It is an enormous responsibility to present a man as a scientist and to try to disclose as objectively as possible his views and ideas: to convey the essential meaning or sense of his own understanding of meaning — the problem he considered to be the central in his numerous and consequent elaborations. Let this be considered a humble attempt, aware of all the threatening dangers of subjectivity and superficiality.

Algirdas J. Greimas was born on March 9, 1917 in Tula (Russia). After Lithuania declared its independence in 1918 his parents returned to their homeland and Greimas graduated from the gymnasium in Marijampole in 1934 and entered the Law Faculty in Kaunas’s Vytautas Magnus University. Several years later on a grant from the Lithuanian Ministry of Education he went to France for language and dialectology studies, but became interested in the Middle Ages as well. In 1939 he returned to Lithuania for his military service and found himself, along with the other citizens, in an occupied country, first by the Soviets and then by the Germans.

Greimas published his first article "Cervantes and His Don Quixote" in 1943 in an almanac Varpai (Bells) in Lithuanian about the meaning of anti-nazi resistance. More than 40 years later, in an interview with "Le Quotidien de Paris", he would say that his intellectual path can be explained partially by the experiences of his Lithuanian youth, and that for him to be a semiotician means to raise the question of meaning permanently.

In 1944 Greimas returned to France to carry on his language studies and received his doctoral degree at the Sorbonne in 1949, defending his thesis on the 1830 fashion dictionary. Together with the future famous French linguist, George Matore, he published an article, "A Method in Lexicology", which marked the beginning of his scientific career.

There follow nine years of teaching the history of the French language in Alexandria University, Egypt. This period is noted as a time of intensive readings, private reflections, decisive acquaintances and relationships. He carefully studied and discussed with friends and colleagues the works of the founder of structural linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure and his follower, Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev; the initiator of comparative mythology, George Dumézil; the structural anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss; the Russian specialist in fairy tales, Vladimir Propp; researcher the aesthetics of the theater, Etienne Souriau; the philosopher-phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty; the psychoanalyst, Gaston Bachelard; and the novelist and art historian, Andre Malraux. In Alexandria Greimas was a close associate of another future classic of semiotics, Roland Barthes, both of whom profited from their relationship with their friend and teacher, maitre a penser, Charles Singevin. Their interests lay in everything: history and humanitarian sciences, poetry and mathematics, philosophy and sex. In this mixture of multicolored ideas the semiotic attitude towards the world, as bearing certain meaning, was able to find its origin.

The very universality of meaning coming through the meaningful totality of surrounding signs invites one to view culture as a monolithic phenomenon, but the focus remains on language itself, which should be associated primarily to the meaningful signs and sign systems. At the same time the need to understand the inner structure of language and how it is capable of transmitting meaning, requires that one analyze language by means of another language, a metalanguage, describing language as if from inside and understanding it in a much broader sense than the traditional linguistic point of view. Thus they strove to understand the world with the help of basic available linguistic tools in order to overstep the usual boundaries of this discipline and gain wider horizons.

In time Greimas became the head of the French Language and Grammar Department in Ankara (Turkey), taught in Istanbul University, became acquainted with modern logic, and was interested in automatic translation and the application of statistical methods in linguistics. In 1960, together with the other initiators of the application of precise methods to language analysis, he established the Société d’ètude de la langue francaise, which actually marked the revival of scientific linguistics in France as opposed to the traditional philological language studies.

In 1962, Greimas was appointed as language science professor to Poitiers University, but the insights brought from Egypt made him tend towards considering language to be worthy of wider investigation, namely, as a system containing in itself, transmitting, and, under special conditions, generating meaning, as well as providing possibilities to perceive it. This required more systematic, or as it used fashionably to be called, structural analysis of language.

Trying to outline briefly the general theoretical intellectual context in which Greimas’s elaboration had to find its place, we should mention the two main trends of semiotic investigations in the middle of the 20th century: linguistic structuralist and logical philosophical. The first through L. Hjelmslev had its roots in the ideas of F. de Saussure. Hjelmslev intended to formalize the language theory of the latter and introduced to the existing dichotomy of language/parole the dichotomy of system/process and enriched the concept of meaning with the dichotomy of form/substance, thus making it possible to talk about a signifying form (forme signifiante).1

The logical philosophical trend developed into a sovereign philosophy of language analysis, connecting in one line such thinkers as G. Frege, L. Witgenstein, R. Carnap, J. Austin, W. Quine, J. Searle, N. Chomsky, D. Davidson, J. Hintikka and many others, with their own peculiarities and inner divisions on the way language, speech acts, communication, etc., is to be understood. Here meaning is being explained with the help of such terms of modern logic as truth, reference, information, as well as with terms defining various modalities — necessity, knowing, believing, possible worlds and others. This kind of investigations is predominant in the USA and England.

