Biosemiotics: The Semiotic Web 1991

Anderson, Myrdene 1992. Concerning Gaia - Semiosic Production of/in/by/for Our Planet. In: Sebeok, Thomas A. and Jean Umiker-Sebeok (eds.), Biosemiotics: The Semiotic Web 1991. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1-13.

Language embarrasses us when transparent, mystifies us when opaque, even schizophrenically poised as it is between the obvious and the arbitrary. (Anderson 1992: 2)
The scenario warranting special attention here is that suggested by James Lovelock (1972, 1979, 1988, 1991), the chief visionary of Gaia. In 1965, Lovelock (1991: 21) first articulated his empirical observation that our planet, unlike other planets, displayed the telltale sign of life: an atmosphere maintained far from expected equilibrium by the regulatory throughput of living organisms. This observation did not reach print in a suitably prominent place until 1972. Two years later, Lovelock collaborated with Lynn Margulis (1974) to expand on the same model: that the earth was a holistic, self-organizing, and actively self-regulating system. Lovelock's first book-length exposiion of his ideas in 1979, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, provoked discussion from several quarters, and a number of scientific symposia. Both books and symposia continue, as does the controversy, to which this discussion returns at a later stage. (Anderson 1992: 3)
Besides Lovelock's formulation, made by a person trained in tropical medicine and working in meterology, we have at least two other comparable propositions that the earth is a living organism, though these others are predicated on less exotic empirical data. One such formulation came from Venezuelan biologist, Leon croizat, in 1962, with his Space, Time, Form: The Biological Sythesis. Still another model was developed by Walter Bargatzky, a German jurist and scholar living in Bonn, who in 1978 published Das Univerrsum Lebt> Die Aufsehennergende Hypotheses vom Organischen Afbau des Weltalls. (Anderson 1992: 4)
(However, lovelock's metacoevolution - so labeled by Anderson et al. 1984 and Anderson 1985 - was anticipated by Hutchison's early biochemical models of ocological cycles, in part for which he received the Franklin Medal in 1979.) (Anderson 1992: 5)
Scientists, even more than other practitioners of language, swim in and with metaphor. (Anderson 1992: 5)
Some persons have difficulty accepting the Gaia hypothesis either way. For instance, Lovelock's employer at the time of his discovery, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, would prefer to, and did, nurture the romance of directly sampling planets for life rather than making these assessments from mundane, affordable, earthly telescopes. Nonetheless, Lovelock and other scientists continue to demonstrate the manifold ways that the earth is not just constituted by signs, and condensing a turbulent field of signs. More important to the issue of biosemiotics, though, Gaia communicates with herself in the process, and this is the crux of her homeostatic system. (Anderson 1992: 6)
As any child seeking sex education from a dictionary knows, nothing interesting can be defined; and as noted elsewhere (Anderson 1990: 257; 1991: 195-96), biology is interesting. So is life. And biology is even more curious because, of all disciplines, carefully avoids any definition of life. This being the case, how can one approach the assertion, metaphorical or otherwise, of the earth being a living organism? (Anderson 1992: 7)
One terminological tack Lovelock tried later in 1985, at the United Nations University Task Force meeting in Basel, was to back off from referring to Gaia as a 'living organism' and rather call this new science of Gaia 'geophysiology'. Reporting in Nature five years later, Lovelocj (1990: 102) laments that few have followed suit in referring to Gaia research as geophysiology. Perhaps others find the ditinction of anatomy from physiologf (Lovelock 1991) too predictable, with too few engaging payoff. This application of geophysiology to Gaia may someday rest no more comfortably in science than those antique predecessors of Lovelock who sought to read the earth as a body, and for whom a volcano was a toss-up between a breast and an anus. (Anderson 1992: 9)

Deely, John 1992. Semiotics and Biosemiotics: Are Sign-Science and Life-Science Coextensive? In: Sebeok, Thomas A. and Jean Umiker-Sebeok (eds.), Biosemiotics: The Semiotic Web 1991. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 46-75.

