RE: 3rdness and mediation

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Sun Dec 26 2004 - 19:50:45 PST

I spent quite a while puzzling over some similar questions to what Mike
poses a few years ago, in the form of asking what would be the simplest
material system that could exhibit true semiosis, i.e. produce a meaning in
an irreducible Peircean triad, which would correspond I think in our
present discussion to mediation as 3rdness. I wrote a couple of papers
around this theme and had some interesting conversations with physicists
and biologists about it.

For anybody interested enough to want to go into it in detail, you can look at: , and .

There are some other relevant papers in the two conference volumes in which
these were published:

J. Chandler and G. van de Vijver, Eds. Closure: Emergent Organizations and
their Dynamics (Volume 901: Annals of the NYAS). New York: New York Academy
of Science Press. 2000.

"Material Sign Processes and Ecosocial Organization." In P.B. Andersen, C.
Emmeche, and N.O. Finnemann-Nielsen, Eds. Downward Causation:
Self-organization in Biology, Psychology, and Society. Aarhus University
Press (Denmark). 2000.

But for our purposes here, I think the basic conclusion in answer to Mike's
question is that, yes, you can have emergent non-semiotic phenomena in
material dynamics, and semiotic phenomena are a special case of these in
which the triadic relation unites phenomena at significantly different
(extensional and temporal) scales of organization, so that something that
has material effect at one scale is interpreted to have _meaning_ at another.

These ideas led directly to my MCA paper "Across the scales of time". One
essential move beyond what I generally take Peirce to be saying (though
perhaps implied in some versions) is that in place of just an Interpretant,
as a sort of meaning-of-X-for-A, we consider the material system that does
the interpreting, the SI or system of interpretance, which is at a higher
level of organization than the stimuli it interprets (and also usually
larger and slower). Its scale level then helps us understand HOW meaning
becomes context-dependent (or at least context-sensitive), and why the
relevant contexts are not all possible contexts, but specifically those
(potentially) materially relevant for the SI.

I think this analysis holds in the case of Tony's phototropism, which is
quite parallel to other cases I have analyzed. But what I see as most
relevant is not the correctability per se, nor even the anticipatory
quality (both of which follow from my interpretation), but the linking
across scales of functionality. In fact from a biologist's point of view,
this is what "function" really is (there is a very similar analysis by
Howard Pattee, a theoretical biologist, in the context of informational
hierarchies). My speculations beyond this allow me to grant some borderline
sense of semiosis to the way in which a cell membrane "interprets"
impinging macromolecules, and maybe it could be extended as far as how
really big macromolecules (like RNA or DNA or maybe even a big protein)
"interprets" smaller biomolecules it encounters in the context of ambient
pH, say. Some theorists see a move like this as lying at the origin of life
(e.g. Jesper Hoffmeyer and Claus Emmeche).

So, it is a particular kind of organization of triads, a particular kind of
material system emergence, one that crosses scales functionally, that is
the root of the sort of semiosis we recognize in context-dependent tool-use
or context-dependent response to speech.

I'll address a couple of other questions on this topic separately.


At 10:52 AM 12/26/2004, Mike Cole wrote:
>Your wrote, in part:
>Does it help to think about the difference between "dynamics" and
>"semiotics," where semiotics deals with triadic relationships that cannot be
>reduced to "dynamics" [as in "The branch of mechanics that is concerned with
>the effects of forces on the motion of a body or system of bodies ... The
>forces and motions that characterize a system: The dynamics of ocean waves
>are complex." (American Heritage Dictionary)]
>Is it conceivable for a material system to be an irreducible emergent unity,
>or a dynamic whole, constituted by combinations of dyadically dynamic
>effects and interactions, rather than triadically mediating semiosic
>I do not understand whey dynamics are restricted to combinations of
>dyatically dynamic effects and interactions. Why does this follow from
>the definition?
>On Sat, 25 Dec 2004 19:46:50 -0500, Tony Whitson <> wrote:
> >
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: Mike Cole []
> > Sent: Thursday, December 23, 2004 5:42 PM
> > To: Xmca
> > Subject: 3rdness and mediation
> >
> > Mike writes:
> > I take the last two statements of these Russian intiators of
> > cultural-historical psychology to imply that
> > 1.the cultural habit of behavior (sign/tool mediated action) is not
> > reducible to its parts
> > emergent
> > a qualitatively new psychological process with new meanings,
> > affordances, etc.
> > [drawing, inter alia,
> > >From Jay (Dec. 17). I think we would say today in the language of complex
> > systems theory that 3rds are _emergent_, and so tool mediation means here
> > the sense in which subject-tool-object forms a dynamic whole, a new
> > emergent unity, the sense in which a tool allows subject and object to
> > become two parts or aspects or "moments" in a higher-order material system.
> > Indeed this is a possible reading of LSV's original triangle. But this
> > emergent new whole is not just a physical fusion (already implied by
> > mediation-as-secondness), but a system with emergent properties and new
> > meanings, new affordances, new possibilities for action
> > -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> >
> > I see a number of exciting insights and possibilities being opened up by
> > this discussion.
> >
> > Just for the sake of seeing how "Thirdness" may contribute to our
> > understanding:
> > Does it help to think about the difference between "dynamics" and
> > "semiotics," where semiotics deals with triadic relationships that
> cannot be
> > reduced to "dynamics" [as in "The branch of mechanics that is concerned
> with
> > the effects of forces on the motion of a body or system of bodies ... The
> > forces and motions that characterize a system: The dynamics of ocean waves
> > are complex." (American Heritage Dictionary)]
> >
> > Is it conceivable for a material system to be an irreducible emergent
> unity,
> > or a dynamic whole, constituted by combinations of dyadically dynamic
> > effects and interactions, rather than triadically mediating semiosic
> > relations? It seems to me that it is conceivable. Maybe not likely (since a
> > complex system comprised only of interdependent dyadic relationships would
> > be brittle and lacking in adaptability.) But the thought experiment is
> > useful, it seems to me, in forcing us to clarify the difference between
> > complexes of dynamic dyads versus semiosic triads that are irreducible to
> > complexes of dyads.
> >
> > There's a long footnote in my chapter in the Situated Cognition book
> > (Kirshner & Whitson, 1997, fn. 3, pp. 103-104) where I use adaptive
> > heliotropism for an example of a plant species as an "intelligent system"
> > capable of triadic semiosis in Peirce's sense:
> > ===========
> > Excerpts:
> > " ... The process does comprise a complex of ["dynamic" or] 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; that is, as something
> signifying the
> > energy available from the light to be absorbed later, after stems and
> leaves
> > have moved. This triadicity can be seen in the corrigibility of the
> process,
> > by which the response to light can be corrected, modified, or lost as the
> > species "learns" from its "experience" in responding to the source of
> > nonpresent (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
> > 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 have accounted 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. A 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 is relatively "degenerate" ...
> > We see that Peirce's notion of scientific intelligence extends beyond the
> > traditional American psychologist's notion of intelligence in human
> > individuals. It would include the social intelligence involved in situated
> > cognition at the level of "interactions between people over the course of
> > a few minutes," as discussed by Clancey and Roschelle (1991, p. 4;
> Roschelle
> > & Clancey, 1992).
> > Beyond this, it includes various kinds of intelligence in broader social
> > processes. ....
> > [Toulmin's] evolutionary model might suggest how the intelligence of peer
> > review in determining survival of the fittest research programs more
> closely
> > parallels the intelligence of heliotropic plants than some philosophers of
> > science would like to think.
> > Beyond that, of course, .... we need to understand that presumably
> > scientific and cognitive activities at any level may be determined by the
> > interested generation of new realities, rather than by "cognitive" or
> > "scientific" interests per se.
> > End of Excerpts
> > ================
> >
> > In the example of heliotropism, the plant species has evolved a dynamic
> > mechanism for directing leaves toward the source of energy. Although the
> > mechanism operates dynamically at the level of the organism, it exists in
> > the species only by virtue of the survival value of its (triadically)
> > mediating function.
> >
> > Compare this with an imaginary hypothetical example of, say, a
> > geothermically heated rock within an ecosystem where water falling on the
> > rock is heated and circulated as water vapor so that vegetation grows where
> > it would otherwise be too cold and dry. This may contribute to an
> > irreducibly complex dynamic material system, in which the hot rock mediates
> > to bring water, heat, and vegetation into fertile relationships that would
> > otherwise not exist. But, in my view, this would be an example of what Jay
> > refers to as "just a physical fusion (already implied by
> > mediation-as-secondness)." The rock's mediating function (unlike the
> > mediating function of the heliotropic mechanism in the plant species) is
> > accidental to what it is or where it is or how it affects the falling
> water.
> > There is mediation here, but it is merely secondness, merely a complex of
> > dyadically dynamic relationships.
> >
> > In considering these issues, it occurred to me that Dewey's 1896 article on
> > "The reflex arc concept in psychology" is actually a superb source for
> > considering the difference between mediation as Thirdness vs. Secondness in
> > human thought and behavior. Dewey doesn't use Peirce's vocabulary here
> > (indeed, he writes explicitly about "Thirdness" only in two later articles,
> > in 1935 and 1946); but the conceptual distinctions are richly illustrated.
> > Today I've been taking extensive notes on relevant passages in Dewey's
> > article; but this post is already way too long, so I'll confine myself to
> > just one passage that might be of interest for how it locates these issues
> > in relation to concerns within the history of psychology:
> > Dewey writes (ew.5.99) that
> > "... the reflex arc idea leaves us with a disjointed psychology, whether
> > viewed from the standpoint of development in the individual or in the race,
> > or from that of the analysis of the mature consciousness. As to the former,
> > in its failure to see that the arc of which it talks is virtually a
> circuit,
> > a continual reconstitution, it breaks continuity and leaves us nothing
> but a
> > series of jerks, the origin of each jerk to be sought outside the
> process of
> > experience itself, in either an external pressure of "environment," or else
> > in an unaccountable spontaneous variation from within the "soul" or the
> > "organism.""3
> > the footnote:
> > >3 It is not too much to say that the whole controversy in biology
> > regarding the source of variation, represented by Weismann and Spencer
> > respectively, arises from beginning with stimulus or response instead of
> > with the co-ordination with reference to which stimulus and response are
> > functional divisions of labor. The same may be said, on the psychological
> > side, of the controversy between the Wundtian "apperceptionists"
> >
> > [Footnote Page Break ew.5.100]
> > and their opponents. Each has a disjectum membrum of the same organic
> whole,
> > whichever is selected being an arbitrary matter of personal taste.
> >
> >

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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