An existing individual is constantly in process of becoming; the actual existing subjective thinker constantly reproduces this existential situation in his thoughts, and translates all his thinking into terms of process.

(Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, David Swenson, Walter Lowrie trans., 1974 Third Edition, p. 79)


UI: OKAY. Here’s the problem. I’ve been given to understand that my pronunciation leaves something to be desired. It looks like I’m going to have to say a word or two on certain occasions, especially when I get into politics, so I’ve decided to take lessons. The gestures too.

(Bertolt Brecht, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, 1957[1941], Eng. trans.: 43)


1. Interrogating identity and its philosophical justifications


This essay is part of a larger project concerning my research for a critique of the Subject, or, rather, a common conception of the Subject, one that has prevailed in Western thought and in truth remains widespread still today. Together with this essay another more substantial result of this research in terms of length is my monograph The Self as a Sign, the World and the Other which has just appeared (May 2013) with the publishers Transaction (New Brunswick, USA and London, UK).


When a question of a critique of the Subject, emblematically, the issue at hand is connected with the Cartesian “cogito”: “cogito ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am”. This concept dies hard, and in a sense it not only reflects a philosophy – of the self, indeed of life and of our place in the world generally –, but it has also become a social ideology. We may even claim that it responds to the ideology of Western civilization. The argument “cogito ergo sum” skips a whole series of passages. It states a conclusion without keeping account of the pathways to that conclusion, of the relations and connections established to get there. A possible course could be something like this: “I think, therefore I speak; I speak a language, a language I learnt from others; therefore others exist, and without these others I could neither speak nor think” (cf. Petrilli 2013: 8.8.).


In other words, the cogito inevitably presupposes a relation to others – a condition that can be indicated with the term “otherness” (or “alterity”). The subject and otherness, or, rather, identity and otherness go together. To keep account of this means to call in question the pretentious claims of a Subject who declares peremptorily, as though he or she were autonomous, independent, or even absolute: “I think”, “I know”, “I believe”, “I state”, “I see”.


From this point of view, interesting to observe is that in the English language not only must the subject of “cogito” and of “sum” necessarily be explicated – “I think, therefore I am” –, but it must even be written with a capital letter, as we are now doing in respect of English orthography. The difference between “I” and “you”, the first a capital letter and the second a small letter, also says a lot about the tendency to exalt the I over the other.


Another interesting observation is that, even when the I declares that it does not think, does not understand, does not know, does not believe, does not state, does not even see, its arrogance remains and with it the claim to know, to lecture, to decree, to judge, to pontificate. In fact, as they are generally used, these expressions hardly recognize the possibility of any degree of defaillance, even less so do they reveal any trace of humility. Think of expressions such as the following, which recur in everyday language: “I don’t know how you can think that”; “I can’t fathom how you can hold such an opinion”; “I don’t see how you can support that idea”; “I don’t understand how you can love that person”.


So that the verb following the “I” be in the positive or in the negative is of no account whatsoever. In either case (I know / I don’t know, I understand / I don’t understand, I believe / I don’t believe, I think / I don’t think, I state / I don’t state, I doubt / I don’t doubt), the subject is at the centre and the tendency to self-exaltation remains.


The etymology of the word “subject”, assumed as the beginning and as the foundation, is subiectum – that which holds, sustains, supports, subtends, that which is sub-stantia, “substance” in contrast to “accident”. The other sense of subject, that is, dependent, subdued, subjugated is not relevant here. Such expressions pertain to the object, that which the subject as we are describing it acts upon, whether in mental or practical terms.


When there is a subject there is always someone or something that carries out the role of object, that is, someone or something that suffers the subject’s action. And if the object becomes a subject in turn, this only occurs in a purely formal, grammatical sense for the object turned subject persists in its condition as object. The verb in the active becomes passive and, accordingly, the subject continues to be subject, but transformed into the passive simply: “I think, I see, I want something”; “something is thought, seen, wanted by me”; “I do something”; “something is done by me”.


It is not necessary to go on an excursion into philosophy to realize that all types of abuse typical of the Subject, of the I, are still recurrent, that the Subject is supreme and continues to predominate. We have already evoked the Cartesian I, but the “I think” of Kant’s philosophy, or the “I” of Hegel’s philosophy are also appropriately recalled here. In consonance with idealism, with Hegelism, with its precursors and epigones, we have an “I” with respect to which all the rest is indifferently qualifed as “non-I”.


But exaltation of the I, of the Subject, even to paroxystic degrees, can easily be traced back to Greek philosophy, the starting point of Western philosophy. Socrates strongly recommended to begin from knowing one’s own I. Plato believed that the I (the soul, consciousness) should exercise absolute supremacy over the body, and that its whole life should be conceived as preparing for death, that is, as excercising the soul to detach from the body.


The paroxysm of the I, the self, the subject is obviously the paroxysm of identity, of belonging, of a subject that excludes the other. Despite all his fine talk about friendship, even when he was tutoring Alexander and Hephaestion (Alexander’s lifelong and beloved companion), Aristotle would not accept that the great conqueror should open to the Persians, the so-called (stuttering) barbarians, that he should offer them hospitality. Is this incidental? The story goes that Aristotle supported, but perhaps even promoted a conspiracy against Alexander himself.


The Subject is always someone who belongs, who is part of…, who has the authority and the authorization, and who has the alibi of a group to hide behind, a community, a “we”.


This is not the single, unique self, but rather the self intrinsic to a collectivity, to a type or group of some sort. In other words, the self, the I we are discussing here belongs to a “we”, as one of its members. In Hegelian philosophy, but also in the idealistic philosophy of historicism, the Subject, the “I” claims to be a universal I, an absolute I, where Ich is written with a capital letter (but in the English language it always was a capital letter).