The linguistic structuralistic approach is richly varied. There are different semiotic trends in different countries. In France in particular two main semiotic schools are still famous since their beginning in the 60s. The first, known as the Greimasian or Paris school (Ecole de Paris), the other no less popular trend is more towards metaphorical, philosophical and aesthetic thinking. It concentrates mainly on the analysis of literary texts, a sort of art of texts about texts. The most prominent names associated with this school are Roland Barth, Gerard Genet, Julia Kristeva, Michael Foucault and others. The poststructuralists or deconstructionists are closer to the second group in contrast to the Greimasian camp.

In an attempt to put Greimas’s structuralistic semiotic conception into an even broader contextual framework, we cannot omit a fundamental philosophical tradition known as phenomenological hermeneutics. It too, in its own way, is in search of meaning, but does it more generally by trying to solve profoundly the very problem of the understanding of texts, i.e., what verbal and non-verbal conditions — historical, cultural, individual — should be taken into account when the genuine meaning of a written or spoken monument is to be disclosed. The attitude towards the concept of intentionality puts that tradition in sharp opposition with the positivist and analytic philosophy of language. This outstanding and magnificent philosophy is rich in the work of such classics as Wilhelm Dilthey, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, as well as such more contemporary thinkers as H. Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas.

In such a setting of different theories and schools dealing with the problems of meaning, Greimas’s semiotics as a model for the description of textual discourses was created.

Greimas works lie at the crossroads of a triple tradition:


The Saussurian School


This was developed by L. Hjelmslev, who pursued the project of describing language systems in general (langage), and not just language (langue) characterized as a system of signs. He gave that project a deductive form and claimed for linguistics the same formal rigor as for natural sciences. Hjelmslev takes more steps in regard to the notion of the sign than does F. Saussure by introducing the form/substance and content/expression dichotomies to the initial signifier/signified. Thus he provides a much stronger conceptual apparatus, better suited for the description of discourses and systems of non-linguistic signs, which is the proper and specific project of semiotics. As Hjelmslev put his vision: "Linguistic theory is led by an inner need to recognize not merely the linguistic system in its schema and usage, its totality and individuality, but also the man and human society behind language, and all human spheres of knowledge through language. At this point linguistic theory has reached its prescribed goal: humanitas et universitas."2

The Saussurian tradition, as developed by Hjelmslev and others, including Greimas himself, does not consist of a series of strict derivatives by obedient disciples regarding Saussure as an unquestioned teacher. It is rather agreement in the epistemological choice to take natural language as a starting point instead of a sign. Greimas adopts the same solution, arguing that every sign is translatable into a natural language, but that the contrary is not true. The translatability of a system of signs into that particular other system of signs which is spoken language is the main principle underlying the Saussurian tradition in the history of contemporary semiotics. This epistemological orientation in the works of Greimas is connected with a particular methodological model of the theoretical structural phonology developed by R. Jakobson or the Prague linguistic school.

Greimas clearly stated his attachment to this tradition in his article "L`actualité du saussurisme."3 On the basis of these dichotomies he declares adherence the following principles: A) Language is a formal object — an entity of relationships; as such it is comparable to other formal objects and is subject to scientific analysis. Language can be described by another language, i.e. a metalanguage consisting of defined and univocous terms. B) Language is a semantic object — an architecture of forms containing meaning. C) Language is a social object, a collective institution. In this regard it is not we who speak language, but language itself speaks by means of us — we are submerged in language as in social reality.

Such a broad attitude towards language allows it to be compared to other structures, such as plastic forms, or musical structures which also cover extremely wide regions which are social scope. The same attitude moves one to look for all possible comparable and interrelated structures in natural and humanitarian sciences as well. It is notable that the most noticeable advances have been made in phonology, which is itself a branch of linguistics, opening the opportunity to overstep the limits of linguistics. This was due to focusing on the minimal universal elements at the basis of every language structure, namely, the principle of binary oppositions.


The Structural Study of Myth: Comparative Mythology


The same search for basic general structural elements was characteristic of the comparative Indo-European investigations of mythology by Dumézil,4 who personally persuaded Greimas to introduce Lithuanian mythology into Indo-European study circles. Dumézil considered myth and language as a system of collective representations, a figurative form of social ideology, and this attitude could not help but generate mutual sympathy between structural linguistics and anthropology. The linguistic principle of binary oppositions and the concept of transformation as transition from one systemic level to another offered an opportunity to work out a more general system capable of describing the broad field of cultural and social symbolism, projected by F. de Saussure as a "general semiology".

