Autopeiesis, Semeiosis, and Co-Coupling:
A Relational Language for Describing
Communication and Adaptation
CYBERNETICS & HUMAN KNOWING
VOLUME 7, NO. 2-3, 2000
Abstract: This article proposes a possible synthesis between the concept of structural coupling with the milieu, derived from the thought of Maturana and Varela, and the concept of semeiosis de-rived from Peirce.
The purpose is to develop a vocabulary and conceptual framework in which to en-visage the relationships among autopoietic systems, i.e. organisms, against which communication can take place.
By showing how the sign emerges from structural coupling, this article hopes to en-courage (or reinforce) a gestalt shift in scholars of communication, away from a conduit metaphor of sending and receiving communications, and towards a grounding of communication in the relation-ships among organisms and their environment(s), which inclnde other organisms.
When these organisms engage habitually in what Maturana calls the "coordination of coordination of behavior,"and especially when this involves languaging of the human type, then the environment to which they are coupled also involves a system of signs, which, as Peirce demonstrates, is continually changed by the very interpretive actions which constitute it.
Human languaging is "the play of signs" because play is a process of "co-imagining" in which organisms generate a repertoire of potential behaviors by placing themselves outside the immediate ("serious") context of adaptation/ structural coupling.
But within the cooperative domain of human work, i.e. the human collaborative structural coupling with its shared environment or milieu, this 'play of signs" can pass or fail the test of effectiveness. Humans engaged in cooperative work co-coordinate their structural couplings by way of conversationing, a co-coordination which depends upon their shared encounter with a Secondness or "otherness" with which they grapple together—an "otherness" which can never be known directly, but only approached by the work of fallibilist human cooperation.
Autopeiesis and Semeiosis: A Necessary Unity?
In this article I propose to bring together the theortical perspectives of the 20'h Century Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, and the 19th and 20th Century American logician and semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce.
More specifically, I propose to bring together the Maturanan/Varelan concepts of "structural coupling" and languaging, and the Peircean theory of semeiosis.
The purpose of this is to provide a beginning for a rethinking of human communication in an evolutionary context. I still believe, in the spirit of Gregory Bateson's teaching many years ago, that cybernetics will ultimately provide the basis for a scientifically rigorous, yet humane and non-reductionistic, rethinking of the evolution, communication, and social llfe of humans as well as nonbuman living things. Towards this goal, the theory of autopoiesis, developed by Maturana and Varela, provides a key tool, which is the operational definition and description of what it means to be a living being in an environment.
In this article I will begin by developing some of the implications of Maturana and Varela's theory of autopoiesis to the situation which may be thought of as elementary to communication: that of two or more organisms which in some sense share the same immediate environment.
Then I will step back and describe two concepts from the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce: semeiotic (as he spelled it), and the phenomenology of experience (as firstness, secondness, and thirdness).
I will show that Peircean semeiotic is applicable to the same situation of organisms relating to each other and (i.e. as part of) their environment(s), and I will further show how human language both exemplifies and transforms the semeiotic web which is spun by autopoietic living beings.
The synthesis which emerges of the Peircean and the autopoietic descriptions of the relationship of human beings to their environment will then be demonstrated to provide a theory of human social cooperative interaction, in which the nature of such phenomena as play, work, science, and fallibilistic truth can be illuminated in fundamental, and even novel, ways.
This can provide a grounding for our understanding of our ongoing, if sometimes problematic, relationships with each other and with our shared environment(s).
Before entering into this exploration, however, I need to post a warning. Second-order cybernetics, which is the family of new approaches in which autopoiesis can be categorized, is bedeviled by problems of ontology. This emerges almost by definition, since the founding principle, if such there be, of second-order cybernetics involves the inclusion of the observer in the description of that which is observed. Second-order cyberneticists tend toward the view that the organism qua observer does not in fact observe external reality because, as von Foerster points out, "my nervous system cannot tell me anything because it is 'me': I am the activity of my nervous system; all my nervous system talks about is its own state of sensory-motor activity." (von Foerster 1989:224)
But if the observer in some manner cannot know anything besides the observer's own processes, it then becomes problematic as to how one can even discuss other organisms and environments; one courts the solipsism which many have claimed to find in Maturana's work. Brier, in an excellent (1996) review, shows how one seminal thinker in second-order cybernetics, von Foerster, finds the solution to this conundrum, at least in the human case, in "seeing oneself through the eyes of the other"—an exercise in imagination and empathy, one might say, although von Foerster (1991) actually claims that this is an accurate if metaphorical description of the fundamental nature of comununication itself. It isn't clear to me whether this sophisticated-seeming version of communication can exist in the absence of what Maturana calls "the coordination of the coordination of behavior" (1988), a stage, or type, of "communication" which is typical of humans and which is described and discussed below. Be that as it may, Brier (1996) further proposes Peirce's concept of the sign, founded on the phenomenology of experience, as a background from which we may be able to see how organisms can, in the first instance, perceive "differences which make a difference" (Bateson 1972), and ultimately, how they can communicate about these differences.
