Chapter 9· Turning Signs (Contents) References blog

10·     Circuits and Closure

  1. Big Current
  2. Little Current
  3. Circular causality
  4. Complementary closures
  5. Languages and other symbolic systems
  6. Symbols in semiosis
  7. Thirdness and Thought
  8. Semiosis and information
  9. Closing time

Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.
— Black Elk (Neihardt 1932, 150)
… all animals and plants show a time structure, of which the rings of growth in trees are an elementary example and the cycles of life history, a more complex one. Every plant and animal is constructed upon the premise of its cyclic nature.
— Gregory Bateson (1972, 345)
The world is inseparable from the subject, but from a subject which is nothing but a project of the world, and the subject is inseparable from the world, but from a world which the subject itself projects.
Merleau-Ponty (1945, 499-500)

Big Current

The ancient Greeks of Homeric times imagined the earth as a flat surface surrounded by the river Okeanos, the source of all waters – also described, in a few passages, as the source of all the gods, and even of all things. It is not difficult to see why the Greeks, with their experience of the sea, would imagine the whole world as encircled by water; but it is not so obvious why that water took the form of a river, with a current flowing around the circle.

With the meaning cycle in mind, we can now read this cosmology as an intuitive reflection of the cyclic nature of life itself. The difference between a circle and a cycle is the dimension of time. Just as the dimension of depth cannot be directly represented on a flat surface like a page, the dimension of time cannot be represented in a static diagram – except by some directional symbol, such as the arrows in the gnoxic diagram. Models (and diagrams) are always simpler than the systems they model; the simplifying process may discard not only details but also dimensions. We reconstitute or recreate the dimension of time by projecting the idea of flow onto the circle we see in the diagram, so that it becomes a recursive path. Perhaps a similar motivation led the Greeks to read a one-way flow into Okeanos; for this adds a whole new dimension to its closure. While the circle represents (en-)closure of space, the cycle represents closure in time by returning to itself.

As it turns out, both kinds of closure are essential to self-organization, autopoiesis and the evolution of life forms. And as the concept evolves, its meanings proliferate. If we can say that the life of a cognitive system is its operational closure (as we did in Chapter 9), we can also say that death is the closure of life; ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep,’ as Shakespeare's Prospero says. The sense of finality is also crucial to psychological ‘closure,’ such as we hope for when we mark the completion of someone's life with a funeral or wake, or try to close the gap in the social fabric left by their departure. The achievement of consensus which marks the end of an inquiry is another kind of social closure. All of these are entangled with teleology and other derivatives of the Greek verb τελέω, which means to complete, fulfill, accomplish – and to bring to an end (LSG).

The poet John Donne, during a life-threatening illness in 1623, heard the tolling of a passing-bell from a nearby church, and wondered who had ‘passed.’ That experience led to his famous meditation:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
— Donne (1623, 98)

But Donne is telling only half the story here. Due to the operational closure of autopoiesis and autonomous agency, every human is an island. Yet human selfhood develops only through dialogue with others, and is necessarily grounded in the organic selfhood common to all animals, who live and grow by developing complex relationships with the ecosystems involving and evolving them. You and i and everyone are involved in humankind, and beyond that, in the biosphere – and even beyond the planet Earth, in the whole physical universe, since the heavier elements essential to our lives were forged in supernovae, those massive explosions which typically occur when a very large star reaches the end of its life cycle. A little current flows through every life because a big current flows through all, embracing all as Okeanos does in the Greek myth. Indeed, to mix a few religious metaphors, it's wheels within wheels all the way up and down every dharma.

We can say that no man is an island because he is part of a community, yet the community itself is an island. Just as a cell defines itself by enclosing itself in a membrane, each species population in an ecosystem ‘is isolated by its behavior or chemistry so that its food and mineral flows are not entangled with those of other species’ (Odum 2007, 163). Likewise a social group can develop a cultural ‘membrane’ which insulates it from other groups. A dialect or cant can often serve as such a membrane, distinguishing the group from others even in the act of communication; for instance, the jargon of any specialized discipline is vital to its identity and authority. David Sloan Wilson, for one, argues that a social group can be considered as an organism if it has such a membrane. A scientific community is an island, to the extent that it is specialized; science then is not so much a continent as ‘an archipelago of disciplines’ (Wilson 2002, 151).

Cultures prescribe norms, evolve goals, build beliefs to help us tackle the challenges of existence. In so doing they must rule out many alternative goals and beliefs, and thereby limit possibilities; but this channeling of attention to a limited set of goals and means is what allows effortless action within self-created boundaries.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990, 81)
Some such limitations or constraints appear to be necessary conditions for the state of creative engagement which Csikszentmihalyi calls optimal experience or simply flow. This often calls for acting into the world, dancing with the macrocosm; but it also calls for close attention, i.e. limiting or narrowing the magic circle of one's focus. Indeed the privacy of experience – the fact that nobody else has your experience – reflects the operational closure of living systems. Insofar as a community or culture is a self-organizing, self-defined entity, it too must reflect this operational closure; we do not experience it directly, yet it is made of our actions, and it returns the favor by creating the conditions which make human experience meaningful.

