On the concept of semiotic information: A pragmatic perspective
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On the concept of semiotic information: A pragmatic perspective

ROBERT M. CANTOR

Abstract

Following the development of working definitions for the fundamental concepts of ‘meaning’, ‘difference’, ‘information’, and ‘sign’, from a pragmatic perspective, we propose a semiotic model of the thought processes by which unexpected emotive and cognitive information are detected. We demonstrate that ‘zero signs’ are universal detectors of ‘the unexpected’ in any sensory modality, where a dual pair of zero signs are detectors of unexpected ‘presence’ and unexpected ‘absence’. As examples of emotive zero signs we describe the formation of emotive Peircean signs, the interpretants of which are carriers of emotionally aversive and appetitive information. We conclude with the observation that zero signs, as emotive and cognitive detectors, play a fundamental role in homeostasis and self-preservation in humans.

Keywords: meaning, difference, information, Peircean sign, zero sign, emotive sign, homeostasis.

1. Introduction

In this study, we define concepts of ‘meaning’ and ‘information’ on the basis of pragmatic principles, for use in the subsequent argument: to provide a semiotic model that represents the most elementary modes of expression for both cognitive and emotive information. Accordingly, we define the concept of ‘meaning’ in section 2, the concept of ‘difference’ in section 3, the concept of ‘information’ in section 4, the concept of ‘representation’ in section 5, the Peircean concept of ‘sign’ in section 6, and discuss informational modes in section 7, semiosis in section 8, semiotic logic in section 9 , universal detectors in section 10, homeostasis and autopoiesis in section 11, with a summary of major conclusions in section 12. Terms that designate fundamental concepts, the meaning of which is debatable, are initially enclosed in ‘single quotes’. All definitions of common terms that are enclosed by ‘single quotes’, if not otherwise specified, are modifications of definitions in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged). In some definitions, insertions by this writer are enclosed in square brackets.

2. The concept of ‘meaning’

A definition for the concept of ‘meaning’ was proposed by Charles S. Peirce in 1878, in an early formulation of his Pragmatic Maxim: ‘‘Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object’’ (EP1:132, EP2:346). This definition may be interpreted as: ‘The meaning of a concept is the totality of its conceivable effects, in practice.’ Another approach to the concept of ‘meaning’ is through etymological considerations. In the English language, ‘‘...a secondary sense of the substantive ‘middle’ is ‘means’ (the medium by which one obtains results)’’ i.e. ‘a means to to achieve a desired end’ (c.f. Buck 1949: entry 12.37). Hence, the ‘meaning’ of something is ‘its use as a means to achieve a desired end’, where ‘a use is a means to perform an intentional action’. We shall assume that ‘practical bearings’ or ‘effects, in practice’ refer to ‘use in a given context or situation’, where ‘context’ relates to expressions in language and ‘situation’ relates to experiences. Accordingly, in what follows, we shall assume that the ‘meaning’ of something consists of its possible use in a given context or situation. We also note that the Peircean concept of a meaning is an ‘effect’, which presupposes a cause, whereas in our working definition a ‘meaning’ is a use, which presupposes a human agent. In addition, this concept of ‘meaning’ is pragmatic in that it refers to what is actual rather than imaginary, i.e., it refers to actual use in either thought or action. The question arises: What are ‘conceivable uses’ of words or thoughts? From our perspective, such uses may be: to evoke emotional responses, to provoke physical actions or to induce logical implications. Elsewhere, Peirce states that ‘‘pragmatism is a doctrine concerning the logic of abduction’’ (EP2:235), that ‘‘abduction is the only logical operation which introduces a new idea’’ and that ‘‘... abduction merely suggests that something may be’’ (EP2:216). In present terms, abduction may be thought of as a pre-conscious anticipatory thought process, the products of which emerge in conscious awareness of the prepared mind, abruptly and in a way that is independent of conscious control (c.f. Hadamard, ch. 3-5; EP2:227). The formation of a concept or the creation of ‘meaning’ by abduction entails the tacit anticipation of its possible use in real situations or in logical implications (e.g., the role of affordances, where to identify something as an affordance is to conceive of it as being of use, in some way to someone). Hence, from a pragmatic perspective, meaning is a relative concept, relative to someone. We say that something is meaningless if, for us, it has no conceivable use, i.e., it is useless, as an object, a process or a concept. The process of ‘understanding’, which involves the assimilation of new knowledge with prior knowledge, follows conceptualization. In practice, ‘meaning creates understanding, understanding leads to belief, and belief motivates what we are prepared to act upon’ (c.f. EP2:33).

