Is semiotics bullshit?

I spent an hour re­cently talk­ing with a semiotics pro­fes­sor who was try­ing to ex­plain semiotics to me. He was very pa­tient, and so was I, and at the end of an hour I con­cluded that semiotics is like In­dian chakra-based medicine: a set of heuris­tic prac­tices that work well in a lot of situ­a­tions, jus­tified by com­plete bul­lshit.

I learned that semioti­ci­ans, or at least this semioti­cian:

  • be­lieve that what they are do­ing is not philos­o­phy, but a su­per­set of math­e­mat­ics and logic

  • use an on­tol­ogy, vo­cab­u­lary, and ar­gu­ments taken from me­dieval scholas­tics, in­clud­ing Scotus

  • op­pose the use of op­er­a­tional definitions

  • be­lieve in the re­al­ity of some­thing like Pla­tonic essences

  • look down on logic, ra­tio­nal­ity, re­duc­tion­ism, the En­light­en­ment, and elimi­na­tive ma­te­ri­al­ism. He said that semiotics in­cludes logic as a spe­cial, de­gen­er­ate case, and that semiotics in­cludes ex­tra-log­i­cal, ex­tra-com­pu­ta­tional rea­son­ing.

  • seems to be­lieve peo­ple have an ex­tra-com­pu­ta­tional abil­ity to make cor­rect judge­ments at bet­ter-than-ran­dom prob­a­bil­ity that have no log­i­cal basis

  • claims ma­te­ri­al­ism and rea­son each ex­plain only a minor­ity of the things they are sup­posed to explain

  • claims to have a com­plete, ex­haus­tive, fi­nal the­ory of how think­ing and rea­son­ing works, and of the cat­e­gories of re­al­ity.

When I’ve read short, sim­ple in­tro­duc­tions to semiotics, they didn’t say this. They didn’t say any­thing I could un­der­stand that wasn’t triv­ial. I still haven’t found one mean­ingful claim made by semioti­ci­ans, or one use for semiotics. I don’t need to read a 300-page tome to un­der­stand that the ‘C’ on a cold-wa­ter faucet sig­nifies cold wa­ter. The only ex­am­ple he gave me of its use is in con­struct­ing more-per­sua­sive ad­ver­tise­ments.

(Now I want to see an epi­sode of Mad Men where they hire a se­moti­cian to sell cigarettes.)

Are there mul­ti­ple “sci­ences” all us­ing the name “semiotics”? Does semiotics make any falsifi­able claims? Does it make any claims whose mean­ings can be uniquely de­ter­mined and that were not claimed be­fore semiotics?

His no­tion of “essence” is not the same as Plato’s; to­kens rather than types have essences, but they are dis­tinct from their phys­i­cal in­stan­ti­a­tion. So it’s a tri­par­tite Pla­ton­ism. Semioti­ci­ans take this di­vi­sion of re­al­ity into the phys­i­cal in­stan­ti­a­tion, the ob­jec­tive type, and the sub­jec­tive to­ken, and ar­gue that there are only 10 pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tions of these things, which there­fore provide a com­plete enu­mer­a­tion of the pos­si­ble cat­e­gories of con­cepts. There was more to it than that, but I didn’t fol­low all the dis­tinc­tions. He had sev­eral differ­ent ways of say­ing “to­ken, type, un­bound vari­able”, and seemed to think they were all differ­ent.

Really it all seemed like tak­ing logic back to the mid­dle ages.