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2019 Book MulticulturalismAsMultimodalCo

Numanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress 9
Alin Olteanu
as Multimodal
A Semiotic Perspective
Numanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress
Volume 9
Series Editor
Dario Martinelli, Faculty of Creative Industries, Vilnius Gediminas Technical
University, Vilnius, Lithuania
The series originates from the need to create a more proactive platform in the form
of monographs and edited volumes in thematic collections, to discuss the current
crisis of the humanities and its possible solutions, in a spirit that should be both
critical and self-critical.
“Numanities” (New Humanities) aim to unify the various approaches and
potentials of the humanities in the context, dynamics and problems of current
societies, and in the attempt to overcome the crisis.
The series is intended to target an academic audience interested in the following
– Traditional fields of humanities whose research paths are focused on issues of
current concern;
– New fields of humanities emerged to meet the demands of societal changes;
– Multi/Inter/Cross/Transdisciplinary dialogues between humanities and social
and/or natural sciences;
– Humanities “in disguise”, that is, those fields (currently belonging to other
spheres), that remain rooted in a humanistic vision of the world;
– Forms of investigations and reflections, in which the humanities monitor and
critically assess their scientific status and social condition;
– Forms of research animated by creative and innovative humanities-based
– Applied humanities.
More information about this series at
Alin Olteanu
as Multimodal
A Semiotic Perspective
Alin Olteanu
International Semiotics Institute
Kaunas University of Technology
Kaunas, Lithuania
ISSN 2510-442X
ISSN 2510-4438 (electronic)
Numanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress
ISBN 978-3-030-17882-6
ISBN 978-3-030-17883-3 (eBook)
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To all refugees.
This monograph was written during a two-year postdoctoral research period at
Kaunas University of Technology, from 2016 to 2018. This was possible, first of
all, because of the International Semiotics Institute, hosted at this university at the
time. I shall allow myself a reformulation of this context that conveys to the reader a
personal perspective. This monograph on multiculturalism was written in Eastern
Europe, more specifically, in former Soviet-occupied territory. The project started
in the year of the Brexit referendum in the UK, of the election of Donald Trump as
the President of the USA, and the general rising of antidemocratic populism in the
European Union and, in general, around the world. During the writing of this
monograph, some developing members of the European Union, such as Poland,
Hungary and Romania, seem to have lost their national justice institutions to oligarchic political regimes. Italy arrived at yet another political crisis, seemingly
solved through the coalition of the two openly racist political parties, as together
leading in vote numbers. Particularly, this rise of antidemocratic tendencies is
connected with the global refugee and humanitarian crisis, which, in a false rhetoric
of populist politicians, is deemed as the cause for the social problems of the
Western, developed world.
As democracy is in global decline and nationalist and, implicitly, isolationist
discourses are fueling hatred toward one’s neighbors, some fortunate (underpaid
and overworked) academics still have a safe space, with a desk and a library, to
write and speak their minds honestly. This monograph points fingers at these
academics and timidly cries out, irresponsible hypocrites! Its main purpose is that
of criticizing the mainstream academic theories of multiculturalism, as particularly
relevant to democracy, globalization, digitalization and intercultural communication
that, as seen on the territory, failed to deliver a program for democracy and conviviality. The reason identified for this failure is not so much the failure to
implement research into actual policy, as often discussed, but, mostly, the academic
argumentation itself. More precisely, this reason is the comfortable and slothful
lingering in academic discourse of an ideological theory of culture, first signaled by
Eriksen and Stjernfelt (2010, 2012). Yet another, connected reason, is the slothfulness of humanities research in general, the very crisis of the humanities, and the
reluctance of this academic area to keep up the pace with, first of all, social and
natural sciences, and, also, with the digitalization of human societies. This second
reason constitutes the red thread of the book series to which this volume belongs
(see Martinelli 2016). In this second regard particularly, the author is obliged to
point his accusing fingers at himself and at his book, as well. There is much work to
be done toward the reformation of the humanities as appropriate for these revolutionary times.
Both on the academic and on the political scenes, the situation is simultaneously
desperate and opportune, as Dario Martinelli considers as well that the impasse
of the humanities is a very valuable opportunity (2016).
In an interview in 2012, Umberto Eco stated:
The university exchange programme Erasmus is barely mentioned in the business sections
of newspapers, yet Erasmus has created the first generation of young Europeans. I call it a
sexual revolution: a young Catalan man meets a Flemish girl—they fall in love, they get
married and they become European, as do their children. The Erasmus idea should be
compulsory—not just for students, but also for taxi drivers, plumbers and other workers. By
this, I mean they need to spend time in other countries within the European Union; they
should integrate. (Eco in Riotta 2012a, b)
I agree with Umberto Eco’s argument. Eco argued for the seemingly trivial,
hippie idea of “making love not war” through an anecdote. He explained how a
Catalan and a Flemish exchange student fall in love and establish a family, thus
leaving behind ideologies of separatism in favor of a non-ideological ethnic and
cultural identity blindness. This led Eco to call European study exchange programs
a “sexual revolution.” Eco’s example contains three elements: sex, learning, and the
refutation of violence. Eco’s anecdote excellently sums up the present monograph’s
This monograph was written in times of war and merciless atrocities that the
author, like many academics located in (what are called) developed countries, has
never seen directly. The academic crisis of the humanities is simultaneous with a
humanitarian and refugee crisis. This crisis is easily described in numbers.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) (2018), in this
moment in time, there are 65.6 million forcibly displaced people, out of which 22.5
million are refugees. Only 189,300 of them have been resettled. Out of these, only
17% are in Europe. The fact that 10 million people are stateless should urge us to
fundamentally change our concepts of state and citizenship. I consider that the
humanitarian crisis is related to the crisis of the humanities: It is not uncommon to
assume a connection between the diminished liberal curriculum and the decline of
democracy. As such, I salute Paul Cobley’s (in Bankov and Cobley 2017: 4–5)
criticism of Nussbaum’s (2010) defense of the humanities: While the humanities do
not produce immediate profit, such as engineering or management does, they are
not entirely without profit. Humanities research should well seek to improve the
quality of humans living in the here and now.
In a local concern, while the Republic of Lithuania has room to host academics
to research multiculturalism—no small thing—it hardly has any room for refugees,
despite what policy research suggests. According to Aleknevičienė (2013),
individuals who have been granted asylum in Lithuania feel as though they are
inferior, useless and unwanted outsiders (their human rights are limited, being
imprisoned, that is, being bound psychologically and geographically). The UNHCR
data points out to Lithuania’s strategy of unlawfully detaining and imprisoning
asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors. Arguably, Lithuanian authorities
use this strategy to keep refugees away from Lithuanian society as much as possible
until when, eventually, they are expelled. According to the nonprofit research center
the Global Detention Project (GDP) (2018), in 2014 alone, 1930 persons who
sought asylum in Lithuania were expelled. Given this hostile attitude toward asylum seekers, it is impossible for this vulnerable community to develop social capital
or to integrate and discover their place within Lithuanian society. Lithuanian
authorities achieved their purpose of spreading the rumor among refugees that
Lithuania is hostile toward them. As a result, refugees are avoiding Lithuania.
Unfortunately, while the case of Lithuania is particularly alarming, it is not the only
such situation.
The theoretical arguments that this monograph builds up revolve around conceptualizations of culture. In short, starting with the beginning of the twentieth
century, and particularly after the Second World War, culture has been used as a
justification for separatism and even violence. This is where the mentioned ideological bias in cultural theories becomes visible. While I agree with Eco’s
above-mentioned “sexual revolution,” with all due respect to this most impressive
philosopher and semiotician of the twentieth century, I do not agree with him
anymore “that it is culture, not war, that cements our [European] identity” (Eco in
Riotta 2012a, b). In my opinion, war is most effective for cementing identity, be it
European or otherwise. Populist politicians are aware of this fact and use it persuasively. Actually, populist rhetoric often starts from the other end: It emphasizes a
supposed importance of identity, cultural or otherwise, for the purpose of generating conflict and separatism. To have an identity means to be different from others.
To have a cultural identity means to be the same as some, by opposition to others.
To Eco’s claim I answer that, for a peaceful and democratic European Union (or
any other political formation), we need to stop caring about cultural identity.
Cultural identity is by no means a prerequisite for enforcing human and citizen
rights. Neither is it necessary for communication and collaboration. I have all the
right reasons, even for the sake of nothing else but my own prosperity, to collaborate peacefully. Peaceful collaboration, development and scientific research can be
the outcomes of pragmatic (philosophical) reasoning, independent of cultural
The present monograph argues, particularly in view of certain semiotic theories,
but not only, that culture does not play the central role that, in general, the
humanities have attributed to it, in identity formation and, more importantly, in
human organization and behavior. Umberto Eco’s claim about culture and identity
supposes (1) that a political formation (the EU) is only justified and functional on
the ground of an existing, corresponding cultural identity, (2) that culture cannot
have war, or violence, as a characteristic and implicitly (3) that monoculturalism is
less conflictual than multiculturalism. This view on culture is an ideological
remnant of (early) twentieth century refutations of racism. It was used as an
argument to achieve the invaluable goal of refuting racism, but, nevertheless, it
justified isolationism on account of supposed cultural identity and values.
The advocated semiotic theory of multiculturalism is developed in six chapters.
The first chapter offers an overview of mainstream multiculturalism theories and
their development in view of an ideological concept of culture that implies the
possibility of monocultural and monolingual communities, a rigid notion of cultural
identity and the resulting theory of politics of recognition.
The second chapter discusses the role that semiotic theories based on notions of
opposition and difference have in for cultural theory and for the concept of cultural
identity. The theoretical inconsistencies of cultural relativism and its dangerous
implications for policy and politics are discussed.
In the third chapter, an argument in favor of mereological semiotics, comprehensive of the crucial roles of iconicity but also of indexicality, is elaborated.
Particularly, this chapter advocates for the necessity of biocentrism, achieved in
biosemiotics, of any cultural theory.
The fourth chapter consists in a discussion on versions of pragmatism and their
consequences for multiculturalism. Pluralism has been a debated topic in early
pragmatism. Some of the pragmatic accounts of pluralism result in arguments in
favor of isolationism as a means to preserve diversity. Biosemiotics inherited
Charles Peirce’s version of semiotic pragmatism, inclusive of his specific concept
of continuity and its implications for the construal of diversity and pluralism that do
not endorse isolationism.
The fifth chapter develops a biosemiotic approach to multiculturalism, as an
alternative to existing anthropocentric and language-centered cultural relativist
theories. The theory is founded on Cobley’s (2016) biosemiotic approach to culture.
The sixth chapter joins together the elaborated arguments with semiotic theories
of multimodal communication with the purpose of setting the ground for a new
theory of intercultural communication. The emerging theory is deemed aware of
embodiment phenomenology and its consequences for knowledge and communication, particularly as expressed in biosemiotics.
Kaunas, Lithuania
Alin Olteanu
Aleknevičienė, Jolanta. 2013. (Iš)gyvenimas Lietuvoje: prieglobsčio ieškančiu ir prieglobsti
gavusiu užsieniečiu patirtis [Life (or survival) in Lithuania: experiences of foreigners seeking
asylum and those that have been granted asylum]. Etniškumo Studijos [Ethnicity Studies] 1:
Bankov, Kristian, and Paul Cobley (eds.). 2017. Semiotics and its masters. Berlin: de Gruyter
Cobley, Paul. 2016. Cultural implications of biosemiotics. Dordrecht: Springer.
