Alfred Lang

University of Bern, Switzerland

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Papers (in English) on Generative Semiotic and Semiotic Ecology


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Following solicitation by some colleagues I have gathered here some links to English language papers from my website. Together with the short introductory remarks they provide an initiation into both Semiotic Ecology and Generative Semiotic (98.08)

© 1998 by Alfred Lang

Scientific and educational use permitted

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Semiotic Ecology is a general conceptuality and methodology joining generative semiotic with the notion of ecology that living entities and their environment constitute each other in an open evolutive process. By conceptuality I mean a set of related conceptual tools enabling an abstractive perspective on the human condition in its foundations and potentials. The related methodology is the procedure of using these tools to describe, compare, and understand the human condition, to form explanatory hypotheses and theories about its becoming and its diversification and relative systematicity, and to ascertain and improve such theorizing on the basis is systematic observation and analysis of evidence.

Generative Semiotic is an elaboration of Peircean triadic semiotic or, more generally, of Peirce's Thirdness category. It is built on Peirce's ideas that any "interpretation" of a sign consists in the creation of another sign and that next to anything of the world pertinent to humans is of sign character. What forms the world or the human condition on this planet's surface is and ongoing process of structure formation, modification, actualization, and demise. This includes all living beings and what they produce, in particular, human beings themselves and their cultural environment, including their increasingly important part in the process at large.

The Human Condition is a term to refer to that whole world in the perspective of humans who are a part of and entirely dependent on it: the conditions of the human existence as well as humans as a condition of much of the world. The term thus also implies the effects of humans acting in this world in their particular ways which of recent has become the major condition of change.

The human condition is best conceived as the sum total and relatedness of the ecosystems any single organism or group of organisms forms with their environments. The basic unit of analysis and conception thus is the organism-environment systems. In higher animals, particularly in humans, ecosystems grow into person-culture systems which are constituted and regulated, in addition to and beyond the instinctual basis present in animals, by _______ this is proposed to be best understood as of sign character or to be of semiotive character rather than to be either objective or subjective. Generative Semiotic can describe the basic process and structures producing ecosystems.

General or generative Semiotic conceives of the undissolvable basic step required to describe true evolution in a formal perspective. It is a most general notion of triadic causation of which the common conception of linear or dyadic causation must be a special or reduced case. For an essentially triadic relation is a prerequisite of both the creation of something new (variation) and of valuation or the preference of something over something else and its consequences (selection). While triads in the former function would lead to infinite variety of diverging structure generation the latter adds constraints resulting in relative stabilization or convergence which in fact describes open evolutions.

Generative Semiotic abstracts the process of structure formation (modification, actualization, demise) as entirely and solely based on prexisting structures interacting. It appears that it can keep


In combination, the two endeavors



The papers are in proposed order of reading.


Generative Semiotic

Most published papers on generative semiotic are in German (see for an overview @GenSem). The semiotic and psychology article referred to under (1.1) can serve as broad introduction since it gives a panorama of semiotic approaches with in intent of locating the generative approach in the wider field. An extensive Summary in English (1.2) of the so far most comprehensive paper is reproduced here. It


(1.1) Lang, Alfred (1994) Toward a mutual interplay between psychology and semiotics. Journal of Accelerated Learning and Teaching 19 (1) 45-66 (Version of an originally longer Ms.).

@GenSem @SemEcoPro @SciPolPrinc 1994_02

Questions are raised about commonalities, mutual offerings and possible influences between psychology and semiotics. These two fields of thought and research seem to share largely similar interests, yet their relationship appears less than optimal. Four different approaches to semiotics are briefly outlined: they emphasize, respectively, the sign as object, as meaning, its use, and its effects. The latter aproach is elaborated, starting from the framework of Peircean semiotics, to focus on the sign process and, in particular,its effects in the evolution of the biotic and cultural world; semiosis here is understood as a general type of causation and particularly suitable for use in psycho-ecological problems. A dialogue between a psychologist and a semiotician is used for comparing and contrasting fundamental ideas of semiotics and psychology that might interplay with each other. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of a semiotic understanding of the concepts of "person" and "self".

(Unabridged manuscript version also available. German version 1993: Eine Semiotik für die Psychologie -- eine Psychologie für die Semiotik )

(1.2) Lang, Alfred (1991) Artefacts in a non-Cartesian world: Semiosis as Anaformation or Ecological Structure Formation. Paper prepared for and proposed to the Colloquium on the Objec to honor Gérard Deledalle (IRSCE, Perpignan, Sept. 1991). Finished August 15 1991, slightly edited 1998. Unpublished Ms., Institut für Psychologie, Unversität Bern.

