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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Course description: Semiotics and phenomenology

Here's the course description for my upcoming course Semiotics and Phenomenology. The deadline for registration has been set to March 15th.

Intensive course:

Semiotics and phenomenology (FLSE.00.171)

Spring 2011

Formally enlisted in the Study Information System as History of Relations Between Culture and Nature

Department of Semiotics, Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics, University of Tartu

Lecturer: Morten Tønnessen, PhD candidate

Credit points: 2 AP / 3 EAP/ECTS

Class meeting time: April 11-13 and May 16-18 (April 11 and 12 and May 16 and 17 at 16.15-18.00, April 13 and May 18 at 10.15-12).

Location: Tiigi 78-311

Office hours: Not applicable (but meeting in person is possible April 4-15 and May 16-20, by appointment).


Target group: The course is an elective subject in the master level curriculum of Semiotics and Culture Studies. Other interested students are also welcome.

Brief course description: This course offers an account of the fundamental relation between semiotics and phenomenology, with the Umwelt theory of Jakob von Uexküll used as a focal point. Major topics include semiotic aspects of phenomenology, phenomenological aspects of semiotics, the threshold of these two fields, the role of semiotics and phenomenology respectively for the empirical sciences/academia in general, and their place in the scheme of sciences/academia; ontology and epistemology with regard to the whole more-than-human vista of phenomenal creatures, the perceptual capacity of various living beings, and the distinctiveness of the specifically human world-relation. The course provides historical accounts, particularly of the reception of Husserl and Uexküll, but also has a view to contemporary and future theoretical developments.

Course objectives and learning outcomes:

The objective of the course is to offer an account of the fundamental relation between semiotics and phenomenology.

After completing the course, the successful student:

1. is acquainted with the basic phenomenological positions of Edmund Husserl and Charles Sanders Peirce, and typical semiotic reception of the former.

2. is familiar with prominent phenomenological readings of Jakob von Uexküll (notably those of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty).

3. is acquainted with the notions of ‘Uexküllian phenomenology’ and ‘semiotics of being’.

4. has reflected on the relation between semiotics and phenomenology, and on further developments of these fields in light of challenges posed by empirical science.

Course requirements and grading

There are no specific prerequisites for taking the course. Familiarity with the thought of Husserl, Peirce and/or Uexküll is an advantage. Basic English skills are expected with regard to both oral and written competence. Attendance at lectures is expected. Graded activities are:

• Compulsory course paper: 25 % of the final grade.

• Research paper: 75 % of the final grade.

The compulsory course paper is to be submitted by email (see address above) by Wednesday April 20th. This paper should provide an answer to the following question: What is the most general term – ‘semiotics’, or ‘phenomenology’? In the course of the paper, the student should make clear whether or not (s)he thinks one of these two fields can be said to enclose the other. The length of the compulsory course paper should be approximately 1.000 words. It should follow general principles of academic research, and include a reference list where all sources are detailed.

The research paper is to be submitted by email (see address above) by Tuesday May 31st. The topic of the research paper is of the student’s own choosing, but it must relate one way or another to the relation between semiotics and phenomenology. It is recommended that the lecturer is consulted if the student has any doubt as to the relevance of a specific topic. In the paper, the topic chosen must be a) clearly stated and (b) discussed, and (c) some conclusion(s) should be reached. The length of the compulsory course paper should be approximately 3.000 words. It should follow general principles of academic research, and include a reference list where all sources are detailed. Compulsory readings must play a substantial, if not dominating, role in the research paper. The sources referred to must include

1) at least two titles from the Compulsory reading list,

2) at least one title from the Elective reading list, and

3) at least one title not listed in any of these reading lists.

Time schedule



Topical cues

Monday April 11


1. lecture

Peirce and Husserl.

Tuesday April 12


2. lecture

Semiotic Husserl reception.

Wednesday April 13


3. lecture

Uexküllian phenomenology. Semiotics of being.

Monday May 16


4. lecture

Heidegger and Uexküll.

Tuesday May 17


5. lecture

Merleau-Ponty and Uexküll.

Wednesday May 18


6. lecture

Naturalism. What is semiotic causation?

