Alfred Lang

University of Bern, Switzerland

Conference Contribution 1998

The Dwelling Activity:

Cultural Psychology in Semiotic Ecology Perspective


@Method @SemEco @DwellTheo

19 / 28KB  Last revised 98.10.24

Outline of Presentation or Extensive Abstract

NORFA Graduate Course/Summer School for the Nordic-Baltic Region, in the Field Of Activity Theory, Tartu, May 9-15, 1998

© 1998 by Alfred Lang

Scientific and educational use permitted

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I. Scientific Inquiry in an Evolutive World

II. Concrete Dwelling Research

III. How to Conceive Dwelling? -- Theoretical Perspectives

IV. Semiotic Ecology Essentials

V. Science and Polity in Evolutiv Domains


Recommended Reading:

1993_noncartesian_artefacts.html |

1997_innen_aussen_Wohnen &Schaer.html |

1998_kulturpsychologie erlangen.html


This contribution presents and illustrates the basics of semiotic ecology as a conceptual system proposed to help understanding the human condition as cultural as well as biotic, and also as individual as well as social, and so avoiding these and more traditional dualistic breaks.



I. Scientific Inquiry in an Evolutive World

To begin with I shall attempt to give an impression of what I understand by doing science in an openly evolutive world (of which science, naturally, is an ordinary part as any other cultural tradition). Here are some statements developed on the basis of ideas and insights of Herder, Peirce, Dewey, Lewin and others; I shall comment upon some of them. These statements and, in fact, the whole of my contribution refer to a complex of evolutive and ecological facts and ideas implemented semiotically in view of conceiving of cultural phenomena. I sometimes abbreviate by "evosemecocult". Obviously, this all together means the human condition. Part I. is predominantly on the former, part IV on the latter two.

Terms: In spite of it not being in the dictionaries I use the term "evolutive" and prefer it to "evolutionary" because the former is more neutral as to connotations of progress etc. It should not create problems of understanding since it is formed in analogy to words like production / productive, creation / creative, nation / native etc.

1. Humans find themselves to be and really are delicate parts and important movers (conditioned by and conditions) of evolutive systems.

2. Being human is to become aware of their being part in some evolutions by means of internal and external symbolization (or, more generally, by reflexive or secondary "semionization"). (for these terms see items 12 to 16 below)

3. Scientists investigate conceptions, not facts: How are conceptions related to what they are claimed to (re)present? To what they may mean, denote, signify? To what they can do, generate, bring about, induce, attain, ...?

4. Conceptions are systems of relations among observables and inferentials refering to both real and possible / impossible facts and ideas. (Ideas are a kind of facts.)

5. Facts are structured events in space-time; some facets of them may be observed under various points of view. Thus facts are relational rather than substantial, in double respect, among each other and to an observer or to an interpretant in general.

6. Some facts are independent of anybody having ideas about them and thus real. Facts and ideas are reals insofar they can have effects. Ideas must be incoroporated in facts (i.e. they must be symbolic, or more generally semionic): otherweise they could not have effects. (This is not a materialist's position, as little as an idealist's; such a distinction is purely nominal, indeed, pure fiction. There is no unformed, unorganized matter pertinent.)

7. Facts may become manifest to observers as structures or as processes. This distinction is relative to an observer and thus, also, nominal. However, there is a real differentiation between structures resulting from processes and the processes forming structures. Structures incorporate and store processual relations; and processes must rely on structures, former and actual ones, if there is to result evolution. Real though relative differentiation between structure and process thus is a necessary precondition of evolution in general and probably of time.

8. Insofar reals can have effects that depend on context (and may surprise in other contexts) they are probably part of (conditioned by and condition of) an evolution and are conceived as semions. Semions embody, store and can bring to effect what is often called "meaning".

9. It is advised to segregate effects among things we can discern upon each other from effects these things have upon us observers. While the latter are required in order to capture the former, it is the former that interest while the latter are contaminated by ourselves and our preconceptions. Comparative procedures can largely filter out this contribution.

10. Conceptions are parts of larger conceptions and contain conceptions; isolated conceptions may be easier and seemingly useful but riskful because they cannot but refer to closed systems of facts while the facts may be connected beyond.

11. Instincts are proto-conceptions insofar they relate an animal with vital courses of events by recognition of key features from and execution of key actions into the environment; they are functionally most effective in stable environments.

12. The human animal is capable of symbolizing and more, of changing ("semionizing") itself as well as the environment more extensively and intensiveley than any other known animal. This includes:

13. "Symbolization" refers to a special and separate representation of something such as by its linguistic, mathematical, diagrammatic, modeling, emulation, or similar codification.

14. ""Semionization" refers to (re)presentation which may become part of the (re)presented.

15. Both kinds of (re)presentations are always under this or that point of view; symbolic representation tends to leave that circumstance implicit, semionic presentation makes it explicit. (Obvioulsy, in evolutive systems the latter is not only the older but also the general, the former a special case of it, not vice versa as human history of ideas often has it.) (See terminological remarks under IV. below)

16. The principal types of symbolization humans have so far cultivated are: the myths (worldly or religious); direct political discourse; the arts; the sciences. Types of internal and/or external semionization are habits, tools, things, buildings, techniques, preferences, knowledge, attitudes, etc. (Ritualization is a part of many of these endeavors; in pure form rituals may be symbolic semionizations, i.e. they are separate and special, yet concrete.)

