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Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Suggested as Editor-in-Chief of Biosemiotics; input on the field given

Just before Christmas Biosemiotics' Editor-in-Chief Marcello Barbieri contacted me writing that he was stepping down as Editor-in-Chief, and that he had told Springer's Senior Editor Catherine Cotton that he thinks I am the best candidate to be his successor. I am deeply honoured by his proposal.

A few days back Catherine Cotton wrote to all members of the editorial board of Biosemiotics, asking for input on the road ahead for the journal (she has not contacted me personally directly). Today I have submitted my input to her, which is substantially a map of biosemiotics and its subfields and related fields, with experts in each category named.

Course work - introductory philosophy

Some weeks back, on January 8th, I made exam questions for the introductory philosophy course BSNEXP at University of Stavanger's Department of Health Studies, revised the 40 study questions that sum up what is emphasised in compulsory readings, and finished the thematic plan for the course.

Article in E-International Relations: "Cutting the Gordian knot: Two Addictions at the Root of Our Climate Change Problem"

On January 27th my article "Cutting the Gordian knot: Two Addictions at the Root of Our Climate Change Problem" was published on E-International Relations, which is according to itself "the world's leading website for students of international politics". This is the closest thing to a position statement I have published on the important topic of climate change.

I was invited to contribute with an article by E-IR's Commissioning Editor Jacob Kennedy a couple of weeks back.

Full text:



Cutting the Gordian knot: The two addictions that are the roots of our climate change problem

Interest internationally in environmental issues including climate change has tended to evolve in waves and slumps. These developments are reflected in membership totals for environmental NGOs, the extent and intensity of media coverage, and, noticeably, political will to commit to ambitious plans and significant societal change. The last wave crest arguably coincided with the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, the so-called COP15 or 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A majority of concerned scientists, activists and politicians all employed a real hope that the international community would finally get around to commit to make the necessary changes in policy. As we all know, no such turning point was accomplished. The sentiment at the time of the Doha summit (COP18) in December 2012 was very different (for a recent e-International Relations article on the Doha summit, see The “Doha Miracle”? Where are the Women in Climate Change Negotiations? by Katharina Höne). The Kyoto protocol, which first commitment period (2008-2012) was about to run out, was nominally renewed for a second commitment period (2013-2020), but it included no new national commitments beyond what EU countries and the other implied countries had already committed to, and the Kyoto I countries Japan, Russia, Canada and New Zealand chose not to take part. It is symptomatic that a major news TV channel such as the CNN did not even report the agreement that had been reached. The new protocol covers only 14% of global carbon dioxide emissions, and is of marginal importance compared to Kyoto I, which was itself criticized by environmentalists and scientists for not being ambitious enough.

The UNFCCC was adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 (for a recent e-International Relations article on the UNFCCC process and its prospects, see 2015 the New Copenhagen? The UNFCCC Process Risks Falling into Faulty Patterns by J. Jackson Ewing). 2012 was thus the year of Rio+20, a follow-up to the first Earth Summit and officially a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, yet again hosted by Brazil. However, no major breakthroughs were made there either. Environmentalists at large appear to hope that the lackluster performance of recent international conferences on environmental issues is indicative of a slump in the interest in these issues internationally, and that the public’s interest in such matters will soon grow again.

Given the described stalemate, one would perhaps think that the state of the Earth has improved in the last few years, and thus that the current prospects of future generations of humans and non-humans have improved. That could indeed have been a valid reason for not taking action – if, that is, a business as usual scenario actually had good results to show to. At least as far as climate change is concerned, however, that is not at all the case. Emissions of greenhouse gases in general and carbon dioxide emissions in particular keep on increasing year after year [1], as does the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide [2]. In consequence average global temperature still shows a clear long-term warming trend [3]. This is all well-documented, and there is considerable consensus in the scientific community about the basics of these correlations. Nevertheless there is heated debate about them, largely due to Big Oil lobbying, advertising campaigns etc., and a worryingly widespread and not unrelated anti-scientific sentiment. The facts, however, support two interrelated observations that are fundamental in deep ecology: That our present interference with the non-human world is excessive and the situation rapidly worsening, and that policies affecting basic economic, technological and ideological structures must therefore be changed [4].