Eriksen, Jens-Martin, and Frederik Stjernfelt. 2010. Culturalism—From idea to unconscious
presupposition. Sociologija II (4): 359–376.
Eriksen, Jens-Martin, and Frederik Stjernfelt. 2012. The democratic contradictions of multiculturalism. New York: Telos Press.
Global Detention Project. 2018. Accessed 24 June 2018.
Martinelli, Dario. 2016. Arts and humanities in progress: A manifesto of numanities. Cham:
Nussbaum, Martha C. 2010. Not for Profit—Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Riotta, Gianni. 2012a. Eco: scommeto sui giovaninati dalla rivoluzione Erasmus. La Stampa.
January 26.
Riotta, Gianni. 2012b. Interview: Umberto Eco: ‘It’s Culture, Not War That Cements European
Identity’. The Guardian. January 26.
The United Nations Refugee Agency. 2018. Statistical Yearbooks.
Accessed 31 May 2018.
I would like to thank wholeheartedly many friends and academics who helped and
inspired me to write this monograph, during a two-year postdoctoral research
project, offered by Kaunas University of Technology.
First, my heartfelt thanks go to Dario Martinelli, a mentor and a dear friend, who
supervised this research project, which resulted in this monograph.
Second, special thanks go to other friends who directly helped the writing
process, namely Frederik Stjernfelt, with whom I spent a month at University of
Aalborg, which was possible due to a COST Action Short Scientific Mission grant
(CA15130), and Timo Maran, Kalevi Kull and Lauri Linask, with whom I spent a
week at the University of Tartu, due to an Erasmus+ teaching grant.
Special thanks also to a number of people whose friendship and work plentifully
inspired this book, namely Andrew Stables (who has given me invaluable support
throughout my academic career), Paul Cobley, Florian Rabitz, Winfried Nöth, John
Tredinnick-Rowe, Sébastien Pesce, Eetu Pikkarainen, Rasa Erentaitė, Arianna
Ciula, Øvynd Eide, Cristina Marras, Lars Elleström, Dumitru Borţun, Sebastian
Feil, Cary Campbell, Kristian Bankov, Audronė Daubarienė, Natasa Lackovic,
Yuliya Martinavichene, Paulius Jevsejevas and Ovidiu Babeş.
I feel truly in debt to many people whose support, in some cases over years, in
other cases in certain localized moments when needed most, has been extremely
helpful. Among the many who helped, I would like to particularly thank and
mention Peer Bundgaard, Rabih El Chammay, Oana Andreică, Pietro Restaneo,
Aušra Berkmanienė, Ainius Lašas, Saulė Petronienė, Aistė Balžekienė, Audronė
Telešienė, Eglė Butkevičene, Mariana Neţ, Morten Tønnessen, Luis Emilio Bruni,
Merja Bauters, Živilė Sederevičiūtė-Pačiauskienė, Elena Kocai, Myrdene Andersen,
Bianca Cheregi, Werner Schäfke, Claus Emmeche, Henrik Nielsen, David Budtz
Pedersen, Agostino Pinna-Pintor, Vladimir Gheorghe, Rimantas Vosylis and Inna
Many thanks go to the students whom I encountered while writing this book and
who inspired me much more than I could inspire them—Emel Çelik, Basheer
Mohamed Sasvan, Leta Bielinytė, Miglė Pranckevičiutė, and many others studying
at Kaunas University of Technology, Vilnius Gediminas Technical University and,
particularly, at the University of Tartu’s Department of Semiotics.
I could not possibly thank enough my wife, Nancy Najm, not only for carefully
proofreading the manuscript, but also for patiently enduring all that she had to put
up with. Thanks to Fr Yves Dubois, Fr Seraphim Johnson, Fr Nicholas Sakharov,
James and Anya Johnson and to all those whom, even if not geographically close,
have been most supportive. Many thanks go also to my parents, Minela and Mircea
Olteanu, for all their support.
Praise for Multiculturalism as Multimodal
“This is a superbly committed, polemical volume which demonstrates the courage
to consider the global crisis and to point the finger at its perpetrators: not the usual
suspects, such as the media, the power elite or an undifferentiated other, but
something closer to home—human conceptions. In the face of STEM and the crass,
profit-driven attack on cultural life, and without resorting to unthinking multiculturalism and the liberal defence of human values, Olteanu presents a contemporary
semiotic account of the relevant problems, exposing not so much the role of ideology in the humanitarian crisis but the centrality of human cognition and its most
recent exercises in glottocentrism. This volume needs to be read by educational
policy-makers, liberal academics and students, especially, as well as semioticians
and the educated inquisitive reader.”
—Paul Cobley, Professor in Language and Media, Middlesex University
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.1 Multiculturalism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2 The Cultural Separatism of Multiculturalism: Where Does
Liverpool Street End and Hackney Begin? . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3 The Clash Between Empirical Research and Theoretical
Conservatism: The Acculturation Model . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.4 A Biosemiotic Notion of Plurality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.5 Criticism of Culturalism-Based Multiculturalism . . . . . . . .
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2 Cultural Relativism and Politics of Recognition . . . . . . . . .
2.1 Différance and Identity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.2 Text or Model Semiotics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.3 The Anti-cosmopolitan Argument in Structural Semiotics
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3 Semiotics and Multiculturalism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.1 Cultural Relativism and the Roots of Culturalism in the
Linguistic Turn . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.2 An Example of Glottocentric Culturalism: The Case
of Lithuania . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.3 The Monocultural Pluralism of Culturalism . . . . . . . . .
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4 Language, Culture and Pluralism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4.1 Pragmatic Concepts of Pluralism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4.2 Peirce’s Semiotic Pragmaticism and Triadism as Pluralism
4.3 Language and Culture Parallelism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5.1 Peirce and Biosemiotics: Culture in View of Modelling
5.2 The Symbolic Species Debate and Its Consequences
for Multiculturalism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5.3 Peircean Categories and Evolution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . 108
. . . . . . . . 111
6 An Embodied Approach to Intercultural Communication
6.1 Semiotic Body, Semiotic Text and Semiotic Culture . . .
6.2 Dualism and Monomodality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
6.3 Double Articulation: Linguistic Cartesianism . . . . . . . .
6.4 Double Articulation in Semiotics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
6.5 Text as Multimodal Presence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
6.6 Ecosemiotics as a Digital Media Theory . . . . . . . . . . .
6.7 A Biosemiotic Account of Typography . . . . . . . . . . . .
6.8 Writing as Scaffolding . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Chapter 1
Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
Abstract This chapter offers an overview of multiculturalism theories and explains
the main lines of criticism that this monograph develops. Most approaches to multiculturalism and intercultural communication are inherent of an ideological theory
of culture, termed culturalism. This doctrine uncritically presumes that culture overwrites individual freedom and collective capabilities for social organization, portraying human individuals and societies as captives of their culture and language
seen as one holistic, historically inherited superstructure. This concept of culture is
identified as originating, first, in early American anthropology, and also in American
pragmatism, and as entrenched during the 20th century by the assumptions of the
linguistic turn. The main arguments that recommend biosemiotics for an unbiased
theory of culture and multiculturalism, namely its biocentrism and detachment from
the linguistic turn, are explained.
1.1 Multiculturalism
Multiculturalism is conceived as a political theory, mainly stemming from political
discourse (see Werbner 2012; Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012: 103), which refers to
possible ways of answering to the challenges of cultural and religious diversity. As
the concept stems from the political and social sphere, it encountered quite some
scrutiny and criticism in the academe (see Werbner 2012; Eriksen and Stjernfelt
2010, 2012; Stjernfelt 2010; Guiora 2014). In the way in which it is currently used in
various discourses, “the term “multiculturalism” is often confusing and imprecise.”
(Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012: 1) While it is used as a descriptive and normative term,
it does not explicate “a substantive description of social coexistence, its various
experiences, nor even which cultures constitute the supposed multitude, nor how
these should co-exist.” (Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012: 1)
A first instinct might be to consider that for cultural analysis in and of a globalizing (or globalized) world, a concept and awareness of multiculturalism is necessary.
Nevertheless, in its current acceptance, the concept of multiculturalism makes sense
by supposing that cultural and religious diversities are bound to generate conflictual
tension. In addition, it construes diversity as a discrete set of unitary elements, where
© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019
A. Olteanu, Multiculturalism as Multimodal Communication,
Numanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress 9,
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
cultures “exist as easily identifiable units out there.” (Stjernfelt 2010: 169) This understanding of multiculturalism stems from the broad and heterogeneous framework of
cultural criticism that relativist anthropology and the language-centered philosophy
of the 20th century allowed. The very term of multiculturalism supposes that a plurality of cultures consists of clusters of cultures neighboring each other. It thus underpins
a similar misconception with the term inter-national, which assumes that globalism
consists of transfers across and among (inter-) nations. The same misconception is
suggested by the term intercultural, in discussions on intercultural communication, a
discipline of its own, at the intersection of communication and cultural studies (e.g.
Gudykunst 2003; Kiesling and Paulston 2005; Kotthoff and Spencer-Oatey 2007;
Hofstede et al. 2010). Particularly relevant for intercultural communication, but not
only, is another misconstrued concept, namely that of multilingualism. Like in the
case of multiculturalism implying monoculturalism as a possibility, multilingualism
is traditionally conceived as the pluralization of a state of monolingualism (see Lähteenmäki et al. 2011: 2). Lähteenmäki, Varis and Leppänen point out that this theory
has recently been challenged as unsatisfactory (2011).
To avoid the presuppositions of prefixes such as inter- and multi-, the term cosmopolitanism can be suggested to describe globalizing cultural phenomena. Interestingly, however, Papastephanou recently noted that “awareness of globally meaningful realities does not guarantee thoughts and actions that deserve the characterization ‘cosmopolitan’” (Papastephanou 2016: 2). Cosmopolitan, as Papastephanou
discusses, is thus another such term that requires further theoretical scrutiny.
The first problem with the assumption that a process can occur among and across
nations is that it supposes an objective reality of nations and their borders. The second problem is that it assumes that exchanges among nations can only be artificial
and limited. Multiculturalism implies the same for cultures: it supposes that cultures can be clearly defined from one another. Thus, the concept of multiculturalism
is problematic because (1) it supposes the existence of clearly contoured societies
and cultures (and nations on some accounts) which (2) mostly coincide with political states. In this sense, a multicultural society, or an international community, at
best, is a society where a number of distinct cultures co-exist peacefully within the
same setting. In this view, however, cultures are construed as distinct and closed
systems that can co-exist peacefully and which can perform “exchanges” with one
another. The existence of clear boundaries between cultures is implied. If cultures
(and languages) would not be conceived as strictly distinguishable, any discussion on
multiculturalism (and multilingualism) would be superfluous, as a monocultural (and
monolingual) state of affairs would not be possible. By considering multiculturalism
as the co-habitation (or pluralization) of (mono-) cultures, the main characteristic of
culture is missed, namely that cultures do not have distinguishable borders in space or
time. In contrast to this construal of multiculturalism, I argue that a culture does not
have an external borderline that can be touched or crossed and which, consequently,
would react (positively, negatively or otherwise) when touched from the outside, as
a biological organism would react.
