Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives


SRB Archives

This review appeared in Volume 2 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Teaching Semiotics: The Textbook Issue

by Marcel Danesi

Basics of Semiotics. By John Deely. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990 Pp. xifi + 149. ISBN 0-253-20568-9.

Handbook of Semiotics. By Winfried Nöth. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pp.576. ISBN 0-253-34120-5

Even as we approach the end of the twentieth century, it seems that the mindset of North American university education has not as yet embraced the field of semiotics as part of the standard fare of course and program offerings. There are still very few universities on this continent which offer courses in semiotics, let alone specialization in the field. Graduate programs are virtually non-existent. A large part of this predicament has been due, no doubt to the fact that the North American educational landscape has always been partitioned into clearcut disciplinary domains. As an interdisciplinary form of inquiry, semiotics has imply never found a niche in this sectioralized territory.

But the educational Zeitgeist has started to change. More and more universities are offering so-called "culture studies" courses and programs, which, more often than not, are semiotics courses "in disguise' Departments and programs that have an obvious affinity with Semiotics are springing up all over the continent So, introduction semiotics courses, designed primarily as "service courses" for these inter elated fields, have followed suit becoming more popular, albeit still in a limited way.

Given the kinds of backgrounds that typical North American students being to the semiotics classroom, the question of the appropriate textbook to use in concomitance with the usual lecture discussion debate-instructional-debate instructional format of university-level debate is obviously a pivotal one. The textbook that an instructor selects for the course will determine not only its contents, but also its pedagogical structure and orientation. The ways in which a textbook presents, explains, and illustrates the necessary technical terminology and the conceptual domains that define the perimeter of modern semiotics can easily become a source of frustration for even the most motivated of students.

The introductory textbooks published in the last decade or so for a North American audience have approached the question of presentation style and format in the following three ways:

General Audience Approaches. The aim of such textbooks has been to introduce semiotics in a way that its objectives can be seen to be relevant to understanding contemporary culture, especially advertising, media, verbal communication, etc. These books have targeted a general audience as its readership, ranging in style from fairly difficult, but still understandable (e.g. Hawkes 1970), to highly popularistic and entertaining in focus (e.g. Solomon 1988). Such treatments typically present and illustrate the subject matter of semiotics by considering its implications for the study of thought, cultural behaviour, and aesthetics.

Developmental Approaches. These textbooks have both specialists in the field and a general readership as their clientele in mind (e.g. Sebeok 1976, 1986, 1991; Silverman 1983; Eco 1976, 1984). Unlike the ones above, they do not simply repackage the ideas of theoretical semioticians to make them more digestible to an audience of non-specialists. They also add to the development of semiotics in some way, by reinterpreting current ideas and techniques and/or developing some aspect of semiotic theory. So, they serve the complementary function of being "professional" manuals.

Anthologies. The idea of anthologies is to expose the students to the original writings of those who have helped to shape the field (e.g. Blonsky 1985; Innis 1985; Clarke 1990). the compilers have selected texts, or parts thereof, and introduced them with commentaries.

Ideally, an introductory course might want to include a textbook from each of these areas. This kind of "course formatting" aims to strike a balance between the popular and the technical. But for practical reasons of time and curriculum content, it is not normally possible to make more than one textbook the basis of instruction. The issue of textbook selection for the introductory course is, clearly, of great importance.

The recently-published texts by Deely and Nöth are welcome additions to the first-year instructor's bookshelf. Both are published in the framework of the Indiana Press' Semiotics Series, under the editorship of Thomas Sebeok, which over the years has come to be the main outlet for original and textbook writing in semiotics. Deely's book falls into the "developmental" category, while Nöth's is unique in that it is designed to be both a reference volume for scholars and an in depth expository treatment for those interested in learning virtually everything about semiotics. It constitutes a fourth category -- unique for textbooks in general -- which may be called encyclopedic i.e. it organizes the subject matter of semiotics in the form of an encyclopedia, while still retaining an expository style.

Deely's Basic of Semiotics does indeed deal with the "basic" or elemental aspects of the scientific study of signs: zoosemiotics, anthroposemiotics, phytosemiotics and physiosemiotics. In other words, Deely's objective is to distil common elements of semiosis from the whole continuum of animate reality (from the plant world to human beings) in order to set up a taxonomy of notions, principles, and procedures for understanding the uniqueness of human semiosis. This is indeed a novel approach, in that it does not relate the subject matter of semiotics to the patterns of cultural behaviour -- as is the wont of textbooks aimed at North American students -- but to the representation and interpretation of life forms in themselves.

I welcome this approach enthusiastically. It makes accessible to a broad audience the essential nature and objectives of semiotics as a science, rather than as a technique for students of literature, philosophy, or the visual arts-traditionally the primary "users" of semiotics. The "scientific" designation of semiotics makes it much easier to give it a broader physiognomy in the corpus of university curriculum offerings.