Ostentation of the Subject has been variously criticized, but to little effect – one of the reasons being of course that critique has mostly been relegated to the boundaries of philosophical circles. Such critique has also been directed at the Subject that identifies with the masses, with public opinion, the community, the Gemeinschaft. The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (widely approved under Nazism) elected the concept of Gemeinschaft which he juxtaposed to the concept of society, the Gesellschaft. Such opposition is part of the language of Nazi Germany.


In terms of critique of the Subject, most significant is Soeren Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegelian idealism, which he inevitably directed at the Hegelian absolute universal I. To the latter concept, Kierkegaard contrasted the single I, that single poor existing human being that is each and every one of us. However, Kierkegaard’s critique too has remained isolated. Existentialism does evoke him to focus on singular existence – which is exactly what exaltation of the Subject, of the I with a capital letter obstacles. But in spite of this existentialist philosophy continues to exalt the Subject – and tenaciously at that.


Exaltation of the self, of the I can be traced, for example, in Paul Sartre’s idea of absolute freedom as it concerns each single human being. Sartre also viewed absolute freedom as a malediction, no doubt, but nonetheless he still asserted it and assumed it as a natural condition. Moreover, in Sartre the relation to the other continues to be the relation between subject and object. In fact, according to Sartre, to know, to understand, to think, to desire, simply to look at the other is to transform that other into an object; and when the other knows me, thinks of me, desires me, simply looks at me, that other in turn transforms me into an object (consider Sartre’s reflections on the gaze as elaborated in L’Être et le néant, 1943). The I-other relation states an alternative: either this or that, subject or object.


Martin Heidegger also excluded the singular poor existing human being from his philosophical horizon. In spite of his originality and connection with Husserl’s phenomenology (Husserl dedicated important analyses to the I-other relation particularly in his Cartesian Meditations, a text treasured by Emmanuel Levinas who translated it into French in 1931 with Gabrielle Peiffer), Heidegger also included the relation to the other in an abstract “We”. This means to say that in Heidegger the other is assimilated to the I, englobed in a “being-together”, “Mit-Sein”, in a community, a collective, a group or assemblage of some sort.

Insofar as they exist, the I and the other indifferently act as “guardians” of Being (Sein). Heidegger’s ontology draws from Greek philosophy, in particular the tendency towards monism, totality, the absolute. His very terminology mostly derives from ancient Greek in spite of the fact that he exalts the German language and German identity. Not only: Heidegger identifies the “authentic life” with “being-toward-death” described once again as the “most possible” among all the possibilities that the self can choose from.


Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s existentialism, or perhaps, better, his phenomenology, deserves separate treatment with respect to the topic we are dealing with, if for no other reason but his having recognized the inextricable relation connecting one’s own body (leib) to the body of others. His conception is connected with his critique of idealism, on the one hand, and his critique of positivism and behaviourism, on the other. Even just the title of one of his essays is interesting in itself: The Philosopher and His Shadow (1964). In other words, this title alludes to the fact that the subject’s horizon is always limited; that which is in the light is always surrounded by a shadow.


In The Self as a Sign, the World, and the Other (Petrilli 2013), I propose to develop a critique of the subject in terms of the “material” that this subject is made of so to speak, that is, the material of signs. As anticipated, the subject, the I, the self is made of signs beginning from verbal language, from the words that inevitably form consciousness. As to the concept of “critique”, this is not understood here in a philosophically specialized or sectorial sense. In language, philosophy is everywhere, including in the sciences that claim to get free of it, to be immune to it – indeed, above all when they make such a claim. Philosophy pervades common speech even. This book formulates a philosophical critique in a semiotical key. Semiotics is the general science, or theory, or doctrine of signs. As such it is understood in the first place as philosophy. This results from its very genesis and formation. From this perspective, semiotics is already philosophy. In fact, the founders of modern semiotics are all philosophers: Charles S. Peirce, Victoria Welby, Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Charles Morris, not to mention John Locke who concludes his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) with the introduction of that type of approach he calls, precisely, “semiotic”.


To state that critique of the self and of its claims as a subject is semiotical is to evidence the material out of which the self is constituted: that is to say, sign material, linguistic material which are always signs of the other and words of the other (on the concept of “sign materiality” or “semiotic materiality”, see Petrilli 1990: 365–392 and 2010: 137–158).


To recognize the semi-other character of all signs and all words used by the self to become a self, to fulfil itself as a self, to reach awareness of self and its world is already in itself an element that calls to question the arrogance and exaltation of the self understood as a Subject. This means to challenge the Subject’s claim to being at the centre of a world where everything else is object.


The question of subjectivity has still not received the attention it deserves, nor has it been adequately critiqued. And this is true in spite of all the thought and writing that has gone into the topic over the centuries. Moreoever, like identity with which it is inextricably interrelated, subjectivity is not given once and for all. On the contrary, the self is an ongoing process, open and always in the making, a process in becoming – always becoming other than what it was becoming. A theory of subjectivity with any claim to adequacy calls for a proper grounding in a theory of sign and interpretation. And contextualized in the framework of sign-interpretive relations, subjectivity can at last assume new implications for a better understanding.


