Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Show Summary Details
More options …

Cognitive Semiotics

Editor-in-Chief: Bundgaard, Peer F.

2 Issues per year

See all formats and pricing
More options …

Vico, Peirce, and the issue of complexity in human sciences

The natura-artificium question

Amadeu Viana
Published Online: 2017-04-25 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cogsem-2017-0001


This paper deals with some trends in complexity issues related to the connections between natural and social sciences. More precisely, it explores the possible correspondences between physical and phenomenological accounts by arguing that natura and artificium are not far from one another given that human nature is actually incomplete without signs and signs are essentially embodied and enacted. The paper draws upon the work developed by Giambattista Vico in the eighteenth century and Charles S. Peirce in the twentieth century as well as their respective implications and effects in contemporary cognitive and semiotic research. Accordingly, it also explores the prevailing role of objects and artifacts in cognition, claiming that things shape the mind and that we should thus be wary of their constitutive effects in the course of human history.

Keywords: biosemiotics; symbolic origins; embodiment; extensionalism; material engagement

Nature and Art are too great to be directed to ends, and neither they need them, because there are returns everywhere and returns are life.

–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

1 Introduction: incomplete nature and extensionalism

Complexity issues are usually related to the overcoming of classical, Newtonian approaches in science. They are associated with new paradigms like self-organization, networking, and the holistic perspective, recalling that the whole is more than the aggregation of its parts (Massip-Bonet and Bastardas-Boada 2013). Some trends in complexity research may also be identified by the surmounting of the Cartesian dualistic stance, namely those concerning the connections between natural and human sciences. In this paper, I will explore some contemporary avenues that strive conjointly towards a better understanding of the inveterate gulf between naturalistic, third person approaches to knowledge and mind and, as Jung (2009) put it, human-centered, first person approaches. The explanatory gap (both conceptual and epistemological) between physical and phenomenological accounts (Thompson 2007) will be considered here through the discussion of the double-faced, complementary dimensions of natura and artificium, i. e., the idea that we humans develop a sort of incomplete nature, as Deacon (2011) has recently put it, and the complementary issue of extensionalist investigations (Malafouris and Renfrew 2010).

My first contention is that history plays a determinant role in any explanation that tries to mediate between natural and social human accounts. One of the first critical opponents to Cartesian rationalism was the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668–1744). He firmly believed that the human mind was a product of historical conditions; so, he maintained that we would be able to trace back its origins and certificate its stages through the history of signs. Vico was also one of the first contenders of the stance that human languages were a historical outcome of mental and social precursory provisions, arguing against the received idea of their divine origin. In front of the Cartesian position of an autonomous reason, disembodied and independent of historical roots (however interesting this argument may be for science), Vico insisted on the idea that the human mind realizes and manifests itself in human facts and history, and knowledge builds itself in action, challenging the Platonic priority of pure ideas in an abstract realm.

Among the contemporary discussions, the work of Charles S. Peirce is somehow recurrent in addressing substantial critiques both to the Platonic priority of abstract knowledge and Cartesian dualistic approaches. Peirce’s proposal to consider logic (abstract, context independent knowledge) in terms of semiotics (and thus embodied and enacted signs) was developed after the spread of European positivism and idealized Hegelian historicism and has probably to be taken as a reaction against both. The pragmatist program, to which I should add here the early work of Vico, has been invoked in different contexts in fruitful connection with complexity issues. 1 Both authors, Vico and Peirce, have become qualitative starting points in contemporary studies about the development of language (Noble and Davidson 1996; Deacon 1997; Trabant and Ward 2001; Schilhab et al. 2012). In those researches, it is commonly assumed that “the mind recognizes its existence through its expression,” being substantially embodied and embedded in action (cf. Viola 2014: 92–95). A comprehensive paradigm wishing to deal both with naturalistic research and social and human issues has to confront our regular endeavor to interpret the world and the sort of actions we usually are engaged in. In this respect, taking into account how society contributes to the mind is a substantial piece in this inquiry (Tomasello 2014). The human mind, through signs and language, has been from the very beginning a collective enterprise. History here plays its precious role as the particular, human way to participate in the world. In the following, I sketch Vico’s position about our incomplete nature and Peirce’s approach to embodied and enacted signs, moving to the complementary natura – artificium distinction.

2 Vico on language and fantasy

Combining received knowledge about rhetoric and history, the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico put forward in his Scienza Nuova (Vico 1744/1948) the hypothesis that imaginative thinking paved the way for articulated signs and logical thinking. According to him, and in agreement with the historical emergence of signs and myths, creative imagination was the true basis of the human mind and it keeps its import and substance in modern societies. Vico conceives fantasy as a natural process and a rudimentary form of language (in fact, inner language, lingua mentale), and he explains its origin in terms of the projection in nature of human properties as they were readily noticed: emotions, corporeal attributes, power, movements, or actions. Fantasy comes from Greek phantazesthai, “to picture to one self,” a cognate of phainesthai, “to appear, have visions,” a word also related with phantasm, having the same ground that German Geist (compare with English ghost) and French esprit – all of them words that explain these original properties of the mind, the conflation of inner and outer experience. Terms like anima (“soul”) and animus (“spirit, vitality”), which were the basis of the Aristotelian reflexion upon the mind, reveal the same trend, grounded on the projection of bodily experience (Onians 1987). In the same vein, it is useful to note that fiction comes from Latin fingere, “imitate,” the original action supposed by Vico to be the primitive way to confront the world. In Vico’s account, humanity emerges from this original, figurative activity through material and corporeal signs (semata, body paints, ornaments, emblems), going down the road to modern, articulated languages, “the vulgar genera, both of words and letters,” through which “the minds of the peoples grew quicker and developed powers of abstraction,” as he said (Vico 1744/1948: § 460).

