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Semiotik ( ancient Greek σημεῖον semeion , character ',' signal '), sometimes sign theory , is the science that deals with sign systems of all kinds (z. B. picture writing , gestures , formulas , speech , traffic sign ). It is used in various humanities , cultural , economic and social sciences .


Although the subject area of ​​semiotics has been debated since antiquity, an independent discipline only developed with the studies of Charles Sanders Peirce from the end of the 19th century. Modern semiotics classics are often leading figures in structuralist linguistics and philosophy, above all Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes . These also refer to their theories of signs as " semiology ". As before, there are different approaches.

Prehistory: Antiquity, Middle Ages and early modern times

Semiotic investigations can already be found among the pre-Socratics , sophists and Plato . Aristotle summarized and expanded them in his logical and rhetorical writings to form a first system of semiotics. He treats the signs as a triangular relationship between the sign itself (the spoken word), the signified (an object) and an idea in the soul. According to Aristotle, a spoken word such as "table" evokes the idea of ​​a table in the soul of those who hear or speak this word. This idea stands in an image relationship, not explained in more detail by Aristotle, to the respective designated object. Oral signs (words) take precedence over written signs for Aristotle, as the latter only refer to oral signs:

“The spoken words are the signs of ideas in the soul and the written words are the signs of spoken words. Just as the characters are not the same for all people, so the words are not the same for all people; but the representations in speech, the immediate signs of which are the words, are the same for all people, and so the objects are everywhere the same, of which these representations are the images. "

- Aristotle, Peri hermeneias , first chapter

Like Peirce later, Aristotle classified semiotics in logic ( Organon ).

In ancient medicine, the term semeiotikon meros (semiotic part) describes the science of symptoms and diagnostics (Demetrios von Apameia, Galen, Pseudo-Galen) and is also used in some Stoic texts in epistemological contexts. In Latin translations by Galen, semeiotikon meros is rendered as pars semiotica . In the thesaurus graecae linguae by Henri Stephanus (1572 and above), semeiotics is used for this and this is explained as that part of medicine that deals with the differences and (denoting) capabilities of all signs.

Signs and meanings can also be found among the Stoics , for example Diogenes of Babylon . According to him, a person's utterance is physical and is articulated and expressed through reason. In this it is different from animal sounds, which are only air, which are produced by instinct. An utterance that means something is considered an intelligible speech (logos).

Epicurean philosophers such as Philodemos von Gadara (around 110–40 BC) also discuss aspects of signs, meanings and their relationships, especially analog and inductive relationships.

In scholasticism , semiotics was given a high priority within logic. One of many examples can be taken from the doctrine of signs by Petrus Hispanus : The ear perceives sounds . A sound made by living beings is a voice , but bell noises are not a voice . Articulable voice (e.g. "human") can be written in contrast to inarticulable voice . The articulable voice is either meaningful (e.g. human) or meaningless (e.g. “bu”, “ba”). Meaningful voice has a conventional meaning (e.g. "human") or natural meaning (e.g. "the wailing of the sick"). Conventional voice is either unassembled (single words) or compound (sentences). Unassembled voices are e.g. B. the verb and the noun , which the latter means either general (e.g. "human") or individual (e.g. "Socrates"). In the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age, for example, Nikolaus von Kues presents the doctrine of signs as fundamental for every knowledge, especially for theology.

The scholastic discussions are also continued, for example with Pedro da Fonseca (1528–1599). The theologian and philosopher Johannes a S. Thomas (1589–1644), also known as Johannes Poinsot, from Lisbon , developed an extensive semiotics in his second major work, Cursus philosophicus , in the second (material) part of his logic.

In his essay concerning Humane Understanding of 1690, John Locke also speaks of a theory of signs which he calls semeiotics .

Use of the term in the 18th and 19th centuries

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the term semiotics was not used in its comprehensive meaning today, but rather for the study of drawing, which is mainly regarded as an auxiliary science of diplomacy (document science ) . In addition, at this time there is also a use as a medical term for the teaching of the symptoms of illness .

