The Routledge Companion to Semiotics

By Paul Cobley | Go to book overview

2
SEMIOTICS OF NATURE

JESPER HOFFMEYER


SETTING THE SCENE

The conception of nature as fundamentally semiotic is certainly not new; what is new, rather, is the nearly unanimous repression of this conception by learned society. The German-American philosopher Hans Jonas has pointed to the strange fact that our conception of nature has undergone a 180-degree inversion in the course of human history (Jonas 2001 [1966]). Originally, life was conceived as the uncontested principle inherent to everything, and the idea of nonlife was simply unimaginable (as, accordingly, was the idea of an entity distinct from the body, the soul). Now, thousands of years later, non-life or inanimate nature has come to stand as the uncontested prime ontological entity. The deepest challenge to the scientific conception of nature now comes from the undeniable fact that some objects in the world are living creatures. For how can bodies be anything but chemistry? Isn’t DNA, a purely chemical substance, the ultimate ruler of living systems?

Only at the midpoint in this grand historical movement did we get dualism, the idea that soma and sema represent equally inescapable but incompatible dimensions (substances, properties or whatever) of our world. Intellectually, dualism was based upon a quite natural but nonetheless unsubstantiated argument: since matter without spirit seems widespread in the world, there might equally well be spirit without matter. The main problem with this argument is not that spirit without matter remains an unobservable and thus basically speculative entity. The main problem is that it is not obvious what the matter–spirit distinction is all about. The idea of passive matter as ruled by natural laws (or the heavenly ruler) has long ago lost its credibility. The modern scientific world cannot easily be reduced to this far-fetched classical ideal (cf. Ulanowicz 2008, 2009). Instead modern conceptions of physical nature make ample space for the vision of the world as an emergent process in which those peculiar things we call living systems and their bodies might well have evolved as genuinely semiotic creatures (Kauffman 2000; Kauffman and Clayton 2005; Deacon and Sherman 2008).

Mainstream science regards emergence theories with great scepticism, fearing, one may suppose, that such theories are smuggling in supernatural intervention through the back door. There is a deep irony to this suspicion, for the ontology of natural law, i.e. the belief, held by most scientists, that the laws of physics describe all possible behaviours, is itself basically dependent on

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The Routledge Companion to Semiotics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Routledge Companion to Semiotics i
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Acknowledgements xvii
  • Using This Book xix
  • Part I- Understanding Semiotics 1
  • Introduction 3
  • 1 - Ancient Semiotics 13
  • 2 - Semiotics of Nature 29
  • 3 - Umwelt and Modelling 43
  • 4 - Logic and Cognition 57
  • 5 - Realism and Epistemology 74
  • 6 - Peirce, Phenomenology and Semiotics 89
  • 7 - The Saussurean Heritage 101
  • 8 - Sociosemiotics 118
  • 9 - Semiotics of Media and Culture 135
  • 10 - Semioethics 150
  • Part II - Key Themes and Major Figures in Semiotics 163
  • References 359
  • Index 389
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