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Tag Archives: semiotics

Human Centric Semiosis in the Name of Umwelten

The Apprehension of World

Through the pleasures of the Internet the author of one of the books I cited in my working development of a Spinozist theory of Exowelt responded to some of my thoughts. Paul Bains, whose excellent, articulate The Primacy of Semiosis I resourced, questioned any need at all for such an Exowelt thought, as he feels that Deely is already sufficiently non-Phenomenological and non-human-centric, two motivations for my working toward an Exowelt conception.

The exchange we had in the comments section seemed a bit scatter-shot between the both of us, but some interesting questions were raised. I repost my last thoughts here (changing the “person” of address), citing from a pivotal passage in Paul’s book which at least for him, conceptually sets the agenda at hand. Perhaps others will find the issues compelling, just as I do:

Here is the relevant passage from your book  that for me points directly to the human-centric framing of the issue for you (and Deely):

“I will seek to elaborate the critical distinction between the animal and human Umwelten – or species-specific objective worlds as Deely presents it. This distinction is timely, because although it has similarities with Heidegger’s treatment of exactly the same question, I will claim that Deely provides a more articulate and nuanced analysis. Those who are shocked by and criticize Heidegger’s “abyss” between man and animal might find this approach of value, even if only to distinguish themselves from it. The ultimate issue is this: To what extent it can be said that a non-languaging, non-human animal apprehends its Umwelt or milileu/envirioning world as a world at all: Deely’s distinction between zoosemiosis and anthroposemiosis intersects with Wittgenstein’s approach to forms of life and expressive capacities that can only exist in language: “We say a dog is afraid his master will beat him, but not, he is afraid his master will beat him tomorrow, Why not?”…The concept of objective being introduced in the preceding chapter (i.e., as something existing only insofar as it exists within awareness) will be seen as providing the relational network for the fabrication of species-specific objective worlds or Umwelten. Deely writes…” (page 60).

Beetles and Things: Why Experience Creates No Sphere

If I could take it piece by piece.

1. I don’t find the distinction between human and animal Umwelten “critical” as Paul does. That is, there is no substantivedifference here, no hierarchy. Or, as Spinoza insists, humans do not form a kingdom within a kingdom.

2. While Deely might be more nuanced than Heidegger in regards to the “abyss” he certainly maintains it, and does so in ways that are quite human-centric.

3. Paul’s “ultimate” question is also quite human-centric (not to mention quite rather Kantian flavored with the choice of “apprehension” as the “ultimate” value). I do not accept that apprehending one’s Umwelten “as world” is of critical, ontological distinction at all. This reflective notion is highly Idealist, and Paul is right to bring Heidegger up, a thinker who retains strong idealist, phenomenological roots.

4.While I accept that there are distinctions between zoo and anthropo semiosis, anthropo semiosis is irrevocably joined to zoo. It is zoo. And to this I would add that I do not stop there at the biotic world when I am speaking of semoitic processes. For me semiosis goes ALL the way down. Because Antropo semiosis is zoo, and relies upon zoo, there is no ostensive boundary of “world”.

5.Wittgenstein’s treatment of animals I find most problematic due to the highly eliptical and aphrostic style of his “arguments”. In particular here, the oscillation between “languaging” and “forms of life”. I offer my thoughts on the failings of Wittgenstein’s reading of animals here, if interested: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation  [here].

6. I distinctly reject the notion that there are species-specific Umwelten, pretty much along the same line of reasoning that there are (individual human) mind-specific languages. Wittgenstein’s private language argument’s theme ends up disentangling every boundary.

It is specifically in terms of “experience”, what Deely calls a “sphere of experience”:

{Deely writing]”Elements of the physical environment are networked objectively, i.e., so as to establish the sphere of experience as something superordinante to and strictly transcending, all the while containing partially and resting upon aspects of, the physical environment in its ‘natural’ or ‘mind-independent’ being. Umwelten are thus species specific: No two types of organism live in the same objective worlds, even though they share the same physical environment.”

Just as there is no Beetle in the Box (it gets crossed out) there is no sphere of experience that necessarily is objectively distinct by species. It is only a phenomenological skew of what we think of determinative that ultimately thinks that communication between species is a communication between “worlds”

Or, to put it another way, taking up my notion of Exowelten, because there are real differences in the world that make up the terminus and perceptual limits of our bodies, and the bodies of other biotic and non-biotic forms, any strict species-specific distinction of realms or “spheres” has no ultimate footing. Our “Forms of Life” are already Semiotically Conjoined, and no delineation of experience can unjoin them.


Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza

An Ecology of Persons

I would like to take this opportunity to delve into Morten Tønnessen‘s essay,  “Umwelt ethics,” [download here] (Sign Systems Studies 31.1, 2003), which I could only afford to mention in passing in my post Umwelt, Umwelten and The Animal Defined By Its Relations. I suggested then that Tønnessen had not provided a rigorous connection between Uxeküll’s notion of Umwelt and Næss’s Deep Ecology ethics, but rather gave us a fine juxtaposition. It could be said that Tønnessen gives us a topographical study of the ethical landscape confronting those that want to argue for a moral authority when treating environments and other species. I also suggested that such a landscape could be well-aided by the kinds of ethical arguments provided by Spinoza’s ontology/epistemology (explicitly), and the normative epistemology of Davidson. Here I would like to pursue more of the former rather than the latter, but I do believe that they are well connected, conceptually.

Key to understanding Spinoza’s gift to this question I believe comes from the way that he treats human relations. Much of environmental ethical argument is bent toward shaping moral framing out toward a much broader sphere, thinking about how the reasons why we treat other women/men/children well also apply to ecological questions. Spinoza has an advantage here, for largely we do not have the problem of how to get out of the human-realm (moral reasoning), and into the natural realm (brute forces) – humans do not form a kingdom within a kingdom, as he says. In fact, Spinoza’s treatment of ethical questions (and we do need to watch how we move lexically from ethical to moral and back) among human beings is at core an ecological question. Human beings are for Spinoza resources. One does not waste  the possibilities of combining with other persons, and the freedom of other persons is necessarily a contribution towards our own freedom. Because the human realm is shot through with utility reasoning the bridging towards a utility of environments forms a much more natural aptitude for analysis and moral positioning.

