From enactive phenomenology to biosemiotic enactivism
De Jesus P. (2016) From enactive phenomenology to biosemiotic enactivism. Adaptive Behavior 24(2): 130–146. Available at http://cepa.info/2632
Table of Contents
2 The enactive approach to cognitive science
2.1 Enactive cognitive science
2.2 Autopoietic enactivism
3 Some problems with AE
3.1 Anthropocentrism, anthropomorphism and the SLMCT
3.2 idealism and internalism
3.3 The neglect of the social nature of organisms
4 From enactive phenomenology to biosemiotic enactivism
4.1 Umwelt theory
4.2 Signs and semiosis
5 Bio-semiotic systems and their evolution through semiotic freedom
5.1 Bio-semiotic systems and cognition
5.2 Evolution, semiotic freedom and sociality
Autopoietic enactivism (AE) is a relatively young but increasingly influential approach within embodied cognitive science, which aims to offer a viable alternative framework to mainstream cognitivism. Similarly, in biology, the nascent field of biosemiotics has steadily been developing an increasingly influential alternative framework to mainstream biology. Despite sharing common objectives and clear theoretical overlap, there has to date been little to no exchange between the two fields. This paper takes this under-appreciated overlap as not only a much needed call to begin building bridges between the two areas but also as an opportunity to explore how AE could benefit from biosemiotics. As a first tentative step towards this end, the paper will draw from both fields to develop a novel synthesis – biosemiotic enactivism – which aims to clarify, develop and ultimately strengthen some key AE concepts. The paper has two main goals: (i) to propose a novel conception of cognition that could contribute to the ongoing theoretical developments of AE and (ii) to introduce some concepts and ideas from biosemiotics to the enactive community in order to stimulate further debate across the two fields.
Key words: Anthropocentrism, anthropomorphism, autopoietic enactivism, biosemiotic enactivism, enactive cognitive science, semiosis, strong life-mind continuity thesis, Umwelt.
Enactivism has in a relatively short time developed into a serious alternative to traditional cognitive science. Drawing inspiration from a number of closely related fields, enactivism has developed a sophisticated and innovative phenomenological reconstruction of the systems theory/second-order cybernetics of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1980), which seek to challenge the hegemony of cognitivism by proposing a radical alternative conception of life and mind
This interdisciplinary weaving together of distinct fields and ideas, framed around the conviction of a ‘strong’ continuity amongst autopoietic living systems, has culminated in so-called autopoietic enactivism (AE) acquiring the status of canonical enactive approach. In stark contrast to mainstream cognitive science, AE argues that organisms are not passive ‘objects’ that represent and compute the world internally but rather, autonomous agents (living beings of all kinds and not humans alone) that ‘enact’ or ‘bring forth’ intrinsically meaningful and significant worlds through dynamic patterns of embodied interaction with the environment (Di Paolo, 2005; Froese, Di Paolo, & Ezequiel, 2011a; Stewart, Gapenne, & Di Paolo, 2010; Thompson, 2007).
In similar fashion, biosemiotics, the study of natural sign processes within and between living organisms, has been gradually gaining popularity within theoretical biology. Similar to AE, biosemiotics presents a nondualist/non-mechanistic approach to the understanding of living systems, which emphasises their agentive semiotic (sense-making) nature (Favareau, 2007a; Hoffmeyer, 2008; Kull, 1998; Kull et al., 2009). Both approaches can be said to share a core number of closely related ideas, intuitions and insights regarding the fundamental nature of agency, mind, life and signification.
The general philosophical outlook shared by both approaches can perhaps be best seen in an ontological commitment to a continuity between life and mind[Note 1] and the importance of meaning/ signification within this continuity. These two ideas are not only central to biosemiotics they also play a key role in the AE strand of enactivism and indeed set it apart from other closely related so-called 4E approaches. Where these diverge, as the paper will show, is on how they conceptualise these ideas and the theoretical resources deployed to argue for them.
Like any nascent field in its infancy, as indeed is also the case with biosemiotics (Kull et al., 2009), AE contains a number of open problems and several insufficiently clear or underdeveloped ideas and concepts. Some of these have gradually come to the fore while others remain unappreciated or yet to be fully addressed (De Jesus, 2015; Di Paolo, 2009; Hutto & Myin, 2013; Thompson, 2011b). Complicating matters further is also issues of fragmentation and potential ambiguity brought about by an increased proliferation of various loosely connected approaches labelling themselves enactivist. It is in the context of these ‘open problems’ and the aforementioned theoretic overlap that this paper argues that biosemiotics can make a positive contribution.
This paper will draw from both biosemiotics and AE to develop a novel synthesis biosemiotic enactivism (BE) which aims to clarify, develop and ultimately strengthen some key AE concepts. At its core is a proposed non-anthropocentric reconceptualisation of the notion of cognition as, the active and creative process of bio-semiosis by bio-semiotic systems, which is argued to be better placed to accommodate a number of important AE insights. Thus, biosemiotics is used here not only as a possible means for bringing the two fields into dialogue with each other, but also to show how it can help address a number of concerns (De Jesus, 2015; Di Paolo, 2009; Hutto & Myin, 2013; Oyama, 2011; Welton, 2011; Wheeler, 2010), which have been raised against. AR
Situating itself in the context of enactive cognitive science, the paper proposes that a BE conception of cognition can constructively help clarify and therefore strengthen three core AE ideas: life-mind continuity, meaning and sense-making. Furthermore, it is also argued that giving these ideas the suggested biosemiotic re-tweaking, will not only place AE on a theoretically sounder footing but also leave us better equipped to address concerns regarding anthropocentrism/ anthropomorphism (De Jesus, 2015), idealism (Hutto & Myin, 2013) and the neglect of sociality amongst other living systems (De Jesus, 2015) raised against. AR
The strategy for the paper is as follows: it starts with an introduction to enactive cognitive science, provides an in-depth discussion of key AE ideas and concludes the first half of the paper with a discussion of some of the more pressing difficulties facing AR The second half of the paper is dedicated to developing an approach to cognition, which could help address some of the difficulties within the AE framework and place it on a sounder theoretical footing.
2 The enactive approach to cognitive science
2.1 Enactive cognitive science
Enactivism broadly construed belongs to a wider so- called ‘4E’ (embodied/embedded/extended/enactive) approach in cognitive science (Menary, 2010), which situates itself in opposition to traditional cognitivism. For these researchers, cognition is an environmentally situated embodied activity and not abstract, disembodied computational processes in the head. Whereas some ‘conservative’ researchers within the 4E camp take insights from enactivism as a means to extend cognitivism (e.g. Clark, 2008; Wheeler, 2005), others take a more distinctive ‘revolutionary’ line and insist that enactivism can provide the necessary theoretical and methodological tools for a clean break with the cognitivist hegemony (e.g. Di Paolo, 2009; Froese, 2007; Hutto, 2011; Thompson, 2007).
From a biosemiotic perspective, it is important to highlight at this point that enactivism is itself a rather ‘broad church’ and not all of ‘enactivism’ will be compatible with biosemiotics or share many of its central concerns.[Note 2] Due in great part to its increasingly heterogeneous use, the term enactivism can and has been a source of much ambiguity. Dan Hutto and Erik Myin’s (2013) identification of two distinct branches of enactivism; sensorimotor enactivism (SE) and the already mentioned AE, to which we can add the authors’ own radically enactive cognition (REC) can help clear-up some of the ambiguity (Thompson, 2004; Torrance, 2006).