Semiotics can be said to be the study of signs, but I think this is a loose and casual way of speaking that needs considerable expansion in order to be correctly understood. A sign is anything that stands for something other than itself. 'A', for example, stands for the first letter in our alphabet in capitalized form, or for an indefinite article opening a new sentence. But you see at once that a relation of 'standing for' requires a specified context: one thing stands for another only in some respect or capacity. So the sign is not a thing as such, not a physical element merely existing in the enviromnet, like a rock or a toad, but something as doubly related: A stands for B in context C.
Yet to say 'doubly related' is not to say 'two relations', but to say rather that one 'thing' is related in two other 'things' at one and the same time by one single relation. It is not a question of twe relations, one between A and B, and another between A and C, for, even supposing there to be such, neither such relation taken independently would contitute A as a asign. The relation contituting A as a sign is a single relation with three terms - sign, signified, and specific context or ground within and on the basis of which the sign signifies this signified rather than some other, or rather than not signify ar all. The physical mark A is contituted as sign not by its physical 'reality' or being as such, but by its being the intermediate term in a triadic relation of the type Jakobson (1974, 1980) aptly named renvoi - a relation which has an intermediate term that sends the mind beyond itself to a signified according to a specific context. (After all, a athing may represent itself and nothing more, in which case it is an object rather than a sign.) (Deely 1992: 45-46)
In recognition of this complexity within the sign, contemporary semioticians have learned to speak rather of 'sign-vehicles' than of signs when intending physical entities - be they marks or sounds or cultural artifacts of whatever type - functioning in the role of signs. Signs, strictly speaking (that is to say, signs as signs), it is now recognized, are not as such perceptible at all. Signs are rather certain patterns of relationships - always triadic, as we have seen - into which perceptible entities as such enter upon actually being perceived or understood (that is to say [in either case], objectified). Semiotics is not the study of sign-vehicles: the physics of acoustical phenomena is not the science spoken langiage for all that spoken language involves such physics, any more than the physics of light waves is the study of written language, for all that written language involves light waves; the physiology of optic nerves is not the study of reading, for all that reading normally involves optic nerves; and so on. Each science has its subject matter, the study of which gives rise to the knowledge typical of that science. (Deely 1992: 47)
Associative Drift. Certainly, in association of ideas, 'one thing leads to another', 'one thing makes us think of something else besides,' as is required for a sign. Like semiosis, associationism knows no bounds.
Without question, association is a factor in semiosis. But can the two be identified? As an interpretive habit, Eco has recently pointed out, associationism - which Eco callso 'Hermetic drift' - 'is based on the principles of universal analogy and sympathy':
The basir principle is not that the similar can be known through the similar but also that from similarity to similarity everything can be connected with everything else, so that everything can be in turn either the expression or the content of any other thing. (Eco 1990: 24)
Such a process, Eco suggests (1990: 29-30), 'could be defined as an instance of connotative neoplasm', inasmuch as 'in cases of neoplastic growth... no contextual stricture holds any longer'. Eco goes on to discuss alse Derridean or deconstructive drift, in which likewise we confront a process which knows no limits outside itself. (Deely 1992: 53)
In this case the interpretant is a physical rather thas a psychical structure, but one that has been so determined by A as to represent through A also B. In this way the interaction is a virtual semiosis - that is, a series of interactions at the level of Secondness that, at the same time, provides an actual pathway through time whereby it is possible that what happened long ago might be partially understood. Indeed, from such a standpoint, the present might be regarded as a mosaic of traces from the past, each providing, for a sufficiently knowledgeable present observer, the starting point of a journey into what used to be. Notice that the possibility in question need not be actualized in order for it to be virtually present; nor is it merely 'possible' in some abstract, conceptual sense. Our example is of something that exists in the geologiral formation, not a mere 'possibility'. The bone (A), or the rock formation that used to be a bone (C), is 'not a sign formally but virtually and fundamentally', as Poinsot puts it (1632b: 12-18): 'For since the rationale of moving or stimulating the mind remains, which comes about through the sign insofar as it is something representative even if the relation of substitution for the signified does not remain, the sign is able to exercise the functions of substituting without the relation.' (Deely 1992: 58-60)
Out of cosmic dust, stellar systems form through subatomic, atomic, and molecular interactions. At various stages of the process, even as now on earth we can in laboratories bring into being a few elements not existent in nature itself, new elements not previously given in nature precipitate from the natural interactions. These new elements, in turn, prove essential to the formation in planetary systems of the conditions under which living beings become possible, and these beings, in turn, further modify the planetary conditions so that successive generations of living beings are incomparable with the original conditions of life. Oxygen, essential for life on this planet now, for example, was originally introduced as a awaste product of living beings who neither needed nor could survive within a heavily oxygenated atmosphere. (Deely 1992: 61)
'In structist terms', says Eco (1990: 28), 'one could say that for Peirce semiosis is potentially unlimited from the point of view of the system but is not unlimited from the point of view of the system but is not unlimited from the point of view of the process. In the course of a semiosic process we want to know only what is relevant according to a given universe of discourse.'