There is necessarily some convergence, of course, between what I am attempting in this article and what has already appeared in the work of Brier, who has also been engaging in synthesizing the approaches of second-order cybernetics, autopoiesis, animal communication, and Peircean semeiotics. The commonalities in our perspectives are notable, but there is an important difference in emphasis.
My own idea of synthesizing autopoiesis and Peirce emerged as I grappled with some of the ontological issues, which were discussed above, and it was the linguistic anthropologist Alton Becker who initially helped me to see Peirce as a possible solution. It was ouly after I began developing the argument I present below that I discovered that Brier had been working on a similar synthesis for a number of years, and for many of the same reasons. My approach is perhaps more problem- centered and less of a philosophical overview than Brier's; he concerns himself with broad comparisons of the work of key thinkers, while I content myself merely with trying to develop a toolkit from their works, one which might help deal with specific issues for analysis. Also, my background in the specifically human and social sciences makes me particularly focused on what might be characterized as social questions, and I hope to contribute to a sense of precision in the ways these questions can be approached.
Brier's background in ethology (the science of animal behavior and corumunication) has enabled him to show the relevance of such thinkers as Uexküll and Lorenz (e.g. Brier 1999, 2000). Uexküll's theory of the organism's Umwelt- turns out to be an important prefiguring of what Brier calls the "biosemiotic" approach, while Lorenz (like Freud before him) was seduced away from cybernetic or informational perspectives by the "scientific" attractiveness of a "hydraulic" drive theory.
Both Uexküll and Lorenz, however, exemplify a sort of individual or psychological approach which is preoccupied with the individual organism vis-a-vis itself or the environment, or with phenomena such as- mood signals and courtship rituals (for example in animals), in which semiotic signals coordinate behavior in specific contexts which emerge as an integral (albeit often a periodic) part of the organism's ongoing life. These are very important phenomena but they do not, as I see it, provide the (sole) basis for cooperation, as it is known to symbol-using organisms.
At an opposite pole of autopoietic theory, Luhmann (1990, discussed in Brier 1999) deals with a number of levels of autopoiesis, to wit, organismic, psychological, and social; but he does not really integrate these levels, and it would not be too much to say that he considers each of them to be its own autonomous field of cybernetic unity. My own bias in approaching such a theory, given a personal backgronnd in the study of the previously so-called "simple societies," is that the idea of an autonomous social "autopolesis" probably finds a better application to bureaucracies and States than it does to other, possibly less "organized," aspects of human social life. On the other hand, clearly Luhmann is right that the social cannot simply be derived from the psychological and the individual, and this is clearest when we are dealing with human beings. Brier (1999) indicates that it is precisely here that the notions of semeiotics and the Peircean sign become most relevant. In these pages I propose to ground human sociality in the predicament of sign-using organisms who confront (and/or co-imagine) a common task.
By contrast with Brier's background in nonhuman ethology, my own background is that of a social and cultural anthropologist, albeit one who, like Bateson, has always been interested in nonhuman forms of semeiosis as weli. But the social forms which intrigue me include those which I experienced in Papua New Guinea: small-scale, intimate, and in some ways improvisatory social organizations without the "autopoiesis" that comes from having a legally chartered existence separate from that of their members. I am therefore interested in what enables autopoietic organisms, of the human type and equipped (or encumbered) with language, to cooperate in a common task—whether that task be adaptation, play, or science. Such cooperation is the lifeblood of the adaptation of human beings themselves, althongh one might (unseriously) suggest that perhaps it is not so necessary for the self-perpetuation of some "autopoietic" organizations. It appears to me that the synthesis of autopoietic and semeiotic approaches is uniquely appropriate for understanding precisely the question of cooperative work and play, adaptation and creativity.
Not Conduits and Communication,
But Context and Relationship
One virtue of both the autopoietic and semeiotic approaches for studying these matters should be noted. Both approaches free us from the traditional metaphor for communication in our culture, the "conduit model" (see Lakoff and Johnson 1980:10), in which speakers put ideas (objects) into word-containers and send them to others who, so to speak, open the containers and receive the ideas.
The "conduit theory" is also explicit in Shannon and Weaver (1949) who analyze communication in terms of the transmitter, the receiver, and the destination. Much of the theoretical concern with perception as a foundation of communication may implicitly be founded on such a model, in which perception is important as the foundation of a transmittable message.