Mainstream multiculturalist theory (e.g. Taylor et al. 1994; Kymlicka 1995, 2001;
Máiz and Requejo 2004) does not consider the undemocratic and non-liberal conse-
1.1 Multiculturalism
quences that emphasizing borderlines between communities has. This tendency in
multiculturalism comes from a language-centered theory of culture, which regards
human cognition and organization as bounded by language. The expansion of the
linguistic sign notion (i.e. de Saussure 1959 [1916]) and of text (e.g. Barthes 1972
[1957]) from linguistics to cultural theory has permeated cultural criticism with linguistic relativism. This implies a notion of culture simultaneously understood as code
and, to various degrees, as alive, in a vitalist sense. To understand a culture, on this
account, means to have a hermeneutical access to its code. The only way to acquire
such hermeneutics, thus, is to live, or, so to say, to be a part of the specific living
culture. Language-culture relativism implies that a culture cannot simply be understood by a differently cultured newcomer. First, the newcomer has to understand
the linguistic code. However, one cannot simply acquire a new linguistic vocabulary
as this vocabulary itself is culture-dependent, having developed within and along
cultural patterns. In this view, merely translating from one language to another does
not offer a real insight into the translated language, or into its corresponding culture.
To properly understand a new language-culture one has to live, as it were, the life of
the respective language-culture. Also, what this implies is that the newcomer should
forget a good amount of her already acquired and, at times, inherited culture, as the
semantic categories of the new language would unavoidably cognitively rewire her.
Thus, a very clear border is perceived between two language-cultures. This parallels the view in traditional linguistics (i.e. de Saussure 1959 [1916]) that meaning
structures (signs and sign systems) are defined by their bordering with other meaning structures. The present monograph challenges this theory of culture, identifying
some of its main inconsistencies and its undemocratic practical implications and
it proposes, alternatively, an understanding of cultural modelling rooted in natural
modelling, both non-linguistic and linguistic, non-verbal and verbal. Such a theory
does not stress the borders and differences between cultures but on their similarities,
considering the whole of the (human) socio-cultural environment as intrinsically
heterogeneous and pluralistic. In this regard, a supposed borderline between two
cultures is no more defining than a perceivable difference of habit or ritual or practice within one culture. Multiculturalism is not observed where two or more cultures
meet. Rather, multiculturalism is present in any dialogue where cultural elements are
involved. Also, culture is thus understood as continuous with nature. This imposes
a mereological understanding of culture(s), as composed and defined by the integration of its (their) composing parts. Mereology is here understood as in Edmund
Husserl’s original sense, as developed in the Logical Investigations (1976a [1900],
1976b [1900]; see also Stjernfelt 2007: 161), namely the supposition that phenomenological analysis is an analysis of relations between parts and wholes and as further
on adopted in schematic semiotics by Stjernfelt (2007, 2014), on the grounds of the
similarity that such a method has with Peirce’s semiotics. This is to say that cultural
elements, dynamics or patterns are not determined by the culture as a whole and are
not accessible only by those who are members of the culture to which constituting
parts belong. Rather, constituting parts of what supposedly is a cultural community
form the culture and can also be used and adopted in a regime of semi-autonomy.
Two differently cultured and differently speaking communities can adopt and share
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
cultural elements from each other. For instance, ethnic Hungarians, ethnic Romanians and other ethnicities, populating the same territory (broadly, Transylvania and
Pannonia), produce and consume an alcoholic brandy named pálinka in Hungarian
(pălincă in Romanian). Language-culture relativism, in its whole-dependent understanding of cultural patterns, has a hard time admitting that these differently speaking
peoples, with some different traditions, are indeed drinking the same drink. It would
instead imply that the different linguistic mapping of reality mirrored in different
cognitive wirings makes the brandy taste differently to a Hungarian than to a Romanian or to a differently cultured local, not to mention to a tourist. The problem does
not stand in admitting that things in general, such as food and drink in particular, feel
different to differently habituated individuals, but that the different experiences of
the same physical entity are altogether incommensurable from one cultural context
to another. The problem stands in refusing to admit that inter-cultural dialogue is
no more complex (or any easier) than inter-individual dialogue. To explain one’s
own qualitative experience of drinking pálinka is as fascinating within as it is across
culture. An explanation, the communication of modelled life experience, will never
communicate, as it were, the experience itself, but neither should it. That the model
does not coincide with the modelled object does not mean that communicating and
understanding each other’s models is impossible.
We can communicate the qualitative and subjective dimension of our experiences
nevertheless. To communicate and to understand each other never consists in replicating one’s knowledge in an identical form to another. Consensus does not mean
identical knowledge but similar knowledge between subjects. All the same, to know
that I disagree on a certain matter with another requires a degree of similarity between
mine and the other’s knowledge. In a mereological view, similarity is what makes
dialogue possible (Stjernfelt 2007: 78, CP 2.279), which is why multiculturalism can
find inspiration in the semiotic approach to learning (see Olteanu 2015: 49; Stables
2012: viii). A core argument in this approach to culture is found in biosemiotics,
considered as a theory of modelling that can account for the continuity of nature
and culture and the inner heterogeneity and pluralism of meaning and, consequently,
One of the lessons learned from the disasters of 19th and 20th century’s nationalist
political systems is that minority groups have to be protected by the same political
system that is vouched for by the majority. This has led to the philosophy and politics
of identity, which demand that each group is clearly recognized as distinct, in a
formally political way. In view of this, the otherwise good intention of protecting
vulnerable minority groups has often led to separatism and extremism. The cultivation
of an exaggerated sense of distinctiveness can result in minority groups’ detachment
from civil society. This is a result of political organization in a holistic and unitary
view of society and culture. Rather, politics and policy-making should be carried out
in view of the integrating and semi-autonomous parts of society, such as, the various
co-existing groups building up the society as a whole. The sense of distinctiveness of
a minority group, as perceived both within the group and from the outside, obstructs
the minority from fully participating in the social organization of greater society. In
this case, the question that arises is, since a group is so different in respect to the
1.1 Multiculturalism
whole, is it a part of the whole at all and, if it is not, does it make any sense for
it to try to contribute to the organization of the whole? To be uniquely distinctive,
that is to say, altogether different, within a hosting society means, actually, to be
captive. In such a situation, a standing-out cultural group will seek to organize itself,
independently of the greater hosting society. Guiora explains that, while the formal
political protection of minority groups is a critical principle of democracy, given
certain pitfalls in multiculturalist theory inherited from 19th century nationalism via
classic anthropology, the treatment of minorities as distinct leads to these groups
formally organizing themselves as societies alternative to the state (2014: 36–37).
Such forms of organization “pose a significant danger to liberal society because, as
Modood (2007) explains, they foster or shelter radicalism.” (Guiora 2014: 37)
Such clusters of organizations, alternative to the state, are dangerous both for
liberal democracy at a state level, as they upset the rule of law, and for their own
members. They obstruct the state from defending the rights of individual members of
the minority group by the claim that the state does not understand their own cultural
norms. The minority group can invoke the argument that only it, as a whole, has an
understanding of its own culture and, as such, only it has the formal answers and
legal procedures adequate to be applied to its members. An extreme but nonetheless existing situation (in places such as, among others, Malaysia and Lebanon),
the territorial co-existence of different legal standards for supposedly differently
cultured individuals is discriminating and undemocratic (see Eriksen and Stjernfelt
2012: 13–16, 30–39). Therefore, in such situations, minority group members who
are seen as culturally deviant within their own respective groups are particularly
vulnerable and often oppressed by the community to which they supposedly belong.
Thus, the inconsistencies of multiculturalist theory, which this monograph tackles,
can be pinned-down as reflected by the question that Guiora (2014) addresses as
well, namely of how much can a democratic society tolerate the intolerance of its
composing communities? That is to say, when does a society become oppressive and
undemocratic on account of its pretense to all-encompassing tolerance? Guiora notes
Although multicultural manifestations including distinct language, attire, music, and food
are celebrated, other manifestations are, frankly, less deserving of laudatory embrace or even
tolerance. The tension is both complex and stark: if multiculturalism is not embraced, the
liberal state may be accused of illiberalism. (Guiora 2014: 37)
Linguistic-cultural relativism does not offer any solution. If in the globalizing, culturally heterogeneous, postmodern world there are “no easy fixes”, Stables argues in
a semiotic approach to sustainability and education, it does not mean that there are no
fixes at all (Stables 2006: 383; see also below Sect. 1.4). Research and corresponding policies can meliorate such a society and lead to progress, understood as better
quality of life for more humans and non-human animals. This position contradicts
the relativism or even skepticism of much 20th century epistemology, championed,
such as, by Kuhn (1970), Jean-François Lyotard (1984 [1979]) and Derrida (1978
[1967]), to name a few.
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
The present monograph argues that the problem originates in the celebration of
differences. Difference on its own, understood otherwise than in complementarity
to similarity, does not account for diversity, but, instead, it accounts for opposition. In the same way, similarity understood otherwise than in complementarity to
difference, loses its meaning and is confounded with identity. Stjernfelt’s (2007)
study on diagrams is one landmark apology for schematic semiotics, as a realist
logic, starting from the hypothesis, which Stjernfelt finds in Charles Peirce, that
signification originates in similarity. As suggested above, this comes together with
a mereological understanding of phenomenality. In this view, diversity originates
in similarity as well. Stjernfelt’s reading of Peirce’s schematic (read mereological)
semiotics caused much controversy in academic semiotics where, in accordance with
classic anthropology and with the linguistic turn, difference has been traditionally
considered the starting point for meaning, natural evolution and diversity, dialogue,
culture and, in general, for any pluralist phenomenon. Stjernfelt’s reading of Peirce
reveals that the focus on difference is characteristic for relativist epistemology in
general, while the focus on similarity is characteristic of realist epistemology. This
also upset another traditional assumption, common to representation theories in general, which Stjernfelt particularly finds in Goodman (1976), namely that similarity
is a culture-dependent organizing principle:
Similarity should be independent of the degree of realism of a representation for reasons of
cultural relativism: realism is a function of culturally specific systems and hence similarity
is an effect of such systems and not the opposite way around. This crude argument overlooks
that the fact that similarity is ‘culture-dependent’ does not make it a mere effect of cultural
norms. Cultural norms require similarity in their description because culture consists in
people acting similarly in some respects; one could say that one culture differs from another
because it emphasizes other similarities. In that respect, the similarities perceived are of
course ‘culture-dependent’, but this is merely because the very notion of culture involves
systems of similarities. The very concept of a norm presupposes similarity to the extent that it
requires that similar cases be judged similarly. So to say that ‘similarity is relative, variable,
culture-dependent’, merely amounts to saying that any particular judgment of similarity is
dependent on the classes of similarities envisaged, which is a mere truism, more apt, in fact,
to dissolve the concept of culture than the concept of similarity. (Stjernfelt 2007: 54)
Stjernfelt’s criticism is pointed at conceptions of similarity in relative independence to difference. Taking these into account, similarity does not suppose a phenomenal difference, thus being either confused with (partial) identity or construed
as conventional, cultural framing. This monograph argues for a schematic semiotic
approach to culture and multiculturalism, which avoids the (multi)cultural relativism
endorsed by difference-centered epistemologies. A main source for such a semiotic
approach is Charles Peirce’s semiotics, also one of the main sources for biosemiotics, that is, the biological theory of meaning. Peirce’s semiotics is mereological (or
schematic) on account of a notion of similarity understood in complementarity with
difference (or dissimilarity):
The forms of the words similarity and dissimilarity suggest that one is the negative of the
other, which is absurd, since everything is both similar and dissimilar to everything else. Two
characters, being of the nature of ideas, are, in a measure, the same. Their mere existence
1.1 Multiculturalism
constitutes a unity of the two, or, in other words, pairs them. Things are similar and dissimilar
so far as their characters are so. (CP 1.567)
Eriksen and Stjernfelt, in their criticism of multiculturalist theory, identify the
stress on cultural difference in classic American anthropology, particularly in Ruth
Benedict (1934), and notice that, seen otherwise than in complementarity with similarity, this concept caused a bias in cultural studies in general:
[the anthropologist] may easily overlook resemblances between cultures, if from the very
beginning he only intends to find differences. The specificity of cultures may be exaggerated in description, and cross-cultural loans, communication, hybridization and influences
between cultures may become invisible, just like cultural, biological, or other universals may
be. (Erisken and Stjernfelt 2012: 132)
1.2 The Cultural Separatism of Multiculturalism: Where
Does Liverpool Street End and Hackney Begin?