Compulsory reading [no. of lecture in brackets]

Buchanan, Brett 2008. Onto-Ethologies: The Animal Environments of Uexküll, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze. Albany: SUNY. Excerpts: Pp. 65-114 (chapter 3, “Disruptive behavior: Heidegger and the Captivated Animal”) and 115-150 (chapter 4, “The Theme of the Animal Melody: Merleau-Ponty and the Umwelt”). [4, 5]

Chang, Han-liang 2004. Semiotician or Hermeneutician? Jakob von Uexküll Revisited. Sign Systems Studies 32.1: 1-26. [2]

Jeffreys, Derek S. 2010. Is Modernity really so Bad? John Deely and Husserl's Phenomenology. Semiotica Issue 178: 115–133. [2]

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice 2003. Nature: Course Notes from the Collège de France. Edited by Dominique Seglard, translated by Robert Vallier. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. Excerpts: Pp. 70-80 ("The Ideas of Husserl", from the chapter "The Romantic Conception of Nature") and 167-178 (“The Descriptions of J. von Uexküll”, from the chapter “Animality: The Study of Animal Behavior”). [5]

Nöth, Winfried 1990/1995. Handbook of Semiotics (hardback 1990 – paperback 1995). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Excerpts: Pp. 3-5 (= 1; “Semiotics”, from “Introduction”), 11-14 (= 1; “Historiography of Semiotics”, from the section “History of Semiotics”) and 35-38 (= 4.2; “Twentieth-Century Semiotics”). [2]

Ransdell, Joseph c1989/1997. Is Peirce a Phenomenologist? Published online [] 1997, originally written c1989 (French translation: “Peirce est-il un phénoménologue?”, Etudes phénoménologiques 5.9/10 (1989): 51–75). [1]

Spiegelberg, Herbert 1956. Husserl's and Peirce's Phenomenologies: Coincidence or Interaction. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research vol. XVII, no. 1: 164-185. [1]

de Tienne, André 2004. Is Phaneroscopy as a Pre-Semiotic Science Possible? Semiotiche vol. 2: 15–30. [1]

Tønnessen, Morten 2009. Umwelt Transitions: Uexküll and Environmental Change. Biosemiotics 2.1: 47-64. [3]

Tønnessen, Morten 2010. Steps to a Semiotics of Being. Biosemiotics 3.3: 375-392. [3]

Wood, David c2003. What is Ecophenomenology? Published online []. Revised and adapted version of a paper with the same title published in Charles Brown and Ted Toadvine (eds.): Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself; Albany 2003: SUNY Press. [6]

Zahavi, Dan 2010. Naturalized Phenomenology. Pp. 2-19 in S. Gallagher and D. Schmicking (eds.): Handbook of Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Dordrecht: Springer. [6]

Elective reading

Abram, David 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous. Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books.

Abram, David 2010. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Pantheon.

Heidegger, Martin 1995. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Translated by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Excerpts: Pp. 169-273 (= Part Two, chapters One to Five).

Husserl, Edmund 1970. Logical Investigations. Translated by J.N. Findlay. New York: Humanities Press.

Husserl, Edmund 1994. On the Logic of Signs (Semiotic). Pp. 20-51 in Early Writings in the Philosophy of Logic and Mathematics (translated by Dallas Willard) (= Collected Works (edited by Rudolf Bernet) volume 5). Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Lotman, Juri 2005 [1984]. On the Semiosphere. Translated by Wilma Clark. Sign Systems Studies 33.1: 205-229.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice 1963. The Structure of Behavior. Translated by Alden L. Fisher. Northampton: Beacon Press. Excerpts: Pp. 129-184 (= III; "The Physical Order; The Vital Order; The Human Order").

Peirce, Charles Sanders 1868. On a New List of Categories [= CP 1.545-1.559]. Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 7 (1868): 287-298.

Tarasti, Eero 2000. Existential Semiotics. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Toadvine, Ted 2003. Singing the World in a New Key: Merleau-Ponty and the Ontology of Sense. Janus Head 7.2: 273-283.

von Uexküll, Jakob 1909/1921. Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (first edition 1909, second edition 1921). Berlin: Verlag von Julius Springer.

von Uexküll, Jakob 1928. Theoretische Biologie (second edition). Berlin: Verlag von Julius Springer.

von Uexküll, Jakob 1982 [1940]. The Theory of Meaning. Translation of Bedeutungslehre (1940) by Barry Stone and Herbert Weiner. Semiotica 42.1: 25–82.

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