First of all, contrary to common belief, the suspicion, the awareness that is now strongly emerging is that the self, the I and identity do not converge. As anticipated above, to view subjectivity from a semiotic perspective means to view it in terms of signs and sign relations, more precisely, in terms of the verbal and nonverbal sign matter it is made of (Petrilli 2010: 137–51). Another way of putting it is that subjectivity, the self is the open result at any given instance of the dynamic and dialectic interrelationships that form sign materiality. To recognize that subjectivity is made of signs ultimately means to recognize that subjectivity is in becoming, in other words, that the self gradually emerges as an ongoing and open-ended semiosic process, and that this process flows from the “logic of otherness”. Such logic is inevitably a “dia-logic”.


Most probably that which is denominated the “logic of otherness” (or “alterity”) in contrast will also recall the “logic of identity” or “logic of sameness” (A = A; or A or non-A, the third is excluded).


But the “logic of otherness” also takes its distances from the logic of contradiction. Contradiction is connected with the “logic of identity”, which is bivalent logic. In contrast to the logic of identity the “logic of otherness” is the logic of openness, of vagueness. Peirce used the expression “logic of vagueness” for logic in the broadest sense possible in contrast to the logic of binary opposition (cf. Petrilli & Ponzio 2005: 473–477). The critique of the logic of binary opposition (bivalentism) is precisely what his logic of vagueness is all about. Another appropriate expression to say the same thing is “logic of discordance” or in musical terms “logic of dissonance”. Such logic is “dialogic”, but the concept of “dialogue” or “dialogism” is used here in a completely different sense from common usage, that is, from how it is commonly used and abused.


“Dialogue” is not just a possibility, a choice, a circumstance, a concession made by the I. As I am now using this term, “dialogue” (or “dialogism”) denotes the condition, the basis, and the structure, the a priori and the transcendental form of external and interior discourse, a condition for the development of the I, for genesis of the self, its consciousness, a condition for the constitution of the self in the processes of its becoming a self.


Kant considered the forms of space and time as a priori forms of sensible experience. From this perspective he considered them as transcendental forms, that is, at once antecedents and presuppositions that cannot be avoided. Precisely in this sense we can speak of dialogue as an a priori form, as the sine qua non condition for the constitution of the I, of its consciousness, its world.


In spite of what we have declared so far, the reader will find that my language in this essay is strongly characterized in a “philosophical” sense. Here “philosophical” may resound negatively as commonly understood in everyday language, in the language of the ordinary man of the street, in practical sense: according to such usage “philosophical” signifies abstruse, difficult, contorted. Just a few lines earlier I introduced the word “transcendental”, a term that derives from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). In common usage, this word too indicates something incomprehensible to the ordinary ear; we often hear speakers seeking to reassure their listeners with such expressions as “don’t worry, there’s nothing transcendental about this”.


If the language in this essay sounds “philosophical” this is not because we are discussing something abstruse or unreal. In the present context, “philosophical” simply means to develop an approach that is critical, that involves close analysis and growing awareness. This is in the nature of philosophy understood as a science – not only as an exact science, but also as a rigorous science. In other words, philosophy as we understand it does not only mean to search for truth, but also to search for the sense of truth, for the sense of searching itself. And when philosophy is oriented in this sense it is not solitary speculation, obsessive fixation, an isolated exercise of some sort. For the sense of truth and of (re)searching can only be experienced with others. Such an orientation presupposes the condition of unindifference towards the other. Even more, the sense of truth is mostly traced in the very condition of participation with others, which also involves the sense of responsibility for others.


Philosophy is everywhere, even in common language, even in discourse that does not want to know about philosophy, that claims not to be involved with philosophy in any way whatsoever. But the same thing happens in philosophy as in prose: just as it is obvious, self-evident, a “lapalissade” (from the name of the city Lapalisse and the man Jacques de La Palice) that we create prose each time we speak, we also inevitably philosophize each time we speak, even without knowing it, without intending to.


The condition for rigour in philosophical discourse is an opening in the direction of semiotics, especially when dealing with a topic like the one proposed with this book. This means to use the instruments of analysis offered by semiotics, the general science of signs – its categories and language. Discourse on the subject, the self, the other can in fact end up sounding philosophical in a negative sense. And this is easily the case when we fail to use the analytical resources made available to us by semiotics. Why is that? Simply because to talk about the I, the subject, identity and otherness, to talk about the self, the world, and the other, and to do so appropriately is to talk about signs – more exactly, to use an expression introduced by the American semiotician, Charles Morris, to talk about “signs about signs about signs”.


2. Performing identity and its semiotic retakes


The sign “self” is not just a grammatical category, it is not just a pro-noun. More than this, it signals a role, a part, a position; and each one of us can perform that role, that part, that position in different ways. Therefore, any “interpretation” of the sign “self” in the title of this essay is not just an interpretation necessary for this sign as for any other sign in order to have meaning. More than this, in the current context “interpretation” also resounds as “performance”. Each one of us performs roles associated with the self. And to perform a role usually means either to identify with it or, less commonly, to do what Bertold Brecht advised the actor to do, that is, stray from it, take one’s distances from it, recite it from the outside.


All this means to discover the self in its otherness – not only the otherness of the other from self, but also the otherness of the other of self. The self is other, “autrui”, as Emmanuel Levinas says. To recognize this means to take a critical stance towards one’s very own identity, towards the roles it performs, never taking them seriously, even adopting an ironical and parodical attitude towards them. From this point of view, the Russian philosopher, Mikhail M. Bakhtin, would speak of “extralocalization”, “exotopy”. As amply demonstrated by Bakhtin, extralocalization is a necessary condition for both the aesthetic and the ethic attitude. Without extralocalization listening to the other, opening to the other, recognition of the other are not possible. If the self does not consider itself as other from self, it will never succeed in opening to the other – if not in those hypocritical forms that go under the name of tolerance. (For developments in relation to the problem of the self on the basis of the premises outlined so far, see Petrilli 2013).


