Signs of the Self: An Exploration in Semiotic Anthropology


  • Milton Singer

    1. University of Chicago
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      MILTON SINGER is professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology and Paul Klapper Professor of the Social Sciences, the College, the University of Chicago. After completing his doctoral studies at Chicago in 1940, he joined the faculty in 1941 and has been teaching there since. He spent two periods as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1957–58, 1965). Other research and study trips took him to Europe in 1952 and 1954 and to India in 1954–55, 1960–61, and 1964; the first four trips were under the auspices of Robert Redfield's project on intercultural studies, and the last one was as a Faculty Research Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies.

  • His publications include, in addition to a number of professional papers and jointly authored volumes: When a Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Indian Civilization. He is now writing two books, one on American identity based in part on an updating of Lloyd Warner's “Yankee City”. research, and the other on the possibility of a semiotic anthropology. The paper “Signs of the Self” was the American Anthropological Association Distinguished Lecture for 1978.

  • Singer is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an honorary member of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations.


Peirce's general theory of signs, or semiotic, as he called it, yields a theory of the self that sees it both as the object and the subject of semiotic systems. From this viewpoint, the locus, unity, and continuity of the self will be found in the systems of signs that constitute the dialogues between utterers and interpreters of the signs. Personal identity, in this theory, is also a social and cultural identity and is not confined to the individual organism. Peirce's anti-Cartesianism, which denies intuitive and introspective knowledge of the self, derived that knowledge from the fallible inferences we all make from the observations of external facts, including the signs of the self. This laid the foundation for a semiotic psychology as well as for a semiotic anthropology. [self, semiotic anthropology, personal identity, C. S. Peirce]