The meaning of meaning in biology and cognitive science. A semiotic reconstruction.

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Abstract. The essay aims at integration of different concepts of meaning developed in semiotics, biology, and cognitive science, in a way that permits the formulation of issues involving evolution and development. The concept of sign in semiotics, just like the notion of representation in cognitive science, have either been used so broadly as to become almost meaningless, or they have been outright rejected, because of some implicit idea of what they imply. My earlier work on the notions of iconicity and pictoriality has forced me to spell out the taken-for-granted meaning of the sign concept, both in the Saussurean and the Peircean tradition. My recent work with the evolution and development of semiotic resources such as language, gesture, and pictures has proved the need of having recourse to a more specified concept of sign. To define the sign, I take as point of departure the notion of semiotic function, as characterised by Piaget, and the notion of appresentation, as defined by Husserl. In the first part of this essay, I consider some similarities and differences between cognitive science and semiotics, in particular as far as the parallel concepts of representation and sign are concerned. The second part is concerned with what is probably the most important attempt to integrate cognitive science and semiotics that has been presented so far, The Symbolic Species, by Terrence Deacon. I demonstrate that Deacon’s use of notions such as iconicity, indexicality, and symbolicity, are not only difficult to reconcile with natural interpretations of the Peircean canon, but also not very useful for understanding the evolution and development of semiotic resources. This is why I choose to separate the sign concept from the notions of iconicity, indexicality, and symbolicity, which only in combination with the sign give rise to icons, indices, and symbols, but which, beyond that, have other, more elemental, uses in the world of perception. In the third part, I discuss some ideas about meaning in biosemiotics, which I show not to involve signs in the sense characterised earlier in the essay. Instead, they have much to do with meaning in the general sense of selection and organisation, which is a more elementary sense of meaning. Although I admit that there is a possible interpretation of Peirce, which could be taken to correspond to Uexküll’s idea of functional circle, and to meaning as function described, notably, by Emmeche and Hoffmeyer, I claim that this is a different sense of meaning than the one embodied in the sign concept. Finally, I suggest that more thresholds of meaning than proposed, for instance by Kull, are necessary to accommodate the differences between meaning (in the broad sense) and sign (as specified in the Piaget-Husserl tradition).


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Languages and Literature


  • sign, meaning, biology, biosemiotics, Uexküll, Piaget, Husserl, Bühler, semiotics, cognitive science
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)135-214
JournalTrudy po znakyvym sistemam — Sign Systems Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2006
Publication categoryResearch

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