Taking the semiotic turn,
or how significant philosophy of biology should be done.

Claus Emmeche

Published in: Sats - Nordic Journal of Philosophy 3 (1): 155-162, 2002. Review of: Günther Witzany: Life: The communicative structure. A new philosophy of biology. Norderstedt: Libri Books on Demand, 2000.

Jerry L. R. Chandler, a scientist from the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Studies at George Mason University in USA and president of The Washington Evolutionary Systems Society (WESS), recently posted a query to the members of WESS and related persons in order to assemble a set of the fundamental questions that are guiding research and debate on emerging and evolving complex systems. "We seek to focus our inquiry on such questions that are fundamental to physical, chemical, biological, social and cultural emergence," wrote Chandler. During its history of nearly two decades, the WESS members have debated a wide range of concepts and ideas related to evolutionary systems (see the volumes of Van de Vijver et al. 1998; Chandler & Van de Vijver 2000). As noted by Chandler, concomitantly a gradual shift in the public perceptions of science and scientific philosophies has occurred. Chandler asked how these perceptions will evolve in the next three to fifty years, and asked the members to make a short list of the fundamental open questions in one's field of inquiry. With the reservation that my comment was not so much an answer as an indication of my current interest, I answered Chandler that one big challenge I could think of is about how to integrate research into the origin and evolution of complex systems (physics, biophysics, molecular and evolutionary biology) with research into the semiotic nature and performance of such complex systems (biosemiotics, developmental psychology, consciousness studies, philosophy of mind, etc.).

An interesting example of this is pain. As with signification and meaning in general, pain must have a natural history. The Darwinian principle of continuity of our mental and sensorial faculties with the rest of nature tells us so. Yet, the neo-Darwinian picture of evolution of species by natural selection among populations of individuals with variation for the traits being selected upon could work just as well in a world of animals being insentient zombies, given that these zombies (in such a thought experiment) would have the same input/output relations to the environment (respond to the same stimuli but not feel anything) and thus have the same adaptive behaviour as their fellow beings, the real sentient animals. Neither strict neo-Darwinism nor an expanded version supplied with a theory of the interplay of self-organization and natural selection (a la Stuart A. Kauffman) seems to be enough to provide explanation for the evolution of the pain, or at least the evolution of the inner feeling of being in pain. Various versions of internalism (biosemiotics may be one of them) with its concomitant change in the very idea of what constitutes a scientific explanation of an evolutionary system, seems to be relevant in this whole discussion.

I was reminded of the query when I read the treatise Life: The Communicative Structure - a new philosophy of biology, by Austrian philosopher Günther Witzany (b. 1953), because this book is one of many works within a new, exciting and still heterogeneous trend within philosophy of nature attempting to attack directly a whole set of traditional metaphysical assumptions in bioscience about the nature of life, in particular the assumption that life processes are simply chemical processes that in principle if not in practice can be explained by reference to molecular mechanisms. This reductionist stance makes it almost mysterious how evolution of the physical universe can give rise to complex systems with cognitive, linguistic and experiential - in one word: semiotic - capacities. Let me first characterize this movement, biosemiotics, with a few more words, before comment upon Witzany's version of it.

It is only in the past decade that biosemiotics has become visible in the realm of natural science and philosophy as an emerging network of ideas, concepts and hypothesis of what constitutes life -- involving biologists, semioticians, philosophers and other scholars. Biosemiotics can be seen either as an alternative scientific paradigm in the making, or as an alternative philosophy of nature with special focus on the problems of biology. "Rather than understanding biology as a separate layer between physics and semiotics, we should then see biology as a science of the interface in which these two sciences meets, an interface in which we study the origin and evolution of sign processes, semiosis" (Hoffmeyer 1997). Biosemiotics provides a theoretical framework for understanding living systems very differently from the idea that cells and organisms are simply organized organic molecules. (On the history of biosemiotics, see Sebeok 2001, Kull 1999a). Biosemiotics attempts to provide a profound set of tools for thought to reevaluate biology as we know it, to reorganize data and empirical findings in a new architecture, that is, to envision a way to understand the evolution of micro-organisms, plants and animals on Earth which does not make it a mystery how the human mind could develop within the physical Universe, or how something with phenomenal properties, such as pain, can emerge. According to this view, life, signs, cognition, and interpretation are tightly interconnected, and thus biology (the science of life) and semiotics (the science of signs, their action and interpretation) may not only offer much to one another, but may even belong to one and the same ontological domain.

