Alfred Lang

University of Bern, Switzerland

Conference Presentation 1994

Adopted or attained --

a semiotic attempt to overcome the person-metaphor


@Pers @SemEcoPro

50/ 63KB  Last revised 98.10.26

Semi-revised Contribution, Conference on "Metaphor", Académie du Midi, Nyer, 24.-28.5.1994

© 1998 by Alfred Lang

Scientific and educational use permitted

Home ||






One of the most consequential metaphors might be seen in the occidental concept of the person. In European history of ideas "person" is said to originally mean the borrowed or adopted identity of a role or mask. In a sort of inversion of meaning the term then became the epitome of the self-active agency, namely being a subject a priori, attributed firstly to God, then also conveyed to humans. In masking its emptiness the concept was even pushed to the "end in itself". Thus a strange limitation of the concept to human individuals arose which has perhaps been bolstered by the exclusive attribution of consciousness to persons. This collides markedly with the facts of collective identity as well as collective activity which, compared with individual action, obviously has much greater and more sustainable effects, both in face to face and in formalized cultures. Presumably, this conception paradoxically predisposed modern instrumentalisation of the person. Legal constructions of the corporate person probably rather expose than solve the problems of the conception.

In contrast and taking up pertinent deliberations of Charles Peirce and some of his followers, the author attempts to further a semiotic conception of the person as a task or character to be dialogically attained in a culture. Semiosis is essentially the generation of sign characters. The interpretation of signs is in truth the production of new signs. Any somewhat complex sign character including the totality of what we understand by "person" proves to be a dynamic memory of its history and, in consequence, is the inclusive organisation or foundation of its effect potential. The author examines some preconditions and bearings of sign characters of the specific kind which we are ready to call "person". The leading principle proposed is asymmetric system differentiation with a generality-singularity step.

What if we'd Think the "Person" as one in a Range of Emergences rather than Presuppose it as Uniquely Given?



Five Theses to: Adopted or attained -- a semiotic attempt to overcome the person-metaphor

1. We safeguard a notion ofthe individual human person as a self-sustainable agency and an end-in-itself. This can be seen as the historical product of a very "successful" metaphoric usurpation. For several centuries in Western culture this notion has been faithfully adopted and appears crucial in maintaining the illusion that individual human persons are conceived as in essence apriorily given, to be the essential source as well as the supreme single achievement of the human condition itself, rather than as one kind of entities to be processually attained among entities of similar and complementary character and potential.

2. Attempting to abstain from presupposing the person we can become free to observe and conceive of processes resulting in entities in general of the like of what we conceive as persons. Observation being blind if not governed by abduction, the basically formal notion of an open sign process is adopted as a guide instead of another prejudicing metaphor. However, a careful de-metaphorization of the sign concept is mandatory.

3. A couple of (mostly metaphoric) quotes from Charles S. Peirce

Man is a symbol (1866, Lowell Lecture XI, W1:494 = CP 7.583f.)

[...] what is man? To what real kind does the thinking, feeling, and willing being belong? We know that externally considered man belongs to the animal kingdom, to the branch of vertebrates, and the class of mammals; but what we seek is his place when considered internally; disregarding his muscles, glands, and nerves and considering only his feelings, efforts, and conceptions. We have already seen that every state of consciousness is an inference; so that life is but a sequence of inferences or a train of thought. At any instant then man is a thought, and as thought is a species of symbol, the general answer to the question What is man? is that he is a symbol. To find a more specific answer we should compare man with some other symbol.

I write here the word six. Now let us ask ourselves in what respects a man differs from that word. In the first place, the body of a man is a wonderful mechanism, that of the word nothing but a line of chalk. In the second place, the meaning of the word is very simple, the meaning of a man is a very Sphynx's question. These two differences are very obvious,-- they lie upon the surface. But what other difference is there?


A person is like a cluster of stars (1893, MS 403; also quoted in Colapietro 1989 etc.

Sense [...] presents, in the third place, a manifold of consciousnesses, now segregated into distinct persons, as it seems to us. And in this seeming there is some truth, much truth, although personality, on both sides, that of the unification of all of a body's experiences, and that of the isolation of different persons, is much exaggerated in our natural ways of thinking, -- ways that tend to puff up the person, and make him think himself far more real than he veritably is. A person is, in truth, like a cluster of stars, which appears to be one star when viewed with the naked eye, but which scanned with the telescope of scientific psychology is found on the one hand, to be multiple within itself, and on the other hand to have no absolute demarcation from a neighhoring condensation.


We are in thoughts rather than thougt is in us (1866, Some consequences of the four incapacities, CP 5.289n = EP1:42)

Accordingly, just as we say that a body is in motion, and not that motion is in a body, we ought to say that we are in thought, and not that thought is in us.