But let me step through Spinoza here as an entry point into Tønnessen’s article, for he does a very good job of laying out the priority of questions to be answered. What really is at stake is the ultimate question of how to resolve the islanding tendencies buried in the phenomenological heart of J. von Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt.

This difficulty – and I am only now coming to grips with the literature – has largely been attempted to be answered either on the functional, or semiotic level. Some combination of a network of functions (for instance various “functional cycles” between the organism and the environment), and then more, their semiotically distilled expression, serve as a sometimes loosely proposed nexus between what von Uexküll apparently conceived of in much more isolating, organism-bound, apparitional terms. Umwelten  are supposed to give rise to a kind of shared Umwelt, or an interface called a Semiosphere, which is seen to connect up all these treatening-to-be  solipsistic bubbles of informational life. (Previously, here and here, I have proposed an alternate resolution which involved disbanding the phenomenological core of the idea altogether, and redefining the organism in terms of an Exowelt, composed of the very differences that make a difference. These following arguments dovetail with this notion.) Tønnessen feels well the difficulty of von Uexküll’s phenomenology and seeks to give us a platform from which to view these bubbles of experiential outer world, not only their epistemological connections, but also their moral footing. And to do so he turns to the work of Hoffmeyer.

Now I have not read Hoffmeyer’s discussion of bioethics, and rely mainly upon the aspects brought up by Tønnessen himself. So this critique has to be taken as internal to this particular essay, and runs the risk of repeating points that Hoffmeyer may have prodigiously made or rigorously countered. Nonetheless, I want to trace out the ground that is raised in “Umwelt Ethics,” for I sense that Tønnessen turns to Hoffmeyer to alleviate something of the pressure put on by the difficulties of a phenomenological world view.

“Code-duality” and Dual Attributes: Where is the seam?

Tønnessen discusses Hoffmeyer just about at the vital point of clarifying what a moral subject is, via the influence of Jon Wetlesen, himself oriented strongly towards a Spinozist implicit definition of a subject:

Hoffmeyer’s justification of the attribution of moral status is inspired by the Norwegian philosopher Jon Wetlesen, for whom Spinoza’s definition of subjecthood acts as a point of departure. According to Spinoza (1951: Pt. III, Prop. IV), “everything, in so far as it is in itself, endavours to persist in its own being”. Wetlesen (1993) argues that all non-human individual organisms and supra-individual wholes that resembles moral agents by showing self-determination, or striving, can be regarded as subjects with a moral standing. Hoffmeyer’s equivalent of the Spinozean perseverance is his own concept code duality (Hoffmeyer 1993: 165). Organic code-duality, a property common to all living beings, can be understood as the semiotic interplay between the analog (cell) and digital (DNA) versions of a living being (cf. Hoffmeyer 1996: 44).

I’d like to discuss this link to Spinoza with a bit more richness, confronting as directly as possible Hoffmeyer’s guiding principle of code duality in terms of Spinoza’s position. I think we can get something very productive out of this. First of all, as is obvious but perhaps needing to be said, all things, that is, every single body in composition expresses itself with a conatus for Spinoza. If we are to use Spinoza’s notion of the conatus  as an ethical signpost we are going to have to be rather explicit in the justification our claims that distinguish strongly between the animate and the inanimate, or the organic and the inorganic. For Spinoza, in somewhat fine panpsychist fashion resembling Augustine’s best panpsychic moments, conatus  pervades the entirety of Being. Anything that exists exists because it is striving. (Perhaps Wetlesen takes this whole-hog, but it is good to make this point quite explicit.)

More interesting is Hoffmeyer’s notion of  “double coding” which he specifies with reference to analog and digital cell ontologies. We must ask, if we are to make a Spinozist critique, is there an homology in Spinoza to “double coding”? The most obvious connection of course is Spinoza’s assertion of two Attributes, thought and extension, wherein digital coding is taken as Ideational expression, and analogical coding as Extensional. I’ve tried to trace down the fundamental thought in Hoffmeyer’s idea of dual codes, and it seems that he is most interested in the differential between the two, using the DNA code of an organism as placed in relation to the supervenient meta-code of analogical spatiality:

Every single crocodile embodies both the essence of being a crocodile, “crocodileness” (the message handed down to it through the genetic material), and the elements that make it one particular crododile. The second message is a kind of meta-message supervenient to the bloodline’s digital message. The crocodile is an analogue code in the sense that it enters, among other things, into a mating semiosis which, in principle, involves a good many crocodiles (through competition, etc.). Ostensibly, the message is transmitted by the fertilized egg cell the crocodile once was, but it also involves the egg cell’s spatial interpretation of another message, the digitally coded message that, at one time, lay tucked away inside the crocodile egg’s own genome. And, as the mating semiosis runs its course, this message is received – and interpreted – by other members of the same species. Generally speaking an organism convey’s a message about its evolutionary experience (45)

Signs of meaning in the Universe, Hoffmeyer and Haveland

Spinoza distinctly would refuse both supervenience and meta-status for the Attribute of extension, for he argues that Idea and Thing are in strict parallel, each expressing themselves with “the same order and connection”. So, one must question from a Spinozist point of view: by what measure is the spatial said to supervene upon the digital? In fact, I suspect that here Hoffmeyer is constructing a differential between separate layers or registers, for the spatiality of the crocodile (in Spinozist terms, its extensional expression) is not expressive just of its DNA, but rather of the digital state of all its cell structure. And the DNA molecular “code” is not expressed by the crocodile as res, but rather in the very spatial configuration of its very molecules. If I am understanding Hoffmeyer and Haveland correctly, it seems that, in Spinozist terms, they are selecting out the Ideational expression of DNA, and the Extensional expression of a Crocodile, across domains, and putting them in hierarchical relation to each other. One might as well take the molecular spatiality and the digital state of the crocodile and cross-weave them back. In any case, while the double coding that Hoffmeyer suggest is quite revealing, and an interesting take upon the Mind/Body, Meaning/Form dualities, it is but a cross-section of interpretation. A Spinozist would want to see a fuller picture, embracing both Attributes at any particular register.