The striking fact that there cannot be human languages without the property of creative imagination accompanying them invites us to search for their natural basis. Vico called the imaginative prototypes of the human mind to embody knowledge fantastic universals (as opposed to late, philosophical logical universals). As he saw it, these fantastic universals constituted the patterns upon which modern, articulated languages and associations were formed. Then, the human mind did not emerge itself with its full properties (logical abstraction, adaptive flexibility, and so on) all at once. Articulated languages are an invention of the late Paleolithic period, as Nietzsche has rightly pointed out, and carry with them the remnants of their imperfect origin. Mind started from sheer ignorance, phenomenological indefinition and figurativeness. Let me quote the Vichian formulation at length:

It is noteworthy that in all languages the greater part of the expressions relating to inanimate things are formed by metaphor from the human body and its parts and from human senses and passions. Thus, head for top or beginning; the brow and shoulders of a hill; the eyes for the looped heads of screws and for windows letting light into houses; mouth for any opening; lip for the rim of a vase or of anything else; the tooth of a plow, a rake, a saw, a comb […]. All of which is a consequence of our axiom that man in his ignorance makes himself the rule of the universe, for in the examples cited he has made of himself an entire world. So that, as rational metaphysics teaches that man becomes all things by understanding them (homo intelligendo fit omnia), this imaginative metaphysics shows that man becomes all things by not understanding them (homo non intelligendo fit omnia); and perhaps the latter proposition is truer than the former, for when man understands he extends his mind and takes in the things, but when he does not understand he makes the things out of himself and becomes them by transforming himself into them.

(ibid.: § 405)

As contemporary research has showed (Ortony 1979; Danesi 1992; Trim 2007), figurative thinking has been shaping human languages and we know that metaphors keep their cognitive value in ordinary domains as well as in special, more creative experiences. The German anthropological philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century (Jung 2009) paid particular attention to building arguments in order to bridge the explanatory gap between mind and matter, consciousness and nature. In this context, Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945), a philosopher particularly attentive to scientific research, focused on embodiment and figurativeness to explain how languages gained form and meaning (Cassirer 1953). The background of his investigation, so akin to contemporary research on metaphors and cognition, was the premise that the human mind emerged through what he called symbolic pregnancy (a concept coming from Gestalt research), “the way in which a perception as a sensory experience contains a meaning which it immediately and concretely represents” (Cassirer 1957: 202; Krois 2011: 50), transcending pure sensation. Then, the body and its figurative projections present themselves as the scaffolding for mind’s emergence. Like Vico, Cassirer understood mind as an extra-dimension that we attach to nature. As he put it, beyond the biological loops that we share with animal species, thought and language provide a symbolic contour that delays answers and complicates the system (1944: 24). The figurative dimension is rooted in nature but, by the same token, it forges something that so far was missing there. In this respect, the original strength of mythical thought as a creation of order cannot be dismissed (1955). Figurative dimension is an unavoidable step in the historical route that brings to modern, articulated dimensions of speech, and should not be forgotten when we try to build bridges between natural and human, social explanations.

On the biosemiotic side and coherently with the early findings of Vico and the philosophical inquiry of Cassirer, Sebeok (1979: 115) noted that iconic signaling, so common in nature, could be seen as an interesting precursor, albeit working on a different basis, to articulated, fully semiotic minds. He attributed the idea to Gregory Bateson, who keenly pointed out the semiotic precedence of dreaming and myth:

An interesting intermediate between the iconic coding of animals and the verbal coding of human speech can be recognized in human dreaming and human myth. […] Dreams, whether verbal or not, are to be considered as metaphoric statements, i.e., the referents of dream are relationships which the dreamer, consciously or unconsciously, perceives in his waking world. As in all metaphor, the relata remain unmentioned and in their places appear other items such that the relationships between these substitute items shall be the same as those between the relata in the waking world. […] I suggest that this absence of metacommunicative frames and the persistence in dream of pattern recognition are archaic characteristics in an evolutionary sense. If this be correct, then an understanding of dream should throw light both on how iconic communication operates among animals and on the mysterious evolutionary step from the iconic to the verbal. […] These characteristics of dream may be archaic, but it is important to remember that they are not obsolete: that, as kinesic and paralinguistic communication has been elaborated into dance, music, and poetry, so also the logic of dream has been elaborated into theater and art.

(1972: 301–302)

As we know, Bateson’s early bioanthropology has been rescued in recent discussions about complexity, emergence, human meaning, and the semiotics of life (Hoffmeyer 2008b). His remark about dreaming and myth has a striking similarity to the Vichian observations about the genesis of thinking by means of fantastic universals or associative prototypes (i. e., “patterns”). Here, nature and culture form an inescapable continuum – if the first is mainly approached through signs and signs, as it turns out, are rooted in actions and the body. The original mind (Geist, esprit, animus) blurred subject/object differentiation yet these categories have broken through as roughly operative distinctions. Logical categories are articulated, semiotic developments from original figurative operations and, as the research has shown and I am assuming here, the body’s activity is the primary locus from where all these operations stem.