A diagrammatic or formal notion of the sign (1xxx), NEM 4:45)

We must begin by getting a diagrammatic notion of signs from which we strip away, at first, all reference to the mind; and after we have made those ideas just as distinct as our notion of prime number or of an oval line, we may then consider, if need be, what are the peculiar characteristics of a mental sign, and in fact may give a mathematical definition of a mind, in the same sense in which we can give a mathematical definition of a straight line [...]


4. The dyadic or static semiology in the Saussurean tradition essentially proposes the interpretation of signs characters through mental meaning; the evolutionary, triadic and thus dynamic Peircean semiotic universe suggests the sign process to transform signs through signs into new or other signs. Emphasizing that aspect of the production or generation of signs and exemplifying it in reference to an evolving system of humans in their cultural environment it is proposed to complement the notion of Semiosis with the notion of the Semion in order to better be able to describe what becomes possible based on memory over time.

5. Semiosis thus is the structure production process and Semions are those structures generated and being preserved as the results or memory of that process. What distinguishes semiosis and semion is, however, nothing but relative speed. Semions can be replicated by further semiosis, often under variation; some of those varied semions will be selected in further semiosis and thus can develop their potential in further selective structure production processes ad infinitum. This presupposes nothing but sets of affine signs, yet it constitutes an evoutionary dialogueregulated in its next few steps exclusively by its own history up to any present point. It can be seen as constitutive and regulative of all bio-psycho-socio-cultural world including its time and that type of entity we happen to call "person". The proposed notions open a break to dissolve all kinds of substantive dualisms.



Notes for Oral Presentation

I am no metaphor specialist; so I give you simply an impression of how I use the term.

Let me assume the expression "person" to originally imply a metaphor, i.e. a paradox predication turned into a seemingly verbatim term or proposition, or, as I like call it, a sleeping metaphor.

For example, when I say to my friend: What a wonderful person you are! that is, though nice, quite trivial; when I said the same in some antique or early medieval setting, she could have become upset; for this could have meant to her that I assumed she was playing roles, and that she be able to put on and off her identity like her clothes, or that I assumed her to be of divine character, one of the persons in God. It must have been clear to her that I did not mean her to be God or a mask or a figure in a play or a function in the legal system. Now, some, of course, like exactly to play with such multiple facets of themselves which we today prefer to call roles.

In view of such examples I tend to use "metaphor" near the sense of a rhetoric device, namely an impertinent (Paul Ricoeur) composite term or proposition.

That is at the same time true and false:

A metaphor is a paradox firstly intriguing and then to hold out: Dialektik ohne Versöhnung, dialectic without reconciliation, to use a phrase of Georg Simmel; but usable and used metaphors (not newly invented and surprising ones) do as if reconciliation had taken effect.

A metaphor in its purest is a semaphor -- it warns of a trap while indicating a truth.

But, unfortunately, it cannot last, it shall have to be resolved sooner rather than later: the verbatim yields and the figurative has the field of certain contexts, but at the same time it looses its rhetoric power.

So most to all metaphorology has to be archeology. It has to uncover the history of that reconciliation.

Is it so that all metaphors are eventually resolved to become harmless additions to common vocabulary in that words become applicable in another meaning to subjects where it they don't really fit, such as the working phone or the typewriter or the computer (who both have been persons and are now merely things)?

I think not, and the fate of expressions like person or subject are cases in point.

It appears, that the idea of one human to be at the same time one entity and potentially many entities, or to be at once a matter and a master, could not in the long spread its impertinence beyond the world of the theatre or the administration offices. Rather, according to my hypothesis, it perverted into that idea of comprehensive unity and autonomy of the human single individual up and into the present ideologies of self-fulfillment.

So these are metaphors where the impertinent new meaning yielded in spite of its name taking over. And where some meaning occupied the field that is perhaps neither the original nor the impertient.

This seems most interesting, indeed. So I propose to look at that branching and further change in the history of these ideas. When a metaphor's name took over while its meaning went to sleep.

What I want to present then in response is just a great abductive project: How could things perhaps look like when that metaphor of the person had not gone sleeping etc.

So, today, I'd like to:

  1. present some aspects of the history and use of that important expression of Person.
  2. object to that pervasive and pivotal notion of the individual person and pose the problem as a task to be solved rather than a apriori found;
  3. imply, with Charles Peirce, that what we understand as persons can meaningfully be entered into the context of sign processes;
  4. sketch a semiotic conception that understands sign interpretation as the production of sign characters;
  5. venture some possibilities of an evolutionary minded semiotic to give person-like entities new manifestation and functions in the psycho-socio-cultural system.

Find the essence of the five parts on the thesis sheet.


1. The Metaphors of PERSON and ROLE

Person and the Role and their respective notions and habits are certainly two key terms in social intercourse; and the former in the variant of the knowing and acting Subject is crucial in philosophical and moral discourse. However I shall not enter into the problems of the latter two except for an occasional hint.

But it's inevitable to give at least some bird's eye view on the history and use of these metaphoric notions. I confess to be full dilettant in this endavour, all traps and lucks lurking and hitting; however I am eager to learn from your comments

Take first some examples:

These are obviously harmless, strangely latent or sleeping metaphors, highly habituated and so well integrated into everday language, that they have almost completely lost their impertinence. Or perhaps not?

Nelson Goodman (in Languages of Art, 1968:69) caught the essence of metaphor unsurpassingly when he described it as "an affair between a predicate with a past and an object that yields while protesting". But we obviously have to include cases where the affair develops quite differently. What if the object never protests while the predicate yields anyway, shrouding its past, and then carrying away a doubtful Pyrrhus' victory over the object?

I try to illustrate this with some excerpts of the history of the Person-Metaphor

Person: Persona (so say etymologists, sometimes with hesitation, but there is no serious alternative, whether it is etymologically derived, rightly or not, from the Latin per-sonare or from the etruskian jersu or from the Greek prosopon) is originally the mask donned by the actor, then the character played, i.e. the role in the play. Then it has gradually become the designation for human individuals, both in general and in their individual peculiarity (personality).

The essence of today's use appears to have become common in some sense already in antique Rome, though persona appears in the main limited to special discourse fields such as the judicial and administrative systems; but the antique persona remains nearer to our presentday use of "role".

Persona in the Christian tradition comes into use for the three persons in God which first appear still nearer to our "role" or function than to our "person" concept of a self-existing and responsible and rational entity. Yet the triunity notion obviously and understandably presentd some truly grave problems (Augustine, Apollinaris of Laodikeia and others). The solution carrying victory of that great competition appears to be that of Boethius, namely that Person is a singular (not an universal) substance (not a principle): persona est naturae rationabilis individua substantia, i.e. the rationable substantive individual*. Soon, the unity of the person's self-activity is the most important character. Persona not only sounds through it self (Remigius von Auxerre), but it also is or exists as one by it self (est per se una (Godelsac von Orbais, 9th c.). What is first said only of the three persons in God, or limited to Jesus Christ Himself (Abaelard) is soon transposed to human persons to become that what has its nature. When, finally, the character of substance is thrown out, we have something like the subject in the modern sense which is a fully singular existence and which is a res iuris distinguished by its dignity and power. The history of the notion through schlastic period is extended and full of variations given up (vgl. Ritter & Gründer Vol. 7 1989). Evidently, these developments in the notion of the person are an indispensable precondition of the movemnt to modernity that starts with scholastic nominalism and goes through Renaissance and Reformation more or less directly to the Age of Enlightenment and Modernity.

* The funny thing is that this implies a separation between the formerly coordinated notions of mask and role. Boethius is said to not have been aware of the role metaphor.

So Person becomes the Unity that thinks and acts rationally and is the Subject of rights and thus has dignity and power. Even if the person is primarily bound to the immortal soul; it is seen capable of borrowing it also to the body.

In most European languages in the later middle-age persona looses its connotation to the theatre stage; later on the term role takes its former place; at the same time persona gains the meaning of that passive and active entity towards which social acts are directed and from which all rational agency is thought to originate.

There is a tendency to reserve personhood to people of certain standing, whatever that means, nobility, official function, etc.

Often there is also a limitation of denying personhood, naturally with legal consequences, to human individuals restricted in their normal functions. person-status.

By analogy human corporations or institutions can be given juridical person-status.

Role: In the sense of the script for an actor in a play written on a role of paper becomes common in various languages from the late 16th and 17th century. In the 18th metaphorical use of social position or function in everday life gains place, esp. in the phrasing of "to play a role", i.e. the role of somebody else, e.g. as an impostor or "in a double role". The modern socio-psychological use of one person possessing several roles appears to be a 20th century invention (Mead, Goffman).

Subject: The term originally refers quite certainly to that matter that is taken as the ground or basis or subjectum of some judgment, that of which something is assumed to be true or not; so that is quite passive a matter or what we call today an object, an item, a theme, a motive. This subject corresponds in linguistic structures to the substantia of which something is predicated and which becomes the (part of speech) subject of a sentence, i.e. still a thing of which something is said, at least in passive voice. It is probably not before the mid 17th that "subject", in bureaucratic language, becomes a person in dependent or subordinate position, later even of disreputable character. It is in philosophy of the 18th century that "subject" acquires the meaning of a "consciously apprehending and acting living being, i.e. the human individual or ego. Only in the 19th century the terms like "subjective"," subjectivity", or "subjectivism" acquire the shade of personal or unobjective.