The expression “lifeworld” is recurrent in modern-contemporary philosophy. Lebenswelt: this concept is central to Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. Nor did Husserl fail to relate his own phenomenological analyses of the lifeworld to the study of signs, meaning and sense (Zeichen, Bedeutung, Sinn).


In contemporary semiotics, above all with Sebeok and his “semiotics of life” or “global semiotics” (Sebeok 2001), the relation between signs and life has qualified itself ever more in the sense that for signs to exist, there must exist life, therefore organisms, living beings; vice versa, for life to exist, there must exist signs.


At this point a few considerations on the expression “semiosis” are in place. This term is specific to the general science of signs, or “semiotics”, standing for a situation in which sign activity or sign processes occur. And given that these situations and processes only occur in the organic world, the claim, following Thomas A. Sebeok, is that semiosis and life converge, or, rather, mutually imply each other. Again, whether signs exist or not outside our planet, that is to say, in other worlds beyond our own world is a question that is still wide open (Petrilli & Ponzio 2007; Petrilli 2010).


What is certain is that semiosis has undergone an evolutionary process which converges with the evolutionary processes of life involving all living beings, with the difference that evolution in the human world from the hominid to homo sapiens sapiens has also involved transiting from nature to culture. Such transition has opened to extraordinary developments in semiosis characterized by an ever greater capacity for the production of signs on signs, “signs about signs”. These developments are connected with the capacity for conscious awareness and for self-consciousness (Morris 1948b). In other words, as the human being has taken shape through evolution, not only has it emerged as an animal capable of making an immediate use of signs, but also of using signs to reflect on signs. This particular semiosic capacity specific to human beings has been denominated “metasemiosis” or “semiotics”. From this point of view, the science denominated “semiotics” is a high level development in evolution reached on the basis of a capacity inherent in the human being now defined as a “semiotic animal” (Deely, Petrilli, Ponzio 2005).


In light of present-day information what this leads to is that at least one link in the semiosic loop, that is, one link in sign processes (metaphors apart) is necessarily a living and terrestrial entity, even if just a portion of an organism or an artefactual extension fabricated by a hominid. After all, semiosis is terrestrial biosemiosis (Cobley 2000, 2002). Corollaries to Sebeok’s pivotal axiom that semiosis and life coincide include: semiosis is the criterial feature that distinguishes the animate from the inanimate; sign processes have not always existed in the course of the development of the universe; sign processes and the animate originated together with the development of life (see Petrilli 2013: 2.1.).


From all this it follows that the self in its biological, cultural and social aspects (which in real life processes cannot be separated from each other) can only be fully understood in the lifeworld context of semiosis, whether we refer to it directly or indirectly.


In his 1975 book, Trattato di semiotica generale (in English A Theory of Semiotics), Umberto Eco assigned what today is recognized as belonging to biosemiotics to “the lower threshold of semiotics”. But this meant to exclude whatever belongs to the “lower threshold” from the specific interests of semiotic theory. At the same time, Eco also left aside a ghost that can be glimpsed in the background, namely the human subject as the actor of semiotic practice. According to Eco, the subject of semiotics, where “subject” is understood in the sense of subject-matter, topic and protagonist is semiosis. However, this does not mean to have to necessarily deal with the relation between semiosis and life or between semiosis and the concrete subject with its biological and historico-social conditionings.


In his subsequent works Eco to an extent recovers what he had placed beyond the limits of semiotics in his Trattato. This is not our topic here. But what I do wish to underline in terms of the present argument is that semiotics reduced to anthroposemiotics persists in proposing a vision of semiosis that is anthropocentric and oversimplifying. And the consequences that ensue for our conception of the self, of its relation to the sign and to the other are hardly acceptable in scientific terms.


Thanks to Sebeok above all and to his presentday continuators, we now know that contrary to the Saussurean approach to sign studies the study of signs cannot be limited to the “science qui étude la vie des signes au sein de la vie sociale” (Saussure 1916: 33). In Sebeok’s view, zoosemiosis and biological foundations form the very epicentre of human signifying and communication processes and, no doubt, zoosemiosical or rather biosemiosical communication must also be taken into account for a fuller understanding of specifically human bodies and signs.


Human sign processes are endowed with a capacity for opening to the other, for creativity and critical interpretation, for continuous verification and revision. Therefore the propensity for questioning interpretations and habits, for interrogating certainties and beliefs is in the nature of the human sign as we are describing it. This means to say that the human sign understood as a critical “interpretant-interpreted” sign (Petrilli 2013: 1.9.) is equipped for an existential adventure where stability, conviction, and truth are continuously called to issue and put into crisis. Human signs, where “human” is understood both in the sense of the signs that humans engender as well as of the values they express, are characterized by instability, uncertainty and restlessness (Petrilli 2013: Ch. 7).
Therefore that the self is associated with the sign, that the self is formed of signs implies that the self as a sign is also appropriately characterized in terms of instability, indeterminacy. The self is endowed with a capacity for transcendence with respect to the logic of identity. As such it cannot be reduced to identity, that is, to social roles and functions oriented by the logic of identity.


