The “moderation” preached by Eco in this area refers to a theory of the formation of concepts, on which he will later work, then using Kantian tools, but not moving away from Thomas’s refusal of both naive outermost realism and nominalist skepticism.

26What interests us here is that semiotics in this way profoundly changes its disciplinary position: from being a politically vocated social science it becomes a way of doing philosophy, in the most general sense of the term, that is, of producing a theory of the structure of reality, of its meaning, of the conditions of its knowledge. This philosophical vocation of semiotics is at the heart of Eco’s scientific program. This development, even if later it will be further articulated in the following works, is already evidentin 1975 with his Trattato di semiotica generale.

  • 11 Eco 1975: 19.

27In particular, two points clearly show Eco’s clear awareness of this passage in the Treaty. In the introduction programmatically titled “Limits and ends of a semiotic theory” Eco proposes11 the «distinction» between a semiotic «of communication» and one «of meaning» («distinction» which «must not, however, be resolved in a opposition without possible mediations»). It is one of Eco’s original contributions to semiotics, which tears him away from Barthes, the communication theorist par excellence, but also from Greimas, who has a completely different “meaning” (or rather in his terminology of “sense”).

  • 12 Eco 1975: 26-27.

28The definition of the two fields or methodological principles is still tied here, however, to the ideas of the previous decade: communication would be «the passage of a signal» through stages more or less similar to those analysed by information engineers, which can even take place without the signal having the full qualities of the sign but it being only a “stimulus” that conveys “information”, that is also between machines. «When the recipient is a human being […] we are on the contrary in the presence of a process of signification, provided that the signal does not simply function as a stimulus but solicits an interpretative response from the recipient», says Eco. This would only occur «in presence of a code.» This extension is by no means a technical detail, as we read a few pages further on,12 where we also see its dependence on Peirce:

The Peircean triad [“a sign, its object and its interpretant”] can also be applied to phenomena that have no human transmitter, provided that they have a human recipient, as happens for example in the case of meteorological phenomena or any other type of index. Those who reduce semiotics to a theory of communicative acts cannot consider symptoms as signs […] Since these authors assume that they are interested only in communication, they certainly have the right to exclude these and other phenomena from the category of signs. Here, rather than denying their right, we try to legitimize the opposite right: that of establishing a semiotic theory that is capable of considering a wider range of sign phenomena. We therefore propose to define as a sign anything that, on the basis of a previously accepted social definition, can be understood as something that is in the place of something else.

  • 13 Saint Augustine never wrote that the sign is “aliquid pro aliquo”. Its expression more similar to t (...)

29So anything that can stand for something else is a sign, and therefore is the subject of semiotics. The condition of the «previously accepted social definition» is destined to fall rapidly, as one will immediately see about “ideas”, in particular for those “new signs” such as the strange biological species that will be the subject of the last great theoretical book of Eco (Kant e l’ornitorinco 1997). In short, semiotics promises to be a theory of everything, with the only limitation that it is interpreted as meaningful (or a substitute for something else, according to a definitive equivalence that is often traced back to Saint Augustine, although it is not really his).13 But since everything we can consider in every theoretical sphere must appear to us as meaningful, semiotics ultimately becomes a doctrine of the sense of reality, first philosophy.

  • 14 It is worth mentioning here that A representamen, or sign, is anything which stands, in any respect (...)

30One finds the second point that supports the philosophical nature of semiotics (or the semiotic nature of philosophy, which in Eco’s eyes is the same point), in the premises of the «theory of sign production» (pp. 222-223), with which Eco tries to return in a less conventional and more articulated way to the old problem of the typology of signs and their codes. We are still referred to «a short passage by Peirce (5,480)» where this author suggests a new way of considering real objects: «The ideas produced by experience–says Peirce–are the first logical interpretants of the phenomena that suggest them and which, as they suggest them, are signs, of which they are ... the interpretants».14 Eco explains:

To argue that objects, insofar as they are perceived, can be seen as signs, it is also necessary to argue that the very concepts of objects […] must be considered semiotically. This statement is made by Peirce in no uncertain terms: “Whichever way we think, we have some feeling, image, conception or other representation that serves as a sign”. But also thinking is connecting signs: “each previous thought suggests something to the thought that follows it, that is, it is the sign of something for the latter”. [… Eco comments in conclusion:] these brief notes tell us why throughout the history of philosophy the notion of linguistic meaning has been associated with that of perceptual meaning.

