Semioticians Make Strange Bedfellows! Or, Once Again: “Is Language a Primary Modelling System?” [Book Review]

Biosemiotics 2 (2):169-179 (2009)
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Like other sciences, biosemiotics also has its time-honoured archive, consisting of writings by those who have been invented and revered as ancestors of the discipline. One such example is Jakob von Uexküll. As to the people who ‘invented’ him, they are either, to paraphrase a French cliché, ‘agents du cosmopolitisme sémiotique’ like Thomas Sebeok, or de jure and de facto progenitor like Thure von Uexküll. In the archive is the special issue of Semiotica 42. 1 (1982) edited by the late Sebeok and introduced by Thure von Uexküll. It is in the opening essay that Thure von UexküIl tries to restore Jakob von Uexküll’s role as a precursor of semiotics by negotiating the Elder with Saussure and the linguistics-oriented ‘semiology’ in his wake. However, semiotic mapping, in the strictly ‘disciplinary’ sense, of Jakob von Uexküll is no easy task because he ‘knew neither Peirce nor Saussure and did not use their terminology’ (Thure von Uexküll 1982,2). Because Thure prefers to call the Elder’s science ‘general semiotics’ (Thure von Uexküll 1982), this paper begins by assessing Thure von Uexküll’s semiotic configuration of Jakob, probe into the force and limits of the linguistic analogy, revisit the already time-honoured debate on the primary and secondary modelling systems, which was made famous by the Moscow-Tartu semioticians in the early 1970s, but severely criticized by Sebeok and his followers. The paper engages Sebeok from several fronts, directed first at his relegation of the Saussurian linguistic model, then at his critique of the Primary Modelling System, and finally at his reservation about evolutionism in light of the current debate on gene/meme co-evolution



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