Foreword to «The Semiotics of Passions»

From: (with Paul Perron), Algirdas Julien Greimas and Jacques Fontanille, The Semiotics of Passions. From States of Affairs to States of Feelings, translated by Paul Perron and Frank Collins, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993, VII-XVI.

Numerous introductions have been written on Algirdas Julien Greimas’s semiotic theory. Some have accentuated its linguistic and philosophical presuppositions and underpinnings, showing how his thought is the product of his times and how, despite its originality, it remains part of the episteme shaping the social sciences over the last fifty years1. Others have attempted to bring to the fore its logical and scientific nature2. Hence, in our foreword to the last volume of works published in English by A. J. Greimas, The Social Sciences: A Semiotic View (1990), we suggested that whereas a dual thrust existed in the general field of semiotics with respect to the application of semiotic theory and its philosophical foundations, the originality of semiotics is that it maintains an articulation between the two extremes defining it, the epistemological level and the level of application. We further stressed that Greimas’s semiotic project was characterized both by its speculative and empirical intent and that, for him, methodology constituted the meeting ground for the theory of signs and the human sciences insofar as its function is to establish the missing link between epistemological and textual knowledge.
It could be said of Greimas and the Paris School of Semiotics that an attempt is made both to consider linguistics as a way of thinking philosophically by using a number of philosophical concepts and to think of philosophy in terms of linguistics by integrating a number of linguistic notions. From this point of view it can be seen that the use made of terms such as agent, object, modalization, and aspectualization implies certain philosophical assumptions. Even though for Greimas semiotics happens to be part of the great philosophical tradition, the question that remains to be answered is how to find a pertinent way of speaking about philosophical problems from a semiotic perspective.
It is a truism that Vladimir Propp, who was versed in the tradition of textual analysis and who played a fundamental role in the development of postwar narratology (Dolezel, pp. 141-46), emphasized the actional nature of narrative in his studies on the Russian folktale. For him, functions could be reduced basically to actions or spheres of actions, and in his numerous studies he introduced no categories that could help in analyzing passions. Following this tradition, it could be said that linguistics provides us with excellent tools for describing actions but somewhat inadequate ones for describing passions. This became the crucial issue for Greimas and Fontanille as, in the past, working on narrative texts implied primarily elaborating a system of actions3. In other words, the first approaches to the analysis of narrative were mainly action oriented4.
Linguistics provided Greimas with a limited number of minimal concepts to analyze texts, for example, subject, object, predicate, modality, and aspectuality. Moreover, in many of his writings Greimas has acknowledged a debt to Louis Hjelmslev,whose principle of empiricism he adhered to closely, whereby to satisfy the conditions of “scientificness” a theory must fulfill three hierarchically organized requirements: coherence, exhaustibility, and simplicity. Yet, over the years, the analysis of narrative revealed that in addition to complex cognitive dimensions, texts had complex passional dimensions as well. Hence, what began as a theory of action, attributing to subjects an ability to act and evaluate action, evolved into a theory that considers subjects as acting cognitive beings endowed with character and temperament. Therefore, in order to ensure the coherence of the theory it was necessary to articulate the character and temperament of acting, cognitive, and sentient subjects in terms of minimal concepts borrowed from linguistics. Aspectualities (that allow for the representation of temporalization as processes) and modalities (concerned with defining the manipulating and sanctioning subject) were considered as useful “primitives” in the description of passions5. Thus, in order to lay the foundations for a semiotics of passions, in the first theoretical chapter of their study Greimas and Fontanille analyzed the state of the subject (defined as the subject’s junctive relation to the object) in terms of modalities: “In other words, the modalization of the state of the subject — and this is what we are referring to when we speak about passions — is conceivable only if it begins by modalizing the object, which, in becoming a Value,’ imposes itself on the subject” (p. 4).
