The Trivium and “The Semiotic Iceberg”: A Paradigm for Reading and Responding to Texts


Grammar Stage: Making Empirical Observations (Pre-critical)

First-Order Signs: “Above the waterline”; surface-level / obvious

Practical Questions: “Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?”


Logic: Analyzing the Message (Inductive, Critical)

Second-Order Signs: “Below the waterline”; subterranean / not so obvious

(interrelatedness of signs; patterns of meaning as they contribute to the text’s overall expression—see “Tool Kit”: language of genre)

Theoretical, Interpretation-Generating Questions: “How?  ”

(How does this text communicate its message?)


Rhetoric: Formulating an Interpretive Position (Post-critical)

Generating Claims & Drawing Broader Conclusions: “Why?” or “So What?”

(Why is this significant? What is the broader ‘so what’?)




     Based on model by Greg Fraser



Grammar-Level  observations:

“above the waterline”                                                                                    

                                            Visible                                   Waterline to dive below ¯                     







              persistent beliefs    


underlying meanings


                                                                                 commonly held views           


  dominant mindsets    outlooks and values


 shared hopes, dreams, and desires         


          established power structures     received wisdoms                             


       historical factors        principles       figurative meanings


                                                  cultural anxieties     supposed eternal truths    unspoken tensions         


considerations of what is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’           assumptions 


                                            ideas and ideals      standard mentalities      historical underpinnings         


 longstanding biases          expectations        intellectual traditions       


                                       “master narratives”       morals and mores      widespread preoccupations


                                 philosophical underpinnings       psychological states         socio-economic factors      


connotations               criticisms/critiques                   literary echoes and influences         


                   common assumptions about gender, politics, religion, race        subconscious motivations, fears, desires





Some Interpretive Questions: Logic and Rhetoric-Stage Questions

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing... Never lose a holy curiosity.” –Albert Einstein