The economic problem
In order to understand the driving forces behind anthropogenic (in other words human-made) climate change, we have to start by grasping the driving forces – or at least the fundamental development – in the economy. The connection between economic growth and environmental problems has been discussed ever since the publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972 [5]. The most reliable historical data on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures were gathered and processed by Angus Maddison (1926-2010) [6], whose work is presented by the Groningen Growth and Development Centre. Revised estimates based on his groundbreaking work have recently been published by Bolt and van Zanden [7]. Measured in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), a technique which displays the real GDP understood as the value of an economy’s production at fixed prices, their data shows that average GDP per capita globally has declined only in four years since 1950. In other words, humanity as a whole has on average experienced economic growth all years since 1950 except these four years – namely in 1975, 1982, 1991 and 2009. By this measure average global wealth per capita has doubled since 1970 and tripled since 1955. Meanwhile world population has increased from 2,8 billion in 1955 via 3,7 billion in 1970 to some 7 billion today [8], which in sum means that the size of the world economy as a whole has grown seven- or eightfold since 1955 and almost fourfold since 1970.

In the essay ‘Economic possibilities for our grandchildren’, written during the depression, John Maynard Keynes envisioned that “the economic problem”, the struggle for subsistence – which had always up till then been the primary, most pressing problem of the human race – “may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years” [9]. 83 years have now passed. “If the economic problem is solved,” reasoned Keynes, “mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose” – “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” It is arguably the case that more than half of all the economic activity that has ever taken place – since the birth of humankind – has taken place since the publication of Keynes’ essay [10]. We have reached our “destination of economic bliss”. And yet, there is no end in sight. The aim of pursuing (endless) economic growth has been universally acclaimed across the globe, as a primary attachment of our time.

As we have seen, there is a correlation between post-war economic growth and the steady increase in emissions of greenhouse gases we witness, and there is further a correlation between the increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, for one thing, and the somewhat similarly increasing atmospheric level of carbon dioxide. These correlations are not static or simple, but they exist – and this is a scientific fact. Why, then, have we seen so little progress in our collective handling of climate change? Keynes’ wise words point to a partial answer: Overall, in 2012, there is no lack of wealth anymore; the socioeconomic problems that occur are a result of poor distribution of wealth internationally. But since we have in this sense solved the economic problem, we have been deprived of our traditional purpose – the struggle for subsistence. While this should be good news to any thinking politico, it is arguably the case that we as humanity, in other words as one international community, have so far not dared to face our permanent problem – in Keynes’ words, how to use our new-won freedom to live wisely and agreeably and well. Had that been the case, why would even the richest countries on Earth keep pursuing seemingly endless economic growth, despite the well-documented detrimental effects on the environment [11] and so-called happiness studies indicating that people in rich countries are not getting much happier once a certain level of wealth has been attained? The fact is that our societies and our political systems are addicted to economic growth. And this may in turn be viewed as the deepest of all the roots of the climate change problem that we are currently facing.

Our two addictions
The pursuing of economic growth in an already more-than-wealthy country – say, Norway – is both wasteful and unjust. It is wasteful because the additional use and movement of material resources does generally not result in a happier population, and it is unjust in so far as one nation’s exploitation of resources limits another nation’s exploitation of resources. For instance, when Norway’s government aims to extract practically as much of its petroleum resources as is technically feasible, this implies that other, poorer nations will not be able to do the same if an international agreement is at some point made that prohibits such maximized petroleum extraction. Given that even the International Energy Agency (IEA) now says that 2/3 of all fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground if we are to avoid a 2⁰+ increase in global average temperature [12], this is not an altogether unlikely future policy.