More than merely a sum of cultures, plurality is a prerequisite for cultural genesis.
Mainstream multiculturalist theory appears to ignore that cultures are intrinsically
pluralistic. As much as a system of cultures is heterogeneous and entropic, so too
is each of its constituting cultures, intrinsically. In an entropic system composed of
entropic elements, it is quite impossible to distinguish clearly when one element
ends and another begins. For instance, the Borough of Hackney in London (UK) is
known for its eclecticism and rather alternative culture. Just next to Hackney, the
area around Liverpool Street Station is regarded as culturally different, belonging to
the corporate establishment. In Hackney clothing designs tend to range between a
reminiscence of hippie culture to the most avant-garde hipster culture designs and
to thawbs and burqas, while Liverpool Street is dominated by a modern white-collar
dress code, consisting of white shirts, smart dress and ties. A cultural difference can
be noticed between these two neighboring parts of London. The interesting question,
however, is: where does Hackney end and Liverpool Street begin? The transition is
gradual, of course: in between there is Shoreditch, a place where these two cultures
both meet and are filtered by a buffer of tourists. Needless to say, these two cultures,
heterogeneous themselves, are not territorially separated. Neither are the ideas, practices, values, beliefs, or, in one word, lifestyles of these two communities separated
by cultural differences. Actually, these cultures are situated at the periphery of each
other and cannot be perceived other than in relation to each other. They are perceived
relatively to each other not because they are contrasted, but because they share in
the same cultural meaning phenomena. They fuse within each other. Working in
Liverpool Street does not contradict eating, having a coffee or a walk, or even living
in Hackney. Such are the cultural dynamics that this monograph addresses in developing the semiotic approach(es) to multiculturalism. One of the main arguments
stands in the criticism of the notion of cultural identity as propagated in mainstream
multicultural theory. What illustrates this main point regarding identity in the context of the Hackney-Liverpool Street example, is that an individual’s identity is not
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
determined by her living in the cultural atmosphere of the Borough of Hackney or of
that of Liverpool Street. Culture is not inherited by individuals and groups in such
a way that it determines a fixed individual identity. Ultimately, Liverpool Street and
Hackney would not be the way they are without each other because they inevitably
relate to each other’s social, cultural and economic dynamics and there is no place
in particular, territorial, social or cultural where Liverpool Street ends and Hackney
begins. This example can be extended to neighboring cities, neighboring countries
and, in general, to any perceived cultural border and interactions occurring therein.
The construal of cultures as distinguishable is supported by the assumption often
found in linguistics, philosophy of language and some semiotic theories that sign
systems, such as languages and cultures, can emerge, exist, and develop solitarily,
as closed systems. Instead, I argue that the co-existence of cultures is a prerequisite for cultural expression, as a culture cannot exist in isolation. Cultural borders
are vague, if they can be inferred at all, as cultures are diffused among each other.
It is not only the case of a global or international world that cultures blend into a
multiculture. Culture did not emerge as a single, homogenous and linear system,
but the very emergence of culture is a pluralistic phenomenon and, as such, culture
is, to begin with, a heterogeneous phenomenon. Culture itself, the same as life, is
pluralistic. This does not mean that culture is a living organism, in the biological
sense. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that life in the biological sense is a prerequisite for culture. As obvious as this claim might appear, mainstream theories
of culture often ignore it by assuming that cultural organization entirely overwrites
biology. This is a characteristic of a post-Cartesian, modern idealist construal of
culture, where culture is regarded as disembodied. Inevitably, multicultural theories
developed in view of the classic anthropological theories of culture. As such first
attempts go back to the beginning of the 20th century, to scholars such as Boas 1938
[1911], they inherited, to some extent, Cartesian mind/body dualism via German
romanticism and, generally, the nationalist theories of culture of the 19th century.
The establishment of the science of anthropology, and its implicit multiculturalist
theses, has been critical of nationalism and, to start with, dismissed racism from
the academic study of culture. Nevertheless, modernist and romanticist underpinnings have always been present in mainstream 20th century cultural studies. The
Boasian legacy eagerly and uncritically adopted the ideas of the linguistic turn, as
it deemed the mirroring of linguistic and cultural patterns a sound explanation for
cultural differences and, moreover, for advocating the preservation of cultural patterns even to the point of separatism. Accepting cultural difference was easily argued
for in a relativist perspective on culture. If, as linguistic turn philosophy (e.g. Rorty
1967) argued, we know the world as constructed by semantic categories, then, in
the classic anthropological view it easily stems that culture is precisely that semantic construction. Thus, a human person’s world is determined by the culture within
which she learns the culture’s corresponding language. Furthermore, this linguistic
relativism was eagerly adopted as an endorsement of cultural relativism because it
also offers an easy way out of the ontological essentialism of Enlightenment: to be
human is to have the potentiality of learning a language and, thus, of acquiring a
cultural identity by virtue of the physiological feature that allows phonetic articu-
1.2 The Cultural Separatism of Multiculturalism: Where Does …
lation. This, however, only replaces idealist essentialism with a linguistic brand of
essentialism. Such arguments broke the barriers of the “civilized,” Western modern
world, leading to accepting other cultures within the construal of humanity. However,
these same arguments block proper intercultural dialogue on account of the pretence
of preserving cultural identity and some notions of plurality and diversity as the sum
of distinct cultures. In what is considered the realist, pragmatic school of semiotics,
the analytic philosophy of the linguistic turn has been criticized as one more version
of post-Cartesianism (e.g. Deely 2001; Cobley 2016).
1.3 The Clash Between Empirical Research and Theoretical
Conservatism: The Acculturation Model
Developed along the lines of cultural relativism, contemporary mainstream theories
of multiculturalism (e.g. Taylor et al. 1994; Kymlicka 1995, 2001; Máiz and Requejo
2004) share the assumption that the perfect acculturation of an individual into what
for her is a new culture is not possible. This view, starting from the assumption that
to be a member of a cultural group one is in a perfect state of cultural integration
with the rest of the group, implies that cultural belonging results in individuals’ clear
and precise sense of identity. Social and psychological sciences have assumed this
supposition from the humanities, particularly from mainstream anthropology and
sociolinguistics. In conjunction with a psychological understanding of personality
and personal development, social and psychological approaches to acculturation have
eagerly assimilated the multiculturalist notion of identity (e.g. Berry 1997; see also
Arnett 2014; Eichas et al. 2015; Erikson 1968). Such studies depart from assuming
that cultural belonging is a central and crucial part of identity, which, in turn, is crucial
for psychological development (for a detailed analysis of the state of the art in this area
see Erentaitė et al. 2018). Particularly, starting with Erikson (1968), psychology and
sociology generally assumed that identity is one of the main aims of lifelong personal
development. In view of this assumption, one cannot properly flourish in a context
where her identity is not clearly defined and where her identity in society’s view does
not correspond with her own self-identity. From here stems an idea that identity is
non-negotiable: society and groups within society have to accept who and what one
claims to be. This implies an atomistic view of individuals as isolatable within society.
In the hardest version of this assumption, where one’s identity cannot be questioned
by another individual or a differently identifying group, the individual develops her
identity entirely on her own. Identity is, in this way, distinct from any personal or
social relations. Aiming to enhance diversity, the exaggerated emphasis on identity’s
role in development rather separates differently self-identifying social clusters from
each other. While there is also recent scholarship acknowledging identity as a rather
fluid and continuous process, and not merely as (more or less) predefined cultural
inheritance (see Bosma and Kunnen 2008), this joining of the notions of (cultural)
identity in psychology and in multiculturalist theory fuelled an exaggerated emphasis
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
on its role for learning and development. Recently, Erentaitė et al. (2018) pointed out
to the need of a finer understanding of identity in social and psychological approaches
to acculturation. Such research should be supported by a thorough criticism of the
classical American anthropology underpinnings of the psychological acceptance of
culture. A construal of identity rather align with such criticism is seen in Märtsin
(2014), who advances a semiotic notion of “identity as a sign in the sense that it is a
meaningful expression of one’s being in the world. It is a meaning that has a certain
form […] and denotes to myself and to others what it means to be me” (xi).
Socio-empirical investigations along these lines reveal a certain tension between
the untested cultural presumptions of anthropology and behavior, as illustrated in
data. This can be exemplified by the hypothesis of the bicultural integration paradigm
in psychology (Berry 1980, 1997) that “many cultural practices entail enduring
constraints based on beliefs or values, on temporal or logical consistency, or on
community regulations. Full bicultural integration is not possible.” (Rudmin and
Ahmadzadeh 2001: 42) The bicultural integration paradigm identifies four measurable attitudes towards acculturation, in a two-culture context, where a heritage culture
is shared by a population within a larger population of a dominant culture. These
four attitudes are termed Integration, Separation, Assimilation and Marginalization
(or Deculturalization) (see Berry et al. 1989: 187; Rudmin and Ahmadzadeh 2001:
41–21, 46). While empirical research in this framework revealed important insights
for the phenomenon of acculturation and for what could be a concept of multiculturalism, the identification of these attitudes rests on the uncritical presumption that
cultures are clearly defined and distinguishable social worlds. In this view, at any
given moment, an individual is positioned in a certain culture that defines all of her
attitudes towards and interactions with other cultures. This common theory of culture
does not assume the possibility of culture as an inherently pluralistic open system.