This is of course a caricature, one which I am sketching so that I can call attention to the remedial aspects of the particular gestalt shift implicit in the autopoietic thinking of Maturana and Varela (1986), in the later relational theorizing of Varela (1976), in the work of von Foerster (1991), and in the semeiotics of Peirce as well. This is a shift toward beginning one's examination of communication not with "messages" at all, or with "percepts," or even, at least at first, with "differences which make a difference."
Instead one takes an ecological and relational approach, in which the beginnings of one's study must be, the relationships which form the context for "communication." But context is a term for a kind of background, and I do not use that term here since my whole aim is to foreground the relationships, which are usually seen as background.
To this end I begin by building up the relational logic implicit (or explicit) in Maturana's and Varela's concepts of autopoiesis. Although these concepts were developed for the study of how individual organisms generate themselves as autopoietic beings, the idea here is to use the concepts not to discuss the individual organism but to explore how organisms which are constituted in an autopoietic fashion can develop relationships with each other and with their milieu/environment—in fact, how they exist only in such relationships which are just as much a precondition for their being as is their internal autopoietic structure.
Only after this initial relational vocabulary, based on the concept of structural coupling, is developed is it shown that Peirce's semeiotics and phenomenology can provide a new source of insight to the discussion of such relationships. I will return to this question in the Conclusion.
To put what I have been saying above another way, I am hoping here to develop and use the synthesis of autopoiesis and Peirce to do work with it, that is, to play with it. And this is with the object of using such a synthesis to explore the emergence/evolution/nature of certain fundamental aspects of adaptation, communication, and life, which we see around us, everyday. So to this end, let us return to the basic~ concepts of autopoiesis, and then to those of Peircean semeiotics, and let us see what can be built out of them.
The Autopoietic Nature of Living Systems
and their Coupling
The concepts, in Maturana's and Varela's thought, of autopoiesis and structural coupling, center in the autopoietic system, most typically a biological organism. (See Maturana and Varela 1973, 1980, 1992. Non-organismic autopoiesis after the model of Luhmann (1990) is, for reasons discussed above, not part of the domain of this article.)
The organismic autopoietic system is conceived as originating (or self-originating) as a recursive enactment of material events, by which recursion, a structure is constituted which conserves itself (or fails to do so) in interaction with other such systems and with the nonliving environment.
The autopoietic system has the capacity (indeed the requirement) to preserve itself, not (like a rock) by remaining the same, but by (like an organism) changing.
That which changes while the autopoietic system maintains itself, is called by Maturana and Varela the system's "structure," while that which the system maintains is called its "organization."
The synchronic (mutual) changes of two autopoietic systems, each of which comprises part of the milieu (or environment) for the other, constitute together the "structural coupling" of the two systems.
Maturana and Varela also refer to the "structural coupling" of an organism with its nonliving environment—or with its total environment, living and nonliving. (Environment and milieu are mostly synonymous, but sometimes milieu is taken to mean that part of the environment with which the organism is immediately interacting. (See Maturana 1988.)
The bringing together of any two autopoietic systems into each other's environment or milieu will necessarily lead either to the dissolution (death, consumption, etc.) of one of the two systems, or else to the creation of some sort of mutual accommodation or synchrony.
This can be seen as any sort of coupling, by means of conjoint changes in the variable "structures" of the two systems, of the "organizations" of the two systems, which maintain themselves thereby; and such is the derivation of the term "structural coupling."
(Non-autopoietic systems are also referred to by Maturana and Varela (1973) as having structure and organization, although in the absence of autopoietic organization it is easier to see tbat such systems are defined by an observer, usually entailing that what is considered structure or organization is defined with respect to that observer. For example Maturana has been known to joke, in lectures, about what changes can be made to a chair's structure such that its organization, i.e. its chairness, will be maintained or not maintained, but the observer-dependent definition upon which the idea of chair is based'should be obvious, as relative to cultural practices and human purposes, for example.
For living, autopoietic systems, structure and organization can be evaluated in terms of the (autopoietic) persistence of the system as a living system.
If such a criterion is adopted, the concepts of structure and organization in living systems can be defined in a consistent manner which is less immediately relative to the perspective of a particular "external" observer.)
Maturana's and Varela's system of thought is difficult for many who approach it because what they are trying to do is unusual. They are trying to set forth a language in which to describe what a living system is and does, not by describing concrete observables (such as DNA, organs, or the circulation of the blood), but by describing in an abstract language what a living system is and how it constitutes and reconstitutes itself.
By taking the recursive mechanics of living systems as their muse, they have invented a new set of inter-referential terms for the analysis of the interrelationships within living systems, as well as their relation-ships with each other and with their environments. By "inter-referential" I mean that each term generates its meaning with respect to the others, and it is the whole which is constituted by the inter-referentiality of these terms which, at best, provides insight into the phenomenon, in this case what makes living systems alive (and what consequences thus follow from their interaction).