In addition to these linguistic “primitives” narratology also furnished a number of useful concepts to help provide a semiotic interpretation to traditional theories of passions. As Greimas has noted, theories of passions that are part of every major classical philosophical system can be described — for example, in René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Wilhelm Leibniz, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud (1989, p. 546) — as a taxonomy, a paradigmatic operation on lexemes, or in terms of modal syntax that set in place two interdependent actants. The very fact that one of the first definitions in Descartes’s theory deals with the relation between active and passive explanations of passions had as a consequence the linking of passions not only to reason but also to actions. Within this framework Greimas’s strategy was to work out a semiotics of passions, a pathemic semiotics founded on his own previously elaborated semiotics of action. Yet, to ensure that the theory maintained its coherence by conforming to the principles of hierarchy and interdefinition, it was necessary to establish descriptive procedures that integrated all the prior definitions of the actional dimension into the pathemic one6.
The reasons for adapting such descriptive strategies and tools are partially related to the fact that Greimas draws heavily on Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s works in phenomenology. For him, the subject’s relation to the object is mediated by the body, which is at the same time part of the world and subject. Moreover, the body is also seen as an object situated between other objects and the world, and at the same time the point of view from which the world is experienced. The body is both action on the world and a perceiving, a sensing, of the world. From this perspective, it is evident that Greimas has greatly distanced himself from Ferdinand de Saussure, for whom the sign was a totally disembodied concept. For the latter there was no place for perception, or for the body, nor did there exist a chasm between subject and object. Along these same lines Greimas escapes from another common dualistic philosophical assumption of a separate subject and object, subject and world; the activity and role of the former being to understand that of the latter, and nothing else. However, as we have seen when discussing modalization, passion is paradoxically a phenomenon in which the object, in becoming a value for the subject, imposes itself on the subject. The action of the world on the subject and the action of subject preceding the world as value become crucial in pathemic configurations.
The need to produce a theory whereby the primitives in question can be delineated is intrinsic to this strategy. In addition, it is essential to be able to construct a methodology from this theory so that texts of different types and dimensions, from words to actual narratives, can be described. For example, in one of his prior works Greimas analyzed the lexeme colère or anger7, and demonstrated the ways in which the definition of anger was a kind of expanding syntagmatic narrative or short story that defined the denomination, anger. It is well known that several approaches are possible in discourse analysis. One can work from a lexicographical perspective, or one can adopt another strategy that consists in treating texts as signs that can be described using a certain type of methodology coherent with a certain type of theory. One can also proceed by espousing a hypotheticodeductive approach, using text descriptions that can enrich the theoretical level. It should be noted that in the latter case the intent is not simply to apply theory to texts by way of methodology but to consider texts as a living experience for reconfiguring theory. This can be considered as the empirical aim of semiotics, which is not just to provide categories, but, as Paul Ricoeur said in a very Husserlian way, to disengage concepts from texts and to reconfigure the texts in the theory itself8.
Even a cursory reading of The Semiotics of Passions reveals that the volume is organized into two distinct sections. In the first part of the book Greimas and Fontanille attempt to work out an implicit definition between the theoretical and the philosophical levels adopted. The first part focuses mainly on Descartes, Spinoza, Hegel, Husserl, Freud, Charles Mauron, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, Hjelmslev, and René Thorn and tries to establish a pertinent level for a semiotic interdefinition of culture. The second part deals more with passional discourse, that of Marcel Proust, for example, and attempts to show the way in which studying passions (e.g., jealousy in Proust) not only leads to a better understanding of literature or of a specific text, but also provides some means of introducing notions gleaned in the analysis of texts to a general description of passions. The question remains, though, of the sort of methodology and tools needed to carry out this mediation between text and theory. Several possibilities, albeit not necessarily of a linguistic nature, come to mind. One can take philosophical tools or concepts and attempt to discover the same underlying philosophy in the text—this is what Gaston Bachelard did on the poetics of space, or Jean-Paul Sartre in his analyses of Faulkner, Baudelaire, Genet, and Flaubert, to name only his most commonly cited studies. Another strategy is to build a theory independently of texts and to use the latter as a means of applying the theory. If this latter solution is adopted, however, one is inevitably confronted with the knotty problem of applying a philosophical approach to the surface level of language when texts themselves are governed by ad hoc rules. Be that as it may, methodology remains an attempt to relate description to theory.
