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Biosemiotics – A Philosophical Introduction

Lecturer: Maurita Harney

Originally Taught: Summer School 2013

Biosemiotics (Gk bios = life; semeion = sign) is the study of living processes understood as systems of communication governed by signs. All living things from the single cell to the global ecosystem are seen to engage in semiosis or sign-processes: Whatever an organism senses also means something to it, food, escape, sexual reproduction, etc., and all organisms are thus said to be born into a ‘semiosphere’, i.e., a world of meaning and communication: sounds, odours, electric fields, waves of any kind, chemical signals, touch, etc… (Hoffmeyer, 1988). Biosemiotics is the study of these meaning-processes understood as sign-processes.

The key notion of sign, here, is that of American philosopher, C. S. Peirce (1839-1914) for whom the sign is not a dyadic relation of sign and object but rather a triadic relation of sign-vehicle/object/interpretant.In Peirce’s philosophy, ‘meaning’ or ‘sign’ is de-coupled from mind and mentality. Signs have an autonomy - they are part of nature, not a product of mind - and, according to Peirce, they are all-pervasive in the natural world.

Besides Peirce, precursors to modern biosemiotics include ecologist Jakob von Uexküll, Gregory Bateson, and Thomas Sebeok who used the term ‘biosemiotics’ in relation to his theories of human and animal communication. Subsequent contributors to biosemiotics as a field of research include a number of biologists, most notably Danish scholar, Jesper Hoffmeyer. Hoffmeyer’s studies of ‘the life of signs in the universe’ have been a major impetus in the development of biosemiotics as a genuine alternative to reductionist and mechanistic approaches in biology and other areas of scientific inquiry.

Recent studies have deepened and extended the research field of biosemiotics, and have generated debates both within biosemiotics (e.g., about the defensibility of the nature/culture dichotomy, about the role of language) and about the status and aims of biosemiotics as a theoretical framework for the study of living things, as a philosophy of nature or for some, like geneticist Marcello Barbieri, as a sub-discipline of biology.

In this course, our focus is on the philosophical dimension of biosemiotics. This means a study of (a) C.S.Peirce’s notion of the sign and its seminal role in biosemiotics; (b) other aspects of Peirce’s epistemology and metaphysics which inform or illuminate a biosemiotic conception of nature, particularly in relation to the concepts of mind, nature, causation, evolutionary processes, and agency; (c) links between biosemiotics and other philosophical ideas and schools of thought including those of Whitehead, Bergson, and the phenomenological philosophy of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.

Course Schedule

Lecture 1. Introduction: Introduces the notion of biosemiotics as the study of sign-processes within and between living things; what this means for different levels from the single cell, through bacteria, plants, to animals – human and non-human. Main players – Hoffmeyer, Kull, Emmeche, Brier, Pattee, Barbieri, etc. Precursors: Jakob von Uexküll, Gregory Bateson, Thomas Sebeok, C.S.Peirce.

Lecture 2: Signs: Offers a brief history of the sign from Aristotle through mediaeval philosophers including Poinsot to recent thinkers, e.g. C.H. Morris, to sémiologie and semiotics (including Saussure and Eco). This provides the context for a closer analysis of C.S.Peirce’s concept of the sign and semiosis. We then move to Jesper Hoffmeyer’s notion of the semiosphere and his integration of Peirce’s semiotics with biology.

Lecture 3: Life, Science and philosophy: Explores the idea of a ‘philosophy of living things’ and what it means to claim that ‘semiosis is co-extensive with life’ (Sebeok). We look at consciousness as biologically-based and alternatives to mind/matter dualisms. The paradox of ‘reconciling’ sign (intentionality or meaning) with evolutionary processes in nature. Intersections with other philosophical traditions, including phenomenology and hermeneutics.

Lecture 4: Semiotic agency: Examines some of the broader metaphysical and epistemological dimensions of biosemiotics, including concepts of complexity and emergence; causation; agency; language. Hoffmeyer’s notions of semiotic scaffolding and semiotic freedom.

Lecture 5: Current debates and issues of contention
The course concludes with a critical consideration of contemporary debates that have evolved within and about biosemiotics – Is biosemiotics a science? a proto-science? a pseudo-science? Is it a philosophy? Is it transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary? Does biosemiotics introduce a new dualism of mind/matter (Barbieri)? Does it signal a return to mechanistic philosophy? or vitalism in a new guise?

Recommended Reading:
Further Reading:
  • Favareau, Don (ed.) (2010), Essential Readings in Biosemiotics: Anthology and Commentary. Dordrecht: Springer.  This anthology contains extracts of main works in this course. However it is extremely expensive. It is suggested that you borrow it electronically through your library. Many of the chapters can be downloaded as PDF files.
  • Many of the works referred to in the course including versions of those in the Favareau (2010) collection are available electronically. The following website is a useful place to start: http://www.biosemiotics.org/links.html  Other resources can be found on the individual websites of the main protagonists, Jesper Hoffmeyer, Claus Emmeche, Jakob von Uexküll, Yuri Lotman, Alex Sharov, Kalevi Kull.
  • Peirce, C.S. (1955), “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” in J. Buchler (ed.) Philosophical Writings of Peirce, New York: Dover, pp 98-119.

For resources on Peirce’s philosophy see the Arisbe Gateway: http://www.cspeirce.com/

also, http://www.helsinki.fi/science/commens/dictionary.html

Some of the ‘classics’ of biosemiotics include:

  • Hoffmeyer, Jesper (1993), Signs of Meaning in the Universe. Translated by  Barbara Haveland. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (1994), An Introduction to Semiotics. Canada: University of Toronto Press (reprinted 1999.)
  • Deely, John (1991). Basics of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Level of DIfficulty:
Introductory