Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Semiosis as Relational Becoming

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_25



Semiosis is widely understood as the process by which humans make meaning, drawing on more than linguistic resources alone. For Charles S. Peirce, however, semiosis is no less than evolution itself, driving forward all universal processes, from the play of cosmic forces to the progress of human thought. Something is always in relation to something, or some things, else (that it is not) such that a third or interpretant (to use Peirce’s terms) is produced, which itself stands in relation to, on Peirce’s account, both sign per se and its object. The specific concern of edusemiotics is with how human beings develop in the context of the broader universe of signification: in effect, the universe as permeated with signs, both human and nonhuman, both linguistic and extralinguistic. Edusemiotics defies the logic of either-or in favor of both-and. Accordingly, it goes beyond classical humanist assumptions about the discreteness of the human condition grounded in Cartesian and Newtonian beliefs about the separateness of two substances, rational mind and mechanical matter, without lapsing into either pure cognitivist idealism or crude behaviorist empiricism. It acknowledges fully both the embodiment of the human condition and its relationship with the nonhuman. The fully semiotic account of education is necessarily posthumanist.

Be(com)ing Human: Toward a Posthumanist, Relational Framework for Educational Policy and Practice

The sign, as an irreducible minimal unit of semiosis, makes sense only in its context, as the word in its sentence, the sentence in the text, and the stem cell in the part of the body in which it is to serve. In short, things are defined by what they are not, by those other things to which they exist in relation. This insight is merely an extension of the basic tenets of Saussurean structural linguistics. The broader (Peircean) perspective posits semiosis as a dynamic process, the transformation of signs per se. The sign is not a fixed entity but is ever changing: sometimes slowly, like the rock, and sometimes quickly, like the gust of wind. We must understand things, therefore, with reference to what they are not and as always becoming. These premises lead to theories of the human, the child, and education (Stables 2008/2011, 2012). Such theories are both fully semiotic, in taking the sign as the basic unit of analysis and semiosis as a process that embraces evolution and adaptation as well as specifically cultural meaning, and posthumanist, in the sense of denying the absolute distinctness of human essence and mind. This posthumanist perspective on education stresses the interdependence of human and nonhuman life: both are embedded in semiosis as a relational process of signs becoming other.

Both religious and secular humanisms encounter problems on two fronts: in defining where human identity begins and ends and in explaining the supposed uniqueness of the human mind manifested in its powers of reason and language. If it were self-evident where human life begins and ends, there would be no strong debates on abortion, children’s rights, or end of life. The violence and complexity of these debates reveal fault lines in humanist assumptions. Can the fertilized egg really be regarded as human or the not yet independently breathing baby as nonhuman? Is the brain-dead accident victim on life support as fully human as the doctor who treats him? These ethical questions emerge from taking a dualistic prospective on human nature as opposite to nonhuman and the all-or-nothing human condition. But the human is never fully human; it is always concerned with becoming human (even if not always consciously) in terms of an orientation toward flourishing. The human is trying to perfect being human, simultaneously falling short in this but defining her humanity through her failure and vulnerability.

This perspective differs from the classical humanist position in terms of treatment of the other. If we are a priori fully human, then others (even other humans) inevitably fall short of our expectations through their differences. Humanism, which overtly commits to peaceful coexistence, contains within itself the seeds of mutual destruction. If we begin with our sense of ourselves as struggling to meet our human aspirations, we are more inclined to sympathize with others of our species and may be more sympathetic to those sentient beings guided by different regulative ideals. To be human on this account is therefore to be on a quest for greater human flourishing in the context of other forms of life and nonlife that are not dismissed as mere resources to enable us to meet selfish ends. If we destroy the not us which defines us, then we also damage ourselves. Given that a fully semiotic position regards evolution and adaptation as matters of semiosis, the move from a humanist to a posthumanist age is in the interests of human flourishing. After several centuries in which the human interest has considered itself best served by dismissing the natural environment as mechanical resource, humanity now acknowledges its relational debt to the nonhuman and its duty to value biodiversity. Interestingly, animal studies have increasingly come to recognize similarities with, rather than differences from, the human. Recent work on primate communication that shows how monkeys follow basic linguistic laws forms one striking example of this (Semple et al. 2010).

Regarding specifically educational theory, the edusemiotic, process-oriented, and relational account offers a number of radical insights. The first is the problematization of the child. If adults are not finite beings, the power of the common conception that children are adults-in-the-making is compromised. Increasingly, social theory posits the “kidult” as flexible and uncertain, in opposition to the assumption of adulthood as a settled state, akin to Aristotle’s fulfillment of a citizenship role. Less and less do we expect a person to do the same job or have the same interests and inclinations from the end of childhood to a fixed age of retirement and inevitable decline. The current uncertainty and widespread anxiety about childhood is at root a problem grounded in the unsettling of adulthood. If adulthood is not clearly definable, then childhood too cannot be defined. Furthermore, if a child’s legal and educational rights are defined with respect to the rights of adults on the grounds that the latter are fully human, then agreement on those rights is proving increasingly problematic. On the other hand, insofar as adults are the engagers with signs, so are children. The fact that children’s relatively limited life experiences render them less able to act safely and reliably as apparently autonomous agents should not be confused as a simple fact of biological and psychological development, for no adults are fully autonomous or reliable either. This perspective has implications for teaching, learning, and educational policy. Semiosis cannot be stopped or ultimately controlled by any agent or group of agents, and the narrow focus on educational outcomes and precise evaluation of institutions and organizations necessarily leads to damaging reductionism.

The edusemiotic premise that knowledge is always contextual does not imply that it has no transferability. Still, what the adult speaks in the context of one set of relationships, the child hears in the context of another so that what something means varies between interpreters and changes over time. What is being taught is never quite what students learn. At the same time, we rely on the next generation to solve the problems we have left them. Succeeding generations are always required to feed a growing population or deal with a degraded environment. It is counterproductive, therefore, to continue with an educational regime that is grounded in the mechanistic language of precisely defined learning objectives. Whatever we teach, it remains unclear whether students will have learned this content, and we require new insights from new generations. In the long run, the outcomes of teaching cannot be fully predicted, and educators and students, as embedded in semiotic relations, both exercise their respective judgments and reflect and modify their cultural positions. If governments intend to go on funding education, they must do so on a basis of some trust, or they will impoverish what they are funding by stages as they increase ever greater control over it. Ultimately, such attempts at control will fail, just as totalitarian government will ultimately fail, but much repression of human aspiration can take place in the process.

Educational policy is so far a long way from acknowledging the insights offered by this fully semiotic, posthumanist account that posits both teachers and learners as engaged in relations and interpreting signs situated in the greater, cultural and natural, environment. The application of edusemiotic theory in practice demands transformation of the structure of the school system and has important implications for the degree to which learning outcomes can be predicted. Considering that semiosis operates at both conscious and unconscious levels, if we take a broad view of interpretation as a response across those levels, then edusemiotics posits a view of the student as an interpreter rather than a plain receiver of education. Respectively, teachers are interpreters of their students’ signs, both verbal or explicit and nonverbal or subtle. Schools are not mere preparations for adult life, which is too a matter of continuous interpretation. Rather, schools are places where people develop interests and skills that they may continue to develop in later life, within the process of semiosis. A much quoted educational “opportunity” is only an opportunity if interpreted as such, even if not immediately.

Edusemiotics defies an all-or-nothing approach to schooling. Instead, schools should offer increasing scope for student interpretation rather than taking the view that the formative years should be mainly devoted to acquiring knowledge and skills to be deployed later, during the adult years. There is, in reality, no such sudden switch, and children are not motivated to learn that which has no value for them in relation to their ongoing life process. In relation to this, one of the hardest things for educators and policy makers to acknowledge is that (perceived) compulsion is one of the strongest detrimental factors in education. As soon as students are old enough to make their minds up about anything, they are able to plan and decide how they will respond to any particular educational intervention, and they will respond most probably when motivated by resonance with their own aspirations toward a more satisfying human condition. Some contested areas that elicit contemporary debates in educational theory while simultaneously expanding the scope of edusemiotics are listed below.

The Specialness of the Human

The account outlined in this entry is one that regards differences between the human and the nonhuman, between immaterial mind and material nature, as always of degree rather than kind. This relationship is construed somewhat differently by various commentators. Some take an anthroposemiotic view, arguing that full semiosis only occurs at the level of the rational human (and perhaps divine) mind. Whether such accounts make the case for, or merely assume, the specialness of human-meaning making is a matter of debate. Deely (2009) construes as metasemiosis the action of signs coming to terms with beings as beings, both mind dependent and mind independent, with relationality transcending the customary subject-object and mind-matter divides that are the legacy of Cartesian dualism. Some edusemioticians, such as Pikkarainen, have regarded full semiosis as the province of the human, but do not explain this simply by virtue of humans having a biologically distinct capacity for reason.

