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date: 21 July 2024

Eco, Umberto

Encyclopedia of Semiotics

Gary Genosko

Eco, Umberto 

(b. 1932),

Italian semiotician and novelist whose writings bear upon a wide range of topics from medieval philosophy and the constraints of interpretation to cultural criticism and the resistance to postmodernism. In the 1950s and 1960s, Eco wrote extensively on medieval aesthetics and avant‐garde practices. He also engaged in cultural criticism in a parodic mode for journals of the Italian avant‐garde, examples of which are found in Misreadings (1993), and regularly contributed articles on contemporary events to mainstream publications, some of which appear in Travels in Hyperreality (1983a).

Eco's first work, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas (published in English in 1988) consists of a detailed exposition of the Thomistic aesthetic system and reveals a contradiction in the system concerning the distinction between natural forms, whose beauty is normally grasped only by their divine creator, and artificial forms, whose beauty is perceived by their human makers. Eco interestingly compares Thomistic and structuralist methodologies in terms of their reliance on binary divisions, their adoptions of synchronic perspectives, interdisciplinary spirits, and pretentions to universal logic. He further surveyed the development of theories and problems in medieval aesthetics in Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (1986).

Opera aperta (The Open Work, 1989b) raised issues to which Eco has returned repeatedly. Using examples from avant‐ garde music, literature, and painting, he theorizes the concept of openness as an intentional element in an artist's production that is delivered to the performer in the manner of a “construction kit.” The interpreter or performer participates in completing an unfinished work. At issue for Eco are works and not random components open to indiscriminate, “gratuitously different,” actualizations. The openness of the work is presented as a field of relations with specific structural limits and formal tendencies. An open work exploits ambiguity, which arises from formal innovations and contraventions of existing values and conventions; disorder arises in relation to the existing order, which the work rejects, but the disorder of the new work is organized and avoids both a collapse into chaos and incomprehensibility and a relapse into the predictability of classical forms. In this spirit, Eco diagnosed the medieval disposition of James Joyce in The Middle Ages of James Joyce: The Aesthetics of Chaosmos (1989a). The Joycean aesthetic is marked by a dialectical tension between nostalgia for the ordered cosmos of Scholasticism and the striving through chaos toward a new “chaosmic” order.

In The Role of the Reader (1979) and later in the essays in Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1992), Eco revisits the question of openness as an extreme example of how texts produce their model readers. An open text creates a model reader whose interpretive project is directed purposefully by the text's structural strategy, whereas paradoxically closed texts have a poorly defined model reader whose interpretive choices are free from constraints. Superman comics and Ian Fleming's James Bond novels are examples of closed texts. The empirical author is manifested in a text as style or idiolect. Eco displaces the question of the author's intentions into the text, which itself has an intention about which its model reader makes conjectures. The task of an empirical reader is both to make conjectures about the text's model reader and to interpret the model author coinciding with the text's intention. There are three intentions at issue in interpretation: those of the author, the text, and the reader. In The Limits of Interpretation (1990), Eco adds that texts produce two model readers: a naive one attuned to semantic content and a second who critically and metalinguistically describes, explicates, and enjoys the clues the text employs to attract such a reader. By means of a semiotic modeling of the hermeneutic circle that essentially repopulates textual interpretation, Eco advances a sober alternative to intentionalist interpretation and the structuralist death of the author while also warding off the radical freedom and ingenuity of the deconstructive reader of texts.

The Open Work, The Role of the Reader, and The Limits of Interpretation all address the problem of the reception of artistic works and literary and theoretical texts. They mark an important transition in Eco's writing from presemiotic to structural and semiotic specifications of the dialectic of openness and the various pressures that guide and restrict interpreters. Eco progressively introduces concepts whose purpose is to protect openness against unlimited drift and arbitrary uses of texts. He consistently turns to the Peircean idea of unlimited semiosis to critically reveal the pragmatic limits it places upon free interpretive play and how it transcends the will of any individual in the building up of a transcendental community of researchers who would be, in the long run, in agreement about the meaning of a text. In this light, Eco also puts a frame around comic freedom in this study of carnival as an “authorized transgression” that recalls the law.