Whereas SE and perhaps REC are all ‘branches’ of enactivism, it is less clear that AE can or should be fully understood as a branch in the same sense that these are said to be branches. This is because AE differs from the other enactive branches in one very fundamental respect. For AE the ‘enactive’ refers to a systematic unified theoretical framework a novel paradigm for understanding cognition in its complex entirety (Steward et al., 2010). In contrast to SE, which focuses on the nature of perception (e.g. Noë, 2004) and REC on ‘basic cognition’, AE is interested in accounting for cognition as a whole and not just some particular aspects thereof. Subsequently AE self-consciously rebukes the conservative camp of 4E cognition and deploys a revolutionary critical attitude to all forms of cognitivism.
In this paper, it is argued that it is AE with which biosemiotics shares the most affinities. Unlike the aforementioned branches of enactivism, AE and biosemiotics both share two fundamental concerns: the continuity between life and mind, and the role that meaning and signification plays within this continuity. Thus, given AE’s broader more radical ambitions and wider theoretical scope, this paper takes it as providing the wider theoretical core of so-called enactive cognitive science, which subsumes its various other branches. With these clarifications in mind, we can now turn to a more in depth account of AE and draw out some of its affinities with biosemiotics.
2.2 Autopoietic enactivism
Like biosemiotics, AE is a non-reductive yet naturalist framework but within cognitive science rather than biology, and with its origins in the seminal work of -Varela, Thompson and Rosch (1991). A central focus of this work and the subsequent branches of enactivism is on the dynamic embodied interaction between a cognitive system and its environment. In contradistinction to mainstream cognitivism, which sees cognition as a type of brain-centred computation involving the manipulation of (symbolic) mental representations, AE sees cognition as the spatial temporal and extended self-organising activity of situated embodied cognitive systems. Cognition is understood as an essentially embodied, embedded, dynamic, non-representationalist, nonlinear interaction between a system and its environment. So far, this sounds very much like a general 4E conception of cognition and somewhat removed from central biosemiotic concerns. Clearly missing from these accounts, as biosemioticians are bound to point out, is an account of agency and more importantly meaning and signification. And this is indeed something that. AE, unlike other enactive branches or the wider 4E movement in general, does provide.
Thus, AE fundamentally differs from other 4E approaches (and the other branches of enactivism) in three further key respects, all of which have echoes in the biosemiotic community: (i) it argues that there is a continuity between life and mind, (ii) that cognitive systems are constituted through adaptive biological-autonomy and as a consequence, (iii) cognitive systems’ are agents whose worldly interactions transform environments into inherently meaningful places of value and significance for the system itself (Di Paolo, 2005; Thompson, 2004, 2007; -Varela, 1997). These worldly interactive processes are called ‘sense-making’ by AR
At the centre of the AE framework is its so-called strong life-mind continuity thesis (SLMCT). As Froese and Ziemke (2009) make clear, the SLMCT ‘forms the very core of the theoretical foundations of Enactive Cognitive Science’. The general idea behind this thesis is that life and mind are continuous and therefore mentality is not something to be identified exclusively with human beings. In the words of Evan Thompson (2007, p. 128) ‘life and mind share a set of basic organizational principles, and the organizational properties distinctive of mind are an enriched version of those fundamental to life. Mind is life-like and life is mind- like’. The basic principles required to understand and describe the organisation and behaviour of living organisms are also those required for understanding mental phenomena itself, or in other words, sense- making itself (Colombetti, 2014; Di Paolo, 2009; Di Paolo, Rohde, & De Jaegher, 2010; Froese & Di Paolo, 2009; Froese and Ziemke, 2009; Thompson, 2004, 2007, 2011a,b; Weber & -Varela, 2002). These basic organisational principles are provided by autopoietic theory.
Maturana and -Varela (1980) coined the term ‘autopoiesis’ to conceptualise living systems that they saw as biological, self-organising autonomous networks, which produce and recursively sustain themselves in order to preserve systemic cohesion. Such systems are said to be organisationally closed but structurally open. A living system is organisationally closed insofar as it is constituted by a network of recursively mutually interdependent/interconnected components that produce the very network, including a boundary, that individuates it from its surrounding medium. It is structurally open insofar as its organisational requirements allow it to exchange matter and energy with the environment. It is this basic biological autonomy, which for AE forms the basis for (i) the emergence of a distinct identity (an agent), which because of constant threat from the environment develops a (ii) teleological and hence normative perspective that is grounded in (iii) self-generated, goal- directed behaviour.
However, according to AE, autopoiesis as originally formulated is an all-or-nothing category unable to account for points (ii) and (iii), the gradation of concern apparent in living organisms, which allows for norms and teleology (Di Paolo, 2005). For this reason, AE argues that the original conception of autopoiesis needs to be further refined in order to allow for the introduction of teleology and the gradation of nomis, value and ultimately an experientially endowed sense- making being. As Di Paolo (2005) highlights, to do this one needs to take into account that autonomous autopoietic systems maintain their systemic identity under ‘precarious conditions’. What this implies is that, due to the system’s intrinsic fragility, it not only persists under constant threat of disintegrating back into the environment, but also, as a consequence, needs to adaptively regulate its interactions so as to actively maintain its systemic cohesion and increase its chances of self- preservation. It is this ‘concern’ for self-preservation and self-interest, which leads to normativity and allows adaptively autonomous systems to develop a unique point of view on the world from which environmental properties and interactions are evaluated and acquire meaning and value (Barandiaran, Di Paolo, & Rohde, 2009). As noted above, such interactive processes are what AE theorists call the system’s sense-making activities, whereby it ‘enacts’ or ‘brings forth’ its ‘own world of meaning and significance’ (Thompson, 2007).
Drawing from these considerations, AE goes on to propose a SLMCT, which is distinctively different from other continuity theories (e.g. Godfrey-Smith, 1994; Maturana and -Varela, 1980; Wheeler, 1997). The difference, as Thompson points out, stems from the fact that previous advocates of life-mind continuity have exclusively focused on the organisational, ,functionall behavioural properties and as a consequence have ignored the ‘phenomenological dimension’ (sense-making), crucial for an adequate understanding of this continuity. Thus according to Thompson ‘certain basic concepts needed to understand human experience turn out to be applicable to life itself (2007, p. 129, emphasis added). The general idea here is that some existential structures of human life are simply enriched aspects constituting all life (Di Paolo, 2005; Thompson, 2007; Weber & -Varela, 2002).
The sentiment here should undoubtedly resonate well with biosemiotics; as biosemioticians will agree, functional/organisational properties, although necessary, are not sufficient for an adequate understanding of living systems, as these cannot account for semiosis. But unlike biosemiotics, which draws from semiotics to account for the continuum of meaning in nature and culture, AE draws from the existential biophenomenology of Hans Jonas.
Whereas existential phenomenologists were exclusively concerned with characterising human experiences, Jonas by contrast takes this as his point of departure and attempts to locate the first manifestation of phenomenal experience in animate nature at large. Jonas (1966) draws on two disparate sources, namely Darwinian evolution and the phenomenological tradition respectively, to support the claim that all lifeforms, not humans alone, are endowed with a subjective phenomenal interiority. In bringing evolutionary theory and phenomenological insights closer together, Jonas attempts to provide a bridge between human forms of experience and cognition and the evolutionary emergence of these experiences in other lifeforms, which begins with life itself. What this ultimately means for Jonas is that only life can know life’ (Jonas, 1966, p. 91). But what exactly does this rather evocative slogan mean?
The central idea is that in order to fully know life one needs to start from our own embodied first-person perspective of it. Human beings have an intrinsic acquaintance with what it is like to be an embodied living agent, to paraphrase Di Paolo (2003) we have insider knowledge. Although Jonas identifies metabolism as being the source of intrinsic teleology, meaning and value in other living organisms, he goes on to insist that this interiority is only known to us because we too are such living beings. This point is reiterated by Thompson (2004, p. 90), who argues that To make the link from matter to life and mind, from physics to biology, one needs concepts like organism and autopoiesis, but such concepts are available only to an embodied mind with firsthand experience of its own living body’. In other words, according to Jonas and AE who follow him in this respect, without our own unquestionable firsthand embodied experience of life, other lifeforms would appear to us as just any other lifeless physical system in the universe (Thompson, 2007; Weber & -Varela, 2002; Wheeler and Di Paolo, 2011).
