The Sign Science and
the Life Science


Thomas A. Sebeok

Indiana University


In the celebrated passage in which Saussure referred to une science qui étudie la vie des signes au sein de la vie sociale, the term science is, as a rule, loosely, arguably, and, in my view, misleadingly rendered by the English quasicognate "science" (for example, by Harris, in Saussure 1983:15). Saussure went on to say that this science __that is, semiotics (alias semiology) __ "does not yet exist," nor can one "say for certain that it will exist." If so, the status of semiotics as a science (in the strict sense, rather than meaning simply savoir) would be comparable with that of, say, exobiology, a sanguine term coined by Joshua Ledeberg at a meeting in Nice in 1957 for the study of extraterrestrial life (Ponnamperuma 1972: viii); but this "science" of exobiology remains, to this day, devoid of a palpable subject matter.

Such is not, however, the case if semiotics is defined __ as all of us echo here, after the variegated usage of the Schoolmen, the Latin expression doctrina signorum __ according to Locke in 1690, Berkeley in 1732, Peirce in c. 1897, and others, as a "doctrine" (cf., generally, "On the Notion 'Doctrine of Signs'" Deely, 1982:127-130). When viewed as a "teaching manoeuvre combined with a learning stratagem" (Sebeok 1986d), semiotics is found to be at least as richly infused with content as what is today practised under the label "cognitive sciences," the domain of which is in fact essentially conterminous in gist and problematic, if not necessarily in methodology, with that of semiotics.

In this essay, I juxtapose, as a framing and heuristic device, "sign science" with "life science." The latter is a general phrase "comprehending all the Sciences ... that have to do with the structures, performances and interactions of living things." These are enumerable as the conventional biological sciences but additionally subsume several "interfacial" sciences, such as biochemistry, biophysics, and bioengineering, the last of which, Medawar and Medawar (1977:7), claim, "also establishes a common frontier between biology and communications theory."


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This piece was written for Modern Semiotics/Nyere semiotik, ed. Jorgen Dines Johansen and Svend Erik Larsen, where it appeared in 1991 under the Danish title "Videns-kaben om tegn og videnskaben om liv," and later in the author's A Sign is Just A Sign. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Dr. Thomas A. Sebeok.




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AS/SA Nº 6/7, Article 5 : Page 1 / 8

© 1999, AS/SA

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1999.05.31