The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Semiotics: Signs and Messages

Semiotics provides a different perspective to study the nature and origin of language.

Semiotics, founded in the 1940s by the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev, had two important precursors in the US philosophers Charles Peirce  (whose writings were rediscovered only in the 1930s) and Charles Morris (who in 1938 had formalized a theory of signs).

Peirce reduced all human knowledge to the idea of “sign” and identified three different kinds of signs: the index (a sign which bears a causal relation with its referent); the icon (which bears a relation of similarity with its referent); and the symbol (whose relation with its referent is purely conventional). For example, the flag of a sporting team is a symbol, while a photograph of the team is an icon. Movies often make use of indexes: ashes burning in an ashtray mean that someone was recently in the room, and clouds looming on the horizon mean it is about to rain. Most of the words that we use are symbols, because they are conventional signs referring to objects.

Morris defined the disciplines that study language according to the roles played by signs. Syntax studies the relation between signs and signs (as in “the” is an article, “meaning” is a noun, “of” is a preposition, etc.). Semantics studies the relation between signs and objects (“Piero is a writer” means that somebody whose name is “Piero” writes books). Finally, Pragmatics studies the relation between signs, objects and users (the sentence “Piero is a writer” may have been uttered to correct somebody who said that Piero is a carpenter).

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure introduced the dualism of “signifier” (the word actually uttered) and the “signified” (the mental concept). ("Semiology" usually refers to the Saussure-an tradition, whereas "semiotics" refers to the Peirce-an tradition. Semiotics, as opposed to Semiology, is the study of all signs).

The Argentine semiotician Luis Prieto studied signs, in particular, as means of communication. For example, the Braille alphabet and traffic signs are signs used to communicate. A “code” is a set of symbols (the “alphabet”) and a set of rules (the “grammar”). The code relates a system of expressions to a set of contents. A “message” is a set of symbols of the alphabet that has been ordered according to the rules of the grammar. This is a powerful generalization: language turns out to be only a particular case of communication. A sentence can be reduced to a process of encoding (by the speaker) and decoding (by the listener).

The Hungarian linguist Thomas Sebeok views semiotics as a branch of communication theory that studies messages, whether emitted by objects (such as machines) or animals or humans. In agreement with René Thom, Sebeok thinks that human sign behavior has nothing special that can distinguish it from animal sign behavior or even from the behavior of inanimate matter.

Sebeok also bridged genetics and linguistics, aware that the code of the grammar generates a language the way the genetic code generates a living body.

The Canadian neuropsychologist Merlin Donald speculated on how the human mind developed. He argued that at the beginning there was only episodic thinking: early hominids could only remember and think about episodes. Later, they learned how to communicate and then they learned how to build narratives. Symbolic thinking came last. Based on this scenario, the Danish semiotician Jesper Hoffmeyer drew his own conclusions: in the beginning there were stories, and then, little by little, individual words rose out of them. Which implies that language is fundamentally narrative in nature; that language is corporeal, has to do with motor-based behavior; and that the unit of communication among animals is the whole message, not the word.

Hoffmeyer introduced the concept of "semiosphere", the semiotic equivalent of the atmosphere and the biosphere that incorporates all forms of communication, from smells to waves: all signs of life. Every living organism must adapt to its semiosphere or die. At all levels, life must be viewed as a network of “sign processes”. The very reason for evolution is death: since organisms cannot survive in the physical sense they must survive in the semiotic sense, i.e. by making copies of themselves. "Heredity is semiotic survival".

Rene' Thom, the French mathematician who invented catastrophe theory, aimed to "geometrize thought and language". Thom was envisioning a Physics of meaning, of significant form, which he called "Semiophysics".

Following in this generalization of signs, James Fetzer (“Signs and Minds”, 1988) even argued in favor of extending Newell and Simon’s theory to signs: the mind not as a processor of symbols, but as a processor of signs.


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