It is enough to say though that such Double Coding would not select out only organic processes from all other expressions of Nature, for under Spinozist lights, all things are of dual codes, expressed in Thought and Extension.

The “Positioning” of an Imitation of the Affects

Tønnessen continues on with the benefits of a Hoffmeyer approach, careful to note how the ethics being built from dual-coded theorizing differs from Umwelt thinking in that it incorporates species specific, genomic Umwelten of a kind:

In conclusion (Hoffmeyer 1993: 173), “all living systems deserve to be considered as moral subjects, but some of them more so than others”. As a parameter that might eventually be used for grading among moral subjects, he suggests semiotic freedom, i.e., the level of richness or depth of meaning that a being is able to communicate. Hoffmeyer (1993: 172; cf. 1996: 139) attributes true subjectivity, and, consequently, moral status, at the individual level to all animals possessing a complex nervous system. Primitive organisms, on the other hand, such as amoebas or mealworms, are moral subjects only at species level. A premise for this judgment is that human beings are “perfectly capable of identifying with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics of nature” (Hoffmeyer 1993: 172). In Hoffmeyer’s interpretation, this means that we are capable of identifying with “umwelt-builders in the broadest sense of this term, i.e. even species of lower level organisms lacking neural systems but which, qua species, nevertheless create a kind of (genomic) umwelt through their evolutionary incorporation of ecological niche conditions into the future” (Hoffmeyer 1993: 172) [Footnote: As this passage exemplifies, Hoffmeyer departs from Uexküll’s understanding of the Umwelt concept. In an Uexküllian setting, it makes no sense to talk about “genomic Umwelten”, since each and every Umwelt is in fact the privilege of the subject in question. Consequently, although evidently founded on biosemiotics, Hoffmeyer’s ethics cannot be regarded an Umwelt ethics.]….

This is where it gets very interesting for we enter the realm of Spinozist ethical theorizing that departs from mere conatus claims of moral standing. All animals with complex nervous systems are afforded such a standing due to their ability to “[identify] with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics  of nature” (bolding the important concepts). Here we come right up to the braiding of Spinoza’s principle of the imitation of affects and my own thinking of Exowelten. To repeat the vital Spinozist proposition that we are imaginatively, and affectively connected to all human others through our projection of “sameness”:

E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.


 [If one wants an in-depth reading of the sociological and political consequences of this proposition, see Balibar’s treatment of the reasoning behind sociability: Here] But let us remain at the bio-logical level. It is important that the seemingly implicit experiential/ideational sameness within human beings that Spinoza posits, in Hoffmeyer becomes a positional one (with these two positions not being mutually exclusive to each other). What distinguishes the moral subject here, is the ability for the organism to read another organism as positioned as it might be in. I would go further, and more explicitly say: the ability for the read organism to be affected by the same differences in the world, that is, in terms of my thoughts on Exowelten, to share differential nodes, the same points as organs of perception. This capacity is, at the highest levels of human rationality, expressed as Triangulation: the ability to read through the assumed coherence of another’s beliefs and those causal relations, the coherence of states of the world. But this capacity is primarily an affective  capacity, to which the depths of one’s organic coherence read the states of other things, objects, beings in the world, such that the causal powers of the world itself come into greater clarity.

Importantly, by stretching his criteria beyond the mere nervous-system-endowed animal, out to genomic expressions of organisms, the breadth of reflective capacities can be contributed to a far greater number of phenomena, something that Tønnessen notes. But with significance he raises the question of just what importance code-duality plays in this “same position in the bio-logic” definition of moral standing, in particular, why should our identifications be restricted by Hoffmeyer’s description:

…To Hoffmeyer’s credit, his criterion for deciding which entities we are capable of identifying with is so vague that it allows for a certain flexibility. This vagueness, or flexibility, however, is not mirrored in his conclusion. If we are capable of identifying with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics of nature, then why not a mountain, or an individual mealworm? And, more generally: if interpretative processes are to form the basis of attribution of moral status, why should code-duality be considered the relevant property? In what way is organic code duality related to the actual well-being of a creature or a living system, in the same sense as self-determination or perseverance is?

This raises a very important question of just what are the evolutionary and epistemic benefits of reading in two terms, Thought and Extension? This is to say, if we agree with Spinoza and all things express themselves in Thought and Extension, in what manner is the gain of focusing our attention upon one or the other?

Triangulation and the Internal of Cause

Donald Davidson has an elementary answer to this question, but we have to translate out of, and down from, his attempts to parse out the explanatory power of mental causation, (that is, or attribution of causal properties to beliefs and reasons), from physical causation.

[Mental concepts] appeal to causality because they are designed, like the concept of causality itself, to single out from the totality of circumstances which conspire to cause a given event just those factors that satisfy some particular explanatory interest. When we want to explain an action, for example, we want to know the agent’s reasons, so we can see for ourselves what it was about the action that appealed to the agent…The causal element in mental concepts helps make up for the precision they lack; it is part of the concept of an intentional action that it is caused and explained by beliefs and desires…

“Three Varieties of Knowledge”, (216-217)

When reading the behaviours of other persons as behaviours,we necessarily attribute to them all sort of mental predicates such as “he desires, she wants, she fears, he hopes, they think…” which help us isolate the important internal states which allow us to sensibly make use of those behaviors as significant. In fact, as we make these projective attributions, it is not just that the agent we are reading who becomes clear (under a normative framework), but also and more importantly, the world itself. By making mental-causal attributions “within” the agent, events in the world “outside” the agent are also selected out as significant  because the agent and I are regarded as somewhat the “same”. This sameness can be understood as a kind of internal, affective/ideational sameness: I would feel/think the same things if I were like that; or, and more importantly, I would feel/think the same things if I were in the same “position” (Hoffmeyer’s denotative standard for moral subject).

But one must not stop at the rational belief level of attribution to fully understand the pervasiveness of Triangulation, the way in which the internal states of others reveal for us the character of external states of the world. In fact, I would go further and say that the “double code” that Hoffmeyer presents is primarily the heuristic difference that an reader makes upon another organism (or even a field of consistent boundary conditions):

Are the most important events going on Inside the organism/field, or Outside in the world that we share?