So, to Hausman's (1989:8 et passim) key thesis that metaphor is integral not only to all art forms and to philosophical discourse and scientific theorizing, I am tempted to add that metaphor of the kind I am dealing with was indispensable in understanding and governing social intercourse, formal and informal, including its scientific reflexion.

By formal and informal social intercourse I refer to fundamental institutions such as human rights and all kinds of law or, respectively, to cultural traditions including social norms which pertain to all forms of everyday interaction with dead and living entities around us, in so far interaction quite radically varies with the attributed subject-, personhood- or role-character of those entities.


2. Presuppose vs. Research it

From the little of what I have presented of the archeology of the person metaphor, I think, we should be both:

(a) impressed by the enormous amount of energy and social effort that has gone into what we have today;

(b) unimpressed by that very history on the grounds that it could as well have gone otherwise.

What strikes me anyhow is the fact that this process of lying to sleep an impertinent psycho-social metaphor and perverting original multiplicity into unity -- later on almost the prototype of unity of both, knowledge and morals -- is a primarily a social process among some thelogians and officials of public affairs; has no logical necessity, is full of accidentialities and, above all, happens quite removed from the actual everyday social life.

I mean it is not an empirically guided process of optimization of notions of the kind we today ideally expect from scientific endeavors. The metaphors involved, however important in defining the problem they were, have not been substituted by functional considerations about their field.

I like to cloth that evaluation into the (perhaps over) simple opposition between the supposed vs. the researched, the canonic vs .the regulated, something quasi axiomatic vs. something to be negotiated.

So here is the point to start my abductive fantasy: what if the person-metaphor had retained its impertinence?

If instead of the logification of the person notion towards that abstract unitary subject a history of semiotization had happened that ventured into cultivating that impertinent tension of, say, my friend being at the same time my one friend and yet several faces or characters or developmental potentials. And into the observation that my friend and I myself feel and act rather differently to some extent depending on the situation, the group of which we are a part, at this or that occasion. In short that to be reasonably as persons you cannot separate us from the various sets of contexts of which we are necessarily a part.

I spoke of semiotization of the person field instead of its logification. Let me honour the man who opened my eyes in that respect and gave the promising tools to enter the endeavor:


3. PERSONS and similar entities are "SIGNS"

On the Handout you find a couple of quotes of Charles Peirce on man or the person.

It is true, Peirce did not offer a fully developed semiotic theory of the person. But there are quite a number of his considerations here and there in his notes that are pertinent. I gratefully acknowledge the lead in this endeavor of more experienced Peirceans such as Milton Singer, Vincent Colapietro, Helmut Pape and others.


Obviously, this is the most radical anthropo-de-centration you could imagine.

In case you should want to object that there always must be a subject doing the description of the "thought" we humans are supposed to dwell in, I would ask you back to describe me the "subject" that achieved the description of humans as rationable individual substances. It certainly was not an rational individual but rather a multifarious and contingent medley of processes extending over many centuries and thousands or millions of contributors and selectors.

Sure when humans are to be understood as symbols, or, rather, as parts of symbol systems and symbol systems themselves, that is another kind of axiomatic.

Is it metaphoric? Maybe, maybe not. I'd like to leave that to the discussion. Let's see where it can lead us to.

Or ist it metaphysical? In what respect? Is the person concept, as we use it today, a metaphysical concept? I am sure it is. The history of this second metaphysical tradition besides the more common epistemological one has just started to be seen. (cf. Kobusch, Theodor (1994) Die Entdeckung der Person -- Metaphysik der Freiheit und modernes Menschenbild. Freiburg i.B., Herder. 300 Pp.)

So the question of dealing with the roots of our metaphors has shifted into the task of finding or creating a theory of the sign process suitable to apply to entities of which we believe social intercourse to originate from and to be directed to.

And at the same time this will have to be a theory that is capable of explicating the becoming and passing of such entities, their constitution as well as their regulation within the psycho-socio-cultural fabric of which they are important agents and patients.

In other words of something that is attained in social psycho-socio-cultural intercourse rather than taken from some theology or philosophy cabinet and adopted, be it under pressure or free will.

It will not suffice to metaphorically bind their existence and some of its characters to some other, presumably better known entities such as an immortal soul or an individual human organism, "normal" in psychiatric or legal terms or not.


