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

Chinese Semiotic Studies

Editor-in-Chief: Wang, Yongxiang

CiteScore 2018: 0.15

Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 0.260

See all formats and pricing
More options …

Existential Universals

Biosemiosis and existential semiosis

Morten Tønnessen
Published Online: 2017-11-16 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/css-2017-0022


This paper is divided into five parts. The introduction presents some implications of the relational nature of human beings as well as other living beings, and establishes a connection between biosemiotics and existentialist thinking. The second part indicates key points of a “semiotics of being” as a genuine outlook within semiotics. In “Universals of biosemiosis”, the third part, a number of common features of everything and anyone alive are identified. The fourth part, “On Earth – the natural setting of the human condition”, sets the stage for a few ecologically and astronomically minded reflections in philosophical anthropology. In the fifth and concluding part, “On the alienation of the semiotic animal”, observations are made on some existential implications of the characteristically human form of being. Part of the motivation for the paper is to demonstrate, firstly, that existential semiosis plays a key role in human semiosis, and secondly, that other living beings too live through existential dramas.

Keywords: alienation; biosemiotics; existence; existential semiotics; existentialism; the human condition


  • Abram, David. 1988. Merleau-Ponty and the voice of the Earth. Environmental Ethics 10. 101–120.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Abram, David. 1997. The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world. New York: Vintage Books/Random House.Google Scholar

  • Bonnet, Roger-Maurice, and Lodewyk Woltjer. 2008. Surviving 1,000 centuries: Can we do it? Berlin-Heidelberg-New York/Chichester, UK: Springer/Praxis Publishing.Google Scholar

  • Camus, Albert. 1965 [1947]. The plague (La Peste). New York: McGraw Hill.Google Scholar

  • Camus, Albert. 1991 [1942/1955]. The myth of Sisyphus [Le Mythe de Sisyphe] and other essays. Translated by J. O’Brien. New York: Vintage International.Google Scholar

  • Deely, John. 2005. Basics of semiotics. Fourth edition (bilingual edition, Estonian/English; translation by Kati Lindström). Tartu: Tartu University Press.Google Scholar

  • Engels, Friedrich. 1958. Origin of the family, private property and the state. In Selected works (2 volumes), 2. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.Google Scholar

  • Favareau, Donald. 2002. Beyond self and other: On the neurosemiotic emergence of intersubjectivity. Sign Systems Studies 30(1). 57–100.Google Scholar

  • Fox, Warwick. 1984. Deep ecology: A new philosophy of our time? The Ecologist 5–6. 194–200.Google Scholar

  • Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 1977 [1806/07]. Phenomenology of spirit [Phänomenologie des Geistes]. Translated by A. V. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar

  • Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and time [Sein und Zeit]. Translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar

  • Keynes, John Maynard. 1930. Economic possibilities for our grandchildren. In John Maynard Keynes, Essays in persuasion, 358–373. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.Google Scholar

  • Marcel, Gabriel. 1949 [1933]. Outlines of a phenomenology of having. In G. Marcel, Being and having [Etre et Avoir], translated by Katharine Farrer, 154–179. Glasgow: The University Press.Google Scholar

  • Nöth, Winfried, Eero Tarasti and Marcus Tamm. 2008. Humanities: state and prospects. Sign Systems Studies 36(2). 527–532.Google Scholar

  • Reed, Peter and David Rothenberg (eds.). 1993. Wisdom in the open air: The Norwegian roots of deep ecology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar

  • Stjernfelt, Frederik. 1999. Biosemiotics and formal ontology. Semiotica 127(1/4). 537–566.Google Scholar

  • Stjernfelt, Frederik. 2002. A biosemiotic building: 13 theses. In Claus Emmeche, Kalevi Kull and Frederik Stjernfelt (eds.), Reading Hoffmeyer, rethinking Biology (Tartu Semiotics Library 3), 13–24. Tartu: Tartu University Press.Google Scholar

  • Tarasti, Eero. 2000. Existential semiotics. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar

  • Toadvine, Ted. 2003. Singing the world in a new key: Merleau-Ponty and the ontology of sense. Janus Head 7(2). 273–283.Google Scholar

  • Tønnessen, Morten. 2001. Outline of an Uexküllian bio-ontology. Sign Systems Studies 29(2). 683–691.Google Scholar

  • Tønnessen, Morten. 2003. Umwelt ethics. Sign Systems Studies 31(1). 281–299.Google Scholar

  • Tønnessen, Morten. 2008. The statistician’s guide to Utopia: The future of growth. TRAMES 12(2). 115–126.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Tønnessen, Morten. 2009. Umwelt transitions: Uexküll and environmental change. Biosemiotics 2(1). 47–64.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Tønnessen, Morten. 2010. Steps to a semiotics of being. Biosemiotics 3(3). 375–392.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Tønnessen, Morten, and John Deely. 2009. The semioethics interviews I: John Deely: ‘Tell me, where is morality bred?’ Hortus Semioticus 4 (August). 57–80.Google Scholar

  • von Uexküll, Jakob. 1956 [1934/1940]. Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen: Ein Bilderbuch unsichtbarer Welten. Bedeutungslehre. Hamburg: Rowohlt.Google Scholar

  • von Uexküll, Jakob. 1982. The theory of meaning [Bedeutungslehre]. Translated by Barry Stone and Herbert Weiner. Semiotica 42(1). 25–82.Google Scholar

  • Webb, Stephen. 2002. Where is everybody? New York: Copernicus Books, Praxis.Google Scholar

  • Westphal, Merold. 1987. Kierkegaard’s Critique of reason and society. Macon GA: Mercer University Press.Google Scholar

  • Wheeler, Wendy. 2006. The whole creature: Complexity, biosemiotics and the evolution of culture. London: Lawrence & Wishart.Google Scholar

  • Zapffe, Peter Wessel. 1961. Et biosofisk perspektiv [A biosophic perspective]. In Peter Wessel Zapffe, 1999 [1961], Indføring i Litterær Dramaturgi [Introduction to Literary Dramaturgy], 165–176. Oslo: Pax forlag.Google Scholar

  • Zapffe, Peter Wessel. 1993 [1933]. The last Messiah [Den sidste Messias, 1933]. Translated by Sigmund Kvaløy and Peter Reed. In Peter Reed and David Rothenberg (eds.), 1993, Wisdom in the open air: The Norwegian roots of deep ecology, 40–52. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar

  • Zapffe, Peter Wessel. 1993a [1958]. Farewell, Norway [Farvel Norge]. Translated by Peter Reed. In Peter Reed and David Rothenberg (eds.), 1993, Wisdom in the open air: The Norwegian roots of deep ecology, 52–59. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar

  • Zapffe, Peter Wessel. 1996 [1941, 1983]. Om det tragiske [On the tragic]. Oslo: Pax forlag.Google Scholar

About the article

Morten Tønnessen

Morten Tønnessen

Morten Tønnessen (b. 1976), Associate professor of philosophy at the University of Stavanger, is a Norwegian philosopher and semiotician. He is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Biosemiotics, and has co-edited three special issues and five books, most recently Animal Umwelten in a changing world – Zoosemiotic perspectives (2016) and “Biosemiotische Ethik/Biosemiotic ethics” (2017), a bilingual special issue of Zeitschrift fur Semiotik.

1 This article is an outcome – or rather further development – of a talk I held in Eero Tarastiy’s seminar “Introduction to existential semiotics” in Helsinki, Finland 11 November 2007 entitled “On the self, relational being and the philosophy of Gabriel Marcel”. It was developed and written as part of the research project Dynamical Zoosemiotics and Animal Representations (ETF/ESF 7790).

Published Online: 2017-11-16

Published in Print: 2017-11-27

Citation Information: Chinese Semiotic Studies, Volume 13, Issue 4, Pages 381–397, ISSN (Online) 2198-9613, ISSN (Print) 2198-9605, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/css-2017-0022.

Export Citation

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston.Get Permission

Comments (0)

Please log in or register to comment.
Log in