Some of the most significant ideas influencing Greimas scientific views were generated by the founder of structural anthropology, C. Lévi-Strauss, namely, the arguments that kinship terms as well as phonemes are elements of signification and that they acquire their signification only when integrated into "elementary kinship systems."5 The division of the deeper and superficial levels of systems making it possible to unite into one different myths, the determination of various ways of reading the same myth according to these levels: the vertical — paradigmatic and horizontal — syntagmatic levels (compare Hjelmslev’s system/process dichotomy) inspired and fitted Greimas’s theoretical vision to an outstanding degree.

Lévi-Strauss enlarged the structural description of folktales, initially proposed by V. Propp,6 and ventured an analysis of the Oedipus myth.7 It was shown that a syntagmatic reading of the myth is compatible with its paradigmatic reading and contains in itself all the problems of cultural origin because of a clash of contradictory understandings of kinship patterns. The correlation of two binary categories made of elements contradictory to each other (parenté et non parenté, and non-autochtonie et autochtonie) make up the initial structure of signification, which is able to generate or deduce all possible Oedipus myths or its interpretations, including the Freudian one. Such an analysis, confirming the twofold semantic structure of a system and realizing the Hjelmslevian idea of a significant form, could not be contained in the framework of the traditional science of language. Greimas considered it his task to show precisely that the essence of a narrative discourse or syntagmatic action is nothing other than a projection of deeper paradigmatic categories to a syntagmatic level of text.


The French School of Perception


This tradition is represented most prominently by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who developed the main thesis that we perceive only differences and that, living in the social world we are doomed to meaning (condamnés au sens).8 It is characteristic of this world to which we are related that it reveals itself to a subject through effects of meaning (effets de sens) and we perceive those effects through a psychological grasp (saisie). Since differences and discontinuities are the premises of our perception, any meaning can be understood as immanent to linguistic form and Greimas considered this a natural extension of Saussurian thinking.

Due to the scope of Greimas’s works he is sometimes considered a representative of different humanitarian areas. In one of his letters to a Lithuanian philologist, B. Savukynas, he joked that in a way his name became a common noun in French, because students are saying to each other: "Pass me Greimas" — meaning his Dictionaire de l`ancien francais. So for some he seems to be a lexicographer, for others a dialectologist, a theoretician of language, a founder of a semiotic project, or a mythologist as he is mostly known and read in Lithuania. (See Bibliography). But the problem of meaning or sense, as he himself has repeatedly stressed, was always the central element in his numerous and vast preoccupations:


Le probléme de la signification se situe au centre des préoccupations actuelles. Pour transformer l‘inventaire des comportements humaines en anthropologie et les séries des événements en histoire, nous ne pouvons que nous interroger sur le sens des activités humaines et le sens de l‘histoire. Le mond humaine nous parait se définir essentiellement comme le mond de la signification. Le mond ne peut etre dit "humain" que dans la mesure ou il signifie quelque chose.9


Another basic characteristic of Greimas’s approach is that he does not concentrate on the philosophical definition or analysis of meaning as much as on where it is located — in signs, beyond signs or just in our heads — but the focus is rather on what actually the meaning means or what is its concrete content and how it can be deciphered in all possible sign systems. By itself meaning for him is a kind of a givenness (donnée), since we happen to live in a society that inevitably is signifying through communication and relationships. Meaning is conveyed, exercised and exchanged by the "class of grown-ups", i.e. sharing something that is believed to be common sense and acquired in the process of communication and education. Meaning is always pregnant with the effect the surrounding world has on us. But because of the complexity and very often because of insufficiency (for instance of mythological data) of sign systems and/or texts-discourses we are in need of special semiotic tools to disclose, restore, understand, interpret and integrate particular knowledge into general knowledge and/or a belief heritage. For Greimas, genuine knowing very often is a realization of faith and trust. Thus, while claiming to avoid philosophical and psychological involvement, he launches an epistemological discussion of the relationship of knowing and believing and that is not the only case of trespassing into the neighboring fields of semiotics.

So the main tendency in Greimas’s works is a continuous effort to work out reliable ways and methods to invent proper tools for knowing and for finding an objective scientific sense in all areas of the human environment. These are seen always as consisting of signs and signification, bearing meaning which is susceptible for logical articulation and limited to its essence or to a certain number of isotopes. This epistemological super-task diminishes the traditional division between the natural and humanitarian sciences. This is because the data of both while presented by means of their own languages and signs, are translatable into another coherent descriptive language articulating meaning units which at first sight are intangible.