This means to say that the self cannot be identified with the position of subject. As a subject, the self, the I calls for something in the position of object to depend on. A subject is only a subject relatively to an object. Charles S. Peirce characterized this type of relationship in terms of duality, mutual dependency. But the self is capable of transcendence with respect to the object and to its function as a subject, which places it in a situation of otherness – not “relative otherness”, but “absolute otherness”. It is in the relation to the other, in the relation of other to other, autrui, including the self as other, a relation that cannot be reduced to the subject-object paradigm, that the self manifests itself in its absolute otherness, as other with respect to another. In the other to other relation, signs recover their capacity for opening, their pliability, plasticity, the unpredictability of sense with respect to meanings that have been fixed and accorded. Said differently, this relation flourishes outside the subject-object paradigm. It is oriented by the logic of otherness and concerns the relation of single to single, unique to unique. This relation is discussed by Levinas in Totalité e infini (1961) and in Autrement qu’être, ou au-delà de l’essence (1974), but Peirce before him had already begun outlining something similar through his interpretation of the sign as something that cannot be reduced to a mere exchange relation among preconstituted parts (Petrilli 2005a).


In terms of interpretive activity – which includes inferential processes of the abductive type –, the self completes, organizes, and relates data to each other that would otherwise appear fragmentary and partial. With the acquisition of experience that always tends to be innovative and qualitatively superior in contrast to original input, the self emerges as an open process in transformation, continuously reinventing itself ever anew.


As should be clear by now the signs of the self – which are inevitably signs of the relation with the other – take form and substance precisely in the encounter with the other, according to the logic of otherness. The signs of the self lead outside and beyond the sign’s identity, beyond equal exchange logic between signs and sign components. For Peirce as much as for Welby (his companion in writing), as much as for Bakhtin and also Morris (Peirce’s direct successor under certain aspects), signs of the self and the self as a sign, as sign material, cannot be reduced to the logic of symmetrical or equal exchange between speaker and listener, utterer and interpreter, between encoding sign and decoding sign. Otherness and innovation, which means to say vagueness and excess logic, are in the very nature of the sign, of sign materiality, of semiosis and the dynamic and dialogic relation among signs.


From a Peircean perspective, characterization of the sign in terms of an open chain of interpretants is associated with conceptualization of the self as a process in becoming that is neither predetermined nor fixed. Insofar as the self is not given once and for all, but rather is in continuous trans/formation, it cannot withdraw from ongoing deferral processes among signs forming the open semiosic flux. The self attempts to barricade itself behind the boundaries of being and identity, where it seeks refuge, as when we become members of a class or group of some sort and demand recognition as this or that. But despite this, the self can only be constructed and reconstructed in translative/interpretive processes that connect thought-signs to interpretants in open-ended chains of deferrals from one sign to the next. It follows that the self cannot be reduced to the categories of being, to social roles and definitions sanctioned by the logic of identity, the self cannot comply with the logic of identity.


Insofar as it is sign matter which means to be grounded in otherness and dialogism, insofar as it converges with open semiosic processes, the self cannot avoid shifting outside the places and categories of being, outside roles and definitions in spite of its efforts to barricade itself within those very places. The Greek etymology of the word “dia-logue”, therefore “dia-logism” renders the idea of shift, displacement, deferral, movement, crossing over, transcendence; to evoke Bakhtin, dialogism implies otherness, intercorporeity and extralocalization; in other words, dialogue or dialogism as we are describing it is connected with the logic of otherness, absolute otherness, involving a movement towards the other beyond closed and monologic identities, beyond assemblages, groups, classes, affiliations, beyond roles; it implies encounter, movement towards the other, the condition of otherwise than being.


Charles S. Peirce explains “self-consciousness” in terms of the relation between the interpretant self and the interpreted self. This approach is associated with his dialogical conception of the sign and is already traceable in his early writings. He also emphasizes the “material quality” of signs, therefore of all sensation, feeling, and memory as well as of logical truth – ideas are always incarnate (CP 5.287–313). Even an abstract formula is supported by some sort of material such as chalk on a blackboard, ink on paper, or the voice which is phonic material connected with a body, and insofar as it is a voice, it is always a unique voice, an unrepeatable voice. Peirce’s approach can be associated with Bakhtin who focused strongly on corporeity and maintained that “dialogue among ideas” is the result of abstracting from “dialogue among voices” which means to abstract from the body. But as both Peirce and Bakhtin demonstrate real dialogue, substantial dialogue is not possible among disembodied minds.
Other authors who serve as signposts for research on the problem of subjectivity  include Victoria Welby, the ideator of “significs”, an expression she introduced in 1894 for her own special approach to the theory of sign, meaning and communication which she also described as a philosophy of interpretation, translation and significance. Significs studies the conditions that make sign and meaning possible, their principles and foundations (see Welby 1896, now in Petrilli 2009: 430–439). Welby addressed problems of meaning, metaphor, and interpretation, understanding and translation, sense and significance underlining the material constitution of signifying processes with special reference to the biological component in the life of the self and of the sign. Emmanuel Levinas also thematizes the role of the body in his reflections on the self. Again, the materiality of the body renders the self unique. By virtue of the body the self is unreplaceable, it enters a relation of otherness with the other (that is, “absolute otherness” in contrast to “relative otherness”, cf. infra, 1.4). Charles Morris authored a book which indicates this opening in the title, precisely The Open Self (1948). The self moves towards the world, its vocation is the other. This means to say that the other is constitutive of the self, and for the self to recognize as much is decisive for its very own health even. Thomas Sebeok describes human signs and their specificity comparing them to the signs of other animal species. He underlines continuity in difference and at once the condition of involvement and participation of human species-specific signs with the signs of all other life forms on earth.


All this points to the possibility of describing the self as an interpretant-interpreted relationship, as an incarnate entity, intercorporeal and intersubjective sign materiality which not only relates to external bodies and signs, but is itself a body in semiosis, a body-sign. As should be clear by now, the body does not imprison the self but, on the contrary, renders it open, exposed to the other as it interrelates with other bodies and other selves.


