On semiosis, Umwelt, and semiosphere

Kalevi Kull

Published in:
Semiotica, vol. 120(3/4), 1998, pp. 299-310.

Introduction: on the situation in and around biosemiotics

A cognitive turn in biology can be foreseen very soon. At least, this is an impression readers of Jesper Hoffmeyer's (1996) book on an approach to biosemiotics may get. The term 'cognitive turn' in this context is taken from psychological thinking a couple of decades ago, when the prevailing behavioristic approach was to a great extent replaced by another model of research, allowing methods and criteria which would not be accepted by behaviorists as 'scientific'. Since then, developments in psychology have been very stormy, paradigm changes became a common thing in the science of mind. In biology, the situation has been much more stolid and unexciting. The sound achievements of molecular biology have met with little enthusiasm among true theoreticians. The Darwinian view, in its neo-Darwinian versions, dominates in universities all over the world. The proponents of the power of natural selection have developed its logical consequences in regard to society and ego (e.g. in sociobiology by E.O.Wilson, or gene-ethics by R.Dawkins), and this has cemented the Darwinian monolith. Opportunistic voices have been rare, and have mainly been restricted to continental Europe and Russia (e.g., the nomogenetic view of L. Berg, A. A. Lubischev, S. V. Meyen in Russia, and its parallels in the West - cf. Brauckmann, Kull 1997). However, only a few of these voices have been based on a belief in the methods developed in the humanities, which have been applied to the solution of biological problems via the epistemic renewal of methods.

The previous period in biology, when the situation was different from that of recent decades, belongs, according to its dominant views, to the decades around the turn of this century (Bowler 1992). Neovitalist views, and different types of autogenetic or other non-Darwinian theories were in bloom. That was the period, when Jakob von Uexküll, now hailed as a founder of biosemiotics, started writing his books (Uexküll 1909, 1913, 1920), and when the field called 'theoretical biology' appeared, then akin more to a philosophy of biology (e.g., Reinke 1901).

For Uexküll, epistemological problems in biology were certainly important. The sketch of the history of biology as described above, may however give an insight into why Uexküll (not only because of being a Baltic German, i.e. writing only in German) was entirely forgotten and re-discovered only in the last decades of this century (Sebeok 1979). Indeed, the frequency of citation of his Umwelt-concept is growing now at an amazing rate.

On the other hand, it is not only a movement in biology towards semiotics which is taking place. Semiotics is facing biology to no less an extent. Moreover - the same question of cooperation with cognitive science which has been raised in biology (Heschl 1990; Wuketits 1991), has also arisen in semiotics (Violi 1996). Thus, all these aspects are intersecting, and biosemiotics has settled very close to this intersection point.

However, the question, whether this is an epistemological crisis in biology which is waiting to be resolved, or whether it is a crisis in theoretical biology and the theory of evolution, is still open. Biosemiotics is proposing its development and the renewal of biology, through the semiotic paradigm. In any case, it is a view and an approach which deserves to be carefully analyzed. In the interests of a wider perspective, it may be reasonable to do this considering at the same time the ideas coming from theoretical biology. For instance, Robert Rosen (1991: 13) claimed that the 'basic reason why biology is hard' is 'because we are fundamentally ill equipped'.

Walter Elsasser, a theoretical physicist, who has written several remarkable books on theoretical biology (e.g., Elsasser 1966), attempted to figure out the fundamental properties of life as different from non-living systems. The main property to which he tried to find explicit formulation in his latest book (Elsasser 1982) was called by him 'creativity'. 'I believe that the theoretical arguments are now sufficiently consolidated so that clarity is greatly enhanced by stating explicitly that a biological theory in which creativity is an essential ingredient can be constructed along strictly scientific lines, even though numerous details remain of course to be filled in later' (Elsasser 1982: vii).
Creativity, as described by Elsasser, bears an amazing likeness to what is called 'semiosis' in many semiotic writings. This notion has a special place in biosemiotics, since the main problem in biosemiotics is the explanation of the origin of sign, and with it the origin of semiosis. This means that for biosemiotics, as opposed to classical semiotics, semiosis cannot be an initial term, since the property denoted by this term is something which we attempt to construct from biological mechanisms. However, this does not mean that semiosis should be understood somehow differently in biology than in other fields of semiotics.

