Redefining the object of semiotic studies

  • Yiqiang JIN

Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


Semiotics has long suffered a severe identity crisis, displaying confusions on four relationships. The crisis stems partly from our failure to distinguish three pairs of relata and partly from our poor understanding of the nature of an academic discipline. Semiotics is, first of all, a discipline. Like other academic fields, it should have a sound object of study and aim at an adequate theory. An excursion into psychology and the philosophy of science can reveal to us the necessary constituents of a proper object of study and of a good theory. Looking back, the history of semiotics has brought up a wide range of instances and types of signs. Descriptive and comparative studies of these sign phenomena offer us clues to the potential boundaries and possible unifying features of the sign. To meet the demands of a proper object of study, the sign as a phenomenon needs to be construed both in the broader sense and in the narrower sense. Signs in the broader sense, inclusive of recollective signs, indicative signs, and instituted signs, are characterized by three features: an act of recollecting or inferring, a relation between something perceptible and something not perceptible at the moment, and a revealing function. The sign thus understood qualifies as a category, but not as a good object of study, as it hardly reveals any deep-lying regularity, rule, or law worthy of special scientific efforts. By comparison, the sign in the narrower sense, focused on natural signs or instituted signs, is more reasonable. Of the two kinds of phenomena, instituted signs are characterized by a connection instituted voluntarily by some subject when it comes into being for the first time. They originate from recollective signs and indicative signs, and undergo several stages before the advent of highly arbitrary signs. They are made up of essential phenomena, supplementary phenomena, and epiphenomena. With their multiple features, instituted signs are sufficiently unique, broad, complex, and important to be a good object of study, on the basis of which a more adequate theory of instituted signs becomes possible. Semiotics based on such an object of study and theory obeys the spirit of the minimalist approach to academic researches. Semiotics thus overhauled would, hopefully, not only serve to describe and explain sign phenomena adequately, but also coordinate with adjacent disciplines in adding to overall human knowledge.
Date of Award29 Jun 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Lingnan University
SupervisorErsu DING (Supervisor) & Andrew John SEWELL (Co-supervisor)

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