The situation where two cultures co-exist side by side is rather more abstract than
real. Instead, two or more cultures co-exist in a mingled way. It would be impossible
to distinguish clearly between two co-existing cultures, though their co-existence can
be inferred pragmatically. For instance, it is impossible and irrelevant to distinguish
which citizens in Transylvania are Hungarian-cultured and which are Romaniancultured, but the simultaneous presence of both such cultures is safe to assume, on
account of the presence of both Hungarian-like and Romanian-like elements in cuisine, architecture, language, social organization and so on. The Romanian language,
for instance, is spoken in a slightly different manner in Transylvania than in other
parts of Romania, with the particular feature that in Transylvania, spoken Romanian
and Hungarian mix their vocabularies (Brubaker et al. 2006: 259). The mainstream
theories of multiculturalism, as visible in the bicultural integration paradigm, assume
that a Transylvanian is either Hungarian-cultured or Romanian-cultured. The present
monograph dismisses the possibility of such a closed system as a distinctive Romanian or a distinctive Hungarian culture in favor of a construal of culture as inherently
pluralistic. In this view, a human person or group does not necessarily encounter psychological obstacles in enjoying the best contextually fitting features of co-existing
cultures, in a pragmatic fashion. As such, it is impossible, or at least irrelevant, to
tell which house displays Hungarian architecture and which one displays Roma-
1.3 The Clash Between Empirical Research and Theoretical …
nian architecture in a Transylvanian village but, rather, what is culturally interesting,
is the co-presence of a plurality of cultural sources for architectural features and
the possibility of identifying and describing the merging of these features. While
Romanian and Hungarian cultures meet and mix in Transylvania, there is no place
where there is a purely Romanian or a purely Hungarian culture. No such culture
ever existed (see also Cobley and Stjernfelt 2015: 303). Moreover, the pragmatic
syncretism of cultures does not erase persons’ identities but, on the contrary, it can
offer individual persons and groups a richer means to express themselves and goals to
pursue, amounting to a better quality of life. The criticized view on multiculturalism
as dialogue of distinct cultures endorses a notion of cultural identity which strictly
determines personal identity, leaving little, if any, space for personal freedom, learning, creativity or, in general, personality. This theory of culture stemming from classic
anthropology generated an intellectual resistance towards acculturation because, if
culture determines the individual, a change of culture carries the risk of destroying
an individual’s personality. This is clearly seen in the widespread argument against
the cultural “melting pot” idea, as championed by Kallen (1996 [1915]). According to Kallen, less represented cultures, such as those of migrant populations, must
be preserved at all cost, because their absorption into an existing host culture of the
majority would uproot the smaller population from its identity, ultimately obstructing
its possibility of a democratic engagement to civil society. This argument is ideologically founded, and proves to somewhat endorse separatism rather than conviviality
and, consequently contradicts democratic principles of social organization by keeping differently cultured populations socially separated and unengaged (Erisken and
Stjernfelt 2012). The separatist argument is present in psychological attempts at
measuring acculturation as, for instance, Rudmin and Ahmadzadeh consider that the
bi-cultural integration paradigm:
[…] presumes that Integration is an achievable outcome, but for many aspects of culture,
it is simply not possible. For example, in the domain of religion, one cannot be both a
Christian and a Moslem, since the theology of each of these religions requires exclusivity,
as do their respective communities of believers. Other kinds of cultural practices cannot be
integrated because they require absolute adherence over extended time. For example, one
cannot practice both pre-marital virginity and premarital sexual indulgence. Other cultural
practices require universal compliance. For example, no one has an acculturative choice to
drive on whichever side of the road they prefer. Bicultural integration is not an option for
behaviors that have been regulated by national or local news. (2001: 42–43)
In this view, a human person can never fully participate to the socio-cultural life
and organization of more than one cultural group. The first theoretical problem that
arises stands in the consequential atomization of cultures. Identifying one’s original
group of belonging is impossible. For instance, according to this view, if a hypothetical Italian migrated to the USA, she will never fully enjoy American culture and
society because of her Italian background. Therefore, the best this person can do is
to find a community of Italians in the USA where she can blend in. Another question
is raised at this point because there is hardly anything such as “Italian culture” (or
“American culture”, for that matter): there is a diversity comprising many cultures
within the borders of the modern Italian state. Socio-cultural organization in Milan,
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
Rome and Palermo (just to give some random examples) is very different. Thus,
essentially, the problems that the immigrant from Palermo will face in New York are
the same as she might face in Rome. Furthermore, as this hypothetical immigrant
from Palermo might have a parent from the Sicilian countryside and has lived in a
certain neighborhood in Palermo, she would face the same problems in a different
neighborhood from Palermo or when interacting with fellow citizens of Palermo who
have both parents originating from Palermo. This problem is implied by the combination of regarding (1) culture as mirroring language and (2) language as consisting
in rigid codes. Also, the examples provided by Rudmin and Ahmadzadeh suppose
some problematic cross-ontological parallelisms which imply (1) that the same phenomenon of Integration that applies to culture applies also to religion and legal codes
and, also, (2) that full Integration would imply the bending of the metaphysical and
physical laws of the Universe.
The second point is fallacious because, to comment on Rudmin and Ahmadzadeh’s
example, it is physically impossible for someone to have premarital sex and be a
virgin on her/his wedding day. This is a spatiotemporal condition, not a matter of
cultural exclusivity. The first point is also inconsistent, firstly because it supposes
extending the argument across domains but also because cultures and even religions
are not necessarily as exclusive as supposed. To begin with, one could be the adept
of a religion while sharing the behavioral dispositions and life-styles of a variety of
political ideologies, cultures and social strata. Furthermore, the stress on exclusivity
also reveals a construal of culture as rigid code. This is all the more problematic for
religion (or ideology) which, if lived as rigid code, results in fundamentalist attitudes.
Certainly, as Rudmin and Ahmadzadeh mention, one cannot be both Christian and
Muslim at the same time. However, historical and present examples show that these
two religions, as well as many others, much more than simply co-existing peacefully,
can learn from each other. In the immediate aftermath of the tragic 9/11 (2001)
terrorist attacks, in October 18–20, 2001, a conference on Christian and Muslim
dialogue led to the publication of a collection of texts on the subject (Cutsinger
2004), which clearly and convincingly points out to the shared history of these two
religions. The research carried out in this volume suggests that the aim of a partial
Integration, given religious mutual exclusivity, is fallacious. Instead, the authors
argue for an “inner commonality” (Cutsinger in Cutsinger 2004: vii) of the two
religions. Cutsinger explains this by pointing out to how historically Christians have
acquired a deeper Christian spirituality by learning from Muslims and vice versa:
Despite the long and well-known history of conflict between Christians and Muslims, one
finds that their mystical traditions, especially in the Christian East and in Sufism, have for
centuries shared many of the same spiritual methods and goals, and in certain exceptional
cases Sufi shaykhs and their Christian counterparts have even accepted disciples in the
others’ tradition. The anonymous Russian classic The Way of a Pilgrim is quite explicit in
teaching that in the absence of a starets or spiritual father, the Christian seeker may receive
spiritual instruction “even from a Saracen”, and evidence of the reverse relationship can be
found in the spiritual friendship of the Sufi Ibrahim ibn Adham and the Orthodox monk
Symeon. One also recalls that the oldest continuously existing Christian monastery in the
world, St Catherine’s on Mt Sinai, contains a mosque within its precincts, constructed by
the monks for the local Bedouins. These and other commonalities and historical contacts
1.3 The Clash Between Empirical Research and Theoretical …
suggest the possibility for a deeper and more inward kind of conversation between Christians
and Muslims than has been customary in our day. (Cutsinger in Cutsinger 2004: viii, my
Such examples of the conviviality between Christians and Muslims account for
the advantages of their mutual learning without any betrayal of one’s own religious
doctrine. On the contrary, these illustrate each religious community’s richer understanding of its own spiritual doctrine through dialogue with the other. This is achieved
not by emphasizing the contrasts with other communities but by learning from them
(i.e. following advice from a “spiritual father” (“starets”) of a different confession).
This holds even for religious worship, a most complex domain, subtler than other
aspects of culture. Where acculturation is concerned, regardless of religious dogma,
constructive dialogue is even simpler. This view on religious non-exclusivity is possible if religions are not understood as rigid, normative codes, which is the same
argument as the one regarding (multi)cultural pluralism. A close look at one’s own
religion, as well as at those of others, is necessary for discovering just how religions,
at least those vouched for by a long history, are not mutually exclusive:
Religions, however, are not just systems of exoteric beliefs and behaviors deployed on a
plane, to be accepted (or rejected) by the reason and will. Each of the great traditions also
has a third “dimension”, a spiritual heart, in which the deeper meaning of those beliefs and
practices comes alive, and where the spiritual pilgrim may discover, beyond the level of
seemingly contradictory forms, an inner commonality with those who follow other paths.
(Cutsinger in Cutsinger 2004: vii)
Nevertheless, Rudmin and Ahmadzadeh’s study (2001) is illustrative of a breakthrough in psychological and social research on acculturation, as by a well refined
empirical methodology, they expose the common, flawed underpinning assumptions
of such previous research (see 2001: 47, 52–54). They reveal what the main target
of the present monograph’s criticism is as well, namely that multicultural theory is
flawed by endorsing, ironically, separatism. This is supported, they suggest, by the
(top-down) view that cultural policies can determine the life of individuals to a very
high extent:
Instead of decisions causing attitudes causing behaviors causing outcome situations, it seems
plausible that situations cause behaviors cause attitudes cause decisions (Ichheiser 1949).
For example, a hypothetical immigrant to the USA gets a job in an ethnic grocery in an
ethnic neighborhood, which results in reduced opportunity to learn English, which is rationalized as dislike of English and of US society generally, which leads to decisions to avoid
intercultural contact and to maintain ethnic identity. Such might explain how policies of multiculturalism can lead to separatism and to cultural intolerance. (Kagitcibasi 1997; Rudmin
and Ahmadzadeh 2001: 42)
Also, they observe that a fourfold analytical framework implies mutual exclusivity
in situations where attitudes might not be mutually exclusive. Thus, they develop a
critic to the fourfold system of bicultural integration analysis because it “results in
ipsative measures because the four acculturation attitudes are mutually exclusive”
(45). Most importantly, like Eriksen and Stjernfelt remark about early American
anthropology (e.g. Boas 1938; Benedict 1934) and its inheritance in many domains of
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
cultural and language research, Rudmin and Ahmadzadeh notice that good intentions
have historically obstructed research on acculturation and multiculturalism, resulting
in dangerous conclusions, contradictory to the intended apology for cultural pluralism
and dialogue:
The fourfold paradigm is designed to argue for cultural inclusiveness and tolerance, exactly
contrary to the racist psychology of earlier decades. Nevertheless, the intent to bend psychological science to make political arguments has been shown by history to be dangerous,
despite good intentions. Considering that acculturation contexts are capable of generating
horrific violence, acculturation research should be exceptionally rigorous in its theories
and methods, exceptionally careful in its use of language, and exceptionally receptive and
responsive to criticisms. (Rudmin and Ahmadzadeh 2001: 54)
While Rudmin and Ahmadzadeh observe this flaw particularly as a matter of
psychometric methodology, it is also noticeable qualitatively, in the underpinning
cultural theory: acculturation can be studied in a finite matrix of (four) attitudes
by assuming a universe of strictly two cultures which are distinct, namely a source
(usually the culturally inherited) and a target (usually the host) culture. As mentioned, the problem stands in assuming the clear distinction and purity of strictly two
cultures. Such contemporary views, as both criticized but also partially assumed in
Rudmin and Ahmadzadeh’s (2001) study are inherent of rather old presuppositions
stemming from a long-enduring humanistic tradition, epistemologically valuable,
but outdated. It is the present monograph’s aim to scrutinize and reveal these presuppositions, as inherited (even) in contemporary social research. For instance, such
a presupposition which is present in Rudmin and Ahmadzadeh is that cultures and
acculturation can be investigated from a neutral point of view, by suspending the
researchers’ own cultural assumptions. This methodological idea of anthropology,
Eriksen and Stjernfelt argue, is based on the cultural relativist norm that “all cultures
have a right to tolerance.” (2012: 131) This norm, further on, is based on the fallacy
called the cultural relativist thesis, as per Schmidt’s critic (1955: 786), that as Eriksen
and Stjernfelt formulate, “There is no cross-cultural norm which may judge between
the different standards of different cultures.” (130) This thesis was assumed in early
American anthropology (e.g. Benedict 1934) on top of the cultural relativist fact that
“Different cultural systems of value and thought exist.” (Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012:
130) This fact, Eriksen and Stjernfelt agree, is “empirically indubitable and furnishes
the reality to which […] cultural relativism forms a scientific theory.” (2012: 130)
However, they further argue, the cultural relativist thesis does not logically result
from the fact. This unfounded leap from the fact to the thesis is supported by and,
in turn, further entrenched the general assumptions of the linguistic turn. The main
such assumption that supports the leap from cultural relativist fact to cultural relativist thesis is, as Marcel Danesi formulates it, “that grammatical structure mirrors
social structure.” (Danesi in Cobley 2010b: 144) The philosophy of language and
linguistic theories of the linguistic turn found a good ally in the cultural relativism
common in the anthropology of the time. These two circularly supported each other
by throwing the demand for empirical evidence of cultural relativist claims on to each
other’s theoretical assumptions. The hypothesis of language mirroring society and,
implicitly, culture, has been disseminated in numerous methodological frameworks,
1.3 The Clash Between Empirical Research and Theoretical …
including the established semiotic approaches to culture, such as social semiotics (or
sociosemiotics) and some accounts of cultural and media semiotics (see Randviir
and Cobley in Cobley 2010; Danesi in Cobley 2010b).