A Theory of Semiotics (1976) lays the groundwork for a general semiotic theory embracing all cultural communication processes and a theory of codes governing the signification systems that make these and other potential processes possible. The theory of codes borrows concepts from Louis Hjelmslev (1899–1965) and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) and reveals their respective general features by converting the correlation of expression and content into the correspondence of a sign vehicle and meaning and enlisting the Peircean interpretant in order to dispense with the metaphysical concept of the referent. Eco establishes the correspondence the code makes between sign vehicles and cultural units and delineates their segmentation in a semantic field consisting of denotative and connotative markers. Cultural units are further generalized into “sememes”—that is, functional units of meaning comparable to phonemes in structuralist phonology. These sememes are embedded in a network of positions and oppositions within semiotic fields to which sign vehicles refer. The full compositional analysis of sememes that emerges enables Eco to model both the syntactic markers possessed by a sign vehicle and to indicate with encyclopedic complexity its sememe's treelike array of denotative and connotative markers, along with the contextual and circumstantial selections that instruct any semantically competent decoder. Faced with the problem of “infinite semantic recursivity” that emerges because the analysis of sememes produces more sememes to be analyzed, Eco does not appeal to Peirce's idea of transcendental community but instead admits the instability and temporality of the compositional tree and acknowledges the vast network of subcodes of which codes consist. Eco's analysis is limited to the “immediate semantic environment” of given sememes, thus making competence more like a local dictionary serving pragmatic purposes rather than an elaborate semantic encyclopedia. The issue of openness is raised through the problem of the addressee's extracoding or undercoding of a message. Eco reworks the standard communication model by expanding the message as a text subject—first on the side of the addresser, to presuppositional influences (private biases, orienting circumstances, ambiguities relating to the encoding of expression and content planes, the influence of subcodes, suppositions of shared knowledge), then, for the addressee, to “aberrant” presuppositions (private biases, deviating circumstances, aleatory connotations and interpretive failures, as well as the appeal to subcodes and the actual depth of the addressee's knowledge), all of which are further subject to uncoded external influences. Eco retains an element of revolutionary semiotic resistance against the intentional bombardment of addressees with messages eliciting their acquiescence in the tactical freedom of decoding borne of a change in the circumstances that permit an addressee to reinvent the message's content without changing its expression form.

The theory of sign production commences with a study of the types of labor presupposed in the processes that shape expression in correlation with content. Eco appeals to Peirce in order to solve the recurring problem of reference arising from mentioning and treats perceived objects as semiotic entities constituted as such as the basis of “previous semiotic processes.” But this appeal also necessitates a critique of iconism because of the naive assumptions governing the so‐called similitude of iconic signs and their objects. Eco's typology of modes of sign production takes into account four parameters: physical labor of acts of recognition, ostension (the act of showing, displaying), replication, and invention; type‐token distinctions at work in each act; the expression continuum shaped according to motivated or arbitrarily selected material; and the coding, overcoding, or undercoding of combinatorial units.

In Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984), Eco deepens his investigation of many of the key semiotic concepts dealt with in A Theory of Semiotics. He stresses the inferential nature and interpretability of signs, distinguishing between three types of abduction: overcoded, undercoded, and creative. These three types involve more and more freedom in adopting rules that will explain a given sememe. Eco also elaborates a further triad to explain the image of the labyrinth that informs the semantic encyclopedia of compositional analysis. The three types are classical, maze, and rhizome. The degree of interconnectedness of their parts becomes progressively more complex with each type. The rhizome indicates that structure of semiosis itself and consists of an infinite network of interpretants, the analysis of which remains a regulative hypothesis. In keeping with his trademark hybrid blend of Hjelmslevian and Peircean categories, Eco reduces the two continua of the expression and content planes of Hjelmslev to one continuum: the matter through which semiosis takes place. Semiotic interpretation involves the application of Peircean concepts to define the segmented portions of the continuum serving as sign vehicles for content segments.

Eco's long‐standing interest in detective fiction is evident in his analyses of the narrative structure of Fleming's formulaic novels as well as in his treatment of the abductive conjectures of such famous fictional detectives as Sherlock Holmes. Eco's own entry into this genre came with his novel The Name of the Rose (1983b), which ingeniously combines his scholarly interests in medieval culture and modern problems of interpretation with murder and mystery and also presents his metaphor of the labyrinth as a library.


Coletti, T. Naming the Rose: Eco, Medieval Signs, and Modern Theory. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Eco, U. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.Find this resource:

Eco, U. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.Find this resource:

Eco, U. Travels in Hyperreality: Essays. Translated by W. Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983a.Find this resource:

Eco, U. The Name of the Rose. Translated by W. Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983b.Find this resource:

Eco, U. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.Find this resource:

Eco, U. Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. Translated by H. Bredin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Eco, U. The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. Translated by H. Bredin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Eco, U. The Middle Ages of James Joyce: The Aesthetics of Chaosmos. Translated by E. Esrock. London: Hutchison, 1989a.Find this resource:

Eco, U. The Open Work. Translated by Anna Cancogni. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989b.Find this resource:

Eco, U. The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Eco, U. Interpretation and Overinterpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Eco, U. Misreadings. Translated by W. Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.Find this resource:

—Gary Genosko