Another series of questions must be addressed: How is it possible to relate theory, and in this case semiotic theory, to philosophy? How is it possible to create a methodology coherent with this kind of theory and philosophy? If the concept of passion is introduced, what must be done to describe a text in addition to what was done when dealing only with actions? Moreover, how can pertinent texts be found and selected that serve to enrich and reconstruct the theory, texts that actually help to disengage the conceptual from the figurative?
Various theoretical approaches can be adopted to describe the universe of passions. A first one could be defined as the semantic domain strategy, for example, derivatives of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. This technique was rather simple: two or three fundamental primitives were identified (e.g., hate, desire, aversion), which, combined using various approaches, produced longer sequences formed by compounds of the primitives. This type of technique, known as componential analysis, was effective because many passions could be distinguished and described through it. Another instance, from what anachronistically might be called Greek linguistics, had as its assumption that two or three fundamental elements could be taken from a group of lexemes and combined, thereby introducing more complex elements and new lexemes. This is how the Stoics constructed their definition of hope, for example. Hope is first of all a desire. Desire, in turn, is the minimum state of a subject. Hope is then defined as a desire with something added, namely, the future. Thus the concept of time had to be included. Moreover, an object of desire can also be introduced, then a subject desiring the object in question. Furthermore, the modality of uncertainty must be interjected, for if the subject is in a state of certainty, there is no room for hope. Hence, the modality of uncertainty plus time plus desire produces something that can be called hope. More complex passions also can be affixed to desire, for example, revenge. But then how can revenge be described? It is a more elaborate system than hope insofar as it presupposes offense and thus appears as a desire to repair the said offense.
As we have indicated, one of the linguistic strategies of philosophy was to work on compounds by means of the analytical description of systems of lexemes on passions. A second strategy, initiated by Plutarch and Seneca, consisted in describing passions in terms of processes. When Plutarch examined ire he showed the beginning of anger, its development, its end (explosion). The passion of ire was seen as a process that takes place over time (inchoative, durative, terminative) that, for example, can be opposed to revenge (inchoative, durative). In brief, philosophy traditionally put into play two strategic means for describing passions, one being lexicological and the other narrative, a structure of action: offense provokes a desire for revenge, which in turn sets off an action of vengeance.
Greimas and Fontanille attempt to answer two questions: What can a semiotic and linguistic approach contribute to the methodological strategies described above? And, how can one get a better comprehension of the relationship between what we identified as the theoretical level and its philosophical presuppositions? Another series of questions stemming from this work that remains unanswered is related to linguistic and cultural relativity. The examples and texts chosen to help reconfigure the theory are primarily taken from two major literary traditions, English and French. It would be legitimate to ask if passions are culture specific and if different moments in history change their definitions? However, this certainly goes beyond the bounds of this volume, which makes no attempt to address either problem.
In the first part of their work Greimas and Fontanille situate their problematics within a general epistemological framework of any theory that attempts to attain the status of “scientificity.” In so doing they point out that there exist two possible attitudes or extremes that enable one to situate various sciences in relation to one another: either the world is considered as discontinuous (this is the position the physical sciences, mathematics, or linguistics take), or the world is considered as continuous (the attitude adopted by the organicist or biological sciences that affirm its tensive nature).
Within this general epistemology, simply put, linguistics traditionally represented discourse as a continuous string that needed to be articulated in order to be understood. The first operation consisted in segmenting the string to uncover its discrete units; the combination and arrangement of these units constituted the elements of a phonetics or a grammar. In its initial stages of development, semiotics took the notion of doing as its underlying principle. The doing in question, however, received different denominations according to where it was situated on the generative trajectory. At the surface discursive level it was thought of in terms of process, whereas at the deep level the concept lost its semantic consistency and became an operation designated as a transformation. Such a semiotics of action appeared as a transformation of states in which a discrete state was followed by another discrete state. From this standpoint linguistics and semiotics adopted the same strategy in attempting to rationalize their operations.