Jonas’ phenomenology thus provides the impetus for what De Jesus (2015) has dubbed the ‘SLMCT + whereby Jonas is used as the main inspiration for grounding the neglected interiority and subjective dimension of sense-making argued to perfuse animate organismic life more generally and not human beings explosively. It is with the help of Jonas that AE links autopoiesis to phenomenal experiences and in the process moves beyond a mere ‘objectivist’ behavioural/ functional life-mind continuity towards a richer and more radical phenomenological/subjective one. This is a move that goes from biological autonomy (the functional/organisational dimension of organisms) to sense- making agency (the phenomenological subjective dimension of organisms). However, the reliance on Jonas to ground meaning, sense-making and the SLMCT leaves AE vulnerable to certain difficulties, which threaten the theoretical coherence of its framework.
Whereas biosemioticians do not generally speak of a continuity between life and mind as such, they do explicitly argue that there is a continuity/co-extension between life and semiosis (Kull et al., 2009). As I will argue below, if semiosis is conceived in enactivist terms, it can be understood as a basic form of cognition. More specifically, cognition can be redefined as the active and creative process of bio-semiosis by biosemiotic systems, which can serve to ground a SLMCT and the role of meaning and sense-making therein. First, however, we need to explore why Jonas is problematic for AE and other difficulties.
3 Some problems with AE
In this section, we introduce a number of concerns raised by different theorists against AE all of which can be seen to have some roots in its use of Jonasian phenomenology. The purpose of this section is not to give an exhaustive review of all the problems facing AE but rather to highlight currently unresolved issues and ambiguities that BE could help address.
3.1 Anthropocentrism, anthropomorphism and the SLMCT
As AE theorists themselves are quick to point out, AE is a developing framework and as such cannot be taken to be a finished theory. Moreover, like any other developing theory, its central concepts need to be critically assessed and if needed reformulated/re-interpreted accordingly. This paper in effect takes its point of departure from this critical assessment and attempts to contribute constructively to the reformulation/re-interpretation of key AE concepts.
In a recent paper, De Jesus (2015) argues that AE is implicitly anthropocentric and anthropomorphic (see also Villalobos and Ward, forthcoming). The author argues that by uncritically drawing from the phenomenology of Hans Jonas to justify its SLMCT + , AE inadvertently prioritises human experience and as a consequence undermines the possible experiences of other living organisms. The experiences of other organisms are said to be undermined by AE because it casts the idea of life-mind continuity in anthropocentrically phenomenological terms, which leads to an anthropomorphic conception of other living organisms. Clearly, if this criticism is correct, then AE and biosemiotics would be mutually incompatible from the beginning.
The issue here appears to have both epistemic and ontological components. Epistemically speaking, the phenomenological approach appears to lack an appropriate conceptual framework with which to articulate the idiosyncratic and nuanced experiences of nonhuman organisms. This can be seen to be an historical quirk in the development of the phenomenological tradition itself, which has by and large exclusively focused on understanding human experiences (Calarco, 2008). However, the issue also seems to have a more fundamental ontological component, which is informing the epistemology. Even if we agree that on a fundamental level all organisms share a common experiential/phenomenal aspect, we still need to know in what ways they also differ (Clark, 2001). Due to the phenomenological approach’s anthropocentric bias, it appears to be incapable of accounting for the differences and as a consequence is likely to anthropomorphically homogenise and hence negate the idiosyncratic experiences of non-human organisms. As De Jesus points out, AE’s reliance on Jonas ultimately runs the risk of simply projecting the analogues of human experiences down the phylogenetic scale.
In retrospect, the claim that. AE harbours anthropocentric/anthropomorphic tendencies should perhaps come as no great surprise. After all as Froese (2011b) notes, from its first clear articulation in Varela et al.’s (1991) original proposal, the enactive approach is presented as a human experience-centred alternative to the computational theory of mind in the cognitive sciences’ (emphasis added). As this quote clearly highlights, from its very beginnings there has been an implicit anthropocentrism at the very core of the enactive proposal, a commitment that while perhaps unproblematic on its own sits very uncomfortably with both SLMCT and biosemiotics.
These concerns, particularly relating to the differences among living systems within the context of a SLMCT, is similar but importantly distinct to the one raised by Andy Clark. Clark (2001, pp. 118 119) points out that by exclusively focusing on unity and similarity, that which is ‘special and distinctive’ is lost sight of. Clark is here raising a common cognitivist criticism of 4E cognition, which argues that though it might be capable of explaining ‘lower’ forms of cognition it cannot account for the complexities of ‘higher level’ human cognition. This criticism, however, is based on a distinction that is itself premised on an anthropocentric bias and so needs to be carefully considered before addressed. Unlike Clark, the worry here does not assume this problematic distinction (human higher- level vs animal lower-level), but questions whether AE has the theoretical resources to account for or simply recognise the differences among living systems of various kinds in a non-anthropocentric and non- anthropomorphic manner.
3.2 idealism and internalism
A number of theorists (e.g. Bains, 2006; Hutto & Myin, 2013; Oyama, 2011; Pascal & O’Regan, 2008; Riegler, 2005; Wheeler, 2010; Welton, 2011) have criticised AE for being ‘internalise’, ‘idealist’ or both. An underlying theme of these concerns relates to an alleged overemphasis enactivism places on the role of the solitary living system the autonomy of the organism to the detriment of its environmental embedding. Michael Wheeler (2010) for example, argues that because AE conceives cognitive systems as living system, and living systems are bounded by a self-constructed boundary that therefore cognition must be implemented solely within this organismic boundary see also (Oyama, 2011), whereas Pascal and O’Regan (2008) argue that because AE rejects materialism and claims that organisms ‘construct their worlds’, it is committed to idealism.[Note 3]
Whereas AE has gone some way towards addressing these sorts of worries (e.g. Di Paolo, 2009; Thompson, 2011a), the vocabulary used in this context remains somewhat unhelpful. Phrases such as ‘enacting’, ‘constructing’, ‘constituting’ and ‘bringing forth’ a world, not only can carry highly idealist and internalist overtones but also remain critically underdeveloped and as a consequence potentially vague and misleading. Moreover, as Hutto and Myin (2013) point out, the real danger here is that rather than being innocuous these sort of ambiguous phrases could be understood as pointing towards deeper unexamined and unwanted theoretical commitments.
AE has tended to respond to accusations of internal- ism and idealism by arguing that meaning and cognition are relational processes (Di Paolo, 2009). But, as the previous paragraph indicates and the following section supports, it is questionable whether AE currently possesses the adequate theoretical/conceptual resources to justify this claim fully. This perhaps goes some way in explaining why critics have never been persuaded by this response (Wheeler, 2011).
3.3 The neglect of the social nature of organisms
A further issue for AE, one briefly hinted at by De Jesus (2015) and yet to be fully recognised in the AE literature, relates to its neglect of non-human sociality. This is particularly important in the context of the SLMCT and could partly be understood to be a direct consequence of Jonasian phenomenology.
The issue here relates to the fact that, although AE has taken giant (and important) strides in accounting for human sociality (e.g. De Jaegher & Di Paolo, 2007; De Jaegher & Froese, 2009; Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009; Gallagher, 2012; Torrance & Froese, 2011a), it has failed to say anything at all about the social lives of nonhuman organisms. As De Jesus (2015) points out, the only other non-human organism discussed by AE is the E coli bacterium,[Note 4] a discussion that is itself always presented in highly individualistic and asocial terms.
