Is semiotics bullshit?

post by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-25T14:09:04.000Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 46 comments

I spent an hour recently talking with a semiotics professor who was trying to explain semiotics to me.  He was very patient, and so was I, and at the end of an hour I concluded that semiotics is like Indian chakra-based medicine:  a set of heuristic practices that work well in a lot of situations, justified by complete bullshit.

I learned that semioticians, or at least this semiotician:

When I've read short, simple introductions to semiotics, they didn't say this.  They didn't say anything I could understand that wasn't trivial.  I still haven't found one meaningful claim made by semioticians, or one use for semiotics.  I don't need to read a 300-page tome to understand that the 'C' on a cold-water faucet signifies cold water.  The only example he gave me of its use is in constructing more-persuasive advertisements.

(Now I want to see an episode of Mad Men where they hire a semotician to sell cigarettes.)

Are there multiple "sciences" all using the name "semiotics"?  Does semiotics make any falsifiable claims?  Does it make any claims whose meanings can be uniquely determined and that were not claimed before semiotics?

His notion of "essence" is not the same as Plato's; tokens rather than types have essences, but they are distinct from their physical instantiation.  So it's a tripartite Platonism.  Semioticians take this division of reality into the physical instantiation, the objective type, and the subjective token, and argue that there are only 10 possible combinations of these things, which therefore provide a complete enumeration of the possible categories of concepts.  There was more to it than that, but I didn't follow all the distinctions. He had several different ways of saying "token, type, unbound variable", and seemed to think they were all different.

Really it all seemed like taking logic back to the middle ages.

46 comments

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comment by grouchymusicologist · 2015-08-25T18:08:36.483Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

There may or may not be some legitimate field of inquiry going under the name of semiotics. In grad school a number of years ago, however, I took a (graduate-level) Introduction to Semiotics that was a pretty remarkable hodgepodge of bullshit, along with just enough non-bullshit to make a complete outsider like myself (not at all fluent in the obscurantist discourse of "cultural studies," "critical theory," and the like) feel like maybe the problem was me and not the material. (Later reflection gave me a lot more confidence that the problem was, in fact, the material.)

Among the reading was Freud, Lacan, Derrida, J. L. Austin, Marcel Mauss, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, and Peirce. (There was other stuff too that I don't recall right now.) Interestingly, of those I would say that only Lacan and Derrida were outright charlatans (which is not to endorse any of the others in particular, just to say that they were all doing something at least potentially more valuable than pulling stuff out of their asses). But the writings of the non-charlatans were presented so confusingly and tendentiously that it never remotely cohered into any sense that semiotics was a field with any integrity of its own or anything useful to contribute. That is to say, none of those thinkers would have described himself as a "semiotician," so it was very much a post hoc attempt to put a framework around a bunch of very diverse writing that in many cases was pretty foreign to its original intent.

This is all n=1, of course, but on that basis I tend to think that semiotics as a standalone field is probably more or less as you say it is.

I like how you call it "a set of heuristic practices that work well in a lot of situations, justified by complete bullshit." Because my first instinct when writing this comment was to include a remark to the effect that even if theoretical semiotics is mostly or entirely crap, there is some valuable work that calls itself some variety of applied semiotics. For example, there are some people who do musical semiotics, and—since it's not at all obvious what music signifies and how it does so, either in the general or specific cases—I have found some of that work enlightening. But on further thought, you're absolutely right in your characterization of it. Musical semiotics can be full of insight, but its adoption of the theoretical apparatus of (e.g.) Roland Barthes or Umberto Eco is no part of its value—that, instead, is an attempt to bring "theoretical" rigor to a fundamentally nonrigorous enterprise. So much the worse for any "application" of semiotics if it relies on the cesspool of semiotic theory to back up its assertions.

comment by SanguineEmpiricist · 2015-08-26T05:06:22.162Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Just to be clear, when reading any of Charles Sanders Pierce i have never gotten a hint of "Charlatanism". Including Peirce among those names amounts to blasphemy.

comment by grouchymusicologist · 2015-08-26T14:21:45.495Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Well, exactly. That's what I meant when I said that it was very confusing to me, as a young grad student in an outside field, to have a course that assigned Peirce and Lacan side by side with a straight face, evidently taking them equally seriously.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2015-08-26T10:06:30.569Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Similarly, I've read Austin's How to Do Things With Words. He's not winning any awards for his prose style, but he has a comprehensible project which he goes about in a rigorous, methodical way.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-08-26T01:50:39.764Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Population size != sample size If you took a course on the subject, then your n is substantially greater than 1. At a minimum you have the professor's opinion plus the opinion of each self-described semiotician you read from in the course to draw from in reaching your conclusion.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2015-08-25T16:33:49.364Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

(Now I want to see an episode of Mad Men where they hire a semotician to sell cigarettes.)