20th century


A theory of linguistic and other signs is an elementary part of the theory of knowledge and science, in which different approaches are worked out and represented. The founder of semiotics in today's sense is Charles Sanders Peirce . In his successor, Charles William Morris developed a behavioristic theory of signs that works with a distinction between syntactics , semantics and pragmatics . Structuralist linguists and philosophers, on the other hand, use a different method. Your representatives are:

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

De Saussure's - neither clear nor undisputed - sign theory is considered to be "fundamental" and "significant" for the development of modern semiotics (in Europe), more precisely for the linguistic (linguistic) sign theories, which "practically all" refer to the bilateral sign in Sense of de Saussure should go back.

De Saussure uses the term sign ambiguously, which also gives rise to different interpretations. According to one reading he understands the sign psychologically, according to another reading not only psychologically.

The following definition of de Saussure speaks in favor of a psychological interpretation: “The linguistic sign is therefore something actually present in the mind that has two sides:… […] These two components are closely connected and correspond to one another. [...] I call the connection between the imagination and the sound image the sign. "

This leads to the pair of opposites: concept (presentation) - image acoustique (sound image), cf. in more detail: Presentation and sound image .

Sketch after de Saussure: Presentation and sound image

De Saussure's concept of sign is also reproduced in such a way that, according to him, a sign is the unity (connection) of sign form (signifiant) and meaning ( signifié , the content of the sign). The relationship between signifié and signifiant constitutes the sign.

This leads to the pair of opposites signifié (character content) - signifiant (character expression).

Instead of signifiant (character expression, character form), the expression side (expression level ) is also used in the same sense, instead of signifié (character content) there is also talk of content side (content level).

This leads to the following terminological scheme:

"Automobile" image acoustique (sound image) significant (indicative) Printout page
[Automobile] concept signifié (denoted) Content page

De Saussure's character model is qualified , among other things, as bilateral (bilateral , dyadic) and (sometimes viewed critically) mentalistic . In contrast to three-digit (triadic) models (Peirce, cf. Representamen , there in particular problems of understanding ), the two-sided character model by de Saussure has no interpretative reference , in contrast to four-digit models neither has a significant one (conceptual-historical cf. Victoria Lady Welby , systematically above all Georg Klaus ) quasi-extra-symbolic reference to reality.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914)

Semiotics as a doctrine of signs is, according to Peirce, not only the basis of all communication, but also the prerequisite for every form of knowledge, because every thinking is thinking in terms of signs. The theory does not understand the sign as a thing, as a static object, but as a three-digit ( triadic ) relation between

  1. a means, i.e. the material sign,
  2. an object to which the mark relates, and
  3. an interpretant, i.e. the system in which the sign is to be understood.

“A sign is a thing that serves to convey a knowledge of another thing that it, as one says, represents or represents . This thing is called the object of the sign. The idea in the mind evoked by the sign, which is a mental sign of the same object, is called the interpretant of the sign. "

- CS Peirce : Brief logic

This threefold relationship is repeated at each level and forms the different types of signs:

In relation to the mean (sign) the object the interpreter
Funding Qualifier icon Rhema
Object reference Token index Dicent
Rule, convention Legize characters (type) Symbol (encrypted) argument

A basis for this classification is the ontological thesis of three non-reducible basic forms of every being, which are derived from the basic philosophical categories and can be identified as possibility , reality and reason . The meaning of a sign or a complex of signs can only be grasped when all three references are taken into account. So Peirce represents a holistic concept of meaning. The different types of signs are by no means “mutually exclusive, but are only aspects of the sign process, semiosis , and we name a sign according to its dominant aspect”.

This also applies to the most important division of characters into icons, indexes and symbols. Heinz Kroehl, who applies the semiotic theory to visual communication and subjected it to an empirical test, speaks of a “continuum of designation possibilities”. At the same time he identifies the next lower level of the triadic relation:

icon index symbol
Funding metaphor Mark symptom
Object reference image Signs signal
Interpretant reference diagram Landmark signet

The success of any communication depends on the interpreter, the system in which the sign is to be understood. Clarification requires at least one other sign. For example, if someone asks what is a pharaoh, the answer is usually: a king among the ancient Egyptians. But to really understand what a pharaoh is, I have to know the culture, have to understand the idea of ​​a God-King. On the other hand, I am burdened with connotations that the term king has in our culture. Such cultural knowledge, all experiences and experiences are part of the meaning. Hence, two people can never have exactly the same understanding of a thing.

