Semiotics Text Books?
June 20, 2005 1:29 PM   Subscribe

PhilosophyPhilter(!) I am writing an academic paper (not in philosophy) that uses some of the terms and basic structure of semiotics, the study of signs and the way that they represent objects and ideas. Does anybody know of a good book that I can use as a reference for this in my paper? I'd prefer not to have to reference online material (wikipedia, and this site are good), but would prefer a real book. I am hoping to point interested readers to concise definitions of the terms, like in a dictionary or encylopedia, and not to honking books by Pierce. Any ideas?
posted by zpousman to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism may work. It has easy to understand definitions of many such terms, is written for layfolk, and includes helpful further reading references for readers who may want to look further.
posted by dame at 1:54 PM on June 20, 2005

Try here. The rest of the web page is good too.
posted by 517 at 2:07 PM on June 20, 2005

The Blackwell Dictionary of 20th Century Social Thought could cover some or all of what you want. I find it very useful.
posted by Rumple at 2:09 PM on June 20, 2005 or not.
posted by 517 at 2:14 PM on June 20, 2005

Any good reference library will have the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Standard reference text. Should have what you need.
posted by bricoleur at 2:33 PM on June 20, 2005

I like Introducing Semiotics by Paul Cobley. Not too scholarly, but it might do the trick.
posted by necessitas at 2:38 PM on June 20, 2005

Semiotics as in Peirce, or semiotics as in Saussure? On Saussure, Jonathan Cullen's Ferdinand de Saussure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986) is short and sweet. Peirce I don't know.
posted by carter at 2:41 PM on June 20, 2005

It is hard to tell exactly what you are after, but if it is a theory of what words mean (and what sentences mean, etc.), then it probably isn't semiotics you are looking for these days, but linguistics semantics. Some recent okay introductory level semantics textbooks are Loebner, Understanding Semantics, Chierchia and McConnell-Ginet, Meaning and Grammar. I haven't seen Lyons, Linguistic Semantics but I have seen his earlier textbooks and they are also decent. Also, Heim and Kratzer, Semantics in Generative Grammar is the standard grad-level introductory textbook, but it may be too technical and presuppose too much linguistics for a non-linguist. You might also want to do a google search for "lexical semantics textbook" or something - I don't know enough about lexical semantics to recommend any particular book, but there are a bunch.

Things have come a long long way since Peirce and Saussure.
posted by advil at 3:50 PM on June 20, 2005

Ways of Seeing by John Berger.
posted by fabesfaves at 4:36 PM on June 20, 2005

Kaja Silverman's The Subject of Semiotics is a good primer, although I can't really claim to reading more than 5 consecutive pages.
posted by LimePi at 7:38 PM on June 20, 2005

If you need a solid theoretical introduction to the Peircian, Saussurian, and Vygotskian frameworks, in the context of the modern discipline that has done the most to implement a formal semiotic metatheory (linguistic anthropology) I recommend Elizabeth Mertz and Richard Parmentier, *Semiotic Mediation,* especially the intro ("Introducing Semiotic Mediation"). It is out of print (Academic Press, early 90s I think) and hard to find, but most big university libraries have it.

It's technical and rigorous, but deeply informed and remarkably clear. Other key works that have extended a primarily Peircian approach to metapragmatics (the term is Michael Silverstein's, the Chomsky of modern linguistic anthropology, and the leading semiotic theorist working today in the field, though I hesitate to recommend most of his work as it is ferociously difficult) include the work of William Hanks (*Referential Practice*), Greg Urban (*Metaculture,* and see his edited volume with Silverstein, *Natural Histories of Discourse*) and others associated with Center for Transcultural Studies at the Univ. of Chicago (Ben Lee, Richard Bauman, Charles Briggs, Asif Agha, etc.)

The problem is that most summary introductions to the subject stumble on its abstractness and complexity. It's next to useless to try to understand the history of semiotic theory or its modern applications from an encyclopedic summary or a list of defined keywords. Flip through the journal *Semiotica* for a sense of the breadth of the subject.

If you are specifically interested in lexical semantics, that's a different set of problems from the semiotics of action (including discourse as action). If you're interested in philosophical inquiries (a la Quine or Rorty) that's a different matter from more applied and text-analytical approaches. In addition to the broad currents of Peircian and Saussurian thought (the latter the better-known referent among cultural studies types of "semiotics" -- though deS's term was "semiologie") there are significant Russian/Soviet/Eastern European traditions (with major names including Lotman and Vygotsky, or some even include Bakhtin as a general theorist of meaning) and pyschoanalytic traditions to consider (I'm not that knowledgeable about those). And then there are particular disciplinary foci that have mixed and matched terminologies and frameworks in specific ways (film studies, music analysis, literary poetics, pyschoanalysis, critical legal studies, and on and on).

Mertz and Parmentier provide a rigorous, synoptic, and lucid overview of social scientific semiotics ca. the early 90s. But one could get lost easily in these woods.
posted by realcountrymusic at 7:40 PM on June 20, 2005

Semiotics for Beginners might provide a quick overview. It's got cartoons! I like the Foucault book from the same series.
posted by craniac at 11:50 PM on June 20, 2005

Structuralism & Semiotics by Terence Hawkes is a really well-written little primer that doesn't condescend.
posted by yellowcandy at 2:04 AM on June 21, 2005

The Hawkes book is quite good. I second that. Terry Eagleton's famous book of crib notes for doctoral students - *Literary Theory* -- also has a good, if cynical, chapter on semiotics (of the Saussurian sort).
posted by realcountrymusic at 4:35 AM on June 21, 2005

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