Semiosis has been defined in semiotics in a way which allows to the extension of its existence down to the first living systems. This is a reason why the semiotic approach has been acknowledged thus important for biology that several biologists have independently recognized the semiotic view to be a paradigm for biology (Hoffmeyer, Emmeche 1991; Eder, Rembold 1992; Kull 1993). In biosemiotics, biology and semiotics meet, and this makes the field interesting for both sides. Signs live (Merrell 1994, 1996), exactly like life signs.

If the semiotic and the living are the same, then it follows that the principles of semiotics should be true for biology, and also, that the laws of biology should be of interest for semiotics, since these are the laws of the functioning of texts. The notion of text as developed by Lotman (1986) suits this purpose very well. Organism is a text (Sebeok 1977).

'Unfortunately I know how little semioticians know of semiosis and signification systems', was said by Eco (1988: 15). This also emphasizes the importance of analyzing the mechanism of semiosis, which is, for biosemiotics, particularly unavoidable. Progress in applications of the semiotic approach in biology depends on the power of its theoretical apparatus, which is greatly determined by the explicity and preciseness of notions developed in biosemiotics.

Among the notions of biosemiotics, there are the three listed in the title of this paper which propose an important framework for many others, and which seemingly form a logical series. Below I define them and comment on them in the context of Hoffmeyer's book.


Hoffmeyer describes a series of properties which (according to his claim) should be the general properties of living systems. This bears some similarity to the building of a functional definition of life - something which became unpopular after the discovery of DNA and the genetic code, but which has made some recovery in recent works on artificial life theory. However, as Sebeok has guessed, the definition of life may coincide with the definition of semiosis. Thus, the description of the general properties of life is at the same time a development in the description of semiosis. The properties listed and described by Hoffmeyer are endosymbiosis, self-reference, code duality, availability of receptors, autopoiesis, and several others.

These properties are probably not of equal weight. How they are logically connected, needs to be carefully investigated. Also, Hoffmeyer has emphasized the important fact that the view of the duality of gene, and of information, has been lost due to the boom in molecular biology. What biosemiotics does is to a great extent the recalling of a more natural way of understanding biological information (and information at all), which considers both its sides.

According to Lotman, a mechanism consisting of a sender, receiver, and transmitter of information does not work as a semiotic mechanism, while not embedded in a semiosphere. Also, biological terminology based on inheritance and reproduction hardly allows any further generalization due to its strong connection to the molecular genetic mechanisms which assume the concrete substances responsible for this process. Therefore, semiotic terminology of text and dialogue, recognition and translation may be much better suited for the description of isomorphisms between biological and cultural phenomena. This may be acceptable for both the language of natural sciences and that of the humanities and arts.

Thus, I define semiosis as a process of translation, which makes a copy of a text, suitable to replace the original text in some situations, but which is also so different from the original text that the original cannot be used (either spatially, or temporally, or due to the differences in text-carrier or language) for the same functions. This translation process (i.e., semiosis) requires two types of recognition processes. First, the translation assumes that parts of the original text are recognized (on the basis of pre- existing memory-text) and as a result new structures are built, whereas a certain isomorphism between the original and the new text is retained. And second, there is a recognition process which starts the translation process, which is required for the existence of the whole process on another level, and which at the same time gives an intentional dimension to any particular semiosis. I also state that the one carrying out the translation (the translator, which includes memory) is itself a text, i.e. the result of some translation process.
From this definition it follows that semiosis always requires a previous semiosis which produced the translator. Since the translator already recognizes, i.e. matches with something, the form of which has been stored, i.e. which has previously been matched, it follows that the current translation process is preceded by some previous translation process. Also, the text used for translation is the product of a previous semiosis.

