annotated resource listings, extended quotations with comments, and external links relevant to gnoxic studies. This is also a supplement to the main Reference list which documents published sources cited (parenthetically) in Turning Signs.
This page has two Indexes: Author and Subject.
On 1 August 2007 i started adding a datestamp to new or revised listings here, so any undated entries are older than that.
Since 2015 i have been citing sources in my blog posts, so more recent sources of Turning Signs can be found there by selecting the category gnew sources.
Major sources (for gnoxic studies) are in bold, and key sources of inspiration in bigger type.
Anyone who aims to communicate with unspecified others has to speak from (the private flow of) experience by using a public and conventional language. You learn this language by interacting with other users and exploring other uses—always aiming toward the public and universal, while your knowledge of it can only be personal. Your language is entangled with that of other users with whom you have crossed paths in the quest. Honesty invites you to bear witness to this crossing of paths by ‘documenting your sources.’ This also provides a service by linking quoted text to its original context, enabling readers to follow up on other threads with which your text is entangled. Those other threads can thus be called ‘sources’ of your expression, though the real source of its meaning is entanglement itself, which is born of the constant tension between eternal truth and its current recreation.
Throughout the gnoxic works in progress online here, documentation is done in the parenthetical-citation format common to most of the sciences. All citations are keyed to a reference list; some are also linked to (or crosslinked within) this page. Of course any writer can document only a small selection of the ‘sources’ with which his text is entangled. They are documented here on two conditions: (1) the author was conscious of them as ‘sources’ while writing the text to which they are connected, and (2) a typical general reader would probably not recognize the source if it were left undocumented.
and neurophenomenology (a term coined by Francisco Varela) – see also neurobiology, autism, phenomenology.
- a note on meanings of consciousness:
- Phenomenal consciousness is synonymous with awareness, having experience or having a world. We tend to assume that organisms are conscious to a degree proportional to their complexity (and their resemblance to us).
- Consciousness is often used to mean self-consciousness or meta-awareness. Thus if you know that you have a decision to make, and make it deliberately, then it is a conscious decision, whereas actions taken automatically, habitually or without consideration of alternative choices are unconscious decisions. In this sense, most of the mental activity going on in any system must be unconscious, since consciousness takes far more time and energy than a viable system can afford to spend on every decision; besides, conscious processes can only be composed of unconscious sub-processes. The advantage of consciousness is that it enables a system to change its own habits or override them when appropriate.
- For a minority of users, the term consciousness covers the whole mental or ‘psychical’ spectrum—feeling, sensing, knowing, and so forth—including what sense #2 calls the ‘unconscious mind.’ For example, see this passage from Peirce.
- Mind Hacks, by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb (2004),
is a good introduction to current psychology and brain science, and the blog of the same name is an excellent way to keep up with news in the field. [ 1 August 2007 ]
- Antonio Damasio writes (2003, 5) that ‘The cruelty of neurological disease may be a bottomless pit for its victims—the patients and those of us who are called to watch. But the scalpel of disease also is responsible for its single redeeming feature: By teasing apart the normal operations of the human brain, often with uncanny precision, neurological disease provides a unique entry into the fortified citadel of the human brain and mind.’ Damasio's works have led us far into that citadel:
- Descartes' Error (1994)
addresses the role of emotion and feeling in decision-making.
- The Feeling of What Happens (1999)
outlines the role of emotion and feeling in the construction of the self.
- Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain (2003)
builds on the previous to present a comprehensive and awe-inspiring view of human nature in which feelings (a mental level emerging from the brain's mappings of the body) play the central role in personal, social and spiritual life.
- Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (2010)
on the emergence of various levels of selfhood.
- Oliver Sacks mines the same neurological territory as Damasio, but his emphasis is on the experience of the ‘patient’ rather than the biological basis of the disorder, so his books come across as wonderfully engaging stories, with some theory arising from them almost as an afterthought. The human significance of brain disorders, and their implications for the mind, can only be conveyed anecdotally, and nobody does it better than Sacks. The first and last in this list focus mainly on his own experiences.[ 1 August 2016 ]
- A Leg to Stand On (1984)
- The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1987)
- Awakenings (rev. 1990)
- Migraine (1992)
- An Anthropologist on Mars (1995)
- The Island of the Colorblind (1997)
- Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2008)
- The Mind's Eye (2010)
- Hallucinations (2012)
- On the Move: A Life (2015)
- V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain (1998)
describes some remarkable and revealing experiments involving oddities of human experience such as phantom limbs.
- Todd Feinberg, Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self (2001)
This short and accessible book could serve as a good introduction to consciousness studies, as it not only includes interesting case studies of neurological disorders but also outlines a theory of selfhood which draws upon hierarchy theory (see below) and emphasizes the first-person perspective.
- A. R. Luria, Russian psychologist who inspired Sacks:
- The Mind of a Mnemonist (1968)
- The Man with a Shattered World (1972)
- James H. Austin, Zen and the Brain (1998)
is a unique (and enormous) volume which weaves together an exhaustive survey of neurochemistry and the author's personal experience of Zen meditation. In a clear and approachable style, Austin relates the two in a way that advances our comprehension of both.
- Andrew Newberg, Eugene d'Aquili and Vince Rause, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (2002)
is a popular presentation of ‘neurotheology’, which attempts to correlate religious/mystical experience with brain functions.
in relation to experience, consciousness and behavior
- Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst (2017) [ 23 February 2022 ]
- Walter J. Freeman, How Brains Make up their Minds (1999)
explains how meaning arises from brain dynamics, using chaos and complexity theories and considering the philosophical background.
- Freeman's website contains a number of important articles varying from highly accessible to highly technical. I would especially recommend
‘Consciousness, Intentionality and Causality’—also published in:
- Rafael Núñez and Walter J. Freeman, Reclaiming Cognition (1999)
—excellent collection, though rather technical for the general reader.
- Gerald M. Edelman, Wider Than the Sky (2004)
is a very concise explanation of the neural basis of consciousness, and quite comprehensive though it omits almost all reference to other sources and research. Probably too dense in thought and language for an introduction, but a good summary for those already acquainted with the field.
- Edelman and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness (2000)
is another excellent account of brain dynamics, making especially cogent use of the concept of complexity, defined thus:
there are two aspects about which every expert on complexity agrees. First, to be complex, something must be composed of many parts that interact in heterogeneous ways.… Second, it is now generally agreed that something that is completely random is not complex, nor is something that is completely regular. For example, neither an ideal gas nor a perfect crystal is considered to be complex. Only something that appears to be both orderly and disorderly, regular and irregular, variant and invariant, constant and changing, stable and unstable deserves to be called complex. Biological systems, from cells to brains to organisms to societies, are therefore paradigmatic examples of complex organizations.
Equally good and slightly less technical (though less up-to-date) is
— Edelman and Tononi (2000, 135)
- Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (1992).
- Rodolfo R. Llinás, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self (2001)
explains the evolution of mind from the cellular level on up, in terms of motor primacy and the self-organization of neural networks. His theory of thinking as ‘internalized movement’ is comprehensive, empirically well grounded and very readable. [ 8 March 2008 ]
- Bernard Baars, In the Theater of Consciousness (1997)
Baars introduced the Global Workspace Theory in the 1988 book A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness, which is now available online. His home page also links to some good articles on the theory.
- Christof Koch and Francis Crick have developed a variant of global workspace theory which emphasizes the ‘neural correlates of consciousness’, i.e. the small subset of neural structure which is explicitly involved in representing the contents of consciousness at any given moment.
- Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994)
is a lively and highly readable introduction to the empirical study of phenomenal (especially visual) consciousness (i.e. how the brain sees). Its theoretical framework is reductionistic, but not as dogmatically so as it may seem at first.
- Koch, The Quest for Consciousness (2004)
is a much more detailed, somewhat modified, and of course more up-to-date version of the Crick/Koch approach to consciousness. My review of it is online here.