In stark contrast to how it understands human sociality, AE envisions bacteria in highly individualistic terms as solitary creatures with no communicative or social abilities inhabiting a socially deserted world. All examples of minimal forms of cognition, presented courtesy of the E coli bacterium, is commonly cast in terms of a single organism engaging in an environment emptied of other organism (e.g. Thompson, 2007). This is a particularly striking omission, as bacteria are highly ‘socially’ dependent on each other for their survival (Lyon, 2007; Shapiro, 2007).
Moreover, given this apparent lack of interest in other non-human organisms more generally (not merely in their sociality), it becomes difficult to see what role the SLMCT actually plays in the AE framework. One would be forgiven for thinking that, not unlike a certain interpretation of phenomenology, AE is merely interested in non-human organisms only insofar as they can possibly provide insights for understanding human mentality. This accusation would certainly fit in with the concerns over anthropocentrism/anthropomorphism and needs to be addressed.
To conclude this section, we have presented a number of interrelated concerns raised against AE that require some attention. Whereas some of these concerns have been previously addressed in the literature by the AE community they have not convinced everyone. Furthermore, the concerns over anthropomorph-ism/anthropocentrism and the neglect of the sociality of other non-human organisms, have yet to be fully addressed and remain the most challenging for the AE framework. Motivated partly by these concerns and partially by the desire to put. AE and biosemiotics into a mutual beneficial dialogue, I will in the rest of this paper draw from biosemiotics to provide an account of cognition that can help address not only these concerns but more importantly strength some key AE ideas.
4 From enactive phenomenology to biosemiotic enactivism
The purpose of the following subsections are to begin laying the foundations for BE. We begin by introducing the Umwelt theory followed by the concepts of signs and semiosis. These concepts will provide the foundations for developing the central thesis that cognition is the active and creative process of bio-semiosis by biosemiotic systems, which in turn will help us address the concerns raised against AE above.
4.1 Umwelt theory
The Estonian theoretical biologist/ethologist. Jakob von Uexküll has retrospectively acquired the status of founding father of biosemiotics. Magnus and Kull (2009, p. 125) go so far as to claim that to understand biosemiotics ‘one needs to comprehend Uexküll ‘. For our proposal here, we need to understand what Uexküll termed the Umwelt,[Note 5] and how this concept could potentially help overcome the anthropocentric bias, tacit anthropomorphism and account for meaning as a natural phenomena.
Uexküll ‘s primary concern was the perceptual ‘worlds’ of living organisms, which he maintained can only be adequately understood when biology acknowledges the importance of agency and meaning (Bains, 2006; Rüting, 2004). Uexküll was very critical of the ‘mechanistic biology’ of his day, which regarded organisms as inert machines. By contrast, Uexküll regarded organisms as integrated holistic ‘subjects whose essential activity consists of perceiving and acting’ (Uexküll, 1957, p. 6). Living organisms do not merely passively conform to the laws of material causality but respond and act in the world.
The concept of an Umwelt originates from Uexküll’s detailed empirical investigations into the nature of the relationship between organisms and their environment. According to Uexküll all living organisms form a coupled system the Umwelt with an inherently meaningful environment. The concept can be understood to loosely serve two interconnected aims in Uexküll ‘s overall approach to biology: (i) it serves as the basis for an innovative non-anthropocentric, biologically grounded, theory of meaning and (ii) it serves to illustrate how organisms as agents in their own right act meaningfully and have a unique perspective, a point of view, on their environment (Bains, 2006).
To appreciate fully the notion of an Umwelt, it might be helpful to contrast it with two related but dis-tinct concepts: that of a habitat and that of a niche (Emmeche, 2001). Very roughly, the habitat refers to those aspects of an organism’s environment that are ‘objectively’ specified by an external observer, whereas a niche refers to the organism’s ecological functions within the ecosystem (Odling-Smee, 2009). Like the notion of an Umwelt, both these concepts make the importance of organism-environment interaction clear, but unlike the Umwelt this is done ‘from the outside’, from an observer’s point of view. The concept of an Umwelt highlights the world of the organism ‘from the inside’; not only do organisms actively contribute to the construction of their own worlds, but also that these ‘worlds’ are in fact infused with unique meaning, signification and value for the organism. Living organisms do not encounter neutral objects when they interact with them only meaningful ones. The Umwelt thus emphasises that the organism has a unique and meaningful point of view on its world whereby things matter. These are characteristics not (always) recognised or acknowledged by the other two concepts.
There is then an experiential dimension of the organism, which is acknowledged by the notion of the Umwelt, as it emphasises the world around an organism that has unique salience for the organism by virtue of its perceptual experiences. According to Uexküll, this perceptual world emerges through ‘functional cycles’, which are the processes that connect ‘receptor and effector cues’ or what we now might call self-organising sensorimotor loops. It is by virtue of these dynamic functional cycles of action perception integration, that organisms actively transform physical environments into worlds of meaning. However, it is important that we do not confuse functional cycles with mere sensorimotor loops, as they are distinctively different. Functional cycles unlike sensorimotor loops are intrinsically connected with biological meaning and signification, which is the cumulative result of the organism’s history, its species-specific sense organs, its morphological structural organisation, its biological needs, currant state within its environmental context and its dynamically unfolding worldly activities. Note that this provides us with a Uexküllian phenomenology[Note 6] (Tonnessen, 2015) necessary for replacing Jonasian phenomenology.
To illustrate the idea consider the female tick: a female tick’s skin is sensitive to light and this guides her up from the ground to a brighter position on a branch or blade of grass. Once up she will hang there until butyric acid emanating from a mammal reaches her. Upon sensing the butyric acid, she will drop and plunge straight into the mammal. Here the perceptual cue of butyric acid triggers an effector cue, which results in the release of the tick’s legs and enables it to drop onto the mammal. When the tactile cue of hitting the mammal’s coat is triggered, she begins to move around, searching for warmth, upon encountering the skin she will trigger a burrowing behaviour, after which she starts to burrow in and suck the warm nourishing blood. When she has finished her first and last meal, she will drop down, lay her eggs on the earth and die.
As Uexküll notes practically everything in the world that engulfs the tick has absolutely no salient value or meaning for it. The stars, weather, noises, smells, leaves, shadows, and much more besides, do not matter and are ‘ignored’. Certainly they will belong to the Umwelten of certain other organisms living amidst the tick, but they do not ‘carry’ any meaning for our female tick. None of these is salient or conveys any meaning for the tic itself, its Umwelt consists merely of three cues, which are of intrinsic significance.
The above example suggests that even relatively ‘simple’ organisms can autonomously ‘decide’ which environmental information to respond to and which to ignore based on history, current goals and context. Even a once meaningful stimulus need not necessarily lead to the formation of a functional cycle at a different time or place. This suggests that organisms anticipate relevant perceptual cues not only due to internal states but also due to context, current needs and wider goals. Thus, when the tick was on the branch, the smell of butyric acid acted as a perceptual cue, but when the tick was in the fur, this was no longer the case. The important point here is that biological expectation or anticipation is thus determined not only by the organism particular embodiment and history but also by its particular goals in the current context. Anticipation and expectation unfold over time and against a wider backdrop of the organism’s goal-driven activities. This further illustrates why functional cycles cannot be reduced to sensorimotor loops.
The Umwelt also highlights another important characteristic of all living beings; they are not discrete predefined static bounded units but contingently developing, dynamically unfolding, interactive agents. Organism and Umwelt form a single integrated coupled system of mutual specification and, as such, subject and object cannot be viewed as two separate entities, as they are mutually, though asymmetrically, interdependent. Here the traditional inside/outside dichotomy simply falls away, an organism is nothing without its Umwelt, and an Umwelt does not exist without an organism. The Umwelt therefore needs to be understood as thoroughly relational; it is not something in the organism nor outside independent of it but that which emerges in the middle so to speak (Bains, 2006).