3. The concept of ‘difference’

In what follows, we shall see that the concept of ‘difference’ plays a fundamental role in the formation of the concepts of ‘information’ and ‘sign’. A binary or dyadic relation, the intuitively simplest form of relation, is the conceptualization of two distinct entities in the same moment of awareness. The concept is created by a process of abstraction from the perception or visual experience of two distinct entities in the same visual field, in proximity to one another. If one of these relates is distinguished from the other by at least one ‘special determination’ or ‘mark’, the binary relation is termed a binary opposition (c.f. EP2:383). Hence, the concept of ‘binary opposition’ serves as a model for the concept of ‘difference’, where a difference in meaning entails a difference in use, in some way.

4. The concept of ‘information’

In 1904, Peirce wrote that the term information denotes ‘‘ the totality of fact (true or false) that in a given state of knowledge a sign embodies’’ (EP2:305). Hence, according to Peirce, signs are carriers of information in ways to be specified in section 7.

4.1. From ‘difference’ to ‘information’

In 1970, Gregory Bateson wrote: ‘‘ ... what we mean by information (the elementary unit of information) is a difference which makes a difference’’ (Bateson 2000 [1970]:459). Subsequently, Bateson amended his definition of ‘information’ to be read as: ‘‘ ... any difference that makes a difference in some later event’’ (Bateson 2000 :381). One may ask: What does it mean ‘‘to make a difference?’’ We propose a pragmatic re-interpretation of this idiom that is compatible with the Pragmatic Maxim, as discussed in section 2. Accordingly, Bateson’s ‘Informatic Maxim’ may be restated as: ‘An elementary unit of information is a difference that is useful in some way, in some context or situation’. Note that, in language, ‘...it is the recipient of a message who creates the context’ for its interpretation (Bateson 2002:43). On this basis, we propose a pragmatic concept of a smallest unit of ‘information’ that is dependent upon the concepts of ‘meaning’ and ‘difference’, as defined above. In a given context or situation, a ‘significant difference’ is one that is meaningful or motivational, in some way, to someone. A significant difference may be felt emotionally, experienced perceptually or conceived logically. A significant difference that is, in some sense, irreducible is considered to be an elementary unit of information. In practice, a binary opposition between a ‘presence’ and an ‘absence’ (symbolically, between 1 and 0) is an elementary unit or ‘‘bit’’ of information (c.f. section 9).