- Joseph LeDoux, Synaptic Self (2002)
deals mostly with how memory works at the biochemical level (thus accounting for the neural basis of selfhood). Ledoux, like Damasio, is a leading researcher on emotion.
- Gary Marcus, The Birth of the Mind (2004)
focusses on how genes guide developmental and learning processes. In a very accessible style, Marcus summarizes recent research about the complex relations between gene expression, brain structure and experience.
of memory and perception:
- Daniel L. Schacter, Searching for Memory (1996)
is a fascinating look at the psychology of memory. See also
- Schacter and Scarry (eds.), Memory, Brain and Belief ( 2000)—my review of this is online here.
- Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002)
is an empirically-based and highly readable exploration of the psychology of conscious will. The ‘illusion’ is our belief (which we work hard to protect) that our conscious intentions cause our actions. Wegner documents many cases where people cause physical events without being aware of it, and others where they believe they are causing events which an observer would attribute to causes other than their agency. On this evidence he argues that the experience of conscious will (the feeling of making something happen on purpose) is an important effect, but not the cause, of the deeper brain processes which actually control what we do. (The ‘illusion’ then is merely the belief that a conscious purpose is an ‘efficient’ cause; Wegner's argument does not refute, or even address, the reality of purposes as ‘final’ causes, which guide actions in some general direction.)
- E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (6th edition 2002)
demonstrates the active nature of visual perception by explaining developments in the history of art, drawing upon J.J. Gibson's ‘ecological approach’ to perception.
and creativity (see also semantics, semiotics, hermeneutics, philosophy, phenomenology):
- Raymond W. Gibbs has explored the psychology of meaning in two comprehensive studies:
- Intentions in the Experience of Meaning (1999) mines and distills a vast range of research into how humans actually read one another both in person and in print.
- The Poetics of Mind (1994) provides a firm psychological basis for cognitive linguistics (see below).
- Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning (1990)
— explains how the ‘cognitive revolution’ of the latter half of the 20th century went wrong by taking the computation model of mental process too seriously; also emphasizes the role of narrative in development of the self.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced shick-sent-me-hi), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990)
summarizes extensive research on how ordinary people live extraordinarily meaningful lives. A follow-up volume applies these insights to how we can live better lives (and save the planet) in the 3rd Millenium:
- Arthur Koestler, in The Act of Creation (1964)
and other books, integrated the psychology of creation with more general systems theory. The first part of this book explores
the conscious and unconscious processes underlying scientific discovery, artistic originality, and comic inspiration. It endeavours to show that all creative activities have a basic pattern in common, and to outline that pattern.
The aim of Book Two is to show that certain basic principles operate throughout the whole organic hierarchy
—from the fertilized egg to the fertile brain of the creative individual; and that phenomena analogous to creative originality can be found on all levels.
— Koestler (1964, 17)
- John Kaag, Thinking Through the Imagination (2014)
traces the understanding of how imagination works from Kant, Schiller and Peirce up through recent cognitive science, producing an argument overlapping in many respects with Turning Signs (see the blog post here). [ 11 February 2016 ]
- Esther Thelen and Linda B. Smith, A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action (1994)
is a groundbreaking work drawing upon the insights of dynamic systems theory to elucidate the course of human development. [ 28 December 2007 ]
- Emotion, Development, and Self-Organization, edited by Marc D. Lewis and Isabela Granic (2000)
applies dynamic systems theory to emotional development. [ 27 November 2008 ]
- Alison Gopnik and Andrew Meltzoff, Words, Thoughts and Theories (1997)
presents a ‘theory theory’ which clarifies the role of theory in science and argues for a similar pattern in cognitive development from infancy on up. A more ‘popular’ account of recent research into how human infants develop minds is given by
- Gopnik, Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl in The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind (1999).
- Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999)
argues that the one essential difference between humans and other primates is the human ability to not only identify with others but regard them (and oneself) as intentional agents. This enables young humans to learn language and engage in cultural transmission, and Tomasello outlines the main stages in their development.
- He also presents a ‘usage-based theory of language acquisition’, supported by plenty of empirical evidence, in Constructing a Language (2003).[ 26 December 2012 ]
- L.S. Vygotsky was the pioneering Russian psychologist who showed how we develop language, mind and self by internalizing the culture around us. English translations of many of his works are available online.
- Thought and Language (1934)
- Mind in Society, ed. Cole, John-Steiner, Scribner and Souberman (1978)
- Simon Baron-Cohen, Mindblindness (1995)
takes a modular approach to development, with emphasis on ‘mind-reading’ and on autism as ‘blindness’ to the minds of others.
Ethology and the evolution of culture
The old school of science tends to feel that, as Francis Bacon wrote in his Great Instauration, ‘the nature of things betrays itself more readily under the vexations of art than in its natural freedom’; from this perspective, it's no use watching what animals do when left to themselves—they have to be artificially ‘vexed’ with experiments in the laboratory if you want to learn anything about them scientifically. Fortunately the science of ethology has changed all that. One branch of it is primatology (the study of monkeys and apes, either in the wild or in captive communities).
- Frans de Waal, Our Inner Ape (2005)
brings together decades of research into the social lives of primates (especially chimps and bonobos) in a highly accessible book, applying the resulting insights to the understanding of human social/political relations. See also his earlier books,
- Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996); and
- The Ape and the Sushi Master (2001).
- Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Lewin, Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind (1994)
Kanzi is the bonobo who has come closer than any other non-human to mastering human language.
The evolution of culture and language is the central focus of an inquiry that takes its key idea (evolution) from biology and applies it to the social realm (with cosmological implications).
- David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (2002)
advances the thesis that religious communities and customs have evolved because they play a functional role in multilevel selection—and gives several fascinating examples from a wide range of historical periods and places.
- Among the academic collections addressing the evolutionary roots of human consciousness and conscience:
- Leonard D. Katz (ed.), Evolutionary Origins of Morality (2000)
- Terrace and Metcalfe (eds.), The Missing Link in Cognition: Origins of Self-Reflective Consciousness (2005—see my review of this here.)
- Christopher Boehm, Moral Origins (2012) [ 23 March 2022 ]
- Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (1997)
is a major (and very well written) approach to the origin-of-language problem. His 2012 update article,
‘Beyond the Symbolic Species’ (in Schilhab, Stjernfelt and Deacon, The Symbolic Species Evolved) is also essential. See below for Deacon's comprehensive study (2011) of the emergence of life and mind.
— the ethology of human cultures. (The next section deals with how they have evolved.)
- Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (2013) describes the lives of the Runa people in the forests of Ecuador and, by applying the semiotic insights of Charles Peirce to their way of life, gives us a profound philosophical meditation on humanity and its ecological context. [ 19 Feb 2015 ]
- Mary Catherine Bateson has carried forward the insights of her parents, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and contributed many more of her own.
- Willing to Learn (2004) collects shorter pieces spanning her career.
- Peripheral Visions (1994) illuminates the spiral path of learning.
- With a Daughter's Eye (1984)
- Composing a Life (1990)
- Full Circles, Overlapping Lives (2000)
- Erving Goffman was a keen observer and trenchant writer on patterns of human interaction.
- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959)
- Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (1974)
- Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962/1969)
is a classic in the sociology of science, and a revolutionary text in its own right—but ignore the exaggerations, distortions and debates that have followed in its wake, and go straight to the source, which is for the most part consistent with the work of both Popper and Polanyi.
- Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (1966)
offers a concise outline of how the ‘dialectic between individual and society’ creates and recreates the consensual realities of everyday life, such as roles and institutions.
- David Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (2006)
describes how we can realize the potential for Earth Community (‘egalitarian democratic ordering of relationships based on the principle of partnership’) by turning away from the 5000-year reign of Empire (‘the hierarchical ordering of human relationships based on the principle of domination’) (Korten 2006, 20)—placing the history and politics of the U.S. in the broader human context. He also mentions some analogous patterns in science and religion. This vision is very similar to that of Thomas Berry (see next section).
