Upshot: The reader presents a unique collection of the most important works in biosemiotics. It spans 880 pages, describing classical and modern theories, with excerpts from the most significant papers on the topic of biosemiotics, as well as suggesting further reading on the topic.
Von Foerster has suggested the Mobius strip as a topological representation of the kind of logic pertaining to self-referential cybernetic systems. The Mobius strip offers the conceptual categories of an outside interior and an inside exterior. It is suggested that these categories are realized in natural cybernetic systems through semiotic loops integrating self-reference and other-reference. Autopoiesis and semiosis are supplementary categories. Living systems may be seen as consisting essentially of surfaces inside other surfaces. The closure of a membrane around some autocatalytic chemical reaction system is an attractive candidate for a first step towards the origin of a living system. A spheric surface defines an inside-outside asymmetry and opens the possibility for communicative activity across the membrane. If some modest kind of co-operation arose in populations of closed surfaces these surfaces might become interfaces for real communication. Two further steps would be needed for these surfaces to become true anticipatory biological systems. The surface and its internal autocatalytic system would have to produce a written (digital) record of its own components, and the surface would have to devise means for controlling the translation process whereby components are produced. Only in this way can the surface become a temporal being, an autonomous agent capable of making distinctions and engaging itself in future-oriented internal or external modification. Such a system has been termed a code-dual system (Hoffmeyer and Emmeche, 1991).
All sciences have epistemic assumptions, a language for expressing their theories or models, and symbols that reference observables that can be measured. In most sciences the languages in which their models are expressed are not the focus of their attention, although the choice of language is often crucial for the model. On the contrary, biosemiotics, by definition, cannot escape focusing on the symbol-matter relationship. Symbol systems first controlled material construction at the origin of life. At this molecular level it is only in the context of open-ended evolvability that symbol-matter systems and their functions can be objectively defined. Symbols are energy-degenerate structures not determined by laws that act locally as special boundary conditions or constraints on law-based energy-dependent matter in living systems. While this partial description holds for all symbol systems, cultural languages are much too complex to be adequately described only at the molecular level. Genetic language and cultural languages have common basic requirements, but there are many significant differences in their structures and functions. Relevance: The paper expresses the classical epistemological mind-matter problem at the simplest evolutionary level, which begins with self-replication. At this level I call it the symbol-matter problem, and I discuss the physical and epistemic conditions for symbol systems and languages to arise.
I argue in this paper that by taking a biosemiotic point of view, human “agency” may be defined as the ability of an individual to direct the incoming and internal streams of semioses and the ability to create an integrative and superordinate new stream of semiosis in addition to the upwardly and downwardly component ones, and I argue how such a view might open a new door for research into the concept of human “personality” and “agency.” Obviously, these are key concepts in constructivist approaches and a better understanding of them can shed light on other aspects.
Abstract: Excerpt: The biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944) developed a theory of biology, which decisively contradicted the mainstream of biological thought in the 20th century. His main concepts summarized in his Theoretische Biologie (1920/ 1928) aimed at the re-introduction of the autonomous organism as subject into the focus of the life-sciences and at the same time, at making subjectivity the object of the scientific method. Uexküll was interpreted as vitalist, antievolutionist and mystic (Goldschmidt 1956). But scholars in different scientific and artistic fields like psychology, anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, architecture and literature, recognized the significance of his challenge.
Uexküllian phenomenology is derived from the Umwelt theory of the Baltic-German biologist Jakob von Uexküll. Its basic premise is that we can assume the universal existence, in the realm of life, of a genuine first person perspective, i.e., of experienced worlds. This assumption characterises Uexküllian phenomenology and makes it a genuine perspective within phenomenology. In this article I prepare the ground for such a phenomenology by treating the notion of phenomenology, the relation between semiotics and phenomenology, Husserl’s notion of Lebenswelt, and finally the notion of Uexküllian phenomenology. The purpose is to make the case that Uexküllian phenomenology is justified, and to situate it within phenomenological and semiotic thought at large.
The late Chile born biologist Francisco J. Varela has been influential in theoretical biology throughout the last three decades of the 20. century. His thinking shows a marked development from a biologically founded constructivism (developed together with his fellow citizen, Humberto Maturana, with the main key word being “autopoiesis theory”) to a more phenomenological oriented standpoint, which Varela called himself the philosophy of embodiment, or “enactivism.” In this paper, I want to show that major arguments in this latter position can be fruitful for a biosemiotic approach to organism. Varela himself already applies concepts as e.g. “signification,” “relevance,” “meaning” which are de facto biosemiotic. He derives these concepts from a compact theory of organism, which he understands as the process of self-realization of a materially embodied subject. This presumption stems, though somewhat modified, from Autopoiesis theory and so attempts a quasiempirical description of the living in terms of self-organisation. Varela’s thinking might count as an exemplary model for a biosemiotic approach in a theory of organism. In particular, Varela’s link to down-to-earth biological research offers means to associate biosemiotics with the ongoing debate about the status of a biological system within genetics and proteomics research.