They did.

"The cosmetic manufacturers are not selling lanolin, they are selling hope. . . . We no longer buy oranges, we buy vitality. We do not buy just an auto, we buy prestige."

From Vance Packard's 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders, which is largely about Dichter's work.

And looking around the modern world, Dichter won, didn't he? Pretty much any advertisement from the 1930s or earlier looks like a small ad today.

comment by SilentCal · 2015-08-26T16:55:32.638Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I think this is the field's key once-nontrivial insight: that symbolism is powerful and pervasive, and you can learn a lot by paying attention to how it works. This is approaching triviality today, but it sounds like in 1930 an automaker would think you were crazy if you said, "Instead of describing the objective qualities of your car, your ads should insinuate things about the kind of person who drives it".

I'm not convinced the impenetrable language was ever necessary or helpful to this, though.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-08-27T20:49:44.812Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Examples like advertising may be approaching triviality, but they are less trivial than Phil's example of "the 'C' on a cold-water faucet signifies cold water."

Why don't the introductions to semiotics give these examples? Maybe they do and Phil exaggerated the triviality of the examples he saw? Maybe they did and they were cloaked in such language that he didn't notice?

comment by SilentCal · 2015-08-27T20:53:59.707Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'd guess that they're introductions to how to actually do semiotic theory. So when you examine how to tell that 'C' signifies cold, it's like going to the first day of linear algebra and proving that x * 0 = 0; the point is that you're learning a framework. The question is whether the framework later enables you to go on to learn things you couldn't have without it.

comment by bogus · 2015-08-27T15:46:42.139Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure that the insight you mention is "trivial" in any sense. Sure, saying "Cars are not about Transportation" may be rather trivial today, but there are a lot of "X is not about Y" insights that are a lot less obvious. If the theoretical framework of semiotics helps us with creating such insights, talking about them, perhaps validating them, that arguably is enough to see it as providing value.

comment by SilentCal · 2015-08-27T20:14:16.464Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The question is whether the theoretical framework of semiotics ever actually helped with such insights. Like, whether semioticians have ever achieved anything concrete that wouldn't have been possible without the triadic sign relation.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-29T03:18:11.268Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Another update:

It seems the semiotician I spoke to had some ontology in mind that most famous semioticians don't use.

A/The key foundational figure in semiotics was Saussure. His most-cited contribution was to say that words did not operate by referring to things in the world, but to concepts in the mind. He said other things as well, but they're called structuralism rather than semiotics, I think.

In other words, he proposed that language uses intensional rather than extensional representations.

This is a crucial insight for logic, philosophy, linguistics, and artificial intelligence. However, so far I don't see that Saussure added anything to the notion of intensional representation developed by Frege, Church, and Carnap by 1947, and he had none of their logical rigor.

Saussure seems to have developed the concept independently around 1907. Somehow, despite his fame, his ideas seems not to have been referenced in the development of intensional logic in the decades after his death.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-08-29T15:52:03.780Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

He said other things as well, but they're called structuralism rather than semiotics, I think.

According to Wikipedia Structuralism is a subtopic of Semiotics.

However, so far I don't see that Saussure added anything to the notion of intensional representation developed by Frege, Church, and Carnap by 1947, and he had none of their logical rigor.

It seems like Saussure died in 1913. As such he couldn't really add something to Frege/Church/Carnap but rather presed them.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-29T17:36:48.990Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry, what I meant was that there isn't much to gain from his thoughts on the matter, because someone else did it more thoroughly, later, independently. Though Saussure's formulation is much simpler and easier to understand.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-08-29T17:47:54.602Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think the same is true for most people who died more than 100 years ago.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-28T03:35:24.615Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I read Clifford Geertz's article "Notes on the Balinese Cockfight." This is an example of how semiotics is useful. It isn't really a set of tools; it's an attitude, or a set of things to look for. Geertz concludes that the "purpose" of Balinese cockfights parallels the purpose of literature in Western society: it's a representation of their most-important and most-threatening social dynamics. It symbolizes status conflicts, but it doesn't relieve their tension, or have any directly understood functional role except entertainment. But not shallow entertainment, like a cockfight in England would have been; entertainment the way literature entertains, by letting the Balinese look at a representation of themselves and the best and the worst that can happen, without any actual risk.