Little Current

A community which distinguishes itself from other communities does bear some resemblance to a geographical island, like the one inhabited by Donne himself – or like the one which is home to the author of this essay. That island is called Manitoulin, which means something like ‘land of spirits’ (or ‘of spirit’) in the Ojibwe tongue of its first human inhabitants. This island is separated from the ‘main’ (the north shore of Lake Huron) by the North Channel, which narrows to a mere hundred metres or so at the northeast end of the island. Through this narrow channel, from west to east, flows a current strong enough to keep it ice-free through many a winter; this perhaps explains the name of the town on the island side of this channel, Little Current. From there, it's not difficult to picture this island as a separate little world with its own Okeanos.

But Manitoulin Island also communicates with the mainland, via a one-lane bridge across that channel. Once an hour during the summer, this bridge rotates on its giant bearing to allow passage of tall-masted boats through the channel. Motorists who arrive at that time wait 15 minutes or more for the bridge to slowly swing open and then, after the boats have passed through, to swing ponderously closed again. But which state you call ‘open’ and which ‘closed’ depends on your point of view. When it's open to road traffic, it's closed to big-boat traffic, and vice versa. If you think of the road as analogous to an electrical circuit, and the bridge to a switch, then the current stops flowing when the bridge is open and starts again when the bridge closes. Such an ambiguity lies behind the paradoxes of closure whenever some kind of circulation is involved.

There can be no communication without a gap between the communicants. What makes us human is the gap between us, and the closing of the gap. More generally, closure can only happen to an open system, and opening can only happen to a closed system. The gaps between beings are formed by one kind of closure and bridged by another. We close the gap between us to reach for intimacy, which allows us to communicate more openly. The heart of intimacy is that little current of feeling flowing through your bodymind, which is both a small part and a complete microcosm of the big current you sense as time and history, the Okeanic flow which forms and dissolves us all.

The same principle applies to our dialog with nature, and to all the interactions at every scale which make up a mental life. The act of perception closes the gap between subject and object, as an electrical circuit is closed by a switch. Bateson (1979, 120) pointed out that from the circuit's point of view, a switch does not exist when closed – just as from the road's point of view, a swing bridge is just another part of the road, unless it has swung open. On the other hand, when the switch is open the circuit does not exist as such because the current is not flowing.

Every living system is a whole which provides the context in which the interaction of its parts can be meaningful; it is also part of a larger-scale whole, which it helps to constitute by interacting with other parts. The nervous system, for example, works to maintain the integrity and autonomy of the system it inhabits (the organism) by modeling that larger system's internal milieu in relation to relevant aspects of its external world.

Wherever movement is essential to the mode of life of an animal, there is the corresponding development of a nervous system. (Other multicellular organisms such as plants and fungi also develop endosemiotic systems of some kind.) A nervous system links sensory surfaces (sense organs and nerve endings) and effectors (muscles, glands) within the body, and thereby integrates the organism, holding it together as a mobile unity, an autonomous sensorimotor agent (Thompson 2007, Chapter 3). The fundamental logic of the nervous system is to couple movement and a stream of sensory activity in a continuous circular fashion (Maturana and Varela 1987, 142-176).

Circular causality

An observer of the human organism equipped to monitor the activity of brain regions, or even the firing of single neurons, could say that the state of the brain at any given time is “perturbed” by sensory “input” from the world, or that “output” from the brain causes the behavior of the organism. But if we focus on the internal dynamics of the brain rather than its functions in the body, what we see will consist mostly of events in one part of the brain triggering events in other parts; and often these trains of events form loops or ‘global reentrant circuits,’ as Gerald Edelman calls them. It is ‘a general principle of brain organization,’ according to Walter Freeman (2000, 224), that ‘the larger fraction of the output of each module goes back directly or indirectly to the module from which it gets its input, and only a smaller fraction goes onward.’ This looping structure is essential to the functional closure of the brain.

At the microscopic scale of neurodynamics, the gap which makes closure possible is the synaptic cleft across which neurons transmit their signals from cell to cell, generally axon to dendrite. Like other cells, neurons must keep their distance in order to exist, but they specialize in propagating a wave of electrochemical energy from their bodies along their axons to the synaptic cleft, thus causing closure of the gap between cells. During development, they send out (‘project’) their axons in search of a suitable destination for their signals, and if they fail to find one, they die. Like us, they are not so much isolated as insulated (from the Latin insula, ‘island’): long axons develop a myelin sheath in order to insulate their currents and thus communicate more effectively. Populations of neurons (cell assemblies) also insulate themselves by chemical means, inhibiting the activity of nearby neurons which are not included in the population, and thus forming temporarily closed circuits in the brain.

Only a small minority of neural cell assemblies deal directly with sensory input to, or motor output from, the brain. Most are engaged in a reciprocal dialogue among themselves. For Edelman, this biological fact correlates with our psychological need to keep the cognitive bubble closed even when this closure is dysfunctional.