Such a system of inter-referential concepts does not lend itself to being inserted piecemeal into an ongoing scientific discourse, since each concept within an inter-referential system takes its meaning from its relationship to that system as a whole. It is thereby difficult to separate out particular concepts from the system and relate them to the more familiar concepts used in empirical research.
New systems of thought involving inter-referential concepts therefore often tend to be ignored unless a scientific discourse gets into particular trouble over some recalcitrant issue (such as non-DNA based life forms?). This has not yet happened for the theory of autopoiesis among Anglo-American circles, at least, in biology.
In spite of the resulting obscurity to some of Maturana's and Varela's mode of thought, I hope to demonstrate here its relevance to the cybernetics of the human condition, particularly when it is wedded to the (equally obscure) semeiotics of Peirce.
The Semeiotics of Peirce
Peirce's semeiotic is also a system of inter-referential concepts. For Peirce the human organism, but not always only the human organism, is an interpreter of signs.
The concept of the Peircean sign gives substance to the relations between organisms, and those between organisms and their environments, which Maturana and Varela term "structural coupling."
Charles Sanders Peirce was a 19th and early 20th Century American philosopher who has been thonght of as an early member of the school of thought called pragmatism— a term which he in fact invented, althongh as philosophical pragmatism was further developed by James and Dewey, Peirce respectfully seceded from it and denoted himself a "pragmaticTst" rather than a pragmatist. It is not within tte scope of this article to show why Peirce did this, or even to; claim that he was right in so doing. Rather, I mention pragmatism and pragmaticism because both of these philosophical viewpoints share a feature with Maturana and Varela's thought which distinguishes all of these frorn standard foundationalist or representationalist standpoints (insofar as these latter are not straw men or dead horses).
This feature is the grounding of mental activity (which is sometimes specified as the activity of nervous systems) in the ongoing living behavior of human beings and other organisms; all signs, symbols, and systems of thought have their origin in this rather than in some transcendent or transparent autonomous mental realm.
In Peirce's semeiotic, something can serve as a sign of something else by being an icon, an index, or a symbol. (See Buckler (ed.) 1955.)
An icon serves as a sign by resemblance to something else, like a portrait to the person portrayed.
An index serves as a sign by pointing to other things, which are associated with it in a potentially "causal" manner, like a cloud to possible or actual rain. (The use of causality is meant mainly as illustration, since the philosophy of causality is itself full of a number of vexing issues and serneiotics should not be held hostage to it.) And
a symbol is an agreement that something will stand for something else, independently of any iconic or indexical relationship the one has to the other; words in human language are the most typical exemplar of the symbol.
Phenomenology of Experience and its Relation to the Sign
Peirce also developed a categorization of the phenomena of experience as existing in firstness, secondness, and thirdness.
Firstness is the quality of unmediated experience (if this exists), such as redness "before anything in the universe was yet red"—an elusive and vanishingly evanescent world of pure qualia, which does not stay around long enough to allow its ontological or epistemological passports to be checked.
Secondness is the quality of experience in interaction with an Other, or as another vocabulary would put it, with the milieu or environment. Peirce called it "a consciousness of effort and resistance...a mode of being of one thing which consists in how a second object is." (in Buckler 1955:76) Peirce also, in the same description, likened secondness to the resistance a door gives to a shoulder, which is pushing on it.
Thirdness is the quality of experience, which is mediated by the ongoing interpretive activity of the perceiver. Peirce related this ceaseless and recursive activity of interpretation to the need and ability of the perceiver to predict what will happen, to assume a regularity in one's interactions with Others and to act based on that regularity.
One form of predictive regularity yields the icon, or sign based on resemblance —A is like B, therefore if I know how to behave with respect to A, I can behave similarly with respect to B. Another form of predictive regularity yields the index, or sign based on contiguity—if A tends to be copresent with B then I can be on the alert for B when I perceive A. The predictive regularity that yields the symbol is a little more diffcult to arrange (as should be expected, since organisms which mediate their lives by the refinement of the use of symbols have been found in the solar system for only one five-billionth of its lifespan so far).
The symbol exists when I can predict that when I behave in a certain way (speak, gesture, write), you will behave in such a way, that I know that~we are both coordinating our perceptions/actions, with respect to a third thing (the "reference" of the symbol), in the absence of iconic or indexical indication of that reference.
Implications of Peircean Concepts for Structural Coupling
But I am ahead of myself because I am already using Maturanan/Varelan language (coordination of behavior) in my description of the basic Peircean concepts. Let us see if we can demonstrate the emergence, relevance, and role of signs in the context of the interactions of organisms vis-a-vis their environment or milieu, an environment or milieu which includes other organisms.