—or, The Wild and its orphan child civilization. The works below explore the mythic dimensions of our experience of the natural world, thus placing human practices in their more-than-human context. Human cultures and their transformations are generally guided by cosmological visions, though not necessarily conscious of them. Scientific investigations of evolution and cosmology are also listed here under other headings.
- Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (1990); also
- Earth House Hold (1969). Parts of both are included in
- The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry and Translations 1952-1998 (1999).
… ‘wild’ is a name for the way that phenomena continually actualize themselves.
— Snyder 1999, 260
- Black Elk Speaks is the story and sacred teaching of a Sioux elder as recorded by John G. Neihardt (1932): the text is now online at the First People website. A true spiritual classic.
- Thomas Berry argues eloquently that human culture has alienated itself from the living earth, with disastrous consequences, and can only reclaim its spiritual health by moving into an ‘Ecozoic Age’:
- The Dream of the Earth (1988)
- The Great Work (1999)
- Brian Swimme and Berry collaborated on The Universe Story (1992), presenting a cosmological narrative which is both scientifically and spiritually sound enough to move us toward an Ecozoic consciousness.
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
changed my life when i read it at age 14, and i still return to it now and then. More recently i discovered the wonders of his
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.
— Thoreau, Walden
- Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)
and other works, explores and celebrates the mystery of experience in relation to the amazing intricacy of the natural world.
- Loren Eiseley was an anthropologist who wrote brilliant, poetic, intense and often unsettling essays on the natural world and the human place in it. Some of his best work is collected in The Star Thrower (1978).
- Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature (1998; second edition, 2023)
gives a concise outline of some key biological concepts, coupled with personal reflections on their spiritual significance. A classic of religious naturalism.
- David Suzuki with Amanda McConnell, The Sacred Balance (1997)
- John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming and Arne Naess (1988), Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings
—a collection of readings, meditations, poems etc. which ‘help us remember our deep connection with the Earth.’
- David Bohm was a physicist whose theory of the implicate order emphasized the deep connections between things. Later in life his attention turned increasingly to the social, psychological and spiritual implications of his unifying vision, and to fostering a deep kind of dialogue.
- The Essential David Bohm, Lee Nichol (2003),
is a convenient selection from his writings, covering everything from physics to dialogue.
- The Bohm Dialogue website outlines the principles and continuing practice of dialogue as Bohm envisioned it. [ 11 February 2008 ]
The study of language, including both structure (syntax) and meaning (semantics), crosses paths with semiotics, anthropology, philosophy and techniques of ‘knowledge representation’. The evolution of culture is intertwined with the origin and history of language, and an important task of developmental psychology is to explain how children learn language. [ 26 December 2012 ]
- Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding Of Language (2005)
gives a well-researched and entertaining account of the evolution of language over the past 10,000 years or so. [ 12 August 2019 ]
- Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities (2002)
is a comprehensive and approachable work on cognitive semantics, or how meaning is constructed by ‘background cognition’. There's also an extensive website on blending and conceptual integration.
- Mark Turner, Reading Minds (1991) applies many of the insights of cognitive semantics to the teaching of language and literature.
The most amazing phenomenon our profession confronts, and the one for which we have the least explanation, is that a reader can make sense of a text, and that there are certain regularities across the individual senses made of a given text. How do readers do that? …
True, these readers could in many cases be led to different understandings of a given text if they were coached in the specific circumstances surrounding the creation, transmission, and reception of that text, but that is not the issue here. I suggest that we investigate the common conceptual and linguistic apparatus readers bring to texts, whether or not they also bring such special factual knowledge.
— Turner (1991, 19)
Although infinitely variable and unpredictable, imagination is grounded in structures of invention either wholly unoriginal or with an originality that consists of exploitations within a known and unoriginal space.
— Turner (1991, 64)
We might observe, for example, that divinity in the Fourth Gospel is marked not by iconographic attributes or miracle stories but rather by discourse that violates what we take to be reliable conceptions.… It is not just that the divine can violate constraints, but that the divine frequently is signaled exactly through such violation.
— Turner (1991, 57)
A deep, surprising analogy that leads us to form weird but powerful connections that challenge our category structures will not settle readily into our conventional knowledge. It will remain suggestive, never achieving a location in our conceptual apparatus. It will not be used up—assimilated and naturalized—as we go through it repeatedly: we will be able to return to it again and again, and find it fresh, because the connections it suggests cannot be established in our category structures (or maybe even in our conventional conceptual apparatus) with impunity.
— Turner (1991, 125)
We are vigilant for the new and the variable. But attending to what varies and not to what abides means that we see only a contingent aspect, when we believe ourselves to be seeing the whole.
— Turner (1991, 64)
- Turner's website has several good articles.
- Gilles Fauconnier has brought together cognitive science, semantics and linguistics in these works (which are definitely not light reading):
- Mental Spaces: Aspects of Meaning Construction in Natural Language (1994)
- Mappings in Thought and Language (1997)
- Leonard Talmy presents a lifelong study of conceptual structures, as revealed by linguistic structures, in Toward a Cognitive Semantics (2000):
- Vol. I, Concept Structuring Systems
- Vol. II, Typology and Process in Concept Structuring
- Peter Gärdenfors in Conceptual Spaces (2000)
investigates ‘the geometry of thought,’ presenting a framework for representing information on the conceptual level, which operates between the symbolic and connectionist levels already familiar in cognitive science. This gives us a bridge between computational and psychological views of mind, and a remarkable set of tools for exploring the structure of meaning space.
- Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution (2002)
is a comprehensive and balanced treatment of the topics mentioned in his title and of the relationships among them.
- Noam Chomsky revolutionized the study of language in the mid-20th century, and thereby changed the study of mind as well, by showing that the complexities of syntax can only be understood (and learned) by looking deeper than the surface structure of utterances.
- Language and Problems of Knowledge (1988) is one of the most accessible presentations of Chomsky's approach to linguistics and its philosophical implications.
- Language and Responsibility (1979) is one of the few books dealing with both of Chomsky's main fields of research: language and politics.
The study of life also requires attention to complex systems and ecology, and to biosemiotics. The concept of evolution is central not only to biology but also to the study of language, culture, complex systems and cosmology.
- Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions (2005)
shows that evolutionary processes involve four different (but interacting) ‘inheritance systems’: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral and symbolic variation all contribute to making us what we are. Natural selection is a multilevel process — not by genes alone do we evolve! [ 27 November 2008 ]
- Ernst Mayr, Toward a New Philosophy of Biology (1988)
— a collection of essays dealing mostly with concepts and controversies in evolutionary biology.
- The Growth of Biological Thought (1982) is Mayr's massive account of the history of biology, focusing of course on the development of evolutionary theory.
- David J. Depew and Bruce H. Weber, Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Genealogy of Natural Selection (1995)
explores the history and philosophy of evolutionary theory since Darwin, arguing that it needs to incorporate newer models from physics (complexity, chaos, nonlinear dynamics) in order to revitalize its explanatory power—thus taking exception to Mayr's view that biology should declare independence from physics.
- Weber's article on Life in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good overview of 20th-century developments in the life sciences.
- John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origins of Language (1999)
The origins of both life and language are mysterious because accounts of them have to build comprehensive theoretical structures out of scanty evidence. This ‘popularized’ (and slightly updated) version of a 1995 book by the same authors outlines eight ‘major transitions’ in the course of evolution, from the molecular to the cultural level.
- Richard Dawkins has taken a radically ‘atomistic’ view of biological and cultural evolution, arguing that the gene (and not the individual or group) is the sole target of selection, and that ‘memes’ are likewise the elementary building blocks of culture—both arguments that downplay the importance of context. He also takes a highly polarized view of the difference between science and religion (in effect creating a mirror image of religious fundamentalism within the scientific community). But his expositions of how natural selection works are models of clarity and often entertaining.
- The Ancestor's Tale (2004) traces human kinship with other species, working backwards through evolutionary history and explaining the science behind the story.