What is particularly striking about the operations of the conscious human brain is the necessity for integration, for a unitary picture, for construction, and for closure. This is manifested by the obliviousness we have to our blind spot, by various visual, somatosensory, and auditory illusions, and most strikingly, by neuropsychological syndromes. The patient with anosognosia and hemineglect who denies ownership of a paralyzed left hand and arm, the patient with somatoparaphrenia who insists that a touch on an anesthetic and paralyzed left hand is a touch on her sister's hand not on hers, or the patient with alien hand syndrome—none of these individuals is psychotic even if, in certain respects, each fails the test of veridicality. The conscious brain in health and disease will integrate what can be integrated and resists a fractured or shattered view of ‘reality’. I believe that these phenomena are reflections of the necessity for global reentrant circuits to form closed cycles with whatever brain areas and maps are left to be integrated.
— Edelman (2004, 136)
Recognition of these functional cycles in the brain also reveals the limitations of any linear model of the causal relationship between brain events and consciousness. As Freeman (1999b) says, ‘complex material systems with distributed nonlinear feedback, such as brains and their neural and behavioral activities, cannot be explained by linear causality.’ Freeman therefore adopts a model of circular causality which maps directly onto the ‘meaning cycle’ explained in Chapter 9.
Circular causality explains intentionality in terms of ‘action-perception cycles’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1945) and affordances (Gibson, 1979), in which each perception concomitantly is the outcome of a preceding action and the condition for a following action. Dewey (1914) phrased the same idea in different words; an organism does not react to a stimulus but acts into it and incorporates it. That which is perceived already exists in the perceiver, because it is posited by the action of search and is actualized in the fulfillment of expectation. The unity of the cycle is reflected in the impossibility of defining a moving instant of ‘now’ in subjective time, as an object is conceived under linear causality. The Cartesian distinction between subject and object does not appear, because they are joined by assimilation in a seamless flow.
— Freeman (1999b, 147)

Another aspect of this circularity is the mutually causal relationship between levels in the hierarchy of brain function: ‘a top-down macroscopic state simultaneously influences microscopic particles that bottom-up create and sustain the macroscopic state’ (Freeman (1999b, 145). Mental patterns are self-organizing in that they arise from the “grassroots” of neural interactions – but each momentary pattern becomes the formal cause of the lower-level neural interactions, which will in turn become material causes of the next higher-level pattern. Like the Rosen diagram described in Chapter 9, this gives us a loop within a loop, the outer loop being the macroscopic interaction of the organism with its external milieu.

In the process of organizing itself into reiterating loops, the microscopic neural activity leaves its mark on the system by subtly altering the physical and chemical connectivity of the neural networks: any connection which has recently been active in the brain is a little easier to reactivate than it was before. This, along with the general brain structure which develops as prescribed by the genome, ensures that the brain carries its own history forward, not as inert “data” but as a more or less vague propensity, a palimpsest continually overwritten by current experience. (See LeDoux 2002 for microscopic details, and Schacter 1996 for psychological ramifications of this.) We humans, of course, have also developed vast external resources (such as you are now using) to supplement, scaffold and anchor our “wetware” memories.

The pattern of circular causality appears again at a still higher time scale, in the form of co-evolution. An extended “event” like the emergence of language would have involved the co-evolution of brain and culture ‘in an iterative loop of selection pressure originating at the cultural level’ (Donald 1991, 237; Deacon 1997 gives a more detailed account of language/brain co-evolution). Language development was powered by the need of individuals to communicate, but its formation was guided by a selection process similar to that which feeds back to the genotype in the next biological generation.

Complementary closures

Cells enclose themselves in membranes in order to insulate internal processes, but must import energy and selected materials across the boundary in order to maintain those processes. This raises the question of how they could have organized themselves in the first place: how did biological systems emerge from the inorganic? Stuart Kauffman identified one crucial step as catalytic closure, in which the product of one spontaneous reaction acted as a catalyst for another reaction, which in turn produced materials vital to the first reaction. Such an autocatalytic loop can involve many more than two separate reactions, but it can sustain itself and grow as long as it produces its own catalysts – provided that it has a steady supply of raw materials which it can “eat” or transform into the molecular forms which constitute it.

Catalytic closure means that every molecule in the system either is supplied from the outside as ‘food’ or is itself synthesized by reactions catalyzed by molecular species within the autocatalytic system. Catalytic closure is not mysterious. But it is not a property of any single molecule; it is a property of a system of molecules. It is an emergent property.
— Kauffman (1995, 275)

However, Thompson (2007, 105) points out that autocatalytic systems do not qualify as autonomous agents if they do not produce their own boundary: ‘the form or pattern of the autopoietic organization is that of a peculiar circular interdependency between an interconnected web of self-regenerating processes and the self-production of a boundary, such that the whole system persists in continuous self-production as a spatially distinct individual’ (Thompson 2007, 101).

This interdependency of closures also appears in Terrence Deacon's comprehensive study of emergent dynamics, which

explains how homeodynamic (e.g. thermodynamic) processes can give rise to morphodynamic (e.g., self-organizing) processes, which can give rise to teleodynamic (e.g., living and mental) processes.… processes at a higher level in this hierarchy emerge from, and are grounded in, simpler physical processes, but exhibit reversals of the otherwise ubiquitous tendencies of these lower-level processes.
— Deacon 2011, 549
Deacon argues that catalytic closure alone is not enough to bring about autogenesis, the emergent stage which he proposes as precursor to life. Self-enclosure is equally necessary, because without it, the autocatalytic process would exhaust the substrate it needs, or its products would dissipate into the surrounding medium; in either case the process would stop. The process would also stop if the ‘autogen’ sealed itself off from its environment (cutting off its ‘food’ supply). But it would spontaneously start up again if its enclosure were broken open by reactions with the substrate molecules needed by the process – and it would be the same process which spontaneously restarted itself, not just any autocatalytic cycle, because the same key molecules were kept together in close proximity while the self-enclosed unit was floating around in an inert state. It's the reciprocal relation between topological closure and autocatalytic closure that constitutes the level of emergence called autogenesis. Both kinds of closure can arise spontaneously, under the right conditions, but each would need the other in order to develop the proto-selfhood which leads to life and thence to sentience.