4.2. From ‘representation’ to ‘information’

In his book ‘‘Information, mechanism and meaning’’ (1969), Donald M. MacKay discusses the relation between concepts of ‘information’, ‘representation’ and ‘meaning’. MacKay begins with an intuitive concept of ‘information’ expressed as ‘‘We say we have gained information when we know something now that we didn’t know before; i.e., when ‘what we know’ has changed’’ (MacKay 1969:10). This concept is then supported by a pragmatic concept of ‘meaning’: ‘‘ ... the meaning of a message can be defined very simply as its selective function on the range of the respondent’s states of conditional readiness for goal-directed activity’’ (MacKay 1969:24). This formulation is compatible with a revised Pragmatic Maxim where the meaning of a concept is a selection from the totality of all its conceivable uses, in a given context or situation (section 2). In this way, ‘uses’ consist of goal-directed activities. In our working definition, a ‘meaning’ is characterized phenomenologically as ‘a use’, whereas in MacKay’s definition it is characterized as a neural ‘mechanism’. In both cases, ‘meaning’ is defined operationally. Note that the term ‘information’ literally means ‘‘that which determines an interior form’’, i.e., that which creates a form in thought (c.f. MacKay 1969:108). This suggests to MacKay that ‘states of readiness for goal-directed activity’ may be interpreted as internal representations of potential modes of action. Hence, MacKay’s intuitive definition of ‘information’ may be restated as: ‘‘...that which promotes or validates representational activity’’ as produced by an ongoing process of modeling and remodeling of internal representations of perceptually registered events (c.f. MacKay 1969:70). Effectively, ‘‘information makes a difference to what we believe to be the case’’ (MacKay 1969:158). If, according to MacKay (1969:24,89) the concept of meaning is operationally defined as a selective function that ‘informs’ internal representations, one may also think of such representations as sources of information about objects of perception. Furthermore, if we assume that any properly formed indicative sentence or statement may be represented by a minimal sequence of questions with binary (Yes or No) answers, each of which consists of a single ‘‘bit’’ of information, then the statement and its interrogative representation may be thought of as having the same ‘information content’ or meaning (c.f. MacKay 1969:73-75 and Ch. 4; Hintikka & Hintikka 1988, on ‘‘information seeking through questioning’’, from the perspective of modern logic).

4.3 Embodied ‘information’

We define ‘embodied information’ to be information produced by a synergy of physiological processes in the brain and body of humans that may be expressed in emotion, in thought (by language) or in behavior. The self-generated or autonomous processes of non-auditory ‘inner speech’ in thought and non-visual ‘inner sight’ (with eyes shut) in dreams present life experiences as belonging to a totally private reality. Hence, in addition to experiencing life as belonging to a perceived external world, every individual experiences a parallel life in a totally personal world, i.e., in an embodied ‘virtual reality’. The transmission of information from the body to the mind of the conscious self may be thought of as the interoception of internal messages directed from the bodily self to the conscious self. Embodied information is both generated and expressed by means of ‘signs’ (to be defined in section 6). Hence, ‘signs’ are used as means for the expression of embodied information by minds, for the exchange of information between minds, and for storage of information outside of minds.

5 The concept of ‘representation’

To understand the meaning of the concept of ‘representation’ we examine the meaning of the words used to express this concept. The verb ‘to present’ means ‘to bring or be brought into physical presence or conscious experience.’ The verb ‘to re-present’ means to present again. The noun ‘re-presentation’ literally means a repeated presentation. While the word ‘representation’ has an original sense of ‘an appearance in conscious experience of either a physical entity or a mental image’, it has also acquired a special connotation as an indirect presentation by ‘a substitute or surrogate that acts or functions in place of some other thing in a specific context’.

6. The Peircean concept of ‘sign’

We ask: How is the Peircean concept of ‘sign’ related to the concept of ‘representation?’ In c.1897, Peirce gave an intuitive definition of a ‘sign’ as being one component (or relate) or a triadic relation: ‘‘A sign is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity’’ (CP2:228). In our words, ‘A sign is something that stands for some other thing in some way to someone’. In this restatement, the term ‘something’ will be called a signifier (that which signifies), the phrase ‘some other thing’ will be called a significate (that which is signified), and the expression ‘stands for ... in some way’,that mediates a reciprocal relation between signifier and significate, may be called the ‘significance’ of the sign, which consists of a meaning and a valence (EP2:494,496,498). From a pragmatic perspective, the meaning of a sign is a selection from the totality of its conceivable uses. The valence of a sign is a valuation (positive, negative or neutral), where a value refers to a ‘sense of usefulness or importance of something to someone’. Hence, valence is that which motivates a meaningful action. In this tripartite relation, meaning is referred by the signifier to the significate, which itself either determines or confers meaning to the signifier. Peirce termed this mediating component of a sign that includes both ‘meaning’ and ‘valence’ as the interpretant of a sign. In our wording of the definition, the interpretant has two components. One component is the phrase ‘that stands for’, which implies that the significate is ontologically antecedent to the signifier or that the signifier may, in some way, be derived from the significate. The two terms constitute a binary opposition where the ontologically secondary term (the signifier) is distinguished or marked by a ‘special determination’ (c.f. section 3; EP2:383, on the concept of ‘mark’; EP2:384, on ‘surprise’ as a mark). The phrase ‘in the some way’ refers to the interpretant as being expressed in language or thought. Hence, interpretants as conceived by Peirce are carriers of semantic information (c.f. section 7). The final words in the definition ‘to someone’ indicate that a sign is not complete, i.e., not active, in the absence of an interpreter or mind that provides a context or situation in which to convey its meaning (c.f. EP2:493-494, on collateral knowledge).

