Ashok R. Kelkar















Curiosity and concern with respect to signs and symbols and their meanings is quite old – especially with respect to language signs and symbols and their meanings. But the focussing of this concern and curiosity leading to the emergence of signs, symbols, and meanings as a distinct field of inquiry had to wait till the middle of the 19th century in the West.  Man is so much immersed in it all the time that he is prone to miss the wood for the trees. The French proto-Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) has said  in his famous 1857 poem “Correspondances” that man passing through Nature passes through “de forėts de symboles” – which is a remarkable poetic anticipation of the thinker’s insight, namely, that man passing through life itself passes through forests of signs and symbols.  The poet’s perception was matched only slightly later by two thinkers, the largely self-taught American philospher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and the Swiss philologist who taught himself modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) – the three getting a glimpse of this forest of signs independently of each other.  Peirce and Saussure between them laid the foundations of modern semiotics – Saussure called it semiology.  In spite of this formal naming of a field of inquiry, the inquiry as such has been sustained till today in the form of three traditions pursued in relative independence of each other.  (There are indications of late that a synthesis is slowly emerging or going to emerge. But we anticipate.)


            Peirce and Saussure approached the problem in the spirit of scientists, the latter more so in that he was much more intimately concerned with the science of language, which he regarded (and I think rightly so) as a branch of semiology. (Linguistic scientists of course must resist the temptation of making semiotics merely a branch or an extrapolation of linguistics! The language metaphor mustn’t be taken too seriously – thus, to speak of the language of music can be misleading no less than illuminating.) Is semiotics a human science? Or rather, is it a life science in view of sign processes sustained by sub-human organisms? (Already zoosemiotics is a flourishing branch of ethology, the science of animal behaviour.  If one trusts the observations of Jagadish Chandra Bose, 1858-1937, one day there may be room for a phytosemiotics also.) As an empirical enquiry semiotics should emulate rather than ape the rigour of natural sciences (mere aping will lead to rigor mortis). As a theoretical enquiry semiotics should neither get lost in carefully piled up and pigeonholed detailed nor lose itself in careless, woolly, amateurish  philosophizing (the shunning of rigour will lead to flaccid paralysis). Linguists have now been joined not only by ethologists but also by communication and control engineers, students of communication media (especially mass and folk media), and, following the lead of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gregory Bateson, Mary Douglas, and Clifford Geertz, cultural anthropologists. (There is no reason why economists interested in symbols of power, loyalty, and hostility shouldn’t join the fun.)


            The second tradition of semiotic inquiry is the philosophical one. (Philosophers have been calling it philosophy of language or of meaning or more simply philosophical semantics and are only now catching up with Peirce’s tripartite division of semiotics into syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics.) Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austria engineer-philosopher (1889-1951), is of course the important name here though of course not the only one. (In particular, the phenomenology of Husseri and his successors has played its important rôle here.) To put it crudely, Wittgenstein replaced the traditional dyad of subject and object, mind and matter by the triad of speaker, utterance, and thing – perhaps he would have preferred to say, peoples, languages, and worlds.  The enabled philosophers to separate to some extent the problem of truth (language – world), the problem of knowledge (people-world), and the problem of understanding (people – language) from each other.


            While the two traditions mentioned so far, semiotics as science and semiotics as philosophizing, tend to focus on logic, mathematics, and ordinary language, the third tradition tends to focus on poetic language, art, narrative, rite, and magic – including of course sacred poetry, sacred art, sacred narrative (myth), sacred rite (ritual), and sacred magic.  The pedigree of this line of inquiry can be traced through symbolist criticism to Baudelaire, through structuralist anthropology to Saussure, and through symbol-oriented aesthetics to Ernst Cassirer, the German idealist.  The best way of describing this tradition or more accurately this cluster of sub-traditions (in which critics of literature and of art, critics of culture and of society join) is to identify it as observant participation in human life (with the accent on participation).  Thus we distinguish it from participant observation on the part of the human scientist (with the accent on observation). (An interesting kind of culture criticism will be the criticism of a natural language – pointing out, for example, how to particular language may encourage hypocrisy or bombast.) Semiotics as criticism proposes to undertake not only evaluation but also interpretation.  In so doing the literary critic mustn’t push the language-oriented metaphor of taking any sign-construct to be  ‘text’ too far.  Calling everything human a ‘text’ is no better than calling everything human a ‘language’. The key names in this third tradition would be Barthes, Derrida, Eliade, Foucault, Ricoeur, Althusser, Trilling among others.





The relative recency of semiotics must not make us lose sight of the fact that curiosity and concern with respect to signs, symbols, and meanings – especially in the domain of language – is quite old, In particular, the Graeco-Roman civilization together with its successor the Western civilization and the Indian civilization have shown this concern and curiosity to an especial degree.  IT is no accident that ancient Greece and ancient India have been the cradles of philosophical and grammatical activity of man, as KROEBER (1962) has pointed out.  This should lead us to expect that both Europe and Indian show up a good deal of what one might call proto-semiotics – semiotic inquiry without the rubric.


