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Accessible Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton June 9, 2016

Why life presupposes semiosis

John Deely
From the journal Chinese Semiotic Studies


“Semiosis” comes to us from Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) as a coinage derived from Locke’s 1690 coinage of “semiotics”. In early to late-middle twentieth century, however, with the notable exception of Juri Lotman (1922–1993), who knew Locke’s work, this “new science” for studying signs was known rather as “semiology”, the name proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), who was ignorant of Locke’s earlier proposal. Drawing upon Locke’s original terminology, Thomas A. Sebeok distinguished between anthroposemiotics as the exclusive realm of “semiology” and zoösemiotics as studying the action of signs throughout the animal kingdom. Sebeok identified Saussure’s “semiology”, accordingly, as a pars pro toto fallacy: the fallacy of mistaking a part for the whole, and later concluded that “sign-science and life-science are co-extensive”, a thesis establishing the framework for studying the action of signs throughout the realm of living things, or biosemiotics. The present essay addresses the question of whether the unnecessarily reductive interpretation of this thesis as restricting sign-action to the living world is not itself a further illustration of Sebeok’s pars pro toto fallacy, inasmuch as communication involves sign-activity whether it occurs in the living world or the non-living world of inanimate beings.


It gives me great pleasure to honor the work of Jie Zhang, who has made a massive contribution to disseminating semiotics among Chinese people. The importance of the Chinese people to the global culture of postmodernity goes well beyond what words can express. The more it comes to be understood, the more semiotics is destined to flourish in enabling us all to transcend our cultural boundaries in achieving a condition of humankind that embraces our whole planet in a shared common good.


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Published Online: 2016-6-9
Published in Print: 2016-5-1

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