Nothing is meaningful in itself. Meaningfulness derives from the experience of functioning as a being of a certain sort in an environment of a certain sort.

Lakoff (1987, 292)

Meaning is something signs do—not something found at the end of the rainbow. And being signs ourselves, we do it all the time, whether we mean to or not.

Objects in context and context as Index

C.S. Peirce, from “Meaning,” 1910:

A sign may have more than one Object. Thus, the sentence “Cain killed Abel,” which is a Sign, refers at least as much to Abel as to Cain, even if it be not regarded as it should, as having “a killing” as a third Object. But the set of objects may be regarded as making up one complex Object. In what follows and often elsewhere Signs will be treated as having but one object each for the sake of dividing difficulties of the study. If a Sign is other than its Object, there must exist, either in thought or in expression, some explanation or argument or other context, showing how—upon what system or for what reason the Sign represents the Object or set of Objects that it does. Now the Sign and the Explanation together make up another Sign, and since the explanation will be a Sign, it will probably require an additional explanation, which taken together with the already enlarged Sign will make up a still larger Sign; and proceeding in the same way, we shall, or should, ultimately reach a Sign of itself, containing its own explanation and those of all its significant parts; and according to this explanation each such part has some other part as its Object. …

The Sign can only represent the Object and tell about it. It cannot furnish acquaintance with or recognition of that Object; for that is what is meant in this volume by the Object of a Sign; namely, that with which it presupposes an acquaintance in order to convey some further information concerning it. No doubt there will be readers who will say they cannot comprehend this. They think a Sign need not relate to anything otherwise known, and can make neither head nor tail of the statement that every Sign must relate to such an Object. But if there be anything that conveys information and yet has absolutely no relation nor reference to anything with which the person to whom it conveys the information has, when he comprehends that information, the slightest acquaintance, direct or indirect—and a very strange sort of information that would be—the vehicle of that sort of information is not, in this volume, called a Sign.

Two men are standing on the seashore looking out to sea. One of them says to the other, “That vessel there carries no freight at all, but only passengers.” Now, if the other, himself, sees no vessel, the first information he derives from the remark has for its Object the part of the sea that he does see, and informs him that a person with sharper eyes than his, or more trained in looking for such things, can see a vessel there; and then, that vessel having been thus introduced to his acquaintance, he is prepared to receive the information about it that it carries passengers exclusively. But the sentence as a whole has, for the person supposed, no other Object than that with which it finds him already acquainted. The Objects—for a Sign may have any number of them—may each be a single known existing thing or thing believed formerly to have existed or expected to exist, or a collection of such things, or a known quality or relation or fact, which single Object may be a collection, or whole of parts, or it may have some other mode of being, such as some act permitted whose being does not prevent its negation from being equally permitted, or something of a general nature desired, required, or invariably found under certain general circumstances.

CP 2.230-2

At this point it must be noticed that the simplest assertion uses two signs. This is true even of so simple a proposition as “pluit”, where one of the signs is the totality of the circumstances of the interview between the interlocutors, which makes the auditor think that what is happening out of doors is referred to. This is evident, since if he simply heard the word “pluit” pronounced, though he might be ever so determined to believe what was meant, yet if he knew not at all whence the sound came, whether from somebody recounting a dream or telling a story or from a planet of a distant star, and did not know at what time the word was uttered, he could not in the least guess what he was expected to believe. Nor could any mere words tell him, unless they referred to something in his immediate experience, as a sign (and if he were, for example, told that the rain was “fifty miles north of where you are standing.”) It must be something common to the experience of both interlocutors.

— Peirce, “Basis of Pragmatism”, 1905, MS 284, 42-3 [Stjernfelt 2014]

Inquiry as internal dialog

Conversation is a matter of swapping texts. Dialogue includes as well the practice of providing contexts for each other’s texts. Dialog as inquiry aims at a common text suitable for the common experiential context, which is the system in which it lives.

All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system. And this system is not a more or less arbitrary and doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is not so much the point of departure, as the element in which arguments have their life.

— Wittgenstein (1969, #105)

Construct and occupy

Whole-body or enactive sign-turning involves (1) direct reference to experience, (2) context construction prompted by that experience, and (3) mutual illumination of conceptual space and current events. The currency of events is the continuity of time: Big Current of the cosmos, little current of consciousness.