31This may seem a technical note only, but actually its meaning deeply affects the definition of philosophy and that of semiotics, as Eco will develop in the continuation of his theoretical path. Much more radically than the Greimasian hypothesis of a “semiotics of the natural world”, identified in the Parisian school with the semantic grid with which each society interprets the world and which is in some way determined by the lexicon, here Eco is dealing with the essentially signic nature of both world of things and that of ideas and therefore of their relationship. It is not possible to discuss here how Eco will develop these starting points in the following decades. But it is interesting to underline the fundamental principle of this work, defended up to the last days against a scientific community interested above all in the semiotics of the text and therefore in the understanding of the individual mechanisms of signification which realize the sense effects of each particular communicative phenomenon.

32This principle can be divided into two points. In the first place for Eco the core of the scientific project of semiotics is its general dimension, not the textual one. Secondly, the task of general semiotics is to understand, starting from the category of the sign, both objects (in the broad sense proposed by Peirce, that is, things perceived and understood), and the “ideas” under which they fall. Their relationship is constitutive. Eco could also have taken up Spinoza’s famous affirmation “ordo et connectio idearum idem est ac ordo et connectio rerum”, but only in so far as the order and connection of the two levels have both a sign nature and reflect each other through the complicated triadic mechanism that binds objects, signs, interpretants. One should not think here of some form of semiotic idealism, such as that already denounced in La struttura assente as the foundation of hyperstructuralism and its deconstructivist self-destruction. Quite the contrary, Eco has endeavored to think of the sign dimension of perception and of the “Encyclopedia” in moderate terms, giving space to the “common sense”, often claimed by him: in political-ideological terms in A passo di gambero (2006) but above all in methodological terms, as a sort of metatheoretical principle, which explains the philosophical choices in Kant e l’ornitorinco.

33Despite the great prestige of Eco and his more or less polemical dialogues with some of the greatest philosophers of his time, this project of a philosophical semiotics and a semiotic philosophy has remained rather isolated in the two scientific communities, in particular in the semiotic one, even if the exception of some students like Violi 2001 and Paolucci 2010 must be registered. It is difficult to think today, after cognitive sciences and neurosciences have successfully developed empirical methods of analysing the perception and formation of concepts and consciousness, of a speculative theory of knowledge, even if based on a sign theory. Semiotics continues to be above all a social science that analyses the sense effects of communicative objects, while contemporary philosophy rarely accepted the project of a rigorous method of analysing sense. Like all cultural developments, this too is far from definitive. But if someone wanted to take up the idea of philosophy as a theory of meaning, he could hardly avoid starting over from Umberto Eco’s work.

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1 Manetti 2013.

2 Bettetini (ed.) 2009; Marmo 2010.

3 Calabrese 2001.

4 MacDonald 1962.

5 Or, as was said initially, of semiology. In the following I will not highlight the difference between the two denominations, although the Greimasian school has tried to project on this terminological opposition a fundamental methodological difference: “semiotic” would be the study that follows the generative and structural approach, i.e. substantially the production that follows its formalized method; “Semiology” would be everything else. In fact, Peirce always speaks only of “semiotics”, and most of the other scholars, including Eco, during the seventies passed from the first to the second denomination without adopting the Graimasian methodology.

6 The collection of which can be consulted entirely online:

7 According to Chambers Dictionary of Quotations (1993: 315), this quote is from a speech at the Communist Youth League conference in July 1962.

8 Heraclitus, fr. DK 93.

9 See:

10 On the “debate on iconism” that took place in Italian semiotics especially in those years, I refer to Polidoro 2012.

11 Eco 1975: 19.

12 Eco 1975: 26-27.

13 Saint Augustine never wrote that the sign is “aliquid pro aliquo”. Its expression more similar to this, but in reality quite different, is Signum ... est res praeter speciem quam ingerit sensibus, aliud aliquid ex se faciens in cogitationem come (De doctr. Chr. II 1), neither Eco attributed it to him (if anything Jakobson did it 1963: 162). Among other things, the formula in medieval thought is not used to indicate meaning, but the suppositio: See Willam of Ockham: Summa log. I, 63: “Dicitur autem suppositio quasi pro alio positio, ita quod when terminus in propositione stat pro aliquo”. For details, see the “medieval semiotics” entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (available online:

14 It is worth mentioning here that A representamen, or sign, is anything which stands, in any respect, at once in a relation of correspondence to a correlate, called its object [,] and to another correlate, its interpretant. which is a possible representamen determined by the first and referring to the same object. Peirce, Definitions for Baldwin’s Dictionary | MS [R] 1147. For this and other definitions see:

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Ugo Volli, «The Origins Of Umberto Eco’s Semio-Philosophical Project»Rivista di estetica, 76 | 2021, 81-95.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Ugo Volli, «The Origins Of Umberto Eco’s Semio-Philosophical Project»Rivista di estetica [Online], 76 | 2021, online dal 01 mai 2021, consultato il 15 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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