The clash of semiotic civilizations

Massimo Leone


Why was Greimas’ theoretical proposal so divisive? Why did his disciples worship the new analytical method, while his detractors harshly rejected it? The article claims that the strength, as well as the weakness, of Greimassian semiotics consists in positing a rational way to determine the range of meanings of a text. Semiotic interpretive methods that are more aware of the diachronic dimension, such as Eco’s interpretive semiotics or Lotman’s semiotics of culture, inflect this view by anchoring the rationality of interpretation to the reasonableness of a community of interpreters that is, by definition, changing over time. The article claims that, on the one hand, Greimas’ theoretical stance is in line with the predominant ‘culture of meaning’ distilled by the Western civilization from the Greeks until the Enlightenment, stressing the value of truth as correspondence between textual evidence and its hermeneutics. On the other hand, the article also suggests that Eco’s and Lotman’s insistence on the dynamic character of hermeneutic communities entails a politics of meaning meant to preserve the core of the Western ‘semiotic civilization’ against threats that aim at deeply subverting it from both the inside or the outside of the semiosphere.


Algirdas Greimas; Umberto Eco; Juri Lotman; interpretation; meaning; semiotics; Western civilization

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SIGN SYSTEMS STUDIES. ISSN 1406-4243 (print), 1736-7409 (online). E-mail: Postal address: Sign Systems Studies, Dept. of Semiotics, University of Tartu, Jakobi St. 2, 51014 Tartu, Estonia