Besides being addicted to economic growth, present societies are also generally addicted to fossil fuels. Two addictions thus combined constitute a Gordian knot in the root system of the climate change problematic. Can we cut the Gordian knot, and decouple these two addictions? That would amount to becoming able to think clearly about climate change. In essence the challenge we are facing given anthropogenic global warming is simple: We have to phase out our use of fossil fuels, at least to a very substantial degree. But the discourse about solutions has been muddled by the power of fossil fuels lobbyists and our addiction to fossil fuels. As an example, the concept of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has become a focal point in the debate (as well as in research), giving false hope that the climate change problem can be overcome without phasing out our use of fossil fuels. Naturally, the commercial interests that some companies and some countries have in saving the fossil fuels industry, or prolonging it for as long as possible, explain why we are discussing CCS at all. And while we are waiting for mature CCS technology or the perfect techno-fix which saves our fossil fuels-based civilization, business as usual is the default policy – and the climate change problem grows. The CCS discourse is a distraction, and one that may cost us dearly.

Cutting or untying the Gordian knot would not solve all our problems with regard to environmental issues. But if we succeed in decoupling our addiction to economic growth and our addiction to fossil fuels, we would at least be able to envision the low-carbon economy that has now almost become official orthodoxy on realistic terms. No matter how we approach climate change, it is crucial that other central environmental concerns, including nature conservation, are not sacrificed in the process of phasing out fossil fuels. After cutting the Gordian knot that is our current dual addiction, however, we would be faced with another challenge: Namely, how we are to reinvent our economic system. The current growth model served us well for a long time, but it does not do so anymore. At the very least this is the case for all already more-than wealthy countries. And besides, the quicker we make a transition to a truly sustainable economic system – one that does not depend on endless growth – the easier it will be to phase out our use of fossil fuels in time to avoid catastrophic climate change.

References
[1] Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). Retrieved January 22, 2013, from http://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/overview.php?v=CO2ts_pc1990-2011
[2] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – Mauna Loa Observatory (Hawaii) dataset. Retrieved January 22, 2013, from http://co2now.org/
[3] Hansen, J., M. Sato and r. Ruedy (2013). Global Temperature Update Through 2012. Retrieved January 22, 2013, from http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2013/20130115_Temperature2012.pdf
[4] Næss, Arne (1993). The deep ecological movement: Some philosophical aspects. In: Zimmerman, Michael (ed.), Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 193–212 (p. 197).
[5] Donella H. Meadows, Gary. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III (1972).

The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.
[6] Maddison, Angus (2003). The World Economy. Historical Statistics. Paris: OECD.
[7] Bolt, Jutta and Jan Luiten van Zanden (2013). The First Update of the Maddison Project; Re-estimating Growth Before 1820. Maddison-Project Working Paper WP-4. Retrieved January 22, 2013, from http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/publications/pdf/wp4.pdf  
[8] International Data Base, according to United States Census Bureau. Retrieved January 22, 2013, from http://www.census.gov/population/international/data/idb/worldpoptotal.php
[9] Keynes, John Maynard (1931 [1930]). Economic possibilities for our grandchildren. Pp. 358-373 in John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion (1931). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
[10] Tønnessen, Morten 2008. The Statistician’s Guide to Utopia: The Future of Growth. TRAMES 12.2: 115-126.
[11] Special report: How our economy is killing the Earth. New Scientist issue 2678, 16 October 2008.
[12] World Energy Outlook 2012. IEA 2012.

Author bio
Morten Tønnessen (born 1976) is an Associate professor in philosophy at the University of Stavanger, Norway. He is the chair of Minding Animals Norway, the secretary of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies and a board member of the International Society for Code Biology. Tønnessen has an academic blog, Utopian Realism. His PhD thesis (2011) introduces Uexküllian phenomenology; other publications include “The Statistician’s Guide to Utopia: The Future of Growth” (2008 – TRAMES 12 (62/57), 2: 115–126) and “The Global Species” (2010 – New Formations 69: 98-110).