3 Peirce on embodied and enacted signs

We should approach Peircean pragmatism from the contemporary ideas of embodiment, embedding, enactment, and extensionalism – the Gallagher’s 4e conception of the mind (Rowlands 2010: 3). Embodiment responds to the idea that mental processes are partly made up of wider bodily structures and processes; embedding explains that mental processes work in tandem with the environment; enactment reveals their connection with action; finally, extensionalism evokes the issue that mental processes are not exactly situated inside the brain but they are rather distributed through different material and social supports. The question is that, by the turn of the twentieth century, Peircean pragmatism challenged the alleged autonomy of the mind, recalling three substantial steps as the foundation of semiotic architecture, sensation, reaction, and mediation, which were able to assume, respectively, physical and bodily qualities, brute facts and actions, and meaning and interpretation. This very semiotic foundation brought together the interconnectivity of mind, environment, and signs in a way quite comparable to contemporary research about the 4e (Clark 1997, 2008). Peircean symbols relied on two complementary previous dimensions, iconicity and indexicality, linked to the mind and the environment, which also announced the complementary relations of embodiment (bodily projections) and enactment (action) as the proper scaffolding of mental processes (thought) (see Viola 2014). On more philosophical grounds, Peircean pragmatism seemed to proceed from initial fortuitous variation (chance, tychism) through secondary mechanical necessity (anancism) to tertiary evolutionary growth driven by attraction (agapism) – a triad that aligns him with research about complexity in different fields (Merrell 1998; Doll et al. 2005; Barrena and Nubiola 2013). On communicative levels, the three semiotically interwoven orders of icons, indexes, and symbols evoke holism (and sounds), morphology (as the emergency of forms), and articulation (or unlimited combinations of forms and meaning) (Jung 2009; Viana 2015).

For my purposes here, two complementary aspects of Peircean pragmatism should be emphasized (Peirce 1931–1958): firstly, his idea that “thought is not necessarily connected with a brain;” as he said, “it appears in the work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world; and one can no more deny that it is really there, than that the colors, the shapes, etc., of objects are really there. […] Not only is thought in the organic world, but it develops there” (CP 4.551). Secondly, although signs (or for that matter, thought) are in part embodied, they are not located in the brain. They are extended and embedded, as they participate in the external world: mind is properly an interweaving of inner and outer stimuli. To insist only in cognition or, complementarily, to insist only in communication, inadequately stresses just one side of the process. Long before contemporary neurosciences spread their promising influence about the brain (see Ortega and Vidal 2011), Peirce exerted a relevant critique about the locus of the mind. Symbols, the proper extensions the mind creates and cultivates, being arbitrary, transcend internal and external divisions – although, as signs, they have early roots in physical and bodily realities and they are enacted through meaningful action.

As for embodiment, Thompson (2007) has provided a comprehensive account linking naturalistic and phenomenological dimensions. According to Thompson and previous research, living, time-conscious beings generate and maintain, as autonomous dynamic systems, their own patterns of activity. Cognition structures emerge from recurrent sensory motor patterns of perception and action, so they are necessarily situated and embodied. Following the phenomenologists, the living body and the lived body form an inseparable pair that allows shortening the gap between sense and meaning. Bodily self-experience establishes the linkage of outward perception and inward feeling. A cognitive being’s world, then, is not an “external realm represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain” enacted by human agency, a particular mode of coupling with the environment (2007: 13).

Complementarily, from the biosemiotic side, embodiment is also seen as the necessary ground for symbols to emerge (Deacon 1997). During the last decades, biosemiotics has developed a complex program to understand the continuity between life coding and symbolic, human coding (Hoffmeyer 2008a; Favereau 2010). The 13 theses of the biosemiotic building displayed in Emeche et al. (2002) cover the dual codes of life (analogic for action vs. digital for memory) to the perception of the living body as a swarm and the emergence of signs as habits. The relevance of the Peircean approach for biosemiotic research has recently been examined in Romanini and Fernández (2014).

In this context, as I am assuming throughout this paper, the spread of signs can be viewed as the proper extension of the human mind. Mind expresses itself in signs, one cannot understand human brains’ functioning without reference to symbolic and linguistic activity. Moreover, it seems that articulated languages were a late solution for postnatal brain growth in humans (Barbieri 2010; Balari and Lorenzo 2013; Viana 2013). Society and mind look like the complementary dimensions of linguistic (and semiotic) production, keeping the Peircean triad alive. The extensionalist approach of Donald (2010) recalls Karl S. Lashley’s notion of engrams, 2 memory records stored inside the nervous system, as opposed to exograms, memory records stored outside the nervous system (clay tablets, papyri, printed books, government archives, or electronic data banks). The perception of the continuity between inner and outer dimensions through signs and semiotic and social articulation is a good argument against the pervasive gap between natural and social sciences – it also recalls the appropriateness of resorting to history in order to acquire a better understanding of these questions.

