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[Journal of Consciousness Studies 16:1, January 2009]
Cybersemiotics: Why Information Is Not Enough!
University of Toronto Press, 2008, 497 pp., ISBN 978-0-8020-9220-5
A transdisciplinary enterprise such as ‘consciousness studies’ is always trying to build bridges between the ‘two cultures’ of ‘science’ and ‘the humanities’, and the challenge is huge. In Cybersemiotics, Søren Brier offers a ‘unified conceptual framework’ capable of advancing our understanding of cognition, communication and meaning — ‘a metascientific framework which is also meta to the humanities and the social sciences’ (p. 7). Brier is professor in the Semiotics of Information, Cognitive and Communication Science at Copenhagen Business School's department of International Culture and Communication Studies, attached to the Centre for Language, Cognition, and Mentality. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Cybernetics and Human Knowing, which JCS readers will recognize as another transdisciplinary journal published by Imprint Academic.
Brier uses Norbert Wiener's term ‘cybernetics’ to denote the whole tradition of ‘information science,’ up to and including ‘cognitive science.’ Although ‘paradigms of information are crucial to our understanding of self, consciousness, communication, and our relationship with nature (ecology and evolution)’ (p. 21), Brier argues that ‘information is not enough.’ He explains, as others have, how the ‘information processing paradigm’ lends itself to disembodied or mechanistic models of cognition. But he also considers the contributions and limitations of a broad range of thinkers who have tried to rehabilitate, supplement or complement that framework, and thus to accommodate the experience of meaning.
Heinz von Foerster's ‘second-order cybernetics’ invites us to observe the scientific observer. Gregory Bateson's quest for the ‘pattern which connects’ led him to redefine ‘information’ as ‘a difference that makes a difference.’ The ‘autopoiesis’ theory of Maturana and Varela, which introduced the concept of self-organization at the cellular level, rejected the very idea of ‘information’ in favour of ‘structural coupling’ and worked out some of the cognitive implications; Niklas Luhmann later extended this approach into the domain of social systems. Jakob von Uexküll's pioneering work in the biology of meaning bore fruit in ethology (through his student Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and Brier's teacher Iven Reventlow), and later in biosemiotics. Meanwhile new models of self-organizing systems have emerged from the physical sciences of complexity, nonlinear thermodynamics and ‘dissipative structures’ (Prigogine). On the philosophical side we have Lakoff and Johnson's ‘embodied cognitive semantics,’ Wittgenstein's Lebensform and ‘language games,’ and the phenomenology of Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty (and Evan Thompson, whose Mind in Life I reviewed a year ago for JCS). Despite the relevance of these advances, Brier maintains that even if we cobble them all together, they don't add up to the single conceptual framework that we need. For the unifying vision that breathes new life into the dry cybernetic bones, Brier turns to the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce.
Peirce's semiotic thinking grew out of his studies in logic, but is far more comprehensive than either ‘logic’ in its formal, restrictive sense or ‘semiotics’ in its narrow Saussurean sense. It is also grounded in phenomenology, but of a rather different kind from the Husserlian tradition. In order to appreciate this, one needs to grasp how the three Peircean ‘categories’ or ‘elements’ of experience find their full expression in the triadic nature of signs. I can do little more than mention this here, but Brier has taken a major step toward resurrecting the soul of Peirce's work (rather than lifting bits and pieces from his dismembered corpus as some specialists have done). With this book Brier not only takes a prominent place within the emerging field of biosemiotics, but also demonstrates the wide scope and the deep unity of Peirce's philosophical system.
As a professional scientist and mathematician whose main concern was the logic of inquiry, Peirce understood the limitations of what he called the ‘special sciences’, especially when they lose sight of their own place in the larger scheme of things. He recognized that larger scheme as evolutionary and semiotic to the core, the universe itself being perfused with signs. Self-consciously logical thinking develops out of nonconsciously inferential processes such as perception. On the cosmic scale, the laws of nature themselves are evolving from an original chaos with a ‘tendency to take habits.’ The so-called ‘hard problem’ does not arise here, since it is based on the (typically unexamined) metaphysical assumption that life and mind must have somehow emerged from originally lifeless matter, whereas Peirce proposed on the contrary that matter is a habit-bound form of original mind. Thus Peirce places linguistic, psychological and cultural phenomena within the larger context of cosmic semiosis. Brier in turn places the ‘information processing paradigm’ within this larger framework by defining ‘information’ as ‘what Peirce would have called protosemiotic processes that have not yet achieved the full-fledged triadic state of genuine signs’ (p. 34). In the end he recognizes five ‘levels of existence’: ‘an entangled form of causality on the quantum level’; a ‘dual’ level corresponding to Peirce’s Secondness, will in psychology and Aristotelian ‘efficient cause’ in physics; an ‘informational-signal’ level; a ‘semiotic level’; and finally ‘a linguistic-communicative causality in human conscious and social systems’ (p. 438).
Brier's book arrives at its cybersemiotic destination by ‘spiralling through’ the ‘grand theories’ (p. 14) which have laid the groundwork for it, most of them being revisited several times from different perspectives. This structure may clarify points which seem obscure at first glance, though it runs the risk of seeming repetitious for the readers to whom this book will be most valuable, namely those who have already covered some of this ground in their own grand theorizing. On the other hand, a general reader new to this meta-discourse is likely to find it all highly abstract. Those looking for practical applications or specific examples will not find much, outside of two fairly short chapters on Library and Information Science, devoted mostly to the problems of organizing information storage and retrieval systems. This is a crucial task, for as the information available to us grows exponentially, the problem of how to allocate attention and channel research efforts grows along with it; but even this is dealt with only in general terms. (And ironically, the book’s own index is not very helpful, for instance if you’ve forgotten how a technical term such as ‘eigenvalue’ and ‘hypercomplexity’ has been introduced earlier in the book.)
Although its dearth of reference either to empirical research or to everyday experience may limit its appeal for many, Brier's book ably represents and reorganizes two decades of transdisciplinary progress. For those engaged in this kind of work it is essential reading, not only for Brier's original contributions to the reframing of cognition and communication, but also for bringing the powerful insights of Peirce to bear on these deep conceptual questions.
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