- The Blind Watchmaker (1987) elucidates the process of natural selection.
- Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What Is Life? (1995)
emphasizes the role of bacteria and other microscopic life forms, and features dazzling (and somewhat controversial) insights into the role of symbiosis and complexity in evolution. Many excellent illustrations, including a number of color plates; the 2000 paperback edition also adds a helpful glossary. (Sagan has also written on complexity.)
- From Gaia to Selfish Genes—Selected Writings in the Life Sciences, edited by Connie Barlow (1991)
is a fine collection bringing together classic pieces for the general reader by Lovelock, Margulis, Koestler, von Bertalanffy, Axelrod, Wilson, Dawkins and many others.
- Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (1992, revised edition 1998)
explains just what the subtitle says, in terms of autopoiesis, which is a general theory about the nature of life (and therefore does not get very specific about brain dynamics). Relatively accessible and lavishly illustrated, but still not easy reading because some of the essential concepts tend to be challenging to intuition (until you get used to them).
- Randall Whitaker's Enola Gaia website contains some key sources on autopoiesis, including several classic articles by Maturana on the biology of language and cognition. The listing also gives good advice on which of them to read first, and the Encyclopaedia Autopoietica on the same site is an excellent guide to the terminology and concepts.
- More on Varela below.
Understanding the emergence of complex systems from simpler physical systems is crucial to the sciences of life, ecology, cosmology and political economy.
- According to Ervin Laszlo (1996), natural systems:
- are wholes with irreducible properties.
- maintain themselves in a changing environment.
- create themselves in response to self-creativity in other systems.
- are coordinating interfaces in nature's holarchy.
… all natural systems … link the levels below and above them. They are wholes in regard to their parts, and parts with respect to higher-level wholes.
— Laszlo (1996, 53)
The terms holarchy and holon were introduced by Arthur Koestler, who urged us to ‘get away from the concept of the individual as a monolithic structure, and to replace it by the concept of the individual as an open hierarchy whose apex is forever receding, striving towards a state of complete integration which is never achieved’ (Barlow 1991, 96). There is no question that the hierarchy/holarchy concept is central to the systems view, and the systems view is central to understanding the phenomena of life, including the biological substrates of experience, cognition and morality. This refers not to the hierarchy of Empire, which places individuals in some kind of ranking order, but to the hierarchy of scale in which holons are nested within other holons—for instance, the human body is a holon made up of cells but is also a part of a larger holon, the social community.
- Donella Meadows,
Thinking in Systems (2008)
is an excellent “primer” on the subject, from the basics on up, with a treasure trove of practical wisdom woven into it. It was drafted by Meadows and circulated among systems thinkers, then after her death in 2001, was edited by Diana Wright and published by the Sustainability Institute. [ 15 January 2022 ]
- Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2011)
explains the emergence of complex, self-organizing systems from the dynamics of simpler physical systems. [ 23 July 2012 ]
- Gregory Bateson—his writing can be dense because his constant search for the pattern which connects led him to challenge and rethink many familiar ideas, but his blending of ecology, anthropology and cybernetics is as cogent as ever. (M.C. Bateson 1984, Chapter 12, ‘Our Own Metaphor’ is a superb encapsulation of her father's insights.)
- Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (1979)
- Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972)
- with Mary Catherine Bateson, Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred (1987)
- Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed its Spots (1994)
is a concise introduction to the emerging understanding of chaos and complexity as it applies to development and evolution in biological, ecological and cultural systems. [ 13 March 2008 ]
- Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe (1995)
is a popular and accessible presentation of his influential ideas on self-organization and the origin of life.
- Fritjof Capra is a long-time advocate and popularizer of systems thinking.
- The Web of Life (1996)—the first half is a good introduction to the systems view which is essential to an understanding of emergence. (I have my doubts about the second half.)
… a system has come to mean an integrated whole whose essential properties arise from the relationships between its parts, and systems thinking the understanding of a phenomenon within the context of a larger whole. This is, in fact, the root meaning of the word system, which derives from the Greek synhistanai (to place together). To understand things systemically literally means to put them into a context, to establish the nature of their relationships.
— Capra (1996, 27)
- The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability (2002) concisely encapsulates the systems view as applied to the three realms mentioned in the title, and delves into the political/economic/ecological implications.
- Lee Smolin, The Life of the Cosmos (1997)
presents an intriguing theory of how the physical universe has evolved and is evolving. [ 24 June 2008 ]
- Stanley N. Salthe develops a ‘natural philosophy’ which illuminates complex systems, development and growth, and hierarchical order in nature.
- Evolving Hierarchical Systems (1985)
- Development and Evolution: Complexity and Change in Biology (1993)
is especially enriched by its semiotic and thermodynamic (‘infodynamic’) perspective.
- Some of Salthe's work is online at www.nbi.dk and www.harmeny.com. See also
- ‘The Cosmic Bellows: The Big Bang and the Second Law’, by Stanley N. Salthe and Gary Fuhrman, in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 1, no. 2, 2005. Abstract with link to full text at www.cosmosandhistory.org.
- Robert E. Ulanowicz, Ecology, the Ascendent Perspective (1997)
is a very lucid and readable explanation of how science can move beyond mechanistic models to provide a more comprehensive and realistic view of causation and complexity in ecosystems and in organisms. (He spells his perspective ascendent to distinguish it from ascendant to emphasize that ascendency means a lot more than dominance.)
- Robert Rosen addressed the central question What is life? by showing that mechanistic physics (including both Newtonian and quantum mechanical models) lacks the resources to provide a meaningful answer to the question. His attempt at a better alternative is called ‘relational biology’ and requires some grasp of mathematics, but rewards the persistent reader with a deeper grasp of the modeling relation which is central to the understanding of organisms.
- Life Itself (1991)
- Essays on Life Itself (2000)
is somewhat more accessible than the earlier book because it applies Rosen's key ideas to a variety of topics and examples; however the two are mutually illuminating.
- Part of Rosen's Anticipatory Systems (first published 1985) used to be available online … see also Tim Gwinn's site, Robert Rosen—Complexity and Life.
- See also below for Rosen's take on cybernetics.
- Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos (1984)
is probably the most accessible presentation of Prigogine's contributions to science as ‘man's dialogue with nature.’ His concept of dissipative structures played a major role in the development of chaos and complexity theories. Some of his more recent work (and the motivation behind it all) is explored in
- Murray Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex (1994)
—a lucid introduction to complex adaptive systems by the physicist who named the quark.
The common feature of all these processes [biological and social evolution, the behavior of organisms in ecological systems, learning and thinking in animals (including human beings), etc.] is that in each one a complex adaptive system acquires information about its environment and its own interaction with that environment, identifying regularities in that information, condensing those regularities into a ‘schema’ or model, and acting in the real world on the basis of that schema. In each case, there are various competing schemata, and the results of the action in the real world feed back to influence the competition among those schemata.
— Gell-Mann (1994, 17)
- Howard H. Pattee (ed.), Hierarchy Theory: The Challenge of Complex Systems (1973)
is a small but classic collection of articles approaching systems from the physical level. Some of Pattee's articles, and some articles about his work, are online at the Biosystems site.
- Howard Odum in Environment, Power and Society for the Twenty-First Century (2007)
developed a science of energetics as a way of understanding ecological and economic systems in terms of the energy flows. In A Prosperous Way Down (2001), Howard and Elizabeth C. Odum explained how energetics could be applied to guide the global transition to more sustainable levels of energy consumption while improving the quality of life on earth. [ 23 July 2012 ]
- Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan, Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life (2005)
explains some of the insights of nonequilibrium thermodynamics in reference to ecology, economics, the origin of life and other applications. An introductory excerpt can be found online.
- Harold J. Morowitz, The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex (2002)
offers a concise and lucid overview of everything that's happened since the Big Bang—or at least of 32 examples of emergence in physics, chemistry, biology and anthropology, culminating in what he calls ‘the spirit.’