6.1 The role of ‘difference’

‘Difference’ plays a fundamental role in the formation of signs. In Peirce’s original intuitive definition of the ‘sign’ concept, a signifier is referred to as ‘‘something which stands ... for something.’’ Note that we have changed the wording to read ‘‘something that stands for some other thing’’ to emphasize the fact that, from a logical perspective, the signifier of a sign cannot be the same as or identical with its significate. This constraint is necessary to preserve an implicit function of signs, which is to permit the inference of new knowledge from prior knowledge. Allowing a signifier of a sign to be the same as its significate would preclude the use of the sign for the representation of new knowledge. This is the likely basis for Bateson’s often repeated maxim (after Korzybski): ‘‘The map is not the territory’’ (Bateson 2000 [1955]: 180; Korzybski 1948: 750).

6.2 Formation of signifiers

Formation of signifiers begins with an abduction evoked by the perception or recollection of something that is to become the significate of a sign. This includes a non-conscious process of simplification that involves the exclusion of non-relevant features and modifications of retained features that allow the recognition of a relation of commonality between the intended signifier and its significate. Such commonalities may be either actual or imputed (c.f. EP1:7), where an actual commonality may be one of resemblance of attributes (similarity) or proximity in space-time (contiguity) and an imputed commonality is conceived by convention or habit. This intuition of a categorical commonality between the signifier and the significate of a sign provides a basis for discrimination between that which is referential (the signifier) and that which is determinative (the significate). For a sign to be useful, such modifications must allow the signifier to take the place of the significate in a context provided by the interpreter and to identify its potential uses in this context: ‘‘ ... meaning is clearly a relationship between message and recipient rather than a unique property of the message alone’’ (c.f. MacKay 1969:24, on meaning as a selective function).

6.3 Limitations of interpretation

The Peircean concept of sign may be generalized to include non-semantic meaning and non-human interpreters endowed with sensory mechanisms, a capacity for learning and memory. Recall that, as stated by MacKay (1969:24): ‘The meaning of a message [for both sender and receiver] is its selective function acting upon the range of [learned] states of conditional readiness for goal-directed activity’. Here, MacKay distinguishes between the intended meaning of a message as selected by the sender and its effective meaning as selected by the receiver (MacKay 1969:25). We note that the intended meaning of signs inscribed on the walls of caves by prehistoric humans cannot be recovered. However, such signs may still have effective meaning for interpreters in the present (c.f. Leroi-Gourhan 1982:62-65; Lewis-Williams 2002:58-65). Signs in the script of an extinct language are minimally interpretable as being mental products, but their intended meaning is unknowable without semantic associations with a known language (Robinson 2002, on undeciphered scripts).

6.4 An abstract concept of ‘sign’

As a logician, Peirce preferred to conceptualize a sign as a triadic relation consisting of a dyadic relation between a signifier (which he termed a representamen) and a significate (which he termed an object) that is mediated by a significance (which he termed an interpretant (c.f. EP2:493-495). We note that, from a logical perspective, a triadic sign is a representation, whereas the signifier of a triadic sign is a presentation (c.f. section 5). For Peirce, an interpretant is that which the dyadic relation between signifier and significate determines in the mind of an interpreter. This may include feelings, actions, or implications (EP2:409). Peirce based this abstract conceptual construct on his postulate of a hierarchy of Categories of Being that are accessible to thought (EP1:1-10, ‘‘On a new list of categories’’). Peirce observed that the triadic sign relation among (what we have termed) the signifier, significate and significance of a sign constitutes an irreducible unity, i.e., all three relates are required to form the ‘sign’. Hence, Peirce also used the term ‘sign’ in reference to the triadic relation as a whole as opposed to the customary usage in reference to the signifier alone.

