Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Examples of Bio- and Anthroposemiosis

Here it will be enough to show how the ontological singularity unique to relation in the order of physical being provides the ground for the prior possibility of semiosis at the level of the experience of organisms, which is our main concern here, inasmuch as, as we have already seen, it is at the upper levels of biosemiosis that the basic concepts of semiotics have been fully established.

The common ground of biosemiosis lies in what used to be called "natural signs", but what is now more commonly divided, after Peirce, into indices, icons, and symbols (although of course not all icons or symbols are natural signs, either). A footprint in the sand is indexical of a person's passing, and of the direction of the passing, unless the footprints be the skillful work of a man passing east in such a way as to leave the impression of a man passing west, in which event the footprints remain indexically accurate to a degree but iconically misleading in another degree, and are in fact symbols of an exceptional skill.

Natural signs are essential to the survival of most if not all species of animals. They need to be taken for what they are, or, in the reverse case, mistaken for what they are intended to be mistaken for, if the animal in question is to secure its food. What happens in such a case? Precisely that the foundation for a physical relation is taken or mistaken for a corresponding objective relation, as a result of which food is provided or safety secured.

The relation of clouds to rain is a relation of cause and effect. When that relation has also been experienced, an interpretant becomes established. What was formerly a mere physical relation, a relation of secondness, acquires now, through the interpretant, a thirdness whereby that same relation functions also semiotically. Because the physical relationship as such need only be dyadic, whereas the semiotic relationship is necessarily triadic, there is the possibility of error, or misinterpretation. There is also the possibility of deception. The objective world wherein actual semiosis transpires is only occasionally the same and in large part different from the physical environment. But to the extent that it is the same, to the extent that it overlaps - and this is the extent to which every species depends for its survival on food, which is a considerable extent - that extent and that overlap result from the indifference of intersubjective being to the difference between what is objective and what is physical, as we have seen.

Thus, it is the being proper to relation that is also the being proper to signs, even though relations properly speaking need not be semiosic relations. Not all relations in the ontological sense pass through actual experience, but all relations in the ontological sense are indifferent to the order of physical existence, such that, once taken up into actual experience, they also take on an objective life relatively independent of physical being. It is in this way that they provide the raw material of biosemiosis. The actual being proper to the sign is the being of an ontological relation taken up into the experience of an organism, whether directly from the biological heritage of that organism (so-called "instinctive notions") or culled rather from individual experience, where it serves to connect objectively perceptual and sensory elements. The action of signs first arises precisely from physically related environmental factors coming to be seen objectively as related, and, conversely, from objectively related factors being presented as physically related. The uniqueness of semiosis as an activity and the detached and ambiguous quality it has as an action results from the being peculiar and proper to the ontological relation whereby, as we have seen, it can be neither directly altered nor directly perceived. The permeability of relation as such to realization in either the physical or the objective order also makes the two indistinguishable in direct experience. This is a matter not of confusion but of the reality proper to experience, wherein the objective and the physical are intertwined in the sign. This permeability is why the natural sign provides a common denominator in biosemiosis, even though it can be natural in different ways for different species.

An example of a natural sign unique to the level of anthroposemiosis may help to grasp the general point at stake here. Let us consider the case of a fossil bone. This bone may or may not be known to exist. If not, let us suppose it yet belongs to a class of bones well established among those expert in the Pleistocene. One day the bone is uncovered, but by a gardener, not a paleontologist. Since the bone is in an advanced state of fossilization, let us suppose that our gardener does not even recognize it as a bone, let alone a fossil bone. For that, a more developed interpretant is required, one proportioned more exactly to what the bone relates to in its living past. Nevertheless, a fossil bone is just what it is. Such an interpretant as is required for its recognition nowhere existed actually in the middle ages, let us say, but now, among our postulated Pleistocene specialists, it exists indeed as a common property.

What is this interpretant? Certainly not an idea psychologically considered. It is rather an idea in the semiotic sense, moreover as fashioned publically through the training of paleontologists, such that those who have by training acquired it possess in their minds a foundation or "fundament" whence will result or "dimanate", under appropriate conditions, a network of relations including that bone. But first, one of them at least will have to see the bone in question.

Supposing that occurs. Supposing that one of our students of the Pleistocene visits our gardener just as the gardener is about to deposit into a trash bin the bone which had irritatingly obstructed his gardening. "What is that you have there?" Now our gardener, being also a student of Peirce, may at this point respond, casually tossing the bone toward the trash, "A brute fact at the level of secondness."

But our paleontologist had not asked her question idly. She had spoken out of a glimmer of suspicion, a hint of recognition, as it were - she was voicing in context a low-risk abductive gamble. Into the brute fact at the level of secondness something of thirdness had already, thanks to her training, begun to enter. "Let me have a closer look", she said, moving toward the bone discarded as a peculiarly shaped rock. "This", she announces on careful inspection, "is no rock. This is a rare fossil bone, which just may revolutionize a bit of our understanding of the Pleistocene in this area." Whereupon, clutching the bone with great excitement, she ran off in the direction of the university.

What has happened here? A physical relation, recognized for what it had been, thanks to the dynamic interaction of its fundament (the bone) producing physical changes in the student of paleontology's optic nerves, became at the same moment also a sign of what had been. A transcendental relation, the bone of a dinosaur, which once had a physical relation to that dinosaur, but no more (the dinosaur being dead), yet gave rise to an objective relation corresponding somewhat with the physical relation that had been. The gardener's rock had become the paleontologist's sign.


Source: John Deely, "Chapter 4: Signs: The Medium of Semiosis," in Basics of Semiotics (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990),

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments ad hominem or deemed offensive by the moderator will be subject to immediate deletion.