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Sunday, 28 November 2010

Abstract to Nordic semiotic conference: Perception and the levels of biosemiosis

I have just completed and submitted the following abstract, for the Seventh Conference of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies (NASS) (with the thematic title "Towards Cognitive Semiotics. A semiotic perspective on cognition - A cognitive perspective on semiotics") - to take place in Lund, Sweden, May 6-8 2011:
Perception and the levels of biosemiosis

Morten Tønnessen, Department of Semiotics – University of Tartu

This paper will dwell on the presentation of an original, tentatively all-inclusive model of various levels of biosemiosis, aiming at a treatment first and foremost of perception. According to this model there are six levels of biosemiosis, falling under three broader categories.



Intra-cellular semiosis

Inter-cellular semiosis


Intra-organismic semiosis

Inter-organismic semiosis*

Extra-organismic semiosis


Super-organismic semiosis*

* social proper, in the sense of involving several individuals

The tripartite model is relevant for simple and complex life forms alike (though in the case of very simple – non-social – creatures it collapses into a two-category model). As it demonstrates, perception is at the core of biosemiosis, even though not all biosemiosis is perceptual, and even though perception is but one level (or layer) of biosemiosis. The standing of perception is tied to the standing of the individual. With such a model of biosemiosis, the individual organism (and its lifeworld) is methodologically placed at the center of biological research.

Such a perception-oriented model of biosemiosis has implications for cultural studies as well. Applied on humans, it evokes a perspective in which the human mind, or soul – as Plato and Aristotle would have it, but in a radically different sense – partakes in three realms. Perceptual semiosis (which is ‘social’ in the primal sense of being related to the active navigating of an individual) is grounded in somatic semiosis, and interacting with a yet higher (more complex) level, namely that of superorganisms – e.g., society, or an animal population. It is on this highest, more-than-individual level that society’s often indiscernible yet absolutely principal influence on how individual members of society carry out their lives is to be located.

According to the abovementioned tripartite model of the levels of biosemiosis, cells and organisms (individuals, where applicable) are the primary substances of the biological world, though there are also larger wholes. It may perhaps shed new light on the notions of endosemiosis and exosemiosis, which is usually conceived of as semiosis that is internal and external to the body respectively. In our tripartite model, the boundary between ‘the outer’ and ‘the inner’ is in flux depending on the level of biosemiosis considered. It is thus possible to argue that endo- and exo-semiosis occurs both at the somatic level and the social level, and that in a global ecological perspective all semiosis is ultimately endosemiosis.

This comprehensive model will be supplemented by a simple model of the interrelations of the sign-relation phenomena of signification, communication and representation in a conceptualized Umwelt. Depending on whether the dominant cognitive processing (if dominated it be) is of a significational, communicational or representational nature, some people will perceive in a way that is dominantly based on immediate (unmediated) perception, social perception (included herein extremist autocommunicative perception) or symbolic perception – though most well-functioning individuals are more balanced.

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