Author Interview: Alin Olteanu

Alin Olteanu is a postdoctoral researcher at the International Semiotics Institute, Kaunas University of Technology, Lithuania. His doctoral research on Charles Peirce’s semiotics has been published as ‘Philosophy of Education in the Semiotics of Charles Peirce: A Cosmology of Learning and Loving’, reviewed here. In this interview, Alin discusses the book, why he wrote it, and what he is working on now…


Why did you decide to write Philosophy of Education in the Semiotics of Charles Peirce: A Cosmology of Learning and Loving?

The decision to write the book the way it turned out was a three-year process. The starting point was that of writing a PhD thesis consisting in a fully semiotic philosophy for education. The book, which is an outcome of the PhD, gives the structure of an educational philosophy based on Charles Peirce’s semiotics. I consider that recent scholarship simultaneously set the premises for such a study and pointed out the need for it. Therefore, it was a matter of circumstances and ongoing research that led me to this study.

The circumstances in which I wrote the book underpin the scholarship behind it. About 15 years ago some semioticians became particularly interested in education, and some educational theorists became interested in semiotics. Their dialogue led to the formation of the Semiotics and Education Network (SEN), the development of which was supported by the PESGB. One of the main scholars in this endeavour is Andrew Stables, who supervised my PhD. This book is the result of that research. Andy (as friends know him) is an active member of the PESGB and, so, while being his PhD student I benefitted from being immersed in the PESGB environment, participating in its seminars and conferences. So the book was written in the academic circles of the PESGB and SEN.

These circumstances also underpin the paradigms that corroborated to the book’s writing: philosophy of education and semiotics. Philosophy of education is mainly a British academic tradition and it has mostly, but not exclusively, developed along the lines of British analytical philosophy, since starting with Richard Peters and Paul Hirst. Recently, of course, other schools, such as, for instance, existentialism and phenomenology have also been employed in education. It is obvious that philosophy of education has become more and more multidisciplinary and eclectic, and the PESGB has a major role here. Nevertheless, within this tradition of philosophy of education, the semiotic perspective, be it Peircean or otherwise, was lacking until recently and, I think, it is still not taken up to its full potential. So the book should offer an insight into what Peircean semiotics can offer to the, predominantly analytical, philosophy of education.

More specifically, within the broad area of semiotics, my approach belongs to the biosemiotic trend. Biosemiotics is currently one of the most fertile schools of semiotics. It started to be developed in the 1970s, by Thomas Sebeok, with the driving principle of the close connection (if not identification) of signification and life (in the biological sense). This is a neo-Peircean paradigm, as Sebeok and his followers developed it in this pragmatic vein of semiotics. Semiotic approaches to education did not fully adopt this major trend until a few years ago. The semiotic approaches to education tended to be continental, drawing on structuralism and poststructuralism, and not on neo-Peircean biosemiotics.

I consider that two efforts in semiotics, occurring by the time the book was published, reveal the epistemological place of this book. Firstly, the term edusemiotic was coined, referring to a broad and general semiotic framework for education. Secondly, but no less important, the current interest in biosemiotics is now also focused on cultural phenomena. As such, the writing of the book was an effort to keep research in education up to date with scholarship more broadly, planting the subject of education on semioticians’ agenda. In retrospect I can say that this was the reason for writing the book.


What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?

The book has a two-sided aim: (1) the exploration and development of philosophy of education in a semiotic perspective and (2) the development of Peircean scholarship through an inquiry into Peirce’s view on education. My discovery through this inquiry, which I argue for in the book, is that while Peirce scarcely mentioned education explicitly, a philosophy of education is implicit in his semiotics. While reading through the vast Peircean corpus my aim became that of explaining his semiotics as a philosophy of education, and not only that of developing a Peircean philosophy of education.

I consider that Peirce’s educational philosophy is revealed by his theory of evolution of signification, which presupposes a learning theory. According to Peirce, signification develops by three criteria: chance, necessity, and (surprising for some) love, which transcends the first two. The main point of the book consists in an account of learning and teaching along these three criteria.


And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?

What drew me personally to my research interests were people – my teachers. As a student I realized that, with the help of some people, learning is the most interesting and important event of our lives. This is probably where my learning theory comes from: learning is a personal endeavour, an intimate matter of personal relations. I would like to use this opportunity to mention and thank my various teachers, whose areas of expertise map my study and research path: Dumitru Borţun, Frederik Stjernfelt, Costantino Marmo, Andrew Stables, Dario Martinelli, Lorella Terzi and, not least, Suzy Harris and Paul Standish. The last two evaluated my PhD dissertation and their carefully provided suggestions and amendments make this book a much more comprehensive study.