The terms rhema, dicent and argument correspond to the classic division into term, proposition and argument. From this one can derive three main systems with completely different forms of conveying meaning: art, everyday life and science. In the realm of art, a sign can only convey possibilities; there are no fixed meanings, only individual interpretations. In everyday life, the signs refer to reality, they have a real object, and a speaker can generally assume that the other understands what is meant. In science, the signs refer to necessities and follow subject-specific rules: terms used must be defined, statements substantiated and conclusions proven.

Since the interpretant is always a sign, which in turn can only be explained by a sign, semiosis becomes a principally endless process. In everyday situations, however, this often does not come to light, because as long as the communication relates to concrete action, this process can be broken off as soon as a consensus on action has been reached.

Applied and related disciplines

Literary semiotics

Representatives of literary semiotics are also sometimes assigned to the structuralists or formalists . The literary semiotic approaches are also very different: Roland Barthes takes a post-structuralist position from which he emphasizes the ambiguity of a work, while Umberto Eco criticizes Barthes' idea of ​​a limitless openness of the meaning of literary works and the reception of literary texts as an interplay of freedom and determination represents. On the one hand, the text must have a structure, otherwise “there would be no communication , but only a purely random stimulation of aleatoric reactions” (Eco). On the other hand decide the reader that code and what semantic context it on the text to use, making it in the course of his reading process, the further update of meanings materially affected.

On the other hand there are approaches in the tradition of the structuralist Algirdas Julien Greimas , who wants to clearly reconstruct a semantic deep structure by analyzing the various meaningful, hierarchically organized levels of a text.

Theater semiotics

Theater semiotics is a branch of theater studies that particularly flourished in the 1970s and 80s. As an application-oriented theory, it offers systematics for performance analysis, for example. The performance is understood as a communication process in which information is given through different channels at different levels. Erika Fischer-Lichte , Patrice Pavis and Manfred Pfister are important representatives of this trend.


The Prague structuralist linguist Jan Mukařovský introduced the concept of an aesthetic function . When a sign fulfills this function, it is primarily received for its own sake and relates to its own circumstances, in particular to the overall social context of its reception - instead of just being a means of referring to something else (“referential function”). When and how the aesthetic function is assigned to a sign also depends on the receiving subject , but generally speaking, it is determined by the aesthetic norm that prevails in a society at the moment of sign reception. According to Mukařovský, for us today cathedrals or buildings can certainly be viewed from an aesthetic point of view, but at the time of their construction they were assigned a much more sacred function than an aesthetic function.

Aesthetic objects are often described, for example by Hans Wollschläger , as systems of signs that use another system of signs as a carrier system or as a form. In the case of literature, this is the complex system of signs, language.

Culture and history

The model, already recognizable in Mesopotamian sources, of seeing current positive and negative events as rewards and punishments by deities for historical achievements and wrongdoings, is what Jan Assmann describes as the “semioticization of history”. The story is thereby filled with meaning and receives a structure in which not only “the sense of the connection between action and experience is legible” and thus also more bearable, but also gives rise to records and historical recapitulation.

Important people in semiotics

Russian semiotics:


See also


General overview presentations, introductions, manuals and encyclopedias

  • Günther Bentele , Ivan Bystřina : Semiotics. Basics and problems , Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1978, ISBN 3-17-004429-X .
  • Johannes Bergerhausen, Siri Poarangan: decodeunicode: The characters of the world , Verlag Hermann Schmidt, Mainz 2011, ISBN 978-3-87439-813-8 . All 109,242 digital characters according to the Unicode standard. Typographic semiotics.
  • Paul Bouissac (Ed.): Encyclopedia of Semiotics , Oxford University Press, New York, NY 1998, ISBN 0-19-512090-6 .
  • Daniel Chandler: Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge, London / New York, NY 2001, ISBN 0-415-26593-2 ; Revised Edition 2006, ISBN 0-415-36376-4 (also online as: Semiotics for Beginners. Archived from the original on 21 February 2009 ; accessed on September 7, 2017 . )
  • Paul Cobley (Ed.): The Routledge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics , London: Routledge 2001, ISBN 0-415-24313-0 .
  • John Deely: Basics of Semiotics , Tartu University Press, Tartu 4th A. 2005.
  • Algirdas Julien Greimas , Joseph Courtés: Sémiotique: Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage. Hachette, Paris, 2 vols., 1979/1986.
  • Walter A. Koch (Ed.): Semiotics in the Individual Sciences (Bochum Publications in Evolutionary Cultural Semiotics. 10), Brockmeyer, Bochum 1990.
  • Martin Krampen , Klaus Oehler, Roland Posner, Thure von Uexküll (eds.): The world as a sign . Classics of modern semiotics. Berlin: Severin and Siedler 1981.
  • Angelika Linke, Markus Nussbaumer, Paul R. Portmann: Study book linguistics. - 5th edition. - Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen 2004, pp. 13-48.
  • Dieter Mersch (Ed.): Sign over Sign: Texts on semiotics from Peirce to Eco and Derrida , dtv, Munich 1998, ISBN 3-423-30653-X .
  • Ludwig Nagl, Charles Sanders Peirce, Campus Verlag Frankfurt / New York 1992, Chapter 1, "Semiotics", pp. 21-62.
  • Ludwig Nagl, Pragmatismus, Campus Verlag Frankfurt / New York 1998, Chapter 2.4, "Semiotics", pp. 39–40.
  • Winfried Nöth : Handbook of Semiotics , rev. u. exp. 2nd edition, Stuttgart / Weimar 2000 (German translation from Handbook of semiotics , Bloomington 1990).
  • Roland Posner , Klaus Robering and Thomas A. Sebeok (eds.): Semiotics / Semiotics: A handbook on the theoretical principles of nature and culture. 3 vol. De Gruyter, Berlin a. a. 1997-2003.
  • Helmut Rehbock: Art. Semiotics. In: Helmut Glück (Ed.): Metzler Lexikon Sprach, Metzler, Stuttgart - Weimar 2. A. 2000, 624f.
  • Thomas A. Sebeok : Theory and History of Semiotics , Rowohlt, Reinbek b. Hamburg 1979 (translation from Contribution to the doctrine of signs , Bloomington 1976).
  • Thomas A. Sebeok (Ed.): Encyclopedic dictionary of semiotics , 1986.
  • Jürgen Trabant : Elements of semiotics . Tübingen / Basel 1996.
  • Günther Witzany: Biosemiotics in Transdiciplinary Contexts . Helsinki 2006.

History of Semiotics

  • Contributions in: Tasso Borbé (Ed.): Semiotics Unfolding. Proceedings of the Second Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies , Vienna, July 1979 (Approaches to Semiotics 68), Berlin – New York – Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter 1984.
  • John N. Deely: Introducing semiotics: Its history and doctrine . Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1982, ISBN 0-253-20287-6 .
  • KD Dutz, P. Schmitter (Eds.): Historiographia semioticae , MAKS Publications 1985, ISBN 3-88811-018-1 .
  • KD Dutz, P. Schmitter, Münster working group for semiotics (ed.): History and historiography of semiotics: case studies . Files of the 8th workshop of the Münster working group for semiotics, Münster 2. – 3. October 1985, MAkS 1986, ISBN 3-88811-102-1 .
  • A. Eschbach, J. Trabant (Ed.): History of semiotics , Amsterdam 1983.
  • David P. Lucid (Ed.): Soviet Semiotics. An Anthology . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1977
  • Stephan Meier-Oeser: The trace of the sign. The sign and its function in the philosophy of the Middle Ages and the early modern age , Walter de Gruyter 1997, ISBN 3-11-015526-5 .
  • W. Nöth, S. Meier-Oeser, H. Hermes: Art. Semiotik, Semiologie. In: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy , Vol. 9, 601–609.