Finally, unlike AE, this biological theory of natural meaning provides an explanation of animal behaviour – the behavioural unity of organisms and their environmental embedding – in a non-anthropocentric/non-anthropomorphic biologically grounded manner where the organism itself is the starting point.
A central insight of Uexküll, one that goes to the very core of BE, is that in order to understand the nat-ural environments (the Umwelt) of living organisms we need to overcome the overwhelming tendency to conceive it through a human lens. For Uexküll it is important that we try to understand natural environments as a space of signification and meaning for the organism itself. The important point, which warrants being emphasised once again, is that we must begin with the organism itself. Only in so doing do biologists forego an anthropocentric bias and so stand a better chance of not completely anthropomorphising the Umwelten of organisms.
To highlight the importance of this point, it is worth briefly introducing Froese and Ziemke’s (2009) enactivist, and ultimately anthropocentric and anthropomorphic, reconstruction of the Umwelt.[Note 7] In a thought-provoking paper outlining a framework for an ‘Enactive Artificial Intelligence’ Froese and Ziemke offer the following three-step argument for why Uexküll was justified in claiming that all organisms have a Umwelt.
(i) if we choose to accept as evidence our own lived experience of a world that we perceive as a meaningful basis for intentional action, then it is possible to reject the claim that our being is exhausted by its external mechanical structure, and (ii) if we choose to accept the evidence for (i) as well as our own lived experience of a world in which we perceive other animals as intentional agents in their own right, then it is also possible to reject the claim that another animal’s being is exhausted by its mechanical structure, and (iii) if we accept the evidence for (i) and (ii), it becomes reasonable to assume that what can be scientifically described as an animal’s sensorimotor behavior constitutes for the animal its own lived world, or Umwelt. (Froese & Ziemke, 2009, p. 488)
Froese and Ziemke (ibid., p. 488, emphasis added) argue that it is Uexküll’s ‘appeal to the evidence of our own lived experience which directly reveals us and other living beings as embodied subjects, that forms the basis for his research’. Despite its intentions, this is not only a problematic interpretation of Uexküll’s work, but more importantly, it undermines Froese and Ziemke’s own wider aims of a non-anthropocentric/non-anthropomorphic Enactive Cognitive Science. As we have already pointed out above, taking human experiences first as the ultimate grounds for granting embodied subjectivity and meaning to other living organisms contains a critical anthropocentric and anthropomorphic bias. Unlike what Uexküllian phenomenology implies and indeed what Froese and Ziemke intend but their argument actively undermines, biologists need to begin with the organism first on its own terms and not human experiences.
To conclude this section, the Umwelt theory has first and foremost helped us understand meaning as a natural biological phenomena common to all living organisms. But, four further features of the Umwelt theory are worth emphasising once again: (i) that it provided a phenomenology grounded in the organism because (ii) organisms are embodied agents that live in meaningful environments and therefore (iii) not static units cut-off from the world but deeply embedded in it to the extent that it collapses the subject/object dichotomy and that (iv) in order to fully appreciate points (i) to (iii) biologists need to reject anthropocentrism and avoid anthropomorphism. But to fully understand these four features we still need to understand signs and semiosis.
4.2 Signs and semiosis
BE endorses AE’s SLMCT but replaces Jonasian phenomenology with Uexktillian phenomenology and re-tweaks the notion of sense-making with that of semiosis and signs to which we now turn. This should go some way towards addressing potential accusations of internalism and idealism and to add a more systematic dimension to the notion of sense-making. From a BE perspective the Umwelt is constituted by the organism’s sign relations through semiosis. The salient environmental cues/information/stimuli, which the organism identifies, selects and either correctly or incorrectly appropriates, are understood as signs. A sign is thus simply ‘something which stands for something else.’ From a BE standpoint, signs are that on the basis of which a certain class of system gets to ‘know’ the world and not that which they know.[Note 8]
It is important to note that a sign as introduced here is not confused with some independently existing entity, as it only emerges through irreducible interpretative processes. Signs are therefore essentially non-reducible triadic processes, not something that we can point at with the index finger or identify with some objective thing or physical entity in the world even though they are rooted in the world (Deely, 2009). There are only ‘independently existing entities that are used as signs by the agents that act upon them as such’ (Favareau, 2007b, p. 69). What this implies is that the notion of a sign cannot be understood apart from the broader concept of semiosis, whereby A interprets B as ‘standing-for’ C. Thus semiosis is the sign process the fundamental process that carries meaning and in which meaning is created’ (Kull et al., 2009). This should help clarify that it is the sign that makes the Umwelt truly relational. Crucially, signs should not be confused with ‘mental representations’, as the unit of analysis is the irreducible triadic process and not something in the head.
To clarify these points we can loosely draw on the work of Charles S. Peirce (1839 1914).[Note 9] According to Peirce, every sign involves a three-place relation that presupposes three elements; the sign vehicle, the object and the interpretant (SST-04). The ‘relation’ linking all three elements is in effect the semiotic process that is an irreducible triadic phenomena, whereby something (the sign vehicle) comes to stand for something else (the object) to an agent in some respect or other (the interpretant).[Note 10] This implies that something can function as a sign only if it is a sign vehicle of an object with respect to an interpretant, which in turn implies that the unit of analysis here is a three-placed semiotic relation that cannot be decomposed into dyadic relations between sign vehicle and object. Furthermore, Peirce also noted that there are fundamental differences in the ways in which something can ‘stand for’ something else.
The semiotic relation itself was further elaborated by Peirce as triadic processes involving a relation of causation between signs and their users, a grounding relation between signs and that for which they stand, and an interpretant relation between signs, what they stand for, and the users of signs. As already noted, every sign needs to be interpreted to be related to its object, otherwise it is not a sign. It is because signs are meaningful in this manner that they enable organisms to respond flexibly and communicate effectively with other organisms in ever-changing environments. Furthermore, Peirce also draws a fundamental distinction between three kinds of signs, indices, icons and symbols, on the basis of what he calls their ‘grounding’ (Short, 2007). That is on the ways in which these signs are able to stand for things other than themselves.
Icons are signs that stand for something else by virtue of a similarity or resemblance to that for which it stands. For example, photographs, maps, paintings and sculptures are types of icons. Indices are signs that are causes or effects of that for which they stand. Smoke in relation to fire, footprints on snow, red spots in relation to measles are all examples of indices. They have a ‘direct physical connection’ between them. Finally, there are symbols, which are signs that are merely habitually and by convention associated with that for which they stand. The most common examples are words of natural languages such as English or Portuguese. The words of ordinary languages, such as ‘table’ and ‘chair’, unlike the other two types of signs, neither resemble nor are causes or effects of that for which, as symbols, they stand.[Note 11] [Note 12]
With these various ideas and concepts in hand, we are now better placed to see that both the BE notion of (bio)semiosis and the AE notion of sense-making have considerable overlap. Indeed, as AE theorists have long acknowledged, the constitution of an Umwelt (semiosis) simply is the organisms’ sense-making. But it should also now be clear that there are some important difference too. So what exactly, if anything at all, does the notion of a sign add to our already rich conception of sense-making? In the previous section, we showed that the Umwelt, appropriately understood, enables us not only to understand meaning as a natural phenomena but also to overcome a pervasive anthropocentric bias and be made wary of anthropomorphism, whereas this section has gone on to argue that the Umwelt is constituted through natural sign-relations. Furthermore, from the perspective of BE, the sign: (i) anchors the organism deep into the fabric of the world with other organisms and not confine it to a secluded inner realm; (ii) it helps differentiate organisms’ worldly- engagements in terms of sign usage; and (iii) it acts as the ‘thread’ connecting all living organisms and serves to ground SLMCT. In the next section, we will flesh- out these three points further by introducing the notions of bio-semiosis and bio-semiotic systems, and place these in a broader social evolutionary context.
