Re: "infra-semiotic" Re: [xmca] On Roth's "On Mediation"

From: Tony Whitson <twhitson who-is-at UDel.Edu>
Date: Thu Oct 25 2007 - 13:00:08 PDT


I certainly agree on the differentiations you are making, and on their

So I'm not actually disagreeing at all with the point you're making. I'm
only being protective of an idea of "semiotic" that doesn't turn on that
particular difference.

When Peirce says the universe is perfused with signs, and discusses the
semiotic character of the natural world prior to the advent of humans, he
is obviously using a broader and more general idea of what is semiotic.
>From this vantage point, the dance of the bumblebee is not infra-semiotic,
although this semiosis proceeds with a much inferior degree of thirdness.

Jay, would you believe I actually had you in mind when I illustrated this
point with the example of phototropism in sunflowers in a footnote in my
paper for our 1992 symposium on Situated Cognition? Three paragraphs from
the paper's footnote are pasted in below (pp. 103-4 in the book). The
point illustrated here is Peirce's use of "scientific intelligence" --
meaning "any intelligence capable of learning by experience"-- as
criterially indicative of semiosic triadicity. I wanted to illustrate the
broad generality of this "scientific intelligence" as occuring even in
plants. In this sense, the genetically established phototropism of
sunflowers is not "infra-semiotic." Again, this is not a disagreement with
the point that you are making, just a different point about what makes
something semiotic, or not (so it's really more about concptions of

Here's from the footnote (I'm sure 15 years later there are things I'd say
differently now):

Peirce's usage here would include the evolution of a species' semiosic
capabilities (e.g., the instinctive responses of some species to the
shapes, colors, or other signs of their predators-responses which [in the
species, if not in the individual] can be adapted for responding more
successfully to deal with such things as camouflage by predators, and
mimicry by other species) as a kind of learning from experience; and the
system capable of such learning could be regarded as a "scientific"
intelligence, in that sense. For Peirce, even a plant species was
exhibiting a rudimentary intelligence in the evolution of its heliotropic
response to sunlight. Note that the plant's leaves are not dynamically
caused to move by any mechanical force from the sunlight; instead, the
plant has its own mechanism for triadically responding to the sunlight as
a sign of the energy to be absorbed by its leaves. A single specific
instance of such movement could be described as a series of dyadic (cause
and effect) events. But that description does not account for the
existence of the phenomenon, which is actually (although somewhat
"degenerately"-see this footnote, below) triadic. Since the culture of
positivistic analysis trains us to think that we have not understood
something "scientifically" until we understand it exclusively in terms of
dyadic causation, it is not surprising if the description of the plant's
movement as an interpretant, or as an event in which the plant responds to
the sunlight as a sign (or, more precisely, as a representamen) of
nutrient energy, strikes us as unwarranted and unscientific pre- (or
post-) modern anthropomorphizing mysticism.

However, the scientific justification for Peirce's view is demonstrated
easily enough (and we should remember that Peirce made his career as a
practicing laboratory scientist, as well as a philosopher of logic and
mathematics), in the familiar principles from which a biologist could
hypothesize that a plant species would adaptively come to discriminate in
responding to different kinds of light (based on color or other qualities,
for example) signifying differences in the energy available for
photosynthesis. The process does comprise a complex of mechanical
(dyadically caused) events; but the process itself occurs, and the outcome
of the complex of mechanical events is determined, on the basis of a
triadic relation in which the leaves respond to light not as a simple
cause or stimulus, and not for the energy which that light made available
for photosynthesis, but as a representamen, i.e., as something signifying
the energy available from the light to be absorbed later, after stems and
leaves have moved. This to light can be corrected, modified, or lost as
the species "learns" from its "experience" in responding to the source of
non-present (future) energy through the mediation of the present light.