            I have no intention here to present even a thumbnail sketch of the history of proto-semiotics in the ancient, medieval, and early modern West and in ancient and medieval India. For the West, Tzvetan TODOROV’s Theories of symbol (1982) is a good survey.  For India, KUNJUNNI RAJA’s Indian theories of meaning (1963, 1969) is more expository than historical in scope. Actually in India proto-semiotic enquiries turn up under various rubrics - vyākaran*a (grammar), nirukta (etymology), mimamsā (hermeneutics), nyāya (logic), ānvīks'ikī (philosophical analysis), and of course sāhityasāstra (poetics). Contemporary Indian enjoy the special privilege of double inheritance – the Indian and the Western.  They have a special obligation to quarry the Indian inheritance for its insights with respect to signs, symbols, and meanings.


                My motive in adverting to proto-semiotic traditions in the West and in India is merely to remind ourselves that people were doing very interesting things in semiotics long before they started calling it as such and that cultural semioticians will do well to avoid too myopic a vision of their inheritance.





The poor communication between the scientific, the philosophical, and the critical-interpretative traditions- especially between the philosophical and the other two -  and the poor awareness of the proto-semiotic inheritance is hampering the proper development of semiotic studies.  It will be too much to expect any immediate unification but surely it will not be too much to expect greater openness across the boundaries.  The proto-semiotic inheritance need not remain the preserve of philologists and antiquarians.  The sharp and shiny conceptual tools that philosophers have developed over the years need to be put to use and in the process to be tested.  The less formalized insights of the critical-interpretative effort or for that matter of the creative aritist should sere to enrich the scientific effort and make its formulations more comprehensive.  There is altogether too much ad hoc and improvised systematization all around – this is of course inevitable in the early phase of a discipline, but the infant industries suffer in the long urn from underexposure to the cross-traditional winds.


            In short an integrated semiotics will not lay too much emphasis on the pedigree of the insight.  It will also not lay emphasis on the area of semiosis – to recognize divisions such as the semiotics of language, of art, of mathematics, of scientific discourse, of religion, of positioning-posture-and-gesture (proxemics-cum-kinesics), of advertisement, of mass media, and so forth is more a matter of convenience than one of theoretical significance.  More to the point will be to work out the implications of the frameworks such as the triad proposed by Peirce.


            Charles Morris, the intellectual descendant of Peirce, through the sociologist George Mead, codified the Peircian triad (with an assist from Rudolf Carnap whose amendment he gladly accepted).  Morris said that semiotic enquiries can be made in three successively more inclusive perspectives –


(a-1)  the syntactic which relates signs in loose-knit assemblies and close-knit codes, in languages and texts;

(a-2)  the semantic which relates signs to other signs to signates so that signates of related signs constitute universes of discourse, worlds, or even possible worlds;

(a-3) the pragmatic which relates signs to other signs and to signates and to the life of the users of signs so that signs so that signs may fit situations, impress recipients, and express sources in certain ways.


            How should one relate this triad from the first tradition to the triad from the second tradition that we briefly looked at?


(b-1) the language-world relations –the problem of truth or sense – satisfaction or reference;

(b-2) the language-people relation –the problem of understanding;

(b-3) the people-world relation –the problem of knowledge; alternatively the problem of action (work or play, praxis or poesis)


            And then there is the other triad recognized when one sees semiotics as a critical – interpretative activity.


(c-1) the exegetic level – where the parts of the text are related to each other and to the whole, where the text is related to the language that it exemplifies;

(c-1) the hermeneutic level-where the text and its parts are related to the imaginative or the postulated objects, topics, worlds that the texts directs us to;

(c-3) the homiletic level – where the text and its parts are related through the imaginative or postulated world tot he actual world of the author and the recipient of the text.





Cultural semiotics is sometimes called semiotic (cultural) anthropology.  The semiotics of culture promises to be an important tool of investigation for the study of culture i general or for the study of any of the large canonical segments of culture


the technology of use and production of capital and consumer goods

ideology, dogma, and criticism; philosophy

religion, myth, ritual, and magic

arts, crafts, and games


plays, festival, raptures, and conviviality

health and care of the handicapped

narrative, literature, folklore

technology of defence, aggression, and control of the recalcitrant

The semiotics of society promises to be an important tool of investigation for the study of society in general and for the study of any of the large canonical segments of the social fabric.

rôle and status

modes for social transaction

relations and groups having to do with blood and marriage kinship, age-grading, sex, territory, power, interests, congeniality

social  organization

political organization

instrumentation and control (this includes polity, education, morality, law, manners, incentives and disincentives, labour and management, defence and aggression policy, loyalty and hostility patterns)


Whether we are enquiring into culture – ways of  man with the world at large – or into society – ways of man with other men – semiotics provides us with invaluable indices of the inner workings that are otherwise not always directly accessible. Signs and symbols are, as it were, the tracer elements that the investigator keeps track of to find out the inner processes of the body of culture or the body of society.

