Tuesday, July 20, 2004


To make a start both swift and weighty, here is a little post on semiotics that I have been saving up.

I first heard the term 'semiotics' on account of a course on rhetoric taught by B. Subramanian at IIT Madras in the context of Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose". I had never heard of semiotics before, much less of a professorship of semiotics. As Eco puts it, semiotics is 'the study of everything that can be taken as a sign'.

Consider a country where traffic lights have the green light on top, amber next and red at the bottom (as opposed to the traditional red light on top). This should be fine as far as humans as concerned, but dogs are color-blind. If they are trained to watch the stack of lights from top to bottom, seeing-eye dogs are going to get fooled into waiting every time the light changes to green, and worse, cross the road along with the blind person as soon as the light changes to red. (Seeing-eye dogs are actually trained to watch the traffic, not the lights, so let us call these the 'stack of light' dogs). The elements of sensation are the same in both cases, But consider this : what is seen as a signfied in the environment has nothing to do with the environment itself. It has to do with the observer. The signs that the human reads in the environment are different from what the 'stack of light' dog reads in the exact same environment.

Many animals do not see in the same band of the spectrum as humans do. So, the world they see must be very different from the world we see. This is not limited to sight alone. The other senses are also similarly dissimilar. John Deely, in this paper from Semiotica, talks about Uexkull's contribution to the field of semiotics :
What Uexküll uniquely realized was that the physical environment, in whatever sense it may be said to be the ‘same’ for all organisms (we are speaking, of course, of the environment on earth, though much of what we say could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to biospheres on other planets should such eventually be found), is not the world in which any given species as such actually lives out its life. No. Each biological life-form, by reason of its distinctive bodily constitution (its ‘biological heritage’, as we may say), is suited only to certain parts and aspects of the vast physical universe. And when this ‘suitedness to’ takes the bodily form of cognitive organs, such as are our own senses, or the often quite different sensory modalities discovered in other lifeforms, then those aspects and only those aspects of the physical environment which are proportioned to those modalities become ‘objectified’, that is to say, made present not merely physically but cognitively as well.
He then uses the idea of different spectrums of vision to illustrate the idea of 'objects' in his example below, and to further, explain the concept of an Umwelt :
If my eyes are normal and a traditionally equipped classroom is lighted, I cannot fail to see the black rectangle against the lighter background that I will interpret as a blackboard affixed to a wall. But what my eyes objectify and what my mind makes of that vision remain as distinct as sensation as such in contrast to perception which alone transforms sensations into objects experienced, like dark rectangles against lighter surfaces ‘seen’ to be blackboards on walls.
If for nothing else, the paper is worth reading for sheer clarity of thought. On a lighter note, Prof. Deely does have his moments of unintended humor.
Now there is a great difference between an object and a thing. For while the notion of thing is the notion of what is what it is regardless of whether it be known or not, the notion of object is hardly that.
Q : So, there is this thing called a thing, and this thing called an object?
A : No, an 'object' is different from a 'thing'.
Q : So, an object is not a thing?
A : The 'object' may or may not be a thing.

Seriously, folks, the article is complex and scholarly, but it requires no previous background. It is certainly worth reading in full, just for John Deely's sheer brilliance of exposition, and especially if '[the term Umwelt] is destined (such is my guess) to become a term of general use in philosophy and intellectual culture.' I wouldn't bet on that last bit, though :)

Update: updated the post a bit.

[Cross-posted to Zoo Station]