4. Sign Interpretation is Sign Production

Naturally, it is impossible in the remaining minutes to give more than an impresssion of how I embark upon that task. Let me do it by

firstly sketching a version of Peircean semiotic that I find repeatedly in the papers he had printed and left, but that he himself somehow neglected in favor of another version that in turn has become the backbone of the majority of his interpreters.

secondly, I shall then show how this can be made fruitful towards an understanding the human condition and a new notion of that species of which "person" might be an special kind.


The version of Peircean semiotic I prefer might best described by starting from his notion of the sign process as a generation rather than simply an interpretation process, or, better, that sign interpretation is necessarily sign production.

Peirce mostly presents semeiosis under the perspective of sign interpretation. And he does not always stick to his own advice to focus on the formal rather than the mental in the sign process, when he, for instance, in a letter to Lady Welby of 1904, describes "A sign [a]s something by knowing which we know something more."

Interpretation, naturally, is only half the story, at most. For, if we are to interpret signs, they must have come into existence before. And our interpretations, when not made available to some further interpretation, would be pure chimeras. And since the majority of signs we can find to deal with by interpreting them are human-made, it is fit to look into the process of sign creation.

In the interest of my reformulations being assimilable, let me focus in what follows on living organisms generating sign characters; but the idea is more general.

Imagine, e.g., an ant going out for nutritives. It naturally leaves a trace of its proper proteins on the way it goes. This is a case of sign generation. There is a source: the animal being in the state of going out. There is a mediation: the animal's secretion at its feet being increased over normal levels. And there is a result: of the ant's specific molecules are being spread over the path it walks. Obviously , the whole process is part of the natural endowment of the ant.

Let 's adopt a suitable terminology to more formlly describe the process and its result and the required context in its continuity:

The process described is a type example of Semiosis, an undissoluble triadic relation manifesting an acting of the animal into and upon its environment. Focussing the animal we can speak of an ExtrO-semiosis.

The ant's state or disposition while going out is the Referent of the triad.

Its "apparatus" or capability to secrete molecules of a certain kind at its feet and thus change those parts of the environment where it passes by I call an Interpretant because it interprets the state and activity of the animal into a peculiar sign character.

The latter, in fact, the marked or signed environment, I term the Presentant. It is what common-sensically is named a sign. The kind of entity Sherlock Holmes is looking for when he tries to understand a particular riddle of the world.

Note that Peirce mostly names the latter an Interpretant (of the sign and its object); presumably because he so often, perhaps as "a sop to Cerberus", deals with it in the special case of a mental meaning created in the mind of an interpreter.

In the sequence of consecutive interpretations of some object, however, in his conception, the interpretant then shifts role and also takes on the character of a sign to be interpreted again. So it appears that my terminology avoids an ambiguity inherent in his. If the distinctions needs to be made, I speak of the mediating interpretant.

In sum, while Peirce sees the sign as a mediator between an object or referent and an interpretant or meaning and thus riskily approaches a dyadic notion of the sign process, my emphasis on sign production claims some given state of the world to be interpreted into a new or changed state of the world which is a sign or preserves a memory of that change.

Another, even more general way of describing the essential in triadic semiosis is to point out that one entity, the referent, in an encounter with another entity, its interpretant, produces a third entity, the latter keeping memory of the encounter and making it available for further "interpretation" of similar kind.

Now this is remarkable because the described way of the ant's changing its environment is an attainment of bioevolution that is not at all self-sustained but rather is continuus and complementary with another evolutionary attainment of the species and of many other animals, namely their sensory and discriminating capabilities to discover the ant's trace, distinguish it from other states of the world and "infer" (or if this sounds to anthropomorphic to you) to "know" about its origin, namely to behave as if an ant had passed by. This rarely fails in nature. While ants of the same stock use that sign character to unerringly follow the way of their sisters and so increase their harvest, other animals use it to being directed to their selfish gourmand's delight etc..

In other words, other ants and ant-eaters read the signs left by our target ant. What do they actually do, when they "read" those traces?

I believe, they do what can be described as another type case of exactly the same notion of semiosis. I.e. they refer to a source, the trace or referent; the have an interpretant, namely their sensory and discriminating-categorizing system, catching and interpreting certain crucial features of that trace; and finally this results in some structure storing and presenting the outcome of that encounter for further use to other systems, such as their locomotion governor. The only difference is that this production of a new sign character happens to occur within their organisms, primarily within their central nervous systems and its appendixes, if you like. Whether the trace is transitory or to some extent in time enduring is unimportant as long as it is seen that it is essential in governing that second animal's motor behavior.