Deely's book ends with a condensed historiography of semiotics. So, he reverses the typical procedure of starting with a historical synopsis of the field and concluding with a consideration of the value of semiotics to the understanding of communication and culture. But his reversal, in my view, actually allows the students to insert their acquired knowledge of the field more logically into a historical frame of reference. It is interesting to note that Deely ends his historiography with a discussion of the work of Jakob von Uexkull, which was discovered and introduced to semioticians by Sebeok (e.g. 1979) relatively recently. Von Uexkull is now considered a pioneer in biosemiotics because of his interest in the role played by environmental factors in human and animal semiosis. In von Uexkull's research, Sebeok has found the empirical evidence to support the uniqueness of human semiosis. Every organism has its special Umwelt and Innenwelt. The anatomical structure of an animal provides the clue to the structured experiences of that animal. In many ways von Uexkull's scheme is similar to Eccles and Popper's (1977) model of cognition. These two scholars classify the world into three domains. 'World 1' is the world of physical objects and states, including human brains which can affect physical objects and processes by means of neuronal synapses transmitting messages along nerve paths that cause muscles to contract or limbs to move. 'World 2' is the whole world of subjective experiences or states of consciousness. This is the level at which the concept of Self emerges, as the mind allows humans to differentiate themselves from the beings and events of the outside world. 'World 3' is the world of knowledge in the objective sense, containing the externalized products of the human mind. It is, in other words, the totally human-made world of culture. In von Uexkull's perspective, there is no world, or experiential domain, that is shared equally by animals and humans. Only in World 1 can one even contemplate a "shared" existential, but unconscious, experience. Words 2 and 3 are inhabited only by human minds. These are the levels of cognition where humans search out, indeed fabricate, meaning. The world of objects and experience has no meaning in the sense that it wants to "say something" about itself. Only humans feel a need to say something about the world. We insist on meaning; we can't help but interpret the world. Deely's book imparts to its readers this sense of the urgency of knowing ourselves through semiosis. It will generate situations for very interesting dialogue and debate in the classroom.

Nöth's book is also a welcome addition to the still-limited repertory of textbook options available to the first-year instructor. Like Deely's book it treats semiotics in a way that is closer to science texts than it is to those used in the humanities. Nöth's goal is to inform, not to interpret. And his treatment is the most exhaustive one I have ever seen.

Nöth's Handbook came out originally in German in 1985 ( Nöth 1985). In compressing a huge mass of information, it might at first seem like a huge undertaking for a typical first-year student. Covering everything there is to know from aesthetics to zoosemiotics, with 65 encyclopedic-type entries, the student could easily perceive the task of learning semiotics as a daunting one indeed. But this is only a "first impression." The book is written in such a precise and clear way that most students would have no trouble whatsoever in assimilating the essential features of semiotic methods and domains of inquiry. Nevertheless, the instructor who opts for Nöth's book will have to make it much more palatable to the average student:

Instructors will have to select those topics that can be fit in with the timetable of a typical first year course. Instructors will have to give their lectures a more "applicational" emphasis, discussing what aspects have relevance to the kinds of cultural behaviours with which students are familiar. Instructor will have to stimulate debate and discussion in the classroom in their own ways.

Nöth's book is a complete treatment, Deely's a selective one. So, the instructor will have to decide what kind of course framework will best accommodate each text. Both are excellent additions to the ever-growing field of undergraduate textbooks in semiotics. Deely "does the interpreting", so to speak, while Nöth's "does the informing." Both put the scientific aspects of semiotics in the forefront. And both are extremely well written.

I conclude this review essay by revealing my own preference. I have been teaching first-year semiotics at the University of Toronto for several years. My focus is on verbal communication and culture. My choice would be for a book that provides students with the information needed to carry out analyses of communicative and cultural behaviour in a systematic and nonpartisan way. So, I would choose the Nöth book, despite its intimidating length of nearly 600 pages. It would allow me to utilize class time not to inform, but to stimulate debate and to illustrate the applications of semiotics, while having always available a textual source that I can utilize for evaluating the student's factual knowledge of the topics covered in the course. Ideally, I would like to use the Deely book in a complementary way. But the time constraints of a first-year course would make this impracticable. l certainly would be sure to put it on the recommended reading list.

As a final word, I should point out that both these books have something to say to professional semioticians as well. In their own way, they remind semioticians, who may be suffering from what I designate for my students as the "deconstructionist blues", that the symbolic artifacts that we generate all the time do not 'imprison" or diminish the capacity of the human mind in any way whatsoever. The fact that a specific language, for instance, predisposes its users to attend to certain specific perceptual events does not imply that speakers of different languages are incapable of perceiving the world in similar ways. As Sapir (1921:75) eloquently put it: "a language is so constructed that no matter what any speaker of it may desire to communicate, no matter how original or bizarre his idea or fancy, the language is prepared to do his work." These books remind us that life generates semiosis; it is not its prisoner.


Blonsky, Martin (ed.) (1985). On Signs. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Clarke, D.S. (ed.) (1990). Sources of Semiotic: Readings with Commentary from Antiquity to the Present.

Eco, Umberto (1976). A Theory of Semiotics Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Eco, Umberto (1984). Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hawkes, Terrence (1977). Structuralism and Semiotics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Innis, Robert E. (ed.) (1985). Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nöth, Winfried (1990). Handbuch der Semiotik. Stuttgart: Meltzlersche.

Popper, K. and Eccles, J. (1977). The Self and the Brain Berlin: Springer

Sapir, Edward (1921). Language. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.

Sebeok, Thomas A. (1976). Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs. Lanham: University Press of America.

Sebeok, Thomas A. (1979). The Sign and Its Masters. Austin: University of Texas 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). A Sign Is Just a Sign. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Silverman, Kaja (1983). The Subject of Semiotics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Solomon, Jack (1988). The Signs of Our Times. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.

Marcel Danesi is Professor of applied linguistics and of Italian linguistics at the University of Toronto. He is author of Applied Psycholinguistics (1985), Cervello, Linguaggio, e Educazione (1988), Neurolinguistica e glottodidattica (1988), Robert A. Hall and American Structuralism (1989), and of numerous works on linguistic, educational and semiotic topics.

Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives