This article has been published in Sign Systems Studies vol. 27, pp. 128-138 (1999).



On the history of joining bio with semio: F. S. Rothschild and the biosemiotic rules


Kalevi Kull
University of Tartu, Estonia


A belief, in biology, that signification is the process which may provide a key to understanding the specifics of life has arisen here and there during almost a century and through communication between scientists it has grown into biosemiotics. From the side of semiotics, the search for the origins of sign has also led to animals and other organisms, so that some have started to speak about the paradigmatic shift in semiotics which took place in the 1980s (particularly due to T. A. Sebeok’s contributions in semiotics; cf. also Mandelker 1994).

Biosemiotics as a discipline, as a field, was born not much earlier than at the beginning of the 1990s, since this is the decade, when the name was taken into use in the titles of books and conferences, when an international society-like group of people appeared who regularly met and made attempts to approximate to each other’s terminology, when the first university courses on the subject appeared, and when the history of the field was first reviewed (or built and constructed).

Biosemiotics as a domain, of course, has existed already much earlier, at least since the first decades of this century — as its history clearly shows (Kull 1999a; Wuketits 1998; Sebeok 2000).



Appearance of the term biosemiotics


In 1962, the Annals of New York Academy of Sciences published a paper by F. S. Rothschild, which includes the following statement:


This approach presupposes acceptance of our position that the history of subjectivity does not start with man, but that the human spirit was preceded by many preliminary stages in the evolution of animals. The symbol theory of psychophysical relation bridges the gulf between these disparate avenues of research and unites their methods under the name of biosemiotic. We speak of biophysics and biochemistry whenever methods used in the chemistry and physics of lifeless matter are applied to material structures and processes created by life. In analogy we use the term biosemiotic. It means a theory and its methods which follows the model of the semiotic of language. It investigates the communication processes of life that convey meaning in analogy to language. (Rothschild 1962: 777)


The definition as given in that paper shows that the scope and the importance of the domain as described by Rothschild corresponds to the meaning of ‘biosemiotics’ as it has been used later (by the scientists who had not read his writings), for instance in a big collective work under this title (Sebeok & Umiker-Sebeok, 1992). Similarly, Rothschild (1962: 775) claimed that “Protozoa, invertebrates, vertebrates, and finally man appear as four developmental stages of subjectivity. In each stage a new sign system overlays the already established ones and makes the unfolding of a new and higher level of experience possible.”

In the biosemiotic literature, published since then in Semiotica and in other international semiotic periodicals, F. S. Rothschild’s name can not be found. Most frequently, J. S. Stepanov’s book of 1971 has been mentioned as the first which uses the term ‘biosemiotics’, although Rothschild introduced it almost ten years earlier.



An endemic semiotician:
Life and work of F. S. Rothschild (1899–1995)


When discovering Jakob von Uexküll for the field of semiotics, T. Sebeok has called him a cryptosemiotician. This is a class of semiotists, “who need themselves to become aware of the perspective that semiotic affords or whose work needs to be by others reclaimed and re-established from within that perspective” (Deely 1990: 119–120; Rauch 1983). Can we say that now we have a similar situation with Rothschild? Seemingly not, since he knew semiotics and applied it; there was simply no information exchange between him and other biosemioticians. Accordingly, we need to add a fourth class (in addition to the proto-, crypto- and ordinary semioticians) to Rauch’s (1984) classification — the endemic semioticians. This is a branch of normal good scientists, about whom nobody in the field knows. Or a small scientific group, who are developing the field on their own, publishing in journals which are not read by their colleagues in other countries.

Friedrich Salomon Rothschild was born on December 17, 1899, in Giessen, Germany. Between 1918 and 1923, he studied medicine in the Universities of Giessen and München, specialising in medical psychology and psychiatry. From 1925 to 1928, he worked in Heidelberg with psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (1889–1957) and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900–80), and from 1928 to 1933 in Frankfurt with neuroanatomist and clinician Kurt Goldstein (1878–1965). At that time, he was influenced by the philosophy of Ludwig Klages (1872–1956) and held a correspondence with him. As, according to Klages, “alles Leben beseelt ist”, the development of subjectivity over the evolution of living organisms became an interest of Rothschild.

During his studies in Frankfurt, Rothschild came to an idea that the structure and excitations of the brain can be seen as symbols of mental content and mental processes. As he later (1989: 192) wrote about this occasion: “Eines Tages, als ich über die Seitenkreuzungen der Fasern im Gehirn eines Tieres las, kam mir plötzlich die Idee, dass diese Kreuzungen für das Erleben des Tieres das Verhältnis zu seinen Objekten im Raum symbolisch repräsentieren.” In 1935, he could publish his book “Symbolik des Hirnbaus: Erscheinungswissenschaftliche Untersuchung über den Bau und die Funktionen des Zentralnervensystems der Wirbeltiere und des Menschen”.

In Frankfurt, he also worked on the problem of brain hemisphere asymmetry and the functional importance of this phenomenon (Rothschild 1930).

In 1933, Rothschild lost his job due to the nazi laws against Jews. In 1936, Rothschild moved to Palestine. He worked as a Professor of clinical psychiatry in the Faculty of Medicine in the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, from where he retired in 1965.

In the 1950s, he published two books on the problem of self and the symbolic aspects of the central nervous system (Rothschild 1950; 1958). He also wrote a paper about a classical phenomenon of zoosemiotics — the dance of bees (Rothschild 1953).

A conference “The Psychology of the Self”, held by the New York Academy of Sciences in 1961, included a paper by Rothschild, in which he directly uses the semiotic approach of Ch. Morris, and introduces the term ‘biosemiotic’. In semiotics, he sees the way to a non-cartesian approach: “The concept of the symbol shows the way to overcome René Descartes’ partition of man into the self as res cogitans and the body as res extensa. In the symbol psychological meaning and physical sign appear as a unit” (Rothschild 1962: 774).

As a leader of the Israel branch of the Association for Dynamic Psychiatry, he published most of his later papers in the journal Dynamische Psychiatrie / Dynamic Psychiatry. On June 24, 1989, a symposium “From Causality to Communication — Biosemiotics of Friedrich S. Rothschild”, dedicated to his 90th birthday was held in Berlin, in the German Academy of Psychoanalysis, which resulted in a special issue of Dynamische Psychiatrie 22 (3/4), 1989, and later a book by Bülow and Schindler (1993).

F. S. Rothschild died on March 6, 1995 in Israel.



Three biosemiotic laws


In his 1962 paper, Rothschild made an attempt to formulate his conception in the form of three biosemiotic laws. “By laws I understand here the rules of syntax of each single communication system and the rules valid for the simultaneous utilization of different communication systems as they coexist in all animals and in man” (p. 777). The laws themselves are described by him as follows.


The first law.

Threat to given life elicits from the original passive state of the organism a component of activity, of inner self-assertion, transforming it from an object into a subject of intentionality. The first biosemiotic law expresses the intention to safeguard the structure that conveys the own essence, the self as a coherent unity. It is the basic rule of biosemiotic syntax. (p. 779)


The second law.

Inner polarization is necessary in order to permit the subjectivity of organisms to communicate with the objects of the world simultaneously with realization of the own self. This law dominates the arrangement of all communication systems from the cell upward. The manifestation of this inner polarity include the differentiation of motor and sensory systems in the sensori-motor foundations of experience and behavior, the bisexual disposition of organisms, the asymmetry between right and left, the differentiation of the vegetative nervous system into a parasympathetic and sympathetic component, and the arrangement of the central nervous system in homolateral and heterolateral centers. (p. 780)


The third law.

As each new inner communication system emerges in evolution, it transcends its predecessor’s horizon of meaning and requires for its actualization a new mode of intentionality. In this new form of intentionality, subjectivity is active and dominates over that of the preceding system because it is in opposition to it and thereby prevents an independent acitivity of the more archaic systems. The necessity of this dominance constitutes the third biosemiotic law: without such dominance, the new system cannot develop its function. (p. 781)


These three laws, indeed, seem to describe well some basic semiotic features of living beings, and will require a thorough analysis to discover their universality in the biological realm.



Signs of semiotics in philosophy of biology


An understanding of the importance of sign processes for living organisms has been growing in biology for centuries. For instance, the teleology of Johannes Müller (1801–1858), and Karl Ernst von Baer (1792–1876) has much in common with the contemporary understanding of the intentionality of sign processes. However, due to the absence of an appropriate theoretical framework in biology, and the lack of intercourse between semiotics and biology until the recent decades, the terminology which has been used to describe essentially the semiotic side of biological processes varied to a great extent. This makes it really difficult to reconstruct the history of biosemiotics of the pre-biosemiotic period in biology. However, this does not mean that one may avoid it.

In a footnote of the book about Rothschild’s biosemiotics, Bülow and Schindler (1993: 72) have also mentioned J. v. Uexküll:


Beschränkt auf den Bereich der Biologie, kommt von Uexküll zu ähnlichen Ergebnissen wie Rothschild. Thure von Uexküll billigt der Zelle Subjektcharakter zu, in Anlehnung an Jakob von Uexküll. Wie Rothschild versteht er Organismen als lebende Systeme, die miteinander durch Zeichen, die sie selbst kodieren und beantworten, kommunizieren. Das Denken in kommunikativen Austauchprozessen löst auch bei von Uexküll das lineare Denken in kausalen Ursache-Wirkungs-Beziehungen ab.


Jakob von Uexküll, a sovereign pioneer of semiotic biology, had a number of supporters among biologists. These biologists — Hans Driesch (1867–1941), Richard Woltereck (1877–1944), Adolf Meyer-Abich (1893–1971) — have not yet received much attention from the side of biosemiotics. However, we may speculate that this is mainly a result of their specific and quite individual terminology — they have not used the language of semiotics, whereas their approach itself could very well be compatible with semiotic biology.



Understanding inobligatory aspects


An unusual aspect in the works of F. S. Rothschild concerns his interest in parapsychology (cf. Berendt 1989), which separates him from the main trends in current biosemiotics. As a parallel, the same interest can be found in the works of Hans Driesch, a theoretical biologist of the beginning of the century. A key for understanding this phenomenon can be found in a statement by Aloys Wenzl (1951: 155):


Bedeutsam für das Lebensproblem ist, auch wenn wir von der Frage der Materialisation ganz absehen, jedenfalls die Tatsache, dass die Vorstellung leibliche Veränderungen bewirken kann.


Thus, this is the influence of Vorstellung on body, which makes a scientist search for various explanations. The solution proposed by R. Sheldrake (and together with him, but much earlier, by H. Driesch or F. S. Rothschild in some of their works) differs from the one developed in the biosemiotics of the 1990s. It should also be mentioned that the view on biosemiotics as described by some colleagues of Rothschild (Hes 1989) differs in several aspects from the one established under this name in most of the contemporary biosemiotic literature.





Thus, the term ‘biosemiotics’ was introduced by Rothschild (1962) almost at the same time when T. A. Sebeok coined the term ‘zoosemiotics’ (1963). However, since Rothschild’s works appeared exclusively in a psychiatric context, these remained unnoticed by biologists as well as by semioticians for quite a long time.

A semiotic interpretation of the asymmetry of human brain hemispheres in terms of communication, as developed by Rothschild since the 1930s, is to some extent similar to the analysis of the same problem by J. Lotman in the early 1980s (Lotman 1983; cf. Kull 1999b).

Psychosomatic medicine has been a field which has both applied the biosemiotic approach and contributed to it (Uexküll & Wesiack 1997; Hoffmeyer 1997). The contribution by Rothschild, whose work also belongs to the area between medicine and psychology, illustrates this thesis well.

The usage of the term ‘biosemiotics’ by Rothschild in 1960s, together with the absence of any reception of his works by those who developed this field for a longer time, just demonstrates that the logic of development of scientific thinking may create almost identical solutions independently by different thinkers in different places. Seemingly, the idea of biosemiotics was just in the air at that time.

The three biosemiotic laws, formulated by Rothschild, represent a remarkable contribution to the field, and are worthy of attention and further analysis.


Acknowledgements. To the library of the University of Münster (Germany), where I first found a book about Rothschild’s biosemiotics; to Urmas Sutrop who has helped me in finding the literature, and to Gabriele von Bülow for some additional information.





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