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This essay is a discussion of Eco’s conception of the sign, with specific attention to two questions: 1) What are the components of Eco’s sign? and 2) How do we understand the world through our use of signs? In response to the first question, Eco posits a conception of sign as being the correlation of two functives bound by a relation of inference with the further criterion that a sign must lend itself to interpretation. Eco, thus, expands the scope of the discussion from language to thought and reason, and it is from this understanding that the sign is not just a feature of language but also of thought in general that the second question arises. In response to the second question, Eco recalls the model of epistemic synthesis posited by C.S. Pierce in an article written for Popular Science Monthly in 1878. Eco accepts this model of epistemic synthesis but makes novel distinctions between three kinds of abductive inference.
The present essay is divided into two parts, each of which focuses on an integral aspect of Ecos notion of the sign. In Part One I will follow Eco’s genealogy of the sign where he traces the concept from its emergence in modern philosophy as a unit of meaning for the structuralists to later conceptions where the sign is not so much regarded as having a meaning, but rather as a correlational mechanism which underlies the rational processes of the mind. Eco eventually arrives at a conception of the sign for which the fundamental operation is one of inference . Then I will move into a discussion of how propositional knowledge about the world is arrived at by way of the interpretation of signs. Eco’s view of knowledge synthesis is heavily informed by Charles S. Peirce’s system of synthesis, but Eco makes several novel distinctions which incorporate his own notion of codes thus making the system more comprehensive.
In Part Two of this essay I will explicate Eco’s discussion of the implications of knowledge being derived through a dialectic of inferences. Here Eco looks at the notion of signs used by Aristotle to explain the synthesis of knowledge in the context of classical Rhetoric. Aristotle posits a distinction between two kinds of signs, each bearing a strong or weak correlation between the constituent units of the sign, thus suggesting the knowledge gained through a synthesis is not necessarily indubitable; and, furthermore, that the correlation between the functives of an inference can have the properties of being either weak or strong. From here I will then look at the similarities and differences in Eco and Aristotle’s accounts of knowledge synthesis. Both of these accounts share the notion that knowledge synthesis is facilitated by inference, but there is some difference between the ways in which each thinker conceives of the epistemic status of these inferential correlations.
Martin, James, "Inference and Representation: A Look at Umberto Eco’s Notion of the Sign" (2017). Honors Theses. 3036.