Individual studies

  • Alois Andermatt: Semiotics and the legacy of transcendental philosophy. Königshausen & Neumann, 2007, ISBN 978-3-8260-3521-0 .
  • Roland Barthes : Elements of Semiology. Frankfurt am Main 1983, ISBN 3-518-11171-X .
  • Roland Barthes: The realm of signs. Frankfurt am Main 1981, ISBN 3-518-11077-2 .
  • Axel Bauer : General semiotics as a methodical instrument in the history of medicine. Würzburg medical history reports 12 (1994), pp. 75-89
  • Umberto Eco : La struttura assente. 1962.
  • Umberto Eco: Segno. 1973.
    • German characters. Introduction to a term and its history. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1977, ISBN 3-518-10895-6 .
  • Umberto Eco: A theory of semiotics. Bloomington 1976.
  • Nelson Goodman : Languages ​​of Art. Draft of a symbol theory. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt aM 1995.
  • Erika Fischer-Lichte : Semiotics of the theater. 3 volumes, Narr, Tübingen 1983.
  • Johannes Heinrichs : Philosophical Semiotics. (Complete edition in a slipcase: ISBN 978-954-449-354-7 ).
  • Ernest WB Hess-Lüttich, Jürgen E. Müller, AJA van Zoest (eds.): Signs & space. Gunter Narr Verlag, 1998, ISBN 3-8233-4314-9 .
  • Roman Jakobson : Semiotics. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1988. (Table of contents) (PDF file; 79 kB).
  • Georg Klaus : semiotics and epistemology. 4th edition. Munich 1973, ISBN 3-7705-0832-7 .
  • Jan Mukařovský: Chapter from Aesthetics. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1970.
  • Nina Ort: The logic of reflection semiotics. On a non-classical semiotics that is expanded in the logic of reflection in the outcome of Gotthard Günther and Charles S. Peirce . Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2007, ISBN 3-938808-16-0 .
  • Helmut Pape (Ed.): Charles S. Peirce . Phenomenon and logic of signs. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt a. M. 1983.
  • Roland Posner: On the genesis of communication - semiotic basics. In: Karl-Friedrich Wessel, Frank Naumann (Ed.): Communication and human ontogenesis. Bielefeld 1994, pp. 384-430.
  • Roland Posner: Believing, causing, intending. The basis for a hierarchy of sign concepts in the restoration of communication. (PDF) TU Berlin , 1993, accessed on September 7, 2017 .
  • Carol Sanders (Ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Saussure . Cambridge et al. a. 2005, ISBN 0-521-80051-X .
  • Ferdinand de Saussure: Basic questions in general linguistics. de Gruyter, Berlin 1967.
  • Claus Schlaberg: General components of being a sign - and the increasing complexity of the sign processes in the course of phylogenesis and ontogenesis. In: Ernest WB Hess-Lüttich (Hrsg.): Sign Culture Sign Culture. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2012, pp. 483–494, [1] .