Geertz arrives at this conclusion because he is asking himself, when he sees the Balinese acting in ways he doesn't understand, "What story are they telling / enacting?" rather than assuming the activity is what it looks like (Western cockfighting), or that it must have a (non-artistic) social function.

It seems to me, though, that a structuralist approach could arrive at the same conclusion as easily.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-08-27T20:51:40.311Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Did the books also give the example of advertising?

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-28T03:26:11.890Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

No.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-08-26T03:36:38.306Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

From reading La Wik, semiotics seems like an interesting and important field of study.

However, my impression resonates with the comments I see here - the word has the stench of bullshit about it, whatever value some may have produced in the field.

If the field has produced useful work, it seems to be suffering under the same fate as quantum mechanics when Deepak Chopra types appropriate it's language for their nonsense.

Is anyone here aware of something of valuable produced in the field of semiotics? A bunch of valuable things, maybe in a particular book?

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-26T14:39:43.743Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

There are many influential books in many fields that say they're using semiotics. But I haven't yet found the semiotics to do anything, or to introduce any new concepts. All I see is that it lets them express their thoughts in longer but more stereotyped sentences.

For instance, instead of saying, "The Serbians said Albanians were dirty, violent, primitive, and greedy," they would write, "The significations given to the figure of the Albanian in Serb discourse is characterized by condensed images of Albanians as dirty, violent, primitive, and greedy."

Introductions to semiotics talk about linguistic functions like metaphor or the relationship between an object and its name, but they don't say anything you didn't already know. They won't help you understand metaphors better. They'll make distinctions and then argue about them interminably without ever grounding those distinctions in reality. Like this:

Lacan's reformulation of the Saussurean sign provides a crucial turn in the theory of meaning: rejecting the idea that signifier and signified are inextricably linked in the sign, ... he argues that they form distinct planes.... Lacan establishes the difference between signifier and signified: metonymy, or displacement, is found 'on one side of the effective field constituted by the signifier', while the other side is linked to metaphor or condensation. The signifier operates associatively, displaced along a chain of signifiers into which the signified emerges to arrest the flow... As a result, meanings change, an effect of the 'sliding of the signified under the signifier' in which the latter predominates.

I don't think that means anything. If it meant something, semioticians could take actual sentences, and then show how the two opposing views provide different interpretations of those sentences, and argue that one interpretation is better. I haven't seen them do that.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-08-27T00:43:14.038Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Lacan's reformulation of the Saussurean sign ...

The ritual incantations of a vested priesthood. It means they can live off the productivity of others, and indoctrinate their children.

How's that for semiotic analysis? Not obscurantist enough? Yeah, probably not.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2015-09-03T18:57:29.231Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If it meant something, semioticians could take actual sentences, and then show how the two opposing views provide different interpretations of those sentences

Is that fair?

Everyone agrees that 2+2=4, but people disagree about what that statement is about. Within the foundations of mathematics, logicists and formalists can have a substantive disagreement even while agreeing on the truth-value of every particular mathematical statement.

Analogously, couldn't semioticians agree about the interpretation of every text, but disagree about the nature of the relationship between the text and its correct interpretation? Granted that X is the correct interpretation of Y, what exactly is it about X and Y that makes this the case? Or is there some third thing Z that makes X the correct interpretation of Y? Or is Z not a thing in its own right, but rather a relation among things? And, if so, what is the nature of that relation? Aren't those the kinds of questions that semioticians disagree about?

comment by RichardKennaway · 2015-09-03T20:43:16.803Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Everyone agrees that 2+2=4, but people disagree about what that statement is about.

It's about numbers. Problem solved. :)

Does the disagreement, whatever it is, have any more impact on anything outside itself than semiotics does?

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2015-09-03T22:20:59.167Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Does the disagreement, whatever it is, have any more impact on anything outside itself than semiotics does?

I can't say how it compares to semiotics because I don't know that field or its history.

If you're just asking whether foundations-of-math questions have had any impact outside of themselves, then the answer is definitely Yes.