Early in my years as a student I became very interested in theories of knowledge and semiotics. These two, of course, have much to do with each other. I have been fascinated by trying to understand how learning happens and how we communicate knowledge. By the time I was finishing my MA in cognitive semiotics (at Aarhus University, Denmark) I started a correspondence on such topics with Andy, who was interested to supervise a PhD on Semiotics as Foundation for Education. My correspondence with Andy broadened my interest from learning in particular, to education more generally. Also, it was with Andy’s supervision that I was constantly led to discovering educational issues that motivated me personally to research in this direction. I would like to mention, at this point, that I am very grateful to Andy who has been a most inspiring research supervisor for me.


What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?

The highest hopes consist in giving semiotics and Charles Peirce a momentum in the circles of philosophers of education and in inspiring biosemioticians to consider the subject of education, in their approach to culture. Of course, being realistic, the hopes need to stay modest. This book is a first step, both in its aim and for me, as a Peircean scholar. Since it was published, a bit more than a year before this interview, the book caused some reactions, but I hope it will become more known as its subject is becoming more popular.


What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the book?

The book is mainly addressed to scholars interested in Peirce and to philosophers of education. Ever since John Dewey, who was a disciple of Peirce, pragmatism has been in the focus of educational theorists. My hope is that pragmatists undertaking research in the area of education will find that Peircean semiotics can refresh pragmatism, generally and specifically in regard to education.


What’s your current project? What’s next?

Now I am working as a postdoctoral researcher at the International Semiotics Institute, based at Kaunas University of Technology, in Lithuania. My postdoctoral research focuses on multiculturalism. This is a further development of my book on education. The research I carried out for this book led me to observe that on a Peircean account, in the light of recent biosemiotic and ecosemiotic research, learning and education have an ecological dimension. The way in which we construe education has direct consequences for how we relate to the environment – both natural and cultural. A multicultural society is an ecological society, which cultivates the principle of pluralism. Thus, I aim at developing a neo-Peircean theory of multiculturalism, based on the concepts of learning and education developed in this book.

My postdoctoral work is supervised by Dario Martinelli who, among other areas of expertise, is one of the leading scholars in zoosemiotics (the branch of semiotics which, at large, studies signification in the animal world). My dialogue with Dario has always been very fertile for research. It is through his writings that I was inspired to seek the ecological dimension of learning epistemologies. Also, it was my conversations with Dario that made me curious towards multiculturalism.

A part of this endeavour is a book on Semiotic Learning Theories, which I am currently writing together with Andrew Stables, Sebastien Pesce, Winfried Nöth, and Eetu Pikkarainen. My contribution to the book aims to show how our construal of learning shapes our relation to the environment and that a semiotic account supports an ecological and multicultural society.


What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

This is a broad question and I cannot claim to give a precise answer to it. I can answer, however, from the point of view of my current, ongoing research. As indicated in my previous answers, philosophy of education is not neutral in regard to the environment. Modern philosophy implied that our learning, our acquisition of knowledge in the broadest sense, is a phenomenon entirely independent of the (external) environment. The current ecological crisis is the undeniable proof that this is not so. Our educational paradigm is our ecological paradigm. How we learn is how we relate to the environment because we learn by the manner in which we relate to the environment. Learning does not only happen in the classroom or in the study room, where the scholar is locked up with her books, immersed in silent learning. Learning happens continuously, along with life. In my book I had already made the case that our construal of learning can be hurtful for those around us. For instance, if we think that we can learn by simply adding new information to our existing information we will teach by simply claiming to deliver new information to a student. This can be useless or hurtful for the student, whose phenomenal world might not be compatible with the teacher’s ideas. In this case we often assume that the student’s information is “wrong” and that it needs to be “replaced” with the “correct”, academically accepted information. In this case we shall hurt the student, doubtlessly, as we will adopt an aggressive teaching attitude, violent towards the student. By these examples I would like to make my point that philosophy of education is important because it determines our relation with those around us and our place in the environment.


Thank you for the invitation to this interview. I am very grateful to the PESGB, which, as I have said in this interview, was the environment in which the book was written.