The latter translation, again by means of transformations, is to be raised to a more formalized epistemological level, setting an exhaustive number of possible readings of any discourse of literary, scientific, cultural, gestural, or whatever origin. A last epistemological level is a previously designed logical model and can be applied only deductively; hence it is capable not only of interpretation, but also of restoring missing parts or details in an investigated field. (Again the best example is mythology.) Thus it provides a possible hierarchical structure, stemming from the structure of language itself as the most sophisticated system, and capable of articulating and, by means of transformation from one epistemological level to another, tracing the whole semiotic path (parcour semiotique) leading to the deepest nucleus of meaning and thus informing us of what is really happening. Thus meaning can be called a possibility of translation from one language (language-object) into a stricter metalanguage of description, and thence into an epistemological language which is supposed to be an already fixed and tested structure working on the principles of verification and deduction.

All this requires a great deal of formalization and elaboration. This is what we find in the books and articles by Greimas who is constantly aware of all possible dangers and critiques from all sides of the creatively inclusive and at the same time autonomous character of his theory. "Tiraillé entre des exigencies pratique contradictoires, l’auteur ne peut choisir, au risque de mécontener tout le mond, que la voie moyenne pour se faire comprendre des deux cotés."10 The middle way is between logic, philosophy, psychology, literature, history and other surrounding sciences; and the result is a narrative grammar and theory of modalities. This is absolutely necessary when attempting to expand the limits of the semiotic approach to all human activities and to cover such fields as axiology, aesthetics and the world of feelings.

It is also quite true that Greimas was always conscious of the incompleteness of his model, regarding it as a continuous creation, correction, improvement and enlargement which he had no great hopes of completing. But he longed to see his beginnings carried on by others, because the project is suffused with the principle of continuity, flexibility and dynamics. It is to be accepted and treated as a permanent striving for reality in search of its deeper and more objective, though endlessly concealed, elements. As Greimas puts it in one of his last and most emotional books, De l’imperfection: there is only one way leading to aesthesis, namely, a revival of body and soul. This takes place only when the binary objects of our everyday life are resemantisized, i.e., when a new meaning is found attached or when we seek to escape from bored monotony and transfer ourselves somewhere else. In every case it turns out to be an interruption of commonness, changing the distance between subject and object, preceded by a special waiting (attente) of something unexpected (inattendu). Thus:


Vaines tentatives de soumetre le quotidien ou de s’en sortir: quete de l’inattendu qui se dérobe. Et, pourtant, les valeurs dite esthétiques sont les seules propres, les seules, en refusant toute négativité, à nous tirer vers le haut. L’imperfection apparait comme un tremplin qui nous projette de l’insignifiance vers le sens.11


In such a way the circle, after reaching and passing various distant domains, again is closed on man and the problem of his existence in this world.

From a contemporary perspective the appearance of his "Structural Semantics" in the late 70s has played a really revolutionary role as the very first and ambitious attempt to bring life to a structuralist method in its full-scale systematic form. It promised to transform not only linguistics, but every branch of the human sciences and to bring a marked shift in the fields of anthropology, psychoanalysis, literary criticism and elsewhere. According to some authors, such as Christopher,12 the role of Greimas is nearly mythical in the history of rapidly changing visions and revisions of European structuralism and semiotics. For quite a long time he remained unfamiliar to Anglo-Saxon readers, because the other branch of semiotics, developed by Charles Peirce, was mostly practiced in the USA and the Saussurian tradition was unknown or rejected. But now the situation has changed and nearly all the works by Greimas are available for an English reader and discussed in the publications of scholars.

If, from the philosophical point of view, Greimas is said to be following a wide neo-Kantian tradition, it is because of the anthropomorphic element in his theory: that is, a place is left for consulting reality and practice by means of straight perception and experience and there is a role for a knowing subject.

We deliberately avoided further details of Greimas’s theoretical underpinnings, and for serious reasons: first, the vast volume of his writings; second, the special terminology of theory construction is too narrow a place to provide sufficient definitions; and third, it is the task of the reader to pick up the real essence as well as to evaluate and attempt to introduce it.


Lithuanian Institute of Culture and Art




1. Prolegomena to a Theory of Language (Madison, 1961).

2. Prolegomena to a theory of language (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1961), p. 127.

3. Jn: Le français moderne, 1956. Nr. 3.

4. L’Héritage indo-européen à Rome (Paris, 1949); La Saga de Hadingus: du myth au roman (Paris, 1953).

5. Anthropology structurale (Paris, 1958), p. 40.

6. C. Lévi-Strauss, "La structure et la forme: reflextions sur un ouvrage de V. Propp", Chair de l`Institut des Sciences Economiques Appliquées, 99 (1960), pp. 3-36.

7. "La Structure des mythes" in Anthropologie sructurale, vol. 1 (Paris: Plan, 1958).

8. Phénomenologie de la perception (Paris, 1945).

9. Semantique structurale, p. 5.

10. Sémantique sructurale, p. 8.

11. De l’imperfection, p. 99.

12. See R. Schleifer, A.J. Greimas and the Nature of Meaning (London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1987), p. x.