Tagarchief: biosemiotics

Semiotics before and beyond consciousness

Kalevi Kull (Habits – semiosis-  habits; Sign Systems Studies, 44(4) 2016, pg 623-629) reflects on consensus of Peirce’s phenomenon and concept of Habit. Biosemiotic study is about the sign theory of Charles Peirce. Peirce supposed that: ‘…. I was led to the hypothesis that the laws of the universe have been formed under a universal tendency of all things toward generalisation and habit-taking’ (1898, CP) Habit (taking) is a fundamental concept of (bio)semiotics. The axiom is that all vital actions -whatever- tend to repeat themselves and consequently to become habitual. Regardless of the organism -bacterial or mammalian- and regardless of a verifiable consciousness in the organism (bio)semiotic serves all sciences with fundamental theories and methods about knowing and meaning-making in all their forms. As an institutionalised field it is only about half a century old.

The (biosemiotic) concept of habit (taking) teaches us for instance that is was important in discussions of evolution and development. Joseph John Murphy differentiates between formative, motor and mental habits. Murphy: ‘…… the law of mental habit is usually called the law of association of ideas…’ (Habit and Intelligence;1869) Conwy Lloyd Morgan adds ‘… habit involves individual acquisition..’ (Habits and instinct; 1896). And Samuel Butler observes that: ‘…. unconscious knowledge and unconscious volition are never acquired otherwise than as a result of experience, familiarity, or habit.’ (Life and Habit; 1878)


From the end of the 19th century till now it has been a long time. But (bio)semiotic theoretical conceptualisation appear to add new meaning to science because of the need to draught a interpretation framework for (neuro)scientific research results. For me the concept of habit (taking) is relevant for my hypothesis on human evolution; the Sexual and Social Intelligence Hypothesis. But (bio)semiotics as a revisited and currently further developed paradigm can add to ways of thinking about (human) consciousness, intelligence, social structures, learning and meaning.

Habits are regularities that are products of semiosis. The process involved in habit change (Social Interventions) is learning. Learning modifies habits and establishes new one. (Bio)semiotics is a fundamental field of study of knowing, and habits are necessary for any knowing. That is why Peirce stated: ‘[…] knowledge is habit […].’ (1906, CP). Jaakko Hintikka puts it this way: ‘Surely the first order of business of any genuine theory of knowledge – the most important task both theoretically and practically – is how new knowledge can be acquired, not merely how previously obtained information can be evaluated.’ (Socratic Epistemology: Explorations of Knowledge-Seeking by Questioning; 2007) Erkki Kilpinen defines habits as ‘vehicles of cognition’ and also states that ‘intentionality without habituality is empty, habituality without intentionality is blind’. (Habit, action, and knowledge, from the pragmatist perspective. In: Zackariasson, Ulf (ed.), Action, Belief and Inquiry: Pragmatist Perspectives on Science, Society and Religion. (Nordic Studies in Pragmatism 3.) Helsinki: Nordic Pragmatism Network, 157–173, 2015).

The thing is that my hypothesis on human -cognitive and curious- evolution can explain the (mammalian/human) emergence of intentionality. Currently coming to a provisional end in what is called human learning, human creations and the human way to signify phenomenon in the Umwelt. It is my solid conviction that emerged (human) intentionality started a process we now call science; exploring and representing the environment.

The (bio)semiotical concepts according to relations between habits and semiosis -as studied by Kull and others in Northern Europe- is of great importance. I think science as a whole is in great need of other and irreverent interpretation frameworks.

In Kull’s words: ‘It is reasonable to hypothesise that semiosis takes place only in a phenomenal present. Or rather semiosis creates the phenomenal present, the now. (We can even say that semiosis is the phenomenal now.) This is because interpretation assumes a possibility for choice (between options), while choice truly cannot happen in a sequentionality. Choice presumes presence and the present. In this aspect, semiosis is a choice between habits. Habits themselves are sequential behaviours. Habits are inferences carried out by life far before logic becomes conscious or formal. Not only is habit repeated (almost automatic) behaviour; habit may also be repeated semiosis.’