It is clear from the range of such accounts that the distinctness case for humanity, from the edusemiotic perspective, can be variously construed. There are many points of possible compromise, not least in recognizing that as humans, we inevitably take the human species as being better at the things we humans usually do than other species are. In debates within educational theory, while often little hangs on where one sits in relation to this debate, the implications of this position can be wide ranging (Stables 2012). Whatever one’s position on this, a purely mechanistic account of physical nature is clearly in conflict with the unlimited semiosis described by Peircean relational categories.

Some debates in this area thus map closely onto broader philosophical questions around rationality and realism. These, in turn, relate to debates around the nature of the semiotic object.

The Rational Belief Systems Problem

If semiosis pervades, even constitutes, the universe, is the whole universe and everything in it rational? There are live debates within edusemiotics about the limits and scopes of both rationality and realism. Notable examples include Inna Semetsky’s research on the symbolism of tarot that culminated in her exploration of this medium from the edusemiotic perspective (Semetsky 2013), which takes this phenomenon out of the supernatural realm by postulating the radical rationality of edusemiotics per se. A second is a range of views about the importance of the semiotic/Peircean object in learning that can refer to a material entity, a physical process, a purely psychological entity, or a merely another sign, as well as – while grammatically singular – to a collective or range of the above. A third is a wide range of views among semioticians about the validity of forms of religious and nonscientific thinking. Connected to this is a debate about semiotic realism, again turning somewhat on the conceptions of the object, with semioticians positioned on a continuum from strong Peircean realism to strongly relativistic poststructuralism. These debates continue to prove productive in the context of edusemiotics. For example, one can sympathize with Olteanu’s realist thesis that learning begins with the recognition of similarity and proceeds, across Peirce’s categories, from icon to argument (Olteanu 2015). Edusemiotics posits that teachers often work on the basis of their own and their students’ preconceptions and habits of thought (that may be irrational or unconscious); this poses a problem to those who espouse simple transmission models of educational practice that assume a priori Cartesian rationality and disregard individuals’ commitments to pluralistic models of reality, including the reality of signs.

Indeterminate Outcomes

Because education is such a politicized field and so dependent on State funding, the fully semiotic commitment to unpredictable outcomes presents an option that many policy makers are simply unwilling to consider. Policy makers seem determined to continue breaking “Stables’ Law” (Stables 2012): that universal conclusions cannot be validly inferred from contingent premises. What is put into the system in one context cannot be guaranteed to produce identical outcomes to the same intervention in another context. If context A has a perceived weakness and intervention X produced apparent improvement in context B, it may be erroneously assumed that the same improvement will occur if the intervention is applied to A (AX = BX). Unfortunately, this is never the case (AX ≠ BX). Interventions can never account for all the variables at play in either A or B. On the account of performance, policy makers would be giving into weakness to admit this. According to Lyotard (1986), public services in many parts of the world operate in a narrowly performative manner, in which success is determined by the measurable achievement of predetermined outcomes: in everyday terms, a sausage machine model that conceives of teachers as the inputters and students as the outputs. Educators generally recognize such limitations, regardless of their commitment to edusemiotics that elicits the necessity to embed semiotic insights into educational policy making, even if the transformative process may take a long time. As long as politicians and/or educational policy makers seek quickly achieved, measurable outcomes as the proof of their effectiveness in office or institution, they are likely to resist accounts that stress the ubiquity of interpretation pertaining to edusemiotics and hence continue to be committed to narrow conceptions of education and its aims. Edusemiotics shares the democratic politics as a matter of open-ended debate, in relations with others and in mutual exploration; it is time, a full century after Dewey’s Democracy and Education, to acknowledge fully that education should be conducted in this spirit.


A growing body of work is broadly in line with the fully semiotic, posthumanist approach, outlined here, whereby humans are considered to be in dynamic relations with a greater posthuman environment. Among examples acknowledging their semiotic roots are Pesce’s work on teacher development and Pigrum’s on creative teaching and learning processes (Pesce 2014; Pigrum 2014). Stables’ work with Gough on learning as interpretation and adaptation speaks more strongly to the posthumanist strand in the thinking (Gough and Stables 2012). There are further developing areas, including a recent collaboration with Adam Ockelford, whose work on musical interaction with children with disabilities is already internationally renowned but which can be further strengthened through more explicit use of resources from edusemiotics (Ockelford 2010) and the bringing together of researchers in biological anthropology with semioticians to develop the understandings of human-nonhuman communications as a research area within educational semiotics.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of RoehamptonLondonUK