Now your are probably not used to that use of the concept of sign. You cannot go and easily find and point to those internal sign carriers, it's buried deep in the CNS; we do not knows at all in what exact form it exists there. But sure it must exist if it is capable to governing locomotion to the effect of nourishing the beast. You cannot go and directly interpret that sign's meaning; but the ant or the ant-eater do it for you when they demonstrate their beeing lead by such a sign. What else could you assume the ant or ant-eater to do? How can they use the trace to follow ? Perhaps put the molecule into their brain? The only reasonable thing I can imagine is a sign process, i.e. they create a rather specific type of structure like the ant traced on the ground, except this time it's created in their own brain. I call that an IntrO-semiosis, insofar the perceptual mediaters present some character of the animal's surround into its brain.

ExtrO- and IntrO-semiosis thus generally conceived by one and the same formal device are fully descriptive of the intercourse between simple living entities and their environment. Together they constitute what Jakob von Uexküll called the Function Circle. They constitute structures both within and around organisms; and these structures are affine to each other, here in a complementary sense.

Note that the internal (brain-mind) structures need not at all be pictures or representations in any special sense of the external ones; nor vice versa the external of the internals. Like all functional signs they should include iconic and indexical moments but are mostly symbolic in the sense, that they rise from habits that could as well be somewhat different to do their job. All that is needed to keep a biotope or ecosystem of a heterogeneous set of plants and animals alive is that a systems of such sign processes is composed of structures that are to some degree affine to each other and thus can influence each other and take advantage of each other by sign processes in a relatively consistent way.

I claim that processes of elementary semiosis to be constitutive for life in general as well as for the so-called higher processes characteristic of humans in culture; whether you describe them as organic or as information processes, they are of this triadic type of structure formation or actualization based on encounters of two pre-existing formed structures. But I cannot go into that for reasons of time; only give some hints.

You realize that this type of process is well suited to carry the selection phase of bioevolution in that those beast equipped with instincts fitting the actual environment they enter will thrive while those with a minus in affinity will perchance have lesser or no breed of their kind.

Amazingly, I can advance the same model to describe also the variation phase of bioevolution: seeing the genes in the germ cells of parent individuals as a referent; the random mutative or semi-systematic recombinant process as an interpretant; and the resulting fertilized egg or seed as a presentant.

Also the formation of the individual can be described as a semiosic triad: the fertilized egg or seed now in the role of the referent; the suitable milieu with its bundle of optimal conditions such as temperature, humidity, assimilable matter and energy etc. as an interpretant; and the grown organism with its specific characters, morphological and behavioral dispositions, as a outcome or presentant which is kind of proffered to the respective environment to undergo its peculiar fate.

You might object to my using that one simple notion of productive elementary semiosis to explain so great a variety of manifestations of life. Elementary semiosis is a purely descriptive device of high abstraction. That exactly is its force, namely to point out of all kinds of processes their structure formative power. In fact it is another protoype of causation, the one that is neither of necessity nor simply random, but rather that with can create of given structures and small random events unpredictable, yet systematic evolution.

Maybe an instructive proto-model of this is the system of chemical valences of atoms forming molecules under suitable conditions such as suitable energetic and catalyzing conditions. The valencies of the ions involved can be seen as a kind of proto-affinity; it certainly constrains the sort of things to come to the fore. Yet that process is definitely more primitive than elementary semiosis because it does not imply an evolutive progress. The essential difference being that affinity among the various sorts of ions capable of reacting among each other is finite and given, while in the case of semisic ions or Semions it is itself a product of that evolution.

So the structures produced in long and branching chains of elementary semioses in biotopic systems of the kind described become increasingly complex while maintaining high, yet differing degrees of affinity. Remember that those structures are always presentents of a series of semioses and so present, in principle, nothing less than the whole history of their becoming when they enter another semiosis in the role of either referent or interpretant. Near-replication of structures is one type of result of elementary semioses; another one is production of quite different yet functionally affine structures such as organisms from genomes in suitable environments or specific wayfinder-traces from outgoing ant's organisms etc.

Although they behave completely according to the chemo-physical laws governing that type of structures, they are physico-chemically extremly unlikely structures; contrary to what phyisico-chemical law can deal with, they are the carriers of a large variety of unique historical processes. This is exactly because they always carry both the burden and the potentials of their particular strands of memory upon which further structures are built. As long as there is an element of chance effective in which of the affine structures encounter which other at a given moment in time we can observe the theatre of an open evolution. Note that no natural law is ever hurt; yet with increasing variety and complexity of the affine structures involved the outcome is quite unpredictable except in probability terms in the next few steps.

Structures in such systems -- I think mainly of large molecules, of cells and cell parts and cell systems -- produce further structures or system states whose description in terms of the molecular composition soon approaches the unattainable. Also such structures soon gain emerging characters and capacities that forces description towards higher levels or scope. One might be tempted to speak of them in terms of information or in terms of meaning; however, both of these terminologies carry grave disadvantages from their context of use. I have found it suitable, in a semiotic perspective, to name these structures Semions. The Ion-part of the name reminds of the affinity, the Sem-part of their potential to give rise to emergent effects beyond their physico-chemical qualities.