Tuesday, 29 January 2013

ISCB launches annual conference series - 2017 conference to be organised in Norway by me

The International Socity for Code Biology (ISCB), where I am a member of the Governing Board, is making plans for an annual conference series which will start in 2014. As can be seen from the partial overview below, I have been asked, and agreed, to organise the 4th conference in Norway, in 2017.
  • 1st International Conference in Code Biology (2014): Paris, France - organised by Chris Ottolenghi
  • 3rd International Conference in Code Biology (2016): Urbino, Italy - organised by Almo Farina
  • 4th International Conference in Code Biology (2017): Stavanger*, Norway - organised by Morten Tønnessen
  • 5th International Conference in Code Biology (2018): Braga, Portugal - organised by João Carlos Major
  • 7th International Conference in Code Biology (2020): Stellenbosch, South Africa - organised by Jannie Hofmeyr
* depending on where I'll be working

I will soon post on Why I joined the ISCB, a post which will make clear how I am relating to the current split in the biosemiotic community. For now, let it suffice to say that I will only regard the enterprise of the International Conferences in Code Biology as truly successful if they result in greater and not less interest in biosemiotics as a field. Consequently, a measure of their value will be whether they bring more people into biosemiotics, or simply contribute to fragmentation of the biosemiotic community. A further criterion for success is naturally how the ISCB conference series will affect the overall development of the discipline of biosemiotics in qualitative terms. 

At any rate, from 2014 onwards there will be two annual conference series in biosemiotics. The already established conference series is the International Gatherings in Biosemiotics (organised by the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies, ISBS), the 13th of which is to be held in Castiglioncello, Italy this June.

Norway: Second animal ethics conference to be held August 22nd

Last Friday I participated in a meeting in Oslo where Kristian Bjørkdahl, Ann Margaret Grøndahl and I evaluated the first Dyreetikkonferansen [The animal ethics conference] (September 21nd 2012) and made plans for the second. We agreed that the second will take place in Oslo on August 22nd 2013, with the theme "Hvem er villest i landet her? Fra pelsdyr til store rovdyr: Hvordan vi former ville dyr i vårt bilde" [Who is the wildest one in the country here? From fur animals to large carnivores: How we shape wild animals in our own image].

On September 9th the national parliamentary election takes place in Norway. This year's animal ethics conference will therefore treat topics that are currently politically relevant, namely management of large carnivores including wolves and further the Norwegian fur animal business (involving close to a million animals - Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and American mink (Mustela vison), which very existence has the last few years been under debate.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Abstract on Uexküllian phenomenology accepted for NoSP 2013 (Copenhagen)

On January 10th I was notified that my abstract "Introducing Uexküllian phenomenology" had been accepted for presentation at the annual conference of the Nordic Society for Phenomenology (NoSP), the 11th Annual Meeting of the Nordic Society for Phenomenology, which will this year be held in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the Center for Subjectivity Research, April 18-20. This was the third time I submitted an abstract to that conference series, and the first time I was accepted. 

My abstract follows below.

***
Introducing Uexküllian phenomenology The notion of phenomenology is in the mainstream mostly associated with human consciousness. Given how diverse the field of phenomenology is, there is no ultimate definition of phenomenology, nor definitive criteria for what counts as phenomenology. Uexküllian phenomenology derives from the biological ‘Umwelt theory’ of Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944). Uexküll has become an inspiring figure within contemporary semiotics, particularly biosemiotics, and several central semioticians are simultaneously involved in phenomenological reasoning. I argue that Umwelt theory should principally be understood as a genuine phenomenological theory and position. Uexküll’s call for a subjective biology echoes Husserl’s call for a return to the things themselves in the most meaningful way possible, by in effect implying a return to the study and perception of nature qua individuals, nature qua living creatures (and in fact, Husserl’s notion of Lebenswelt is partly overlapping with Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt). Uexküllian phenomenology differs from most established phenomenologies by not being consciousness-centred, and by not adopting neutrality with regard to the reality status of phenomena. It is particularly affiliated with a line of phenomenological development that goes from the late Husserl via Merleau-Ponty to contemporary eco-phenomenologists including David Abram (except for the latter’s animism).