For example, arguments about the foundations of mathematics led to developments in logic and automated theorem proving. Gödel worked out his incompleteness theorems within the context of Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. One of the main purposes of PM was to defend the logicist thesis that mathematical claims are just logical tautologies concerning purely logical concepts. Also, PM is the first major contribution that I know of to the study of Type Theory, which in turn is central in automated theorem proving.

Also, if you're trying to assess whether you believe in the Tegmark IV multiverse, which says that everything is math, then what you think math is is probably going to play some part in that assessment. Maybe that is just a case of one pragmatically-pointless question's bearing on another, but there it is.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-08-29T16:14:59.278Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's generally very hard to follow texts that use a lot of distinctions that one doesn't use.

Metaphor seems to be a term that we all know Condensation, Metonymy and Displacement not so much.

After reading this text we can ask: "Why is metonymy found at the side of the signifier but not at the side of the signified?" "Why is metaphor found at the side of the signified but not at the side of the signifier?"

I'm not sure what kind of answer a person trained in Semotics would give but there might be meaningful answers.

comment by passive_fist · 2015-08-30T05:46:14.127Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

seems to believe people have an extra-computational ability to make correct judgements at better-than-random probability that have no logical basis

This is a very common belief. I've even seen seasoned mathematicians and AI gurus make this mistake, often unwittingly.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-08-30T13:29:42.256Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If they actually have no logical basis then it would be hard to expect that they would be better than random.

But a feeling that something is likely true is a logical basis, since it is caused by something, and it could be a reason why someone can make correct judgments at a rate better than random. For example, when I tried calibration games, whenever a binary question came up and I had no knowledge of the topic, I guessed based on what I happened to feel was more likely. So for example if the question was "Did team A or team B win the superbowl in 1984?" I had no knowledge of the answer because I am not interested in sports and pay no attention to them. But one of the team names might have felt slightly more familiar than the other, and so I guessed that name.

Following that policy of following my feelings, I was not able to get less than 60% accuracy on the binary questions that I had no real knowledge about.

comment by passive_fist · 2015-08-30T22:22:28.094Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I interpreted that sentence to mean that the belief itself has no logical basis, not the judgements.

From the standpoint of treating a human being as a rational agent, it makes absolutely no difference whether a judgement is based on feeling, belief, intuition, divine inspiration, etc. All that matters is the decision and the outcome.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-30T15:03:42.607Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's a wonderful observation. Do you remember how many questions you counted?

But the belief could be said to be "true", if you're strict about what "logical" means. The brain doesn't use logical representations; it uses neural activation patterns, which are non-discrete, and which, unlike signs, exist in a metric space. However it combines these, it does so computationally, which is probably what you and I mean by logically. But AFAIK no logics that anyone actually uses for any applications have the power of a Turing machine.

In semiotics, they are that strict about what "logical" means. They believe that people think only in words. This is silly to anyone who knows much about biology or neuroscience. But if one believes that, then notes that people know things that can't be represented in the words we have for those concepts--for instance, knowing not just that they feel hot or cold, but how hot or how cold they are--one might call it extra-logical.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-09-06T10:44:40.309Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

They believe that people think only in words.

I would be very careful of drawing conclusions like that. I don't think that experts in that domain think that every sign is a word in the way the "word" is commonly understood by laypeople.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-08-30T15:15:59.995Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't remember the number of questions but I played it for quite a while. I remember being frustrated because I couldn't get the 50% option calibrated, since I didn't want to purposely choose the option that felt less likely. Presumably more practice would have helped distinguish between weaker and stronger impressions of that kind.

I agree that the brain does this kind of thing computationally, and it would be a mistake to suppose that there is some other non-computational way to do it.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-09-06T10:43:33.339Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is a very common belief. I've even seen seasoned mathematicians and AI gurus make this mistake, often unwittingly.

It's no mistake. There good research that pattern matching works and human brains are good at it. No expert wins at Chess or Go with a strategy that's based in logic.

When we move to more formal ontology, we can think of logic as predicate calculus. David Chapman argues in Probality and Logic that logic usually means predicate calculus when used by experts. Barry Smith who does applied ontology for bioinformatics argues in against Fantology that a lot of important knowledge is not represented by predicate calculus. Barry approach to ontology seems to be well accepted within bioinformatics to be useful in practice.

