Semiotics: Nature and Machine

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Semiotics (from the Greek word for sign) is the doctrine and science of signs and their use. It is thus a more comprehensive system than language itself and can therefore be used to understand language in relation to other forms of communication and interpretation such as nonverbal forms. One can trace the development of semiotics starting with its origins in the classical Greek period (from medical symptomatology), through subsequent developments during the Middle Ages (Deely 2001), and up to John Locke's introduction of the term in the seventeenth century. But contemporary semiotics has its real foundations in the nineteenth century with Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) and Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), who, working independently of each other, developed slightly different conceptions of the sign. The development of semiotics as a broad field is nevertheless mostly based on Peirce's framework, which is therefore adopted here.

Ever since Umberto Eco (1976) formulated the problem of the "semiotic threshold" to try to keep semiotics within the cultural sciences, semiotics—especially Peircian semiotics—has developed further into the realm of biology, crossing threshold after threshold into the sciences. Although semiotics emerged in efforts to scientifically investigate how signs function in culture, the twentieth century witnessed efforts to extend semiotic theory into the noncultural realm, primarily in relation to living systems and computers. Because Peirce's semiotics is the only one that deals systematically with nonintentional signs of the body and of nature at large, it has become the main source for semiotic theories of the similarities and differences among signs of inorganic nature, signs of living systems, signs of machines (especially computer semiotics, see Andersen 1990), and the cultural and linguistic signs of humans living together in a society that emphasizes the search for information and knowledge. Resulting developments have then been deployed to change the scope of semiotics from strictly cultural communication to a biosemiotics that encompasses the cognition and communication of all living systems from the inside of cells to the entire biosphere, and a cybersemiotics that in addition includes a theory of information systems.

Biosemiotics and Its Controversies

Semiotics is a transdisciplinary doctrine that studies how signs in general—including codes, media, and language, plus the sign systems used in parallel with language—work to produce interpretation and meaning in human and in nonhuman living systems as prelinguistic communication systems. In the founding semiotic tradition of Peirce, a sign is anything that stands for something or somebody in some respect or context.

Taking this further, a sign, or representamen, is a medium for communication of a form in a triadic (three-way) relation. The representamen refers (passively) to its object, which determines it, and to its interpretant, which it determines, without being itself affected. The interpretant is the interpretation in the form of a more developed sign in the mind of the interpreting and receiving mind or quasi mind. The representamen could be, for example, a moving hand that refers to an object for an interpretant; the interpretation in a person's mind materializes as the more developed sign "waving," which is a cultural convention and therefore a symbol.

All kinds of alphabets are composed of signs. Signs are mostly imbedded in a sign system based on codes, after the manner of alphabets of natural and artificial languages or of ritualized animal behaviors, where fixed action patterns such as feeding the young in gulls take on a sign character when used in the mating game.

Inspired by the work of Margaret Mead, Thomas A. Sebeok extended this last aspect to cover all animal species–specific communication systems and their signifying behaviors under the term zoösemiotics (Sebeok 1972). Later Sebeok concluded that zoösemiotics rests on a more comprehensive biosemiotics (Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok 1992). This global conception of semiotics equates life with sign interpretation and mediation, so that semiotics encompasses all living systems including plants (Krampen 1981), bacteria, and cells in the human body (called endosemiotics by Uexküll, Geigges, and Herrmann 1993). Although biosemiotics has been pursued since the early 1960s, it remains controversial because many linguistic and cultural semioticians see it as requiring an illegitimate broadening of the concept of code.

A code is a set of transformation rules that convert messages from one form of representation to another. Obvious examples can be found in Morse code and cryptography. Broadly speaking, code thus includes everything of a more systematic nature (rules) that source and receiver must know a priori about a sign for it to correlate processes and structures between two different areas. This is because codes, in contrast to universal laws, work only in specific contexts, and interpretation is based on more or less conventional rules, whether cultural or (by extension) biological.

Exemplifying a biological code is DNA. In the protein production system—which includes the genome in a cell nucleus, the RNA molecules going in and out of the nucleus, and the ribosomes outside the nucleus membrane—triplet base pairs in the DNA have been translated to a messenger RNA molecule, which is then read by the ribosome as a code for amino acids to string together in a specific sequence to make a specific protein. The context is that all the parts have to be brought together in a proper space, temperature, and acidity combined with the right enzymes for the code to work. Naturally this only happens in cells. Sebeok writes of the genetic code as well as of the metabolic, neural, and verbal codes. Living systems are self-organized not only on the basis of natural laws but also using codes developed in the course of evolution. In an overall code there may also exist subcodes grouped in a hierarchy. To view something as encoded is to interpret it as-sign-ment (Sebeok 1992).