Just as Saussure set out as his basic principle that in language there were only differences (that is to say, discretions), so too a semiotics of actions appears as part of a rational and cognitive traditional epistemology. Basically we are dealing with a classical theory of knowledge where there is an operating subject on the one hand and the world as object of knowledge on the other. What philosophers called a transcendental subject was here simply called an “operator”; whereas with regard to the world as object of knowledge, the minimal conditions for comprehension were situated at the level of the elementary structures of signification, known as the semiotic square. However, when the transcendental subject or “operator” was considered in terms of the semiotic square, a problem arose insofar as the subject capable of carrying out operations on the square must possess a competence superior to the square itself. Saussure encountered the same problem when establishing the distinction between langue and parole, which he resolved by introducing the operational concepts of virtual and actual, different modes of existence. If such a solution is applied to the generative trajectory, then the latter can be divided into various levels according to degrees of density of existence that are different modes of existence. It therefore became possible to distinguish between potential, virtual, actualized, and realized existence. What we are dealing with at this level is a sort of presence in absence— praesentia in absentia. Thus, the generative trajectory is delimited by ab quo and ab quem instances that are, in effect, two ontological instances where beings feel, speak, and see. By situating semiotics between these two instances it takes on a phenomenological and not a noumenal mode of existence. Within such a phenomenological space it was possible to establish the gradation, or the phenomenological density of states of affairs that are either potential, virtual, actualized, or realized.
We have noted that Greimas and Fontanille were influenced by Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, who provided them with the philosophical tools to situate the semiotic space at the level of perception and hence to introduce the crucial element of continuity in the relation of subject to world. In perception, three types of properties can be distinguished: exteroceptive, stemming from the external world; interoceptive, universale conditioning the possibility of perception; and proprioceptive, corresponding to the perception of the body by itself. The introduction of these concepts was necessary to explain what happens at the linguistic level between the natural world and natural languages. As far as perception is concerned, the external world is seen as composed of figures, or in Saussurian terms, signifiers of the world. At the moment of perception, exteroceptive semes are transformed into interoceptive semes and integrated into the activity of the mind. Such an operation, whereby figures of the world become figures of thought through the body, enables Greimas and Fontanille to propose the concept of figurativity. The mediating role of the body becomes fundamental to understanding how the external world is transformed into a signifying whole and such a proprioceptive component adds a pathemic dimension in which the cognitive forms of the imagination include a passional or thymic component. In this way the theory again endeavors to overcome the dualism that characterizes the sentimental and rational aspects of behavior.
Moreover, at another level it can be said that from the point of view of perception the world is constituted by states of affairs that are transformed into states of feeling by the mediation of the body. This shift makes it possible for Greimas and Fontanille to introduce the notion of continuity by means of the body, thereby avoiding the aforementioned duality that comes from the separation of body and soul, world and mind. This same problem of continuity is encountered at the discursive level where aspectualities and tensions extend beyond rationally and cognitively established categories, where the modulations of sentences and emphases placed on words, the idea that certain verbs express things intensely in order to represent them, constitute phenomena that cannot be accounted for by the rational procedures of a semiotics of action. These modulations of discourse demanded that the deep structures of the theory be reexamined in light of the horizon of tensions that occur at the discursive level.
A further area of investigation is related to the epistemology of the semiotic square. We did note that Greimas and Fontanille suggested that the transcendental subject or, in their own words, the subject operator, by producing discrete entities, induced the emergence of the end terms of the semiotic square. However, even though the operator causes the manifestation of signification, the question of its domain of origin persists. This is seen as a sort of shadow, a sort of mist that veils being, that remains unknowable, but whose existence is logically presupposed as the ontic horizon, defined as the set of conditions for the appearance of signification.