Those events when read as internal  are understood as mental, while those read as external are understood as physical, with the understanding that a relevant interal events are signficant in how they confirm or deny pre-existing internal/external orientations the reader has already established with aspects of the world. Ultimately, this is how differences in the world become Organs of Perception.

Why not a Mountain?

So Tønnessen is dead-on when he asks, “why not a mountain, or an individual mealworm”? It is precisely so that a blade of grass might present some significant inside (mental) interpretant, as may an entire field of grass. And yes, a sudden splitting of a mountain face, or the soft curve of its erosion wear might prospectively direct us to its internal coherences to isolate what is causally significant. “Was it a faultline crack, or a meteor that struck?”, just as we might ask, “Was he mentally unstable, or was he coerced?”. These are homologous questions. Mountains too have a semiosis  of internal consistency, and only the acclaimed need for a subject-center Interpretant prevents this from becoming obvious.

The statement will be made: Well, you can project your anthropomorphisms onto mountains and ponds all you like, but they themselves are not Triangulating, not reading states of the world off of the internal states of other things/beings!

To this I would want to assert that these projections are not just anthropomorphic but come from the affective organization of our body plans down to a fair ancestral level. The animism is not just a retarded vestige to be thrown off, but rather makes up some of the most powerful capacities to organize ourselves in the world and to communicate with it. In a sense, it forms the contrapuntal base rhythm of our perceptions and rationalized descriptions, something whose slow, essential musicality must be harmonized with, or quietly, somatically altered, if we are to experience coherence in our views. Secondly though, I am unsure how one would decide upon which external factors a mountain or a pond is responding to when we epistemically project onto its semiotic states of coherence. Sun’s light might be warming a rockface, but just so is the atmospheric condition allowing it. Are bacteria “triangulating” when they quorum sense: some thoughts here: Davidson’s Triangulation and the Swarm. I would say that the internal coherence of any one organism or field registers significant differences out beyond it in the sense that its Exowelt meets with ours, sharing nodes. And which of those nodal features, whether they be primary difference that make a seemingly direct difference between the internal states of the organism/field, and ourselves, or secondary ones, which may be inferred from the former, is something that plays itself out in pragmatic terms. This is to say, the very coherence that is maintained in an organism/field is not composed of one-to-one mappings of internal-event-aspect/external-event-aspect, and that the very causal constellation of external events can be said to be expressed in the internal response coherence.

In this way, human beings are very good at telling us what they are responding to in most circumstances, and in reasoned discourse this results in them telling us what they “know”. But knowing goes very deep into the organism/field, far below what we can say, and “what” we know in our very coherence has no delineated correlate.

The “Ontological Niche”

Tønnessen then, upon returning to a less than satisfying and phenomenologically informed concept of Umwelten, raises the concept of the ontological niche, something approaching my Exowelt correction to the same. By virtue of Uexküll’s criterion of the “function cycle” a division is made between animal and plant, those that have an Umwelt and those that have merely a Wohnhüllen

Phrased in modern terminology, Umwelten can be attributed to protists, bacteria and animals (including the animal that does not want to be an animal, i.e., man), but not to plants and fungi (Uexküll, Kriszat 1956 [1940]: 111). Instead, they have Wohnhüllen, which the objects of Umwelten are replaced by meaning-factors. These must, along with Umwelten, be understood as a category of individual phenomenal worlds.9 While only Umwelt-carriers take part in functional cycles, plants and fungi, as well, partake in contrapuntal relations, i.e., subject-object-relations characterized by a mutual correspondence between the two entities. There are at least two kinds of contrapuntal relations: Relations between two meaning-utilizers (e.g. a flower and a bee, or a predator and its prey), and, more generally, relations between a meaning-utilizer and a meaning-carrier or meaning-factor in its phenomenal world (e.g., an eye and the sun). Functional cycles can be regarded as special cases of contrapuntal relations. The known phenomenal world, therefore, consists of Umwelten and Wohnhüllen that, through the interconnectedness that the various contrapuntal relations result in, comprise what we call nature. In this intricate web — of life, of semiosis, of world — we occupy an ontological niche.

The ontological niche of a being can be defined as the set of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in at a given point of natural history. [Hoffmeyer (1996: 140): “The character of the animal’s defines the spectrum of positions that an animal can occupy in the bio-logical sphere, its semiotic niche”.] The ontological niche of a being delimits the “area” that this being occupies in the phenomenal world. Simultaneously, through its ontological niche, the phenomenal world of a being is intertwined with other phenomenal worlds, thus integrating this being into the society of phenomenal subjects…

As I have argued, there is no way in which to make a categorical distinction between the two contrapuntal “meaning utilizers” and “meaning-carriers,” though we can assume a differential. At times it is best to focus on the binary rhythm between the eye and the sun, but then at other times to see that this binary is expressive of other coherence-field relations (the sun “carriers” its participation in a “utilization”). In any case though, as the contrapuntal rhythm weaves a primary mat of life (including its inorganic forms), it is the Ontological Niche (for me Exowelten) determinations which give life to the very substance of our coherent thoughts and communications, the way in which regularly read and affectively inhabit a diversity of forms whose internal (field) states reflect and express states of the world. And it is our mutually enfleshed  sharing of nodes in the world which privileges any organic or inorganic state, as important. It is because of this that the very musicality of connection between the internal parts of the world to other external parts of the world, is what is at stake in the very maintenance of the coherence of our thought and capacity to speak to each other. The resource is in the very affective and dexterous capacity of others (other things, other beings) to feel and report back upon what condition the world is in.