Eco is speaking of a robust semiosis, to be sure, but I am not sure that associative drifts or even leaps do not have a asubsidiary role in the process. To reduce semiosis to such associations, hewever, is quite another thing, as Eco has well shown with his distinction of semiosis as such from the various forms of cancerous drift that have tried to claim the name for teir own vagary. (Deely 1992: 68)

Hoffmeyer, Jesper 1992. Some Semiotic Aspects of the Psycho-Physical Relation: The Endo-Exosemiotic Boundary. In: Sebeok, Thomas A. and Jean Umiker-Sebeok (eds.), Biosemiotics: The Semiotic Web 1991. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 101-123.

That appearacnces are deceitful is certainly true as far as children and young people are concerned. Coming of age, however, we all become more exposed. Wrinkles, gestures, carriage, etc. tell a story about our lives. For better or worse, we have incarnated our past in our present. The immunity we aquired following an infection of the blacksmith's big muscles are examples of the incarnation of physical or chemical events of our past. But it is now a widely recognized fact that the bedy remembers its mental past as well as or better than its physical past. The body, therefore, is outobiagraphy in the most immediate and authentic sense of that word. (Hoffmeyer 1992: 101)
In contrast, all living systems have selective mechanisms for the incorporation of the present into the future. Thus, every species represents - literally in-carnates - a selective memory of its own phylogenetic history, right back to the beginning of life. And the more brainy species have in addition to this developed "short-time' memories intended for selective conservation of individual life-history in coded form.
Strange as it may seem, oblivion is the key to these processes whereby history - whether phylogenetic or ontogenetic - is incorporated into the present and eventually into the future. Most of the genetic information ever created has been forgotten due to extinction of species, genera, or whole families. And most of our personal experiences have fortunately disappeared from our minds. Due to oblivion, history is kept alive in a meaningful way and not just in toto. (Hoffmeyer 1992: 101)
We can then make a distinction between endosemiotic and exosemiotic processes (Sebeok 1976, 1979). In a time-perspective natural to human beings, the organism would normally be seen as the relevant unit of activity, and most often the prefixes 'exo' and 'endo' refer to what goes on outside and inside that entity, respectively.
For obvious reasons, the communicative character of many exosemiotic processes has long been recognized, and has been categorized under rubrics such as 'ethology', 'animal behavior', 'animal communication' and (as far as the human being is concerned) 'semiotics'. It is to be expected, hewover, that almost any kind of behavior - even growth - will in the final analysis be shown to have semiotic implications not hithero recognized.