In short, what the authors propose to investigate here are the preconditions of signification, a domain where being is veiled, a sort of imaginary theoretical space, to quote Greimas9. As can be seen, compared with the state of the semiotic theory represented by the first dictionary10 in 1979, a new theoretical component has been proposed at the epistemological level, which, in addition to the conditions for the manifestation of signification, now includes the preconditions. Tensivity and phoriaare the two fundamental concepts chosen to simulate a representation of the ontic horizon of the preconditions. Tensivity can be said to translate the notion of universal attraction, whereas phoria directs tension. What led to this reconfiguration of the theory is that when they attempted to define passions or human behaviors as passional, economical, or as social roles, Greimas and Fontanille were faced with an unexplainable phenomenon. They discovered, for example, that the roles of a miser and a thrifty person were semiotically identical, with this difference: only a phenomenon such as sensitization could account for the miser’s not being thrifty. When passions such as anger and despair were studied, however, the unfolding of passional discourse or normal pathemic discourse was perturbed at a given moment. It was as though a different subject began to speak that could be accounted for only by the intervention of the body at the moment of the integration of the natural world as interiority. Hence, in their theory, as we stated before, tensivity, an attempt to represent the world according to physics, and phoria, corresponding to vitalistic organicist concepts of the biological sciences, come together as phoric tensivity on the ontic horizon. And on this horizon there appears the veil that makes it possible to represent the way in which, from such an energetic and vitalistic minimum, the subject and the world begin to emerge. In short, they are describing a sort of phoric or semic mass that, in rising to the surface, can be articulated into two types of more or less discrete units. There are, on the one hand, modalizations (i.e., the organization of the thymic into modalities) and, on the other, passional modulations, undulations in the unfurling of discourse.
As Greimas himself has indicated11, what he and Fontanille attempt to do is to present a more or less coherent foundation to complete the semiotic theory begun over twenty-five years ago. Their work on pathemization, a phenomenon that can be seen as a sort of polarization of energy, can be linked directly to the problem of oneness and multiplicity raised by Hegel, but which also was part of the pre-Socratic tradition. When, in turn, Socrates rationalized the world by attempting to get to its origins, he was forced to posit the world either as oneness that breaks up or as a complex and mixed entity that tends toward oneness. As an extension of this, the problem of inter subjectivity can be posited in these very terms. Does the meeting of two subjects constitute a tension toward conjunction or the broken-up oneness of the world? Such a problem is related to the very conditions under which communication can occur. What is the basis for the minimal cohabitation of fiducia, the very center of human conviviality?
Greimas and Fontanille start from an intuition and imagine positions that enable the polarization of the universe. This enables them, on the one hand, to posit a sort of prototype of an actant, linked by Hegel to intentionality and rearticulated by Husserl in the form of the protensivity of the subject, a sort of minimal state of the subject who is not yet a subject but simply a subject striving for something. And on the other hand, they envision a sort of potentiality of the object, which enables them to consider the world as value. What now appears to be the thorniest issue in the theory is the problematics of the object and not of the subject. To understand subjects as being, as meaning, they must be defined by the values they acquire. From this viewpoint the semiotics of passions becomes a semiotics of the values acquired, lost, suspended, and so on, by the subject. In brief, we are now dealing with a subject denned by its protensivity, faced with an object of value that is unformed, a shadow of the value that can be semanticized. In a later phase the shadow of value becomes the valence, which then leads to the question of the value of value. In short, whether it is examining the semiotics of passions or the semiotics of aesthetics, the two main domains of current investigation, Greimassian semiotics has as its fundamental preoccupation the problematics of value.
Throughout this brief presentation we have continually stressed the progressive conceptualization of Greimassian semiotics. We have also sketched the various moves those engaged in this ongoing project have made over the years. In response to the oft-heard criticism of closure, we have attempted to show how this semiotic theory has opened up to other domains, notably phenomenology, which has considerably enriched it. Yet it should be noted that, because of the need to provide a methodological foundation to the theory (each new concept introduced bringing about a redefinition of existing ones), certain theories in their present state are considered to be incompatible. Hence, at this stage of its development the interface with phenomenology could occur only at the expense of the exclusion of the Peircean paradigm of semiotics, which is seen as being focused more on the cognitive than on the passional dimension of semiotics. In a further move, the major theories of discourse analysis were reexamined and an attempt was made to integrate some of their concepts, notably in the domain of aspectualities. Such concepts provided by discourse analysis brought about a reconceptualization of the entire theory. Within this context of hypothetico-deductive procedures, literary texts also played a fundamental role in reconfiguring the theory. Finally, however, we are confronted by a number of problems that still need to be addressed: the relationship between the continuity and or discontinuity of the preconditions, the semionarrative level and the discursive level, which in Thomian terms immediately raises a problem of morphogenesis, the relationship between the modulations of the preconditions, the modalities of the semionarrative level, and the aspectualities of the discursive level. Can, for example, wanting-to be homologated with the inchoative, being-able-to with the durative, having-to with the punctual, and knowing with the terminative? There is also the question of the nature of the relationship between ontology in general and the epistemological level of current theory.
