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Sign Systems Studies

Volume 31, Issue 2, 2003

Tommi Vehkavaara
Pages 547-586

Natural self-interest, interactive representation, and the emergence of objects and Umwelt
An outline of basic semiotic concepts for biosemiotics

In biosemiotics, life and living phenomena are described by means of originally anthropomorphic semiotic concepts. This can be justified if we can show that living systems as self-maintaining far from equilibrium systems create and update some kind of representation about the conditions of their self-maintenance. The point of view is the one of semiotic realism where signs and representations are considered as real and objective natural phenomena without any reference to the specifically human interpreter. It is argued that the most basic concept of representation must be forward looking and that both C. Peirce’s and J. v. Uexküll’s concepts of sign assume an unnecessarily complex semiotic agent. The simplest representative systems do not have phenomenal objects or Umwelten at all. Instead, the minimal concept of representation and the source of normativity that is needed in its interpretation can be based on M. Bickhard’s interactivism. The initial normativity or natural self-interest is based on the ‘utility-concept’ of function: anything that contributes to the maintenance of a far from equilibrium system is functional to that system — every self-maintaining far from equilibrium system has a minimal natural self-interest to serve that function, it is its existential precondition. Minimal interactive representation emerges when such systems become able to switch appropriately between two or more means of maintaining themselves. At the level of such representations, a potentiality to detect an error may develop although no objects of representation for the system are provided. Phenomenal objects emerge in systems that are more complex. If a system creates a set of ongoingly updated ’situation images’ and can detect temporal invariances in the updating process, these invariances constitute objects for the system itself. Within them, a representative system gets an Umwelt and becomes capable of experiencing triadic signs. The relation between representation and its object is either iconic or indexical at this level. Correspondingly as in Peirce’s semeiotic, symbolic signs appear as more developed — for the symbolic signs, a more complex system is needed.

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