My Shift from Hermeneutics to Semiotics

The vast majority of theologians acknowledge that philosophy is indispensable for theology. Indeed, throughout the history of Christian doctrine, theologians have used the insights from varying disciplines in philosophy to aid them in communicating the truth of the gospel. Paul makes reference to Greek philosophers in his message at Athens. Justin Martyr utilized the Logos doctrine of the Stoics as a way of interpreting Jesus as the Logos. Origen borrowed from Platonic philosophy in his doctrinal development. Augustine used some insights from Plotinus and other Neoplatonist philosophers. Anselm had numerous echoes back to Plato. The majority of medieval theologians, namely Thomas Aquinas, dubbed Aristotle “the Philosopher,” and they found his philosophy indispensable for constructing doctrine. William of Ockham was as much a philosopher as he was a theologian. And the list goes on.

Sure, there are important theologians who have rejected the use of philosophy for theology. Perhaps the most famous of these was Tertullian in his exclamatory question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Not only Tertullian, but even Martin Luther spoke out against the heavy use of philosophy for theology, though he was more influenced by Ockham’s philosophy than he would care to admit. Not even was Tertullian completely able to escape using philosophical reasoning in his work. All this to say: philosophy has always served as the handmaiden to theology, and I think this is a good thing.

Following the example of Wolfhart Pannenberg, I have aimed to be as good at philosophy as I am at theology, though I still place more of my focus on the latter. I have always done theology with an eye to philosophical questions. Traditionally speaking, philosophy has always been concerned with understanding the nature of reality and with knowing the truth about reality. Thus, it has developed tools, namely through the developments of logic, for ascertaining and preserving truth.

Theology claims to be the science of God and is concerned with discovering the truth about the reality and nature of God. Though theologians [should] begin with the particulars of divine revelation, i.e. that God the Father has revealed himself in his Son, Jesus of Nazareth, as attested to by the Spirit in Holy Scripture, they would be wise to look to the tools of philosophy to aid them in their quest to discover and preserve the truth of God, which is derived from the particulars of God’s revelation just mentioned. I aim to do just this in my own work.

As I have discussed in a previous post, I cut my philosophical teeth on the branch of philosophy known as hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the branch of philosophy concerned with human understanding. It seeks to explore questions such as “what is understanding?,” “what does it mean to be an understanding being?,” “how does one understand?,” “how does interpretation work with understanding?,” and many others. As Hans-Georg Gadamer has pointed out, hermeneutics is universal in its scope. It crosses over into the disciplines of ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, philosophy of language, and more. It is a genuinely interdisciplinary endeavor. No theologian has demonstrated better the use and importance of hermeneutics for theology than Anthony Thiselton.[1]

I think the findings in hermeneutics are very useful for theologians, so much so that I wrote my M.A. thesis demonstrating that Christian discipleship itself is a hermeneutic endeavor. There is, however, another branch of philosophy that hermeneutics has some overlap with, though most hermeneutic philosophers only make mention of it without delving deep into its waters: semiotics.

Semiotics is simply defined as the doctrine of signs. More specifically, it is the philosophical reflection on the identity and nature of signs, sign functions, and all matters pertaining to signification. What are “signs?” According to the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, one of the fathers of modern semiotics, a sign is anything that stands to someone for something else in some respect or capacity. Anything that can stand in the place of, or represent, something else to someone else is a sign. Smoke is a sign for a fire. A yardstick is a sign for a yard. A portrait is a sign of the person portrayed. And a name is a sign for someone or something. As Peirce himself once exclaimed, “The entire universe . . . is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs.”[2] This represents what we might call pansemiotics, that everything is a potential sign. As I will discuss more below, language is perhaps the most referenced instance of signs.

Peirce and other notable semioticians, such as Charles Morris, Thomas Sebeok, and John Deely, describe what a sign is in triadic terms. Each and every sign subsists in three relational, though distinct, entities. Peirce referred to these as the representamen, the object, and the interpretant, though Morris’s term sign-vehicle is perhaps more helpful than representamen.[3]

A sign-vehicle is sometimes referred to as a sign proper. An example of a sign-vehicle is a word. Other examples of sign-vehicles are portraits, a fever, and smoke. A sign-vehicle represents, or stands for, some object (hence Peirce’s designation representamen). My name, Andrew, represents, or signifies, me. Smoke is a sign-vehicle in that it signifies, or represents, a fire, or some other thing producing smoke.

The second component of the sign is the object. The object is that which the sign-vehicle represents. I, the person Andrew, would be the object of the sign-vehicle Andrew. A fire, or some other thing producing smoke, would be the object of the sign of smoke. A viral infection, potentially, is the object for which a fever represents. Peirce was clear that there are always two objects to be mindful of: the immediate object and the dynamical object. The latter of these two is the object as it is in itself. The former is the object as it is presented by/in the sign-vehicle.

The interpretant is another sign that is created in the quasimind of the interpreter that makes possible the signifying relationship between the sign-vehicle and the object. For example, consider the term computer. Computer is a sign-vehicle that stands for, in this case, the laptop that I am currently typing on, i.e. the object. When you, the reader, perceive the sign-vehicle computer you know what it signifies, or represents. This is because you have cognitive images of what a computer is as well do you know definitions of what a computer is that allow you to connect computer with an actual computer, namely the one on which I am currently typing. These images and definitions are interpretants. They are additional signs that make recognition, or interpretation, of computer possible.

