Interlude on Semiotics: an exchange with Professor Carsten Herrmann-Pillath

On the connection between the technosphere and culture, between science and humanism–the boundary that must be addressed in any full attempt to deal with environmental challenges of the Anthropocene.

Professor Herrmann-Pillath (an economist and philosopher at Erfurt University) recently asked via email if I would be willing to comment on a manuscript (ms) “Towards a Semiotics of the Technosphere” that he has co-authored with Professor John Hartley (a cultural scientist at Curtin University). Here “semiotics” is the theory of signs and signification advanced by the authors as connective tissue between technology and culture (that’s my interpretation of what they mean). The resulting email conversation struck me as possibly interesting to students and others curious about the development of ideas related to Anthropocene science and philosophy. My comments and Professor Herrmann-Pillath’s replies are reproduced below unedited, except for ellipses (….) intended to reduce length of text or short remarks added for clarification [like this]. I should note that the brief and sometimes cryptic email responses are creations of the moment–much as in a face-to-face conversation; they retain misspellings and do not necessarily represent the final considered opinions or points of view of either CHP or JH; these will emerge fully fledged in the published paper. My remarks (labeled PH) are in response to specific points in the ms, not in reaction to CHP’s comments. Unfortunately, the manuscript itself cannot be included without prejudicing its later publication. However, I think that even without the text of the ms, the sense of engagement between two ways of looking at the world (via science (PH) and via the humanities (CHP and JH) comes out pretty clearly. An abstract of their paper, prepared by Professors Herrmann-Pillath and Hartley for this blog post, is included below.

In current debates about the Anthropocene, the notion of ‘technosphere’ has gained analytical traction which is loosely defined as the conjunction of all technological systems embodied in artefacts that have been created by humans since the domestication of fire and the invention of the first tools. Many authors, such as Peter Haff, argue that the technosphere can and should be investigated as a physical phenomenon. We agree with that but raise the question how those features can be accounted for that are often conceived of as specifically human, such as agency, consciousness and creativity. We suggest that technosphere science needs to include semiotics: All physical interactions in the technosphere are mediated via physical signs, and signs also mediate human action. This requires a fundamental rethinking of our common conceptions of doing science; especially, we advocate a richer conceptualization of causality. We build on two classical approaches to semiotics, which we assign the role of ‘micro’ and ‘macro’, that is Charles S. Peirce’s semiotics as further developed in modern biosemiotics, and Yuri Lotman’s notion of ‘semiosphere’, and we posit the principle of ‘bimodality’: all technosphere interactions are always and everywhere in the two modes of matter-energy transformations and semiosis. In this framework, we suggest that the economy is a core constituent of the technosphere, mediating between physical processes and human agency, and suggest that research into the phenomenon of the city and urbanization is a central concern of semiotic analysis of the technosphere. In the evolution of urban systems, physical aspects (such as the evolution of material networks and physical flows) always work together with semiotic aspects of social networks to produce the actual shape of a city.

The exchange follows:

Email from CHP to PH 1 Sept 2018

Dear Peter,

seems you did not make your way to Germany! Hope you are fine.
I attach a rough draft on the ‘Semiotics of the Technosphere’. My co-author is a leading scholar in cultural studies and one of the masterminds of the ‘cultural science’ initiative (see I wonder whether you may find the time to glance over the ms and give us some advice and opinion!
I could not find time to further comment on your blog, but apparently there were no new entries meanwhile? At least I didn’t receive any notice. I think it is really exciting, and I hope that you find our piece useful also in that context.

Best wishes Carsten

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Carsten Herrmann-Pillath, Permanent Fellow
Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies, Erfurt University, Germany
Distinguished Visiting Professor at Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University


Email from PH to CHP 3 Sept 2018

Hi Carsten,

No I didnt make it to Germany. Too bad–for me.

I’ll take a look at your ms and get back to you w any comments before long.


Nice to hear from you, and hope you are well,



Email from PH to CHP 14 Sept 2018
[PH sends comments on ms to CHP, who responds below]


Email from CHP to PH w cc to JH 17 Sept 2018

Dear Peter,

thank you so much for your extensive comments! Actually, I think that there is more agreement that it seems. Therefore, I wrote a few responses, directly into your message that I copy below. We will certainly pay attention to all your suggestions and ideas! Best wishes Carsten

Here is the conversation:

PH: Hi Carsten (and John):
I have looked through your paper and have a few general comments.
I think linking the semiosphere to the technosphere makes sense as an approach to understanding the Anthropocene.

CHP: that’s a great beginning!

PH: On the other hand, I dont buy [Latour’s] Gaia argument that the idea of “system”, or “system and parts” loses its utility just because of massive complexity and the presence of the human factor.

CHP: In my view, the point is more specific: Is the ‘Earth system’ ONE system? I fully agree with your point about the universal relevance of the systems concept, but why not conceive of the Earth system as consisting of many systems? This is important when including semiotics à la Lotman: In simplest terms, once upon a time there was one Earth system, but then semiotic process disturbed that in creating semiotic domains in that system that are mutually ‘untranslatable’, hence create fissures, tensions etc.

PH: Analysis of systems with great size and complexity (like Morton’s so-called hyperobjects) are still just systems; they don’t fall outside the scope of physical law just because we cannot keep track of all that is going on. Any complex system presents the same challenge. We pick the best variables we can as presented by the system itself, for example those that figure in our definition or description of that system, and go from there. The requirement is that we be able to make a consistent description of phenomena of interest that reflects what we observe about the system while respecting our physical knowledge of the world/universe.

CHP: This is very interesting in epistemological terms: It seems that you have two notions od system here, one is the object-system, the other is the system that we, the epistemic subjects, create to describe and analyse that system. Well, that’s a semiotic system, isn’t it?