17. After that long and errant way of psychological science it is advisable to study human-environment-systems or ecosystems rather than human individuals tel-quel, because it is the former which co-evolve while the latter cannot exist apart (on ecosystems see items 30ff. below). I definitely think we should study these systems from withouth ("von aussen her"), i.e. on the observable basis of what they express and how the influence their environment and not on what we suppose they are or have inside. Since there is no vantage point inside that may not be part and parcel of what we want to understand we cannot study ourselves from within.

18. Only by studying from an outside vantage point it is possible to investigate two or more ecosystems considering their their partial convergence in a common environment.

19. Obviously, communal acting rougly coordinated but not centrally governed will increase diversity in the changes induced both in the environment and in the individuals participating.

20. Increasing flexibilisation in the course of the evolutions on the biotic, the individual and the socio-cultural level concerns both the organismic/psychic and the environmental subsystems. It is important to understand the intertwinings of these three evolutive horizons.

21. Wheras instincts are most effective under constant conditions, conceptions, if realistically controlled, are the best known means of avoiding unbecoming courses of events in settings of less than perfect stability. They can help improving fitness (Passsung) among all three pairs of systems in governing induction of changes in all three types of evolving systems. (Cf. the methods of tenacity, authority and a priori as compared to scientific inquiry; Peirce, How to make our ideas clear 1878.)

22. Conceptions can serve to live decently in the long run by modeling parts of the relation between real past and possible future courses of events. Freedom (in particular freedom for ... in distinction from freedom of ...) is based on conceptual options and thus, contrary to dominant Western thought, ethics is not a realm separate from the epistemic but must be founded in conceptions of facts. (Cf. Herder's conception of man; Über den Ursprung der Sprache 1770/72; Auch eine Philosophie 1774; Ideen zur Geschichte der Bildung der Menschheit 1784ff.)

23. Observables, independently gathered and organized as well as systematically controlled, not simply produced, serve keeping conceptions realistic. (think of semiotic ecology as methodology)

24. The essential of conceptions lies in the way they relate observed and inferred facts and how those are related to possible and impossible facts, i.e. their notions of causation or condition-effect-sequences.

25. Definite or necessary laws cannot cover evolutive systems definitely; for evolution means the change of change conditions and even the evolution of evolutions (Dewey 1920).

26. Combining the ideal of lawfulness with the idea of chance sums into despicable conceptions as long as chance is presupposed rather than pointed out in how to come about.

27. Constructive methodology can setup constructs the referents of which may generate the open evolutive process including the evolution of change conditions and of evolutions although it specifiy in advance its course.

28. Purely functional laws are "empty"; mostly nominal. And a risk to serve particular interests. For they keep a goal or purpose in front and easily blend out side-effects and alternative ways to more comprehensive structures.

29. Structure formation, actualization, modification and demise is all resulting from interactions and transactions among structures. No other sources of effects are required, neither from inside nor from outside the world. (Interaction refers to direct and transient influence; transactiondesignates influence leaving changed conditions for further interaction; the latter is evolutive-dialogical.)

30. The principal precondition for biotic, individual and cultural evolutions are ecosystem, i.e. asymmetric systems differentiated into a living and an environmental subsystem. Ecosystems are concrete singular reals or tokens; they nearly replicate in types and so embody generals of this asymmetric differentiation. Ecosystems are not composed out of preexisting organisms and environments; rather the organismic parts emerge from the environs and environs and system kernels mutually constitute each other to varying degrees in co-evolution.

31. Ecosystems are in the main structural processes (Fliessgleichgewicht), each individual organism constituting its own environment (in the Uexküllian realist sense of Umwelt with Merkwelt and Wirkwelt). Seen from without all ecosystems are formed and exist within a common world or environmental surrounds (in the sense of Welt). Ecosysteme vary as to the degree and manner in which their Umwelten coincide or participate in common sets.

32. Ecosystems are necessarily evolutive systems and it is perhaps meaningful to conceive of all truly evolutive systems (on this planet, at least, biotic, individual and socio-cultural systems) as ecosystems. The cosmic and the chemical and mineral systems are also evolved and certainly precondition to further evolutions; yet they appear to lack the capacity of evolutive evolution, precisely because they are not generally asymmetric systems. Their parts do not learn to "know" of other parts but behave only under their direct influence.

33. Sciences of ecosystems can investigate (observe, manipulate, etc.) only concrete ecosystems; yet they want to create a general conception of ecosystems covering all of them, even of apparently different types, in order to become capable of comparative studies and in the hope of avoiding the assumption of discontinuity between the various evolutions.