- The late James J. Kay, with colleagues and students, developed a theory of Self-Organizing Holarchic (SOHO) systems which provides a key to the understanding human interaction with ecosystems. Key documents include
- Oyama, Griffiths and Gray, Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution (2001)
is an excellent collection of articles giving an outline of dynamic systems theory and showing how it applies to the evolutionary process. For more on DST, see the developmental psychology section. [ 27 November 2008 ]
- Cybernetics was a precursor of today's systems theory. The term, chosen in the late 1940s by Norbert Wiener, is rooted in the Greek word for ‘steering’ (or ‘guidance’), which is also the root of governing. Wiener defined it as ‘the science of control and communication, in the animal and the machine’ (Ashby 1956, 1). After a decade or two the term fell into disuse, though the concepts behind it found a place in general systems theory; meanwhile the cyber- root was appropriated for computer-science applications, so that many people today use the term ‘cybernetic’ (if at all) in reference to digital computer technology. Originally, though, both cybernetics and information theory grew out of the quest for simplicity in modeling—simplicity in the sense that one abstract model can connect many different phenomena, especially different forms of communication. The early cyberneticists were looking for principles that would build useful bridges between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences.
Introducing an article about her father (Gregory Bateson) and mother (Margaret Mead), Mary Catherine Bateson provides this concise retrospective view of cybernetics:
Both my parents played important roles roles in the early development of cybernetics, participating for over a decade in the search for ways of thinking about the behavior of systems, their formal similarities and interactions, that could connect biology and the social sciences and inform various kinds of engineering and design … The way an organism adjusts to circumstances has similarities to the way a ‘smart’ missile stays on course, so by the time of my parents' deaths the term had largely been usurped by engineering and computer science and had become associated in popular usage with mechanical, inhuman constructions.
Robert Rosen (2000, Chapter 19) gives a rather different perspective on cybernetics, lumping it together with information theory, ‘bionics’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ as developments of the organism-as-machine metaphor which goes back to Descartes. (Polanyi (1962) was already associating the term with such mechanistic models.) According to Rosen, ‘mechanical constructions’ were of the essence of these disciplines right from the beginning, because they never treated systems as complex in Rosen's sense of the word. They were all simple because they were mechanical, whereas for Rosen ‘organism and machine are different in kind’ (2000, 295).
— M.C. Bateson (2004, 44)
The difference between Rosen's perspective and Bateson's on this episode in history can serve to remind us that understanding what is meant by ‘complex’ in any given context is anything but simple. Rosen himself says that his own usage of the term ‘is completely different from that employed heretofore. This is unfortunate, but there were no other terms that could be used. In von Neumann's terminology, every system is simple in my sense; what he calls complex I would merely call complicated’ (2000, 292). It was von Neumann who developed methods of quantifying ‘complexity’, says Rosen (2000, 289), ‘and complexity in this sense became an explanatory principle for the characteristics of life’—all of which kept ‘life’ firmly within the mechanical domain. For an update on the nuances of the organism/machine distinction in relation to autopoiesis, life and mind, see Thompson 2007, Chapter 6.
Meanwhile the field has moved on to second-order cybernetics and cybersemiotics: see especially the journal Cybernetics & Human Knowing, edited by Søren Brier, and his 2008 book Cybersemiotics (my review of it is here).
One way to investigate how the mind works is to try to build one from scratch (something almost inconceivable before the computer age), on the principle that if you can't make or design even a simple working model of something, you don't really understand how it works. This is the impulse behind technologies of artificial intelligence, robotics, connectionism, neural networks etc. Naturally, since we humans are only beginners at this, the results so far are primitive compared to the results of millions of years of natural development and evolution. But artificial ‘minds’ are certainly evolving much faster than humans are.
- John Sowa's website includes excellent resources concerning ontology (‘a system of categories for classifying and talking about the things that are assumed to exist’) and Sowa's Conceptual Graphs (‘a system of knowledge representation based on the semantic networks of AI and the logic of Charles Sanders Peirce’). He also delves into the linguistics, neuroscience and (above all) semiotics of cognitive science.[ 2008, updated 21 May 2017 ]
- Douglas R. Hofstadter, a computer scientist by profession, elucidates the patterns that connect systems, mind, language, creativity, art and music:
- Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1980)
- Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (1985)
- Hofstadter and the Fluid Analogies Research Group, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies (1995)
- The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (1981), ed. Hofstadter and Dennett,
is a bit dated now, but still an entertaining and provocative collection of essays and stories exploring the perspectives on selfhood generated by computational models of mind.
- Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again (1997)
draws together and sorts out some of the main threads in cognitive science, including ‘embodied’, ‘computational’ and ‘dynamical systems’ approaches, showing how each contributes to the study of how minds work. Along the way, biology meets robotics and artificial intelligence. The book's concluding pages, first published in a 1995 issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies as ‘I Am John's Brain’, are online at the JCS site.
- Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind (1986)
is a classic of the ‘computational’ approach to the mind, explaining the principles of how a mind can be built up from simple ‘agents’. Minsky's website has a draft of his forthcoming book The Emotion Machine online.
- Machine Consciousness, edited by Owen Holland (2003), contains some articles which rank with the classics by Minsky and Hofstadter on models of mental processes which can actually be tested by implementing them on physical systems (such as computers or robots). See especially
- Stan Franklin, ‘IDA: A Conscious Artifact?’
- Aaron Sloman and Ron Chrisley, ‘Virtual Machines and Consciousness’
—see also Sloman's website, including his list of the various fields in which any attempt to understand how the mind works ought to have some grounding.
- Manfred Spitzer, The Mind Within the Net (1999)
is an interesting overview of neural network research with some applications in psychiatry.
investigates the nature of universal everyday experience itself and is thus the most basic of inquiries. Of special relevance to gnoxic studies are philosophy of mind and philosophy of science. See also phenomenology, and Buddhism (for Nagarjuna, Dogen and the Hua-yen school).
- At least for Western civilization, the kind of inquiry we call philosophy began with the Greeks. One of the earliest, Heraclitus, is especially worthy of intensive study, although only fragments of his work survive. The following give both the Greek text and extensive commentary:
- Charles H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (1979) is a model of hermeneutic method because it devotes great scholarly skills to the task of making sense of an ancient author, taking both the historical and the current context into account.
- Philip Wheelwright, Heraclitus (1959)
- A couple of studies covering a broader range of pre-Socratic philosophers:
- Kirk and Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (1957)
- John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophers (1930)
- Of course, the ‘biggest names’ in Greek philosophy (after Socrates) are Plato and Aristotle. Both are well worth reading, after the questions they addressed have come home to you as genuine questions, and if you are willing to familiarize yourself with the cultural context in which their answers (and methods of inquiry) made sense. There are so many editions of, and approaches to, their works that i won't even begin to list them here.
- Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914; the name is pronounced like purse) laid the groundwork for both pragmatism and semiotics (see below). A separate page is provided here for Peirce-related resources and links.
- William James, a contemporary and friend of Peirce who brought pragmatism to popular notice, produced the pioneering
as well as major philosophical works. Most of these are now accessible on the Internet. The William James page at Emory is a good place to start.
- Principles of Psychology, which is still well worth perusing, and
- The Varieties of Religious Experience
- George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)
criticizes Chomskian linguistics and Cartesian philosophy and argues for a more ‘empirically responsible’ philosophy which recognizes the primacy of the body. (In this respect they resemble other philosophers listed here under the phenomenology heading.) See John Sowa's review on his website. Lakoff and Johnson have made several contributions to the study of language and thought and their grounding in embodied experience:
- Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980)—a groundbreaking work which broadened popular usage of the word metaphor.
- Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason (1987)
- George Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (1987)
explains in detail the far-reaching implications of recent research into categorization.
Conceptual categories are not merely characterized in terms of objective properties of category members. They differ in two respects:
- Human conceptual categories have properties that are, at least in part, determined by the bodily nature of the people doing the categorizing rather than solely by the properties of the category members.
