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Jesper Hoffmeyer “The Natural History of Intentionality”

Hoffmeyer, Jesper 2012. The Natural History of Intentionality. A Biosemiotic Approach. – Schilhab, Theresa; Stjernfelt, Frederik; Deacon, Terrence (eds). The Symbolic Species Evolved. Dordrecht: Springer, 97-116.


For Thomas Aquinas himself and the Thomist tradition there is an emphasis on realism in which there is an immaterial orintentional direct union between the knower and the known (Bains,2006). To know about things, e.g. a storm or a flower, implies that these things exist in the mind of the knower as intentional beings, and the nature of this kind of being is that of a relation or interface. This understanding is radically different from the cognitive theories that came to dominate in the course of the scientific revolution, where “intentional being” was seen rather as an intermediary “obstacle posited between the knower and the known”, an obstacle “that would first be known reflexively before the thing was known” (ibid, 43, my emphasis). (102)


The crux of the matter is the direct union between knower and known; the concept of intentionality is descriptive of thisrelationbetween the mind and the things cognized. We are aware not of the idea or concept but rather of that which it represents – its object. The idea or concept does not stand in between the cognizing organism and the thing (physical or mental), rather the idea or the concept is a formal sign, (an interpretant in the later terminology of Peirce), i.e. “that by which – or rather that on the basis of which – we know,…not that which we know…” (ibid, 50). (102)


As Bains remorsefully observes: “modern western philosophy (particularly from Descartes and onwards) chooses to dispense with the doctrine [of intentional being] and embrace the aporias of a “classical” metaphysics of representation in which what the mind knows directly is its own products, positing a beneficent God to make our “objective” ideas conform to the world” (ibid, p. 45). Several hundred years had to pass before Charles Peirce in the late 19th Century took up again the line of thought from the Latin thinkers and developed it to a full blown theory of semiotic realism. (103)


“Modern philosophy”, writes Bains “began oncethe ideacame to be considered the immediate object of knowledge rather than an interface, or relation” (ibid, p. 51). According to Descartes the exterior world is grasped through the mechanical work of the senses, which then required some intermediate entity, a concept or an idea, to stand between the outside world (reality) and the mind. Henceforward the mind lost its direct access to the world. (103)


The only way to transcend this dualism, we shall claim, is to see organisms as connected to their world in a relational semiotic network rather than through the mechanics of their sensory organs. (103)


The modern concept of intentionality in philosophy goes back to the German philosopher Franz Brentano (1838–1917) who in 1874 proposed intentionality as the one “positive attribute” that holds true of all mental phenomena: “Mental phenomena…are those phenomena which contains an object intentionally within themselves” (Brentano,1874/1973, pp. 88–89, cit. from Short,2007, p. 6). (103)


We can summarize the Brentano thesis in three points: 1) Only mental phenomena exhibits intentionality, 2) Intentionality is an irreducible feature of mental phenomena, 3) Since no physical phenomena could exhibit it, mental phenomena could not be a species of physical phenomena. Brentano’s pupil Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) saw the identification of intentionality with the mental as a fundamental principle whereupon he founded a new science: phenomenology. Phenomenology was the science of the mental and naturalistic explanation was

excluded in principle. (104)


[…] confronting the Brentano/Husserl position, that mind is real, irreducibly intentional, and inexplicable naturalistically we have the predominant position of analytical philosohy, that whatever is real is nonintentional and explicable naturalistically. A fruitful discussion between two so fundamentally different positions is hardly possible and yet for decades these are the two positions between which we have had to choose. Unknown to the great majority of contemporary thinkers, however, a third position was suggested more than hundred years ago by Peirce: that mind is real, irreducibly intentional, and yet explicable naturalistically. (104)


By making the sign fundamental to living systems biosemiotics undoubtedly will arouse fear of vitalism in the minds of many biologists. Signs do not belong to the habitual tool set of scientific theory and may be felt to allude to uncontrollable subjectivist aspects of life. In biology, vitalism refers to the belief that the functions of living organisms must be explained through the action of peculiarvital forces, that do not in any way influence inanimate nature. Biosemiotics rejects appeal to such forces. Sign processes are neither forces nor things; rather, they are processual relations that, as shown below, organize many activities. The causality of signs thus differs from the causality of forces. Indeed, while signs are frequently misunderstood or ignored, forces always exert their power with merciless efficiency. Biosemiotics is not a new version of vitalism (Hoffmeyer,2010). (105)


