, Volume 8, Issue 2, pp 235–255 | Cite as

Symbols are Grounded not in Things, but in Scaffolded Relations and their Semiotic Constraints (Or How the Referential Generality of Symbol Scaffolding Grows Minds)

  • Donald FavareauEmail author
Original Paper


As the accompanying articles in the Special Issue on Semiotic Scaffolding will attest, my colleagues in biosemiotics have done an exemplary job in showing us how to think about the critically generative role that semiotic scaffolding plays “vertically” – i.e., in evolutionary and developmental terms – by “allowing access to the upper floors” (Hoffmeyer Semiotica 198: 11–31, 2014a) of biological complexity, cognition and evolution.

In addition to such diachronic considerations of semiotic scaffolding, I wish to offer here a consideration of semiotic scaffolding’s synchronic power, as well – and in particular the ability that it can afford its users to access new and other sign relations “horizontally” as a function of the way that multiple semiotically scaffolded relations intertwine to result in a “definite semantic topology that determines the ways that symbols modify each other’s referential functions in different combinations” (Deacon 1997:99).

Taking up, in turn, Terrence Deacon’s later challenge that what the sciences of cognition – and biology more generally – needs to “come to grips with [is] the process of semiosis; the dynamic of interpretive activity by which semiotic relationships emerge from other semiotic relationships [as] intrinsically dynamic phases in a generative process” (Deacon 2011:10), I attempt here to show how Deacon’s own Peirce-inspired matrix of referential sign relations as presented in The Symbolic Species, when viewed as a semiotic scaffold of interactional constraints and possibility biases, provides the key to understanding the essentially thirdness-manifesting nature of symbol reference, formation and growth.


Semiotic scaffolding Semiotic constraints Semiotic pathway bias Referential generality Symbol grounding Pragmatic maxim 


Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that no conflict of interest is involved in the publication of this paper.


  1. Aquinas, T. (1252 [1965]). De Ente et Essentia (On Being and Essence). In J. Bobik (Ed.), (Trans.) Aquinas on Being and Essence: A Translation and Interpretaion. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Chumbley, R. (2000). The synonymous nature and communal function of Peirce’s ground, immediate object and meaning. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 36(3), 407–418.Google Scholar
  3. Deacon, T. (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  4. Deacon, T. (2011). Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  5. Deely, J. (1990). Basics of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Deely, J. (2001a). A sign is what? A dialogue between a semiotist and a would-be realist. Sign System Studies, 29(2), 705–743.Google Scholar
  7. Deely, J. (2001b). Four Ages of Understanding: The First Postmodern Survey of Philosophy from Ancient Times to the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  8. Deely, J. (2007). Intentionality and Semiotics: A Story of Mutual Fecundation. Scranton: University of Scranton Press.Google Scholar
  9. Deely, J. (2009). Purely Objective Reality. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Eigen, M. (1971). Self-organization of matter and the evolution of biological macromolecules. Naturwissenschaften, 58, 465–523.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Eigen, M., & Schuster, P. (1977). The hypercycle. A principle of natural self-organization. Naturwissenschaften, 64, 541–565.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. El-Hani, C. N., Queiroz, J., & Emmeche, C. (2009). Genes, Information, and Semiosis. Tartu: Tartu University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Emmeche, C. (2015). Semiotic scaffolding of the social self in reflexivity and friendship. Biosemiotics (this issue).Google Scholar
  14. Favareau, D. (2008). Collapsing the wave function of meaning: The epistemological matrix of talk in interaction. In J. Hoffmeyer (Ed.), A Legacy of Living Systems: Gregory Bateson as a Precursor to Biosemiotics (pp. 169–212). Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Harnad, S. (1990). The symbol grounding problem. Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomomena, 42(1), 335–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Harnad, S. (1993). Grounding symbols in the analog world with neural nets. Think, 2(1), 12–78.Google Scholar
  17. Hertz, H. (1894 [1956]). The Principles of Mechanics. New York: Dover.Google Scholar
  18. Hoffmeyer, J. (1996). Signs Of Meaning In The Universe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Hoffmeyer, J. (2007a). Semiogenic scaffolding in nature. International Journal of Applied Semiotics, 5, 81–94.Google Scholar
  20. Hoffmeyer, J. (2007b). Semiotic Scaffolding of Living Systems. In M. Barbieri (Ed.), Introduction to Biosemiotics. The New Biological Synthesis (pp. 149–166). Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hoffmeyer, J. (2009). Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. Scranton: Scranton University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Hoffmeyer, J. (2011). Biology is immature biosemiotics. In C. Emmeche & K. Kull (Eds.), Towards a Semiotic Biology: Life is the Action of Signs (pp. 43–65). London: Imperial College Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hoffmeyer, J. (2014a). The semiome: from genetic to semiotic scaffolding. Semiotica, 198, 11–31.Google Scholar
  24. Hoffmeyer, J. (2014b). Semiotic Scaffolding: A Biosemiotic Link Between Sema and Soma. In K. R. Cabell & J. Valsiner (Eds.), The Catalyzing Mind: Beyond Models of Causality (pp. 95–110). Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hulswit, M. (2001). Peirce on Causality and Causation. In M. Bergman & J. Queiroz (Eds.), The Commens Encyclopedia: The Digital Encyclopedia of Peirce Studies. New Edition. Pub 120809-1715a. Retrieved from:
  26. Jacob, F. (1982). The Possible and the Actual. London: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  27. Kull, K. (2012). Scaffolding”. In D. Favareau, P. Cobley, & K. Kull (Eds.), A More Developed Sign: Interpreting the Work of Jesper Hoffmeyer (pp. 228–229). Tartu: Tartu University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Lotman, J. (1990). Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture.. Tauris: Shukman, A. trans London.Google Scholar
  29. Parmentier, R. (1994). Signs In Society: Studies In Semiotic Anthropology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Peirce, C. S. (1866–1913 [1931–1935]). Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Vol. 1–6). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Peirce, C. S. (1866–1913 [1958]). Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Vol. 7–8). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Peirce, C. S. (1867–1913 [1992–1998]). The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings. 2 volumes. Vol. 1: In: N. Houser & C. Kloesel (Eds.), Vol. 2: The Peirce Edition Project (Eds). Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Raczaszek-Leonardi, J. (2012). Language as a System of Replicable Constraints. In H.H. Pattee & J. Raczaszek-Leonardi (Eds.), Laws, Language and Life: Howard Pattee’s Classic Papers on the Physics of Symbols (pp. 295–332). Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  34. Ransdell, J. (1977). Some leading ideas in Peirce’s semiotic. Semiotica, 19, 157–178.Google Scholar
  35. Sebeok, T. A. (2001). Global Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Steels, L. (Ed.). (2012). Experiments in Cultural Language Evolution. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  37. Steels, L., & Hild, M. (Eds.). (2012). Language Grounding in Robots. Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  38. Taddeo, M., & Floridi, L. (2005). Solving the symbol grounding problem: a critical review of fifteen years of research. Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Life, 17(5), 419–445.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Uexküll, J. (1934 [1992]). A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds. Semiotica 89(4), 319–391.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University Scholars Programme, National University of SingaporeSingaporeSingapore

Personalised recommendations