- Human conceptual categories have properties that are a result of imaginative processes (metaphor, metonymy, mental imagery) that do not mirror nature.
— Lakoff (1987, 371)
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1958) [PI]
Almost every philosopher has something to say about meaning, but this indispensible and still rewarding work changed the way we think about the language-meaning relationship. Several other books of his work are in print; the only one published during his lifetime was
- Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), of which Wittgenstein wrote in his Preface that
the truth of the thoughts that are here set forth seems to me unassailable and definitive. I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems. And if I am not mistaken in this belief, then the second thing in which the value of this work consists is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.
— Wittgenstein (1921, p.5)
- Karl Popper, like Peirce before him, focused especially on scientific method—i.e. trial and error (or ‘conjecture and refutation’), enhanced by both imagination and critical thinking—as the key to human knowing, but also as a natural development from ‘common sense’.
- The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1935, in English 1959, updated 1967)
- Conjectures and Refutations (1968/1989) is a very readable collection of shorter pieces and talks.
Reason works by trial and error. We invent our myths and our theories and we try them out: we try to see how far they can take us. And we improve our theories if we can.
— Popper (1989, 259)
Thus logical analysis shows tht experience does not consist in the mechanical accumulation of observations. Experience is creative. It is the result of free, bold and creative interpretations, controlled by severe criticism and severe tests.
— Popper (1989, 261)
- A World of Propensities (1990) is a small booklet presenting a ‘new view of causality’.
- Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (1962)
is a profound study of inquiry, knowledge and meaning, focussing especially on the practice of science but also relating it to the arts and humanities. His work could be seen as a link between Popper and Kuhn (see above).
- Susan Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (1998)
is an excellent collection of essays defending the spirit of scientific and philosophical inquiry (and common sense) against writers like Rorty who argue that their only real purpose is to win arguments or achieve agreement by whatever means are convenient. Her work on Peirce and pragmatism is especially good. [ 19 March 2010 ]
- Daniel Dennett has a very engaging and approachable style, and has used it to focus on the biological basis of mind and consciousness. Like Dawkins and Pinker, he seems to enjoy stirring up controversy. Probably his least contentious work, and one that ties together threads from his other books (including some revision), is
- Freedom Evolves (2003).
- Consciousness Explained (1991)
- Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995)
- many of his published articles are online.
- Ruth Millikan, in Varieties of Meaning (2004),
takes up the relations between ‘natural signs’ and ‘intentional signs’ (also ‘conventional signs’) to explain how human cognition and language are grounded in and emergent from animal cognition and guidance systems. In other words, her work is parallel to semiotics (especially biosemiotics) in that she takes up many of its central questions, and reaches broadly similar conclusions, but without using any form of the word ‘semiotic’ or mentioning anyone working in that field. (For a semiotic parallel to this book, see Deely 1990). [ 4 October 2007 ]
Phenomenology is a name for ‘the systematic study of experiences’ (Walter Freeman). According to Peirce, who classified it as ‘the most primal of all the positive sciences,’ ‘Phenomenology ascertains and studies the kinds of elements universally present in the phenomenon; meaning by the phenomenon, whatever is present at any time to the mind in any way.’
is a very broadly based discipline first named by John Locke, but first developed in its current form by C.S. Peirce, who identified it with logic as the science of thinking, learning and knowing. For a historical analysis of the term, see Deely, Why Semiotics? (2004).
In addition to the semiotic logic of Peirce, and to text semiotics (which is intertwined with hermeneutics), there is also much to be learned from biosemiotics, which investigates semiosis as a process essential to life itself. In addition to the many online sources for this domain of research, each of the following contributes to it:
- John Deely, in The Basics of Semiotics (1990),
explains the all-embracing nature of the semiotic perspective, tracing its development through the history of philosophy, and showing its potential to revolutionize the way we see the world. This dense work is not an introduction to the subject but a comprehensive study of its essentials, showing how it embraces all other disciplines—for all (and indeed all of nature as well as culture) are rooted in semiosis, as Peirce was the first to call it. The first edition is accessible online; several expanded editions have followed, only one of which (the 4th, 2005) is available in English. [ 26 September 2007 ]
- Four Ages of Understanding (2001) is a massive history of Western philosophy in semiotic perspective, moving from the vague understanding of semiosis in Classical times, to its first formulation during the Latin period, through its disappearance in the modern period and its recovery by Peirce, who thus pointed the way forward for 21st-century philosophy.
- Purely Objective Reality (2009) examines the ontological basis of semiotics, tracing the concepts of subjectivity, objectivity and intersubjectivity back to their beginnings in Aristotle and their development in the Latin age, showing how postmodern philosophy (beginning with Peirce) brings the crucial semiotic insights back on track after the nominalistic detour of modern philosophy, and carries them forward. [ 15 April 2015 ]
- Vincent M. Colapietro, Glossary of Semiotics (1993) is a handy reference.
- Umberto Eco, besides writing the best-selling novel The Name of the Rose and other popular works, has written prolifically on semiotics:
- A Theory of Semiotics (1976)
- The Role of the Reader (1979)
- Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984)
- The Limits of Interpretation (1990)
— includes this account of unlimited semiosis (based on various writings of Peirce):
- every expression must be interpreted by another expression, and so on, ad infinitum;
- the very activity of interpretation is the only way to define the contents of the expressions;
- in the course of this semiosic process the socially recognized meaning of expressions grows through the interpretations they undergo in different contexts and in different historical circumstances;
- the complete meaning of a sign cannot but be the historical recording of the pragmatic labor that has accompanied every contextual instance of it;
- to interpret a sign means to foresee—ideally—all the possible contexts in which it can be inserted. Peirce's logic of relatives transforms semantic representation of a term into a potential text (every term is a rudimentary proposition and every proposition is a rudimentary argument). In other words, a sememe is a virtual text and a text is an expanded sememe.
— Eco (1990, 213-14)
- Yuri M. Lotman, Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture (1990)
insightfully explores all sorts of texts as meaning-making devices; his semiosphere is a kind of collective Umwelt. [ 26 September 2007 ]
- Jesper Hoffmeyer, Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs (2008)
is an excellent presentation of the biosemiotic approach to life and meaning – more cogent and complete than his earlier book, Signs of Meaning in the Universe (1993). However, i can't recommend the chapters toward the end of Biosemiotics where Hoffmeyer ventures into global policy issues. (His discussion of biotechnology, for instance, show little awareness of how corporate agribusiness interests – the owners and promoters of biotech – systematically manipulate food systems to the detriment of human and ecological health.) [ 30 September 2009 ]
- Frederik Stjernfelt, Natural Propositions: The Actuality of Peirce's Doctrine of Dicisigns (2014)
shows that Peircean semiotics is not only about language or about human thought processes: proto-propositions and something like symbols are involved in the cognitive processes of even the simplest organisms. This follows up on his deeply insightful Diagrammatology (2007), which also compares the phenomenology of Husserl with that of Peirce while elucidating the key role of diagrams and iconicity in cognition and culture. Both books bridge the gap between empirical sciences and semiotics by showing how deeply language, logic and life are interrelated.[ 3 June 2014 ]
- Søren Brier's Cybersemiotics (2008)
outlines a ‘unified conceptual framework’ linking the natural and social sciences and incorporating many insights from second-order cybernetics, Peircean semiotics and other sources. My review of it is online here.
- Thomas Sebeok, Signs: an Introduction to Semiotics, 2nd edition (2001)
covers many of the key topics in the field (in a rather abstract way). Sebeok's zoosemiotics was among the earliest versions of biosemiotics.
- Jakob von Uexküll ‘has begun to emerge within contemporary semiotics as perhaps the single most important background thinker for understanding the biological conditions of our experience of the world in the terms required by semiotic’ (Deely 1990, 120). He is also recognized as a forerunner of ethology. The following are excerpts from an article on Uexküll by Kalevi Kull:
Sign science and life science are coextensive. ‘There could not have been semiosis prior to the evolution of life' (Sebeok 1997: 436). ‘If, according to semiobiological theory, all living things are signs, and signs are living things, then all life qua signs must be seen as constantly evolving according to certain general rules, for “symbols grow”’ (Umiker-Sebeok 1986: 529).