An entity such as a pure culture or language, which allows for the study of acculturation as a process occurring in-between two (or more) clearly defined and distinct
cultures, is an uncritical assumption that multiculturalist theory inherited from 19th
century German romanticism. It is underpinned by the dangerous hypothesis of vitalism, namely that culture is a biological organism. Unlike a biological organism, a
culture does not feel and does not react when touched, because a culture is not
wrapped-up in a sensitive membrane, such as animals are wrapped-up in skin (on
the concept of skin in biosemiotics see Hoffmeyer 2008b). Cultures are pluralistic, not because they are organic, but because it is biological organisms that have
cultures. In the present monograph, I draw on some contemporary semiotic frameworks, such as biosemiotics, ecosemiotics, cognitive semiotics and certain semiotic
approaches to education, which support the thesis that signification is continuous
throughout biological evolution and cultural habituations. Most of these theories
developed out of Charles Peirce’s pragmatic semiotics. The idea that signification
is continuous throughout life and culture has been ignored by modern philosophy,
given its mind/body dualism. Peirce’s pragmatic semiotics has become more popular
in some academic circles recently, after having been misunderstood in some essential
regards for most of the 20th century (see Stjernfelt 2007: 66–67, 2014: 4).
1.4 A Biosemiotic Notion of Plurality
American anthropology, continental structuralism and philosophy of language developed their theories of culture in the aftermath of the Second World War, all sharing
cultural relativism as a common denominator. This coincides with the first attempts
to develop a communication theory as information theory, which, at least in its incipient phases, was naïvely ignorant of the interpretability of information (e.g. Shannon
and Weaver 1964). Consequently, in what regards approaches to communication and
culture, an information-based theory came to be regarded as the only alternative to
linguistic relativism (see Eco 1976 [1979]: 20–21; Fiske 1990: 40). Peirce’s semiotics
offers a different perspective on culture, involving a realist, not relativist epistemology around an open concept of signification and not a rigid notion of information. At
the time of these developments, Peirce’s philosophical system was generally regarded
as a theory of representation with an aim similar to that of Ferdinand de Saussure’s
sémiologie (e.g. Ogden and Richards 1923; Eco 1976 [1979]) or as a primitive form
of pragmatism as a theory of knowledge (e.g. Koopman 2009). Recent scholarship,
particularly in semiotics, reveals essentially different readings of Peirce, which qualify his pragmatic semiotics as a realist phenomenology of meaning (among others,
see Sebeok 1991: 10, 2001: 70–72; Stjernfelt 2007: 144–147, 2014; Cobley 2016:
27). For the purpose of the present monograph’s argument, the theoretical emphasis
does not necessarily need to fall on Peirce. Peirce is not the only hero of realism in
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
the atmosphere of postmodern extreme relativism, which appears to have reached an
impasse in understanding human organization. This current crisis of the humanities
(Nussbaum 2010; Martinelli 2016; Cobley in Bankov and Cobley 2017: 3–23) can
and should be addressed through a comprehensive critique of modern research in
the humanities and its (lack of) dialogue with other sciences. Merely the identification of one scholar of an alternative orientation does not suffice to address the
larger problem. Nevertheless, Peirce’s philosophy presents one such alternative (see
Deely 1982, 2001, 2009), together with other scholars whose philosophical systems
have not been thoroughly considered in the mainstream of cultural criticism, such as,
among others, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1995; see Stjernfelt 2007)
and, arguably, Levinas (e.g. 2003 [1961]; see Olteanu 2015: 254–255, 270). As well
as this, merely the Peircean corpus (broad and comprehensive as that might be) would
not directly offer the present monograph the critical arguments for developing the
pragmatic semiotic alternative perspective on multiculturalism that it claims. As suggested, it is rather in more recent developments, which explored possibilities latent
in Peirce as well as in other authors, that the present inquiry finds a framework for
an approach to (what is now called) multiculturalism.
One of the reasons which recommend Peirce as one of the sources for a new critical approach to multiculturalism is that pluralism is a typical concern for American
pragmatism. Certainly, a more-than-a-century-old philosophy itself, Peirce’s pragmatism cannot be simply transposed into the present situation of multiculturalism in
digitalization and globalization. Nevertheless, some contemporary readings of Peirce
(particularly Cobley 2010a, 2016; see also Hoffmeyer 1996: 16–24; Deacon 1997,
2012; Favareau 2010: vii–viii, 115–148) make use of his semiotic pragmatism to
develop an up-to-date theory of culture, or at least imply and suggest such a theory,
in view of current developments in the natural sciences. This drawback on Peirce is
explained by the avoidance of Peircean semiotics in 20th century language-centered
philosophy and logic. A Peircean theory of culture has never been the project of
analytic philosophy or (post)structuralism. As such, Peirce’s semiotics as a theory
of representation, is unexplored in view of cultural criticism and multiculturalism.
Being acknowledged as one of the most prominent founders of pragmatism, Peirce
himself insisted on a notion of plurality, (e.g. CP 1.563, 2.85), which thus appears to
be a thematic characteristic of the genus of pragmatism. The fact that plurality was a
central interest for Peirce is obvious in his relational logic (see CP 3.466). However,
Peirce’s notion of plurality differs in some respect to that propagated later on, along
the lines of mainstream American pragmatism (e.g. Kallen 1956, 1996 [1915]). The
rather metaphysical Peircean concept of pluralism was picked up by James (2008
[1909]) and Dewey (e.g. 1937) precisely for the purpose of addressing culture. The
currently acknowledged construal of cultural pluralism was established by Kallen
(1996 [1915]), following James, whose account takes the same lines of argumentation as the relativist notion of mutliculturalism criticized here. Peirce’s relational, and
implicitly pluralistic, logic can be used to endorse the view that culture in general,
not only a multi-cultural gathering, is a plurality. As such, while still different, the
notion of plurality advocated for here is more similar to that of Dewey (see Menand
2001: 400 in Bernstein 2015) than the more popular version of Kallen (1956). Kallen
1.4 A Biosemiotic Notion of Plurality
(1956, 1996 [1915]) considered that plurality, as required for a democratic organization of society, is contradicted by the fusing together of immigrant cultures into
American society because, in this process, immigrants lose their heritage culture. The
idea that losing heritage culture leaves an individual depersonalized and incapable of
engaged citizenship, is obviously grounded in culturalist theory (see above). Kallen
(1996 [1915]) criticized the popular “melting pot” idea, namely that a diversity of
immigrants can and ought to become American by mixing altogether in the American
society. The idea had been around in American society for a long time, probably at
least since around the 17th century, and the precise term was established once with
the success of Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot”, first staged in 1908 (see
Shumsky 1975). On the one hand, the idea of the melting pot could suggest an overly
naïve notion of acculturation, and, contradictory to the intention of accommodating
newly arrived foreigners, it could invent and glorify an American nation as a new
promised land, more welcoming and tolerant than any other culture and nation (see
Shumsky 1975: 29). On the other hand, Kallen and, after him, much research starting with the 1950s (see Bisin and Verdier 2000), too eagerly argued against cultural
assimilation on account of the relativist argument for cultural identity. What both of
these extremes—the melting pot and relativism—miss, is that culture itself is heterogeneous and intrinsically diverse. The melting pot thesis endorses a homogenous
American culture, formed of all incoming cultural “ingredients”. Kallen’s criticism
endorses separatism as the solution against homogenization.
Alternatively, the biosemiotic approach to culture considers semiosic phenomena fluid across cultures. A cultural trait that proves pragmatically useful is easily
disseminated among cultures, unless a group practices an explicit programme of separatism. To begin with, a culture is not “pure” or homogenous. Peirce’s concept of
continuity, around which he developed the doctrine of continuity, termed synechism
(CP 7.570), underpins such an understanding of culture, as seen in recent biosemiotic post-Peircean scholarship (Cobley 2016). Peirce’s principle of synechism proved
foundational for biosemiotics (see Favareau 2010: 706–707) which thus qualifies as
an appropriate framework for cultural analysis (see Cobley 2016: 3). Paul Cobley
recently explained the basic lines of research for a biosemiotic approach to culture
(2010a, 2016). This study follows the directions pointed out by Cobley, albeit for
discussing multiculturalism.
While multiculturalism is a problematic term, to eliminate it from academic language altogether would neither necessarily be useful nor possible in this moment.
It would be fair to say that it would not be a pragmatic decision, given the pragmatic vein of scholarship in which the present argument is developed. As the term
has been in circulation for a few decades, it has acquired some consensus, though
it remains imprecise. While often flawed and used to endorse human rights violations, multiculturalist discourse nevertheless contains the seeds of a good intention,
of achieving a tolerant and pluralist view social attitude. Some, but not all, accounts
of multiculturalism aim to enforce human rights and freedom. These accounts are
termed “soft multiculturalism” by Eriksen and Stjernfelt (2012: 1–2), in contrast to
the “hard” version, which justifies human rights violations on ground of the supposed
autonomy of cultures. As such, in a pragmatic spirit, the present monograph offers
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
a critical investigation of the concept, in the effort of seeking out “a better, more
substantive understanding of multiculturalism, both in its descriptive and normative
definitions.” (Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012: 1–2) Some contemporary directions of
research in semiotics, particularly those adopted in the framework of biosemiotics
(e.g. Cobley and Stjernfelt 2015; Cobley 2017), can critically reveal these flaws in
multiculturalist discourse and theory and thus construe a new, more critical and more
fluid multiculturalism. I draw on such theories to develop an approach to multiculturalism expressed in terms of meaning dynamics. What is at stake is not only a concept
or theory of multiculturalism, but also a view on culture in general.