UiS workshop on agency in health care scheduled for April 15th

The last few months I have been in contact with Stephen Cowley (University of Hertfordshire), Paul Thibault (University of Agder) and more recently Febe Friberg (University of Stavanger) and Sissel Husebø (UiS) concerning a workshop which is to be held at University of Stavanger's Department of Health Studies. The workshop, which is titled "Agency in Health Care: Phenomenology and Experience", has now been scheduled for April 15th. 

All four mentioned above will present, with the visiting professors Stephen Cowley and Paul Thibault given most time. I am more of a coordinator. Stephen (who is the coordinator of the Distributed Language Group) will further give a public lecture at the department on April 16th. My head of department Kari Vevatne has helped making these events possible by offering the necessary funding. The workshop will be part of the department's doctoral seminar, for which Febe is one of the coordinators.

Abstracts and other details will follow shortly.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Another letter to the editor in weekly magazine - debate with farmers' union on predator management and sheep husbandry

As mentioned in a recent post I published a letter to the editor in the Norwegian weekly newsmagazine Ny Tid just before Christmas, titled "Gjør sauen en bjørnetjeneste" [Doing the sheep a disservice]. In the January 11th issue of that weekly the deputy chair of The Norwegian Farmers' Union, Berit Hundåla, replied, in a letter to the editor titled "Ulven løper ikke forbi matfatet" [The wolf does not run past the dinner plate]. An image of her article is to be found in my Norwegian language blog Utopisk Realisme, as is my reply which was published today in the January 18th issue, "Sauen som ble til fem høns" (The sheep that were turned into five chickens). Both my letters to the editor were written on behalf of Minding Animals Norway. Among the topics I address is today's low price of animal feed and its consequences for use of outer pastures (or lack thereof). One of my points is, implicitly, that the farmers' union has chosen to complain about predators' predation on sheep rather than to address the problematic and often not desirable ramifications of its own policies with regard to the low price of animal feed (which supports expansion in pig and poultry husbandry - animals that are kept indoors all year - but discourages use of outer pastures and thus outdoor keeping of animals and sheep husbandry in general).

Thursday, 17 January 2013

CFP: Gatherings in Biosemiotics 13 (Castiglioncelli - Livorno, Italy, June 4-8 2013)


Gatherings in Biosemiotics 13

Castiglioncello (Livorno), Italy, 4-8 June 2013

The Thirteenth Annual Gathering in Biosemiotics will be held in Castiglioncello (Italy) from June 4th to June 8th 2013, under the auspices of the Comune di Rosignano Marittimo and the University of Pisa in collaboration with the International Society of Biosemiotic Studies. The aim of the gathering is to provide scholars and researchers of various academic disciplines with a common platform to discuss the roles played by signs and communication in life processes.

The Scientific Advisory Committee of the 13th Gathering in Biosemiotics invites scholars and researchers from all over the world to submit their abstracts of presentations which are primarily centred on the roles and the significance of signs in life processes.

Abstracts should be 300-600 words, typed using a standard word processing format (using Times New Roman 12 point font, and setting the page size for A4). Abstracts should be submitted as single page files to the following address: abstract@biosemiotics2013.org to be received by no later than March 15th 2013. Please name the abstract file with the author's (your) surname in capital letters, for instance SEBEOK.doc. Please see http://www.biosemiotics2013.org/cfp for further details.

For early registration and any additional information, please contact info@biosemiotics2013.org.

January: Three days of teaching

January 9th to 11th I was teaching for a total of 13 hours at the University of Stavanger's Department of Health Studies, in the course Examen Philosophicum (introductory philosophy) at the internet-based bachelor in nursing (course code BSNEXP). Some 20 students out of a registered class of 30 attended the lectures and other formates of teaching, which included daily 45-minutes segments of open discussion in class.

Final CFP: NASS VIII (Aarhus May 2013): Sign evolution on multiple time scales


Final Call for Papers and Theme Sessions of the Eighth Conference of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies (NASS):
NB: Notice that we have extended the deadline for theme session proposals to Jan 31st and we added another plenary speaker: Nicolas Fay (University of Western Australia)   

Sign evolution on multiple time scales

We hereby invite submission of abstracts for oral or poster presentations for the Eighth Conference of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies (NASS) to be held at the Center for Semiotics, Aarhus University, Denmark, May 29th – 31st, 2013.