— Kull (2001)
A basic idea of the Umwelt-research is—now in my own words—that organisms are communicative structures. What organisms can distinguish is dependent on the design of their structure and on the work of their functional cycles. The latter, which consist of perception and operation, are responsible for creating the Umwelt. Umwelt is an entailment of the perceptual and operational world (Merkwelt and Wirkwelt). And ‘each Umwelt forms a closed unit in itself, which is governed, in all its parts, by the meaning it has for the subject’ (Uexküll 1982: 30). From this it appears that signs and meanings are of prime importance in all aspects of life processes. Correspondingly, Emmeche (1998: 11) has defined life as a ‘functional interpretation of signs in self-organized material code-systems making their own Umwelten’.
— Kull (2001)
- Floyd Merrell has explored physics, biology, psychology and philosophy in the light of Peircean semiotics. Check out his website. Among his many published works: [ 28 November 2008 ]
- Learning Living, Living Learning: Signs, Between East and West (2002)
- Signs Grow (1996)
- Peirce, Signs and Meaning (1997)
- Sensing Corporeally: Toward a Posthuman Understanding (2003)
These disciplines cross over into anthropology, phenomenology and semiotics. (The enactive approach to cognition also has roots in hermeneutics.)
- Kurt Mueller-Vollmer (editor), The Hermeneutics Reader (1985)
offers translations of several key German writers of the past three centuries who have pondered the nature of interpretation (especially of sacred texts and of historical records).
- Northrop Frye developed a systematic theory of myth and its extension into literary modes, with special attention to the structures of meaning in the Bible:
- Anatomy of Criticism (1957)
- The Great Code (1982)
- Words With Power (1990)
- Creation and Recreation (1980)
- Gershom Scholem pioneered the modern investigation of Kabbalah and other Jewish mystical traditions. [ 15 January 2009 ]
- Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1946/1961)
- On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (1960)
- On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead (1962/1976)
- Kabbalah (1974)—encyclopedic in form and style
- Origins of the Kabbalah (1962)
- Henry Corbin explored mystical/experiential dimensions of Islam (as Scholem did for Jewish traditions). Some works available in English:
- Alone With the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi (1958)
- Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth (1960)
- The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism (1973)
- The Voyage and the Messenger (unpublished articles and lectures 1948-1976)
- Todd Lawson has written extensively on the intensive reading of Islamic, Babi and Baha’i scriptures.
- Gnostic Apocalypse and Islam (2012) examines the Islamic roots of the Babi religion, (and by extension the later Baha’i faith which developed out of it), through a study of the hermeneutic practice involved in the Qur’anic commentaries of the Báb, and sheds light on its relationship to the wider religious milieu.
- Some resources on early Christian texts:
- Internet sites on the subject are proliferating; my first choice (as of spring 2007) would be Peter Kirby's Early Christian Writings site. (And my advice would be to avoid www.gospelthomas.com, as the domain name and site has evidently been bought up by commercial interests.)
- Elaine Pagels has written two highly readable books which make this field accessible to the nonspecialist public:
- The Gnostic Gospels (1979), and
- Beyond Belief (2003), which updates her earlier book and includes a complete translation of the fascinating Gospel of Thomas (see below).
- Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala (2003); also
- What is Gnosticism? (2003)
- Birger A. Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism (2007)
- David C. Parker, The Living Text of the Gospels (1997)
—a good introduction to textual criticism and the problems addressed by its methods.
- Richard Valantasis, The Gospel of Thomas (1997)
- Stephen J. Patterson, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (1993)
- C. G. Jung pioneered the psychological approach to myth and meaning, following Freud in his emphasis on the unconscious but regarding mythic and religious symbols as aspects of the sacred rather than infantile delusions.
- Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963) is a personal retrospective on his life and thought.
- Norman O. Brown, the scholar of comparative literature who arrived at the primacy of the body through an unusual blend of Blakean prophecy and Freudian analysis:
- Love's Body (1966)
- Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (1991)
- Ernst Cassirer was an early explorer of symbolic forms as keys to the understanding of human cultures. His philosophy is best summed up in
- An Essay on Man (1944).
- Language and Myth, an earlier work, is a short and suggestive exploration of the relations between language and experience.
- Joseph Campbell developed a personal approach to human universals through comparative mythology:
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)
The paradox of creation, the coming of the forms of time out of eternity, is the germinal secret of the father. It can never be quite explained. Therefore, in every system of theology there is an umbilical point, an Achilles tendon which the finger of mother life has touched, and where the possibility of perfect knowledge has been impaired. The problem of the hero is to pierce himself (and therewith his world) precisely through that point; to shatter and annihilate the key knot of his limited existence.
The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands—and the two are atoned.
— Campbell (1949, 147)
- The Masks of God (1959-68):
- Primitive Mythology
- Oriental Mythology
- Occidental Mythology
- Creative Mythology
- Myths to Live By (1972)
- with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (1988)
- with Henry Morton Robinson, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1961)
Here we list some texts which have served countless readers as spiritual classics for centuries or millennia, and have done the same for the compiler of this list. They are grouped under the religious traditions associated with them, but they are not to be taken as listing the most important scriptures in that tradition. (The Buddhist writings have a separate section of their own here.) The compiler professes no special expertise or authority in any of these traditions.
- The Internet Sacred Texts Archive is a pretty amazing resource for sacred texts (in a broad sense) which are in the public domain.
- Daodejing/Tao Te Ching, the mother of all spiritual classics. ‘Recent archaeological finds (Mawangdui 1973 and Guodian 1993) have provided us with textual materials that are physically more than a millennium earlier than previously available versions of the Daodejing’ (Ames). This 2002 translation and commentary incorporates some of the more recent (and less ‘Westernized’) understandings of Daoism:
Some other English versions (most including commentary):
- Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, Daodejing: A Philosophical Translation [ 3 August 2017 ]
- Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (1972)
- Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power (1958)
- Thomas Cleary, in The Essential Tao (1992)
- Wing-tsit Chan, in A Source Book In Chinese Philosophy (1963)
- Stephen Mitchell (1988)
- Ch‘u Ta-Kao (1959)
- D.C. Lau (1963)
- Brook Ziporyn, Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with selections from traditional commentaries (2009) [ 3 August 2017 ]
- Arthur Waley, in Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China (1939)
- Wing-tsit Chan, in A Source Book In Chinese Philosophy (1963)
- Burton Watson, Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (1968)
Great understanding is broad and unhurried; little understanding is cramped and busy. Great words are clear and limpid; little words are shrill and quarrelsome. In sleep, men's spirits go visiting; in waking hours, their bodies hustle. With everything they meet they become entangled. Day after day they use their minds in strife, sometimes grandiose, sometimes sly, sometimes petty. Their little fears are mean and trembly; their great fears are stunned and overwhelming. They bound off like an arrow, certain that they are the arbiters of right and wrong. They cling to their position as though they had sworn before the gods, sure that they are holding on to victory. They fade like fall and winter—such is the way they dwindle day by day. They drown in what they do—you cannot make them turn back.
- Thomas Cleary, in The Essential Tao (1992)
- My readings of the Bible are mostly in
- the King James translation (many editions, KJV);
- the Revised Standard Version (RSV), Oxford Annotated edition (1962);
- the Greek New Testament, United Bible Societies, 2nd ed. (1968).
- The Sayings Gospel Q in Greek and English, ed. Robinson, Hoffman and Kloppenburg (2002), includes all passages from Luke and Matthew believed to be derived from a common source (Q), along with parallel passages from the Gospels of Mark and Thomas.
- Besides the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we now have access to many other texts from early Christian times. Scholarly sources on these, some including translations, are listed above under hermeneutics.