But the concept ofsemiosisindeed brings a novel element to the scientific tool set for, by definition, a sign-process requires an interpretative agency. This new element, moreover, may be felt to jar with the hegemonic ontology of mainstream science. (105)


Likewise, when a macrophage (a cell from the immune system) lets HIV virus into its interior, this is caused by the cell falsely interpreting the virus as belonging to the body itself. In achieving this the virus has acted as anicon for one of the normal components involved in the immunoresponse reaction chain. Semiotics cannot restrict itself to deal with human language, but must encompass all kinds of sign systems as they unfold in time and space throughout organismic life on our planet. (107)


A sign is not necessarily linked to a communicative context. Most sign processes in this world are not only unconscious but also unintended in the sense that the sign was not produced for the sake of interpretation. (107)


I have suggested the term semethic interaction for this kind of co-evolution whereby “habits become signs” in the sense that individuals of one species have acquired the capacity to interpret certain regular activity patterns (habits) characteristic for individuals of another species, which then eventually may release new kinds of regular behavioral patterns in the first species etc. As an example we can take the case of the large blue butterflyMaculinea arionwhere the female lays her eggs in thyme plants. The larvae spend their first three weeks on thyme flowers on which they feed until they have reached the last larval instar. They then drop to the ground, where they produce a mixture of volatile chemicals that mimics the smell of larvae of the red ant species Myrmica sabuleti. The patrolling worker ants mistake the larvae for their own and carry the caterpillars into the ant nests. Once there, the caterpillars change their diet and start feeding on eggs and larvae of the ants until they pupate. They undergo metamorphosis in the ant colony, surfacing as butterflies (Gilbert & Epel,2009, p. 86). Here the female butterfly profits from the ants’ habit of locating their nests on well grazed grassland with plenty of thyme plants so that she will “know” where to put her eggs (presumably a parameter connected to the thyme plant is interpreted as a sign for oviposition). The caterpillars furthermore are capable of fooling the ants by interfering with the ants’ own signaling system. (108)


At the individual level as well as at the level of ecosystems all interaction patterns are controlled through semiotic relations – more or less in the same way the traffic in a city is controlled through signals. This relational network can be looked upon as an internal semiotic scaffold. (109)


Biosemiotics then is not so much aboutcommunicationas it is aboutsignification, the many processes whereby organisms ontogenetically or phylogenetically have learned to ascribe meaning to whatever regularities around them that may be useful as trigger mechanisms. Biosemiosis therefore does not fit into the traditional scheme from communication science of a sender and a receiver connected through a channel, for to the extent there are clear-cut senders and receivers at all (hardly the normal situation) the channel is itself part of the message as interpreted by the receiving system. (109)


Knowledge in the biological sense of the term, as we have used it here, necessarily depends on predictability, and the mechanism behind all learning is the creation of a triadic relations on the basis of stable dyadic relations. The predator, for instance, goes for any prey animal that moves awkwardly because it “knows” that clumsy behavior signifies easy catch. (110)


Semiotic freedom may be defined as the capacity of a system (a cell, organism, species etc.) to distinguish relevant sensible parameters in its surroundings or its own interior states and use them to produce signification and meaning. An increase in semiotic freedom implies an increased capacity for responding to a variety of signs through the formation of (locally) “meaningful” interpretants (Hoffmeyer,2008; Hoffmeyer, 2009a). The term freedom in this context should be taken to mean: underdetermined by natural lawfulness (112)


Human beings are persons and persons cannot be divided into one part, the body, that must be treated somatically, and another part, the mind, that must be treated psychologically. This is where the biosemiotic approach may help out, because biosemiotics sees meaning and signification (sema) as inherent to the body proper (soma) and not as something separated out to non-descript locations in the brain or mind. (113)


Whatever the mind is it is also body, not body in the physical sense this word has got in present day biology or medical science, but body in a semiotic sense of the word, a body that is inherently engaged in communicative processes that serve to coordinate the activities of the cells, tissues and organs inside the body as well as to exchange integrating messages across hierarchically distinct levels. Seen in this lightthe mental system or mind is simply the interface through which a human organism manages its coupling up to the surrounding web of things, natural or social. (113)

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