The area of endosemiotics, on the contrary, has only recently attracted semiotic attention. In spite of widespread use in biological science of such linguistic metaphors as 'code', 'messenger', 'proofreading', 'error', 'reading,' and so on, scientists have generally neglected the question of hew physical theory can possibly account for the implied semiotic relations (Hoffmeyer and Emmeche 1991; Yates 1987; Fates and Kugler 1984). To use the expression of Daniel C. Dennett, they have taken out 'a loan of intelligence' which they forgot to repay (Dennett 1978: 12). (Hoffmeyer 1992: 108)
Traditionally, the study of natural history has emphasized the development of different morphological characters. Yrom the point of view of this author, however, the most central feature of organic evolution is not the manifold fantastic morphologies of organisms, but the general increase of semiotic freedom - i.e., the increased richness and 'depth' of communicated meaning, gained from the development of multitudinous kinds of horizontal semiotic processes from pheromones to the song of birds, from antibody production to Japanese greeting rituals. I suspect that the creativity and flexibility conveyed to systems partaking in still more refined kinds of semiosis is the prime mover behind organic evolution, and that the development of morphologies is largely framed within and must obey certain constraints arising from this trend toward semiotic freedom (Hoffmeyer, forthcoming). (Hoffmeyer 1992: 109)
Recently, Tor Norrentraders has suggested the term 'exformation' to signify all the 'information' that has ho be thrown away before a given message is emitted and which the receiver will have to implicitly 'know of' in order to decode or understand the message (Norretranders 1991). In 1985 the physicist Charles Bennett introduced the related concept of 'logical depth' as a measure for the meaning of a piece of 'information'. Informally, we can explain logical depth as the number of steps in the deduction or causal path connecting a thing with its plausible origin (Norretranders 1991: 109-10). The underlying idea is that complexity or meaning depends not on the length of a message, but on the 'work' spend in producing it; not on the 'information' contained in the mesage, but on the calculation time needed for throwing away superfluous 'information'. (Hoffmeyer 1992: 110)
Only a tiny fraction of the potential 'information' a person receives will reach consciousness. On the surface of the retina, for instance, there are around 100 million receptors, each of which may be capable of firing perhaps as many as 100 times per second. Less than one percent of this enormous amount of 'information' from the retina reaches the brain, the rest being selectively filtered out in the retina. Still, this 'information' has been calculated to some 10 million bit/sec, and perhaps a great deal more. Compared to such figures, the supposed 'information'-processing capacity of consciousness, the so-called 'channel-width' of consciousness, is surprisingly low - 100 but/sec at most. Into this small channel-width, however, consciousness will have to condense not only vision, but all sorts of 'information' cominf from other parts of the body, including the system for watchinf over the state of the organism - the enteroceptive and proprioceptive senses, and the kinaesthetic senses. (Hoffmeyer 1992: 113)
These experiments might seem to justify the idea that the brain proposes while consciousness disposes. But I think we should consider a slightly different interpretation. Is voluntary action necessarily identical to conscious decision? If our body and brain decides to do something before our consciousness knows of it, is that decision then not our own? Even if the decision is at first unconscious, why not see it as a personal choice based on previous life experiences and on the highly personal but mostly unconscious calculation devices in the brain? In other words, might it not be that consciousness is not itself in charge of making decisions, but that it works like a vibrating pointer in a measuring device which may or may not secure its meaningfulness in relation to our life history? Subsejuently, then, this illustration might 'release' a bodily response or a thought. (Hoffmeyer 1992: 114)

Merrell, Floyd 1992. As Signs Grow, So Life Goes. In: Sebeok, Thomas A. and Jean Umiker-Sebeok (eds.), Biosemiotics: The Semiotic Web 1991. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 251-281.

Erwin Schrödinger (1967), in a series of lectures delivered in 1943, speculated that what was at that time considered to be the essence of life, a chromosome fiber, could suitably be called an aperiodic crystal, thus establishing a continuum between the inorganic realm and that of living organisms. An aperiodic crystal grows by ions attaching themselves to its surface, but attachmenti to this symmetrical surface is weaker than attachment to slight indentations or 'flaws' that eventually appear somewhere in the process. As the crystal continues to grow, the indentation spreads trigonometrically, somewhat like 'strange attractors' in chaos physics. Upon continuation of the process, ions recursively pile upon ions, and gradual rotation, initially caused by the indentation, produces a spiraloid succession of layers ideally following the lines of a Fibonacci curve as depicted in nature most notably in ram and narwhal horns and sea shells. (Merrell 1992: 251-252)