PH: I agree (as I understand it!) that the world is necessarily semiotic. It is not just that humans can engage the world only through signs, but that every part of the world engages the world-at-large through signs.

CHP: That’s great, again. I did not expect that, to be frank. For us, very encouraging!

PH: I would argue that the biosphere and technosphere are not just “traces”, but systems, or “spheres”, very complex of course. We know them partly through their what you call traces, but mostly we know the spheres from direct experience and the experience of others. The traces will be all that is left in the distant future, but today we can engage with the thing itself.

CHP: Yes!

PH: p6 [in reference to ms page number}, Your #1, I have argued that the technosphere is not “man-made”, as they used to say, but emergent from the Earth. For many purposes it seems useful to regard the biosphere and technosphere as relatively independent systems, although they of course interact. Most people believe (and some feel strongly that) humans are part of the biosphere, but to me, it makes better (logical) sense to consider humans (or at least human DNA) to have been hijacked from the biosphere by the technosphere.

CHP: So, we have at least two systems. That was my previous point. Probably the cebtral concept is the notion of ‘emergence’ that you also use. The various systems can be distinguished by specific emergent properties, but are unified in one evolutionary process. A question: Would you argue that this evolutionary process could be described in systemic terms as well (an evolving ‘meta system)?

PH: Your #2, Good questions. I dont know the answers, but am pretty secure b/c of level of complexity that no humans are going to control either the biosphere or technosphere in the near future.
p6, [page numbers refer to ms text]. I would agree that a “sociocultural dimension” is essential in trying to understand technology and the technosphere, but dont see this as a replacement for a physical stance, but rather it is just the particular way in which the “physics” plays out. That is, the ocean system has a wet dimension, but the ocean is a physical phenomenon just the same, even though a basic physical description would not usually use the concept of wet. I would say that new signs emerge w increasing complexity.

CHP: It seems that a bone of contention is the meaning of ‘physical’. In fact, I would agree with your argument: All emergent properties are physical, of course! In philosophy, this ismmostly called ‘naturalism’ in order to avoid the implicit reference to physical reductionism. I think this is the misunderstanding between us. In my 2013 book, therefore I introduced the bimodality principle: All information is physical, all physical entities are information. Starting out from that, it is straightforward to approach all ‘higher level’ information processing phenomena as physical, too, or, in our context, to approach semiotics as physical. That is the major message of biosemiotics, I think.

PH: p7. On [collectivity] of sociophysical structures as the only suitable ontological basis for analyzing the technosphere (and Anthropcoene). Agree, certainly
“methodological individualism” is totally inadequate, and feedback from collective dynamics to the individual is key. You mention the work by Donges et al, and I would add that they make the mistake of somehow believing that human generated goals about the future of the technosphere are the same thing as “goals” generated by the technosphere qua technosphere as a matter of ontological necessity. This is the most common conceptual error made in dealing with the technosphere.

CHP: Full agreement!

PH: p9-10. Your discussion of relation between efficient cause and semiotic mode reminds one of the relation of efficient to formal cause [which I see you bring up later in the ms]. I have written up some ideas on this which should appear soon (I hope!) in [a chapter in a] Cambridge Univ Press book on the Anthropocene.

CHP: Oh would be fantastic to know more about this, this is the core point in the philosophical foundations. The debate about ‘physicalism’ is actually about whether only efficient causality allows for ‘scientific explanations’. Once you include the other forms of causality, all these conceptual difficulties implode.

PH: p11. I myself would give a more physical explanation of meaning and function, and one that, at the regulative level, does not privilege “design” as a special kind of sign. But this can’t be sorted out here.

CHP: I see…but again, the Peircian triad is ‘physical’…

PH: p12, Yes certainly efficient cause by itself is an entirely inadequate basis for analyzing the technosphere.

CHP: Again, one ‘hurrah’! Full agreement.

PH: p13; Good to emphasize role of formal causation. Physicists gave up on Aristotle prematurely.
p13: “functions are always embedded in the entire web or network of functions…”.

CHP: Yes!

PH: p15: “the conjunction of real and possible worlds”. Maybe give reference here to Stuart Kauffman and his idea of the “adjacent possible”.

CHP: I have it in my 2013 book…

PH: p16: re sub v superlinear; I would call this micro v macro instead.

CHP: Mmmm, but that is about specific microdynamics which may result into different macrophenomena?

PH: p17: I dont understand second paragraph. Resources arent saved, but used up more rapidly as efficiency increases [Jevons Paradox]. I believe this is a physical process and has a physical basis, which can be tied back to your arguments about formal cause.

CHP: Ah, good point.

PH: p18, “[cities] still shaped by their legacies..” Maybe make reference to JC Scott’s book “Seeing Like a State”.
p19: “…each city remains a unique case…” But all cities have properties in common at the regulative level.
p20. Gaia is definitely a system with a physical basis. But that doesnt mean one would choose to analyze it in the same language as one analyzes the weather. All emergent systems require their own language, but whatever language, conclusions need to be consistent with what is observed and what is required by physical constraints.
p20, “…experts..focus-group methods”. “Experts” are notoriously unreliable at prediction. Focus-groups could indeed be better: Maybe make reference to Philip Tetlock’s “Superforecasters”.
p20, “..understanding cultural factors requires [overcoming] the gulf between the sciences and the humanities”. Very important goal!

In summary, there are a number of points we are not going to agree on, but I certainly applaud your efforts to stress the necessity of increasing appreciation by scientists of the fact that the Anthropocene cannot be understood without input from the humanities, and vice versa.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me and I hope my comments are useful.
Best regards

End of email exchange.

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