The self subsists, acts, expresses and communicates to the extent that it relates intercorporeally with other selves, other body-signs in the great semiosic network where bodies and signs cannot be separated if not by abstraction, for reasons of analysis. Intercorporeity and intersemioticity emerge as two distinctive features of subjectivity. The body plays a pivotal role in the development of consciousness, whether the conscious or the unconscious. As self-other, I-other, as interrelation among interpretant signs and interpreted signs, consciousness is incarnate consciousness where the body is a necessary condition for the full development of potential consciousness and of the sign materiality that constitutes the human being.


Peirce developed a semiotic approach to subjectivity which means to say he redefined the self in a semiotic key: the self is a sign or, rather, a sign relation, therefore it cannot be conceived separately from sign material; the self converges with the verbal and nonverbal language it uses and is at once transcendent with respect to the latter. The self is in semiosis, in the relation among signs; it consists of a potentially infinite number of signifying trajectories that unfold in the dynamics of the interrelationship between utterance and interpretation. In an early essay of 1868, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities”, Peirce states that

The man-sign acquires information, and comes to mean more than he did before. But so do words […] Man makes the word, and the word means nothing which the man does not make it mean, and that only to some men. But since men can think only by means of words or other external symbols, these might turn round and say: “You mean nothing which we have not taught you, and then only so far as you address some word as the interpretant of your thoughts”. In fact, therefore, men and words reciprocally educate each other; each increase of a man’s information involves and is involved by, a corresponding increase of a word’s information”. (CP 5.313, 1868b)


Even more explicitly in the next paragraph:


there is no element whatever of man’s consciousness which has not something corresponding to it in the word; […]. It is that the word or sign which man uses is the man himself. For, as the fact that every thought is a sign, taken in conjunction with the fact that life is a train of thought, proves that man is a sign; so, that every thought is an external sign, proves that man is an external sign. That it is to say, the man and the external sign are identical, in the same sense in which the words homo and man are identical. Thus my language is the sum total of myself; for the man is the thought. (CP 5.314, 1868b)


Insofar as it is a sign, that is, an evolving sign in open-ended semiosic fluxes, an ongoing process, a sign in becoming, the self emerges as a dialogic and interrelational entity, an open self in becoming in the intrapersonal and interpersonal relation with other signs and other selves. This means to say that insofar as it is a sign, the self’s boundaries are never defined once and for all and can only be traced in the dialogic encounter with other signs.[1]


A specific characteristic of the self considered as sign matter, as a self becoming other than what it was becoming in open-ended semiosic fuxes (to echo Floyd Merrell), is its capacity for metasemiosis, that is, the capacity to use signs to reflect on signs (cf. infra, 1.1.). The metasemiosic capacity involves a continuous doubling of self into interpretant sign and interpreted sign. Welby distinguished between “I” (or introducing a neologism “Ident”) and “self”. Developing Welby’s approach, we can claim that like the relation between the interpretant sign and the interpreted sign, the self-sign is not possible without the I-sign, where the relation between the self and the I, similarly to all interpretant-interpreted relations, is never one of total convergence, overlap, identification, but, on the contrary, is disproportionate, assymetrical, characterized by difference and unindifference, by diversion, a gap, an interval, the condition of absolute otherness from which proceeds the synechistic continuity of semiosis (cf. Petrilli 2013: 1.6.). The self, its identity, is constructed in dialogue with the outside, between the self-I and the other beyond it, but also in metasemiosic dialogue between the self and the I and between the self-I and the other, in interpretive processes oriented by the logic of otherness precisely. Such procedure in the constitution of the self excludes all possibility of totalization, of total identification between the interpretant sign and the interpreted sign, therefore between self and I, self and self, self-I and other (Petrilli 2005c and 2009: Chapter 6).


As Levinas in particular has evidenced, otherness compels the totality to reorganize itself ever anew in a process which is related to what he calls “infinity”. This process can also be related to the concept of “infinite semiosis” as understood by Peirce, which means to say interminable, unending semiosis, semiosis that is never closed or exclusively finalizable in the world of the self; “infinite semiosis” indicates an unfinalizable process which is never definitively concluded, which propelled by the search for the other, seduced and called forth by the other never reaches “the end”. Semiosis involves signs becoming other signs in a process that is in principle endless.


The relation to infinity is far more than a cognitive relation: beyond the established order, beyond the symbolic order, beyond conventions and habits, it tells of the relation of involvement and responsibility with the other. The relation to infinity is a relation to what is most refractory to the totality, the absolute other. The other in this relation cannot be assimilated to the self, it is not yet another self in the sense of another alter ego, a self that can be associated with a “we”, with an “us”, but rather this self is an alien self, a self in its extraneousness, strangeness, diversity, difference, a self towards which indifference is impossible. The self is attracted to the other, seduced by the other, in spite of any efforts it makes to barricade and circumscribe itself to the sphere of identity, in spite of all the guarantees offered by reassuring identity.


The self is a sign mostly of the nature of verbal language (but not only of course), modeled and remodeled as a communicative event. It takes shape and emerges as an interactive phenomenon. Evoking Bakhtin, the verbal language, the discourse, the word of the self is never its own but resounds with the word of others, with sociality. This means to say that far from being neutral, the word, whether my own or of others, is impregnated with the word of the other, is pervaded by the thoughts, experiences, actions, feelings and values that come from the other.


“Metasemiosis” understood as the capacity to reflect on signs, on semiosis, is connected with coming to awareness, with the development of critical consciousness, and with responsibility. The human individual, the only metasemiosical or semiotic animal existing, is subject to and subject of responsibility.