II. Concrete Dwelling Research

Considering the human activity and the settings known by the name of dwelling (wohnen-Wohnung; habiter-habitat) I shall present some pertinent phenomena in ecological perspective, using both thought experiments and findings from research of the Bernese Environmental and Cultural Psychology Group. Naturally, we all know how to do "dwelling"; but do we understand its conditions, its effects? It is a human universal; yet it varies widely among cultures, ages, groups, fashions, individuals, etc. In any case we'll have to account for its diversities as well as its regularities. A general description using concrete case material will be presented under the perspective that people are creating within and around their dwellings a set of things carefully arranged and continually rearranged; thereby they help constituting specific spatial structures which in turn constitute and regulate these humans both as individual persons and as small groups. This mutual cultivation of people and environments is conceived as dialogical or transactional and investigated in view of the relative autonomization and integration of people and (parts of) environments into the next larger social and cultural compounds. Obviously they do not do that from scratch but are part and promotors/modificators of one or several cultural traditions. In the narrower sense, the term culture refers to these things and rooms. But, inevitably, culture in the wider sense includes the ongoing reciprocal cultivation of these things and rooms as well as of the persons and groups involved. For these things and rooms can only realize their role or potential together with people endowed and enculturated with corresponding and also discrepant internal structures; and it is obvious that people, once cultivated that way, cannot live as humans without cultural settings of a similar kind.

A set of case material is accessible in the papers distributed (1993 Non-Cartesian Artefacts; 1997 Innen-Aussen-Wohnen with Marianne Schaer Moser) and also in various papers, research reports, and dissertations referred to and in part available on our website: See in particular the various Dwelling-Field-Papers and titles additional the bibliographic Dwelling-Field-@Lists. Later this summer more material will also become available on a CD-ROM.



III. How to Conceive Dwelling? -- Theoretical Perspectives

Various theoretical approaches have been or could be used in the psychological domain to "explain" aspects of the described phenomena of people with their things in their rooms. I may mention some and analyse others to some extent, while finding all of them wanting in various respects. Time and interest in the group shall decide how deep we want to go.

1. instinct theory (ethological)

2. need theory (e.g. Flade)

3. drive sublimation (e.g. classical learning theory)

4. drive reduction theory (e.g. psychoanalysis)

5. secondary, derived needs theory (instrumental learning theory)

6. action theory (goal oriented action)

7. activity theory

8. field theory

9. transactional theory



IV. Semiotic Ecology Essentials

I shall finally describe the basics of semiotic ecology as a conception and methodology descriptive and strategic in conceiving of the evolutions in ecosystems on the biotic, individual, and cultural level. What I present is a structural-processual conception useful for the foundation of the human condition as both biotic and cultural. The human individuals as cognitive-emotive structure builders within themselves and as cultural structure formators within the resulting social-cultural systems play a crucial role as both innovating and stabilizing instances. Therefor the present conceptual system is aptly seen as cultural psychology. An understanding of the kind presented should be strategically crucial to scientific endeavors of any kind in any subject matter area insofar science is a cultural manifestation.

Terms (s: process, n: structure, t: perspective or domain): semiosis, semion; semiosic, semionic; semiotic, semiotical, semiotically; semiotive (vs. objective and subjective; vs. material / stofflich and spiritual / geistig); semiosphere.

1. Semiosis and Semions (process and structures)

2. Generative (triadic) semiotic

3. The semiosic arrow (Referent, Interpretant, Presentant)

4. Triads unreducable to dyads and monads; all higher order relatives reducable to triads (Peirce)

5. Structure formation, modification, demise, actualization

6. Aysmmetric ecosystems

7. Semiosic function circle in ecosystems

8. IntrO-semiosis or the receptive phase

9. IntrA-semiosis or the internal (re-)organization phase and individual memory

10. ExtrO-semiosis or the actional phase

11. ExtrA-semiosis or the (re-)rganization phase external to the target individual

12. Anaformation or "branching" --> variation

13. Affinity or selective "merging" and recursion --> valuation

14. Cultivation

15. Dialogical or transactional evolution

16. Mutual constitution of person and culture

17. Regulative ecosemiosis

18. Autonomization-Integration perspectives

19. Secondary systems and freedom (of and for)

20. Imaging or iconic secondaries

21. Actualization or indexic secondaries

22. Languages or symbolic secondaries

23. Self or reflexive autonomization and integration


V. Science and Polity in Evolutiv Domains

I may close with some remarks on doing and proffering science and polity in evolutive domains. As scientists we are bound to miss the specifics when aiming at statements of the kind: A necessitates B, or, B is a (stochastic) function of A. For, at any point in time human beings may find themselves in a situation at the verge of a real line of history which can branch into a fan of possible ways or options of which only one can become the next span of the factual historical line. The consequence, in my view, is that social or cultural scientists should even avoid statements of the form: C is to be expected from A under condition B. But rather they should proffer pictures of the kind: when A is present, the set of B, B', B",... can further or hinder the set of C, C', C",... And in all events it is desirable to detail the spatio-temporal distribution of any such As, Bs, and Cs over sets of cycles in the function circles involved and regulating maintenance, expansion and demise of the particular ecosystems within their common ground. As citizens we better learn to cultivate dialogical evolution on the cultural level in a large diversity of fields and communities of practice, mutually recognizing any person's potentially and actually pertinent contribution.

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