Although semiotics is still considered to be an open and unfinished project striving for scientificity, Greimas and Fontanille have investigated new areas of inquiry by focusing on the passional domain with respect to the cognitive and the actional. Just as the poet at the end of the Divine Comedy, who, like a geometer unable to measure a circle for lack of understanding, is nevertheless enlightened by inspiration when he grasps that his own desire and will are commanded by the sentiment that moves the sun and other stars, numerous insights have been shed on the semiotic spheres of passions. Yet again, a number of areas that have been programmatically mapped out remain to be explored in detail.
The editors would like to thank Ms. Linda Lamisong and Mr. Richard van Hoist for their help in preparing the manuscript.


  1. See, e.g., Ronald Schleifer, A. J. Greimas and the Nature of Meaning (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), or Paolo Fabbri and Paul Perron, Foreword, The Social Sciences: A Semiotic View (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990). torna al rimando a questa nota
  2. See Paul Perron, Introduction, A. J. Greimas, On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), as well as Introduction, Greimassian Semiotics, New Literary History, 20, no. 3 (Spring 1989). torna al rimando a questa nota
  3. For example, chapters 3 to 6 of Greimas’s On Meaning, originally published in French between 1968 and 1973, attempt to come to grips with the actional: “The Interaction of Semiotic Constraints”; “Elements of a Narrative Grammar”; “A Problem of Narrative Semiotics: Objects of Value”; and “Actants, Actors, and Figures.” torna al rimando a questa nota
  4. See, e.g., the seminal work of the 1960s in Paris, edited by Roland Barthes, L’analyse structurale du récit, where he, Tzvetan Todorov, Greimas, Claude Bremond, Christian Mete, and Umberto Eco accentuate the actional dimension of narrative in their analyses. In his introduction, following Aristotle who, setting tragedy (defined by unity of action) in opposition to history (defined by the plurality of actions and the unity of time), already attributed the primacy of logic over chronology (Poetics, 1459a), Barthes stresses the need to “dechronologize” narrative and to “relogicize” it (1988, p. 112). torna al rimando a questa nota
  5. See, e.g., A. J. Greimas, “On Meaning,” in Greimassian Semiotics, pp. 539-50. torna al rimando a questa nota
  6. “Thus to analyze discourse in this way is to construct models which can account for the trajectory of the lives of subjects, of men. Interest was focused on subjects’ trajectories, which are indeed realized by means of narrative programs in discourse, or in the subjects’ own lived experience” (ibid., p. 546). torna al rimando a questa nota
  7. See, “On Anger: A Lexical Semantic Study,” in On Meaning, pp. 148-64. torna al rimando a questa nota
  8. See, e.g., “On Narrativity” (1989, pp. 551-62), a discussion between Paul Ricoeur and Greimas, as well as “Greimas’s Narrative Grammar” (1989, pp. 581-608). Both texts were originally published in English in Greimassian Semioticstorna al rimando a questa nota
  9. In a seminar given with Teresa Keane on June 7, 1990, at the Twelfth International Summer Institute for Structural and Semiotic Victoria College, University of Toronto. torna al rimando a questa nota
  10. The English translation of this work appeared in 1982 as Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary (Bloomington, Indiana University Press). torna al rimando a questa nota
  11. Seminar with Teresa Keane of June 8, 1990, given during the Twelfth International Summer Institute for Structural and Semiotic Studies at Victoria College, University of Toronto. torna al rimando a questa nota
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