The leading vision of Greimas’ scholarly activity was semiotics – a general theory of meaning, intended as a common foundation for the social sciences and humanities. In his works, signification became not only a problem of the semantics of natural language, but of the whole of the human world. In his first book Structural Semantics (1966), Greimas grounded this endeavor in a brilliant insight: the world can only be called ‘human’ to the extent that it means something.

Greimas in Kaunas, October, 1971. Photo by Jonas Kubilius.
A trip to the mountains on February 16, Lithuanian Independence Day. From left to right: Greimas, Aldona Dirmantaitė, unidentified engineering student, Ramutė Iešmantaitė, Prof Antonin Duraffour, unidentified person, Birutė Sirutytė, Birutė Skučaitė, Jonas Kossu-Aleksandravičius, Ženė Kučinskaitė. Grenoble, 1938. From the personal archive of Ramutė Iešmantaitė-Ramunienė. We thank Jonė Ramunytė for the photo.

Such a universal horizon prompted Greimas and his disciples to research different systems of signification, through which cultures, societies and persons perceive the world and their own selves. At the same time, in the works of Greimas, as well as in those of other scholars, the problem of narrativity emerged: after all, people employ narratives in conversations, in works of art, in their imagination, indeed, in almost any activity… Greimas considered narrativity to be one of the elementary forms of human existence. Using the framework of narrativity, he studied such different phenomena as fiction, scientific writing and gastronomic recipes, feelings and social life. This vast panorama of his research blossomed out in On Meaning (1970), Maupassant: The Semiotics of Text (1975), Semiotics and the Social Sciences (1976), On Meaning II (1983), The Semiotics of Passions (1991, co-authored by Jacques Fontanille). In one of his last works, the essayistic On Imperfection (1987), Greimas took up a semiotic approach to aesthetics, something he was interested in his whole life. He described the connection between a sensual relationship with the world and meaning, an experience of the sublime and knowing how to live an everyday life. He thus seemed to return to the question of how the world becomes a human world.

According to Greimas himself, semiotics is a collective project which is “neither a science, nor an achievement or a doctrine, but a call to labour if we really want to understand man”.