Publication 5863

Cowley S. J. (2018) Life and language: Is meaning biosemiotic? Language Sciences 67: 46–58. Fulltext at
Since the multi-scalarity of life encompasses bodies, language and human experience, Timo Järvilehto’s (1998) ‘one-system’ view can be applied to acts of meaning, knowing and ethics. Here, I use Paul Cobley’s Cultural Implications of Biosemiotics (2016) to explore a semiotic construal of such a position. Interpretation, he argues, shows symbolic, indexical and iconic ‘layers’ of living. While lauding Cobley’s breadth of vision, as a linguist, I baulk at linking ‘knowing’ too closely with the ‘symbolic’ qua what can be said, diagrammed or signed. This is because, given first-order experience (which can be deemed indexical/iconic), humans use observations (by others and self) to self-construct as embodied individuals. While symbolic semiosis matters, I trace it to, not languaging, but the rise of literacy, graphics and pictorial art. Unlike Chomsky and Deely, I find no epigenic break between the symbolic and the iconic/indexical. The difference leads one to ontology. I invite the reader to consider, if, as Cobley suggests, meaning depends on modelling systems (with ententional powers) and/or if, as Gibson prefers, we depend on encounters with whatever is out-there. Whereas Cobley identifies the semiotic with the known, for others, living beings actively apprehend what is observable (for them). Wherever the reader stands, I claim that all one-system views fall in line with Cobley’s ‘anti-humanist’ challenge. Ethics, he argues, can only arise from participating in the living. Knowing, and coming to know, use repression and selection that can only be captured by non-disciplinary views of meaning. As part of how life and language unfold, humans owe a duty of care to all of the living world: hence, action is needed now.

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