7. Informational modes

Statistical information, as defined by Claude Shannon in 1948, is the basis for a Mathematical Theory of Information (c.f. MacKay 1969:57). Statistical information is defined by an abstract measure of ‘unexpectedness’ in messages consisting of sequences of visual or auditory signals, which are used as a means of non-spoken or spoken communication between humans. According to experts in the field, there is no consensus for the existence of a relation between this mathematical measure of information and our intuitive concept of ‘information’ as knowledge (Bar-Hillel 1964: 288-290). However, three distinct informational modes may be distinguished on the basis of pragmatic principles: somatic, semantic, and semiotic information. Somatic information is communicated by the body to the conscious mind through the medium of the autonomic nervous system (c.f. Cantor 2019). This process of embodied mediation involves the formation of affective ‘dispositions’ or motivations for goal-directed activity as a result of ongoing remodeling of pre-existing neuronal networks, the activity of which is consciously experienced as feelings or emotions (c.f. MacKay 1969:91). Patterns of activity of such neuronal networks are, in effect, dynamic representations of changing patterns of mental or physical activity. Hence, somatic information is communicated by the body (by interoception) to the conscious mind through the medium of affect. Semantic information is communicated by the body (by auditory or visual perception) to the conscious mind through the medium of language. Semiotic information is communicated by the body (by interoception or perception) to the conscious mind through the medium of signs. According to Peirce, the interpretants of signs may be carriers of somatic and/or semantic information (c.f. EP2:409,412). From a pragmatic perspective, all three modes of information (the somatic, the semantic and the semiotic) are embodied in some way.

8. Semiosis

Charles Peirce postulated a (pre-conscious) mental process by which new signs are formed from previously known signs, which he termed ‘semiosis’ or ‘the action of signs’ (EP2:411). Semiosis is a mental process that generates a new sign from memories of previously generated signs by reinterpretation, a process that may be repeated indefinitely. The process of semiosis may also be thought of as forming oppositions between perceived signifiers and recalled or pre-conscious memories of significates that are connected in thought by the recognition of commonalities or opponencies. Recall that a mediator between opponent relates of a sign, i.e. between the signifier and the significate, is termed an interpretant. Accordingly, the interpretant of a sign is a carrier of significance, which consists of meaning and valence, where meaning refers to a possible use or ‘goal-directed activity’ and valence refers to a valuation that motivates behavioral responses. Hence, we may say that cognitive interpretants communicate semantic information to the interpreter by language and emotive interpretants communicate somatic information to the interpreter by feelings or emotion. Modes of semiosis or actions of signs on the mind of an interpreter include the formation of emotional, actional and logical interpretants. In general, we say that interpretants of Peircean signs are carriers of semiotic information. The actual neural mechanisms, at the level of the central nervous system, that produce the above postulated pre-conscious mental activities are presently beyond our capacity to understand. Such activities must include the pre-conscious recognition of opponency between a perception and a tacit memory as well as perceptual deviation from ‘expectations’ formed from tacit memories of prior experience. Based on the assumption of explanatory parsimony, we would expect such selective activities to be related, in some way, to the Peircean concept of abduction.