It immediately becomes apparent that the concept of structural coupling, as discussed above, describes what happens between organisms and their environments, without delineating the mechanisms by which it happens.
Signs emerge as an organism's modes of predicting differences, similarities, and associations within the environment, enabling that organism to behave consistently with respect to these aspects of the environment.
Therefore signs are a means by which the organism mediates its structural coupling with the environment, including other organisms.
Another way in which Maturana and Varela describe structural coupling between organisms is as the coordination of behavior between them.
This coordination can only take place if the organisms have the ability to perceive what the other is doing (or how the environment is "behaving") and to behave with respect to it.
An analogy may help, though it may seem bizarre at first (and it is not intended as a detailed metaphor). If digestion is the mechanism of eating whereby nutrients corning from the environment become usable to the organism in the form of metabolism, semeiosis—the ongoing process of using signs in the Peircean sense to mediate one's behavior with respect to a partially predictable milieu—is the mechanism by which perceptions of the environment become usable to the organism in the form of adaptive structural coupling. (This imperfect analogy is of course not meant to "explain" semelosis, much less "explain it away," but only to show part of its role in the ongoing life of organisms in their environments.)
Languaging, Coordination of Coordination, and
Pierce's Concept of the Interpretant
In cybernetic terms we therefore see structural coupling, from the point of view of the organism, as an ongoing feedback system.
Refinements of structural coupling thus emerge as recursions in that feedback sys.tem. Symbolic behavior, or language proper, is such a refinement. Maturana (1988) defines language, in the human sense, as the coordination of coordination of behavior.
This is appropriate in terms of my description of the symbol above: the symbol coordinates your behavior with mine by means of coordinating the mental states which emerge in both of us with respect to that symbol.
But Maturana, at least, is dogmatic in denying language, in the sense of the coordination of coordination of behavior, to animals other than humans (pers. comm. at lecture 1997). This denial can be understood with respect to an example of one type of nonhuman semeiotic system, the alarm call system of vervet monkeys.
These monkeys have a repertoire of alarm calls which alert them to particular predators and which are observed to lead to adaptive behavior, i.e. hiding, moving up trees, or moving down trees, depending on what is the appropriate response to a particular predatory threat. Such an alarm call may be an example of the simple coordination of behavior among animals. Although it is arguably a symbol with no connection of resemblance or intrinsic indexicality to the predator in question, it is not combined with other symbols to form any sort of complex proposition, which modulates, modifies, or predicates the original simple reference.
The human phenomenon of languaging is therefore characterized by more than simply the symbol, or reference.
One can describe human languaging as a system whereby the system of signs itself takes on a kind of "life of its own."
This emerges when symbolic signs become what Peirce calls interpretants of other symbolic signs.
The concept of interpretant is one of the most difficult in Peirce. Its difficulty does not disappear in the following definition (from Peirce's 1908 letter to P.E.B. Jourdain, reprinted in Marty, n.d.):
My idea of a sign has been so generalized that I have at length despaired of making anybody comprehend it, so that for the sake of being understood, I now limit it, so as to define a sign as anything which is on the one hand so determined (or specialized) by an object and on the other hand so determines the mind of an interpreter of it that the latter is thereby determined mediately, or indirectly, by that real object that determines the sign. Even this may well be thought an excessively generalized definition. The determination of the Interpreter's mind I term the Interpretant of the sign.
The example of the distress call above shows that the interpretant relationship in itself is not unique to full-blown languaging. An eagle distress call in the communication system of vervet monkeys is determined by the eagle which is seen by a first vervet monkey, and the call creates in the mind of the other monkeys an indirect determination, or thought, of the presence of an eagle, such that the behavior of all the monkeys together is coordinated vis-a-vis eagle avoidance. (Of course, the behavior is only coordinated loosely and not in a fine, controlled, or specific manner—the monkeys save themselves individually rather than organizing a disciplined retreat.)
The representation function in this kind of alarm call system is static. Neither the concept of the eagle, nor indeed that of retreat, can be in such a system further interpreted semeiotically.
In human language, on the other hand, there seems to be a potentially infinite recursion, whereby the interpretant itself is interpreted by further signs which modify its representation, for example by making it more specific: "the eagle is flying toward the river." (This is at least a double modification or specification of the eagle: eagle is modified as flying-eagle; flying-eagle is modified as riverward-flying-eagle.)
Thus for humans, but not for some communication systems in animals, we note what Peirce called unlimited semeiosis, an infinite recursion of interpretants.
As semeiotic beings we now find our being in semeiotics, in a way, which is not true in the absence of the rich resources of human language, resources which of course extend far beyond the features discussed here. Maturana emphasizes the dynamic quality of human semeiosis by changirig languaging from a noun to a verb (Matutana 1988).