However, ‘the right conditions’ include several prior stages of self-organization, each with its own dynamic emerging from the one before. Morphodynamic organization emerges from thermodynamics, and on that basis emerges the stage of teleodynamics, which Deacon defines as:

A form of dynamical organization exhibiting end-directedness and consequence-oriented features that is constituted by the co-creation, complementary constraint, and reciprocal synergy of two or more strongly coupled morphodynamic processes.
— Deacon 2011, 352
Once we have teleodynamics, we can have organisms with teleogenic properties, which are
constituted by a higher-order form of teleodynamic process, specifically where that teleodynamic process involves a self-referential loop of causality such that the causal properties of the individuated teleodynamic unit are re-presented in some form in the generation of teleodynamic processes
— Deacon 2011, 352
– in other words, the kind of process which enables anticipatory systems to incorporate models of their own agency as internal guidance systems. Thus the closure of self-referential causal loops is essential to sentient life.

Yet another kind of closure is essential to the evolution of life forms. Howard Pattee identified it as semantic closure, and later as semiotic closure (Rocha 2001, Pattee 2004). The basic idea is that any system capable of evolving or learning must include both static and dynamic aspects, and closure refers to the co-operation of these complementary aspects. The genome, for example, is like a stable text which a cell reads and also replicates in the process of reproducing itself, and thus the whole system is capable of what Pattee calls self-reference. The DNA “text” retains the same form through generations of individual embodiments, as it must in order for the lineage to continue, but it must also be capable of some variation (and variable expression) in order for the line to evolve.

To state my position as briefly as possible, self-reference that has open-ended evolutionary potential is an autonomous closure between the dynamics (physical laws) of the material aspects and the constraints (syntactic rules) of the symbolic aspects of a physical organization. I have called this self-referent relation semantic closure (Pattee, 1982) because only by virtue of the freely selected symbolic aspects of matter do the law-determined physical aspects of matter become functional (i.e., have survival value, goals, significance, meaning, self-awareness, etc.). Semantic closure requires complementary models of the material and symbolic aspects of the organism.
— Pattee (1995a)
Pattee's distinction between the ‘material’ (‘law-determined’ and dynamic) and the ‘symbolic’ (constraining and unchanging) aspects of a system resembles the distinction in linguistics between semantics and syntax, as we will see in the next section. His usage of ‘symbolic’ is quite different from the Peircean usage. For Pattee it would make no sense to say that ‘symbols grow’ and have a life of their own, as Peirce does; for Peirce, on the other hand, it would make little sense to speak of ‘freely selected symbolic aspects of matter.’ But this is just another example of polyversity. At any rate, Pattee, Peirce and Deacon could probably all agree that evolvability, sentience and meaning are deeply intertwined; indeed, as Deacon says (2011, 502), ‘the experience of sentience is what it feels like to be evolution.’

Languages and other symbolic systems

As the nascent science of biosemiotics was emerging toward the end of the 20th century, Pattee came to prefer the term semiotic closure to his original term ‘semantic closure.’ Rocha (2001) explains ‘semiotic closure’ in terms that bring out the similarities between linguistic and living systems. According to this analysis, a functional language must be a symbol system with three characteristic aspects: syntax, internal rules which stabilize the manipulation and recombination of word elements; semantics, regular relationships between words in the language and things external to it; and pragmatics, aspects of meaning which relate usage to its practical context.

Syntax requires a strictly limited set of inert structures like the letters of an alphabet, or the set of phonemes (elementary sound patterns) which can be combined sequentially to form morphemes (linguistic elements such as words). Of the possible sounds that humans can emit, only a limited set form the universe of phonemes that can be combined into meaningful utterances in a given language. ‘Part of what makes learning language difficult is that language carves up sounds and different languages carve them up differently’ (Gopnik et al. 1999, 102).

At the morphemic level, some words and phrases (such as the, and or to) furnish structure to a sentence instead of denoting or describing what it refers to. This set of inert structure words is always relatively small and closed – unlike the sets of reference words (such as nouns, verbs and adjectives) which are much larger and open to the inclusion of new members. Syntactic closure allows the open-class words to be creatively organized into sentences which can mean something new even though their parts are familiar.

In the genetic “language” which informs the biological development process, the inert structures are DNA and RNA; the four-letter “alphabet” consists of the nucleotide bases (G, C, A, and T); the three-letter “words” are the nucleotides or codons; the “sentences” are genes, such as sections of DNA that will be interpreted as specific proteins or regulatory functions. The whole genome is the text that provides the template for growing an organism of a specific type.

The “reading” of that text “interprets” each gene, in its dynamic context, to produce a protein or a functional constraint. The genome provides the stable, transferable basis for the act of meaning achieved by the dynamics of development. The complementary relationship of dynamics and stability, reading and text, is semiotic closure. As the embryo develops, it begins to interact pragmatically with its environment, while the proteins become building blocks for the next level of self-organizing process, and so on. Evolution depends on the success of that developmental process, as indicated by the survival and reproduction of the organism: over the long-term life of its species, the natural selection of those who reproduce feeds back to the genotype which provides the text for the next generation of readers. The reading is self-referential in that the object of the genome as sign is the organism as reader, the phenotype.