Before doing so, it is worth noting that although it has just been argued that the notion of sense-making could be enriched with the concept of the sign, it remains the case that an adaptive autopoietic agent, which can give rise to normative sign relations and their unfolding dynamics remains essential for any form of semiosis. Thus, whereas AE can benefit from adapting the notion of the sign biosemiotics can benefit from adopting AE’s notion of agency. BE recognises that organisms are active agents continuously reshaping and being reshaped by on-going normative dynamic sign relations. Drawing on the Peircean sign should therefore not be seen as undermining this point, as a relapse into focusing exclusively on structural properties of sign relations or sign logic, but ,enriching it (Sharov, Maran, & Tonnessen, 2015).[Note 13] This will become more apparent in the following section.
5 Bio-semiotic systems and their evolution through semiotic freedom
The last two sections introduced an account of meaning as a natural phenomena, which enables organisms to make their way in the world. In these remaining sections, we will first propose that this ability be understood as a basic cognitive process and then go on to consider it in the context of sociality and evolution.
5.1 Bio-semiotic systems and cognition
As noted above, biosemiotics is committed to the continuity/co-extension between life and semiosis. This continuity is developed within the broader context of evolution and the role signs and semiosis plays therein. Unlike AE however, biosemioticians have not always been clear on the exact relationship between semiosis on the one hand and cognition on the other. Drawing from the preceding discussion I now want to propose that semiosis, or what I will call bio-semiosis to emphasise the natural (organic) dimension of cognition, can be understood as a basic cognitive process. Any system can be said to be a cognitive system if it has the ability to use signs. It is this ability to use signs that I maintain ultimately explains the cognitive continuum, the strong life-mind continuity, among and across the animal kingdom.
Incorporating what I have argued regarding BE with a similar proposal by James Fetzer (1988, 1997, 2001), we can now define cognition as the active and creative process of bio-semiosis by bio-semiotic systems.[Note 14] Whereby different types of cognitive systems and their respective cognitive abilities can be identified on the basis of the types of signs (all signs and not just language or symbolic signs), they have the capacity to interpret and, due to the normative nature of semiosis, misinterpret. Grounded on the emergence of adaptive autopoietic agency, these systems can identify, make distinctions, select and appropriate or misappropriate that which is relevant in a given context for their own continued persistence. Thus, iconic bio-semiotic systems have the capacity to utilise icons, indexical bio-semiotic systems have the capacity to utilise indices and symbolic bio-semiotic systems have the capacity to utilise symbols.
The most basic and perhaps the most pervasive of bio-semiotic systems in nature are those that can only utilise iconic signs. Such systems will be referred to as iconic bio-semiotic systems. According to Sebeok (1989, p. 121), ‘iconic signs are found throughout the phylogenetic series, in all modalities as circumscribed by the sense organs by which members of a given species are able to inform themselves about their environment’. Iconic bio-semiotic systems are a subclass of biosemiotic system that have the capacity to recognise/detect certain properties/features of their environment as relevant, having a valance or repulsion. These properties/features are iconic signs for these systems by virtue of a resemblance or similarity to something other than themselves (Hoffmeyer, 2008). A frequently used example within the AE literature of a basic Iconic biosemiotic system is the E. coli bacterium (Thompson, 2007).
Moving on considerably along the phylogenetic scale, we have systems that have the capacity to utilise not only icons but also indices. These systems are Indexical bio-semiotic systems and they have the distinct ability to recognise connections and correlations. When a SV is a sign of O by means of ‘a direct physical connection’ between them, then the SV is said to be an index of O. In this case, the SV is determined by O, and both need to exist as events: spatio-temporal co-variation is thus the most fundamental characteristic of indexical sign processes. Common examples are fire and smoke, dark clouds and rain, tree rings and the age of the tree. These are natural regularities that occur throughout nature and certain systems have evolved the ability to exploit them for their own needs. It is likely that it is here that the capacity for associative learning first entered the evolutionary scene (Hollis & Guillete, 2011; Kull, 2014).
Symbols are perhaps the most familiar type of sign to us and yet at the same time the most puzzling and most difficult to understand. Symbols are signs that are arbitrary in nature in the sense that these require social conventions to be understood. Symbols are merely habitually and conventionally associated with that for which they stand (O) and so need not be similar nor causally connected to (O). A system that has the capacity to use symbols in this sense is a symbolic bio-semiotic system. In general, these systems also have the capacity to interpret icons and indices.
The paradigm example of symbolic bio-semiotic systems are human beings. Our social world abounds with symbols and symbolic sign systems, from table manners to legal systems to perhaps the most impressive symbol system of all that of language. All of these require some sort of habitual association or/and social convention in order to be fully understood. For example, a red traffic light means ‘stop’ because we have arbitrarily agreed through social convention upon that particular meaning. Similarly, the word ‘chair’ bears no inherent relation to ‘chairness’ and the two are arbitrarily related by convention. As symbols are arbitrary in nature and so need to be established by social convention it intuitively seems to imply that only human beings are symbolic bio-semiotic system (Penn, Holyoak, & Povinelli, 2008). This, however, is not the case and indeed there is now plenty of research strongly suggesting that. Symbolic bio-semiotic systems are more widespread in nature than intuition might have us believe (Emery & Clayton, 2008; Farina, 2008; Lestel, 2002; Martinelli, 2010; Queiroz & Ribeiro, 2002). Examples include bee dances (Gould, 1990) and the alarm calls of vervet monkeys (Seyfarth, Cheney, & Marler, 1980).
Finally, all bio-semiotic systems are understood to inhabit a space occupied by other bio-semiotics systems, either of the same or different species or both. In this sense, all bio-semiotic systems are social in their very essence. From the BE perspective, sociality is a fundamental ontological precondition for the evolutionary development of bio-semiotics systems. As Kawade (2009) points out, because early forms of living entities were likely incomplete and fragile, those that could interact with others and developed mutually supporting behaviours would be more likely to increase their chances of survival. This idea has support from recent research into bacterial social evolution and has lead Pamela Lyon (2007, p. 830) to claim that ‘within this highly cooperating species natural selection appears to favour the strengthening of sociality rather than individual autonomy’.
5.2 Evolution, semiotic freedom and sociality
At the heart of the BE proposal then is the thesis that cognitive systems are a class of adaptive (autopoietic) behaviourally plastic system with the (bio-semiotic) ability to recognise something as standing for something else. Each subclass of bio-semiotic system is understood to display a progressive hierarchical complexity (structural, behavioural and adaptive) over the preceding kind of system. Moreover, drawing from our discussion above, this complexity can now be understood to imply an increase in what Hoffmeyer calls ‘semiotic freedom’, which refers to organisms’ ‘increased capacity for responding to a variety of signs through the formation of (locally) meaningful interpretants’ (Hoffmeyer, 2012, p. 112).
All bio-semiotic systems of varying complexities have to master a set of meaningful signs of visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile and chemical origin in order to first survive and then evolve. Thus, as bio-semiotic systems evolve and develop, they become increasingly more sensitive and so more responsively attuned to relevant aspects (signs) of their environment. But as we already noted, if a system can use a sign, it must also have the potential to misuse it. In other words, biosemiosis entails that bio-semiotic systems must be equally open to the possibility of failure, open to the possibility of the respective system being mistaken/misinterpreting that something else. Moreover note that bio-semiosis is the goal-directed activity of a biosemiotic system and not any of its parts. It is only the activity itself, the process of triadic bio-semiosis, which can coherently be regarded as either falling or succeeding.