Total Umwelt and Biosphere Split

In his essay Morten Tønnessen steers somewhat clear from Hoffmeyer’s wider embrace in order to return to the rich heritage of Umwelt-thinking, and he tries to heal any solipsistic phenomenological drag from the concept by postulating various zones of “total Umwelt” expression. These are still phenomenological states, but simply totalized by some measure. Personally, I don’t see the advantage of returning to Idealism’s internal preoccupation and anchoring, something which ever must return to the notion of a subject. Yet, Tønnessen also extracts from von Uexküll the important idea that the animal and its Umwelt are inseparable. While this still leaves us on the wrong side of the ledger, Tønnessen transfers from a terminology of “Tier-Umwelt-monade” to a more comprehensive “bioontological monad,” which he reads as couterpart to the biosphere:

A different type of abstract phenomenal entities can be termed total Umwelten. By a total Umwelt, I understand the sum total of the manifold phenomena appearing in the Umwelten of a particular group of subjects. An example that is mentioned by Uexküll (1928: 181) is the total Umwelt of a species…Noteworthy, according to Uexküll, the subject and its phenomenal world are not separate entities, but, as illustrated by the functional cycle, together make up one unit. One could call this belief ontological holism. To signify this unified entity, Friedrich Brock (1934) introduced the term “Tier-Umwelt-monade”. However, Uexküll’s ontological holism is not restricted to Umwelt-carriers, and I therefore suggest to replace Brock’s term with the more general expression bioontological monad…The phenomenal counterpart to the biosphere, i.e., the sum total of all living beings of Earth, is the known phenomenal world. Taken as a bio-ontological entity, it represents the inseparable whole of life and world. In lack of a better designation, it might be called the bio-phenomenal sphere.

By my thinking the very concept of monad existence must entail the nexus points of differences that make a difference in the world, as those terminus differences become organs of perception for the animal/plant/being/field. It is not enough to simply posit whole internal worlds which grow in size supposedly connected to whole bio-physical states outside of them. Rather, the very connections between organism and world must count as part of that recursive boundary. The bioontological monad is constituted by, and inconceivable as operative without, the differences that make a difference it its terminus limit (and which it shares as terminus limit with other things).

Morten Tønnessen ends his essay with a careful consideration of Deep Ecologist Arne Næss’s eight bio-ethical principles. Only the with first of which will I concern myself:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes…

His response to this first point is worth quoting at some length because it has many of the factors we have discussed:

According to Næss (1993: 198), the first point in the deep ecology platform “refers to the biosphere, […] individuals, species, populations, habitat, as well as human and non-human cultures”. Næss also mentions landscapes and ecosystems. Given an Uexküllian framework, all of these must be understood as bio-ontological entities. A culture, for example, can be defined as a certain common-Umwelt that allows for a certain total Umwelt. The fact that the flourishing of human life rests on the flourishing of concepts should result in political and cultural tolerance. As for ecosystems and inhabited landscapes,one could probably reach a bio-ontological definition by way of the concepts of contrapuntal relations and total Umwelt. A habitat might be regarded as the subjective space, or perhaps Heimat (home), of an individual or population.

The reason why it makes sense to regard all semiotic agents, i.e., bio-ontological monads, as moral subjects, is that in respect to these entities, our actions make a difference. Only for semiotic agents can our actions ultimately appear as signs that influence their well-being. In capacity of meaning-utilizers, all semiotic agents, be it the simplest creature, are able to distinguish between what they need and what is irrelevant or harmful to them. As Kull (2001: 361) says: “Everything alive has needs per se, not so the lifeless nor the dead”. Wherever there is semiosis, there are needs, and even though actual moral treatment is also a question of practicability, attribution of moral status is a principal one.

But why regard higher-level bio-ontological entities as moral subjects? Because a living being is not an isolated incident. In a profound sense, a subject is what it relates to. The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about. The individual self branch off into the society of phenomenal subjects and into the phenomenal world, it is already social, already worldly, already more-than-individual. You cannot really value a subject without at the same time valuing the web of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in.

One can guess where my quarrel with this reasoning lies since I read as “semiotic” much further down then the author grants, and this is due to the substance of the last of his three paragraphs: “The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about.” If we follow Spinoza’s notion of conatus with which we began our discussion, Kull’s point at to “needs” evaporates or is at least severely challenged. Sedimentation preserves itself against what is irrelevant or harmful through its very coherence until over come. This is not a mere theoretical side-step. It is the very stabilized contour of avoidance and perseverence that turns a meaning-carrier into a meaning-utilizer. If we accept that even rock sedimentation layers strive to persist, then they too have “needs” (however qualified, however dim), and if rock sedimentation layers form part of the contrapuntal music of our own reading capacities of the world, by what measure do our own defining contrapuntal relations which take part with such rhythm, exclude them from some place of importance? Change the music and change the person. This is not to say that one should not cut into rock formations in order to build train tunnels, but one should do so knowing that one is making a cognitive, resonant, musical change.

Last to end, Næss’s claim in point one, that the values of non-human things are independent from human purposes defies Spinoza’s utility approach to an ecology of persons (and world). In fact, it is the very usefulness of non-human things, not just as appropriations, but as participations, which should drive us towards their care. Only a rich concept of purposes and utility can nurture the epistemic responsibilities and capacities of the human species.

[See Morten Biosemiotic Weblog: Utopian Realism]

The “ens reale” and the “ens rationis”: Spelling Out Differences

The Pleroma and Creatura: Bateson

Gregory Bateson, a father of modern cybernetic has some very important things to say about the nature of differences, and has been fruitfully appropriated in any number of ways, primarily due to his very powerful defintion of Information as “a difference that makes a difference”. But it should be noted that Bateson’s approach to differences is one that drives a very firm, dualistic line between Mind and Matter, one that follows Carl Jung’s categories of the Pleroma and Creatura:

The significance of all this formalization was made more evident in the 1960s by a reading of Carl Jung’s Seven Sermons to the Dead, of which the Jungian therapist Jane Wheelwright gave me a copy. I was at the time writing a draft of what was to be my Korzybski Memorial Lecture and began to think about the relation between “map” and “territory.” Jung’s book insisted upon the contrast between Pleroma, the crudely physical domain governed only by forces and impacts, and Creatura, the domain governed by distinctions and differences. It became abundantly clear that the two sets of concepts match and that there could be no maps in Pleroma, but only in Creatura. That which gets from territory to map is news of difference, and at that point I recognized that news of difference was a synonym for information. (Angels Fear, Introduction)