It is interesting to attempt to make Peirce's idea of unlimited semeiosis more understandable to at least the computer-savvy of our day, by thinking of human semeiotic systems as immense hypertexts of the mind which are capable of infinite net-surfing.
Each conception, which can form in a human mind, i.e. each interpretant, is gifted with a number of semeiotic hyperlinks, as it were.
These interpretants/hyperlinks can be iconic, indexical, or symbolic, and they lead in any number of directions, each of which constitutes an interpretation of the original link.
The whole system of hyperlinked interpretants thus extends to form the original worldwide web of semeiosis, which is the web of languaging in which people have lived since the beginning of the human adaptation.
Culture and Conversationing—in the Context of Structoral Coupling and the
Sharing of Secondness
The system of recursive interpretants which emerge in a communicative community is usually bounded of course by its language; and the community which shares these interpretants can be thought of as a culture, which is, in Maturana's terms, a type of conversation, or conversationing. (This is not to say that there may not be other or better ways of defining or interpreting the concepts of language or culture; I am not trying to develop a theory of essence here.)
The system of signs develops as it were its own existence, perhaps parasitic on the community of speakers, but in many respects determining in its own right how they are or are not able to think. It is in this sense that I refer to a semeiotic coupling with the environment; two individuals who both use the same language to refer to a shared environment are coupled with that environment both bodily in the sense that they interact with it as a shared Secondness which reacts to their actions and semeiotically, in the sense that they evolve a system of signs which serve as their shared interpretant (or system of interpretants) for that environment.
Not all of their interaction with their shared environwent is semeiotically mediated: we can chop wood as a system of recursive interactions with the wood's Secondness, outside of our discourses about chopping wood, which however do tend to modify (and make culturally predictable) the ways in which we do chop it.
Thus we are coupled to our milieu or environment as both a Second and a Third, and it is not a simple matter to extricate the Secondness from the Thirdness, which partly mediates it.
Some will indeed question the role of Secondness in the life of organisms including people, by noting that any perception which is mediated by a nervous system or functional equivalent is a Third, and that direct bodily contact with the environment or milieu is therefore something of a chimera, at least with respect to the awareness of the organism. (Now we return again to the ontological swamp to which I referred at the beginning of this article—but perhaps Peirce can help us place our feet as we walk in it.).
Freeman (1995) has shown that there is no direct transfer of information between the physical source of a percept (i.e. light, sound, chemical compounds sensed as odor, etc.) and the nerve impulse, which transmits, or better, makes available for possible interpretation that percept to the brain.
It is something like this, which Maturana (like Freeman a neurobiologist by background!) means when he notes that autopoietic organisms are informationally closed.
My sensation and knowledge of my foot as it walks on the grou.nd is therefore, in some profound neurobiological sense, a semeiotic, or mediated, contact with the ground, rather than a "direct" or unmediated one.
Even so, the surprises that the ground can give me, if it becomes suddenly muddy or falls off as a cliff, are not internally generated by my nervous system. (This is not to deny, of course, that my awareness/interpretation of these surprises is internally generated by my nervous system.) These surprises, as well as the more fine-grained surprises intrinsic to any act of walking, allow me to infer that I am interacting with a Secondness. Peirce has much to say, in his enormous body of philosophical work about the procedures of inference; and even if autopoietic theory magnifies the scope of inference beyond the usual bounds of semeiotics as a 20th Century discipline, Peirce himself would probably not have been discomfited by a view of mental activity as inference all the way down to the neural synapse level!
Yet and still, in spite of the self-generated circularity of opr nervous systems, we can be reassured by the surprises we encounter that we, at least, are not creating the universe as we go like creator-gods, thinking or singing it into being without having to break a sweat. And of course there is always the case of direct interference with our physical beings: bullets and bombs, no doubt, provide us with a model of direct contact with Secondness, even if they don't do much for our abilities to perceive Secondness.
In fact I think it probable that Thirdness is ultimately impossible without Seconduess, and furthermore without shared Secondness.
What enables two beings to establish the relationship between sign and interpretant, and therefore representation, is precisely that these two beings share in some final analysis a Secondness without which representation would ultimately fall. They share a world in addition to sharing a world of thought.
They are, in a terminology I have developed, co-coupled to a shared milieu. Their behavior is not coordinated just with respect to each other, but with a third existence—an existence which, although this has given me no end of trouble, I now realize should be denominated in Peircean terms as a shared Second. This shared Second refers to that part of the environment, or milieu, with which they both interact, i.e. structurally couple.
Co-Creation or Co-Imagination—Play and Creativity
We need therefore to go back to the general condition of organisms in their environments and examine what it means to be co-coupled to a milieu. Organisms always share with other organisms some but not their entire milieu. Organism A inclndes in its milieu organism B as a Second or Other, while organism B includes in its milieu organism A as a Second or Other, and this difference means that the tsvo of them will always have different environments/`which to "adapt."