Sebeok (2001: 19) maintained that codes (which is to say, signs) emerged twice in this world: firstly as endosemiotic (molecular) codes, with the emergence of life on Earth, which caused the diversity of living species as we know it; and secondly as anthroposemiotic (including verbal) codes, particularly with the emergence of human languages, which have also expanded with an enormous diversity all around the world. In this precise sense, we are made of signs and we are sign-producers, a compelling catchword in complexity issues. Sebeok and Danesi (2000) actually added a third stage to his comparison, one linked to cultural creations: the codes of creative thinking and the outcomes of invention. Put at the right level, the continuity question allows us to raise the matter of human consciousness and the soul, which Peirce (1931–1958) did not avoid. In this respect, it is worth quoting his position at length:

In what does the identity of man consist and where is the seat of the soul? It seems to me that these questions usually receive a very narrow answer. Why we used to read that the soul resides in a little organ of the brain no bigger than a pin’s head. Most anthropologists now more rationally say that the soul is either spread over the whole body or is all in all in every part. But are we shut up in a box of flesh and blood? When I communicate my thought and my sentiments to a friend with whom I am in full sympathy, so that my feelings pass into him and I am conscious of what he feels, do I not live in his brain as well as in my own –most literally? True, my animal life is not there but my soul, my feeling, thought, attention are. […] There is a miserable material and barbarian notion according to which man cannot be in two places at once; as though he were a thing! A word may be in several places at once, six six, because its essence is spiritual; and I believe that a man is no whit inferior to the word in this respect.

(CP 7.591)

From these lines, we can infer several consequences concerning the inveterate separation of body and soul as well as the inner and outer domains of the mind, issues that will be explored in the next sections in connection with the natura – artificium divide.

4 Natura

From different fields of research (Juarrero 1999; Thompson 2007; Deacon 2011), the argument of continuity in nature has pervaded academic discussions. Progressive levels of emergence, so the argument runs, are signaled by the reversion of the previous dynamical pattern. Thus, the transition from physical systems to living systems shows adaptive and self-sustaining properties. The emergent autocells exhibit completion and self-protection. Correlatively, adaption develops through catalytic versatility making possible speciation and lineages. Life becomes progressively more dependent on the environment, crucially binding inner and outer dimensions. Then, different properties appear: (a) individuation, (b) memory, (c) information capacities (“aboutness”), and (d) new systemic self-organization (Deacon and Sherman 2007: 21–22). Purposive (relational) systems emerge from early autocatalytic processes. These scaled levels and transitions, from homeodynamics to morphodynamics to teleodynamics, apply to basic autogenic systems and recursively to higher order teleodynamic processes, keeping the same hierarchic dynamic logic of reversions and protections (Deacon 2011: 324–325). That’s why we may assert that human beings possess a sort of “incomplete nature” and that their incompleteness, based on sentience and consciousness, rests on natural grounds; we are “in this quite literal sense something coming out of nothing, and thus newly embodied at each instant” (ibid.: 535).

Research about self-organization allows us to understand better some properties of this incompleteness. Working on early findings from F. Varela and M. Merleau-Ponty, Thompson (2007) explores how interiority arises at the vital level. The self-production of an inner dimension, related to an outside and an environment, is the outcome of autopoietic closure and autonomy at more elementary levels. Different forms of selfhood arise from different operationally closed systems: “the animate form of our living body is thus the place of intersection for numerous emergent patterns of selfhood and coupling” (ibid.: 49). Neither the homuncular self nor inside agents direct these patterns; they are distributed networks with operational closure, a sort of selfless selves. The idea of an emergent “nested self” sustained in different distributed networks and, in a more elaborated level, built from an architecture of neural recursion and reentries that create analogies and ambiguity (Edelman and Tononi 2000), looks like a satisfactory rendering of what we usually take as second-order or high-order consciousness – mediated through symbols, we should add. Life is self-centered, and so high-order consciousness works through this sort of “nested self” that creates outside-inside distinctions. At this level, nature is more than what appears at an elementary dynamical point of view. Recursion and reentries sustain categorical generalization, hyperconnections, and creativity. Symbol-making is the particular human outcome of high-order consciousness. Nature implies incompleteness because of the addition of an extra-level of interpretation and invention. 3 As Vico put it, fantasy is a natural property of the human mind, not something extemporaneous or at odds with our constitution. 4

Again, the argument can be followed from the German anthropological philosophy. Cassirer (1957) echoed the venerable dichotomy between body and soul, to note immediately that both levels compounded a sort of hiatus irrationalis that defied logical explanations. Instead, taking both entities as entering a kind of meaning-manifestation relationship allowed us to move further. Cassirer started from the idea that the soul was the meaning of the body and, conversely, the body was the manifestation of the soul. Instead of imagining a soul deprived of any material anchoring or, conversely, a body without any spiritual properties, Cassirer’s approach tended to merge the two dimensions, preserving the original features of symbolic creativity. His famous statement, “the relation of body and soul represents the prototype and model for a purely symbolic relation” (1957: 100), underpins the complementary questions of embodiment (or body as manifestation) and interpretation/meaning (or the soul as incomplete nature, as a body-transcending, emergent dimension) and the convenience of a third, mediating integrative explanation between the physical and the phenomenological orders (Krois 2011).