For Bateson, the separation is one of processes, and not one of Substance like it is for Descartes, but all the same, it imposes a strict heirarchy which privileges the mental over the physical. A stone simply is restricted to the domain of the Pleroma, while any differential making process, even the simplest of biotic discrimination is given over to the realm of Creatura:

It is, of course, true that our explanations, our textbooks dealing with nonliving matter, are full of information. But this information is all ours; it is part of our life processes. The world of nonliving matter, the Pleroma, which is described by the laws of physics and chemistry, itself contains no description. A stone does not respond to information and does not use injunctions or information or trial and error in its internal organization. To respond in a behavioral sense, the stone would have to use energy contained within itself, as organisms do. It would cease to be a stone. The stone is affected by “forces” and “impacts,” but not by differences. (Mind and Nature, Chapter II)

To most of us this is a perfectly acceptable, perhaps even obvious designation. There seems a powerful instinct that tells us that a stone simply is not in any sense like an amoeba, which is to say, what a stone does (if it does anything at all) is somehow categorically different than what an amoeba does (though both can kill you). The difficulty arises for anyone who wants to theorize in a way that does not privlege the Mind over Matter. This begins perhaps as a desire to not privlege human realities over animal realities, and then ultimately to give over to even the animate some kind of “right”, some play in the game in determining what is “real” and thus “what matters”. When Mind (in some form of Idealism) becomes the heirarchial source point of what matters, somehow this all slips back into a remote solipsism of the merely human world (and then even, the Western world, or the American world, or white upper middle class academic world). If one instanitates a fundamental primacy between the Pleroma and Creatura, wherein the Ceatura determine the status of the Pleroma in heirarchial, a priori fashion, something of the Mind/Bodd, Spirit/Matter dichotomies that have long haunted philosophy are dragged forward (often with explicit political consequences of such binarism).

The Difference that makes a/the Difference

For this reason one must keep in mind the essential metaphysical base from which Bateson is employing his work (Marx makes just such fateful Nature/Culture distinction from the start as well).  If one is going to grant equal footing to the non-human (and non-biotic) actor in the world, this essential binary must be categorically undone. As long as one has divided up the entire world into realms, one realm becomes paramount, and the line merely shifts.

What Bateson has in mind when he speaks of “a difference that makes a difference” is the way that information connects what is “out there” in the world to the “in here” of a cybernetically organized system. To put it most simply, the internal relations within a system form a boundary which is sensitive to only particular kinds of disturbances (a blind person does not turn his head to see someone waving to him from across the street, a tick does not drop from its leaf when a breeze blows). The difference out there in the world that makes a difference in here, is for Bateson the difference that makes a difference, it connects inside to outside.

But out of a completely unintended difference in the way that Bateson has framed his defintion of Information, I would like to use his notion of difference differently. Because I am not interested in giving priority of mind over matter, I am less concerned with the way that mental systems exercise dominance over physical structures (picking out what matters so as to eventually predict and control it), I am not going to follow the breadcrumbs of difference from outside to inside. This is far too Idealist for me. Rather, I want to see if we can talk about differences in such a way that the things a stone is doing, and the things that an amoeba are doing, are in someway signficantly related (and such that the actions of each are given footing).

Bateston states his defintion of Information in at least two ways in separate works.

1. A difference that makes a difference.

2. The difference that makes the difference.

It might sound trivial, but in the spirit of acknowledging even the smallest of differentiations, of this variation between the definite and indefinite article, I would like to spin out a profound distinction which maps onto a fundamental ontological distinction of Medieval Scholasticism. Much of Scholasticism spent its time trying to iron out the remarkable, but underdeveloped semiotic point that Augustine made, that signs transcend the Culture/Nature dichotomy. There are natural signs, and their are signs of convention. And (natural and cultural) signs are defined as:

“a sign is something which, offering itself to the senses, conveys something other to the intellect,” (Signum … est res praeter speciem quam ingerit sensibus, aliud aliquid ex se faciens in cogitationem venire) (Augustine De doctr. chr. II 1, 1963, 33)

Attempting to work out the full consequences of an ontology of the semiotic which transcended the Nature/Culture barrior, Scholastic philosophy realized that there must not only be material signs “out there”, but also mental signs “in here,” and much ado was made on how to connect the two (until in modern times gradually questions of signification became a questions of representation…many like to put this at the foot of Descartes, or even the Locke, but it is not altogether clear that this is the case).

A product of this debate was the two classifications Ens Reale and Ens Rationis. A real thing, and a rational thing. These are treated in various ways, often as the difference between “physical being” and “logical being”, but I want to speak much more broadly, without precision. An ens reale is a thing in the world, and an ens rationalis is a thing in the mind. Is here that I want to propose a loose though hopefully enlightening homology.

1. A difference that makes merely a difference  is an ens reale.

2. The difference that makes the difference is an ens rationis.

Leaving behind Bateson’s use of information as the thing that connects inside to outside, as an ontologist I want to speak of differences in their variety of states. Following Plato’s initial definition of being as the capacity for anything to affect or be affected, as found in the Sophist, the general sense of the reality of differences is that anything that makes a difference in general, “a difference” has being, and is ens reale. But any difference that is strictly internal  to a closed horizon relation of parts, is an ens rationis, that is which is to say, it is a difference that makes the difference, recursively. In this way, and event out there in the world, perhaps lightning strike, is an ens reale difference insofar as it is not taken with in an overarching internal circuit of relations, and its effect upon the human organism, that actual internal differences which are within the horizon of person, are each ens rationis. It is important to keep track though, that every ens rationis is an ens reale. The question is: Is every ens reale also an ens rationis. I think they are.

Spinoza’s Bodies as Certain or Fixed Ratios

As I mentioned previously, Spinoza’s defintion of Body is far more rich that it is often taken to be. More than simply a billiard ball image of circulating motions (which is how it appears at first glance), his panpsychic metaphysics grants some degree of mind (Idea) to any extensional expression, such that even the simplest of bodies in composite have a foothold in the mental. Here is the definition in bodily terms:

Definition: When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be united with one another and all together to form one body or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things through this union of bodies. E2p13a2d

It is quite interesting that Spinoza finds what separates out one body or individual from another is a certain or fixed ratio, certa ratione. It seems safe to say that not only living things preserve for Spinoza through a certa ratione, but also taken to be inanimate things. We have here the potential for categorical description that crosses through the Pleroma/Creatura divide that Bateson privleges. The ultimate question is: Do abiotic wholes which do preserve through a certa ratione, also achieve within that horizon of “individual” an order of differences that allows us to say that they are each ens rationis.