Comparable problems arise concerning signs. It has been postulated from diverse angles that signs generate signs by recursive processes. But if recursion in the strict formal sense inheres, how does a sign become an interpretant? A sign, one might presume, can be a 'thing' (or better, 'event') 'out there', or it can be a 'thought' 'in here'. We can take signs and their objects as either 'mental' or 'physical' or both, as we desire. However, Peircean interpretants in their full-blown sense, it would seem, are best qualified as 'mind-stuff', and as such, they must certainly pertain to 'life-stuff'. In the conception of T.L. Short (1982), where there is life there are legisigns, and since interpretants are the supreme manifestation of legisigns, thef must lie at the roots of life. This equation appears appropriate for our present concerns, for, in the spirit of Peirce, it makes no all-or-nothing distinction between life and nonlife: to ask how a sign becomes an interpretant (legisign, life) is like asking how a molecule becomes a code (DNA) capable of generating messages (interpretants, proteins). Even more to the point, we might conjecture that inquiry into how a collection of signs (or minds) is capable of generating its own description and interpretation potentially to reveal the nature of semiosis as a living process is comparable to inquiry into how a collection of matter (brains, signs) is capable of producing its own description and interpretation in order that it may gain a conceptual grasp of its own life processes. (Merrell 1992: 255)
According to Löfgren - and in line with Peirce's 'Man≈Sign' equation - only when a description is interpreted to describer and interpreter enter center stage: they now mingle with the described upon its being interpreted. Yet what is interpreted becomes in the final analysis partly indescribable. There can be no interpretation processes with totally described properties, for the interpreter is drawn into the system at the same time that there is some claim, however weak, of her having described those very processes. In other words, there is no absolute break between interpreter and description (interpreter-interpretant and sign in the Peircean sense); rather, all descriptions are themselves interpretations, and interpretations of interpretations. Hence descriptions-interpretations are themselves inexorably at once self-descriptions and self-interpretations: the entire system, including the interpreter, constitute a self-referential process. In short, Löfggren argues that since both life processes and language processes are perpetually evolving (that is, unfolding), any attempt to acccount for them must be incomplete. Both are recursive - albeit aperiodic - operations on themselves in a constant effort to describe, interpret, and know themselves, but they cannot effectively do so, for they are in constant flux. In Peircean terms, signs' coming into existence marks their predecessors' phasing out, and at the same time they are in the process of heralding the entrance of their own successors. (Merrell 1992: 256-257)
However, the concept of participatory semiosis according to which all signs and their interpreter-interpretants - also signs - incessantly become other signs by infinite regress and infinite progress tactics render inseparable any and all sign interpreters and interpretants. So the whole shebang, taken in its totality - which includes all signs and their interpreters - becames self-referential. In other words, Seconds and Thirds accumulate, in interaction with their interpreter-interpretants, eventually to become tantamount to self-contained Firsts. Consequently, the series of descriptions, interpretations, and interpreters meet: descriptions are interpretants for interpreters, who are themselves interpretations of their own self-descriptions. There is no innocent eye; seeing is believing; and believing presupposes something already interpreted. (Merrell 1992: 262)
The water gushing into the kitchen sink in a smooth, round, and transparent stream consisting of a alaminar flow, a sheaf of countless layers of molecules projecting downward at different velocities in apparent harmony with one another. When increased water pressure causes the jet to form turbulent strands, the regularity of the laminar flow is destroyed and disorder seems to rule, though it is actually a new form of order. While mevement of the molecules follow a random statistical law in the laminar flow, the turbulent flow grouped them together into powerful streams which in their over-all effect permitted an increased volume of water to rush out of the foucet. Both flows are forms of structure, but what is here termed 'structure' is not schematic, determinable, or rigid. Rather, it is a dynamic, ever-changing regime regulating the varying levels of flow. It is a process structure (Jantsch 1980: 21). (Merrell 1992: 264-265)
Above all, dissipative structures are self-organizing. Self-organization in the classical paradigm is usually limited to life systems. But life is no longer considered a thin superstructure over the lifeless inorganic world. Rather, in the principle of self-organization lies the common ground between life and nonlife. Dissipative structures of purely chemical reactions provide examples of self-organization of the purest sort. They evince the same characteristics - openness, nonequilibrium, irreversibility, nonlinearity, internal reinforcement - as more complex life systems, but with greater clarity and simplicity. (Merrell 1992: 265)
As Prigogine has often put it, the universe is far too rich to be expressed in a single language. Just as neither music, nor painting, nor poetry can exhaust themselves in a sequence of styles, so alse our experience, intuition, contemplation, and intellection regarding the universe is irreducible to a single descriptive mode. We need a set of mutually exclusive (though on closer inspection complementary) languages, with no precise rules of translation - in fact, translation is rendered radically indeterminate. (Merrell 1992: 266)
And it is daunting to think these disturbances could have had their beginning as microlevel peturbations which quickly became magnified at macrolevels. It is like a young lad who, from a bridge overlooking a flooding river, tosses his beer can into the water. This causes a slight perturbation, the ripples of which bring about a degree of turbulence some yards downstream; as the turbulence is gradually a treshold is reached, then crossed. A dike gives slight, it disintegrates, and a town is devastated.