Bio-semiosis is therefore intrinsically normative. At the most primordial level minimal selfinterest can be understood to provide the most basic form of normativity in the natural world, whereas more advanced forms of normativity emerge with the coevolution of more advanced types of bio-semiotic systems and the increase of semiotic freedom. Importantly, as we have already noted above, because bio-semiotic systems also live in dense webs of interconnections with a diverse host of other bio-semiotics systems this normativity also has an inherently social dimension (Ben-Jacob, 2008; Lyon, 2007). Throughout this paper, signs have been understood primarily in terms of signification, but to understand the social and interconnected nature of bio-semiotic systems, we must also recognise that signs can also serve for communication. Signs are thus not only used to guide the behaviour of organisms in the world but also communication and coordination with other bio-semiotic systems. Because living organisms, by and large, live in communities and not in isolated hermetic worlds, normative communication processes become that on the basis of which individual behaviour and the larger community are structured, organised and coordinated.
This dual-aspect (signification/communication) of the sign can also help explain why bio-semiotic systems are not only semiotically sensitive to relevant ‘ready-made’ signs in the environment but also the active creators of meaning. As we have already seen, in order to maximise survival and reproduction, biological organisms have to develop increasingly sophisticated behavioural routines to be able to interpret their environments in novel ways. Often, and insofar as these novel routines promote survival and reproduction, they will inevitably effect the course of bio-semiotic evolution. At the same time, in the creation of novel meaning, bio-semiotic systems will as a consequence create or become further signs for communicative purposes with other bio-semiotic systems (Markoš, Grygar, Hajnal, Kleisner, & Kratochvil, 2009).
From this perspective, evolutionary processes consist of a growth in the extent and variety of the mani-festations of generic processes of bio-semiosis. It makes good evolutionary sense to assume that natural selection would favour those organisms with increased abilities for adaptive decisions based on reliable signs that require the emergence of increasingly sophisticated ways of communicating with other bio-semiotic systems and interpreting the world. But it is only with the emergence of bio-semiotic systems on our planet that evolutionary processes gradually endowed such systems with the rudiments for Dominion ‘strivings’ that once in place could ensure natural selection to occur.
For billions of years semiotic freedom remained understandably low and only very gradually would there emerge more advanced stages of bio-semiosis corresponding to the development of increasingly more complex structural and behavioural bio-semiotic systems. Again, only with the emergence of such systems, could the mechanisms of natural selection take effect. Only then can such systems actively strive for nutritional resources, shelter, protection, attempt to avoid predators, seek mates and so on, that there could be competition, in the absence of bio-semiotic systems with bio-semiotic capacities there could be no natural selection at all.
Thus with bio-semiotic systems in place, signs can now function to ‘incite the generation of interpretants in the form of actions that are future-oriented, inasmuch as living beings always seek signs for survival and for reproduction’ (Hoffmeyer, 2008, p. 65). It is signs that function to help guide the behavioural responses (bio-semiosis) of all bio-semiotic systems as active open-ended creative and communicative processes of problem solving, which always refers back to the self- preservation of the respective system and the wider group. A self-referential process embodying the systems’ past through the present and always guiding them towards the future.
The idea of bio-semiosis thus offers a more fine- grained, historical (diachronic), and social analysis of the evolutionary development of sense-making. In so doing, it also goes some way to bridging the nature/culture divide by showing that nature could not function without signs and that culture is merely an extension of natural bio-semiosis. BE thus allows for a framework that can provide a fully naturalist and non- anthropocentric account of meaning and cognition as a central component. of strong life-mind continuity. In contrast to the Jonasian inspired AE, BE takes living systems as sharing a continuum on bio-semiotic grounds and not by virtue of our own embodied experience.
To conclude this section, contrary to popular intuitions, human beings are not the only sign-using organisms, all living organisms, even if only in very limited degree for some, are capable and indeed must be able to, recognise and create ‘cues’ in their distal environments in order to make a living. However, BE goes further than biosemiotics by arguing that bio-semiosis as the activities of bio-semiotic systems is co-extensive with cognition. The distinctive ‘uniqueness’ of human beings comes from the kind of bio-semiosis we can partake in. Whereas most other living organisms are only capable of inter-preting iconic and indexical signs, human beings alone are deeply embedded in a symbolic world of language (Deacon, 1997, 2012), which endowed us with a very distinctive kind of mentality. Nonetheless, this does not separate us from the rest of nature but on the contrary firmly embeds us deep within it. Nature and culture are neither inherently different, nor opposed phenomena. From the BE perspective, culture and nature cannot be separated, as both are intricately woven into each other by virtue of the perfusion of sign relations.
I would like to conclude this paper by recapping how BE contributes to enactive cognitive science. The BE perspective introduced above endorsed AE’s strong life- mind continuity but grounds it on Uexküll’s Umwelt theory and the bio-semiosis of living bio-semiotic systems. The sign, and not Jonasian phenomenology, is the thread connecting all the various bio-semiotic systems, whereas the varying capacity these have for using different types of signs helps us recognise and appreciate that they are at the same time also in important respects very different.
The great merit of the BE account is that it retains the core of AE but replaces Jonasian phenomenology with Uexküllian phenomenology (Tønnessen, 2015) and bio-semiosis. Because BE does not rely on analogy as its primary point of departure it sidesteps not only anthropocentrism but also unnecessary anthropomorphism. In essence the BE proposal offers a reversal of the phenomenological argument used by AE to defend the strong continuity between life and mind. Consequently, it allows us to accommodate and fullheartedly embrace the rich diversity ubiquitous in living nature and fully appreciates that all of these have unique perspectives on their world. Importantly, these are not the ‘watered-down’ human centred variants of an anthropomorphic stance, but genuinely unique in their own intrinsic ways.
BE also goes some way in helping us bridge the nature/culture divide and presenting a naturalistically plausible account of meaning and cognition, which strongly suggests that culture is naturally emergent from nature and not something inherently distinct from it. In placing the question of meaning in a broader non-anthropocentric evolutionary context, BE avoids the necessity of a miraculous break from the rest of nature or of its sudden appearance. From a biosemiotic perspective, meaning is co-present with living beings from the start. Meaning is not something that is first located in human experience then projected onto the rest of nature but rather the other way round. This is in contrast to what the AE theorist might reasonably be accused of doing. ‘Simple’ single-celled organisms as well as more ‘complex’ multicellular ones are biosemiotic beings, as evidenced from their communication and interpretation of their environments and not because we project these characteristics onto them. Organisms would continue to live and experience the world in their own distinctive ways whether humans were here or not. Nonetheless, it is equally important that we maintain AE’s account of autonomous agency. Indeed, as Weber (2001) points out, this is perhaps the Greatest contribution AE can make to biosemiotics more broadly.
But, by taking AE’s account of agency seriously and giving it a biosemiotic re-tweaking, BE unlike biosemiotics, is committed to the view that other non-human lifeforms are not only semiotic but genuinely cognitive. Importantly, the hierarchical individuating of biosemiotic systems by virtue of the signs a system can use, also helps us to recognise the inherent difference among cognitive systems. This should help satisfy Clark’s (2001) demand that the proponents of a strong life- mind continuity need to recognise that the mind is not only continuous but also ‘special’. The account presented above, with certain clarifications, goes some way into accommodating this point.
From the standpoint of BE it becomes somewhat misleading to claim that organisms ‘brings forth a world’. The notions of bio-semiosis and bio-semiotic systems introduced above provide a more systematic, more historical, diachronic and socially sensitive grounding of the AE notions of sense-making and meaning both in terms of evolution and specific cognitive abilities. Moreover, the introduction of the sign allows for a truly relational and so irreducibly ‘extensive’[Note 15] account of cognition. The sign can thus be seen resolutely to anchor the ‘sense-making’ organism deep into the very fabric of the world. Note, however, that despite the introduction of the sign BE does not lose sight of the active agent and its importance in the creation of normative sign relations.
This is particularly important because it helps, to a larger extent, sidestep potential internalist and idealist misinterpretations. Through the BE lens cognition is fundamentally rooted in the capacity of bio-semiotic systems to create and exploit external structures through meaningful sign-relations together with other living organisms. It is not something strictly internal to the system but constituted through relational triadic bio-semiosis. As we saw a sign is not something internal but nor is it a ‘ready-made’ external object either.
