What is semiotics?

Ferdinand de Saussure

Semiotics (also known as semiology) is the science of signs and symbols; of their processes of development in culture and nature. Signs such as words, gestures, and odours communicate information of all kinds in time and space. In semiotic processes (semiosis), symbols come to be constituted, produced, adopted, and brought into circulation. Without semiosis, cognition, communication, and cultural meanings would not be possible. If one glances at the history of culture, it becomes immediately apparent that reflection about signs and semiotic processes is as old as Western philosophy—in other cultures as well, the symbolic constitution of culture was contemplated from the earliest times. Semiotic investigations are thus older than all particular scientific disciplines, and are thereby suitable for surpassing these disciplines’ isolation, finding commonalities among them, and to work out commonalities from among their differences.

Charles Peirce

Semioticians generally inquire about what things can be signs, about the order and structures of sign systems, and the various forms and uses of signs. They also investigate their materiality, mediality, performativity, and aesthetic nature, as well as the relationships between various sign systems and media.

Semiotics is not, however, concerned only with human communication and culture, but also with behaviors related to perception, orientation, and interaction among animals and plants. Similarly, it deals with signal processing within organisms and information processing in machines. As a foundational metascience, it is about the symbolic processes at work within cultural and natural phenomena. As a result, it offers an interdisciplinary forum for various disciplines and realms of practice, and prepares theoretical foundations for the analysis of understanding between and among cultures.

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