It is in this manner that signs of 'higher' form and complexity - having been bred by asymmetry, aperiodicity - are generally less stable than signs of 'lower' form. Take, for instance, signs 8, 9, and 10, or monads (terms), dyads (propositions, descriptions), and triads (arguments, interpretations). In ordered, linear, chiefly binary (dyadic) systems - that is, systems of interaction at the 'descriptive' level - the interpretation (interpretant) dominates whatever descriptions are generated regarding the system. At more complex levels, however, descriptions become problematic and interpretations (interpretants), instead of relating to the 'semiotically real' phenomena at hand or to their respective descriptions, begin interpreting themselves (translating themselves into themselves). In this process, the semiotic object becomes the sign being signed (it is never the 'actually real' an sich), the sign or representamen becomes the sign of that signed and hence the sign of a sign, and the interpretant serves to integrate the signing process inte the stream of semiosis. The representamen-object-interpretant (R-O-I) relationship can in this manner be viewed as a complementary set of sign, signing, and signed entities whose roles are constantly changing. The sign signs the already signed and the signing process is already becoming sign and signed. Signs change; they grow; they evolve. But they alse inexorably lag behind themselves; they are always in the act of signing themselves. (Merrell 1992: 270)
Signs grow into symbols, from raw sensation to volition to cognition, from sentiment to desire to intellection, from spontaneity to reaction to habit;: that is, a sign potentially runs the gamut from First to Third. Moreover, in the Peircean sense, just as mind sublimates from matter and matter contains the essence of mind, so also ideas, interpretants that they are, evolve and crow like mind - and all symbols, for that matter (CP 6.289). Indeed, mind-symbols are not simply opposed to matter, as classic thoight has had it; the two domains are complementary. Moreover, mind, especially that of the human variety, has generated such an elaborate and complex system of symbols that the latter have become labyrinthine in their countenance and numbering in their effect. Nevertheless, the essence of the problem rests at the very initial lurch of life processes themselves. (Merrell 1992: 271-272)
Regarding the enigmatic 'Man≈Sign' equation, see Bohm 1987 [Unfolding Meaning]; Burks 1980 ["Man: Sign or algorithm? A rhetorical analysis of Peirce's semiotics"]; Fairbanks 1976 ["Peirce on man as a language: A textual interpretation"]; Merrell 1991, 1992; Peirce CP 5.268, 5.313, 6.322; Sebeok 1977 ["Ecumenicalism in semiotics"]. (Merrell 1992: 276)

Uexküll, Thure von 1992. Varieties of Semiosis. In: Sebeok, Thomas A. and Jean Umiker-Sebeok (eds.), Biosemiotics: The Semiotic Web 1991. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 455-470.

The result of this history is the dualistic medicine of today - for diseased bodies without minds and for suffering minds without bodies. This deplorable situation can only be overcome if medicine rediscovers the paradigm of circumstancial proof for the somatic discipline as well.
In order to do this, medicine must replace its mechanical model for the body with a model of the living system. Living systems do not react in a mechanical way to mechanical inputs; rather, they transform inputs of the environment on their receptors into signs which inform the systems about the meaning of the environment for its needs. These signs enable the system to reconcile and to assimilate the resources of the environment in order to maintain their autopoiesis as basis for their health (th.v. Uexkül 1986).