On the other hand, in some privileged conditions two or more organisms can disengage from the demands of immediate adaptation to their shared environment and relate to each other as if they together constituted a "world of their own." They can engage in co-creation or co-imagination of a milieu, which is not taken to be a real Second that could surprise them with threatening actions. This is done by what is possibly the phylogenetically earliest form of predication, or at least "meta-message": the message "this is play" (Bateson 1972).
The play marker or message represents an extremely interesting type of semeiosis, which is usually communicated indexically by behavioral markers and also by a subtle shift in the manner in which behaviors are conducted. It consists in the qualified negation of the relationship of the behaviors within its parentheses, with respect to the shared Secondness or otherness, which is the daily bread of adaptation.
The Secondnesses denied by the message, or "frame," of play include especially the Secondnesses of relationship—the ways in which one's social partners bite one back, when they mean it. The Secondnesses of the physical and predatory environment can be more difficult to evade.
In fact, the primary reason why play seems so typical of the immature or child stage of life among mammals is possibly because the care which is given to immature mammals protects them to some extent from the direct responsibilities of interaction with the environment; in some ways the parents take care of the external structural couplings. This allows the generation of behaviors in the young mammals' play which are not immediately adaptive but which might become so in the animals' future; play is a generator of multiple potential structural couplings to others and to environments, which will enrich the possibilities of the animal's later adaptation to the world. The youngster is also protected by the presumption of play; that is, the ability of other conspecifics to place behaviors in a play frame enables them to treat the actions of an immature animal, no matter how those actions were actually meant, in a "nonserious" manner, allowing the youngster to practice behaviors which may be adaptive in later life without having to experience the consequences of those behaviors until it (she or he) is sufficiently adult to cope with these.
With respect to the human type of semeiosis, a phrase, which has gained some currency recently, is that of "the play of signs." In fact, the recursion by which interpretants modify interpretants, yielding the possibility of infinite combination and specification, meant that human languaging became a field of play—in a number of senses of the term—as soon as it began to develop its potential.
By language human beings co-created and co-imagined a world, which was not, or not only, the world of their immediate bodily co-coupling with the environment.
For the first time potential couplings to environment as well as to social others could be simulated in "thought-experiments" and "talk-experiments" without ruuning the risks of their consequences even at the level of a playful bodily acting-out.
Language itself was at once a new form of play, the medium of such play, and the sheltering "parental" environment, which enabled play to continue. As the Melanesian pidgin of Papua New Guinea, where I have lived for two years as an anthropologist, puts it, we began to story (Guddemi 1992); and we have continued to story nonstop, in Melanesia and everywhere else, ever since.
Human Work—and Fallibilist Science—Embedded in Structural Coupling
Yet, human language is not only the play of signs, it is also how we put signs to work. For this purpose I think "work" can be straightforwardly defined as the structural coupling with the environment or milien, which enables autopoiesis to continue.
Human beings use languaging to coordinate this structural coupling; and human beings use languaging to coordinate and co-coordinate the co-coupling of fellow human beings with a shared environment.
It is out of these coordinations and co-coordinations of our co-couplings that we generate a sense of ourselves as inhabiting the same world, and of our talk as referential.
As Maturana would no doubt be the first to point out, our epistemology has an ontogeny, one which emerges from our own experience as observers (and as interactors).
Since we do not have access to the world directly as an object for our thought, we rely on other semeiotic beings, in dialectic (conversational) interaction with our own interpreted experience, to validate our perceptions and views of the world.
A semeiotic system, which only emerged out of the experience of a single human being and could not be validated by others would, at the least' tend to produce emotional strain and self-doubt in the person who generated it. At worst it would produce a conviction of madness, either in the self or by others. More importantly to the human adaptation, it would also not provide a framework for cooperative work.
Those areas of human languaging, which deal with daily work interactions involve the direct co-coordination of human co-couplings with the environment.
Ideas in these spheres are subject to a recursive testing process by their exposure to the Secondnesses of physical and biological processes, processes which are not entirely dependent on how people think about them.
These processes engage in a feedback with peoples' concepts about what are called practical matters, a feedback which has a number of features in common with what Peirce considered the fallibilistic progress of science.
The concept of fallibilism in this connection refers to the epistemological conviction that, although the concepts, the findings, and even the "facts" of science can never be absolutely certain—since they are always subject to revision, falsification, and recontextualization—they are nevertheless the result of a recursive testing and remodification process, by virtue of which they yield the only type of truth to which human beings can aspire, which is to say, provisional and fallible truth.