This turns semiosis into an endless chain - every semiosis comes from semiosis, or in Peirce's version, omne symbolum de symbolo. The statement is amazingly isomorphic with Francesco Redi's principle, formulated in the 17th century - omne vivum e vivo. Or, as it was possible to state several centuries later - every cell comes from cell. Redi's principle is one of the fundamental laws of life, despite of the fact that it leaves the problem of the origin of life aside.

A consequence of Redi's principle, or another fundamental feature of the asymmetric semiotic triad is that each of its three members is a participant in other semioses, albeit in a different function. For instance, ribosomes in cells are functioning as translators when making new proteins, but they are themselves products of an other translation process which synthesizes ribosomes. This makes it evident that organisms are self-reading texts (Kull 1997).

The existence of two different recognition processes (local and global, in relation to a particular translation act) in every semiosis can be seen as another way of describing the existence of two codes in every sign process. The idea of code duality (using the terminology of analog vs. digital encoding) as important for the mechanism of semantic information was emphasized and raised by Dretske (1982), being one of the central topics of his book, and developed in a more biological framework by Hoffmeyer and Emmeche (1991). Dretske's work was cited in their paper, but in a different context. Indeed, Dretske as an analytical philosopher is far from following semiotic views, however, Hoffmeyer himself is one of those who attempts to extend the tradition of semiotics.

The same idea of code duality was claimed by J.Lotman when he wrote (1981: 4): 'a message to be defined as 'text' should be at least dually coded'. Elsasser's statement (1982: 7) is also very close to this, when he writes: 'we claim in effect that organisms make use of two separate and quite different processes for information transfer over time'.

An important property of semiosis, which makes it different from physical processes, is its historicity together with the ability for learning. Any text to be translated should be at first recognized by a previous text, and the outcome of translation will influence the recognition process in succeeding generations of translation. Since all components of semiosis are repeatedly rewritten, both the creation of new and the forgetting of old becomes possible. According to Lotman (1990: 101): 'symbol serves as a condensed programme for the creative process. (...) A symbol is a profound coding mechanism, a special kind of 'textual gene''. 'The combination of translatability-untranslatability (each to different degrees) is what determines the creative function' (Lotman 1990: 15).

Semiosis, more shortly, could be defined as the appearance of a connection between things, which do not have a priori anything in common, in the sense that they do not interact or convert each other through direct physical or chemical processes. However, as far as the relation between them, once established (by a subject), is nevertheless intermediated by physical or chemical processes, this infers that the relation is semiotic as long as it is established through learning.
This also means that there exist entities in the world (like 'meaning' of signs) which can influence only living systems and not non-living ones. Semiotic phenomena do not belong to physical reality.


Umwelt is the semiotic world of organism. It includes all the meaningful aspects of the world for a particular organism. Thus, Umwelt is a term uniting all the semiotic processes of an organism into a whole. Indeed, the Umwelt-concept follows naturally due to the connectedness of individual semiotic processes within an organism, which means that any individual semiosis in which an organism is functioning as a subject is continuously connected to any other semiosis of the same organism. At the same time, the Umwelts of different organisms differ, which follows from the individuality and uniqueness of the history of every single organism.
Umwelt is the closed world of organism. The functional closer, or epistemic closer is an important and principal feature of organisms, and of semiotic systems. This has been described by Maturana and Varela (1980) through the notion of autopoiesis.

The expressions 'collective Umwelt', or 'swarm's Umwelt', should also be in accord, since organism can hardly be modeled as a centralized system. However, the relationship between the Umwelt of organism and the Umwelts of its cells requires further explanation and more detailed analysis. The whole becomes seen through functional circles which, for example, include the body of the (swarm-)organism moving together, in one piece. More generally, there are always at least two aspects (processes) which participate in making a multitude of pieces into a whole in living systems: (1) there are many individual processes which take part as steps in a functional circle, the latter being responsible for the appearance of intentional aspects of behavior, and (2) the functional circle always includes recognition, a matching of forms (the pre- existing with the actual), whereas recognition does not work in an algorithmic way (i.e. bit-to-bit checking) but as a simultaneous compatibility (coherence) of forms (e.g., enzymes recognizing their substrates). Thus, the principle of code duality can be extended to the principle of making wholes, Gestalts.


Semiosphere is the set of all interconnected Umwelts. Any two Umwelts, when communicating, are a part of the same semiosphere.

Originally, the notion of semiosphere was introduced by Yuri Lotman (1984), a semiotician who worked in Tartu University, Estonia. His idea was inspired by Vernadsky's terms biosphere and noosphere (the latter also used by Teilhard de Chardin).
The semiosphere, as a notion used by Hoffmeyer (who came to it independently), seems to have a slightly different meaning than the definition given above. Namely, his expressions (for instance, p. 59: 'the semiosphere imposes limitations on the Umwelt of its resident populations in the sense that, to hold its own in the semiosphere, a population must occupy a "semiotic niche"') seem to show that semiosphere is something which may be partially independent of the organisms' Umwelts. On the contrary, I think it is entirely created by the organisms' Umwelts. Organisms are themselves creating signs, which become the constituent parts of the semiosphere. This is not an adaptation to environment, but the creation of a new environment. I can see here the possibility for a more positive interpretation of Hoffmeyer's statement - namely, the concept of ecological niche as it is traditionally used in biology, can be essentially developed according to the semiotic understanding of the processes which are responsible for the building of Umwelt.

One has a right to ask whether there could be several semiospheres. If there are no semiotic processes which connect them, this may be possible, but when communication takes place between the spheres, they evidently form one and the same semiosphere.

The aims and methods (pretensions and tools) of biosemiotics

The problems which biosemiotics can solve, according to Hoffmeyer, are among the deepest known in science and philosophy. Hoffmeyer has listed some of them:
(a) to reformulate the concept of information;
(b) to transcend (overcome) the dualism of mind and matter, i.e. the mind-body problem (p. 69, 94, 124);
(c) to solve the incompatibility of humanities and natural sciences (p. 94);
(d) to unite cultural history to natural history (p. 95);
(e) to give humanity its place in nature (p. 94).

The origin of language, and the origin of consciousness seem to belong to the same list.

There are so many treatises on these issues that it makes one quite cautious of accepting a new proposal as being more serious or less hopeless than the previous ones.

I would be a bit less pretentious, to claim that the main problem for biosemiotics is the explanation of the origin and evolution of sign. Nevertheless, this certainly has fundamental implications on the problems listed above, and possibly it is simply another formulation of what was said by Hoffmeyer. All the same, I would like to recall the words of Wells (1977: 1): 'My fundamental message is a message of caution. We must beware of claiming too much for semiotics.'
Whether biosemiotics will be able to contribute something to the solution of these everlasting questions, will depend much on the tools it can propose. As yet, there are no solutions, only some hints towards them. In the contemporary stage of biosemiotics, the time is ripe to try to formulate a list of the equipment which biosemiotics possesses. Hoffmeyer's book provides some hints for this.

Among the tools biosemiotics already possesses, there is a series of notions formulated by Jakob von Uexküll (Umwelt, Funktionskreis, Ich-tone, a. o.), Thure von Uexküll, T.A.Sebeok (for instance, endosemiosis), and others. Otherwise, it seems to be that a small group of people, who identify themselves under the name biosemiotics, have some intuitions about these possible tools (probably borrowing something from C.Peirce), plus they share a belief in some statements which they hope will be proved, e.g.:
(*) semiosis arose together with life, which means with the first cells;
(*) semiosis, symbiosis, and life process are almost identical (or, isomorphic);
(*) life is mainly a semiotic phenomenon, the real elements of life are signs.

Hoffmeyer does not speak directly about providing real tools to go further in a serious biosemiotic inquiry. However, one can grasp something by trying to figure out what gives him the audacity to have his say in so difficult a topic. The main method, probably, is an attempt to apply in all possible cases an approach which assumes that any innovation, and any biological process, stands on a communicative event, describable in semiotic terms, i.e. terms like interpretation, translation, dialogue, etc. This is like a heuristic principle in these days of biosemiotics, and we will see where it may lead us. In addition, there are already decades of work and experience behind this belief (expressed, for instance, in the works of Tembrock (1971), Florkin (1974), and others).

Besides these notions, i.e. the contemporary terminology of biosemiotics and a belief into the communicative (dialogic) nature of life, there are also some other heuristic principles among the tools of biosemiotics already available. Let me try to describe some of them.
The principle according to which the dyadic causal connections, or signal- response interactions, are not those having much importance in living systems; instead, all biological interactions work by recognition, i.e. by reading what is out there and if recognizing then responding according to the previously stored "image" of the recognized and translating its message into some product or behavior, which is actually a new message. Thus, the connections are triadic.

The interconnection of analogous and digital, or horizontal and vertical, or ecological and genetic, or morphological and informational, or bodily and mental, should exist in every single biological process, and thus, as shown by Hoffmeyer, this may broaden the views in many areas of biology.

The functional circles (Funktionskreise) which primitive organisms obtained, do not usually disappear but develop towards more complicated ones. Thus, it is very improbable that a functional circle once created will disappear; in the course of contradictions met by organisms, these circles are augmented by new elements, made more complex, but still retain their old content. This is why the living conditions of mammal-like reptiles (synapsids, p. 116) can explain some features of their much later descendants.

The way towards the explanation of intelligent behavior may not come from mechanisms showing the behavior of wholes, rather from the mechanisms using swarms as a basic notion. This looks like a replacement of populational thinking, so popular for neo-Darwinian biology, by thinking in swarms.

On one hand, a very high level of informational complexity exists from the very beginning of living systems (more complex than any scientific description has achieved so far), and on the other, there are stepwise trends of increasing semiotic freedom, trends from pre-sign to sign, from prosemiosis to semiosis, from simple triadic processes to language and culture.

A living system is a multi-level self-organizing anarchic (chaotic) hierarchy of communicative systems or swarms. That is to say, there are many subsystems which can solve a conflict or contradiction if it arises, and they all function as semiotic systems.

Any simple semiotic function is a result of a quite complicated mechanism if described in mechanical terms. This means that simple explanations are possible for complex systems like life. This seems to be one of the most provocative aspects of biosemiotics, making it a candidate for a new theory of general biology - without losing anything except unnecessary details, it wants to provide a simple language for the description of phenomena which have been very complex and difficult for biophysics.


Biosemiotics, if it is a paradigm for biology, should mean a different approach in all branches of biology. It cannot restrict itself to the re-interpretation of existing knowledge (like a philosophy of biology), with the application of a new terminology. It is a way of thinking, experimenting and describing for both theoretical and empirical biology. For Uexküll, Umweltforschung was, first of all, an experimental science, the detailed physiological description and analysis of functional circles, the investigation of sensors and effectors of organisms together with the codes which connect them both inside and outside the organism. The semiotic approach has raised this problem and makes this work meaningful. However, the problem of what the semiotic approach should mean for experimental biology, is still almost uninvestigated in contemporary biosemiotics.

From the point of view of sociology of science, biosemiotics, according to the impact made by Hoffmeyer, seems to be a child of the cultural movement, related somehow to the values of methodological anarchism and love of symbiosis, holism and critics of neo-Darwinism. However, my belief is that it should be combined with the results of theoretical biology, as we understand it at the end of the 20th century, with the understanding of complex systems, chaos, recursive mathematics etc. When combining all these tools, biosemiotics may indeed build the bridges it has started to build.

Acknowledgements. I thank Sabine Brauckmann, Sergey Chebanov, Claus Emmeche, Jesper Hoffmeyer, Michail Y. Lotman, Thomas A. Sebeok, and Alexei Sharov for discussions on several problems touched in this article. And special thanks to Jesper Hoffmeyer for his creative book.


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