In fact, I come, from this perspective, to a definition of the sign as those structures which, when brought into a suitable milieu, can have effects that you would not predict from their own qualities. And this is just another formulation of the triadic relation, pointing to a referent structure and an interpretant milieu producing or actualizing another presentant structure.


5. Dialogic Evolutionary Semion

I have described elementary semiosis and their combination in the Function Circle connecting organisms and their environment on purpose with the simple example of a relatively primitive animal; I have hopefully succeeded in demonstrating you the evolutionary potential of that kind of fundamental Peircean notion.

Now we come to apply this conception to processes of higher complexity including animals such as humans and their complex cultural world. I believe it is possible to describe that expansion of the evolutionary scope to symbolizing individuals in their diverse and changing cultural worlds by a relatively simple expansion of the same principles, namely the addition of two other semiotic phases to the Function circle.

I cannot here explain in detail my view of the relation between what we usually see as the organic vs. the higher, mental, spiritual etc. level. Let me just say that I see no strong reason to assume anything like a dep break or gap. Rather, I think, it is a difference in quantity, an in increase, and indeed a huge increase, say, comparing even the great apes or the sea mammals with humans, of the semiotic potential both cerebrally within organisms and, at least of same importance, culturally between organisms, a great increase that enables the emergence of qualitative differences.

I think it one of the crucial consequential assumption of human's self-conceptions, that they have always assumed to be special and endowed with an extra-faculty beyond those of all animals. Already Herder, in the late 18th century, cleary saw that all these human capabilities including language could result from increase and combination of existing competencies and needed no idiosyncratic addition.

While ExtrO- and the IntrO-semiosis connect an individual of our interest to its invironment in its active and receptive aspects, we have to conceive of semiosic systems and processes outside of our individual and similarly, semioses and semions within the organism in question. I term the latter the IntrA-, the former the ExtrA- phases of the Function circle.

I will not be able in the available time to tell you more than essentials about the ExtrA-phase. Let me only mention that, in humans, this pertains to what is usually called the cultural system.

Remember that structures created by ExtrO-semiosis of any given individual, the traces of their actions, are profferred to other humans, including oneself. This type of semiosis includes some states of the animal as referents, some of which we would describe to be "mental", intentions etc.; the typical actions systems such as motor and humoral patterns, including action by hands, feet and mouth, including speech with linguistic competence, would serve the role of interpretants; and, finally, as presentants the product, a smaller or larger, momentanteous or lasting change of the world. Think in addition to all sorts of text, linguistic or other, including mimetic patterns, elements of spatial and temporal order, tools, clothing, houses, objects of cult, game, art etc. Those changes would be taken up or not, immediately or later on, by others in their IntrO-semiosis, on the condition that those presentents from the other people's ExtrOs would be sufficiently affine to serve as their IntrO's Referents. So we see a dense web of dialogue evolving in time among people in the groups having intensive commerce, a looser web among people having less intercourse; the former readily grows into what is called a cultural tradition, the latter might be identified with the fruitful, yes, irrenouncable exchanges between cultures.

However, I should introduce and illustrate yet another important principle, namely that of asymmetric system differentiation, which is easier to grasp from the individual-culture relation but will be especially important in semiotically understanding the person.

First, I should remind you of the general system character of all the relatively highly affine structures brought about within a tradition. Imagine a group with its culture as a very large Semion. However, of the full set of possible semiosic relations between all of its parts, only a small subset will ever be actualized in time and leave memory to be referred to later in time or to be distributed ov er space in the case of external memory. So there are, territorially spoken, denser and looser regions. Organisms obviously show a denser condensation, to use Peirces metaphor, than the space between them; their mind-brains are even denser; so are other semions like, say, libraries or museums in comparison to, say, football fields, while the latter are perhaps more densily in terms of semiosis than the former. But, sure, that's relative to who is looking at it.

Now look at one individual human in the semiosic field of affine-to-her structures. In a way, she has developed a parallel Semion within her mind-brain to the semion external to her; in Peirce's term, both of them, internal and external structures are frozen and thawable habits. But remember, both, internal and external structures are semions only due to this semiotic correspondence. For example, a table is just a piece of wood in a strange form to someone not having an internal semion of tablehood that turns the wood into a socio-cultural device to gather people in a small group for special intercourse like eating and working together. You would agree that these internal structures are to some extent imperfect, partial, not complete duplicates of the corresponding external ones. Knowledge, as you might call it, is selective, and most important, general, categorical, in respect to its referents.

