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Friday, 9 May 2014

Abstract for London gathering in biosemiotics: "Descartes’ dualisms and the epistemology of biosemiotics"

In mid-March I composed and submitted the abstract below to the 14th Gathering in Biosemiotics (London June 30 - July 4).


Descartes’ dualisms and the epistemology of biosemiotics
By Morten Tønnessen
Associate professor in philosophy at University of Stavanger’s Department of health studies

René Descartes (1596–1650) has been reckoned as a primary antagonist of biosemiotics ever since Friedrich Salomon Rothschild introduced his seminal 1962 paper with the following statement (p. 774):
The concept of the symbol shows the way to overcome René Descartes’ partition of man into the self as res cogitans and the body as res extensa. In the symbol psychological meaning and physical sign appear as a unit.
What is referred to here, and has repeatedly been referred to in later biosemiotic literature, is Descartes’ infamous substance dualism, which is often associated with the mind–body problem, a problem Descartes can be said to have introduced in the modern age. While substance dualism is an instance of ontological dualism, Descartes’ position, which was so important to the establishment and growth of modern science, also implied epistemological dualism, i.e. the view that the (in Cartesian sense human) subject and the objects perceived by it are radically different. In simplified terms, this perspective can be characterized as implying that the knowing subject stands “outside”, or is independent of, the world which it comes to know about.

In contrast, phenomenology (in its non-Cartesian versions) and hermeneutics have maintained that the knowing subject is always a part of the world that it navigates in and attempts to understand. This perspective is also central to Jakob von Uexküll’s Umwelt theory, and to Uexküllian phenomenology (Tønnessen 2011), a version of phenomenology derived from Uexküll’s work and characterized by the assumption of the universal existence (in the realm of life) of a genuine first person perspective, i.e., of experienced worlds. A living being and its phenomenal world is a unity, and the two can only be understood in tandem.

“Knowing”, as Kalevi Kull (2009: 81) has argued, “is a distinctive feature of living systems.” Animals know – plants know – even microorganisms know (not to mention distributed knowing in various composite systems). It is the task of biology to study and describe what they know, and how they know what they know. This implies the ontological finding that all living beings are knowing creatures, and the related epistemological observation that in order to get to know as much as possible about the world at large (the natural world included), we must base much of our human knowledge on getting acquainted with what non-humans know. In consequence, biology, and perhaps zoology in particular, is key to contributing to overall human knowledge. This perspective is very unlike that of Descartes, which was that animals are machine-like and bereft of any true intelligence or rationality.

In conclusion I will refer to the common critique of Cartesian dualism found in health science in general and nursing science in particular. In doing this I will discuss to what extent biosemiotics does or should share a (w)holistic view of humanity, and of nature. In one version, such a view of humanity implies that human life has four dimensions, namely a physical, a psychological, a social and a spiritual dimension (and a reductionist view typically amounts to acknowledging only the physical dimension).

Kull, Kalevi (2009). Biosemiotics: To know, what life knows. Cybernetics and Human Knowing 16(3/4): 81–88.
Rothschild, Friedrich Salomon (1962). “Laws of symbolic mediation in the dynamics of self and personality”. Annals of New York Academy of Sciences 96: 774–784.
Tønnessen, Morten (2011). Umwelt Transition and Uexküllian Phenomenology – An Ecosemiotic Analysis of Norwegian Wolf Management (= Dissertationes Semioticae Universitatis Tartuensis 16). Doctoral dissertation. Tartu: Tartu University Press. Introduction available online.

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