The semiotic hierarchy: life, consciousness, signs and language

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This article outlines a general theory of meaning, The Semiotic Hierarchy, which distinguishes between four major levels in the organization of meaning: life, consciousness, sign function and language, where each of these, in this order, both rests on the previous level, and makes possible the attainment of the next. This is shown to be one possible instantiation of the Cognitive Semiotics program, with influences from phenomenology, Popper’s tripartite ontology, semiotics, linguistics, enactive cognitive science and evolutionary biology. Key concepts such as “language” and “sign” are defined, as well as the four levels of The Semiotic Hierarchy, on the basis of the type of (a) subject, (b) value-system and (c) world in which the subject is embedded. Finally, it is suggested how the levels can be united in an evolutionary framework, assuming a strong form of emergence giving rise to “ontologically” new properties: consciousness, signs and languages, on the basis of a semiotic, though not standardly biosemiotic, understanding of life.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-200
JournalCognitive Semiotics
Publication statusPublished - 2009

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • General Language Studies and Linguistics


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