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This Special Issue of Hortus Semioticus on the semiotics of nature offers the readers a variety of papers about nature, more specifically on topics of meaning, representation, signification, etc. Several international journals have already published special issues on aspects of semiotics of nature. These include Sign Systems Studies‘ Semiotics of Nature (Vol. 29.1), Biosemiotics (Vol. 30.1), Semiotics of Jakob von Uexküll (Vol. 32.1/2), and Zoosemiotics (Vol. 37.3/4), and Semiotica‘s Biosemiotica (Vol 127. 1/4) and Jakob von Uexküll (Vol 134.1/4). For one journal — Biosemiotics, with its full focus on the questions of biological sign-relations — every issue is so to speak a special issue on the topic. The current volume of Hortus Semioticus is in a sense a follow up to those collections of semiotics of nature, mediating the research done by young researchers from semiotics or other fields of the humanities close to semiotics. All of the authors of the current issue are MA or PhD students, and their contributions emphasize semiotic aspects in and of nature.

Biosemiotics and other brands of semiotics of nature have played, and do play, a decisive role within semiotics in Estonia and Tartu, as they do in a number of other semiotic centres in countries like Denmark, the Czech Republic, Italy, Finland, and the USA. The last few years have seen several events in Tartu related to semiotics of nature, organised by the Department of Semiotics and Jakob von Uexküll Centre. Another such event of international scope follows next year, when the conference “Zoosemiotics and Animal Representations” is arranged (Tartu, April 4-8, 2011).

At the occasion of this Special Issue, we are happy to have gathered a diverse group of contributors based in Estonia, Germany, Sweden and the UK, with nationals of these countries plus Italy, Norway, Ukraine and the USA represented.

The special issue starts with Remo Gramigna’s article, which addresses “Augustine’s legacy for the history of zoosemiotics”. He proposes a reading of St. Augustine’s philosophical writings which sheds light on his understanding of animal communication and – even more so – human non-verbal communication. Gramigna stresses that zoosemiotics deals not only with animal communication, but further with human modes of communication which transcend natural language, such as gestures and finger-pointing.

The contribution by John Haglund and Johan Blomberg, like the previous article, touches upon the human semiotics of non-linguistic communication, and attempts to use this focus as a vehicle for further reflections and analysis. The authors introduce their notion of “The meaning-sharing network”. Meaning, they claim, is not “in the head”, nor is it independent of the individual members that constitute it. It is rather to be located in what they term the meaning-sharing network. Meaning, in other words, is distributed. Their notion is explicated in terms of three characteristics — first-person organizing of lived experience, the moments of natural and signified meaning-sharing, and consensus. While apparently investigating the nature of language, Haglund and Blomberg are in fact arguing that linguistic meaning does not make sense unless we acknowledge that it relies heavily on non-linguistic factors.

While the previous article was critical about the head-bound concepts of meaning, the contribution by Silver Rattasepp further introduces critical views about the skin-bound definitions of the organism. The article “The idea of the extended organism in 20th century thought” contends that the organism cannot be delimited only on a morphological basis, and suggests instead an environment-bound, activity-based understanding of the organism. The article provides a historical overview of the authors who have developed the idea, starting with end of the 19th century pragmatist philosophy and ending with the “extended mind” concept of modern philosophy of mind.

A follow up to the question of the borders of organic forms is provided by a reflection on the origins of natural forms in the next article. In her paper “On form, function and meaning: Working out the foundations of biosemiotics”, Sara Cannizzaro provides an insightful account of the congruency between the ideas of two authors, important for cybernetics as well as biosemiotics: Jakob von Uexküll and D’Arcy Thompson. The paper discusses Thompson’s theory of form, which was to provide a common mathematical grounding for natural forms, both living and non-living, and sets it on a comparative ground with Uexküll’s ideas about the meaning-based relations of biological form and function. Although the theories of the two authors were developed for different reasons, the article explicates the complementarity of the two sets of ideas in understanding the causes and purposes of living forms. 