In the present light of this discussion, we can consider how the
"scientific intelligence" of the botanists differs from that of the
plants. The measurements, designs, constructs, models, and calculations
developed and produced by the scientists would be included among the kinds
of things that Clancey and Roschelle (1991) define as "representations"
(see above, pp. 4-5). The botanists themselves are at least partially
aware that they are interested in these things as representations of
things other than the signs themselves, so the scientists (unlike the
plants) are capable of deliberately and consciously changing their
representational and interpretive practices to better serve their
interests (including scientific, as well as budgetary, career,
ideological, or other interests). Peirce would account for this as an
example of how triadicity is more fully realized in the semiosic activity
of the botanists than in that of the plants. false hypothesis or
less-than-satisfactory model or instrument can be corrected or improved
through critical symbolic reflection, and does not depend on such a crude
corrective mechanism as "survival of the fittest." Although the plant
species might also exhibit rudimentary triadic intelligence, its
triadicity relatively "degenerate" (i.e., in a sense analogous to that in
which Peirce, as mathematician, would recognize a circle as a degenerate
ellipse, and a square as a degenerate tetrahedron. Peirce did explore
various kinds and degrees "degeneracy" in the triadicity of signs, but the
implications of this line of inquiry need not be explored here.).

On Thu, 25 Oct 2007, Jay Lemke wrote:

> Tony,
> I don't disagree with this general view about meaning. But I still think that
> operations do not normally function as elements of semiosis, except
> indirectly by potentiating the actions that they constitute. Or at least they
> do so in ways very different from how actions participate in semiosis. We
> don't use operation-level behaviors normally as objects, representamina, or
> interpretants ... though of course they do have a material role in the
> overall practices in which we do so for actions.
> Think of the articulations of the lips, tongue, palate, vocal chords, etc. in
> the process of uttering a word.
> JAY.
> At 12:39 PM 10/25/2007, you wrote:
>> Another way of putting this:
>> Meaning is not what signs convey;
>> Meaning is what signs do.
>> What signs do is that they mean, and what it is for signs to mean is that
>> they signify through unending cascades of interpretants potentiated by the
>> triadic relations constituting them as signs.
>> On Thu, 25 Oct 2007, Tony Whitson wrote:
>>> Jay,
>>> I would just want to briefly take issue with the idea of "semiotic" that
>>> is presupposed in your gloss on "infra-semiotic."
>>> From a Peircean perspective, I would argue that meaning is not something
>>> that signs convey. Meaning is what signs potentiate. Sign is triadic
>>> relation, potentiating interpretants in which the "object" of
>>> interpretation is interpreted through the mediation of representamena
>>> (including intermediate/intermediating interpretants). Meaning is the
>>> signification-thru-mediated-activity* potentiated by the triadic sign
>>> relation, rather than a positive (or structurally relative, as in
>>> Saussure) semantic content that may be contained and conveyed in or by
>>> "signs" as containers or conveyors of "meaning."
>>> In this view, operations qualify as fully semiotic (vs. infra-semiotic)
>>> sign-elements insofar as they participate in such triadically mediative
>>> activity.* The difference that you point to in terms of "meaningfulness"
>>> might be considered in terms of differences in how Thirdness is
>>> realized, as between actions and operations, but this would not be a
>>> differences of semiosis vs. non- (or infra-) semiosis.
>>> _______
>>> *"activity" here is not meant in the sense of differentiation from
>>> actions & operations.
>>> On Thu, 25 Oct 2007, Jay Lemke wrote:
>>>> I have always thought of operations as "normally infra-semiotic" ,
>>>> i.e. under most conditions they do not have or convey meaning in
>>>> themselves. (Anything can be made meaningful by some special framing,
>>>> of course).
>>>> Jay Lemke
>>>> Professor
>>>> University of Michigan
>>>> School of Education
>>>> 610 East University
>>>> Ann Arbor, MI 48109
>>>> Tel. 734-763-9276
>>>> Email.
>>>> Website. <>
>>>> _______________________________________________
>>>> xmca mailing list
>>> Tony Whitson
>>> UD School of Education
>>> NEWARK DE 19716
>>> _______________________________
>>> "those who fail to reread
>>> are obliged to read the same story everywhere"
>>> -- Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970)
>> Tony Whitson
>> UD School of Education
>> NEWARK DE 19716
>> _______________________________
>> "those who fail to reread
>> are obliged to read the same story everywhere"
>> -- Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970)
>> _______________________________________________
>> xmca mailing list
> Jay Lemke
> Professor
> University of Michigan
> School of Education
> 610 East University
> Ann Arbor, MI 48109
> Tel. 734-763-9276
> Email.
> Website. <>
> _______________________________________________
> xmca mailing list

Tony Whitson
UD School of Education

"those who fail to reread
  are obliged to read the same story everywhere"
                   -- Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970)
xmca mailing list
Received on Thu Oct 25 13:09 PDT 2007

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