If you look at standard semiotics reasoning by the way of metaphar is not a process that fits into predicate calculus. If you accept that there are cases where people draw correct judgements by reasoning with the help of metaphars and you use the standard formal definition of logic, than you are dealing with reasoning processes that are not logic based. It's very worthwhile to study how those reasoning processes work and how to reason well with metaphars. At the same time I'm not sure whether Lacan or Derrida succeeded at producing useful knowledge that helps for practical contexts in the way someone like Barry Smith succeeded in producing useful knowledge.

comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-08-25T14:39:37.679Z · score: 0 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Semiotics, as a description of the entirety of communication, is a set which contains itself, and moreover contains the set theory which says that it contains itself, and also contains every possible notation system by which its properties might be defined.

Any formal process of defining semiotics, in a sense, defines the formal process by which anything is defined.

If semiotics exists in a non-trivial and complete form, it violates Godel's incompleteness theorem, because it encapsulates and defines all possible arithmetic systems, and every possible provable statement within any arithmetic system can be proven within it. Therefore, semiotics must exist, if it exists at all, in a trivial and/or incomplete form.

I'm pretty sure.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-25T14:54:26.021Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Okay, but I could say the same thing about logic.

comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-08-25T15:06:37.803Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

But what do you refer to, when you refer to "logic"? Do you perhaps mean boolean logic? Predicate logic? Propositional logic?

There's a common reference class, but no common implementation, when you point at "logic". Each kind of logic is incomplete, but that is fine, because each kind of logic is domain-specific, and you use the kind of logic which is most complete with respect to the problem you're interested in. Which actually raises a point about something you said:

Are there multiple "sciences" all using the name "semiotics"? Does semiotics make any falsifiable claims? Does it make any claims whose meanings can be uniquely determined and that were not claimed before semiotics?

Yes. No. No. The exact same things are true of "logic", however, in its broadest sense. It's only when you get into the specific "sciences" (or domains of logic) that anything interesting is allowed to happen.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-08-26T01:55:42.922Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Okay, so then semiotics is mostly a set of proofs I take it. What, then, are the major assumptions underlying those proofs and which are the most important proofs built on those assumptions?

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-28T21:11:03.270Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Semiotics seems to be the idea that everything should be analyzed in terms of its communicative function.

comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-08-26T15:37:23.693Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

No. That explanation was a way of explaining why "semiotics" as a general field of study is not actually going to be able to say anything interesting at all.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-28T21:09:51.610Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry; I don't know why your comment got downvoted so much. It seems reasonable to me.

comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-08-29T03:08:27.415Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, a number of reasons; The carefree tone of the approach. The implication that I didn't spend too much time considering my opinion. The fact that my carefree, ill-considered tone is combined with a rejection of the idea that studied experts in a particular field actually have a clear idea what they're talking about based on a clearly limited understanding of what it is they're studying, as opposed to your pretty clearly well-thought out and considered response to a field you actually investigated.

comment by TheMajor · 2015-08-28T21:54:17.439Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The parent argument proves too much, I think. Try adding the following, for example:

Since any communication can be described as the transmission of information, and, in order to be transmitted, this information must exist, any formal system of semiotics (providing it exists) can be encompassed by a larger formal system of physics. Taken together with the earlier observation (about the triviality of semiotics) we conclude that any formal explanation of physics must be trivial and/or incomplete.

I think the moral of the story is that one should not attempt to invoke Gödels Incompleteness Theorem in Social Science.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-29T00:27:03.200Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think the parent argument is saying that a social science should not claim it supersedes logic.

Also, I'm afraid we may both be doing semiotics.

comment by WhyAsk · 2015-08-25T17:35:48.527Z · score: -5 (11 votes) · LW · GW

People don't want to know the truth about these things. I don't know why.

comment by wizard · 2015-08-25T16:51:19.818Z · score: -6 (20 votes) · LW · GW

Wow, that sounds like a lot of bullshit?? It's like those theories where lizards inhabit the Hollow Earth. Sorry you had to put up with those fakes. They need to wake up and realize that magic is not real.

Edit: before you say I didn't look into it in extreme depth before calling it bullshit, consider that I'd be losing... a bajillion utilities by doing so!! I lost enough utilities just looking at a cursory explanation of the theory it's really bad

comment by RowanE · 2015-08-26T14:16:47.562Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you're wondering why you're getting downvotes, it seems to be that you're revelling in having fallen prey to the Absurdity Heuristic. Also, more pedantically, "utilities" are electricity and water, the arbitrary unit for quantifying utility is "utilons".