‘Semiotic closure’ requires the collusion of all three elements – syntax, semantics and pragmatics – in order for languages or living beings to develop and evolve. Syntax, the most internal (to the language system) of the three, must also have its own closure in order to open up space for interaction with the other two. This syntactic closure is deeply entangled with semantics, defined above in terms of the language's relations to the external world, because the world is inside out (recalling Chapter 5). Meaning then is neither internal nor external, involving as it does the pragmatic closure of the practiception loop. Mutual relations among these forms of closure enable the system to be semantically open, because it has one foot in external reality and one in intentionality, so to speak. Meaning is necessarily both objective and subjective.

Semantically, a symbol can refer generally to a dynamic object outside the system because it plays a specific part inside the system, which governs how it can be combined with other system components to form an interpretant sign representing that same object. Terrence Deacon relates this to the acquisition and use of human natural languages:

… symbols cannot be understood as an unstructured collection of tokens that map to a collection of referents because symbols don't just represent things in the world, they also represent each other. Because symbols do not directly refer to things in the world, but indirectly refer to them by virtue of referring to other symbols, they are implicitly combinatorial entities whose referential powers are derived by virtue of occupying determinate positions in an organized system of other symbols. Both their initial acquisition and their later use requires a combinatorial analysis. The structure of the whole system has a definite semantic topology that determines the way symbols modify each other's referential functions in different combinations. Because of this systematic relational basis of symbolic reference, no collection of signs can function symbolically unless the entire collection conforms to certain overall principles of organization.
— Deacon (1997, 99)

We will look further into those ‘principles of organization’ in Chapter 13. The closure of the ‘semantic topology’ which limits what you can mean, or know, also enables you to have an open mind, so that the actual flow through the meaning circuit can realize unfamiliar or unexpected possibilities. The flow itself is only possible when there is both a difference and a connection between the two poles (Model and World) represented in our diagram. In the Practice-Perception loop, the flow from M to W is simultaneous with the flow from W to M, although the diagram needs two arrows to represent the difference between the two flows.

Symbols in semiosis

As defined by Peirce, a symbol ‘is constituted a sign merely or mainly by the fact that it is used and understood as such, whether the habit is natural or conventional, and without regard to the motives which originally governed its selection’ (BD). The base-level unit which fits that definition is called the proposition in logic, or the sentence in linguistics, as smaller units of discourse (phonemes, letters of the alphabet, isolated words) are not normally capable of meaning anything much by themselves. The meaning of a symbol is the marriage of reference (to the World inhabited by the users of the symbol) and signification (the symbol's role in the habit-system shared by that community of users). Reference is basically indexical, while signification is iconic.

The significations of symbols have various grades of directness up to the limit of being themselves their own significations. An icon is significant with absolute directness of a character which it embodies; and every symbol refers more or less indirectly to an icon.
An index is directly denotative of a real object with which it is in reaction. Every symbol refers more or less indirectly to a real object through an index.
— Peirce, EP2:320
The ideally informative symbol would embody a high grade of directness in both respects. Such symbols aim to advance a dialogue toward the ultimate closure of the meaning cycle, the entelechy in which Model and World are as one; but in actual dialogical use, all symbols are incomplete and vague to some degree, even when they are not intentionally misleading.

All consensus being a network of intertwined symbols, any real relation between a symbol and its dynamic object may get lost in the jungle of associations and implications. Thus you can speak quite reasonably without really knowing what you are talking about; and even the most authentically grounded symbol can be misread if the interpreter's attention is misdirected. How can symbolic utterance direct attention beyond the cognitive bubble sustained by habitual consensus, when its very meaning depends on that consensus? This would be impossible if that consensus were not continually co-evolving with a reality prior to it and independent of it. In the life of an organism, this co-evolution is carried forward in the functional coupling of Umwelt and Innenwelt.

A symbol such as a book is a text, a network of intertwined symbols. For the individual reader, the cognitive process of understanding a text, or understanding anything, follows a recursive path forward, on a time scale midway between the microscopic scale of neural circuits and the macroscopic scale of scientific inquiry and cultural dialogue. This recursive path is commonly called the hermeneutic circle, which Hans-Georg Gadamer aptly described as the ‘rule that we must understand the whole in terms of the detail and the detail in terms of the whole.’

This principle stems from ancient rhetoric, and modern hermeneutics has transferred it to the art of understanding. It is a circular relationship in both cases. The anticipation of meaning in which the whole is envisaged becomes actual understanding when the parts that are determined by the whole themselves determine this whole.
— Gadamer (1986, 291)
Søren Brier (2008, 12) observes that ‘hermeneutic circles evolve into a spiral movement in understanding,’ and John Deely (2001, 726) likewise refers to the ‘semiotic spiral.’ At every scale, the cognitive current flows not only around but forward in time: each new interpretant of a genuine symbol represents not only a reiteration of the semiosic cycle but also a growth of understanding. For instance, the taxonomy or classification system in biology evolves by means of hermeneutic circles: ‘organisms are first ordered into seemingly natural groups (through a consideration of numerous characters and character combinations) and then those characters are given the greatest weight which seem to be correlated with the most natural groups’ (Mayr 1982, 224). In other words, the ‘reader’ of biodiversity first develops a working notion of the taxon as a whole by looking at its parts (the characters, traits, properties, attributes, ..... , of its members), then reconsiders each part in the light of its correlations with other parts in making up the whole.