9. Semiotic logic

In Cantor (2016), this author described a class of visual signs that are formed in dual pairs and used for the detection of abnormalities or ‘the unexpected’ in Roentgen diagnostic images. The basic principle involved in the formation of these signs was derived from the concept of ‘zero sign’ in linguistics, from which the same terminology was adopted. The most elementary visual zero sign previously studied was derived from the binary opposition between the signifier and the significate of visual detectors. A duality expressed by such opponencies is given by the following two conditions:

There is a formal duality relation between these two conditions by which the terms ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ in one are interchanged with the terms ‘absence’ and ‘presence’ in the other. Each of these dual conditions determines a unique zero sign. In both signs, the perceived signifier is marked as unexpected whereas the recalled significate is unmarked (c.f. Jakobson & Pomorska 1983: in The concept of mark; c.f. EP2:384, on ‘surprise’). Note that in these dual conditions, there is an ‘absence’ in the signifier of one and an ‘absence’ in the significate of the other; hence, the ‘zero’in the terminology. Note that to form the signifier of a ‘zero sign’, there must be prior knowledge of that which is to become its significate. In the absence of such prior knowledge, a sign cannot be formed. It is convenient to refer to this dual pair of signs in terms of what is perceived unexpectedly or ‘marked’ in the signifier, i.e., we may speak of ‘presence’ zero signs and ‘absence’ zero signs. We also note that, in zero signs, perception and recollection may refer to an object (a continuant), a characteristic (an attribute) or an event (an occurrent). Based on metaphysical speculations of Carl G. Jung, Gregory Bateson (2000 [1970]:462) proposed that the opposition between ‘difference’ and ‘sameness’ constitutes an elementary basis for all understanding, i.e., an elementary unit of information. Since this relation of opponency is simply an opposition between the presence of ‘difference’ and the absence of ‘difference’, Bateson’s elementary unit of information may be simply represented by a zero sign. It is clear that zero signs may be used for the detection of deviations from the expected in any sensory modality and in any situation. A familiar literary example of an ‘absence’ zero sign (e.g., a detector of an auditory absence) occurs in ‘the case of the dog that did not bark’, from the Sherlock Holmes story ‘‘Silver Blade.’’ Succinctly put, ‘‘Holmes’s observation extended not only to observed facts and events but also to their absence’’ (Truzzi 1988:64).

10. Zero signs as universal detectors

We have seen that zero signs are used in visual semiotics to detect unexpected things or events. In any process involving visual search, detection, whether direct or inferred, must obviously precede localization or identification of the object of search. In what follows, we demonstrate that zero signs may be carriers of cognitive or emotive information.

10.1 Cognitive detectors

Cognitive information is both evoked from the mind in perception and spontaneously experienced by the mind in thought. Perception is a self-generated ‘virtual’ experience or simulation of external reality. Thought may consist of non-auditory ‘inner speech’ or non-visual ‘inner imagery’ depending on the unique characteristics of the individual mind (c.f. Hadamard 1954:142-143, Albert Einstein on the thought process). Both inner speech and auditory speech are carriers of semantic information. Clearly, the interpretants of zero signs, previously described as detectors of unexpected ‘presence’ or unexpected ‘absence’ in images, are carriers of cognitive information. Emotive signs may present in biological or social contexts. Two fundamental emotive biological signs have been termed aversive and appetitive signs (c.f. Cantor 2019). Both aversive and appetitive signs may present in either the external situation or the internal state of the interpreter, i.e., may be ‘perceived’ or ‘felt’.

10.2 Emotive detectors

Interpretants of emotive signs may be evoked from the body or expressed spontaneously by the body as affect, i.e., as feelings or behavior (c.f. Damasio 2010:109-110). Emotions consist of feelings with associated pre-programmed behavioral responses to meaningful objects, events or situations, e.g., approach, avoidance or neglect. The feelings of emotions are non-semantic expressions of emotional valence (positive, negative or neutral). In the waking state, individuals are engaged in an ongoing process of interpreting and interacting with the immediate environment, both consciously and non-consciously. In any moment of awareness, feelings inform the mind of ongoing assessments of vital processes within the body. A neutral or positive valence is produced by the absence of an external or internal bodily threat or by successful engagement in goal-directed activity. Negative valence is produced by the presence of an external or internal bodily threat as well as unsuccessful engagement in goal-directed activity. The assessment of neutral valence is of fundamental importance in the interpretation of signs. A valid assessment of neutral valence allows for deliberative inaction, which tends to prevent inappropriate emotional behavior that may result from perceptual neglect or misinterpretation of meaning. An emotive detector is a sign that indicates an unexpected change in meaning that is accompanied by a change in emotive valence, e.g., a change of valence from negative to neutral or from neutral to negative. In the following two sections, the signifiers of emotive detectors are described with language rather than being experienced as feelings or emotions.