@GenSem @SemEcoPro 1991.17

This paper was the first systematic attempt to introduce on the basis of Peirce a renewed and definitely non-dualistic semiotic (later termed "generative") as a conceptual tool. The emphasis is on the semiosic process. The concepts of formation and structure, and of anaformation are elaborated. Mention is also made of their potential role in constituting ecosystems. The Ms. has been distributed among colleagues in 1991 but has been temporarily lost in AL's files.

(1.3) Summary of Lang, Alfred (1998) Das Semion als Baustein und Bindekraft -- Zeit aus semiosischen Strukturen und Prozessen. In: Ernest W.B. Hess-Lüttisch & Brigitte Schlieben-Lange (Eds.) Signs & Time -- Zeit & Zeichen. Kodikas/Code Supplement 24. Tübingen, Narr. Pp. 73-116.

@SemEcoPro @Time @GenSem @PhiSci 1998.01

This paper presents essentials of a generative form of semiotic and applies it to questions of the constitution and analysis of time. By emphysizing the generative rather then the interpretative aspect of semiosis it attempts to improve the practicability of Charles Peirce's triadic-semeiotic thinking and his Thirdness category. By including the conservating and the generalizing potentials of semiosic structures (called semions) it aspires at an universal conception of mediated causation or condition-effect-connection which pertains to all phenomena of evolutive change. This form of semiotic, in particular, is apt to describe the becoming, the change and the dissolution of:

• organic or organismic systems in their continuing exchange with their environment (phylogenesis, bioevolution);

• learning individual organisms in their experience dependant life course within their world, in humans in particular of persons in their culture (ontogenesis, individual evolution);

• social systems or groups of all kinds in their waxing and waning within their milieu, in humans in particular of cultures and their diversification (cultural change, cultural evolution).

Development or evolution is to mean that systematic, yet both diverging and converging, i.e. regular and at the same time contingent, change of a system with its framing system; when viewed retrospectively change proves to be historically singular and thus it emerges prospectively open. In contradistinction to the time conception of physical science, evolutive systems are genuinely temporal; for evolution of any concrete system, in every present moment, "cristallizes" one only out of its many possible futures into its unique real past (see Lang 1997).


There exist surprising structural commonalities on the said three orders of evolution and in spite of their diverse manifestations. If semiotic is to be among other things a general procedure for comparison of different sciences, then it should exactly prove capable in probing commonalities between various developing systems. For this we need:

• a general concept of semiosis in process-perspective, and founding change;

• a corresponding concept of structure (called the semion) in state-perspective, and providing for memory or conservation of something for later use;

• both of which are then brought into a common perspective of reciprocating process and structure which can constitute evolution and time,

So part (I) will be dedicated to unfolding semiotic ecology from the content side. The leading idea here is the ecological function circle, i.e. the semiosic interchange of concrete living beings and similar systems with their environment with the effect of mutual transformation. In part (II) the conception of the elementary semiosic units in process (triadic semiosis) and state view (the semion) and their intercourse are presented. Reference to Peirce is made and a decisive distinction allowing for the generative character of semiosis is pointed out. Part (III) particularizes semiotic ecology in view of the constitution and analysis of time in evolutive systems. This is one of many examples demonstrating the heuristic efficacy of generative semiotic in conjunction with the ecological function circle. Usually, we say development to happen "in" time and therewith presuppose time to exist independently. The idea that any developing system produces its propers time by its very process though finds increasing support. Semiotic concretization of this idea may lead to better understanding of time.

The following line of argumentation may give an idea of the the kind of problem and solution embarked upon by semiotic ecology in the present context.

Presentday models of semiosis are dominantly of a communication theoretical character and thus suffer from the fact that their component parts (receiver, medium, message, sender, etc.) must be presupposed in spite of being themselves in need of being explained. Perhaps those might best be conceived of in semiotic terms rather than being taken over metaphorically from technical devices. In a second and independent prerequisite, this common conception also simply presupposes space and time as a framework of semiosis. However, in communcation-theory semiotics time is of no avail; it is only the material events in the communication channel which "take" some time to run and "transport" over space. All of today's concepts of sign or of meaning abstract thoroughly of time and space. At most, diachrony or change over time of sign system or sign use is investigated. The only factual temporal implication of sign concepts is their (ordinal) directedness in time, in that no sign can effect upon its past; but they do not respect neither "flow" nor "density" of time. Nominally, the tempora of linguistic signs relate to time; they deeply contradict scientific time conceptions.