Therefore “semiotics” understood as “metasemiosis” is a prerogative of each human being. “Semiotics” as a science would not be possible without this human property. It ensues that the semiotician who practices the sign sciences, especially when a question of general and critical semiotics, has a double responsibility. The semiotician is able to investigate and perfect the metasemiosic capacity which is the capacity for awareness and responsible action. This means to say that semiotics is not just a theoretical (speculative) science, that it does not simply take its place in a cognitive horizon. Rather, semiotics also necessarily has an ethical aspect and should be developed in the direction of the relation between signs and values, in the direction of what Augusto Ponzio and myself have tagged “semioethics” (2003, 2010).


The semiotician, this time understood as a specialist, that is, someone competent in the question of signs by profession, as a scientist must respond in far broader and participative terms than any other human being. If the claim is to practice “global semiotics” or “semiotics of life” as auspicated by Sebeok, the semiotician must account for signs, for semiosis, thus for life, over the whole planet.


The problem of responsibility is inevitably connected with the problem of freedom: “unjustified freedom” is the absurd side of rationality, that is, rationality that has lost its relation to “reasonableness”, thus to the logic of otherness and that has become irrationality as a consequence of this (see Petrilli 2013: 4.2.). As arbitrariness, freedom is endured and questioned by the gaze of the other. As Levinas says, the other questions the naïve legitimacy of freedom, that is to say, freedom that is unjustified and reduced to itself, freedom as usurpation (1976). The very existence of the other questions the self’s identity. It implies freedom that escapes and transcends the logic of identity, control and command, the logic of arrogance and of the will. The existence of the other calls for humanism which cannot be the humanism of the I, of the self, and which cannot consist or persist in the assertion of “the rights of man” to the exclusion of “the rights of the other” (see Levinas 1972).


The relation between semiosis and dialogism is pivotal for a better understanding of the problem of the self and of the signs that form it. Any sign situation, sign process, or semiosis is dialogic. This implies that dialogism is not a prerogative of discourse. Both verbal and nonverbal semioses are interrelational sign processes at different degrees of dialogism. At this point, an excursus into the territory of nonverbal signs would be appropriate, including the signs involved in kinaesthetics, proprioception, somatics, motility – all signs of the body-mind, of the self, the I. A major contribution to the problem of the interrelation between self-body-mind is the monograph Phénomenologie de la perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945). However, this is not the focus of my present discourse. Here my aim is simply to evidence how dialogism functions in the relationship between the sign and the interpretant generally.


This relationship is dialogic to varying degrees. From this point of view, dialogue is neither formal dialogue, that is, the place of encounter and exchange of ideas, nor is it the dialectical resolution of contradictions in synthesis. Rather, by “dialogue” here is understood exposition to the other, involvement with the other, the condition of intercorporeity in relations where difference based on the logic of alterity, and not of closed identity, is dialogically responsive to the other.


Reading together Peirce and Bakhtin helps thematize the relation between “interpretant signs” and “interpreted signs” in terms of dialogism, active participation, and otherness (Petrilli 2007; Ponzio 1990, 2006). As we have stated, the sign is a dialogic relation between the “interpreted sign” and the “interpretant sign” where the latter can either be an “identification interpretant” or a “responsive understanding interpretant”. The work of the “identification interpretant” consists in recognizing the previous sign in terms of phonemic or graphemic configuration, semantic content and morphological-syntactical structure. On the other hand the “responsive understanding interpretant” focuses on the pragmatic dimension of signs. In any case signs present different degrees of dialogism and plurivocality.


The signal is a univocal sign to the extent that it presents a relatively low degree of plurivocality or dialogism. From this perspective, the “identification interpretant” is connected to the signal, to the code, to the sign system and enables recognition of the sign; in other words, it permits identification of something as significant, as meaningful. In constrast to the identification interpretant the “responsive understanding interpretant” is the specific interpretant of the sign. It interprets what Bakhtin-Voloshinov[2] in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929) identifies as its “sense” or “actual meaning” (Voloshinov, 1929: 100).[3] The interpretant of “responsive understanding”, or, if we prefer, “answering comprehension”, does not simply identify the interpreted, but rather expresses its properly pragmatic meaning and significance, installing with the interpreted sign a relation of involvement and participation. The answering comprehension interpretant responds to the interpreted and takes a stand towards it.


The sign is something that calls for a certain response, the interpretant, as Peirce evidences with his triadic analysis of the sign. From the perspective of Peircean semiotics, in contrast to Saussure’s semiologie, anything can become a sign when interpreted by an interpretant as something which somehow stands for another something, its object, by which that sign is mediately determined given that the object referred to is capable of determining an interpretant. Says Peirce: “A Sign, or Representamen, is a First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining a Third, called Interpretant, to assume the same triadic relation to its Object in which it stands itself to the same Object” (CP 2.274). Therefore, a sign stands for something, its object, by which it is “mediately determined” (CP 8.343), “not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea” (CP 2.228). However, a sign can only do this when it determines the interpretant that is “mediately determined by that object” (CP 8.343). “A sign mediates between the interpretant sign and its object” insofar as the first is determined by its object under a certain respect or idea, or ground, and determines the interpretant “in such a way as to bring the interpretant into a relation to the object, corresponding to its own relation to the object” (CP 8.332).