The concept of the living system has different aspects which pose diffrent questions. Systems theory describes one aspect by defining levels of integration and creating the concept of 'emergence'. Another aspect is the dynamic quality of living systems, with the paradox of ongoing change as inescapable condition for the maintenance of their unchanging identity. (Th.v. Uexküll 1992: 455)
Physicians find proof of this statement in the fact that different persons have different endosemiotic reactions to the same signs. This suggests the following definition as a basis for more complex definitions: the 'semiotic self' is the hidden interpreter in the radical sense that even the single cell has its semiotic self or its 'Ego-Ton' (J.v. Uexküll 1940) as hidden interpreter of the impressions on its receptors. The private characterr of signs and their hidden interpreters ('semiotic selves'), with their changing interpretants, are the basis for 'identity' and 'individuality', both qualities that cannot be shared with others. (Th.v. Uexküll 1992: 457)
These considerations have two consequences for biosemiotics: (1) They clear out understanding of other living beings, non-human and human: we can imagine ourselves in the position of other living beings, but our and their identity and individuality make it impossible for us to actually become the others. (2) Biosemiotic inquiry is therefore always interpretation of interpretations, or in one word, meta-interpretation. We must interpret the observed behavior of a living being as a reply to its interpretations of its environment. (Th.v. Uexküll 1992: 458)
Every behavioral reply to a sign has to be seen as an activity which can be realized only with the help of a matching counter-activity of the environment. Every step requires the resistance of ground, ever ybreath requires the presence of air. No role can be played without the matching counter-role of a partner. Taking requires giving, speaking listening and vice versa.
Just as our behavioral activities need help from the human and/or non-human environment, every reply to a sign must reveal the secret of its signified object. This is the reason for its 'public character.'
A last remark: Sebeok draws our attention to important exceptions to these relations between sign and its signified object with a hint of Freud's statement that the only kind of defence against a danger from within is not motor-activity, but flight from awareness: the flight from awareness as reply to the private sign 'anxiety' prevents its signified object from becoming public by preventing the subject from knowing about it. Moreover, the public character of signified objects is also prevented if the response to signs is not a motor activity, but merely some type of activity (trial actions) in our imagination. However, this reaction to signs seems to be specific to human beings (because it requires - in psychoanalytic terminology - secondary proccesses). (Th.v. Uexküll 1992: 459)
In semioses of informatios (or signification) the inanimate environment acts as a 'quasi-emitter', because it seems not to assume any semiotic function. Böttner (1980) explains that in these semioses all semiotic functions have to be performed by the receiver. In this way living systems assign meanings to the signals which they receive via the receptors. The meanings correspond to the systems' biological needs, and transforms the signals into (for example) signs for medium, territory, enemy, etc. (Th.v. Uexküll 1992: 460)
In semioses of symptomatization the emitter is a living being sending signals by its behavior or posture which are not directed toward any recceiver and do not await an answer. Signs in this category are called 'symptoms'. They inform expert observers about the situation or state of living beings. This kind of sign plays an important role in medicine (Th.v. Uexküll 1984). Again, interpretation seems to be the task of the receiver alone (for example, the physician discovering a symptom of disease), yet the metaphor of manual operation is no longer sufficient. G.H. Mead (1934) terms signs of this kind 'unintelligent gestures', and states that they do not represent cooperative activity yet, but only preparatory stages of it (see Mead 1934: 55f.). (Th.v. Uexküll 1992: 460)
Only in semioses of communication do the emitter and the receiver share the semiotic task by informing each other about the interpretant (or the code) which gives the emitted signs the meaning intended by the emitter. Mead (1934) calls these processes of signification 'intelligent gestures'. He emphasizes that they are the prerequisite and foundation of cooperative activity; also, they constitute a prerequisite and foundation for any actual communication. In this case signs attain their 'public character' only through exchange of information between emitter and receiver. (Th.v. Uexküll 1992: 460-461)
Analyzing the strands which weave the context of our world in this way means exploring the relations between interpreters of signs and their animate and inanimate partners. Here we are sooner or later confronted with the ffact that the body enters the scene, because there are no interactions with the environment in which it does not take part. (Th.v. Uexküll 1992: 462)
This possibility of role-changing between subject and object is even more obvious in the semioses of symtomization that create our bedy-self. Neurologists have discovered that we possess our body as reality of body-self only through feedback-messages of the body to its own messages of muscle activity. Oliver Sacks (1984) describes in detail these semioses between the movable parts of the body and certain parts of the central nervous system:
It it this 'muscle sense', as it was called, before Sherrington investigated it and renamed it 'proprioception' - it is this sense dependent on impulses from muscles, joints and tendons, usually overlooked because normally unconscious, it is this vital 'sixth sense' by which the body knows itsely, judges with perfect, automatic, instantaneous precision the position and motion of all its movable parts, their relation to one another, their alignment in space.... The word 'proprioception' implies a sense of what is 'proper' - that by which the body knows itself, and has itself as property.... One has oneself, one is oneself, because the body knows itself, confirms itself, at all times, by this sixth sense. I wonder how much the aburd dualism of philosophy since Descartes might have been avoided by proper understanding of 'proprioception'.