A sentence can mean something to you consciously only in the context you can construct at the time of meaning. Its deeper meaning is beyond your consciousness to the extent that its wider context is beyond your construction.

On the other hand, we could also say that your context constructs you – that is, the self as a role in the biosocial ecosystem is constructed by the act of filling an ecological niche. The niche and its occupant, text and context, shape each other and co-evolve.

Divine and entropic knowledge

As the focal text is to its context, so body is to environment, model is to mind, and mind is to the reality beyond it, what Peirce calls The Truth.

Imagine, if you can, a mind without an external world to offer resistance to its intentions – a mind to which all phenomena were entirely internal. You might call it “the mind of God.”

Such a god would fit the description left us in the fragments that survive from the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Xenophanes. Here are the key points of his theology (translated by Kirk and Raven, 1957):

  • One god … in no way similar to mortals either in body or in thought.
  • Always he remains in the same place, moving not at all; nor is it fitting for him to go to different places at different times, but without toil he shakes all things by the thought of his mind.
  • All of him sees, all thinks, and all hears.
  • Sitting, he nevertheless at once accomplishes his thought, somehow, from his holy resting-place.

One way to make a unified sense of these fragments is to take ‘his holy resting-place’ as the universe itself, which of course does not go anywhere, as there is noplace else for it to go to. This universe is identical with the god’s body, while his ‘thought’ is identical with what happens in the universe, so there is no gap between the two (except in our minds, defined by their limitations). Now, clearly this god-thought cannot be conscious, nor can it include any kind of ‘plan,’ because those would involve some delay between thought and realization, and some effort; but this god at once accomplishes his thought without toil, and has no need of a ‘future.’ Consciousness and planning are signs of human (or ‘mortal’) limitations; god accomplishes his purpose (fulfills his intention, expresses his meaning, ….. ) without having to imagine it first as we do with ours. In this case our conscious planning, or purposing, or meaning (assuming they occur in the universe and not elsewhere) would constitute a minuscule part of the god’s mindbody. The god’s knowledge of events cannot be separate from the events themselves – not unless the god is out of his mind (i.e. external to the universe, which is none other than himself).

The upshot of this thought-experiment is that cosmic purposes or final causes, though they may be real, cannot be conscious purposes, nor can they be symbolized, recorded or stored externally. As Peirce remarked, ‘it is impossible ever actually to be directly conscious of thought’ (EP2, 269); consciousness of a thought requires another thought, and is therefore indirect.

Being an organism in an environmental context means that you need an internal model to guide your actions. A universal mind or will, however, having no context to contend with, no territory to navigate or map, has no model, no ‘inside’ or ‘outside,’ and no need (or possibility) to represent causality by inference as we do in the meaning cycle.

This thought-experiment has a parallel in physics. We begin with a classic scenario of thermodynamics: a closed container of two chambers filled with a gas at different temperatures, in which the gas can pass freely from one chamber to the other. The second law of thermodynamics predicts that the temperature gradient will dissipate itself: heat will distribute itself uniformly through the whole container, thus achieving equilibrium, which is equivalent to maximal disorder or ‘entropy.’ In 1871, James Clerk Maxwell imagined a way that this law could be violated: set up two containers connected only by a microscopic gate just big enough to allow passage of a single molecule at a time from one side to the other. Now suppose a tiny ‘demon’ can detect the speed of any particle and open the gate momentarily to let fast particles through in one direction only, and slow particles in the other direction only. This would increase the temperature gradient, and thus reverse the entropic process, without using any energy to do the work – supposing that the actual opening and closing of the gate uses no energy.

In 1922, however, Leo Szilard wrote a paper showing that in order to know enough about the particles to sort them out in this way, the demon would have to create at least as much entropy as was eliminated by the sorting process (Campbell 1982, 49). That’s because it takes work to assemble and represent the information needed by the demon in order to discriminate between fast and slow particles, and the amount of energy it takes to accomplish this knowledge of any particle is no less than the energy of the particle itself. So if we look at the whole system containing those representations (or symbols) as well as the particles being sorted, its entropy is increasing even as the smaller system inside the container is growing more orderly by creating a gradient.