It is the latter ‘habits as repeated semiosis’ that challenges and provokes us. Not only in our personal lives, but also in our professional lives, given the social and economic issues we are facing globally.


The Gatherings in Biosemiotics are annual meetings of world scholars studying the myriad of communication and sign processes in living systems, from cellular signalling and communication in physiological systems to organisms and inter species communication, to the sign-processes that are embedded within and necessary for human cognition and culture. Annual meeting 2016

Jesper Hoffmeyer (Signs of meaning in the universe) introduces The Semiosphere. Like other spheres the semiosphere incorporates all forms of communication; smells, sounds, movements, colours, electrical field, thermal radiation, chemical signals etc. Every organism is born into a species specific semiosphere. All plants and animals (including humans) life in a world of signification. Everything an organism senses signifies something for that organism: food, sex, danger, fear, joy.

Of course humans, as part of the natural world, have a species specific semiosphere too. We live in a human semiosphere. During our lifetime we develop a personal semiosphere as unique variation on the species specific semiosphere.  We life in a world of messages and signs.  As a consequence of which we differentiate between relevant and irrelevant messages and give meaning to those messages that are important to us. How do we do this? How do we select important messages in a cacophony of signs? And  how do messages and signs relate to our actions?

The key question for Hoffmeyer -and other biosemiotici- is: How could natural history become cultural history? More specifically Hoffmeyer asks himself in Signs of Meaning in the Universe how humans in their biological evolution became ‘someone’, an individual that could express and share his (own) signification. How did we, humans, became a species with a so called ego?

It is Hoffmeyers firm conviction that humans are more or less unique in signifying the natural world beyond signification of relevant messages for our own food, our own sex and our own survival. I myself use the word curiosity. How did humans became curious and sensitive to messages and signs that originally were of no importance to us. Why and how did humans cross the semiotic line and learned to signify messages that are crucial for other animals and plants? Of what importance is it to us, humans, to know about the feeding strategies of ants? To know about the stars and celestial bodies? To signify and give meaning to mating rituals of bears?

Just like individual humans have their own unique semiosphere, so do all of the sciences have their own ‘scientific reality’ in a restricted set of axioms and paradigms. Biosemiotics is one of those sets, with special meaning to me. In The Netherlands this set of scientific reality is underexposed. I think this is a missed opportunity. For one reason biosemiotics is multidisciplinary. Biosemiotici try to reconcile knowledge and insides from neuroscience, biochemistry, bio-molecular science, evolutionary biology and semiotics. Secondly their ideas are inspirational. They open a so called Third Window in which natural science and physics are combined with humanities and philosophy.

We, humans, are (bio)semiotic animals. We became a signifying and meaning giving species. The Sexual and Social Intelligence Hypothesis is based on the works of biosemiotici like Hoffmeyer,John Deely, Thomas Sebeok and others. The Sexual and Social Intelligence Hypothesis is a hypothesis on human biological and (bio)semiotic evolution. It provides an answer to the question why and how humans, as one of many biosemiotic mammals, became semiotic animals too many million years ago. How did the human semiosphere spread to signifying signs and messages in the natural world? Why did we become scientists anyway? How did we become ‘somebody’ with broad interests and new horizons?

In the Sexual and Social Intelligence Hypothesis I state that (female) sexual selection has been key factor in the evolutionary split of Pan and Homo over more than 5-6 million years ago. I presume that due to anatomical variations in sexual organs two sex cultures emerged. These sex cultures led to two different ways (the Pan and Homo way) of identifying and signifying the sexual partner. The sexual partner of choice is represented in the brain (endoseimiosis) and at the same time part of exoseimiosis (Umwelt) as Hoffmeyer puts it. Out of this overlap in endo- en exoseimiosis, for me, the human evolution slowly expanded from biosemiotics to semiotics (too).