As for the venerable hiatus irrationalis, an old consideration of Bateson (1980) might be relevant at this point. Bateson discussed August Weismann’s original approach to the segregation between the genetic line (that allows reproduction) and the somatic line (that allows growth) in biology while speculating about its eventual correlate concerning consciousness and the body. Contemporary biosemiotical accounts have kept in mind the alternation between active and passive states in autocells (i. e., between open catalytic forms for growth and dormant catalytic forms for memory) as a relevant property in the complexity of life. Here, crucially, the segregation between the two lines becomes meaningful in terms of preservation (Barbieri 2011: 373–374). As Deacon and Sherman (2007: 17) explain it, “we can now say that by virtue of self-assembly, an autocatalytic set functions to generate its own protection against disruption; the shell protects the process that produces it.”

At the right level, as Bateson posited, the relative inaccessibility of consciousness (and, by extension, of the soul) to bodily properties, the so called hiatus irrationalis, might be seen as a protection of the type exposed by biosemioticians. We cannot access the relevant features of the soul physically, by the very reason that they are emergent properties not yet present at this elementary level. Its phenomenological reality is preserved by this particular inaccessibility. Nature (by its incompleteness) protects the process that produces consciousness. The soul, as the memory line that enables reproduction and continuity, is protected from its own body against disruption. 5

My last contention is that this proverbial inaccessibility is also a condition for the frailty in the comprehension of the soul. Mind does not understand itself. It cannot explain what it cannot find out with its own means of inquiry. If the soul as such has no access to self-explanations, its logical counterpart is to assume a higher level to explain itself. As Peirce (1998: 460) put it, “thought, like an onion, is composed of nothing but wrappings” (also quoted in Viola 2014: 92–93); the self, searching for explanations, proceeds through inclusive levels. Thus, the creator-creature dialectic seems the right interpretive tier to ground the idea of the human soul. As a purposive system, the self must resort to building its proper level of purposive explanation. Among its ancient and original properties, this higher, inclusive level posits continuity (immortality) as an outstanding feature of the soul, sustained by a rich and elaborate fantasy through centuries. Souls are not bodies. Their explanations rely ultimately in human creations. The strict segregation between the physical and the phenomenological orders, protecting the second against the first, has its counterpart in the unfolding of fantasy. Here, possibilities and limitations show themselves crucially. The soul understands itself only through the implementation of a higher, hypothetical level of purposive explanation, as it naturally tends to do. In a comparable similar vein, it is worth noting that Peirce (1931-1958) added to his arresting passage about the soul (quoted supra) the fact that essences were naturally veiled from introspection: “each man has an identity which far transcends the mere animal – an essence, a meaning subtle as it may be. He cannot know his own essential significance; of his eye it is eyebeam” (CP 7.591). 6

We cannot but admit that the soul is the crucible of human society and the backbone from which human knowledge develops. History appears inextricably linked to conceptions of the soul and the practical consequences these ideas have in different domains. Its particular history is intertwined with the history and the growth of sciences (Vidal 2011) and the notion is permeated at different stages with emotions and feelings, definitions of humanity, self-perception, and self- and social- organization. In this sense, a proper characterization of its attributes, related to history, seems interesting if we feel inclined to explore complexity issues in the human sciences.

5 Artificium

As quoted supra, Vico argued that “when man understands he extends his mind and takes in the things,” backing his assertion in the etymological meaning of comprehendere. Anthropological philosophy explored for the first time the body as the natural extension for metaphorical projections, considering the hypothesis of continuity – the hand as the proper extension of the mind or, put in a more Aristotelian manner, the hand as the visible part of the soul. Extensionalism has investigated this question at length (Krois et al. 2007; Malafouris and Renfrew 2010; Menary 2010), providing us with interesting insights. To begin with, early manifestations of material culture are supposed to precede articulated languages by millions of years. Leaving aside body gestures and meaningful vocalizations, material culture is the first proof of the extension of the mind in social and natural environments. Its products should be properly considered signs, as the material engagement hypothesis champions (Malafouris 2013). Secondly, acritically retaining the inherited distinction between natura and artificium is at odds with the hypothesis of continuity. For that matter, it is worth recalling the Peircean notion of synechism (CP 7.565), the continuity principle, a position ontologically based on the contention that “all is fluid and every point directly partakes the being of every other” (CP 5.258n2). Mind realizes itself in signs, which are part of the body and are bodily represented (in voice, verbally) or, instead, are extensionally expanded, correlating with voice (as in writing); or, alternatively still, through material culture. Sculptures, clothes, and constructions are social consciousness. Human life is properly expressed through artificium, which is the visible part of fantasy and invention.

Here, the creator-creature dialectic applies at a new level. Human beings are from the very beginning truly creators of artifacts, tools and implements of manifold types and classes and that serve multifarious purposes. The world is not confidently adapted to us but through our aptness for artifact-creation; we rather adapt to it through this aptness and not in any other way (Thompson 2007: 247). Things are part of the mind as well as our way of being in touch with the world. The double dimension of inside and outside that characterizes the emergent nested self finds its historical correlate in the natura-artificium distinction. Its historical correlate: in human beings, nature adds an extra-level of meaning and invention (a sort of beyond-the-body nature based on the body) that serves as the counterpart of extensions and artifacts that both the mind and the hands are able to create – the material culture. The creator-creature dialectic assures the subject-object relevant distinctions yet allows abusive metaphors and undue projections by the same token, as we know from significant historical episodes (like idolatry or iconoclasm). At any rate, the projection of human purpose and, correspondingly, the allegedly autonomy of human creations are the main issues to be discussed in this respect.