The interpretant of a sign is another sign, which the previous sign creates in the interpreter. The interpretant sign is “an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign” (CP 2.228). Therefore, the interpretant sign cannot be identical to the interpreted sign, it cannot be a repetition, precisely because it is mediated, interpretive, and as such is always new. With respect to the previous sign, the interpretant is a response and as such it inaugurates a new sign process, a new semiosis. In this sense it is a more developed sign. As a sign, the interpretant determines another sign that acts in turn as an interpretant: therefore, the interpretant opens to a new semiosis, it develops the sign process, it signifies a new sign occurrence. Each time there is a sign occurrence including the “First Sign”, there is a “Third”, something mediated, a response, an interpretive novelty, an interpretant. It follows that a sign is constitutively an interpretant. The fact that the interpretant (Third) is in turn a sign (First), and that the sign (First) is in turn an interpretant (already a Third) places the sign in an open network of interpretants: this is the Peircean principle of infinite semiosis or open-ended chain of interpretants (CP 1.339).


The meaning of sign is constructed as a response, an interpretant that calls for another response, another interpretant (Petrilli & Ponzio 2002a, b). All this is connected with the dialogic nature of sign and semiosis (Ponzio 2006; Cobley 2007). A sign has its meaning in another sign that responds to it and is in turn a sign when there is another sign to interpret it and to respond to it, and so forth, in an open process ad infinitum. Therefore, a sign is a dialogue between an interpreted and interpretant, and semiosis is an open dialogue involving a potentially infinite chain of interpretant signs and interpreted signs.


All this leads to the claim that the sign is firstly an interpretant, that is to say, a response (Petrilli 1998: ch.1). For a sign to subsist, there must be an interpreted sign and an interpretant sign, where the object referred to by the sign acts as the interpreted of an interpretant. The minimal relation for something to act as a sign is triadic. The “interpretant-interpreted” relation is a triadic relation. The interpreted implies the object of interpretation, so that this expression must always be understood as a relation among “object-interpreted-interpretant”. The interpreted becomes a sign component because it receives an interpretation, but, in turn, the interpretant is also a sign component with the potential to engender a new sign, or better a new chain of signs. Therefore, where there is one sign, there are immediately two, but given that the interpretant can engender a new sign, there are immediately three, and so forth, as described by the Peircean concept of “infinite semiosis”, the unending chain of deferrals from one interpretant to another (Petrilli, 2010a: 49–75).


In accordance with Peirce who reformulated the classic notion of substitution in the medieval expression aliquid stat pro aliquo in terms of interpretation, the sign is firstly an interpretant. To analyze the sign starting from the object of interpretation – the interpreted – means to start from a level that is secondary. In other words, to start from the object-interpreted means to start from a point in the chain of deferrals, or semiosic chain, which cannot be considered as the point of departure. Nor can the interpreted be privileged by way of abstraction at a theoretical level to explain the workings of sign processes. For example, a spot on the skin is a sign insofar as it may be interpreted as a sign of sickness of the liver: this is already a secondary level in the interpretive process. At a primary level, retrospectively, the skin disorder is an interpretation enacted by the organism itself in relation to an anomaly which is disturbing it and to which it responds. The skin disorder is already in itself an interpretant response, a symptom.


To say that the sign is firstly an interpretant means to say that the sign is firstly a response. We might also say that the sign is a reaction: but only on the condition that by “reaction” is understood “interpretation” (similarly to Morris’s behaviourism, but differently from the mechanistic approach, see Petrilli, 1999b). The sign is firstly an interpretant, a response through which something else is considered as a sign and becomes its interpreted, on the one hand, and which is potentially able to engender a situation of potentially infinite deferral from one sign to the next, on the other.


In such a framework it is clear that dialogue cannot be reduced to an exchange of messages between a sender and a receiver communicating about something. The semiosic process globally is dialogic. “Dialogic” can be read as dia-logic. The logic of semiosis is a dia-logic. The interpretant as such is “a disposition to respond”, an expression that not only describes the dialogic relation between a sender and a receiver, but also that between an interpretant-sign and an interpreted-sign, or sign component. Thus connected, dialogue and semiosis converge, not only in the sense that dialogue is semiosic but also in the sense that semiosis is dialogic. And given that the material of the self is sign material, the sign “self” is inevitably a detotalized sign, that is, a sign in becoming according to the logic of otherness, and consequently a  constitutively dialogic sign.




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[1] A semiotics of the self as ideally outlined by Peirce is developed across three fundamental stages: 1) his writings from the years 1867–1868 published in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, which interpret human consciousness in a semiotic framework: “whenever we think, we have present to the consciousness some feeling, image, conception, or other representation which serves as a sign” (CP 5.314); 2) five articles published in the journal The Monist beginning from 1891. In these articles Peirce introduces his doctrines of tychism, synechism and agapism and elaborates his evolutionary cosmology, and in this context continues working on his theory of the human person; and 3) his more recent writings on pragmaticism which unite the developments of his cosmology and his theory of semiotics (see Colapietro, 1989).

[2] Bakhtin-Voloshinov is a combined name invented to refer to works by Valentin N. Voloshinov attributed to Mikhail M. Bakhtin, following Todorov, 1981. Debate à propos the authorship of texts published under Bakhtin’s name is ongoing and unrelentless. Nevertheless, the theoretical issues raised by the Bakhtin Circle as a whole continue to be extraordinarily topical. Rather than the question of paternity, the real centre of interest is represented by the contribution made by these scholars as a group to the discussion on signs, language and meaning.

[3] Marxism and the Philosophy of Language published under the name of Voloshinov is one of three major works from the 1920s which have somehow been attributed to Bakhtin, the other two being Freudism, 1927, also signed by Voloshinov, and The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, 1928, signed by Pavel N. Medvedev [1891–1941]).