It is hard to know exactly what Spinoza has in mind: when he describes this perpetuation of communicated motion, for instance, is it a different sense of body than that brought about by external causes in the earlier part, When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or it is simply the internal specification of those external forces? What we can do is use the definition as tellingly as possible. What I suggest is that differences that are internal to an object or body as Spinoza sees it, are differences that are indicative of a mutuality of effects. A change in this part of the body effects a change in another part of the body, and then another, and so forth, such that the whole is still maintained. And there need not be the cybernetic closure that Bateson enjoys with Creatura. The entire world would seem vectored with communicated balances between bodies that however briefly or enduringly remain in ratio with each other. These mutuality of communications I hold is the threshold for an ens reale to be an ens rationalis. The cybernetic closures which map a territory are certainly different kinds of internal organizations of horizons, but rocks, breeze patterns, neuron rhythms, photon pathways, planetary equalibriums, dust corners, electron loops, all possess an internal coherence of differences which is preserved, and in which a single difference (I would say) semiotically indicates consequences of internal coherence. Stones “think”.

Stone Cognitum

There is a perspective of stones, one that is not reducible to the way in which differences in stones make differences upon us. In this sense, as Graham Harman says in Latourian fashion, stones translate other stones when they encounter each other. (I do not see how such a claim can be separated out from panpsychism.) The internal relations that make up a stone (semiotic, of each an ens rationalis), are also each an ens reale (a difference that makes a difference) which can make a difference that makes the difference to us (or some other internal set of relations), is itself also a difference as ens realis.

There are several interesting ways to procede from this, but the one that I would like to take up follows through from my last post on Spinoza, and that is that any ens realis (a difference that makes a difference), is not only already a difference that makes the difference in the internal expression of Substance as a modal whole, and thus an ens rationalis. But it is already caught up in any number, perhaps an infinite number, of ens rationalis horizoned closures. In this way, differences which are semiotic to an internal whole of differences, are also because real, differences that are internal to a plethora of bodies that cross cut that body. That “fixed ratio” is tugged at from any number of other “fixed ratio” directions, as parts of its coherence respond not only to an external horizon of differences, but also to their participant share in a cross-sectioning fixed ratio, communication whole. Any ens rationalis is Semiotically Conjoined to a variety of mentalizations.

For this reason, it is not just that the totality of coherent differences that make up a body are occluded from us, selected out by our cybernetic, ratioed closure, but also that the semiotic investment of those differences is occluded from that body itself, the coherence of its inside/outside closure. And the same is said of our own body (bodies, really).

There is another aspect which should be grasped so that we don’t fall too deeply into any Subject/Object binary. And this is something I will develop later. Because ultimately an entia rationales closure is itself a perspective, when one or many entia rationales closures come into supportive relationships to each other they can be read as forming new bodies. This is to say, when we come to know something else and intimately relate to it in a bodily, the boundary between us and it at least is semiotically problemized (if we seek to keep them completely distinct). Thus, it is not merely the case that the “kernel” of relations of an object we engage is kept from us, like a forever retreating shadow, but also the case that as we engage an object (an aspect of our environment), we at a very real, semiotic level (that is, at the level of entia rationales), become it.

Thus, as the carpenter uses his hammer, or the lens grinder his grinding lathe, there is a communication of motions which exceed the boundary of bodies, forming one of two (to some degree). The world is felt, mutually, through the performance union of both bodies. It is for this reason that Tommaso Campanella tells us: To know is to be, cognoscere est esse. This is not a metaphorical transformation of the subject into the object, but rather a real, substantial in-form-ation, binding the two bodies both epistemologically and ontologically, through the ordering of their mutual coherences. If the object of the hammer remains somewhat blind to the carpenter (some of its variety of aspects still hidden), these aspects must be accorded their place within the causal, and hence semiotic, internal relations of the body (body + body). Ultimately, these differences can only be the differences of Conjoined, and thus often silent, Semotic inherence at the bottom of any entia rationales closure, the way that an ens rationalis is necessarily polyvalent to a variety of cognitioning, and therefore persisting, bodies.

Augustine’s Own (Anti-)Private Language Argument

An Origin of Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument?

I stumbled upon this proto-Private Language argument, even shorter than Wittgenstein’s. The more that I read Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, the more I get the feeling that Wittgenstein indeed had read this text fairly closely (I see many parallels in thought, including the tantamount notion that words are things defined by their use). These traces of familiarity make his vast misreading of Augustine at the beginning of PI all the more consternating:

Finally, the thousands of fables and fictions, in whose lies men take delight, are human devices, and nothing is to be considered more peculiarly man’s own and derived from himself than anything that is false and lying.

Milla denique fictarum fabularum et falsitatum, quarum mendaciis homines delectantur, humana instituta sunt. Et nulla magis hominum propria, quae a seipsis habent, existmanda sunt, quam quaeque falsa atque mendacia.

§39, Book II, De doctrina

One might not immediately recognized Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument here, but I provide the Latin because it may help. Augustine is speaking about the nature of signs and their necessary classification. He begins the paragraph with pictures and statues which he describes as superfluous to the truth of God (having in mind the arts of pagan Rome and Greece one supposes), and then in the cited passage he seems to have then turned to the myths and stories that go around these figures, narratives and tales. The passage ends with a nod to the useful significations of the sexes in dresss, and then the human systems of weights and measures, stampings and coins.