Artifacts as signs should be considered under semiotic assumptions. Their progressive complication and their meaningful interactions merit a close approach that would throw light upon both complexity issues and the connections between human and natural knowledge. With regard to their relative usefulness for the work and transformation of the material milieu, while also taking them as generic artifacts, tools differ from devices precisely in the degree of complication they respectively support. Tools are used by individuals without any special requirement but devices require an underlying rule which mediates between individuals and the object in order to work. Machines, a special kind of devices, usually require the implementation of some sort of supply or feeding for the object to work. Counters are types of devices that may be used in processes that require underlying rules, procedures, or algorithms. The variety of real artifact-implementation is overwhelming, and it is really a case of adaptation to different environments, but this situational diversity still looks related to some basic semiotic assumptions. For example, artifacts may work as singular projections or tokens (like tools) and also as general, articulated types (like devices); they are able to be developed in analogical form (like classical machines) or, alternatively, in digital form (like early counters, requiring procedures). Of course, artifacts are able to deal with different kinds of information, and they can process it in turn – something that, again, drives them to be progressively transformed. The recent mutation from analogical machines to digital machines dealing with information has been a process that has entirely happened in the domain of artifact-fabrication, in contrast with the first big transition from analogical signs to articulated signs in the crafting of alphabets. Finally, artifacts may work as elaborated devices able to bring forth new relationships, as keys and locks – and codes – do. In this last case, information becomes the relevant semiotic level, articulating a new emergent domain with less obvious implications with its material support.

More interestingly, artifacts grow but they reduce in size. Real multiplication is not reproduction, just as growing here does not imply size increasing. We are able to build interactions between artifacts in order to implement new artifacts, as we know, but that does not mean that artifacts reproduce. More research usually produces smaller artifacts and tiny devices – even if, complementarily, the complexity and the size of the required machines to produce them keeps growing. A sort of counterpoint of what is regular in life domains is observable in artifact domains and dimensions –as if it were the reversal of life processes, something that tentatively reminds us of the logic of reversions and protections in dynamic systems that I have mentioned supra.

Moreover, although artifacts do not develop from living history, as it is the case with life in general and human beings in particular, they unfailingly appear intermingled with human history. And, although they do not usually learn from what they do, there are ways to implement memory and experience in artifacts that turn out to be eloquent. Selfhood (and particularly every human self) is attached to a great diversity of objects and artifacts along the course of life. Objects, processes, and agents tend to compound a dense network of associations and meanings in the same way that, complementarily, sets of artifacts and objects are bound together (and separated, and then bound again) by different categories of uses and purposes. Since there is no self without history, we cannot but admit that objects and artifacts come along with human beings. So they become part of our history: a variety of meanings arises from these interactions, as we should expect from any semiotical relationship.

At the dawn of evolutionary discussions, the critical thinker Samuel Butler (1835–1902) wrote an intriguing fiction that unexpectedly dealt with those issues: Erewhon (1872) – a circumstance rightly evoked by Alan Turing in 1951. At The Book of the Machines (chapters XXIII to XXV from Erewhon), Butler explained what could be taken as an ecology of artifacts. He remarked on their constant adaptation and evolution, mirroring Darwinian assumptions, and even commented on their tendency to decrease in size but to expand in number and complication. His early approach has proven to be highly relevant and would deserve to join the contemporary discussions about extensionalism, our necessity of artifacts, and the place of human creativity – including the system of reversions and protections familiar to biosemioticians.

Contemporary discussions about complexity and the human world pay attention to those issues and recent accounts of what has been called the singularity hypothesis (Eden et al. 2012) are not an exception. The material engagement approach (Malafouris 2013) also deals with prosthetic (i. e., artificial) semiosis and explores how the things shape the mind. The sociology of knowledge developed by Latour (1991; 1992) and his approach to scientific humanities (2010) definitely manifests new ways (real, hybrid ways) to enhance the connections and the eventual understanding between naturalistic, third person approaches and human-centered, first person approaches to knowledge and mind. Our connivance with artifacts is by no means a minor question. A broader sense of what ecology is and a new appraisal of our relationships with artifacts are useful demands in this respect (2012). Here we have a promising field of inquiry to study these incipient intersections that are transforming our own nature, who we are, and how we perceive ourselves.

6 Conclusions

As I have argued, history and its meanings intermingle with the development of the self. Being a category that permits us to shorten the gap between the physical order and the phenomenological order, history turns out to be revealing as the human mind realizes and manifests itself in signs and actions. We are transformed by what we are doing, as the pragmatic argument has it. I have also argued that artifacts transform our nature, as there is a semiotic correspondence between creative imagination and material production (or, to put it in the right historical order, homo faber and homo symbolicus). As biosemiotics states, the continuity principle develops through reversions and protections, and this also holds true for the human dimension, where reversions and protections play out in the dynamics of creator-creature in both the soul and the domain of material invention. Thus, instead of being notionally opposites, natura and artificium show the deep continuity (or synechism) between human “incompleteness” and the extensions that, like the blind man’s stick, we have developed to find our bearings and get right returns if that were the case.