This view, deeply inspired by Peirce, may have the implication that life as well as consciousness may come in degrees, and that life a la biological cells (life in the normal sense of biology) is just one specific form of life, a form into which the universe has encoded a more general, potential, and inner property of matter (cf. Christiansen 2002).

More and more biologists are beginning to understand that the essence of life is to mean something, to mediate significance, to interpret signs. This already seems to be implicitly present even in orthodox Neo-Darwinism and its recurrent use of terms like "code", "messenger", "genetic information", and so on. These concepts substitute the final causes Darwinists believed to have discarded 150 years ago, they have become firmly established in molecular biology with specific scientific meanings; and yet they the semiotic content or connotations are rarely taken serious by the scientists to the extant that there is a tendency to devaluate their status as being "merely metaphors" when confronted with the question about their implied intentionality or semioticity (cf. Emmeche 1999). This secret language, where "code" seems to be a code for final cause, points to the fact that it might be more honest and productive to attack the problem head-on and to formulate an explicit biological theory taking these recurrent semiotics metaphors serious and discuss them as pointing to real scientific problems. This means that a principal task of biology will be to study signs and sign processes in living systems. This is biosemiotics -- the scientific study of biosemiosis. Semiotics, the general science of signs, thus becomes a reservoir of concepts and principles when it is recognized that biology, being about living systems, at the same time is about sign systems. Moreover, semiotics will probably not remain the same after this encounter with biology: both sciences will be transformed fundamentally while gradually being melded into one more comprehensive field.

Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), a master of biosemiotics, did not use the word semiotics. Those who wrote on 'biosemiotics' in 1960s and 70s -- e.g., Rothschild (see Kull 1999b), Stepanov 1971, Florkin 1974 -- were read by few. Thomas A. Sebeok (1920-2001) the great promoter, organizer, coordinator and author of many publications in the field, became acknowledged by his works in zoosemiotics, the study of animal communication (e.g., Sebeok 1972). Sebeok, a semiotician at large, and Thure von Uexküll, a leader of European psychosomatic medicine, had created in their interaction and dialogue a basic niche where biosemiotics itself started to be formed. This was supported by a major shift in the views on the scope of semiotics. A programmatic article by six leading scholars in semiotics (Anderson et al. 1984) paved the way by introducing a series of concepts from evolutionary biology in the context of zoo- and endosemiotics. However, a generation of professional biologists had to appear who could embrace all these contributions and apply their insights in a modern context in order to generate a field of knowledge, or even a whole new paradigm for biology and a biologically informed foundation for semiotics. This generation is alive and kicking, and Jesper Hoffmeyer (e.g., with his 1996 book) may be considered as one of the central figures (for an introduction to a Hoffmeyerian biosemiotics, see Emmeche et al. 2002 and Stjernfelt 2002). Biosemiotics is in the process of being transformed from a series of isolated attempts by individual scholars to wrestle with the semiotic problems of life and mind into a cross-disciplinary network of biologists, philosophers and semioticians gathering around international meetings, exchanging ideas and critiques, converging around a set of shared assumptions and central questions to be investigated (cf. the website http://www.zbi.ee/~uexkull/biosemiotics/ ). And indeed, there is a lot of work to do for serious philosophy, considering how many central philosophical topics -- of mind, language, epistemology, and metaphysics -- that cannot remain unaffected by the biosemiotic turn.

In a situation where this movement has not (yet?) been transformed into a stable research speciality, it is not surprising that substantial works suddenly appear as if out of nowhere, being the result of inquiry by scholars who have not hitherto been in close contact with the emerging network of biosemiotics. Last year saw the appearance of such a work by the Italian theoretical biologist Marcello Barbieri, who launched his theory of "semantic biology" to a wider audience in his well-written book The Organic Codes; a theory that in many respects resonates quite well with the central theses of biosemiotics. He pointed to the existence of at least two new organic codes (in addition to the genetic memory code), namely a signal transduction code and a splicing code, with the intention to open up new fields of biological research with semiotic implications. Though some of his ideas was published before, it was for the first time they were communicated in such a comprehensive form to specialists as well as non-experts (see also the review by Kull 2001 of Barbieri and Witzany).