But what is not to be lost is the exact nature of the disqualification of the substance of human ficta et fabulae. Looking closely, there is nothing to a greater degree the propria of men. That is to say, particular to, peculiar of, but more importantly, the property of, or even especially the private property of men, than these narrative deceptions. And the reason for this is that men have them “a seipsis”, though themselves, to themselves. They are spun from, or as the translation above says, derived from, men themselves. They are, for Augustine, something like man’s Private Language, something that has its origin within the sphere of the human and a circulation solely among the human. But this is the kicker, this recursive privacy is due to their very mark of falsity and deception, their untruth. Augustine sets up an extreme, which at the limit posits a falsity working at the vector origin. That which men have in and through themselves as the sole cause is through the very nature of its privacy, or deprivation, false. (He elsewhere defines evil as a privation.)

Wittgenstein though has in mind not the story of how Zeus chained Prometheus, but the inner dialogue that is often assumed to be privately going on in someone’s head, not in English or German, but in some untranslatable form, utterly and categorically, private. Taken on as well are the private “objects” of such an imagined or subtly assumed language, whether they be private sense data of the world, or inner experiences such as a pain or a pleasure. Right here I want to concentrate upon the Beetle in the Box aspect of the Private Lanaguage argument. To repeat Wittgenstein’s own reductio ad absurdum:

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!-Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says that he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.-Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.-But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language?-If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.-No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

§293, Philosophical Investigations

Falsity and the Inner Beetle

Perhaps now we can see the parallel in argumentation. Because Augustine marks the falsity of human fabula through the very privacy of their origin, the same can be done to the supposed Private Language which Wittgenstein argues against. To draw the parallel explicitly, the beetle in the box is merely an insubstantial fabula in terms of reference. That is, because the word “beetle” has a function within the discourse of these imagined people the f actuality of the state of the beetle inside our heads (whether it be a sense datum of some kind of representation of the world or a pain, there is no fact of the matter of its state), ultimately plays no role in the justifiable functionality of the word, its public life. Thus the privacy of the imagined beetle is as Wittgenstein argues, “crossed out”, as a function of the truth of the discourse. The intersubjective (public) nature of discourse provides that any inner language that a person has a se ipso, in and through himself alone, will be marked by the very limit of falsity: when ceasing to make sense to others or oneself, one’s private objects simply dissipate as objects. As long as the person is using the language correctly, and can tell the difference between “getting it right” and not (which requires external criteria), this truth function of the language makes it not a proprium  of the man alone. Our thoughts can be translated, knowingly.

Further, as a point of interest, Augustine’s vector of falsity falls right across the register of our modern praise of originality. Something that has its origin solely  in the genius of a person, authored only there, made up, is only so by virtue of its falsity. The way that we conceive of the human subject as “cut off” in various positive ways often characterized by their independence and creativity (not to mention “taste” or commercial desires) is linked to this notion of the self as the origin of precious determinations. Our esteem of the Picasso, the Mozart is founded upon a sense of private invention, what we call “originality”. But what would be an originality so complete so as to be utterly private and unsharable? The very sharability of products of genius belie a certain communicability and therefore sharing of origin. Perhaps the ultimate falsifier, the schizophrenic, in the sense that mental events become unreadable, is taken to be utterly private. But we know that this is not so (for we have Schreber’s incredible account, and Artaud, and Holderlin and so very many others). So what is the ontological status of something that is only, as Augustine’s says, a “proprium hominis”? Perhaps we want to say,  just that feeling of hesitation that Joyce might have between a word and then another, that uncrossable ford, that ephemera of pace — but wait, we have shared it now, something of it, a bit (the absolute category collapses). In the end, something of the ontological status of a thing results from its lack of its privacy, until ontology itself fades as privacy increases.

Spinoza also takes up this notion that the privacy of the mind – insofar as it is seen to be cut off from the world that it is an expression of – exhibits imaginary knowledge which is fragmentary and confused…pictures on pictures. These false ideas he says are false only in the sense of a privation (something ultimately traceable back to Plotinus through Augustine’s appropriation of Neo-Platonism). Their partiality becomes an expression of their impotence to act. The utterly unique idea (private) is the utterly impotent one. And the strength of an idea is founded upon its public, that is, communicable nature. So it follows for Spinoza that even the most confused idea or imaginary relationship, insofar as it has something positive about it – the reality it has – has such not due to its falsity but rather its proportion of adequacy.

There is nothing positive in ideas on account of which they are called false. E2p33

Falsity consists in the privation of knowledge which inadequate, or mutilated and confused, ideas involve. E2p35

A Braid of Genetic Privacy

I am not so sure how comfortable I am with the categorical foreclosure in this line of reasoning, which is to say, there is some sense in which I do feel that there is Private Language (one wants to say private distinction, or distinctions which are recursively organized). But this is nothing more than the historical substantiality of genetic progression, which in Spinoza would be simply the reality of the modes, and in Augustine perhaps the reality of the fall. There is a sense in which when we are translating others indeed there is a horizon of rational holism which follows the truth/ontology argument that all three philosophers present. If you are thinking something, or even feeling something,  it is our mutual engagement with the world and with each other which makes the origin of this “something” not a private thing solely of the person. Its very status as something depends upon this mutuality of coherence, cause and origin, conferring complete ontology to it (and supporting all three arguments). But there is a different sense in which each person is a genetic unfolding of experiences and distinctions in time, one and then the other. This configuration through its very difference from my own (or the general consensus of others) is what presents its ultimate value (and perhaps danger). Here, the “origin” is not truly only in and through the person, but a braiding of a particular line of historical developments and the mutuality of world, onto which a distinct line of expression is fed back. These distinctions, their tempo’d unfolding of differences which constitutes an difference in itself, are the portion of the originality of expression which is valued, no aspect of it in principle untranslatable and knowable, the totality of it lost to time (and not subject).

Example: A man tells a story about a young girl caught in a parallel universe with white rabbits or Red Queens, and the ontology of it shines through. The originality serves as origin somehow through the sharing of origin. Should it have been the contingent or creative change of a Red King and not a Red Queen (a difference we might want to attribute solely to the privacy/decision of the author), this factuality is a ‘nothing’ without the relation to the rest of the piece, and the rest of the words and images in use. It becomes an insubstantiality, a difference without difference, an evaporating falsity, until there is a communication of differences. The origin of the difference becomes parsed between the history of the genetic author who “decided” it, and the great wealth of internal and external determinations, the subsuming author but a piece, a difference among differences.