Kull Plenary

Kalevi Kull, Tartu University

Meaning-making, Gestalt, and the Phenomenal Present

[...] what most concerned me was to underscore the

conflict, continually latent, between the correlational

and inferential notions of the sign. (Eco 2014: 171)

Following Umberto Eco's understanding of general semiotics (as defined in Eco 1999), the common object for semiotics is semiosis. Accepting that semiosis exists in (at least some) other species of living beings, the study of its origins and primary forms belongs to the area of biosemiotics.

Consider the following implications. Semiosis includes interpretation. Interpretation necessarily assumes a choice between possibilities—this is what makes interpretation different from other processes (mostly identified as physical). Possibility and choice mutually assume each other. In order to have choice, there should be more than one possibility at a time. Thus possibility is never single. In order not to be single, the possibilities should be simultaneous. This means, possibilites for a choice should exist in the present. Since process cannot be instantaneous, the present should have an extension in physical time. This kind of present is called the subjective (or phenomenal) present—the Now. The duration of the subjective present (moment, according to K. E. von Baer) as the condition for simultaneity has been measured to last from some milliseconds to some seconds (see, e.g., Pöppel, Bao 2014).

From this we conclude that the irreducibility of sign relation (both Peircean and Saussurean) can be understood as the non-sequentionality or simultaneity of the aspects of sign. We present a model according to which the origin of semiosis is equivalent to the origin of subjective present. We admit that the existence of gestalt would be impossible without subjective present. According to this approach, biosemiosis always includes a cognitive aspect. This means that sign relations emerge as cognitive processes, not as evolutionary adaptations (more in Kull 2015; 2018).

Historically, we find some common points with Viktor von Weizsäcker's (1940) concept of Gestaltkreis, Julius Fraser's (1999) idea of time as conflict and the organic present as a necessary and sufficient condition of life, and Francisco Varela's (1999) naturalization of phenomenology. These can be seen as steps towards a general biosemiotic model of meaning-making.

This model implies that the more complex the sign, the more expanded should be the phenomenal present, while symbols and symbolic complexes expand it the most. Accordingly, the sign types and temporal windows are mutually dependent.

Eco, U. 1999. Semiotics in the next millennium. (Lecture given at the 7th International Congress of the IASS-AIS, October 6, 1999).

Eco, U. 2014. The dog that barked (and other zoosemiotic archaeologies). In: Eco, U., From the Tree to the Labyrinth: Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 171–222.

Fraser, J. T. 1999. Time, Conflict, and Human Values. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Kull, K. 2015. Semiosis stems from logical incompatibility in organic nature: Why biophysics does not see meaning, while biosemiotics does. Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 119(3): 616–621.

Kull, K. 2018. On the logic of animal umwelten: The animal subjective present and zoosemiotics of choice and learning. In: Marrone G.; Mangano, D. (eds.), Semiotics of Animals in Culture: Zoosemiotics 2.0. (Biosemiotics 17.) Cham: Springer, 135–148.

Pöppel, E.; Bao, Y. 2014. Temporal windows as a bridge from objective to subjective time. In: Arstila, V.; Lloyd, D. (eds.), Subjective Time: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Temporality. Cambridge: MIT Press, 241–262.

Varela, F. J. 1999. The specious present: A neurophenomenology of time consciousness. In: Petitot, J.; Varela, F. J.; Pachoud, B.; Roy, J-M. (eds.), Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 266–314.

Weizsäcker, V. von 1940. Der Gestaltkreis: Theorie der Einheit von Wahrnehmen und Bewegen. Leipzig: Georg Thieme Verlag.