In a dramatic story, Socks (1984) informs us about what happens if the semioses connecting the activity of the muscles with our nervous system and its feedback-messages fail. Their absence gives evidence that the body, which we call 'our body' and which we experience as our 'body-self', must be continually constructed by these semioses.
Sacks had undergone surgery in London after an accident that had caused a rupture of a large muscle in his leg. After the removal of the cast it happened:
I turned... to my leg... And in that instance, I no longer knew it. In that instant, that very first encounter, I knew not my leg. It was utterly strange, not-mine, unfamiliar. I gazed upon it with absolute non-recognition. I have had - we all have had - sudden odd moments of non-recognition, jamais vu; they are uncanny while they last, but they pass very soon, and we are back in the known and familiar world. But this did not pass - it grew deeper and deeper - and stronger and stranger.
The title of Sackns's book, A Leg to Stand On (in German, 'the day my leg went away'), hints at how long it took before his leg 'came back'. In this period he learned that his body was not a possession that could be lost by 'pathogenesis' and can be restored by healing, but that it must be continually built up by semioses as 'salutogenesis' (Antonowsky 1987) needing its pragmatic feedback messages. (Th.v. Uexküll 1992: 463-465)
Hoffer (1966) has described the importance of integration of hand and mouth for the development of Self and Ego in our early evolution. The pediatrician and analyst Winnicott (1954) was especially interested in the roots of 'being' and the connection between 'being' and 'self'. He wonders about the meaning of the term 'I am', and suggests that the actor who understands this problem should perform the first line of Hamlet's famous monologue, 'To be or not to be...', in a very special way: as if trying to understand an inscrutability, he should say, 'To be... or...', then keep silent, since he cannot know any alternative. (Th.v. Uexküll 1992: 465)
Returning to my initial remarks: we have to acknowledge that all this is not new. It is a rediscovery of a cencept at the turn of the eighteenth century, as a consequence of an idea of the Scottish physician John Brown (Tsouyopolous 1988). His theory of 'irritability' (which corresponds to Winnicot's concept of creativity) has been interpreted by the philosophiral-minded German physicial Andreas Röschlaub in a way that inspired the philosopher Schelling in his early writings. Schelling influenced one of the most outstanding physicians of that time, Johannes Müller (1801-1856), the founder of physiological medicine, with his theory of the 'specific sensory energy' as a 'creative energy of life' (J.v. Uexküll 1977). According to this theory the senses of living beings create colors, sounds, cold, warm, soft, hard, up and down, in front and behind as signs for objects in their environment. In his 'handbook' of the physiology of man, Müller writes (1840):
The sensations of our senses are not the transmission of a quality or a state of outer objects to the consciousness, but the transmission of a quality or a astate of a sensory nerve to the consciousness, instigated by an outer event; and these qualities are different in different sensory nerves: the energies of the senses.
But, as I mentioned, this culmination of a semiotic biology, medicine, and the most advanced development of the paradigm of circumstancial proof has been extinguished by the 'scientific revolution' (Kuhn 1962) of the incipient technical culture. Müller's followers (among them heroes of the new positivistic trend) achieved in an astonishingly short time the paradigm-change in medicine, from a semiotic science to a science based on Newton's mechanics as its foundation (Th.v. Uoxküll 1991). (Th.v. Uexküll 1992: 467)
  • Tsouyopoulos, N. 1988. The influence of John Brown's ideas on Germany. Medical History, Supplement 8, 63-74.
  • Wiener, Norbert 1954. The relation between the mind and the body-psyche. British Journal of Medical Psychology 27.


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