The theme of this year’s conference is the evolution of signs, and will thus - among many others - address the following questions:
What are the basic mechanisms and conditions for the emergence of new signs and sign systems (such as codes, notational systems, verbal and sign languages, gesture, graphical symbols, pictorial expression, etc.)?
* To which extent should we search for these mechanisms at the level of biology, culture, cognition, phenomenological experience or interaction?
* And what are the relevant features of signs themselves making them emerge, survive and propagate in contexts of communication?

The conference brings together international scholars from a range of disciplines each addressing these questions in relation to particular time scales ranging from biological and cultural evolution to ontogeny and online social interaction.

Presentations should address aspects of how signs and sign systems emerge and develop on different time scales. Topics include, but are not limited to:
* Sign emergence and development on an evolutionary time scale
* Sign emergence and development on a cultural, historical timescale
* Sign emergence and development on an ontogenetic time scale
* Sign emergence and development on an online interactive time scale
* Cultural perspectives on sign emergence and development
* Cognitive perspectives on sign emergence and development
* Dynamical systems perspectives on sign emergence and development
* Phenomenological perspectives on sign emergence and development
* Neurological perspectives on sign emergence and development
* Biological perspectives on sign emergence and development
Confirmed Plenary Speakers:
Luc Steels (ICREA Barcelona and Sony Computer Laboratory Paris)
Jordan Zlatev (Lund University)
Fatima Cvrckova – (Charles University, Prague)
Bruno Galantucci (Yeshiva University, NY)
Susan Goldin-Meadow (University of Chicago)
Winfried Nöth (University of Kassel)
Nicolas Fay (University of Western Australia)
Paper submissions:
Abstracts should be no more than 300 words and should be sent as an attachment to kristian@nordicsemiotics.org in doc, docx, ort or pdf format. Please do not include name or contact details in the text file. Specify in a cover mail your Title, Name, Affiliation, and whether the abstract is intended for oral or poster presentation. Please also indicate if your abstract should be considered part of a theme session (if you are taking part in organizing one) and if would be willing to present a poster if the abstract is not accepted for oral presentation. 
Deadline:  January 31
Theme Sessions proposals:
Proposals for thematic sessions should contain an abstract of no more than 300 words describing the theme. It should also specify the name and affiliation of the organizer(s) and a list of people that would potentially like their presentation to be part of the theme session (IMPORTANT: each participant should still submit her own individual paper abstract that will go through regular peer review). The theme session proposal should be send to kristian@nordicsemiotics.org as an attachment in doc, docx, ort or pdf format. Please specify in a cover mail the Title, Name(s) and Affiliation(s) of the theme session organizers and the title of the theme session proposal. Theme session organizer(s) may be contacted about the potential inclusion of additional papers from general submission if these seems to fit the proposed theme.  
Deadline: December 31/NB extended deadline: Jan 31st
Important Dates
* October 5: First Call for Papers and Theme Session Proposals
* December 1: Second Call for Papers and Theme Session Proposals
* New deadline: January 31: Deadline for theme session proposals
* January 31: Deadline for abstract submission
* March 15: Notification of acceptance
* April 1st: Registration opens
* May 29 – May 31: Conference

If you have any questions or comments related to the conference organization, please email Kristian Tylén: kristian@nordicsemiotics.org. The official conference website will soon be available following www.nordicsemiotics.org/VIII

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Peer review for Minding Animals/four journals conducted

This weekend I conducted peer review of about 60 abstracts that were submitted for the second international Minding Animals conference (Utrecht, July 2012), as one of six volunteer reviewers. I recommended some 30 papers for publication. Full-length papers will likely appear in the journals Society and Animals, Animals, Relations, and Journal of Bioethical Inquiry. Due to other commitments past and present I have not volunteered to be a (co-)guest-editor of one of these four Special Issues.