Also Svitlana Biedarieva, in her essay “Reflections in the Umwelten”, builds her reflection on the work of Jakob von Uexküll. She discusses relations between the reflected and the reflections. This perspective allows for incorporating reflections of self to some extent into subjects’ own world and thus creating natural relations between the subject and his reflection. When looking into the mirror, beings with self-recognition and other-recognition have different perceptions and ways of acting on the perceived. This creates relations between the reflected and the reflection which befit each subject’s communicative abilities.

The problem of the familiar and non-familiar likewise comes forth in the paper by Arlene Tucker. Her article “A metaphor is a metaphor” concentrates on anthropomorphism as a means to detect common features that humans have with other species. In this sense, metaphors used in anthropomorphizing are not figures of speech but tools to clarify something strange or unknown through something familiar. On the other hand, using anthropomorphism will always remain ambiguous; because metaphors, when not backed up with scientific evidence and relying on culture-specific perceptions, undermine the descriptive capability of anthropomorphism.

In the light of Tucker’s discussion of anthropomorphism, it is interesting to read the next paper, by Patrick Masius, as a demonstration of how non-human nature can at certain occasions obtain a more human character than humans themselves. In his article, Masius analyses the meaning that nature acquires for humans under extreme conditions of oppression, on the basis of two novels: Spark of Life by Erich Maria Remarque and The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary. The article discloses the redeeming role other living beings may take in a situation where humanity has discredited itself through violence and humiliation. The non-human animals and plants thereby appear for the oppressed as signs of the not-fully-vanished dignity and liberty; as heralds of the new beginning.

As a follow-up to the articles of this Special Issue Riin Magnus and Morten Tønnessen interview professor in biosemiotics Kalevi Kull. The biosemiotic research done in Tartu nowadays is largely based on the initiative and efforts of professor Kull. He can also be considered as one of the key-figures in the current international biosemiotic community. The interview, entitled “The bio-translator”, presents Kull’s academic biography with regard to biosemiotics, and dwells with his reflections about the past and present state of the field. Kull’s work is characterized by ongoing attempts to make syntheses out of apparently contradictory positions, so as to advance biosemiotic thought. The interview text — and the Special Issue — ends with Kalevi Kull’s complete biosemiotic bibliography, which amounts to 165 titles, most of which in English or Estonian.

The special issue ends with a reflection and two overviews. In her semiotic meditation, Kaie Kotov reflects on the significance of habit in binding two human related systems — noosphere and semioshere — and the role it plays in human-induced environmental change. The final contributions provide an overview (in Estonian) of two recent publications — Acta Semiotica Estica VII and a book by Anti Randviir, called Ruumisemiootika: tähendusliku maailma kaardistamine (Semiotics of Space: Mapping the Meaningful World).

If we were to point out a few further trends, or commonalities, in these papers, we could mention that several of them are in a sense searching for the hidden shapes — determining forces, organizational principles — of meaningful reality. We can further observe that some of the papers look to the past (including Masius’, Rattasepp’s and Cannizzaro’s contributions), while others have no temporal (in the sense of historical) horizon. But one could argue that it is not only the interview with Kalevi Kull that has a view to the future. By re-reading past theories and re-framing current terminology (no matter how experimentally), so do several other papers. In sum this Special Issue aims to demonstrate that various strains of semiotics of nature can be of interest in very different academic contexts — not only that of biology or semiotics proper. We hope that for some of our readers, one of these papers will trigger an interest in the field, or open yet new horizons.

Riin Magnus,
Nelly Mäekivi
Morten Tønnessen

University of Tartu, Department of Semiotics


The current work (this introduction, and the editing of the special issue) has been carried out as part of the research projects The Cultural Heritage of Environmental Spaces: A Comparative Analysis between Estonia and Norway (EEA–ETF Grant EMP 54) (Tønnessen), Dynamical Zoosemiotics and Animal Representations (ETF/ESF 7790) (Mäekivi, Tønnessen) and Biosemiotic Models of Semiosis (ETF/ESF 8403) (Magnus, Tønnessen), and partaking in the Centre of excellence in cultural theory (CECT).