10.2.1 Aversive signs

Aversive signs may present either outside or inside the body of the interpreter. External aversive signs are perceived by exteroception (e.g., visual, aural, etc. perception) and interpreted as threats to homeostasis or integrity of the body. They tend to have negative valence and to provoke avoidance behavior by the interpreter. They may be described as a binary opposition between ‘feelings evoked by perception of the presence, real or imagined, of an external threat’ (a signifier) and ‘a conscious or pre-conscious memory of the absence of those feelings’ (a significate) that is mediated by ‘a sense of fear, possibly accompanied by avoidance behavior, as directed by a negative valuation’ ie, an embodied interpretant of the external aversive sign. Internal aversive signs are perceived by interoception, i.e., ‘felt’ by the body, and are also interpreted as threats to homeostasis or integrity of the body. They may be described as a binary opposition between ‘feelings evoked by the presence of an internal threat and experienced as a bodily sensation that may range in intensity from irritation to pain’ (a signifier) and ‘a conscious or pre-conscious memory of the absence of that sensation’ (a significate) that is mediated by ‘a sense of fear and its valuation which motivates a behavioral response indicating distress or anguish’, i.e., an embodied interpretant of the internal aversive sign.

10.2.2 Appetitive signs

Appetitive signs may also present either outside or inside the body of the interpreter. They tend to have positive valence and to provoke approach or search behavior by the interpreter. External appetitive signs are perceived by exteroception and may, depending on the susceptibility of the interpreter, induce a biological or bodily need. They may be described as a binary opposition between ‘feelings of a bodily need evoked by the perception of the presence of a real or imagined satisfier of that need’ (a signifier) and ‘conscious or pre-conscious memory of the background feelings experienced when the need has been satisfied or in its absence’ (a significate). This opposition is mediated by ‘a feeling of desire that motivates approach behavior’, i.e., the embodied interpretant of an external appetitive sign. Internal appetitive signs are perceived by interoception and may present spontaneously with the arousal of a biological need. They may be described as a binary opposition between the ‘spontaneous arousal of a feeling provoked by the presence of an internal need and experienced as bodily sensations that may range in intensity from a want to an urge’ (a signifier) and ‘conscious or pre-conscious memory of the background feelings experienced when the need has been satisfied or in its absence’ (a significate). This opposition is mediated by ‘a sense of desire that may be accompanied by search behavior’, i.e. the embodied interpretant of an internal appetitive sign. We note that emotive signs, as described above, are zero signs, i.e., ‘detectors’ that serve for the maintenance of homeostasis and bodily integrity. We note that, in these biological signs, significates may not be derived from conscious memory and embodied responses appear to be automatic.