A symbol is a conventionally and arbitrary defined sign, usually seen as created in language and culture. In common languages it can be a word, but gestures, objects such as flags and presidents, and specific events such as a soccer match can be symbols (for example, of national pride). Biosemioticians claim the concept of symbol extends beyond cultures, because some animals have signs that are "shifters." That is, the meaning of these signs changes with situations, as for instance the head tossing of the herring gull occurs both as a precoital display and when the female is begging for food. Such a transdisciplinary broadening of the concept of a symbol is a challenge for linguists and semioticians working only with human language and culture.

To see how this challenge may be developed, consider seven different examples of signs. A sign stands for something for somebody:

  1. as the word blue stands for a certain range of color, but also has come to stand for an emotional state;
  2. as the flag stands for the nation;
  3. as a shaken fist can indicate anger;
  4. as red spots on the skin can be a symptom for German measles;
  5. as the wagging of a dog's tail can be a sign of friendliness for both dogs and humans;
  6. as pheromones can signal heat to the other sex of the species;
  7. as the hormone oxytocin from the pituitary can cause cells in lactating glands of the breast to release the milk.

Linguistic and cultural semioticians in the tradition of Saussure would usually not accept examples 3 to 6 as genuine signs, because they are not self-consciously intentional human acts. But those working in the tradition of Peirce also accept nonconscious intentional signs in humans (3) and between animals (5 and 6) as well as between animals and humans (4), nonintentional signs (4), and signs between organs and cells in the body (7). This last example even takes special form in immunosemiotics, which deals with the immunological code, immunological memory, and recognition.

There has been a well-known debate about the concepts of primary and secondary modeling systems (see for example Sebeok and Danesi 2000) in linguistics that has now been changed by biosemiotics. Originally language was seen as the primary modeling system, whereas culture comprised a secondary one. But through biosemiotics Sebeok has argued that there exists a zoösemiotic system, which has to be called primary, as the foundation of human language. From this perspective language thus becomes the secondary and culture tertiary.

Cybersemiotics and Ethics

In the formulation of a transdisciplinary theory of signification and communication in nature, humans, machines, and animals, semiotics is in competition with the information processing paradigm of cognitive science (Gardner 1985) used in computer informatics and psychology (Lindsay and Norman 1977, Fodor 2000), and library and information science (Vickery and Vickery 2004), and worked out in a general renewal of the materialistic evolutionary worldview (for example, Stonier 1997). Søren Brier (1996a, 1996b) has criticized the information processing paradigm and second-order cybernetics, including Niklas Luhmann's communication theory (1995), for not being able to produce a foundational theory of signification and meaning. Thus it is found necessary to add biosemiotics ability to encompass both nature and machine to make a theory of signification, cognition and communication that encompass the sciences, technology as well as the humanities aspect of communication and interpretation.

Life can be understood from a chemical point of view as an autocatalytic, autonomous, autopoietic system, but this does not explain how the individual biological self and awareness appear in the nervous system. In the living system, hormones and transmitters do not function only on a physical causal basis. Not even the chemical pattern fitting formal causation is enough to explain how sign molecules function, because their effect is temporally and individually contextualized. They function also on a basis of final causation to support the survival of the self-organized biological self. As Sebeok (1992) points out, the mutual coding of sign molecules from the nervous, hormone, and immune systems is an important part of the self-organizing of a biological self, which again is in constant recursive interaction with its perceived environment Umwelt (Uexkull 1993). This produces a view of nerve cell communication based on a Peircian worldview binding the physical efficient causation described through the concept of energy with the chemical formal causation described through the concept of information—and the final causations in biological systems being described through the concept of semiosis (Brier 2003).

From a cybersemiotic perspective, the bit (or basic difference) of information science becomes a sign only when it makes a difference for someone (Bateson 1972). For Pierce, a sign is something standing for something else for someone in a context. Information bits are at most pre- or quasi signs and insofar as they are involved with codes function only like keys in a lock. Information bits in a computer do not depend for their functioning on living systems with final causation to interpret them. They function simply on the basis of formal causation, as interactions dependent on differences and patterns. But when people see information bits as encoding for language in a word processing program, then the bits become signs for them.

To attempt to understand human beings—their communication and attempts through interpretation to make meaning of the world—from frameworks that at their foundation are unable to fathom basic human features such as consciousness, free will, meaning, interpretation, and understanding is unethical. To do so tries to explain away basic human conditions of existence and thereby reduce or even destroy what one is attempting to explain. Humans are not to be fitted and disciplined to work well with computers and information systems. It is the other way round. These systems must be developed with respect for the depth, multidimensional, and contextualizing abilities of human perception, language communication, and interpretation.

