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Semiotics in the United States.

SEBEOK, Thomas A. Semiotics in the United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 173 pp. Cloth, $29.95; paper, $10.95--Semiotics in America has had a long and rich history. It has been customary to begin historical accounts with Peirce, and to trace his influence through subsequent generations of semioticians as they in turn encounter Continental structuralist and post-structuralist semiotics. Sebeok's account strikes out in new directions by tracing semiotics back to Native American sources (in the mode of the hunter-tracker), moving through the "book of Nature" framework of subsequent Eurocentric North Americans, passing through literary models (such as the detective fiction of Poe), and moving forward into nineteenth-century sources that in some respects made Peircean pragmaticism possible.

Sebeok gives particular attention to the correlation between language and nature in the American tradition, and insists that contemporary semiotic theory remains impoverished insofar as it refuses to acknowledge earlier sources that took the priority of nature seriously. Sebeok quotes, with some approval, the amateur philosopher Alexander Bryan Johnson (lecturing in Utica, New York in 1825): "My lectures will endeavor to subordinate language to nature, to make nature the expositor of words, instead of making words the expositors of nature" (pp. 12-13). Needless to say, Emerson could make similar claims effective because of soil already well prepared.

Sebeok takes pains to show how early American writers anticipated many of the insights later developed by Peirce. In particular, he shows how such now-classical Peircean distinctions as: icon/index/symbol and sign/object/interpretant, were already common coin among American religious and philosophical writers. More and more commentators (for example, David Savan) are coming to the recognition that there is a rich field of pre-Peircean semiotic theory awaiting further exploration.

Long active in animal research, the domain now known as zoosemiotics, Sebeok argues that semiotic theory needs to remain in deep contact with the life sciences so that its own categorial structures reflect the more pervasive structures of natural forms of communication and signification. Referring to the biological theories of Jakob von Uexkull, Sebeok argues that animals inhabit a semiotic Umwelt (environment or semiotic modeling system) that is species specific. The Umwelt provides the animal with a way of exchanging information with nature. "Behavior" is here defined as the "sign trafficking among different Umwelten" (p. 103). Preverbal forms of semiosis connect the animal to its own Umwelt and to other Umwelten. Only the language-using animal, studied by the discipline of anthroposemiosis, can create possible Umwelten, or, more appropriately, lifeworlds, and thereby open out an unbounded number of semiotic possibilities.

The historical and conceptual analyses are frequently spiced with rich anecdotal accounts. Sebeok, himself a central part of the history of semiotics, recounts his relations with such figures as Cassirer, Jakobson, Morris, Langer, and Maritain. This conveys some of the inner history of American semiotics in a way that might not otherwise be possible. It also sketches in stark outline some of the tensions among the various practitioners of the craft of semiotics.

In tracing out the most recent versions of semiotic theory, Sebeok gives short shrift to the tradition inspired by Lacan, referring derisively to "the cold leftovers of the French psychoanalytic bazaar" (p. 86). On the other hand, he gives very high marks to what he calls the "Dominican vein in semiotics," running from Aquinas, to Poinsot, to Maritain, to John Deely. It is a shame that there was not more said about Deely's many contributions to several distinctive branches of semiotic theory, or about the important cross-fertilization between the Dominican and Peircean traditions.

This book is an invaluable historical, conceptual, and anecdotal account of the rise of semiotics in the United States. In addition, it contains an extensive bibliography that enhances its intrinsic value. The style is engaging and exhibits the vast richness of the author's mind.
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Author:Corrington, Robert S.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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