  • Balari, S. & G. Lorenzo. 2013. Computational phenotypes. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar

  • Barbieri, M. 2010. On the origin of language. Biosemiotics 3. 201–223. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Barbieri, M. 2011. Origin and evolution of the brain. Biosemiotics 4. 369–399. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Barrena, S. & J. Nubiola. 2013. Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914): Un pensador para el siglo XXI. Navarra: Universidad de Navarra. Google Scholar

  • Bateson, G. 1972. Steps to an ecology of mind. Northvale: Jason Aronson.Google Scholar

  • Bateson, G. 1980. Mind and nature. London: Fontana. Google Scholar

  • Bax, M., B. van Heusden & W. Wildgen (eds.). 2004. Semiotic evolution and the dynamics of culture. New York: Peter Lang. Google Scholar

  • Butler, S. 1872. Erewhon. Londond: Ballantyne.Google Scholar

  • Cassirer, E. 1944. An essay on man. New Haven: Yale University Press. Google Scholar

  • Cassirer, E. 1953. The philosophy of symbolic forms: The language. New Haven: Yale University Press. Google Scholar

  • Cassirer, E. 1955. The philosophy of symbolic forms: Mythic thought. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar

  • Cassirer, E. 1957. The philosophy of symbolic forms: The phenomenology of knowledge. New Haven: Yale University Press. Google Scholar

  • Clark, A. 1997. Being there: Putting brain, body, and world together again. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar

  • Clark, A. 2008. Supersizing the mind: Embodiment, action, and cognitive extension. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Danesi, M. 1992. Vico, metaphor, and the origin of language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Google Scholar

  • Deacon, T. 1997. The symbolic species. New York: Norton. Google Scholar

  • Deacon, T. 2011. Incomplete nature. New York: Norton. Google Scholar

  • Deacon, T. & J. Sherman. 2007. The physical origins of purposive systems. In J. M. Krois, M. Rosengren, A. Steidele & D. Westerkamp (eds.), Embodiment in cognition and culture, 3–25. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Google Scholar

  • Doll, W. E., M. Jayne Fleener, D. Trueit & J. St. Julien (eds.). 2005. Chaos, complexity, curriculum, & culture. New York: Peter Lang. Google Scholar

  • Donald, M. W. 2010. The exographic revolution. In L. Malafouris & C. Renfrew (eds.), The cognitive life of things, 71–79. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. Google Scholar

  • Edelman, G. & G. Tononi. 2000. A universe of consciousness. New York: Basic Books. Google Scholar

  • Eden, A. H., J. H. Moor, J. H. Søraker & E. Steinhart (eds.). 2012. Singularity hypothesis: A scientific and philosophical assessment. New York: Springer. Google Scholar

  • Emeche, C., K. Kull & F. Stjernfelt. 2002. Reading hoffmeyer, rethinking biology. Tartu: Tartu University Press. Google Scholar

  • Favereau, D. (ed.). 2010. Essential readings in biosemiotics. New York: Springer. Google Scholar

  • Hoffmeyer, J. 1996. Signs of meaning in the universe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Google Scholar

  • Hoffmeyer, J. 2008a. Biosemiotics. Scranton: University of Scranton Press. Google Scholar

  • Hoffmeyer, J. (ed.). 2008b. The legacy of living systems: Gregory bateson as precursor of biosemiotics. New York: Springer. Google Scholar

  • Humphrey, N. 2011. Soul dust. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Google Scholar

  • Juarrero, A. 1999. Dynamics in action. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar

  • Jung, M. 2009. Der Bewusste Ausdruck. New York: De Gruyter. Google Scholar

  • Krois, J. M. 2011. Bildkörper und Körperschema. Berlin: Akademie. Google Scholar

  • Krois, J. M., M. Rosengren, A. Steidele & D. Westerkamp (eds.). 2007. Embodiment in cognition and culture. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Google Scholar

  • Latour, B. 1991. Nous n’avons jamais était modernes. Paris: La Découverte.Google Scholar

  • Latour, B. 1992. Aramis ou l’amour des techniques. Paris: La Découverte. Google Scholar

  • Latour, B. 2010. Cogitamus: Six lettres sur les humanités scientifiques. Paris: La Découverte.Google Scholar

  • Latour, B. 2012. Love your monsters. The breakthrough journal Winter 2012. http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/love-your-monsters

  • Lichtenberg, G. C. 1990. The waste books. New York: New York Review Books. Google Scholar

  • Malafouris, L. 2013. How things shape the mind. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar

  • Malafouris, L. & C. Renfrew (eds.). 2010. The cognitive life of things. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archeological Research. Google Scholar

  • Massip-Bonet, A. & A. Bastardas-Boada (eds.). 2013. Complexity perspectives on language, communication, and society. New York: Springer. Google Scholar

  • Menary, R. (ed.). 2010. The extended mind. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar

  • Merrell, F. 1991. Signs becoming signs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Google Scholar

  • Merrell, F. 1995. Semiosis in the postmodern age. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press. Google Scholar

  • Merrell, F. 1998. Simplicity and complexity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Google Scholar

  • Noble, W. & I. Davidson. 1996. Human evolution, language, and mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

  • Onians, R. B. 1987. The origins of european thought about the body, the mind, the soul, the world, time, and fate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

  • Ortega, F. & F. Vidal. 2011. Neurocultures: Glimpses into an expanding universe. New York: Peter Lang. Google Scholar

  • Ortony, A. 1979. Metaphor and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