But it should be noted that every semeiotic being, via her or his interactions with other human beings and with the environment, similarly constructs and tests for herself or himself the understanding of reality in which she or he fallibilistically believes. Unfortunately, semeiosis is not only the medium of a quest for truth, or even for one's adaptation to the environment or milieu narrowly conceived. Complex autopoietic organisms, including other human beings, can have purposes, which are inimical to another's interests, purposes which in fact play with another's mind. Here we find the germs of such matters as deception, exploitation, and the like.
Conclusion—Embodiment of Mind as Structural Coupling
In a sense, much of human life, in the sphere of culture, can be taken as the co-imaginings and co-creations of human beings engaged in the play of signs.
Religious and artistic systems of great beauty and complexity have emerged over thousands of years of relatively unfettered semeiosis.
Yet at the same time, human adaptations to natural and sociai environments have been refined, often in ways, which have been based on short-term benefits rather than long-term wisdom.
Recently, the human sciences have been engaged in what has been called the linguistic turn.' People in a number of disciplines have turned away from a foundational concept of truth and fonnd truth to be relative to the state of play of the play of signs.
Yet in many ways this is a strange time of history for us to be concerned with our mental epistemes to the exclusion of examining our possible bodily fates in a world more profoundly changed by human activity, not always of a well-conceived type, than ever before.
It should be clear that I believe that both semeiosis, in Peirce's sense, and structural coupling with the environment, in the sense of Maturana and Varela, need to be understood in a context which incorporates not only the Thirdnesses of other semeiotic beings, but also the ongoing interaction with the Secondnesses which must be respected in pursuing the human adaptation.
Effective human cooperative work entails a complex structure binding the human beings involved to the environment or milieu, which is the domain of that work (the domain within which that work is done). Human beings are co-coupled (generally bodily coupled) to the shared environment which is the work's domain; they are coupled to a system of signs involving particular semeiotic actions which are effective vis-a-vis that work's domain.
Thus the domain within which effective human cooperative work can take place is the "semeiotic/bodily co-coupling to a shared environment"—and the bodily aspect of this co-coupling can be disregarded only at our peril. (Mark Johnson (1987) has cogently theorized that the fundamental categories and metaphors of human languages are inseparable from the experience of human embodiment, transformed by the recursive extension of metaphor.)
It is this bodily as well as semeiotic structural coupling to the environment, integral to the definition and condition of the autopoietic organism, which provides the binding and correction to the unfettered play of signs, establishing the basis for a shared common understanding among human beings in a common task.
In the end, the combination of Peirce's phenomenology and semeiotics with Maturana and Varela's concept of structural coupling may be most fruitful if it can be seen to give us a useful vocabulary in which to discuss, if not solve definitively, some of the ontological concerns which bedevil contemporary second-order cybernetics.
I hope this article has demonstrated that, in Peircean terms, what such cybernetics is exploring is the relation of Thirduess, that which is perccived and experienced as mediated by semeiotic processes, to Secondness, that which is interacted with which is "other" than the perceiver or experiencer.
What I argue is that a "dialectical" relationship between Thirduess and Secondness emerges from any organism's embeddedness in (and interaction with) its milieu or environment.
This milieu or environment is "other" than the organism, and thus exists as a Secondness, which, however, is always experienced by the organism through a semeiotic mediation, i.e. within the realm of Thirdness.
But at the same time, the organism's semeiotic mediation or Thirdness, is nonetheless "always already" grounded in an ongoing structural coupling with the underlying Secondness, which is precisely that of its environment or milieu.
The gap between the organism which lives in Thirdness and its adaptive milieu which exists in Secondness is bridged (but not eliminated) by semeiotic means which, to use Peirce's language, are fallibilist (i.e. recursively approximate).
Social organisms, and especially symbol-using social organisms (i.e. human beings), engage in unlimited semeiosis (as Peirce would have it) and in conversationing (as Maturana might put it), a mode of being which is made possible by—and which makes possible—the communicability (to use a term of von Foerster's (1986)) which arises from (yet also participates in creating the co-coupling of more than one such social organism to a shared environment.(See also Brier's discussion of a diagram of von Foerster's, Brier 1998.)
Semeiosis, which is thus grounded by continued interaction with, and application to, structural coupling thereby can serve as a basis for cooperative action as well as for organismic adaptation.
From this we can develop an understanding of many of the "basics" of the human way of life, inclnding play, work, imagination, and science. We can also note that our lives today are not discontinuous with those of ancestral organisms, as they have had their being since their first emergence into the biosphere.
We too must recognize our continued embodiment and embeddedness in an environment, which is not composed ouly of our thoughts, while at the same time we recognize that our (individual and collective) understandings of that environment are mediated and therefore fallible.
Let us hope that this analysis fosters an attitude of humility and respect toward the Secondnesses, which we often find it so much easier to alter than to understand.
HOME BOE SAL TEXTE