Our scenario above is similar in that any explicit knowledge (or purpose, or meaning) of any entity or event in the universe (the god’s mindbody) would have to be another entity or event in the universe. This could add nothing to its ability to function implicitly, but something else would have to function implicitly in order to explicate (symbolize) the implicit function; and we can’t go outside the universe to find that something else, because the universe has no ‘outside’ (by definition). In short, there’s no room for explication apart from events themselves. On the whole, then, the only explication of the implicit purpose or meaning of events is the events themselves. In a more partial view, events may explicate or represent each other’s purposes – which is what happens in consciousness – but only at the cost of converting (dissipating) some of the implicit functioning to symbolic functioning, without which there can be no explication.

Our scenario, then, presents consciousness as a small part of the cosmic mind, arising from local limitations, which can therefore serve some cosmic purpose, though it can only guess at what that purpose is – for as Xenophanes also said, ‘No man knows, or ever will know, the truth about the gods and about everything I speak of: for even if one chanced to say the complete truth, yet oneself knows it not … ’ and ‘the gods have not revealed all things to men from the beginning; but by seeking men find out better in time.’ This sounds very much like the essentials of scientific method as Peirce and Popper saw it; and indeed Popper credited Xenophanes with the first clear formulation of ‘the true theory of knowledge’ (Popper 1968, 205).

The sower and the soil

The familiar ‘parable of the sower’ is all about context:

Jesus said, ‘Now the sower went out, took a handful (of seeds), and scattered them. Some fell on the road; the birds came and gathered them up. Others fell on the rock, did not take root in the soil, and did not produce ears. And others fell on thorns; they choked the seed(s) and worms ate them. And others fell on the good soil and produced good fruit: it bore sixty per measure and a hundred and twenty per measure.’

Thomas 9 (Lambdin)

If the seed is a sign, the soil is the context in which its meaning appears (or fails to appear). The flower and the fruit are the life transformed or newly guided by that meaning. Thus the internal context – the guidance system of the sign’s interpreter – is essential to whatever guidance is communicated.

In the synoptic gospels, parables like that of the sower may be intended not so much to reveal spiritual truth as to conceal it from the unworthy.

And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.

Matthew 13.10-17 (KJV)

As Anthony Freeman (1999, 33) points out, this episode in Matthew ‘comes as something of a shock’ to those who assume that Jesus wanted to be understood by everyone. Here he seems to be punishing the gross of heart by casting pearls before them to increase their swinishness, or to widen the gap between those who have understanding and those who have not – ‘as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’ (Matthew 25:32-3). The context here is a strongly dualistic sense of justice.


The universe is the only text without a context. Every particular mode of being is universe-referent, and its meaning is established only within this comprehensive setting. This is why this story of the universe, and especially of the planet Earth, is so important. Through our understanding of this story, our own role in the story is revealed. In this revelation lies our way into the future.

— Thomas Berry (2006, 23)


Vygotsky cites an incident observed by Dostoevsky in which a complex sense was carried by a single word – or rather the sign was interpreted so that only one word was needed as its verbal component. ‘When the context is as clear as in this example, it really becomes possible to convey all thoughts, feelings and even a whole chain of reasoning in a single word’ (Vygotsky 1934, 144).

A turning word is like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, or rather like the still point of a turning sign, ‘at the still point of the turning world’ which is its context.

Internal context

Gregory Bateson, commenting on one of his essays in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, writes that

it extends the notion of informational control to include the field of morphogenesis and, by discussing what happens in absence of needed information, brings out the importance of the context into which information is received.…
Message material, or information, comes out of a context into a context, and in other parts of the book the focus has been on the context out of which information came. Here the focus is rather upon the internal state of the organism as a context into which the information must be received.
Of course, neither focus is sufficient by itself for our understanding of either animals or men. But it is perhaps not an accident that in these papers dealing with non-human organisms the “context” which is discussed is the obverse or complement of the “context” upon which I have focussed attention in other parts of the book.
Consider the case of the unfertilized frog’s egg for which the entry point of the spermatozoon defines the plane of bilateral symmetry of the future embryo.
The prick of a hair from a camel’s hair brush can be substituted and still carry the same message. From this it seems that the external context out of which the message comes is relatively undefined. From the entry point alone, the egg learns but little about the external world. But the internal context into which the message comes must be exceedingly complex.
The unfertilized egg, then, embodies an immanent question to which the entry point of the spermatozoon provides an answer; and this way of stating the matter is the contrary or obverse of the conventional view, which would see the external context of learning as a “question” to which the ‘right’ behavior of the organism is an answer.

— Bateson (1972, 395-6)