Annual zoosemiotics grant report submitted

Yesterday I compiled and submitted my annual report relating to the research project Dynamical Zoosemiotics and Animal Representations, headed by Timo Maran. My reported activities in 2012 included five publications (but this number depends on how one counts), seven manuscripts accepted for publication in 2013, and one edited book (the Festschrift to Kalevi Kull). I further reported seven presentations at international conferences etc. and two in local/national seminars, three organized academic events and four popularizing activities (two in print media, a public lecture and a radio interview).

After reporting to Timo I updated my reporting of publications for 2012 as well as preliminarily for 2013 in the Estonian Research Information System. Later this month I will have to report to the Current Research Information System In Norway (CRIStin), for the first time. These reporting activities come in handy as preparation for my soon-to-come annual updating of my CV and Bibliography.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Abstract to animal meta-ethics anthology: "Beyond sentience: Biosemiotics as foundation for animal and environmental ethics"

In November 2012 I was invited by John Hadley and Elisa Aaltola to contribute to a book anthology work-titled Animal meta-ethics: New directions in animal philosophy. My contribution will be co-authored by Jonathan Beever of Purdue University. A full paper is due later in 2013 - this is the abstract Jonathan and I wrote in the days before Christmas:
Beyond sentience: Biosemiotics as foundation for animal and environmental ethics

Morten Tønnessen (University of Stavanger, Norway) and Jonathan Beever (Purdue University, USA) 

In this chapter we argue that biosemiotics can and should serve as foundation for animal and environmental ethics, particularly with regard to justifying attribution of moral status to non-humans. Our contribution rests on a contemporary semiotic interpretation of the Umwelt theory of Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), one of the founding fathers of ethology. 

Our approach argues that sentience is not coextensive with phenomenal subjective experience, but instead is a particular instance of such experience. In an Uexküllian sense, all living beings, even unicellular beings, have subjective experience by having semiotic agency, the capacity to navigate in a world of signs (aka the capacity for signification). The reason why moral status (general moral considerability) and moral value should be attributed to all living beings is that all living being have semiotic agency. This latter assertion implies that 
  1. there is a world of experience that means something to each living creature, and
  1. all living beings are capable of distinguishing between what is attractive (good) to them, what is repulsive (bad) to them, and what has no function for them.

Our actions might affect the wellbeing of any living creature insofar as they affect its worlds of experience and action. Whereas sentience has traditionally been understood in relation to the moral weight of suffering and pain in particular, our approach involves an acknowledgement that the wider ground of sentience is a reality of subjective experience that is omnipresent in the realm of the living at large. 

Scientific questions such as How widespread is sentience in the animal kingdom? are certainly of continued interest. What we suggest is that we start out by recognizing what is common to all living organisms, namely their semiotic agency, and that this stand should inform these other discourses as well. 

Attribution of moral status can be done at different levels of biological organization. We hold that moral status and value should be attributed at various levels simultaneously. Our basic premise, that semiotic agency is the soundest foundation for attributing moral status and value, suggests a certain (but not exclusive) emphasis on subjective experience and thus on the level of the organism/individual, where applicable. However, individuality is no simple notion, and the organism’s character of being already-ecological points to valuation of ecological levels too. An account of animal ethics, on this relational view, demands a complementary account of valuation of those environmental relations as well. 

We propose particularism[1] defined by the normative maxim that each living being deserves to be treated well in accordance with its specific needs. These needs vary so much that it neither makes sense to value all living beings evenly nor to rank them hierarchically. Proper treatment of different living beings has to be case-specific and take species-specific and other needs into consideration. Facilitating the fulfillment of the needs of the living to the greatest extent possible is what ethics is all about.


[1] Not to be confused with “moral particularism”, Hare 1963.


Uexküll translation project in process; deadline extended to February 28th

In March 2012 Jonathan Beever and I agreed with Editor-in-Chief of Biosemiotics Marcello Barbieri that the two of us will translate Jakob von Uexküll's 1917 essay "Darwin und die Englische Moral" and write a framing essay to go along with it. More specifically, I will do the translation, with language editing done by Jonathan. The framing essay will be co-written by both of us.