            The rest of this section will be no more than a programmatic statement of the possibilities that this approach opens up and of the challenges that these various opportunities constitute.


(1)    The human sciences (I find this a more satisfactory rubric than the excessively limiting and limited rubric ‘social sciences’) have been haunted by the dichotomy between facts and values so clearly recognized by the natural sciences – even by the life sciences.  Meanings offer us a common ground : we begin to realize that the dichotomy is no absolute, rather is it a spectrum with polarities.  The ‘facts’ are not wholly free from values in so far as they are meanings. The ‘values’ are not wholly free from facts in so far as they too are meanings.

(2)    What is the best view of a given cultural or social whole? Is it the ringside view, the inside story that we get from a participation, even a critical participation in the life of that whole?(I call it the exocentric view.) Or rather is it the bird’s eye view, the detached report that we get from an observation, even a critical observation of the life of that whole? (I call it the exocentric view.) Is the endocentric view simply a view from the vantage point of participation in another cultural or social whole? What is wisdom to the participants may be superstition to the observers, for example.  Or can such an exocentric view ever aspire to be a universalist view, aspire to the Archimedean stance? In other words, the exocentric view may be either allocentric or anthropocentric.

(3)    Is the cultural fabric closely woven where loose ends are only an exception? Is cultural change almost wholly to be accounted for where conscious intervention or accidental shifts are only an exception? Or rather is culture a loose-knit affair with only islands of precariously achieved order? And is culture change full of accidents and interventions where detecting larger patterns is at best a spare-time exercise? Are these patterns of causation or patterns of meaning?

(4)    Are cultural patterns individually acquired and socially ratified? Or rather are they socially acquired and individually ratified? In accounting for cultural change what is the locus of innovation and the locus of ratification? Or again are we barking up the wrong tree altogether? Are cultural patterns largely a matter of genetic inheritance and shifts in the genetic inheritance? The debate about the existence of an ‘abiding’ human nature is really a part of this larger debate.

(5)    We have already touched upon the question of mediation in the preceding section.  Those who think that all of man’s coping with things in the world is essentially mediated, think that man has no access to the Dinge an Sich naturally expect a good deal from semiotics, especially the semiotics of ordinary, natural language. Those who think that mediation is only a secondary, additional route linking man and things naturally think that the current excitement about language and signs is not wholly justified.

(6)    Finally, what is the nature of this mediation (Whether it is the only route or the additional route)? Is it essentially experiential? Essentially a form of knowledge? OR is it essentially behavioural? Essentially a form of activity – productive activity or even creative or revolutionary activity?


I hope I have said enough to bring out how cultural semiotics is not another passing fad in human sciences, another gimmick to be marketed in human sciences. IF it is realized that a good deal is at stake, then cultural and social semiotics can serve to bring to a boil a number of debates that have been going on in Western man’s attempts to know man.  Each debate may be settled one way or the other or may be transcended, taken beyond the original question. But it will be a sad thing if the opportunity is not taken up as a serious challenge.




A part from amplifying the references in the text, the bibliography also serves to draw attention to the other publications of the author where he has amplified or applied some of the points made in the text.


KELKAR, Ashok R. (1976a), Modern Linguistics: A Historical Perspective from a South Asian Viewpoint”, in : Seminar Papers in Linguistics. Kathmandu: Institute of Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University, 21-34.


KELKAR, Ashok R. (1976b), “A Note on the Meanings of ‘Form’”, in : Indian Philosophical Quarterly. N.S. 3, 325-33.


KELKAR, Ashok R. (1980), Prolegomena to an Understanding of Semiosis and Culture.  Mysore : Central Institute of Indian Languages.


KELKAR, Ashok R. (1983), “Communication and Style in Legal Language”, in : Indian Bar Review 10 (1983), 363-78.


KELKAR, Ashok R. (1984), “The Semiotics of Technical Names and Terms”, in: Recherches semiotique/Semiotic inquiry  4 (1985), 303-26.

KELKAR, Ashok R. (1989), “Aesthetics of Food: A Case Study”.  In: Poetics East and West, ed. Milena Doleźelova-Velingerová. Toronto Semiotic Circle, Victoria College, University of Toranto, Toronto. Presented at Mysore, January 1985.


KROEBER, Alfred L. (1962). A Roster of Civilizations and Culture. Chicago: Aldine for Wenner-Gren Foundation of Anthropological Research.


KUNJUNNI RAJA, K. (1963, 1969), Indian theories of meaning. Madras : The Adyar Library.


TODOROV, Tzvetan (1982), Theories of Symbol. Oxford : Blackwell.




This was published in Achim Eschbach and Walter Alfred Koch (ed.). A Plea for Semiotics Brockmehyer, Bochum, F.R. Germany, 1987.