The closure of the meaning circuit, which enables the current to flow in/around the hermeneutic circle through the reciprocity of practice and perception, also enables the spiralling growth of what we call cognition or thought. Since all thought is in signs, as Peirce affirmed (EP1:24), a cognitive process is a semiosic process. But Peirce's concept of Thought is both broader and deeper than the common usage of the word.

Thirdness and Thought

Peirce wrote to William James in 1902 that

one must not take a nominalistic view of Thought as if it were something that a man had in his consciousness. Consciousness may mean any one of the three categories. But if it is to mean Thought it is more without us than within. It is we that are in it, rather than it in any of us.
CP 8.256
We will look further into ‘nominalism’ in Chapter 12. Peirce's point here is that Thought, as conscious semiosis or cognition, is not bounded by the little current of someone's private stream of consciousness. Rather it is the Big Current, the Thirdness or process which generates and guides relationships between entities who may be both subjects and objects of experience. This is the case when consciousness ‘means’ Thirdness. When it means Secondness, it is the double or dyadic consciousness in which subjects and objects are distinct from one another. When it means Firstness, it is unitary as a simple unanalyzed feeling. These are Peirce's ‘three modes of consciousness.’

The inner stream of internal dialogue is sometimes called “thinking” and sometimes “thought,” in the sense defined by the Century Dictionary as the ‘subjective element of intellectual activity.’ But the specifically Peircean sense of Thought is defined in the CD as ‘the objective element of the intellectual product’ of thinking. To illustrate this exact sense of the word in the CD, Peirce cited the following quotation:

Thought is, in every case, the cognition of an object, which really, actually, existentially out of thought, is ideally, intellectually, intelligibly within it; and just because within in the latter sense, is it known as actually without in the former.
— G.J. Stokes, The Objectivity of Truth (1884), p. 53
This is a more precise statement of the proposition that the world is inside out. The causal reciprocity between a cognitive process and the reality external to it is essential to the intersubjective mentality of a social and symbolic species. The generality and continuity which is characteristic of Thirdness enables the same thought to be shared by many people in many situations, just as a single law of nature regulates a wide range of events. Thought in this sense is, as Gregory Bateson (1979, 8) put it, the ‘pattern that connects’ or relates things to one another.
Thirdness is found wherever one thing brings about a Secondness between two things. In all such cases, it will be found that Thought plays a part. By thought is meant something like the meaning of a word, which may be “embodied in,” that is, may govern, this or that, but is not confined to any existent. Thought is often supposed to be something in consciousness; but on the contrary, it is impossible ever actually to be directly conscious of thought. It is something to which consciousness may conform, as a writing may conform to it. Thought is rather of the nature of a habit, which determines the suchness of that which may come into existence, when it does come into existence. Of such a habit one may be conscious of a symptom; but to speak of being directly conscious of a habit, as such, is nonsense.
— Peirce, EP2:269
Thought as the Big Current can't be contained within the little current of one's consciousness, but our habits can conform to it, just as the course of events in the flow of time conforms to the “laws” or habits of nature. We can't be ‘directly conscious’ of either kind of habit, as we can of existing things or events. We can formulate these laws or habits by means of symbolic media, but these formulations are abstractions from the direct experience which is the substrate of anybody's conscious thinking.

The term ‘directly conscious’ as used by Peirce above is somewhat ambiguous, given his concept of consciousness as a bottomless lake with many layers. Since his time, research in neuropsychology (such as Dehaene 2014) has shown that subliminal ideas and images, or symbols not consciously perceived, can affect our thinking and behavior. This enables a sharper definition of consciousness as an amplifier of mental processes which are not directly accessible to it. In this way it confirms Peirce's insight into the continuity between different levels of cognition and semiosis, but also stipulates that neurologically, the specifically conscious mode of our thinking and perception is brought on by ‘a brain-scale phase transition in our cortical activity’ (Dehaene 2014, 131).

Peirce's explanation of Thirdness continues from the above (EP2:269): ‘In a still fuller sense, Thirdness consists in the formation of a habit.’ The formation of a habit is brought about by information in the Peircean sense of that word (Chapter 7), formally defined as the logical product of breadth and depth. Just as we calculate the area of a rectangle by multipying the lengths of its sides (length × width = area), we define Information as the product of Breadth × Depth (Peirce, W2:83). The difference is that neither logical breadth nor depth is measurable in discrete units as length and width are in geometry. This kind of information is not quantifiable in bits and megabytes.

The breadth (or extension) of a proposition is the range of things (or subjects) to which it refers; its depth (or intension) is the more or less complex form, quality or relation (the predicate) which it attributes to its subjects. Or we might think of a symbol's depth as its connectedness with the rest of the network of symbols which constitute the language or other symbol system. As explained above, the symbol system is syntactically closed but semantically open by virtue of its capacity for assigning predicates to previously unnoticed objects, which broadens the universe of discourse. Thus the original recognition of a fact or event as an instance of a general form or type represents an increase of information (which may be more or less temporary.) Fuhrman 2010 gives a more detailed explanation of Peircean information.