The book Life: The Communicative Structure by Günther Witzany is even more peculiar in this respect. Its approach seems to have been to communicate very little with international the community of philosophy of biology and, with some exceptions, to escape dialogue with the rest of the biosemiotic network. Its main subject is the intersection of philosophy of biology and a pragmatical Habermas-inspired version of philosophy of language. Its form is that of an academic treatise, painstakingly detailed on some subjects, with lengthy quotations and comments. Witzany aims at contributing to a new understanding of living nature which is more qualified to cope with the ecological crisis. The author would like to establish a more sustainable relationship between society and nature. A more proximate aim is to show the existence of forms of communication in living nature that are structured somewhat similar to human language and communication. Witzany (inspired by Schelling's philosophy of nature as well as Nicolai Hartmann) claims that neither linguistics, nor semiotic pragmatics have adequately comprehended the preconditions for language as the formation of intersubjectivity and communication, and that this kind of subjectivity, broadly conceived, is a phenomenon one can observe in nature as Nature's "languages" -- that is, in the sign-mediated communication in bees; in the intraorganismic communication (as e.g., gene-based protein synthesis; hormone regulation; neurotransmitters in the nervous system); and in the communication between the components of the immune system. It is argued that a pragmatics of language (Habermas' Sprachpragmatik) is a possible basis for an expanded concept of language and communication in biology.

The original idea of using the pragmatic philosophy of language in the tradition of Jürgen Habermas and Schelling's philosophy of nature as theoretical ideas for extending the notions of language and communication to living nature are interesting from a biosemiotic point of view, but I was not quite convinced by the particular arguments that Witzany give. There are indeed stimulating interpretations, but the book, which gives the impression of being a re-worked overly detailed cross-disciplinary dissertation, makes no new contributions to a pragmatics of human language as such. It is intellectually provocative for its particular combination of philosophy of language and the philosophy of biology, however, it contains some disturbing problems.

In general the author has an inappropriate tendency to equate the terms language and communication. When these are distinguished, the distinction is not explained in sufficient depth. This is a crucial point. There is, in biology as well as in linguistics, a general agreement that communication is the most general phenomenon, while language (with its structure-duality, semanticity, generativity, etc.) is the highly specific human phenomenon. Because this use is so well established, the author's argument against this use and his attempt to establish an alternative meaning of these two concepts should simply have been more convincingly argued. Furthermore, many places the argument simply disappears and the text degenerates into re-stating elements from descriptive biology supplied with headings like "intraorganismic communication" in sections like " The Fungi" where it is completely up to the reader to imagine in which sense words like communication are being used when we learn about the mycelium network, the fungal spores, and other aspects of the life of fungi.

Some other problems must briefly be mentioned. It is not argued why and in what sense the subjectivity of nature should be transcendental. Witzany cannot mean that exactly the same kind of transcendental rules that underlie human communication in Habermas' sense, can be found in non-human nature? Many times the idea of "implied transcendental rules" are simply postulated with no further explanation.

Even though semiotics is said to have a mediating role between biology's descriptions of animal signals and the linguistic study of human language, this role is poorly developed. The book does not expose an in depth knowledge of the current traditions of semiotics. Even worse is the description of "modern linguistics", which is simply a reduction of a whole rich field of research to a simplistic charicature of a "communication model" (section 2.1). This is unfortunate when considering the importance of this field for the argument of the book. Related to this, the description of the structure of language in humans is superficial. Why are there no references to discussions like Hockett's famous though controversial design feature analysis (Hockett 1960) or the extensive discussion of it in the literature?

Throughout the first sections of the book, it is repeated several times that language and communication amounts to sign-mediated rule governed interaction, but is still an open to the reader to guess how the author conceives of the concept of rule (in relation to such concepts as convention, law, behaviour, etc.) and "rule governed interaction". Is Witzany using the same or another action/interaction concept as Habermas, his main theoretical influence? Is language and communication always found together? Can we have communication without a language, as most ethologists would say? Clear and analytic definitions are often missing, though one can indeed be clear and analytic even within semiotics (see, e.g., Clarke 1987 for inspiration). Many figures seems to be rather detached from the text, with either too short figure captions (compared to the amount of information content the figures really have) or too little connection to the main text, or they are redundant (e.g., the figure 14 p. 67 compared with previous figures).

Despite these often irritating aspects of reading Witzany, the book is to be welcomed as part of a general trend in biosemiotics, where there is hope now for a more systematic theoretical gathering. This is good for biology and philosophy, but it is not just a matter of academic scholarship. Witzany has rightly emphasized a connection between metaphysical ideas of nature and current scientific thought. One of the broader motivations for taking interest in biosemiotics is its wider implications regarding our ideas of nature and the ways in which human society must use more sustainable technologies to make a living for the world's population (cf. Hoffmeyer 2001). Thus, the semiotic turn may not be in conflict with what goes as "naturalism" in philosophy of science, it may even make "the naturalistic turn" (Callebaut 1993) more meaningful and significant.


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