Excerpted from Umberto Eco, From the Tree to the Labyrinth: Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation.
The term “semantics” has a number of different meanings, several of which seem to be completely at odds with one another. This state of affairs is often a source of considerable embarrassment in dealing with our students, to whom we find ourselves having to explain that our discipline is a bit like the country where some people call “red” what others call “white” and vice versa. With the result that, every time we use the word “red,” we would have to assign it a superscript or subscript number, specifying that we mean “red1, in such and such a sense.”
In 1883 Michel Bréal (Les lois intellectuelles du langage: Fragment de sémantique) defined semantics as the science of meaning, but when he came to publish his Essai de sémantique in 1897 he gave it the more general subtitle Science des significations, and only in chapter IX, in which he proposed to examine “by what causes words, once created and endowed with a certain meaning, are induced to restrict, to extend, to transfer this meaning from one order of ideas to another, to raise or to lower its dignity, in short to change it,” does he say “it is this second part which, properly speaking constitutes Semantics or the Science of Significations.”
Semantics, then, is the science of meanings, but, for Bréal, only insofar as they are subject to historical development. And this is not all. Each time Bréal has to deal with the meaning of a word he proves incapable of isolating it from the set of enunciates, or more extensive fragments of text, in which the word appears. To give but a single example, in the chapter on the laws of specialization, Bréal is less interested in defining the meaning of the French word plus than in the fact that it takes on different meanings in different expressions.
The notion of semantics, then, is born, historically speaking, in reference to that imponderable entity we label meaning, but only to a lesser extent is it concerned with the meaning of words, or, to put it differently, of terms in isolation. For this, what was needed was not a science but an empirical praxis, lexicography in its most hands-on sense, that is, the actual compilation of dictionaries. Still, we must not forget that the whole of lexicography is simply the description of a langue, and therefore of an abstract entity, and not of the practical use of parole by means of which the speaker “means” something.
I would argue that the more or less explicit semiotics of former centuries did not question the fact that terms expressed something, but they did not presume that a special science was needed to clarify what that something was. Knowing the signs implied knowing either the things they referred to or the ideas they brought to mind, or the definitions given them by common consent, according to which the Latin homo, for instance, signified “a mortal rational animal.” In any case, for Aristotle, providing correct definitions was a task either for logic (see the Analytics) or for the various natural sciences, as is seen in his definitions of animals.
If we examine Abelard’s use of terminology, we remark that a verbal expression (i) significat a mental concept, (ii) designat or denotat its definition or “meaning,” and (iii) nominat the thing.
What we have here are three notions of semantics: (i) as the study of cognitive processes, (ii) as the study of dictionary or encyclopedia definitions, and (iii) as the study of the truth conditions of sentences. Many of our current problems stem from these medieval perplexities (and they are indeed perplexities: what exactly does a vox significativa do—signify, denote, or name?). Furthermore, Abelard’s threefold division is missing a fourth dimension, not unknown to previous semiotics, that of the disambiguation of complex texts (see Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, which is concerned with the “meaning” of a text like that of Scripture). And, lastly, there is also a fifth dimension missing, whose absence in Abelard does not imply its absence in medieval thought. What is missing is what we would call today a structural semantics as a theory of content, already present in the binary system of the division of predicables as represented in the Arbor Porphyriana.
Let us go back then, or let us look forward, beyond Abelard and beyond Bréal, and observe that, in the course of the debates on meaning, five areas of investigation have been identified, sometimes proceeding independently of each other, sometimes contradicting each other, and sometimes one of them presupposing—however acritically—the other:
- Semantics as the study of the meaning of terms removed from any context (for instance, Carnap’s theory of meaning postulates, much of componential semantics, and the various forms of semic analysis, not to mention lexicography of every kind and tendency).
- Semantics as the study of content systems or structural semantics (Hjelmslev and structural approaches to semantic fields in general et similia).
- Semantics as the study of the relation between term (or sentence) and referent, or as the study of reference (for instance, Morris, Ogden, and Richards, much of analytic philosophy, and in primis Kripke). Let me remind the reader, however, of the distinction I posited in Kant and the Platypus between (i) providing instructions to identify the possible referent of a term and (ii) the act of reference itself.
- Semantics as the study of the truth conditions of propositions expressed by sentences.
- Semantics as the study of the particular meaning that terms or sentences assume in context or in the text as a whole (this is a vast and variegated field that is concerned with the meaning of the same sentences in different contexts and circumstances, for which we may cite in first and foremost the later Wittgenstein, as well as the theory of different discursive isotopies, etc.).
Let us now suppose that I were to visit a culture (with a language adequate to express it) in which only two animals are known: the cat, hairy, smaller than a human being, domesticated, and harmless, and the crocodile, usually bigger than a human being, and scaly. For the members of that culture, based on such an elementary system of oppositions, which constitutes the full extent of their classification of the animal kingdom (a cat is everything a crocodile is not, and vice versa), if a dog were to show up, given that it was hairy, domesticated, and friendly, it would be defined as a cat (however unusual its appearance) and certainly not as an unusual crocodile. Let us suppose again that I realize that there is a boa constrictor behind my native interlocutor’s back. I wouldn’t be able to tell him that it was a boa because there is no adequate term in his language, and I couldn’t describe the strange and unusual animal without wasting precious time. I would therefore have to tell him that there was a crocodile behind him, assuming that, since in that culture animals are divided into harmless and hostile, I would thus be informing him that he was in a dangerous situation. This example is not chosen at random because in some medieval encyclopedias, not knowing how to define a crocodile (since the author had probably never seen one), they were content to call it a serpens acquaticus.
If I succeed in causing my interlocutor to be concerned, as was my intention, and if I obtain his consent to my proposition (he turns around, gives a start and concedes that the animal, obviously not a cat, is indeed a crocodile), I will have behaved according to certain methodological principles of sense 2, to make a successful reference in the sense of sense 3, obtaining his consent in terms of sense 4.
But in fact all this is because I am basing myself on the principles of sense 5, according to which it is the text and the context that have the last word in defining the meaning of terms.
This whole discourse will no doubt lead someone to opine that there is no semantics that does not need to be backed up by a pragmatics. I can only agree, as indeed I always have.