It is also possible for information to increase by growth in the depth factor, when new conceptual connections are formed within the Model or Innenwelt with no change to the breadth of reference involved in the symbol. This could also form or modify a habit, but would be experienced as the object of the symbol becoming more significant (since it is the object, and not semiosis itself, to which we pay attention when informed through semiosis). This is why ‘it is impossible ever actually to be directly conscious of thought,’ or of habit, although we do directly experience the changes in the felt significance of a thought-sign as the “train of thought” rolls on. Thus we are aware of the continuous current of time, punctuated by surprises but also governed by regularities which turn occurrences into recurrences. We also experience the continuing flow of practice which is informed by our habits, but subjectively driven by intent. Consciousness rides on the surface of this circular current, while experience itself runs deeper.

Semiosis and information

… all experience involves time. Now the flow of time is conceived as continuous. No matter whether this continuity is a datum of sense, or a quasi-hypothesis imported by the mind into experience, or even an illusion; in any case it remains a direct experience. For experience is not what analysis discovers but the raw material upon which analysis works. This element then is an element of direct experience.
CP 7.535
Phaneroscopy, as the analysis of the phaneron into its ever-present elements, identifies this element as Thirdness – which is quite distinct from Firstness and Secondness, although none of the three can appear in a pure form in the absence of the other two. These are what Peirce called ‘the formal elements of the phaneron’ (CP 1.284), and in this respect they are entirely different from the chemical ‘elements’ (or from any set of categories into which things can be sorted by type).

Thirdness as Thought or habit-formation involves the presence of past and future in the closure of potentiality with actuality. As soon as you realize that something has happened again, you must have some kind of concept which presently embraces a number of past events, recognizing them as all of a kind, and anticipates their possible recurrence in the future. The same applies to your intention to carry out any conceivable course of action. Indeed, seeing a connection of any kind between two different acts or events brings us into the universe of Thirdness (continuity, regularity, generality, significance, ..... ).

Semiosis takes time because the connection between a sign and its object continues with the interpretant, which in turn propagates the connection to generate another interpretant sign with the same power of propagation. The sign-object relation is meaningless without the interpretant; there can be no sign-interpretant relation without the object; the object-interpretant relation is inconceivable without the sign. Thus a sign embodies Thirdness as a triadic relationship which cannot be decomposed into a set of one-to-one relations. Semiosis as Thirdness brings the two poles of the meaning cycle into the kind of relation represented diagrammatically as a closed loop. When we see (through many observations) that certain regularities in the causal relations between phenomena remain consistent over time, we call them ‘laws of nature.’ If the brain carries a stream of consciousness, it is also carried by the river of Thought, the Big Current running through Big Mind.

Thought is not necessarily connected with a brain. It appears in the work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world; and one can no more deny that it is really there, than that the colors, the shapes, etc., of objects are really there.
— Peirce, CP 4.551 (1906)
Peirce's attempt to generalize thought and mind beyond human psychology led to his most thoughtful and mindful characterizations of semiosis and Thirdness – such as the following, from the ‘Syllabus’ which he wrote to accompany his Lowell Lectures of 1903. Realizing that the word “sign” usually refers to something experienced as meaningful by humans, and thinking that it was not essential to a sign that it be limited to the human realm, he defined a technical term that avoided this limitation.
By a sign I mean anything which conveys any definite notion of an object in any way, as such conveyers of thought are familiarly known to us. Now I start with this familiar idea and make the best analysis I can of what is essential to a sign, and I define a representamen as being whatever that analysis applies to.
— Peirce, CP 1.540 (Lowell Lecture 3, 1903)
Then, by representing signs as members of the broader category of representamens, he could generalize the concept of sign beyond its reference to signs in human use.
A Sign, or Representamen, is a First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant, to assume the same triadic relation to its Object in which it stands itself to the same Object. The triadic relation is genuine, that is its three members are bound together by it in a way that does not consist in any complexus of dyadic relations. That is the reason the Interpretant, or Third, cannot stand in a mere dyadic relation to the Object, but must stand in such a relation to it as the Representamen itself does. Nor can the triadic relation in which the Third stands be merely similar to that in which the First stands, for this would make the relation of the Third to the First a degenerate Secondness merely. The Third must indeed stand in such a relation, and thus must be capable of determining a Third of its own; but besides that, it must have a second triadic relation in which the Representamen, or rather the relation thereof to its Object, shall be its own (the Third's) Object, and must be capable of determining a Third to this relation. All this must equally be true of the Third's Thirds and so on endlessly; and this, and more, is involved in the familiar idea of a Sign; and as the term Representamen is here used, nothing more is implied.
The second triadic relation which the Interpretant must have can be seen as another iteration of the loop we have diagrammed as the meaning cycle. Yet it is separated from the first triadic relation only by abstraction from the process, i.e. from the current flowing through the semiosic circuit. These relations all take place simultaneously even as they take time, and this (like the presence of past and future) characterizes the continuity of time itself as an element of direct experience. Peirce continues:
A Sign is a Representamen with a mental Interpretant. Possibly there may be Representamens that are not Signs. Thus, if a sunflower, in turning towards the sun, becomes by that very act fully capable, without further condition, of reproducing a sunflower which turns in precisely corresponding ways toward the sun, and of doing so with the same reproductive power, the sunflower would become a Representamen of the sun. But thought is the chief, if not the only, mode of representation.
As Peirce's example of the sunflower shows, it is very difficult to imagine how representation could take place without thought in the Peircean sense of that word, which does not depend on the thinking of human subjects. Human thinking and talking is only one kind of semiosis or ‘thought’ (though a very important one for humans) – but as such, it involves the direct experience of time as continuous transformation.