Let me provide another example of this, a non-linguistic one. Suppose that a forest catches on fire. Nearby animals smell the smoke and flea for their safety. The smoke in this example is the sign-vehicle, and the forest fire is the object. When the animals smell the smoke, this creates another sign in their neurological processes that indicates danger and informs them to run. This other sign is the interpretant. Or, suppose you come down with a fever because you have caught an infection of some sort, and you choose to go to the doctor’s office for treatment. The fever is the sign-vehicle that signifies the bacterial infection, i.e. the object, to the doctor. Taking notice of this fever the doctor gives you a dose of Tylenol to break the fever. You see, upon taking your temperature the fever signified to the doctor that your bodily temperature was at an abnormally high level, which signified to them that they needed to give you something, e.g. Tylenol, to bring your bodily temperature back down to a normal one. This sign that arose in the mind of the doctor is the interpretant.

This dynamic-relational interplay between sign-vehicles, objects, and interpretants is what Peirce and those following him refer to as semiosis. Indeed, semiotics is perhaps better defined as the philosophical reflection and study of semiosis.

So, what has semiotics to do with hermeneutics? As Gadamer himself discusses in Part Three of Truth and Method, all understanding takes place through the medium of language.[4] As discussed above, languages are signs. More properly, they are sign systems. What Gadamer says is true, but it doesn’t go far enough. He is right to note that all understanding takes place through languages, which are signs, but what about other cognitive processes, such as memories and thinking in general? When we see a photograph of someone we know, we typically recognize who it portrays. This recognition is non-linguistic, yet it is still cognitive (hence recognition). All thinking and cognitive process take place through the medium of signs.

Since languages, their terms, and their grammars are all signs, and since all human understanding takes place through the medium of languages (and other signs), then human understanding can be described as a semiotic phenomenon. Cognition is a semiosic process.

Since understanding is a semiotic phenomenon, then it can be analyzed and studied from a semiotic perspective. Once I realized that all understanding and cognition is a semiosic process, my shift in focus from hermeneutics to semiotics began. But what about semiotics actually merits this shift? Surely hermeneutics is not completely reducible to semiotics, is it? This is correct. If we have learned anything from Roy Bhaskar’s philosophy of science, known as critical realism, it is that the reality we occupy is a stratified reality. While reality is made up of different strata, they are not all reducible to other strata. The disciplines of biology, chemistry, and physics are all sciences, but they cannot be reduced to one over the others. This is why biology and chemistry do not simply collapse into physics.

The discipline of semiotics makes up another stratum of this reality, though it is a very unique one. Semiotics is a science, but it is different from the rest of the sciences. Semiotics takes the sign as its object of inquiry. However, every form of inquiry, understanding, and cognition, including every form of science, is impossible apart from the sign. Without the sign, signification, representation, and communication would be impossible. All scientific inquiry and scientific representation take place through the medium of signs and sign systems. As such, every science can be approached and analyzed through semiotic categories. Semiotics is both the science that studies the sign and it is the science that is presupposed in every other science. This is why Charles Morris declared that semiotics was both a science in its own right as well as the science to unite all the other sciences.

Since semiotics is already involved in every single scientific and academic discipline, then it seems reasonable to question what the study of signs has to offer these other disciplines. Indeed, semiotics can do much more than providing a new vocabulary for understanding these different disciplines; insights on how signs dynamically relate to one another poses the potential to open up new doorways of exploration within these sciences.

In his massive tome Four Ages of Understanding, semiotician and philosopher John Deely traces how the history of philosophy has brought us to where we are today, to the doctrine of signs. He concludes by making the case that semiotics is the future of philosophy, though many have failed to see that. I think Deely is right. I think semiotics poses new and fruitful ways of thinking through and approaching the questions of ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, philosophy of language, hermeneutics, and even theology. Hermeneutics did the same during its time, but semiotics allows us to go further, to do better, and to explain more.

As I mention in the Introduction of my recent book, God in the Labyrinth: A Semiotic Approach to Christian Theology, very few theologians demonstrate any awareness of the field of semiotics and the work done therein. Semiotics has much to offer theology, but theologians are not drawing from its deep well of rich and ample resources. Once I realized this deep gap in research, i.e. the interdisciplinary dialogue between semiotics and theology, I shifted my focus from hermeneutics to the doctrine of signs. Since semiotics seems to be the new great frontier for philosophy, the handmaiden of theology, then perhaps theology should continue to venture with her handmaiden for protection and good company.

[1]See Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermenutics and Philosophical Description (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980); idem, New Horizons: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997); idem, Thiselton on Hermeneutics: Collected Works with New Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006); idem, Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007); idem, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009); idem, Why Hermeneutics?: An Appeal Culminating with Ricoeur (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).

[2]Charles Sanders Peirce, “Issues of Pragmaticism,” in Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 8 vols., ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1960), vol. 5, par. 448, note 1.

[3]Charles Morris, Foundations of the Theory of Signs, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938).

[4]Gadamer, Truth and Method, 390.

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