Behaviorism, different forms of eliminative materialism, information science, and cognitive science all attempt to explain human communication from outside, without respecting the phenomenological and hermeneutical aspects of existence. Something important about human nature is missing in these systems and the technologies developed on their basis (Fodor 2000). It is unethical to understand human communication only in the light of the computer. Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores (1987), among others, have argued for a more comprehensive framework.

But it is also unethical not to contemplate the material constraints and laws of human existence, as occurs in so many purely humanistic approaches to human cognition, communication, and signification. Life, as human embodiment, is fundamental to the understanding of human understanding, and thereby to ecological and evolutionary perspectives, including cosmology. John Deely (1990), Claus Emmeche (1998), Jesper Hoffmeyer (1996), and Brier (2003) all work with these perspectives in the new view of semiotics inspired by Peirce and Sebeok. Peircian semiotics in its contemporary biosemiotic and cybersemiotic forms is part of an ethical quest for a transdisciplinary framework for understanding humans in nature as well as in culture, in matter as well as in mind.


SEE ALSO Peirce, Charles Sanders.


Andersen, P. B. (1990). A Theory of Computer Semiotics: Semiotic Approaches to Construction and Assessment of Computer Systems. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bateson, Gregory. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing. Based on Norbert Wiener's classical cybernetics, a foundational work that develops the view toward second-order cybernetics and semiotics.

Brier, Søren. (1996a). "Cybersemiotics: A New Interdisciplinary Development Applied to the Problems of Knowledge Organisation and Document Retrieval in Information Science." Journal of Documentation 52(3): 296–344.

Brier, Søren. (1996b). "From Second Order Cybernetics to Cybersemiotics: A Semiotic Re-entry into the Second-Order Cybernetics of Heinz von Foerster." Systems Research 13(3): 229–244. Part of a Festschrift for von Foerster.

Brier, Søren. (2003). "The Cybersemiotic Model of Communication: An Evolutionary View on the Threshold between Semiosis and Informational Exchange." TripleC 1(1): 71–94. Also available from

Deely, John. (1990). Basics of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Deely, John. (2001). Four Ages of Understanding: The First Postmodern Survey of Philosophy from Ancient Times to the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Integrates semiotics as a central theme in the development of philosophy, thereby providing a profoundly different view of the history of philosophy.

Eco, Umberto. (1976). A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Foundational interdisciplinary work of modern semiotics.

Emmeche, Claus. (1998). "Defining Life as a Semiotic Phenomenon." Cybernetics and Human Knowing 5(1): 3–17.

Fodor, Jerry. (2000). The Mind Doesn't Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gardner, Howard. (1985). The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution. New York: Basic.

Hoffmeyer, Jesper. (1996). Signs of Meaning in the Universe, trans. Barbara J. Haveland. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. The first and foundational book of modern biosemiotics.

Krampen, Martin. (1981). "Phytosemiotics." Semiotica 36(3/4): 187–209.

Lindsay, Peter, and Donald A. Norman. (1977). Human Information Processing: An Introduction to Psychology, 2nd edition. New York: Academic Press.

Luhmann, Niklas. (1995). Social Systems, trans. John Bednarz Jr. and Dirk Baecker. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Sebeok, Thomas A. (1972). Perspectives in Zoosemiotics. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton.

Sebeok, Thomas A. (1992). "'Tell Me, Where Is Fancy Bred?' The Biosemiotic Self." In Biosemiotics: The Semiotic Web, 1991, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Sebeok, Thomas A., ed. (1994). Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, 2nd edition. 3 vols. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. One of the most comprehensive and authoritative works on all aspects of semiotics.

Sebeok, Thomas A., and Marcel Danesi. (2000). The Forms of Meaning: Modeling Systems Theory and Semiotic Analysis. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Sebeok, Thomas A., and Jean Umiker-Sebeok, eds. (1992). Biosemiotics: The Semiotic Web, 1991. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Stonier, Tom. (1997). Information and Meaning: An Evolutionary Perspective. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. An important extension of the information processing paradigm, showing its greatness and limitations.

Uexküll, Thure von; Werner Geigges; and Jörg M. Herrmann. (1993). "Endosemiosis." Semiotica 96(1/2): 5–51.

Vickery, Brian C., and Alina Vickery. (2004). Information Science in Theory and Practice, 3rd edition. Munich: Saur. A comprehensive and important presentation, conceptualization, and use of the information processing paradigm in library and information science.

Winograd, Terry, and Fernando Flores. (1987). Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.