Perhaps the most important non-canonical text of all is the Gospel of Thomas. English translations and commentary can be found in:
- The Fifth Gospel, ed. Patterson, Robinson and Bethge (1998; cited as 5G)
- Marvin Meyer, The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus (2005)
This includes The Gospel of Thomas and 11 other key texts from early Christian times. See also Meyer's
- Secret Gospels: Essays on Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark (2003)
- The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. James Robinson, Revised Edition (1988; cited as NHL)
- The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, International Edition, ed. Marvin Meyer (2007; cited as NHS)
Both of the above contain English translations of a collection of texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. These books were apparently hidden away in the fourth century because they were dangerous to possess at the time, some having been declared heretical. The NHS edition was prepared with the collaboration of an international team of scholars and includes a few texts discovered elsewhere, such as the Gospel of Judas. It is thus the most up-to-date, complete and convenient edition for the general reader.
The NHS translation of the Gospel of Thomas is by Marvin Meyer, the NHL by Thomas O. Lambdin. [ 8 November 2008 ]
- April D. DeConick, The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation (2007)
includes an exhaustive commentary and correlation with other ancient texts, along with the Coptic and Greek texts of Thomas. It also summarizes and supports DeConick's research into the origin and development of this gospel, identifying some sayings as ‘kernel’ and others as later accretions. DeConick has also published a shorter book, aimed at a less specialized audience, on another ‘lost gospel’ more recently published:
- The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (2007).
- Stevan Davies, The Gospel of Thomas: Annotated and Explained (2002)
- Sufi master Jalal al-Din Rúmí—English translations and commentary:
- The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks with John Moyne, A. J. Arberry, Reynold Nicholson (1995)
- The Rumi Collection, Kabir Helminski (2000)
- William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (1983)
- Reynold Nicholson, Rumí: Poet and Mystic
- Franklin D. Lewis, Rumi, Past and Present, East and West (2000)
- see also the works of Henry Corbin (above).
- Of course, the central scripture of Islam is the Qur'án, which is so intimately intervolved with the sound and structure of the Arabic language that renderings into English (or other languages) are generally said to be a poor substitute for the original. The English versions i can recommend are by Yusuf Ali, M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (2005), and Marmaduke Pickthall (The Meaning of the Glorious Koran). Even these are much less approachable for the typical reader than translations of Rúmí (and other classical poets such as Hafiz). However the selections translated by Thomas Cleary in The Essential Koran (1993) can serve as a good introduction.
- The wisdom of Islam is also represented in various collections of hadith or ‘traditions.’ These include many sayings and stories of Jesus (which only partially overlap with the Christian canon); these are included in
- Tarif Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (2001)
- Kabbalah (which exemplifies the Jewish mystical tradition): [ 7 January 2009 ]
- Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah (1995)
- The Zohar
is a central text of Kabbalah, and a complete annotated English translation of the entire work has been published in 12 volumes by the Zohar Education Project, as the Pritzker edition. Citations of this edition give volume and page number, eg. VI.301, as well as the standard reference format for the Zohar (e.g. 1:67a). [12 October 2021]
Published in conjunction with this edition is a concise introduction to the Zohar:
Daniel Matt's earlier poetic translation of selected excerpts (also annotated) was published as Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment (1983).
- Arthur Green, A Guide to the Zohar (2004) – also a superb introduction to the study of Kabbalah.
- See above for the works of Gershom Scholem, who pioneered and inspired the current scholarly interest in Kabbalah.
- Many writers and movements, ranging from the esoteric to the vulgar, have recreated Kabbalah in their own image—for instance, the profoundly entertaining ‘logos of the Aeon,’ Aleister Crowley, most of whose works are included in The Internet Sacred Texts Archive.
- The Upanishads—translations and commentary:
- Sri Aurobindo (published 1996)
- Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester (1947)
- Juan Mascaró (1965)
- The Bhagavad Gita—translations and commentary:
- Eknath Easwaran (1985)
- Juan Mascaró (1962)
- Mohandas K. Gandhi (1926), ed. John Strohmeier (2000)
- The Egyptian gods, considered as aspects of human experience and nature, are fascinating to contemplate. The pyramids of Egypt were clearly imperial projects built by slave labor, and the European archaeology which appropriated them was also a spinoff from the imperial projects of colonialism. But we could also say that the Internet evolved from a military project of American empire, just as the global spread of the English language was a spinoff of the British Empire. All the more reason for us to make better use of these resources, and likewise to resurrect the universal human meaning from the tombs of the pyramid texts. For instance:
- The Egyptian Book of the Dead, ed./tr. E.A. Wallis Budge (1895)
- The Pyramid of Unas, ed./tr. Alexandre Piankoff (1968)
Classical and contemporary Buddhist writings, with their focus on direct experience and/or psychology rather than theology, have a special affinity with the gnoxic focus on bodymind.
which work as scriptures for the compiler of these gnoxic pages but have not been canonized as such by any religious tradition. (See also the Wild section.)
- Kabir was a great poet and a great soul who bridged the Hindu/Muslim divide in 15th-century India with his songs.
- Rabindranath Tagore, One Hundred Poems of Kabir (1915)
—there are other versions aiming at a more contemporary idiom, but in my opinion without improving on the clarity or the music of Tagore's language. Tagore himself carried forward the universalist tradition of Kabir in his English versions of his own poems, especially Gitanjali, found in Collected Poems and Plays.
- William Blake: the works of this most prophetic of English poets are well represented on the Internet, for instance at the Blake Archive, where you can see what Blake's ‘illuminated printing’ looked like. Print editions i have used include [ 18 November 2007 ]
- James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)
— a unique masterpiece which celebrates life ‘in the broadest way immarginable’ (4) but also makes unique demands upon the reader, ‘as were it sentenced to be nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia’ (120). Gnoxic citations of FW give the page number as per the 1958 Viking Press edition; citations of FW2 give the pagination of The Restored Finnegans Wake (2012).
- Ulysses (1922) is a good warmup for the Wake and a masterpiece of 20th-century literature in its own right.
- A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson (1961), is a good introduction. So is Joyce's Kaleidoscope, by Philip Kitcher. Both offer summaries of the action so that the difficult passages are easier to follow. But probably the best way to get acquainted with the Wake is to hear it – either read it aloud, or get one of the (partial) recordings of it on CD.
[ 31 October 2010 ]
- Some other useful secondary sources: [ 21 December 2011 ]
- John Bishop, Joyce's Book of the Dark (1986)
- James Atherton, The Books at the Wake (1959)
- Roland McHugh, Annotations to Finnegans Wake, 3rd ed. (2006)
- Sylvia Beach, Samuel Beckett et al., Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929), retitled James Joyce / Finnegans Wake: A Symposium
- Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (final edition 1892) is now online here (1 October 2007).
Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.
— Walt Whitman (1892, 9)
- Emily Dickinson, a poet whose works are as tightly compressed and explosive as Whitman's are luxuriant and expansive. Final Harvest, a selection made by Thomas H. Johnson, offers a revelation on every page. Some of them are cryptic, but clearly this woman ‘got a Bomb—And held it in our bosom’ (#443). Poems are cited in all gnoxic works by the number assigned in Johnson's standard edition of her complete poems (these numbers are also given in FH).
The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –
The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For – hold them – Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb –
As Sponges – Buckets – do –
The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –
- Franz Kafka: these collections of shorter pieces are in some ways deeper than his more famous novels:
- The Great Wall of China (1936, tr. 1970)
- Parables and Paradoxes (ed./tr. 1961)
- Jorge Luis Borges: the Argentine writer was perhaps the most metaphysically reflective of storytellers, and no one else celebrates the practice of reading in quite the same way. My favorite collections of his work in English translation:
- A Personal Anthology, ed. Kerrigan (1967)
- Labyrinths, ed. Yates and Irby (1964)
- Borges: A Reader, ed. Monegal and Reid (1981)