Ultimately, the intention here has been to contribute to the theoretical developments of AE and not to cri-tique it. In so doing it should have also shed some light on how enactivism itself could contribute to biosemiotics Thus, despite the inherent difference highlighted in our discussion, the similarities are abundant and simply calling out for more direct engagement. Indeed, I hope it was made evident that there is plenty of reason to forge links between the two fields, as it would undoubtedly be variously beneficial to establish connections with a research community that share very similar aims. Here the very first steps were taken in this direction.
Many thanks to Professor Mark Bishop and Fred Cummins for extensive discussions on most the issues addressed in this paper and for helpful suggestions throughout A very warm thank you to Professor Alexei Sharov, who read several drafts of the paper and commented extensively. Finally, I am deeply indebted to two reviewers for their insightful comments and very helpful suggestions.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
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It should be noted from the outset that, whereas AE. is explicit on its commitment to a continuity between life and mind, biosemiotics is not always clear on this issue. See Section 5 for further discussion of this issue.
Like enactivism, biosemiotics is not only in its infancy, but equally something of a ‘broad church’. Similarly, although we can distinguish between several distinct approaches to biosemiotics and how it should be further developed, the central ideas are nonetheless more or less common to them all. All are committed to the idea that signs are co-extensive with life or as Sebeok puts it ‘semiosis presupposes Barbieri (2009) has helpfully made a cursory distinction between four different theoretical approaches or branches of biosemiotics. There is physical biosemiotics and Darwinian biosemiotics (Howard Pattee, Terence Deacon), zoosemiotics and sign biosemiotics (Thomas Sebeok, Jesper Hoffmeyer), code biosemiotics (Marcello Barbieri) and finally hermeneutic biosemiotics (Anton Markoš). The approach developed here does not follow any of these approaches in detail, but is merely inspired by and draws loosely from its various concepts insofar as they can contribute to the broader aims of the current work Note furthermore that, when referring to biosemiotics in this paper, I am referring exclusively to the aforementioned field of theoretical biology and not to Dan Hutto’s (2008) reconstruction of teleosemantics. Although BE has much in common with Hutto’s approach, it is distinct primarily due to its use of semiotics.
Throughout the rest of this paper, when referring to ‘idealism’, I have in mind the rich and complex philosophical doctrine that variously take only ideas, spirit or mentality to be real (Guyer & Rolf-Peter, 2015). The above criticism notwithstanding, in this paper it is taken for granted that AE. does not slide into such a position but only that the phrasing of certain key ideas has the potentiality to give raise to such interpretations. See Vörös, Froese and Riegler (forthcoming) for a more in depth discussion of enactivism’s complex relationship to idealism, anti-realism and metaphysical realism. Many thanks to a reviewer for pressing me to clarify these points and drawing my attention to this work.
This is, as point of fact, not strictly accurate. Di Paolo (2009) briefly considers the water boatman, which is an aquatic insect. Notwithstanding this extra example, I think the point that AE. has very little to say on nonhuman organisms let alone their sociality, remains a valid one, but see Merritt (2015) for some recent work aiming to address this issues.
It is important that, as Bains (2006) notes, we distance ourselves from Uexküll’s overly ‘subjectivists’ (Kantian) construal of the Umwelt In this section, we thus present a necessary reformulation of the Umwelt theory that sidesteps Kantian subjectivism (idealism). We might note here that a failure to reformulate the Umwelt theory accordingly would lead to accusations of idealism similar to those faced by AE.. Thus, pace Uexküll, the Umwelt is not regarded as the ‘inner’ subjective appearance of exclusively subjective phenomena but a relational domain constituted through interactive sign processes, which are irreducibly triadic (Bains, 2006, p. 64). Furthermore, whereas Uexküll tended to emphasise the disparity in animal ‘worlds’, a disparity succinctly captured in his ‘soup bubble’ metaphor, which also further highlights another subjectivist facet, here we will place a greater emphasis in the commonality and interconnectedness of animal worlds. Finally, it must also be recognised that Uexküll has also been a source of much inspiration for enactivism itself, though peripherally so (Thompson, 2007). For BE., however, Uexküll plays a more central role and in a crucial sense takes up the role occupied by Jonas within AE.
Although generally unacknowledged Uexküll has had a great influence on the development of existential phenomenology through the work of its two central figures; Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty (Buchanan, 2008). Thus what makes this a Uexküllian phenomenology is its concern, equally shared in part by the existential phenomenologists, in accounting for the unique perspective organisms have on their world. The world as experienced by the organism itself
Froese and Ziemke (ibid) in effect offer a Jonasian reading of Uexküll, which for the reasons noted above needs to be avoided at all costs.
Although, as will be explained below, there is a class of system that can know signs as signs.
Note that BE. as developed here is not committed to any specific interpretation of Peirce, nor his broader metaphysical/cosmological philosophy, but only draws inspiration from his pragmatic approach and his distinction between icon, index and symbolic signs.
The notion of the interpretant is a very contentious one in biosemiotics, which this paper cannot address. For our purpose here, the interpretant can roughly be understood as what we usually take as the sign’s meaning that is manifested through embodied functional cycles by an interpreting bio-semiotic system in the presence of signs. Whereas there is a distinction drawn between an interpretant (the action of the system mediated through signs) and an interpreting agent (the acting system as a whole), here we apply the general pragmatist maxim, which states that to know is to know what to do in a particular context. And this ‘knowing’ necessarily presupposes an interpretive bio-semiotic system. See next section for more on bio-semiotic systems.
Note also that certain signs may have iconic, symbolic and indexical elements. A traffic light would be a good example of a sign (symbolic) containing other (icon, index) elements.
Note that the notion of ‘symbol’ used here is not to be confused with ‘symbol’ used in computational theories of mind (e.g. Fodor, 2008, Newell and Simon, 1976), which are simply meaningless syntactical marks. By contrast, all sign using systems – all (bio)semiosis – presupposes an interpretive point of view. Thus even the usage of icons presupposes a point of view with respect to the various ways in which one thing resembles another (see Section 5 for further discussion). This is seemingly lacking in computational theories where the symbols involved only stand for something other than itself for an outside observer not for the system itself
Both reviewers to this paper raised the concern that the notion of a ‘sign’ could very easily be accused of harbouring latent anthropomorphism. I am very sympathetic to these concerns, but I do, however, think they can be abated by taking a closer look at the definition of a sign introduced here. Because we are language-using organisms, we are inclined to think that (i) language is the only sign-system and (ii) that humans are the only language users and therefore the only sign users. The notion of a sign introduced here shows that (i) is simply false and as a consequence undermines (ii). If we look at the definition of the sign itself as a three-placed relation, there is nothing that requires or implies that the interpretant (the bio-semiotic system) be a human being.
Note here that I introduce a distinction between biosemiosis and bio-semiosis. The hyphen serves to illustrate that BE. unlike biosemiotics is committed to the thesis that bio-semiotic systems are not only semiotic but also cognitive. The point is neither that life and semiosis nor that life and cognition are co-extensive, but rather that bio-semiotic system as adaptive autopoietic systems (a subclass of living systems) are cognitive in their own right Bio-semiosis is thus considered a systems’ level property, which requires adaptive autopoiesis and leaves open the possibility that biosemiosis/semiosis (but not cognition) can go on below the level of integrated organisms, what biosemioticians call ‘endosemiosis’ (Barbieri, 2009). It is beyond the scope of this paper to address the topic of endosemiosis any further.
The term ‘extensive’ is taken from Hutto and Myin (2013) who introduce it in part to replace the notion of an ‘extended mind’. This notion of extensive minds is fully endorsed here.
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