Biosemiotics and ecolinguistics: two tales of scientific objectification

  • Stephen Cowley
Keywords: Biosemiotics, ecolinguistics, distributed language, semiosis, bioethics, languaging


Science builds on what people say and, thus, the use of signs. In pursuing this important observation, I contrast two views of knowing that look “beyond” sense impressions. I begin with John Deely’s (2015) theory that self-referring symbols allow critical control of objectification. In showing the limits of science, he targets what he calls “solipsism”. In all animals, Deely thinks, knowing draws on sign relations. However, humans, and only humans, grasp that these relations are pure. Our self-referential “symbols” disclose ens reale, or that which is «independent of finite awareness» (2015: 175). Given this epigenic break (Deely 1966), humans alone «know that there are signs» (Maritain 1970). Ex hypothesi, we can all embrace a/the non-finite knowing: on his post-modern view, moreover, scientific objectifications pick out a small part of what awareness can reveal (ens rationis).

Wary of ontological proliferation, human powers can be traced to evolutionary history. On an ecolinguistic view, semogenesis (Halliday 2003) informs vocalizing and, in many societies, writing too. Practices, social activity and knowing thus co-evolve. As infants learn under verbal constraints, they concert socially to become persons who make use of material engagement. As contingencies arise, they set off prompts or languagings (Sellars 1960) that afford rich semiotic description and coordinate social experience. Languaging, or language activity, informs practices as people learn from what happens. Perduring verbal and other patterns bind action, talk, ritual, objects and objectifications or, I suggest, “seeing through the eyes of others”. In many practices, texts, images, data sets and institutions, together with careful control of methods, stabilize observations and models. These are what groups treat as collective knowledge. Even without a semiotic ontology, what people do, say and observe places narrow limits on the scope of science. Knowledge is grounded in belief in signs.


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How to Cite
Cowley, S. (2022) “Biosemiotics and ecolinguistics: two tales of scientific objectification ”, Rivista Italiana di Filosofia del Linguaggio, 15(2). doi: 10.4396/2021208.