11. Homeostasis, autopoiesis, semiosis

Antonio Damasio (2018:45) states that: the conventional concept of ‘homeostasis’ ‘‘ ... refers to the ability, present in all living organisms, to continuously and automatically maintain their functional operations ... within a range of values compatible with survival.’’ Damasio also stipulates that the process of homeostasis includes ‘‘...not only the drive to endure and survive indefinitely into the future, but also to prevail and flourish’’. These conditions are maintained while coping with the challenges of living. Moreover, the ‘homeostatic imperative’ must apply to persistence in the external environment as well as in the internal environment of the body. The concept of ‘autopoiesis’ is a useful expansion and refinement of the concept of ‘homeostasis’. Autopoiesis refers to the autonomous coordination of physical processes involved in the ongoing generation, maintenance and preservation of organisms as unitary entities. In this process, the cells that constitute a living body together with the organism as a whole, maintain their unique identity within environments that continually change, within natural limits (c.f. Thompson: Ch.5). Hence, conventional ‘autopoiesis’ like ‘homeostasis’ is usually thought of as a purely physical process, an attribute that is common to all living things, as opposed to the non-living. In the course of biological evolution, the human species developed unique capabilities for thought and intra-specific communication that enable humans to adapt and survive in all natural environments, both as individuals and in groups. Disruption of these life-processes, in any mammal, leads to sickness and eventually death of the ‘biological self’. In humans, this entails an end of the process which is experienced as a private or ‘personal self’, as currently understood. In his book ‘‘The Strange Order of Things’’, Damasio proposed that the concept of ‘homeostasis’ be expanded to include not only the drive to survive but also ‘to flourish’. At this point, we note that both Peircean semiosis and Damasio’s generalized concept of homeostasis are ‘automatic and non-deliberative processes’ that, by definition, are produced by non-conscious bodily activity. Based upon the concepts discussed above, we suggest that the historical and conventional concepts of both ‘homeostasis’ and ‘autopoiesis’, when applied to humans, be expanded and refined to include the concept of ‘semiosis’, i.e. the formation and action of signs. Since semiosis constitutes the basis for language and thought, it must play a fundamental role in creating the unlimited variation that emerges from the unique life-history of each individual, upon which human life and culture may survive and flourish.

12. Conclusion

We have examined the concept of ‘meaning’ from the perspective of a logician-philosopher (Charles S. Peirce) in section 2 and a physicist-information theorist (Donald M. MacKay) in section 4.2. For Peirce, the meaning of an object is selected from the totality of its conceivable effects, in practice. For MacKay, the meaning of a message is selected from a repertoire of internal representations of the interpreter’s preparation for goal-directed activity. In our working definition, as given in section 2, meaning is an attribution by a mind. In general, something is meaningful to someone if it may be used in some way as a means to a desired end, in a given context or situation. Hence, meaning may be conveyed by emotions, perceived events or thoughts. In section 3, we have seen that binary opposition is a model for the concept of ‘difference’. On these bases, we have proposed a definition of a Peircean sign that entails a concept of ‘information’. In section 6, we described the three major functional components of a Peircean sign, which were termed its signifier, its significate, and its significance or interpretant (after Pelrce). The interpretants of Peircean signs are carriers of both meaning and valence, where the meaning of something is its possible use as a means to a desired end in a given context or situation and valence is a valuation that motivates a meaningful action. Hence, meaning and valence are carriers of cognitive and emotive information. In section 9, we have characterized a type of sign that is used for the detection of ‘the unexpected’ in any sensory modality: the zero sign. The detection of either an unexpected ‘presence’ or an unexpected ‘absence’ constitutes a single ‘bit’ of semiotic information. We have proposed that the most elementary units of information, whether emotive, semantic or semiotic may be represented by zero signs. For example, the interpretants of zero signs may be feelings or perceptions that detect or evoke the awareness of an ‘unexpected presence’ or an ‘unexpected absence’. We note that in a perceived ‘presence’ zero sign, there is tacit memory of a perceived absence in its significate, whereas in a perceived ‘absence’ zero sign there is tacit memory of a perceived presence in its significate. Furthermore, we have demonstrated, by construction, two biologically fundamental types of emotive signs that are carriers of aversive and appetitive information (section 10). From a semiotic perspective, the information provided by the interpretation of aversive and appetitive signs determines the expression of appropriate responses to living in an environment that presents threats and affordances. We have observed that semiosis or the ‘actions’ of signs include: the action of known signs to form new signs, the action of signs to detect ‘the unexpected’ in any sensory modality, and the action of signs to evoke affect in the body of the interpreter. In conclusion, the capacity to interpret emotive as well as cognitive zero signs is essential for the maintenance of both health and life, where maintenance refers to the activation of processes that automatically satisfy bodily needs, repair bodily injuries or defend against bodily threats. It is likely that this ‘semiotic imperative’ is a component of a mind-body regulatory system that includes ‘homeostasis’ or ‘autopoiesis’, in an expanded sense of both terms, as proposed by Antonio Damasio.

References