  • Peirce, C. S. 1931–1958. The collected papers of charles sanders Peirce. C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss, and A. W. Burks, eds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Google Scholar

  • Peirce, C. S. 1998. The essential peirce, Vol. 2. The Peirce Edition Project, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Google Scholar

  • Ramachandran, V. S. 2011. The tell-tale brain. New York: Norton. Google Scholar

  • Romanini, V. & E. Fernández (eds.). 2014. Peirce and biosemiotics. New York: Springer. Google Scholar

  • Rowlands, M. 2010. The new science of the mind. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar

  • Schilhab, T., F. Stjernfelt & T. Deacon. 2012. The symbolic species evolved. New York: Springer. Google Scholar

  • Sebeok, T. A. 1979. Iconicity. In T. A. Sebeok (ed.), The sign and its masters, 107–127. Austin: University of Texas. Google Scholar

  • Sebeok, T. A. 2001. Global semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Google Scholar

  • Sebeok, T. A. & M. Danesi. 2000. Forms of meaning. New York: De Gruyter. Google Scholar

  • Sebeok, T. A. & D. A. Umiker-Sebeok (eds.). 1991. Biosemiotics: The semiotic web. New York: De Gruyter. Google Scholar

  • Thompson, E. 2007. Mind in life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Google Scholar

  • Tomasello, M. 2014. A natural history of human thinking. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Google Scholar

  • Trabant, J. & S. Ward (eds.). 2001. New essays on the origins of language. New York: De Gruyter. Google Scholar

  • Trim, R. 2007. Metaphor networks: The comparative evolution of figurative language. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Google Scholar

  • Viana, A. 2013. La nissaga desvalguda de l’home: Altricialitat i autoorganització. Llengua, societat i comunicació 11. http://revistes.ub.edu/index.php/LSC/article/view/5557 (accessed 10 January 2017). 

  • Viana, A. 2015. Tempesta de signes: G. B. Vico i C. S. Peirce. Lleida: Universitat de Lleida. Google Scholar

  • Vico, G. B. 1744/1948. The new science. New York: Cornell University Press. Google Scholar

  • Vidal, F. 2011. The sciences of the soul. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar

  • Viola, T. 2014. Philosophy and history: The legacy of peirce’s realism. Berlin: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin MA thesis, Department of Philosophy, unpublished. Google Scholar


  • 1

    I would mention Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok (1991), Merrell (1991, 1995, 1998), Hoffmeyer (1996), Bax et al. (2004), Doll et al. (2005), and, more recently, Barrena and Nubiola (2013) and Viola (2014). 

  • 2

    A concept already used in Cassirer (1944: 50), although he touched on the original notion of Richard Semon (1859–1918). 

  • 3

    Taken historically, the notion of metaphysics, which was explored and developed long before physical research got ahead in the seventeenth century, literally echoes the order of things I am examining here. 

  • 4

    Among the contemporary researchers really committed with the idea that creative imagination deserves a place in the natural inquiry, I should at least mention Humphrey (2011) and Ramachandran (2011). 

  • 5

    Incidentally, I should mention the complementary fact that consciousness has a very limited access to body processes (we do not know by direct experience how the body works or how any dangerous inner process could injure it) – something that seems an interesting manifestation of the dynamics of reversions and protections referred supra. 

  • 6

    Peirce always related this frailty (and inaccessibility) to the poem The Sphinx (1841) from R. W. Emerson (1803–1882). This sort of ignoramus et ignorabimus (which in Peirce is, strictly speaking, the counterpart of unlimited semiosis, cf. CP. 2.281–302) would be worth exploring in the writings of the German polymath and scientist G. K. Lichtenberg (1742–1799) – cf. Lichtenberg (1990), among many other entries, D161, D200, D470, F324, F349, J404, H142, or H149. 

About the article

Amadeu Viana

Amadeu Viana is Professor of Linguistics in the Departament de Filologia Catalana i Comunicació at the University of Lleida, Spain. Viana’s research agenda has focused on pragmatics and the history of sociolinguistic ideas. He translated and edited Aspectes del pensament sociolingüístic europeu (1995, Barcelona), a primer about the foundations of sociolinguistic thinking from Dante to Meillet. In Raons relatives (1997, Lleida), he gathered research about literacy, discourse, rhetoric, and semiotics. He has also investigated humor and conversation (Acròbates de l’emoció, 2004, Taragona). As part of his interest in the origin of sociolinguistic and pragmatic ideas, he has studied the work of the eighteenth century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (Vico nella storia della filologia, with Silvia Caianiello, 2004, Naples; Tempesta de signes, 2015, Lleida). As translator, he has rendered Lewis Carroll and G. C. Lichtenberg into Catalan. He is currently exploring the relationships between Vico and Charles S. Peirce and their cognitive and biosemiotic implications.

Published Online: 2017-04-25

Published in Print: 2017-05-01

Citation Information: Cognitive Semiotics, Volume 10, Issue 1, Pages 1–18, ISSN (Online) 2235-2066, ISSN (Print) 1662-1425, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cogsem-2017-0001.

Export Citation

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston. Copyright Clearance Center

Citing Articles

Here you can find all Crossref-listed publications in which this article is cited. If you would like to receive automatic email messages as soon as this article is cited in other publications, simply activate the “Citation Alert” on the top of this page.

Comments (0)

Please log in or register to comment.
Log in