A corollary of this would be that the internal system would have more freedom in respect to its referent, i.e. not every fact and law constraining the physical and social events in the environment would also constrain their semiosic or symbolic, if you like, counterpart in the brain-mind, where the laws governing the symbolizing medium, on the other hand, would bring their own constraints. However, the internal semion could easily assume all kinds of states the external could not. Now to the extent that the internal semion is all along a part of the whole system comprising the individual in question and her environment, this personal part of it could influence the larger system in a sort of governing function. Naturally this would have to go through the ordinary channels of ExtrO-semiosis.

Now most of these smaller or larger historical changes do not depend on one single individual but rest usually on a larger set of semions combined and gaining a certain degree of coherence or special affinity such as in formal institutions or informal collectives. Here we find the one side of Peirce's "cluster of stars" figuration which has "no absolute demarcation from a neighboring condensation". In other passages he uses the term corporate person to refer to those super-individual agencies in a socio-cultural system.

To make it more concrete, say if one guy builds a house at same place where the other people used to pass, they will be forced to make a detour; if they do not succeed in convincing him to build his house somewhere else. Or if one would accomplish in convincing most others of his groupd to go out for war against those fellows on the other side of the mountain, or if one would come off with a gadget all his fellows could not resist to want to posses and use in their daily life, he would bring quite a bit of change into those psycho-socio-cultural systems and might become the celebrated or comdemned leader of a fundamental tradition change.

Asymmetric system differentiation in a semiotic view is a powerful organizing device. Viewed from the perspective of the individual(s), it appears to include design, creativity, planning, willing, enforcement, mastership and submission etc. In the perspective of the system observed it is just self-organisation and the potential of directed change or historical evolution. Whether to the better or worse of what parts of the system, further developments will reveal.

Now, finally, let's look at asymmetric system differentiation within individuals.

I would presume this to happen already in less complex organisms; however, their dominant trait is their obvious binding into their proper environmental systems by way of quite obligatory instincts.

With a larger cerebrum, as I said, there is an increase in degrees of freedom. What I just described as an a bit biased dialogue between an organism or person and her environment can emerge in similar fashion within the mind-brain itself as a sort of dialog between some subsystem and its larger mind-brain "environment". Such subsystems might be in part prepared by bio-evolutionary formation; but their functionality they gain only with their use. I cannot enough emphasize that, contrary to the idea of splendid isolation of the mind from the rest of the world prevailing in Western history of ideas, the formation of internal semions is unthinkable without external correspondants.

The idea of this internal differentiation, however, should have become understandable. Some semions, in that they gain relative independence from their environment yet remain part of it, can become a directive agency to steer the behavior of that larger semion in certain directions of their development. you can imagine group of cells or groups of synapses; the need not be anatomically distinct though they can and often to; but essential is their functinal relative autonomy.

So here we have a glimpse on the other side of Peirce's "cluster of stars": that a person, when "scanned with the telescope of scientific psychology is found on the one hand, to be multiple within itself". Obviously, his vision of the psychological telescope was wishful thinking so far.

Considering the present knowledge we have about psychological functions, I have so far found it fit to distinguish mainly four such internal sub-semions relatively separate from the general cognitive-motivational mainstream going between the presentents of IntrO- and the referents of ExtrO-semiosis and demonstrating that special freedom within the system to make them suitable to carry such governing function that we traditionally ascribe to the individual person as a whole or then tend to restrict to its rational part. These might be termed according to the manifest mode of symbolization:

an actualization system or immediate experience, where the indixical relation to the supersemion is most prominent,

an imaginative system, where the iconic aspects of this relation is dominant,

a linguistic system with emphasis on symbolisation, and finally,

a coordination and evaluation system, often described as the self, i.e. a sort of arbiter in cases of conflict or mutual inhibition among other subsytems.



Let me close with a comment on the main title of this paper: adopted or attained. I don't like it. It's the compromise I settled on when I played with possible metaphors suiting my purpose.

Adopted? That's just wrong, as the multiple person idea was not, only its name was adopted; and also rather kind in view the divine detour of this theatre metaphor. It should rather say: stolen or usurped; or perhaps: recycled. Now, such would be impertinent, indeed.

Attained? That's again not exactly what I wanted to express, when you think , say, of the world champion type of sportive or scientific achievements oriented towards ever higher goals. More to the point might be expressions like: reared, raised, formed, shaped, ...; but they all appear to refer to something pre-existing, at least germ-like; I am looking for a term to express some combination of coming into existence by differentiation and integration, while it is cultivated incessantly, through its context as well as by itself, along the force lines within the field of which it has won its distinction.

Perhaps you can kindly help me to find the most fitting and suitably impertinent metaphor.

Inhalt | Top of Page