RELATED TERMS: Structuralism; Poststructuralism

Semiotics, in as far as it concerns the issue of what it means ‘to tell’, can be of great value in designing and analysing narrative environments.

Umberto Eco (1979: 7) has an interesting approach to defining what a comprehensive programme for a general semiotics would be. He suggests that this can be understood through a ‘theory of the lie’. As he explains,

“Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else. This something else does not necessarily have to exist or to actually be somewhere at the moment in which a sign stands in for it. Thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to the truth: it cannot in fact be used ‘to tell’ at all.”

Eco (1979: 14) notes that two scholars foretold the official birth and scientific organisation of semiotics as an academic discipline: Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce. For Saussure, semiology is the science which studies the life of signs in social life. His notion of a sign as a two-fold entity, signifier (sign-vehicle) and signified (meaning). In this view, the sign is implicitly regarded as a communication device taking place between two human beings intentionally aiming to communicate or express something. Semiotic system as conceived by Saussure are intentional, conventionalised systems of artificial signs.

Given Saussure’s preferences, Eco considers that Peirce offers a more comprehensive and fruitful definition of semiotics. Peirce states, as cited by Eco (1979: 15) that,

“By semiosis I mean an action, an influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in anyway resolvable into actions between pairs.”

According to Peirce (1931-1958: 2.228), then, a sign is “something which stands to somebody for something in some respects or capacity”.

Eco points out that Peirce’s approach does not demand as part of the definition of a sign, as does Saussure’s, the qualities of being intentionally emitted and artificially produced. In this way, the Peircean triad can also be applied to phenomena that do not have a human emitter, provided that they do have a human receiver, such as is the case with meteorological symptoms or any sort of index.

Eco (1979: 16) argues that those theorists who reduce semiotics to a theory of communicational acts cannot considers symptoms as signs, nor can they accept as signs any other human behavioural feature from which a receiver infers somethings about the situation of the sender even though the sender is unaware of sending something to someone.

In the context of the design of narrative environments, Peircean semiotics is taken as a guide, and his notion of ‘interpretant’ is linked to that of ‘actant’ (and, indeed, ‘passant’), so that an interpretant need not be understood to be human necessarily but can be any entity that is capable of generating a relation between a ‘sign’ and an ‘object’, such as a piece of computer code, (all of which are interpreted in actantial terms in the design of narrative environments). Like Peirce, however, the context of semiosis is taken to be ‘pragmatic’, that is, to be related to action and agency, or as we might say to actantiality and passantiality, as a field of ‘traces’ or ‘differences’: an entangled and entangling web (tangled hierarchy - Hofstadter).


Eco, U. (1979). A Theory of semiotics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Peirce, C. S. (1931-1958). Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press