Abstract The current article is the first in a series of review articles addressing biosemiotic terminology, and is meant to establish the format of the series. In contrast to the five existing biosemiotic glossaries compiled by individual authors (one or a few), this project is inclusive and designed to integrate views of a representative group of members within the biosemiotic community based on a standard survey and related publications. The methodology section describes the format of the survey conducted in November–December 2013 in preparation of the current review and targeted on the two terms ‘agent’ and ‘agency’. Next, I summarize denotation, synonyms and antonyms, with special emphasis on the denotation of these terms in current biosemiotic usage. On this point the survey findings include ratings of nine citations defining or making use of the two terms. I provide a summary of respondents’ own definitions of the terms and suggested usage. Further sections address etymology, connotations, and related terms in English and other languages. A section on the notions’ mainstream meaning vs. their meaning in biosemiotics is then followed by attempt at synthesis and conclusions.
While some other fields, such as medical and veterinary science, has a pragmatic interest in the notion of agency qua causal, biosemiotics has an ontological interest in the occurrence of agency in the living realm at large. Although there is currently no consensus in the biosemiotic community on what constitutes a semiotic agent, i.e. an agent in the context of semiosis (the action of signs), most respondents agree that core attributes of an agent include goal-directedness, self-governed activity, processing of semiosis and choice of action, with these features being vital for the functioning of the living system in question. I agree that these four features are constitutive of biosemiotic agents, and further suggest to define ‘semiotic agency’ as the capacity a living system has of affecting the course of events in which it is involved by relating to sign relationships. Finally, I stipulate that biosemiotic agents fall within three major categories, namely 1) sub-organismic biosemiotic agents, 2) organismic biosemiotic agents and 3) super-organismic biosemiotic agents.
Virtual issue on honor of Jesper Hoffmeyer
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