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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton September 24, 2014

Physiosemiosis as an Influence of Signs

How would Semiosis Precede Life?

John Deely
From the journal Chinese Semiotic Studies


It took most of the 20th century fully to establish semiotics as a thematic study of the role and action of signs not only in human culture and life but also in the whole environment that human animals share with all the other life forms that make up the biosphere of planet earth. In the early 20th century investigators were inclined to restrict the action of signs to the realm of human culture and psychology, consistent with the ideas of modern philosophy that severely separates the world of humans from its surroundings supposed as “unknowable” in itself. This idealistic ne plus ultra was definitively transgressed and shattered by the collegial work of Thomas A. Sebeok, who not only established the framework for a “global semiotics” but also demonstrated unequivocally that the whole world of living things (the “biosphere”) cannot exist independently of the action of signs. As Sebeok put it, “semiosis is coextensive with life”. But there remains even so the further question: “Is life coextensive with semiosis?” For, from the demonstration that semiosis is essential for the existence of life, it does not follow that the existence of life is essential for there to be semiosis. It is this last proposition - wrongly taken by many (or most) proponents of biosemiotics today to be a logical consequent of the conclusion that life in its full extent depends upon semiosis - that I examine here: the probability that semiosis not only surrounds life but pre-existed living things, and indeed shaped the universe so as to make living things possible in the first place.

Published Online: 2014-9-24
Published in Print: 2014-10-1

© 2014 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin/Boston