Our Orientation

Histories of Meaning

Earl Jackson, Jr.

University of California, Santa Cruz
Winter 1999

of Meaning

Semiotic Orientation

While the seminar will be
primarily concerned with
theories of meaning from 5th Century
BCE Greece
late antiquity, we will acknowledge the hermeneutic pecularities
of our investigation, first of all by making explicit our
contemporary critical orientation to questions of meaning and
signification, namely what we mean by semiotics as a modern and
contemporary field and range of critical practices.

the term and its history.

It does not seem
anachronistic to deal with Greek thought on language in terms of
semiotics since the term itself is derived from ancient Greek.
The Greek root sêmsêmeion (sign) gives us
„semantics,“ „semiology,“ and
„semiotics,“ among other terms.

2nd Century C. E. One of the
earliest elaborations of a disciplinary study of signs developed
in Greek medicine. Galen (139-199 C. E.) called his science of
symptomatology a

Early Modern

1690. John Locke was the
first modern philosopher to suggest a study of signs as a
subdivision of general philosophy. He coined the term
sêmeiôtikê in his Essay concerning Human Understanding
[IV. 21.4.]

20th Century

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1914) Swiss founder of modern
linguistics. Proposed linguistics as a part of a larger
theoretical study of sign systems he called semiology.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). U. S. philosopher,
mathematician and founder of modern semiotics.

Frequently „semiology“ and „semiotics“ are used interchangably. The
former distinction is rarely maintained – „semiology“
referring to the Saussurean tradition and lineage, and
„semiotics“ to that of Peirce. We will use
„semiotics“ as the basic term.

of Signs in Antiquity – A Provisional Retrospective Typology


sign-object relation

In the Cratylus, Plato takes up the question of the
relation of a sign to its referent. Is the relation purely a
result of convention, or is there something „natural“
holding the two together. This question had already been a point
of contention among earlier schools of philosophy, and the
question is articulated in terms of an important binary
opposition, that of convention vs. nature or nomos vs. physis.
[This binary is also central to the epistemological and ethical
philosophies associated with the Sophists, and the focus of
Socratic scorn of the Sophists, the importance of which will
become clearer as we continue reading.]

Among the presocratics,
Heraclitus believed in a natural relation between sign and
signifier [however difficult it seems to reconciles this position
with Heraclitus’s belief that everything existing is in a
state of constant flux ].

Democritus, most well known
for his theory of atoms, believed that the relationship between
word and referent was entirely
conventional [suny®kh ]. Democritus’s defense of his
position has survived and is quite interesting. He reasons that,
if the relation of a sign to its object were natural, that would
make impossible four circumstances that frequently occur and are
undeniably part of daily experience. These four circumstances

[a] one word
may have
many meanings

[b] several
words may have the same meaning

[c] one word
name’} may be substituted for an
previous word {

[d] there
exist things for which there are
no names

Fragment B 26.

In Plato’s Cratylus,
the two camps of nomos and physis are represented
by Hermogenes and Cratylus, respectively. Hermogenes (a disciple
of Parmenides) advocates the „conventionality“ of names
384d1-6; 433e2ff]. Cratylus (a Herakletian)
advocates the „naturalness“ of correct names.

mediates and offers a peculiar compromise position.

While he listens with
apparent sympathy to both sides, and the way the line of
questioning runs suggests that Socrates will decide in favor of
the conventionality of the word-meaning bond, he throws us a
curve ball. In his discussion with Cratylus he argues that naming
an object is an act, and acts can be legitimate or illegitimate.
Therefore there must be a correct way of naming an object
according to the object’s essence [ousia ]. He
likens a word to a shuttle on a loom. The word that would serve
as the name for a given object must fit the
ousia of object, like the shuttle must
fit the particular fabric to be woven. Therefore, Socrates
concludes, that a name is a tool and must be fashioned and used
appropriately, just as tools must be used.
Crat. 387d1-8. Crat. 388a8, b13f. And the conclusion
regarding the essence of the thing comes to fore at Crat. 431. ousia

: Radical Semantic Realism

Plato’s famous theory
of Forms (eide ) has important implications for his theory
of meaning.

The ousia Socrates
mentions in the Cratylus is only a foreshadowing of the fully
developed theory of Forms in the later dialogues. According to
Plato there is a world of immaterial, pure essences, which he
called eide, the Forms. The tangible objects of the given world
are lesser copies of these eide. Anything has its existence as
that thing because it participates in the eide for it (for
example, the desk at which I am sitting at present is a desk by
virtue of its participation in „Desk“-ness or the eide
of „Desk.“

The theory of Forms is an
enormous topic, and one that is for the most part well out of our
purview. But there are at least two ways in which this theory
will affect our understanding of Plato’s theory of meaning.


A „realist“
theory of language assumes that a signifier posits a signified
that really exists – external to and autonomous from the
signifier. Plato’s Forms seems to double that independence.
Plato would attribute autonomous reality to the tangible object
and the Form of which that object is a copy .

2. Componential Semantic Dysphoria – [my term, it
might not be useful

If words should aim at
the ousia of their intended object, the philosopher aims
at an apprehension of the eide, even beyond the ousia of
the objects in the phenomenal world. Now if we can make a leap
here. If words are meant to express the ousia of things,
then at least ideally [no pun intended] words must have a
potential relation to both things and the eide . There are
several ways these planes can breakdown, and many of them are
dealt with in various of Plato’s works:

  • The
    difference between knowing „words“ and knowing
    the „things“ themselves
  • The
    discrepancy between „knowledge“ derived from
    words and  knowledge derived from direct experience
    of  the „things themselves“

In Epistle VII., Plato offers a five-part
dealing with the problem of knowledge across these diffractory
planes of communication.


  • [1] the name (onoma )
  • [2] the definition (logos )
  • [3] the image (eidôlon )
  • [4] the knowledge
    (epistêmê ) [derived from 1-3]
  • [5] the thing itself ( on )

** By the
time of The Laws, Plato has honed the five-part schema down to
three elements. See

Laws 895d. [I think
it is also telling that this streamlined schema is
„perfected“ within its particular example here: the
definition of the soul.]


In On
Aristotle refutes Plato’s conception of
a word as a
. Aristotle
insists that language is entirely conventional.

Now spoken
sounds are symbols of affections in the soul and
written  marks are symbols of spoken sounds. And, just
as written marks are not the same for all men[sic], neither
are spoken sounds. But what these are in the first places
signs of – affections in the soul – are the same for all; and
what these affections are likenesses of – actual things – are
also the same.

Herm. 16.A].

Note the tripartite structure
of a sign event implied in the above [I’m changing the
terminology for the sake of clarity:

an utterance (either spoken or written)

a mental image

an object

The utterance represents
the mental image, which in turn is a representation of an
external object. When a word is uttered which signifies
something, both speaker and hearer register a thought in their
minds to accompany the utterance of a word (16 b20f.). This
thought is a likeness of a thing. Let us keep this in mind as we

differences between Plato and Aristotle’s theories of



attitudes towards poets and mimesis

[Ion; Republic]



Plato’s antipathy to
sophists and


Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

What we should do
next/where to go from here
Using the model above,
construct an abstract of Augustine’s theory of meaning in
„On the Teacher.“ Add it to this text (on the
electronic version I can email you or you can download from our
site). This is the beginning of your ongoing log for the seminar.
Keep adding as we proceed.

Other Signs on the
Multiplex Highway to Thebes









The Elenchus Intervention

Part One: Javiera’s

Part Two: Earl’s Response

Fantasy Campus

Another Scene

Hysteria and Paranoia