We originally planned to have the texts done in the autumn of 2012, but before Christmas got acceptance for a delayed deadline, February 28th 2013. However, we have by now started on both the translation and the framing essay, and have agreed to maintain regular contact, with Skype calls approximately every second week, in January and February (and beyond that as well, due to another, thematically related writing project).

My doctoral diploma

In December, about a year after I defended my doctoral thesis, I received my doctoral diploma from the University of Tartu.


"Umwelt trajectories" to be published this autumn

A few days ago I was notified that the special issue of Semiotica on zoosemiotics has been scheduled for publication in the autumn of 2013. It will include my article "Umwelt Trajectories", which is loosely based on my conference presentation "The Umwelt trajectories of wolves, sheep and people" (2011, abstract written 2010). The special issue is guest-edited by Timo Maran.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Web stats 2012 (blogs etc.)

Webstats, 2012 (pageloads)
1. Utopisk Realisme [political, Norwegian language blog] 10.540
2. Utopian Realism [academic blog] 5.576
3. SemioPhenomenon [site for the Tartu phenomenology meets semiotics workshops in 2009] 167
4. The Schopenhauer Experience [existentialist electronica] 136


Combined these four blogs/webpages had 5% returning visitors - Utopian Realism had the highest percentage, with 7,8% (307 out of 3.919), while Utopisk Realisme had 3,6% returning visitors (279 out of 7.788). Whereas the numbers of this blog thus represented more than half of all returning visitors, almost 2/3 of all visitors at large visited my Norwegian language political blog, and about 1/3 this blog.

Webstats, all-time (pageloads as of today, January 3rd 2013)
1. Utopisk Realisme 45.174
2. Utopian Realism 20.230
3. SemioPhenomenon 3.646
4. The Schopenhauer Experience 878


See also similar post from January 2011. Unfortunately, I did not post on webstats for the year 2011 as a whole (though the math could be done in hindsight as well...), but all numbers indicate that 2011 was the year so far with most hits and reads. This must be understood in light of my blogging frequency: Whereas I wrote 217 posts in Utopian Realism in 2010 and 228 in 2011, for instance, I wrote only 137 posts in 2012  - not due to any lack of activities to report, but rather due to lack of time for blogging about my non-blogging activities, due to a heavy work-load*. Similarly, in Utopisk Realisme I wrote 135 posts in 2009, 117 in 2010 and 134 posts in 2011, but only 60 posts in 2012. Nevertheless, some 200 posts in these two blogs combined is not all that bad, is it?

* I still hope to get to the bottom of my Utopian Realism backlog, in time.

I have a couple of other blogs as well, but do not regularly keep track of their web stats.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The work year 2012 summarised

In 2012 I worked some 3165,5 hours. This results in an average work week (all weeks included) of 60,5 hours (against 62,0 in 2011 and 58,1 in 2010), which represents approximately 192 % of a normal work week (given 35 hours per week, minus 5 weeks of holidays).

I worked more than ever (since records begin in 2009) at the University of Stavanger (where I have in previous years only graded papers), with book projects (categorised as 'Litterært' and including both co-editing and monographs in process), and  with Minding Animals and to some extent the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies.

The share of my work time spent doing research is a bit tricky to estimate; the category "Research" stood for 28,1% of all work hours, though this does not represent all research activities and is at any rate not directly comparable to previous work 2009-2011 categorised as "doctoral work" (which included work beyond research as well).

January 1st: 20% position; 80% parental leave

I have updated my "Brief academic CV", amongst other things noting in point one that my position as Associate professor at University of Stavanger's Department of Health Studies 2012-2013 has been 25% (Spring 2012) > 100% (Autumn 2012) and is now 20% (Spring 2013). This semester I'll give the course Examen Philosophicum for the fourth time altogether (including once at University of Agder), and for the second time in the internet-based bachelor for nursing students.

Today, January 1st 2013, I further dwelve into a graded (80%) parental leave, to look after and spend time with my son Matias Laurits da Silva-Tønnessen (born October 10th 2012). My parental leave will last until June 24th.