Eriksen and Stjernfelt (2010, 2012) advocated for redefining the notion of multiculturalism in directions that I aim to further explain, and found theoretically in
semiotic pragmatism. Eriksen and Stjernfelt (2010, 2012) take issue with the relativistic theory of culture in view of which multiculturalism was developed. I adopt
their critique of multiculturalism and further explore it, in light of recent semiotic
approaches to culture, particularly the biosemiotic framework as employed in cultural
analysis (Cobley 2010a, 2016). It is an interesting observation that while Frederik
Stjernfelt is an active researcher in Peircean biosemiotics as well (e.g. Stjernfelt
2007, 2014), his work on multiculturalism does not involve biosemiotic theory or
any other post-Peircean developments, or at least not directly. While most of the
acknowledged frameworks of cultural criticism have been undergoing meticulous
refinement at least for the past century, an approach to culture of Peircean inspiration
is still a project in an incipient phase. This explains why not even the few scholars
who are interested in both Peircean semiotics and multiculturalism do not typically
bring Peircean semiotics into debates on multiculturalism yet.
The post-Peircean biosemiotic framework (see Kull, Deacon, Emmeche,
Hoffmeyer, Stjernfelt in Kull and Emmeche 2011), which I adopt to develop a new
critical approach to multiculturalism, insists on the specific view that life and learning are coextensive (Kull 2005), a view which, independently, was developed also in
semiotic educational theories (see Stables 2012; Stables and Semetsky 2015; Olteanu
2015; Stables et al. 2018). The starting point of the theory is that life prevails in any
situation. Life is understood in a unified biological and existential sense: every living organism has an intrinsic, unquantifiable existential value. As biosemiotics was
developed, via Thomas Sebeok, in a Peircean vein, Peirce’s semiotics not only constitutes a background for the present theory, but it is employed to develop the theory’s
central argument. The interest that semiotics arouses in life sciences and education
theory is due to the intrinsic plurality of signification phenomena. In a Peircean argumentation, biosemiotics finds semiosis, the cooperation of signs, to be the rationale
of life (CP 6.322). Kull claims that “life itself” is local plurality (in Bundgaard and
Stjernfelt 2009: 119; see also Kull 2007). Elsewhere, he explains that:
Semiosis is what makes anything plural. Semiosis creates objects, and makes each object
plural. Each is sign, which means each is simultaneously something else, each is many. To
mean is to be plural. (Kull 2009: 82)
This has deep implications for culture and multiculturalism. Taken all the way, it
implies that cultures are not independent and separable phenomena. Culture itself is
1.4 A Biosemiotic Notion of Plurality
pluralistic and the borders of a culture are vague. Every culture is diffused in what
are labeled as other cultures. Not only the meeting of cultures, but any semiosic
phenomenon implies plurality and generates diversity. The meeting of cultures is
not necessarily more semiotically complex than the dynamics of a culture, if a culture could be singled out at all. In truth, a culture cannot be singled out. Cobley
and Stjernfelt make this implication of biosemiotics clear, stating that “the mutual
involvement of cultures with each other precludes any idea that some of them may
survive unchanged, in splendid relativist isolation, in pristine, original shape, because
no such shape ever existed.” (2015: 303) This hypothesis is not new, but it receives
a new, thorough explanation in biosemiotics. Said (e.g. 1994: 15), for instance, is
one of those who argued that cultures are never monolithic or autonomous. The
biosemiotic view on culture supports this position without assuming the discursive
(linguistic) modelling of culture that can lead postcolonial criticism to a polarizing
discussion on whether there can be universal features in cultures (such as grand
narratives, e.g. Lévi-Strauss 1977) or whether cultural features are always particular (as seen in much cultural relativism). Universalism, according to Cobley (2014:
38), results in reductivism and (given the current geopolitical state of affairs, Western) ethnocentrism. The particularist view of culture, a form of reductivism as well,
results in isolationism backed-up by hard relativism. Cobley follows Bhabha (1990)
in arguing that “cultures cannot be self-contained and hermetically sealed from one
another, nor can they be united by universalist claims.” (2014: 38) It is in support
of this view that biosemiotics, the present book argues, brings new and convincing
arguments. A theory of culture is needed that, instead of overemphasising the role
of difference and opposition in cultural modelling or of dismissing differences altogether in favour of a Western ideological universalism, can “recognize hybridity, that
unavoidable mingling of cultures which are presumed to be separate.” (Cobley 2014:
Cobley and Stjernfelt (2015) explain this view on culture in a discussion on the
notion of semiotic scaffolding. Hoffmeyer (2008, 2015) found inspiration in the
socioconstructivist notion of scaffolding (Bruner 1957, 1966, 1999 [1960]), meant
initially to address learning in a narrow educational sense, and expanded the concept
to the use of semiotics. In the mid-20th century, Bruner caused a significant progress
in pedagogy by explaining (cognitive) development as facilitated by a teacher’s scaffolding inputs for learners. While he made the distinction, he also paralleled problemsolving and language acquisition. This parallelism is also rooted in a qualitative
distinction of learning in adults and children:
I come to the opinion partly through matters related below, but just as much from my own
research on the nature of “adult tuition” in both early problem solving and in language
acquisition. With respect to the former, there is a vast amount of skilled activity required of
a “teacher” to get a learner to discover on his own - scaffolding the task in a way that assures
that only those parts of the task within the child’s reach are left unresolved, and knowing
what elements of a solution the child will recognize though he cannot yet perform them.
(Bruner 1999 [1960]: xiv)
The detailed conceptualization of learning as a scaffolding process, by Bruner and
others, was a further development of Vygotsky’s idea that schooling should aim at
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
helping the pupil to bridge “the distance between the actual developmental level as
determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development
as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with
more capable peers” (Vygotsky 1978: 86). He termed this distance zone of proximal
development (see 1978: 85). In Hoffmeyer’s biosemiotic re-conceptualization of the
concept, “semiotic scaffolding is what makes history matter to an organism (or a
cultural system).” (2015: 154) The uptake of the scaffolding concept in semiotics
proves the mutual interest in and common construal of learning that, independently,
the semiotic approaches to life and to education share. The advantage of a semiotic
perspective on knowledge as proceeding in scaffoldings is that it aligns natural evolution and cultural learning, dropping the long-standing anthropocentrism of modern
educational theories. This discussion also links the problematization of plurality (or
diversity) with that of sustainability (see Cobley and Stjernfelt 2015: 301), which is
also independently addressed by Stables (2006). As mentioned, Eriksen and Stjernfelt (2012) explain that the nonetheless extensive literature on multiculturalism does
not offer solutions for how should cultures co-exist sustainably.
Setting out the fundaments of semiotic educational theory (on some accounts
referred to as edusemiotics, see Danesi in Semetsky 2010: vii), Stables pointed out
that the advantage that semiotics brings for education studies consists in the “sound
understanding of living as semiosis” (2012: 1). This hypothesis, the so-called “Sebeok hypothesis”, was previously and independently adopted in biosemiotics. It is
only recently, though, that its implications for culture (Cobely 2010a, 2016) and
education (e.g. Stables 2012; Stables and Semetsky 2015) have been explored. Both
of these inquiries reveal consequences for environmental sustainability that semiotic
biocentrism brings (see also Levesque 2016). What is at stake, of course, is a joint,
coextensive perspective on life and learning, where learning is a symptom of life,
because “life itself changes and grows through semiosis” (Stables and Semetsky
2015: 1). As Stables made explicit in one of the first contributions to the semiotic
framework for education, “If all living is semiotic engagement, then learning is semiotic engagement.” (2006: 375) It is noteworthy that the edusemiotic framework did
not simply inherit the Sebeok hypothesis from biosemiotics, but it articulated the
same idea independently, albeit with an educational concern. The context and purpose of this consists in the awareness in educational research that for a sustainable
educational philosophy, contributing to sustainable contemporary societies, sustainable globalization and digitalization, a non-dualist approach to education is required.
Educational policy and curricula must be designed in acknowledgement that life and
meaning are coextensive. Of course, it only took a short while for scholarship to spot
this common ground and for biosemiotics to become explicitly adopted in several
semiotic approaches to education as the general, overarching theory (e.g. Olteanu
2015; Olteanu in Stables et al. 2018; Campbell 2018). It is even more interesting
to note that in still an early stage of this recent semiotic approach to education, the
advantages of the Sebeok hypothesis for education and culture in general have been
already spelled out. Stables explained that the alignment of life, meaning and, as
such, learning, on the same continuum is an escape from modern dualism, which
1.4 A Biosemiotic Notion of Plurality
leads to a fresh perspective on the sustainability of current societies, given the new
dynamics of global multiculturalism:
[…] I want to try to escape this dualism of the rational mind and the mechanical world
by considering some of the consequences of the view that living is semiotic engagement
for, in turn, learning theory, teaching and the curriculum, educational, and social research,
and, finally, policy-making for the development of pluralist, postmodern liberal societies,
including the question of whether they can be ‘sustainable’. (Stables 2012: 375)
Thus, semiotics developed a holistic understanding of life, comprising life in
both biological and existential senses. Life and learning are inseparable. The fact
that education theory discovered a wider horizon within the semiotic framework is
relevant for a theory of multiculturalism for three reasons. First, it paved the way
for a holistic approach to learning which is insightful for the semiotic understanding
of life in general. Second, it illustrates how biosemiotics affects our understanding
of cultural phenomena (a topic already explored in Cobley 2010a, 2016). Third,
it carries the biosemiotic principle of pluralism from the biological to the cultural
realm. This third hypothesis constitutes the starting point for a semiotic theory of
multiculturalism, by claiming from the start that learning and, thus, life, are possible
only in pluralistic environments. I argue that an enhancement of the pluralistic degree
of a system is an enhancement of possibilities for learning. This notion of pluralism,
I shall explain, differs from the established notion as used by Kallen (1956) in his
idea of cultural pluralism, which was mostly inspired by James (2008 [1909]).
Semiotics was often used to approach culture and cultural dialogue. Many such
approaches, by now classics, have been developed in view of structuralism (e.g.
Barthes 1972 [1957], 1977), poststructuralism (e.g. Derrida 1978 [1967]; Foucault
1988 [1961]; Deleuze and Guattari 1987 [1980]) and social semiotics (Halliday 1978;
Hodge and Kress 1988; see also Kress and van Leuween 1996, 2001). However, these
approaches miss taking into consideration the recent awareness that biosemiotics
entails, namely, that nature and culture are coextensive (see Sebeok 1986: 60–61).
As mentioned, biosemiotics developed upon Peircean semiotics, which was not the
main path followed by these previous approaches to culture. Recently, Paul Cobley pointed out the implications that biosemiotics has for understanding of culture
(2010a, 2016). He considers that the starting point for such an understanding of life
is free of the individual/collectivity divide (2010a). He argues that endosemiosis,
the transmission of sign processes inside an organism (see von Uexküll et al. 1993),
accounts for a dismissal of the modern individualistic notion of the organism. If a
human organism is the ongoing result of (endo)semiosic collaboration then its borders with its environment and with other (human) organisms are not fixed and clear,
but sensitive and changing. The endosemiosis of organisms is the proof that plurality
is intrinsic to life. On this account, a study of human culture must admit and start
from the central role played by such a notion of plurality. The previous semiotic (or
semiological) approaches to culture did not manage to take into account the continuity of living nature and culture, being mostly epistemic prisoners of the 20th century
glottocentric (subduing knowledge and cultural phenomena to linguistic articulation)
and therefore solipsistic philosophical trends.
