FEBRUARY 16-17, 2001

A quarter of a century ago, Umberto Eco (1976) coined the metaphor of the (lower) semiotic threshold in order to designate the dividing line between the semiotic and the nonsemiotic world. Since Eco’s theory was programmatically one of cultural semiotics, postulating social conventions and codes as a prerequisite of sign use (semiosis), the domains of biological or physical nature seemed to be excluded from the semiotic field by definition, although the difference between nature and culture, in the tradition of his cultural semiotics, was not an ontological one, but one of perspective. According to such a semiotic perspectivism, nature as well as culture can be approached from both a semiotic and a nonsemiotic perspective. Even within the domain of culture, we are not always exclusively confronted with sign phenomena, according to Eco. Objects of culture, for example, are not only signs. They are also physical objects constructed according to mechanical laws; they have an economic value and may have a social function. On the other hand, physical or biological phenomena, such as weather constellations (like thunder and lightning) or diseases, can also be seen in a semiotic perspective which changes as the evolution of culture changes. Such a perspectivistic approach to the semiotic study of nature has also been elaborated in the framework of Greimas’s “semiotics of the natural world”. This semiotics nature is not concerned with sign processes in nature, but with nature seen from the perspective of culture.

During the last decades, new fields of semiotic research have been explored which have led to a considerable lowering of the semiotic threshold. Semiotics is no longer only concerned with signs that depend on culture and codes, since it has advanced to a theory of sign processes in culture and in nature. Contributions to this extension of the semiotic field come from the history of semiotics with its long tradition of the study of natural signs, which were sometimes defined in sharp opposition to other signs, but sometimes as a branch of the general theory of signs. Research in zoosemiotics and biosemiotics has proceeded with the lowering of the semiotic threshold from human semiosis to semiotic processes whose agents are animals and micro-organisms. More recently, the question has been raised whether precursors of semiosis should even be sought in the inanimate world and whether semiotics should also include the field of physicosemiotics: autocatalysis, order out of physical chaos, dissipitative structures, and other processes in dynamic physical systems, which testify to the possibility of a spontaneous increase of order in nature, have become the topics of study in the search for the origins semiosis and have led to a new field of protosemiotic studies.

A different challenge to the semiotic threshold comes from another domain of nonliving systems, from machines, computers, artificial intelligence, and finally artificial life. There is no doubt that computer semiotics is a branch of cultural semiotics insofar as it is concerned with the interface between humans and computers, but is information processing within ‘intelligent’ machines also sign processing, or is it merely signal processing? Are machines becoming autonomous agents in processes of semiosis?

Research in the endeavor of lowering the semiotic threshold from culture to semiosis in nature and nonliving has taken many of its theoretical foundations from Charles Sanders Peirce’s evolutionary semiotics. Peirce did not believe in the dualism between mind and matter. He defended the general principle of continuity between both, called synechism. Instead of a spontaneous origin of semiosis, there must have been continuity between mind and matter. However, in spite of his vision of a “universe perfused with signs”, Peirce also postulated many subtle differentiations between processes of genuine semiosis, quasi-semiosis and “degenerated” semiosis. In this perspective, the semiotic threshold is not a question of a dualism between two worlds, but one of the many stages and steps of transition from one to the other.

Among the agents involved in semiosis, Peirce did not only mention animals, such as “a chameleon and many kinds of insects” (MS 318: 205-206), microorganisms, such as “a little creature” under a microscope (CP 1.269), and “plants that make their living by uttering signs, and lying signs, at that” (MS 318: 205-206), but also intelligent machines, which he describes as being involved in processes of quasi-semiosis. Furthermore, semiosis, and with it also “thought,” occurs even “in crystals, and throughout the physical world” (CP 4.551), and finally, the whole “universe is a vast representamen” (CP 5.119).

The semiotic threshold which Peirce postulates is not the one between human and nonhuman minds, but between dyadic and triadic processes. Semiosis begins when we cross the threshold from mere dyadic interactions between mechanical, chance, or “brute” (efficient), causes and their effects to triadic interactions mediated by a mind in the broadest sense. A semiotic triad is one in which a mind interprets (i.e., forms an interpretant of) a signifying stimulus in its environment, called representamen, relative to a goal (the object) which is distinct from this environmental stimulus, but not necessarily absent in the given situation. This interaction requires neither consciousness nor intentionality, but must be goal-directed, “finious”, as Peirce wrote. What intentionality in sign use and “finious” processes in culture and nature have in common is a tendency towards self-control, self-reference, growth towards future states independent of initial states, but with an inherent telos. In spite of their common foundation, there are also differences between the telic processes of semiosis in culture and in nature. As Oehler (1995: 269) points out: “Human acts of cognition differ from other self-referential and self-correcting processes by virtue of their greater degree of self-reference and self-correction. Human beings achieve this superiority through the creation of symbols, which represent and control our habits of action”.

This colloquium on the threshold of semiosis from nature and culture relies on the transdisciplinary collaboration between scholars of several individual sciences. In addition to scholars in the field of theoretical semiotics, it hence convokes historians of semiotics, philosophers, cultural and literary theorists, cyberneticians, and theoretical biologists.

Organization: Prof. Dr. Winfried Nöth, Wissenschaftliches Zentrum für Kulturforschung der Universität Kassel– Universität Gesamthochschule Kassel – D-34109 Kassel – (See also:

Friday, February 16, 2001
09.00-09.20 W. Nöth Welcome and Introduction
09.20-10.10 A. Ponzio & S. Petrilli Bioethic: Semiotics of Life and Global Communication
10.10-10.30 Discussion
10.30-11.00 John Deely The Physiosemiotic Challenge
11.00-11.10 Discussion
11.10-11.30 Coffee Break
11.30-12.00 Winfried Nöth Protosemiotics
12.00-12.10 Discussion
12.10-12.40 Jesper Hoffmeyer Biological Foundations of Semiosis
12.40-12.50 Discussion
12.50-14.20 Lunch
14.20-14.50 Martin Krampen The Individual Organism as a Threshold of Semiosis
14.50-15.00 Discussion
15.00-15.30 Kalevi Kull  Whether Life, or Semiosis, can be Minimal
15.30-15.40 Discussion
15.40-16.00 Coffee Break
16.00-16.30 Udo L. Figge The Boundaries of Semiotics
16.30-16.40 Discussion
16.40-17.10 Christina Ljungberg Wilderness from a Semiotic Perspective
17.10-17.20 Discussion


Saturday, February 17, 2001
09.20-09.50 Floyd Merrell  Peirce’s Ten Signs Meet Antonio Damasio’s Concept of  Cognition
10.00-10.30 Frederik Stjernfelt  Categorial Perception, Topology, and the Semiotic Threshold
10.30-10.40 Discussion
10.40-11.00 Coffee Break
11.00-11.30 Lucia Santaella “Matter as Effete Mind”: Peirce’s Synechistic Ideas on the Semiotic Threshold
11.30-11.40 Discussion
11.40-12.10 Claus Emmeche Machines, Artificial Life, and Mind
12.10-12.20 Discussion
12.20-12.50 Soren Brier Cybersemiotic as a Bridge Between Nature and Culture
12.50-13.00 Discussion
13.00-14.30 Lunch
14.30-15.00 Dagmar Schmauks Steps towards Cyborgization
15.00-15.10 Discussion
15.10-15.40 Constantin v. Pückler Ter-Identity and Continuity
15.40-15.50 Discussion