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The American Journal of Semiotics

Volume 24, Issue 1/3, 2008


Wendy Wheeler
Pages 171-187

‘Do not Block the Path of Inquiry!’
Peircean Abduction, the Tacit Dimension, and Biosemiotic Creativity in Nature and Culture

Drawing on biosemiotic theory and the Peircean idea of ‘abduction’, I shall propose the idea of a layered structure of bio / semiotic evolution, in which human knowledge is systemic and recursive — and thus emergent both from what is forgotten and from earlier evolutionary strata. I will argue that abductions are those processes by which we move creatively between often unacknowledged types of knowledge which are rooted in our natural and cultural evolutionary past (e.g., unconscious, preconscious, or tacit knowledge; knowledge that is experienced affectively) and the more familiar types of knowledge associated with self-conscious deductive and inductive reasoning. I shall suggest that these processes of ‘hooking back’ into the past in order to make new sense in the light of subsequent experience, are characteristic of all human inventiveness in both the arts and the sciences, and are facilitated by what Peirce called ‘The Play of Musement’. My reasons for attempting this task are that I hope to offer a semiotic and biosemiotic corrective to the widespread and culturally dominant idea that the progress of human knowledge and cultural evolution depends on self rational efficiency, conceived of in terms of self-conscious deduction and induction alone — a conception which runs the risk of excluding from the account what is actually the most creative part of human knowing. Second, I will suggest that a properly semiotically informed understanding of human creativity — i.e., one which understands the Peircean semiotic as triadic and which draws on the post-Peircean theory that the semiotic drive in nature and in culture derives from the need to model the world as accurately as possible — should provide a very stern warning against the dangers of confusing the map with the territory. For creative artists and scientists (and life-livers, in general) progress, I shall suggest, inasmuch as they ignore the utilitarian dogma in practice. A biosemiotic understanding of human reasoning as an evolutionary semiotic process should thus contribute to a removal of the impediments of modernity which lie in the failure to properly grasp both what language (and semiosis in general) is, as well as the historical and prehistorical evolution that makes such semiosis possible.