Closing time

In any cognitive process, every “stage” in the meaning cycle may be going on simultaneously with others; but we cannot observe them all at once, except by abstracting from the process a ‘skeleton diagram’ like the meaning cycle. We use this circular image to simplify what is really an ‘inextricable causal web of perception, action and cognition’ (Thelen and Smith 1994, xxii). While we do so, this simplified image occupies the narrow beam of our conscious attention, displacing whatever percepts are represented by the perceptual side of the diagram.

Percepts are the points of contact between dynamic and immediate objects of thought-signs, between the current events external and internal to the perceiving bodymind. When we recognize a percept – that is, make a perceptual judgment as to what it is – this constitutes a reiteration of the cognitive cycle; but of course, while we are in that loop, we don't see the whole of it as if we were outside of it. To do that, we have to leap into another semiosic loop, a metaloop, for ‘every concept and every thought beyond immediate perception is a sign’ (Peirce, EP2:402) – a sign with more conscious significance.

Neither percepts nor perceptual judgments, which are determined by the interaction of our cognitive habits with percepts, are subject to conscious control. But out of those recognitions, which are ‘the first premisses of all our reasonings’ (EP2:191), cognitive processes grow by inference toward the self-control of the guidance system. This growth is the growth of symbols, which according to Peirce are ‘the only things in the universe that have any importance’ (EP2:269) – since nothing else can make real connections between general patterns on the one hand, and particular percepts or individual actions on the other. But what we gain in connectivity from the mediation of symbols may entail a loss of directness.

We have a direct knowledge of real objects in every experiential reaction, whether of Perception or of Exertion (the one theoretical, the other practical).
Peirce, EP2:304
But as we have seen above, symbols can formulate this knowledge, or make it explicit, only by referring ‘more or less indirectly to an icon,’ and ‘more or less indirectly to a real object through an index.’ The closure of the symbol system, which “insulates” it from external objects, entails that ‘Symbols are particularly remote from the Truth itself. They are abstracted. They neither exhibit the very characters signified as icons do, nor assure us of the reality of their objects, as indices do’ (EP2:307). The ‘abstract’ character of symbols is a natural result of the loops within loops which characterize a self-guidance system. The internalization of thought-loops can cause the decay of a sign's relation to its dynamic object into a degenerate Secondness – a short circuit, as it were, leaving external reality out of the loop.

Once we are aware of this, however, we can embark on cycles of logical (meaning self-critical) thought. Each cycle of logical thought, or reasoning, takes control of its course at the advent of the perceptual judgment, carries it through to some consequential interpretant, and releases it into action (which, once taken, cannot be redirected or “taken back”). This is the course followed by a typical act of meaning.

The elements of every concept enter into logical thought at the gate of perception and make their exit at the gate of purposive action; and whatever cannot show its passports at both those two gates is to be arrested as unauthorized by reason.
— Peirce (EP2:241)
Perceptual elements ‘show their passports’ to reason by means of common-sense reality checks. Conceptual elements must also show their passports as pragmatically relevant to a reasonable course of conduct, i.e. ‘purposive action.’ The purposiveness, or intentionality, of the action is essential to the Thirdness of thought. The purpose, whether consciously formulated or not, is the final cause of the reasoning process – in science, the quest for Truth. Natural science aims to formulate the laws of nature as the final causes of whatever happens in the observable world, for as Peirce put it, ‘the truth of the formula, that is, the law, is, in the strictest sense, the defining cause of the real individual facts’ (EP2:316).

On the personal level, a perceptual judgment takes on meaning by taking its place in the conceptual structure of your internal Model, i.e. playing a role in the modeling process at the heart of your guidance system. Aspects of this inner Model find their meaning in the difference they make to your practice by functioning as precepts. Thus we have a closed causal loop or cycle which, taken as a whole process, is a final cause for any act of meaning; ‘final causation is that kind of causation whereby the whole calls out its parts’ (Peirce, EP2:124).

The ‘two great tasks of humanity, Theory and Practice,’ are essential parts of the cycle. Our actions in the world of external things must be guided by perception of them in order to realize our intentions; and our perceptual faculties in turn have evolved to serve the purpose of guiding our actions. The optimization of our biological guidance systems has played a key role in determining the form of our perceptual organs, and these in turn determine what kinds of things we are able to act upon and interact with. Physical, biological, psychological, semiotic and logical closure are all aspects of self-organization.

Semiosis synchronizes direct perception with direct practice in a circular process like the one envisioned by Peirce in ‘Evolutionary Love’:

The movement of love is circular, at one and the same impulse projecting creations into independency and drawing them into harmony.
— EP1:353 (1893)
How does the movement of love achieve creation and closure, or differentiation and unification, at one and the same impulse?
A quick person needs only a single word, a swift horse only needs one stroke of the crop. Ten thousand years are one moment, one moment is ten thousand years. If you want to become acquainted with direct perception, it is before mention is made. But tell me, before any mention is made, how can you search for it?
The Blue Cliff Record, Case 70 (Cleary 2002, 236)

Next chapter: Simplexity →

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