Web links

Wiktionary: Semiotics  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Sign theory  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Klaus Oehler: Idea and outline of Peirce's semiotics. In: M. Krampen et al. (Ed.): The world as a sign, Berlin 1981, p. 17.
  2. Venice 1490, here to Meier-Oeser, lc, 602.
  3. Pars est Medicinae, signorum omnium differentias et vires expendens, here to Meier-Oeser, lc
  4. See Diogenes Laertius 7, 55f.
  5. ^ Reproduced from Joseph M. Bochenski: Formal Logic , Karl Alber, Freiburg / Munich 1996 (5th ed.), P. 175.
  6. Edited along with Engl. Übers. In: Tractatus de signis . The semiotic of John Poinsot, translated and presented by JN Deely with RA Powell, Berkeley 1985. Raul Corazzon: The Rediscovery of John Poinsot provides an overview of the more recent research discussion .
  7. chap. 21, Of the Division of the Sciences: 4. Semeiotics. Thirdly, the third branch may be called Semeiotike, or the doctrine of signs; the most usual whereof being words, it is aptly enough termed also Logike, logic: the business whereof is to consider the nature of signs, the mind makes use of for the understanding of things, or conveying its knowledge to others. For, since the things the mind contemplates are none of them, besides itself, present to the understanding, it is necessary that something else, as a sign or representation of the thing it considers, should be present to it: and these are ideas. And because the scene of ideas that makes one man's thoughts cannot be laid open to the immediate view of another, nor laid up anywhere but in the memory, a no very sure repository: therefore to communicate our thoughts to one another, as well as record them for our own use, signs of our ideas are also necessary: ​​those which men have found most convenient, and therefore generally make use of, are articulate sounds. The consideration, then, of ideas and words as the great instruments of knowledge, makes no despicable part of their contemplation who would take a view of human knowledge in the whole extent of it. And perhaps if they were distinctly weighed, and duly considered, they would afford us another sort of logic and critic, than what we have been hitherto acquainted with.
  8. (Councilor) Feßmeier: plan of auxiliary historical sciences . Anton Weber (bookseller) - printed by Joseph Zängl (Munich), Landshut 1802, p. 73 (§ 77) .
  9. JLL Loeseken: Semiotics or doctrine of the signs of diseases. 3. Edition. Dresden 1775.
  10. ^ Karl Sundelin: Handbook of practical medicine science . First volume: semiotics. Anton v. Haykul (printer) and Me. Lechner (university bookseller), Vienna 1830, p. 11 ( means ... the representation and information of those external, sensually perceivable characteristics, which serve as signs, characteristics of certain physical as well as mental properties and conditions. ).
  11. See Thomas Loyd Short: Peirce's Theory of Signs , Cambridge 2007, p. 16: "… that Saussure's view is fundamentally different from and incompatible with Peirce's."
  12. a b Linke, Angelika; Markus Nussbaumer; Paul R. Portmann: Study book linguistics. - 5th edition. - Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen 2004, p. 30.
  13. So probably Busse, Dietrich: Semantics. W. Fink, Paderborn 2009 (UTB 3280), p. 27.
  14. Linke, Angelika; Markus Nussbaumer; Paul R. Portmann: Study book linguistics. - 5th edition. - Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen 2004, p. 31.
  15. Quoted from Busse, Dietrich: Semantik. W. Fink, Paderborn 2009 (UTB 3280), p. 27.
  16. Klaus Oehler: Things and signs. On the philosophy of pragmatism. Frankfurt am Main 1995. p. 87.
  17. Peirce himself speaks of "trichotomies", cf. Collected Papers , ed. Charles Hartshorne / Paul Weiss, Harvard UP 1931, 2.243.
  18. Christian Kloesel, Helmut Pape (ed.): Charles S. Peirce. Semiotic writings , 3 vol., Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2000, volume 1, p. 204.
  19. Michael HG Hoffmann: Peirce's concept of signs: its functions, its phenomenological foundation and its differentiation. (PDF) (No longer available online.) Bielefeld University, November 11, 2001, p. 13 , archived from the original on April 12, 2015 ; accessed on March 1, 2015 : "where the syllable sin is understood to mean 'only occur once', as in singular, simple ..." Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  20. Oehler (1995) p. 87.
  21. Peirce CP 2.275.
  22. Heinz Kroehl: Communication Design 2000. Zurich 1987.
  23. Heinz Kroehl: Book and book cover in the test. Dortmund 1984.
  24. Heinz Kroehl: Corporate Identity as a Successful Concept in the 21st Century. Munich 2000, p. 129.
  25. Cf. Peirce: "Now the problem of what the" meaning "of an intellectual concept is can only be solved by studying the interpretant ...", Collected Papers § 5.475.
  26. see Oehler (1995) p. 85.
  27. see Kroehl (2000) p. 124.
  28. see Oehler (1995) p. 85 f.
  29. Jan Assmann: The cultural memory. Writing, memory and political identity in early high cultures Beck, Munich 2000, ISBN 3-406-42107-5 , p. 297.