All of this is less than satisfying in view of the fact that living beings to such an astonishing extent constitute their proper time and space systems that are more than ordinal and that are so highly coordinated among each other and with environmental conditions such as yearly, lunar, or diurnal oscillations and their consequnces. It is even utterly disturbing in view of the estimation that sign processes may or must play an absolutely central role in all evolutive ongoings. For any evolution requires something which arises at one time can play again a role at a later time. Yet this cannot necessarily be that something itself, but will often be some representation thereof. For an example the relation between the genom and the organism in bioevlution may be considered, or the representation in history of some earlier experience which can influence cultural change.

Such insights definitely suggest the development of a conception of semiotic of genuinely temporal nature. If the sign process is emancipated from its interpretative lockup by embracing and building upon Peirce's idea that any interpretation of a sign must consist in the creation of a further sign, we can direct our attention towards the generation of signs instead of towards the interpreation of pre-existings signs or of signs declared to be signs by the very act of their being interpreted. It is in this perspective that our conception of elementary semiosis and the new concept of the semion are proposed; the place the generative character of sign processes and of sign worlds absolutely central. By this they seize the possibility to no longer treat of structure and dynamics separately and additively, to no longer think of a passive-object-like sign and an active-subjekt-natured interpreter; instead, following the model of matter- and energy-sciences, it becomes possible to conceive of process and structure, of sign and meaning, as two aspects of one single reality.

Thus a mode of treating of sign characters is proposed which does not attempt to analize and systematize a selected and isolated range of phenomena (because this leads to islands of separate understanding). Instead we shall understand as being of semiosic character whatever can mediate between two phenomena. The world is, in fact, full of situations that cannot be dealt with in terms of necessary determination of an effect by a single cause. In developing a triadic condition-effect conception suitable for describing what happens in evolutive systems we find that this not only accounts for the evolutive process in general, but in addition as well for the constitution of time.

Semiosis thus is thought of as a general notion of causation or condition-effect-conception. Of sign-character are all entities which emerge as a third from the encounter of two other entities (of sign-character) and which can themselves enter such transactive encounters and thus can generate new sign structure. The concept of elementary semiosis presents this triadic relation in the process-view, the concept of semion conceives of it as the logical effect-connex implied in more or less enduring structures which can preserve some effect potential over time and can allow for its transportation over space. This generative or semion-semiotic thus constitutes directed and ordinal temporality and it can explain the present as the separation between the past and the future of a system. In applying this idea on oscillating systems and entities in general which run through intrinsic changes of state, we also have found a semiotic constituent of biotic, psychic, and cultural time in the triple sense of periodicity, of extensive duration, and of the distinction between past, present and future.

Semiotic Ecology

(2) Lang, Alfred (1991) Non-Cartesian culture: steps towards a semiotic ecology. (Contribution to the Symposium on the Cultural Environment in Psychology, in honor of Ernst E. Boesch, Merligen (Lake Thun) 21.-24.10.1991, organized by Alfred Lang and Urs Fuhrer.) Reports from the Group for Environmental and Cultural Psychology, Institute for Psychology, University of Bern. Vol. 1991-1. Bern, Institut für Psychologie. 26 Pp.August 1991.

@SemEcoPro @DwellTheo @CuPsy @PhiSci 1991.09

A working paper composed of different parts (published version 1994):

(1) A short methodological statement as to substantive (essentialistic) vs. genetic (evolutive) conceptions of scientific objects.

(2) A 25 paragraph elaboration on semiotically conceiving of artifacts to demonstrate the essentials of a Peircean elementary semiotics applied to a non-Cartesian relation between people and their surrounds: artifacts are considered as external structures produced by human action in the surrounding world and are perceived to form internal structures in the individual person; in this semiotic function circle, perception and action in additon to internal mental processes and external cultural transformations are conceived as semioses of different type yet of similar nature.

(3) A few examples from research on "people with their things in their rooms".

(4) A collection of "Badges" or short statements of elements of a future semiotic understanding of the ecological or person-culture-relation.