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
In the tradition of humanities, the issue of sustainability is regarded as related
to learning, thus often addressed in discussions on education, particularly on liberal
education. Whether a society is sustainable or not depends most of all on how it
construes learning, and how its members are empowered to learn. As such, it is
widely accepted that a sustainable democracy is supported by (liberal) education
(e.g. Dewey 1997 [1938]), an argument which John Dewey also related to matters
of cultural acceptance (e.g. Dewey 1937). The educational philosophy of Western
democracies, promoted by Dewey and arguably further on developed in the analytic
tradition by philosophers such as Richard Peters and Paul Hirst (see Hirst and Peters
1970; Dearden et al. 1972; Hirst 1974) is challenged by the conditions of global
cosmopolitanism of a postmodern world, especially in the context of the extreme
relativist epistemologies of the post-war period. According to Stables, the semiotic
approach to education can answer in a positive manner such challenges:
If there are ‘no easy fixes’ are there any fixes at all? Is a view of living and learning as
semiotic engagement really a reactionary excuse for inertia on the grounds that we cannot
improve society at all? This is not my view. (Stables 2006: 383)
Globalization, the coming together of cultures and populations in a worldwide
network, occurs within the process of digitalization, societies’ expansion onto digital
environments, which imposes new sets of yet underexplored literacies (see Lankshear and Knobel 2008; Gaines 2010). A new historical context, digitalization presents
challenges and opportunities which, despite much ink spilled, academic research has
explored only very little of. For instance, digitalization simultaneously generated
the premises for the emergence and spreading of fake news and a post-truth epistemology, as society has not acquired a digital literacy yet, but it also offers the
context for a richer democratic dialogue, by the newly discovered digital public
spaces for civil engagement. If democracy is supported by an educated public, then a
democratic digital society requires digital literacy. As such, multiculturalism, global
sustainability, and matters of learning and literacy have to be discussed together,
in a unified approach, which is a possibility revealed by the semiotic framework
for education. Recent social (Kress and van Leeuwen 2001; Kress 2010) and media
semiotic theories (Danesi 2002, 2008; Gaines 2010) have opened some pathways
for such investigation, but, I argue, remain entrenched, to various degrees, in linguistic relativism. These theories can contribute to a critical approach to culture and
multiculturalism. By observing in what respects these theories still inherit dualist
assumptions and what ideological stances on culture they still endorse, they can be
readjusted to the broader (bio)semiotic theory of modelling which, in turn, will thus
be expanded (see Chap. 5, below) to approach matters of digital culture and global
human societies.
The form of relativism still present in sociosemiotics, inherited from sociolinguistics (see Randviir and Cobley in Cobely 2010b: 119) contains (at least) three
interconnected epistemological implications which I identify as problematic:
(1) The focus on discourse as linguistic apparatus for culture is sterile for scientific modelling. The language-centered philosophy of the 20th century has
brought humanities research to a sterile point where abstract symbolic language
1.4 A Biosemiotic Notion of Plurality
is replaced by abstract symbolic language without clear purposefulness or practicality (Stjernfelt 2007: 52).
(2) These theories tend to ignore developments in natural sciences and manifest a
certain resistance to their empirical methods (see Martinelli 2016). Particularly,
this attitude has cut off humanities research from progress in fields such as
sociobiology (e.g. Wilson 1980 [1975]; Alcock 2001) and ecology (e.g. Næss
2001). Kull (2011) and Levesque (2016) point out directions in which semiotics
can bridge the humanities and environmental research.
(3) The dominating views in anthropology and sociolinguistics contradict with
democratic principles and human rights (Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2010, 2012).
While these points are connected, the present monograph focuses mostly on the
third as an implication of language-centered culture and representation theories.
Thus, some arguments of what is generally accepted as the edusemiotic framework (e.g. Stables and Semetsky 2015) are considered to contribute to a semiotic
approach to multiculturalism, because they are detached from the modern languagecentered view on learning and education in favor of a broader conceptualization of
learning as modelling. In particular, starting with Enlightenment, the philosophy of
education has been anchored in mind/body dualism, supposing not only ontological
differences between humans and non-human animals and the rest of nature, but also
particular cognitive capabilities of humans that are due to the physiological capability of linguistic articulation. In brief, modern educational philosophy has been driven
by the assumption that language is a modelling system that overrides our embodied condition. Together with this assumption in linguistics, modern anthropology
imposed a relativist theory of culture where (1) language and culture mirror each
other, as culture is developed exclusively by means of linguistic categories, and (2)
language-culture entirely determines the lifestyles and cognitive capacities of groups
and individuals. This assumption, rooted in the philosophy of Enlightenment, particularly contractualism and German idealism, which we now recognize as fallacious,
proved to generate unsustainable policies.
The equivalence of living and learning implies an ecological claim. In semiotic
terms, learning is sign growth (see also Olteanu 2015). Stjernfelt considers that evolution itself adapted to structures of signification (2011, 2014). In this sense, adaptation
is learning. This statement is also shared, broadly, by the semiotic approach to education, as Gough and Stables explain that interpretation itself is adaptation (2012). This
notion of learning avoids the dichotomy between cultural learning and adaptation.
Sharov, Maran and Tønnessen remark that one “key feature of biosemiotics is […]
that it considers the dynamics of semiosis at multiple time scales, and emphasizes
the active role organisms have in reshaping sign relations.” (2015: 361) This feature
of biosemiotics is generally revealing for semiosis and sheds light on learning in
its cultural dimension as well. If learning is sign growth and life itself proceeds by
semiosis, then living consists of learning, which, as previously mentioned, means
that learning is a vital symptom—the very sign of life. Moreover, since learning itself
is a phenomenon that adapts to recognizing more complex signification structures,
it must contain an ecological dimension. This does not mean that culture is alive, in
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
a biological sense. To claim such a thing would be a rather dangerous and unscientific assumption of 19th century romanticism, which still endures in contemporary
cultural relativism. It only means that, since culture is practiced by living organisms, it inherits the pluralism of organisms, through the phenomena of learning and
communication which constitutes its very dynamics.
Given this general conception of life and learning, cultural diversity can further
on be explained in the perspective of Charles Peirce’s phenomenological categories.
Often the target of criticism (e.g. Koopman 2009; Burch 2010; Stables 2012: 8–9), his
phenomenological categories constitute one of the cornerstones of Peirce’s semiotics
(and philosophy, generally). Upon his ideas of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness,
Peirce developed what can arguably be regarded as a cosmology of signs or, using
Stjernfelt’s expression, a “physiology of arguments” (2007: 25), as the argument is
the most developed sign type, towards which signification phenomena generally tend
(see more in Chap. 4, Sect. 4.2). These three categories are conceived as inseparable
from each other, individually or in pairs of two, as the three termini of a sign. The
continuous unification of three elements has proper ontological status, unlike any of
the individual constituting elements. In this view, the triadic relation, the sign, is the
only proper phenomenon that participates in the weaving of a Universe of real possibilities. This means that the Universe, the wholeness of actual and possible existence,
is a weave of signs. As such, the Universe is, literally, a text. However, this does not
imply a glottocentric epistemology, whereby reality is constructed via our linguistic
structures. Peirce never claimed that signs would require language. On the contrary,
examples of signs in his writings range from cosmic to biological and to linguistic
and cultural domains. The concept of text, as extrapolated in philosophy and semiotics from literary theory, while very insightful for processes of interpretation and
representation, also caused some confusion for the relation between representation
and reality (see more in Chap. 2, Sect. 2.2 and in Chap. 6).
1.5 Criticism of Culturalism-Based Multiculturalism
The current construal of multiculturalism, as stemming from political discourse
(see above), is endorsed by the idea that the lives of individuals and groups are
strictly bound to a culture that they can hardly “escape” from. This idea of culture,
which endorsed the political discourse on multiculturalism, was recently criticized
by Stjernfelt (2010) and Eriksen and Stjernfelt (2010, 2012), who termed it culturalism. This ideological view on culture has common assumptions with nationalism
and understands cultures as organic: they are lifeforms of their own within which
individuals exist. On this account of culture, the individual’s freedom is determined
by the strictly assumed border of a culture. Eriksen and Stjernfelt explain that what
they mean by culturalism is “a theory of culture which assumes the central anthropological ideas: that culture precedes and determines the individuals belonging to
it; that cultures have unlimited freedom to generate differences, uninhibited by any
human nature; and that cultures form closed, organic units where all their differ-
1.5 Criticism of Culturalism-Based Multiculturalism
ent articulations, from gastronomy to theology, form an unbreakable whole which
implies that these value systems are unique and in no way may be compared with
or judged against other value systems.” (2010: 360) In this perspective, also, it is
assumed that “the beliefs and behaviours of the individual are determined by the
culture he or she belongs to, and that once “enculturated” it is impossible to adopt
the position of cultures other than one’s own.” (Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012: 7) This
view is observed, for instance, in a classic reference and bestselling book on intercultural communication, where Hofstede, Hofstede and Minkov define culture as a
“software of the mind” (2010: 5, 21) that cannot be globalized (2010: 391).
This theory of culture is mainly supported by the assumption that human life
proceeds in discourse, in a linguistic sense. Admittedly, in the recent, post-linguistic
turn case of Hofstede et al. (2010), the software of the mind is a category more
subtle than language. Nevertheless, it is still inspired by discursive theories and the
hypothesis that the behavior of is determined by a superimposing category. Paul
Cobley also criticizes this perspective on culture, pointing out its assumption of
knowledge as entirely discursive (2016: 18). Arguably, this discursive relativism is
one of the main causes of the current crisis of humanities (see above). As such,
attempts in humanities to approach and overcome this crisis, at the core of which the
key to sustainable human organization lies, draw on the issue of representation. The
question is how do humans think of (that is to say, represent) their environment? A
more precise question is how does a society think of itself in relation to the natural
environment? Also, an implied question is how do groups and individuals relate to one
another, as distinct parts of the same environment? As the bottom line questions on
human-environment relations point at representation, the discipline most concerned
with representation, namely semiotics, has come to dominate the epistemology of
humanities, even if often not explicitly mentioned. However, as Cobley explains, the
dominant semiotic view for most of the 20th century has been that of the discursive
theories, implicit of a relative theory of knowledge.
The alternative underpinning philosophy for a theory of cultures which Cobley
proposes is the biosemiotic school, mostly a development of Peircean semiotics (Cobley 2010a, 2016), which I here employ to address matters of multiculturalism. Cobley
argues that the Peircean biosemiotic school offers a view on culture and society not as
entirely construed within linguistic discourse, because, in this framework, discourse,
linguistic or otherwise, as well as language and culture at large are analyzed “in the
interrogation of modelling” (Cobley 2016: 28). Modelling, in this sense, is not a
peculiar mode of learning or scientific inquiry, but the general phenomenon of sense
making by which biological organisms come to inhabit an intelligible environment.
Language is only one of the means that humans have for modelling. The role that language plays in learning and culture should not be underestimated either. Language is,
without doubt, a powerful means for modelling. Nevertheless, the language-centered
philosophy of the 20th century has imposed a linguistic imperialism upon knowledge.
This language-centrism implies (1) anthropocentrism, as it qualifies human knowledge as ontologically superior to the knowledge and modelling capacities of other
species, and (2) cultural relativism, as it strictly binds culture to language, implying
that culture is a purely linguistically modelled system. The latter implication further
1 Multiculturalist Discourse and Theory
on suggests that cultures do not have access one to another, being internally coherent but self-sufficient and isolated codes. In conjunction with the hypothesis of the
linguistic turn that cognition is linguistically formulated, cultural relativism regards
knowledge and behavior as strictly determined by culture.
Culturalism was contoured in the wake of the world wars, when the West was confronted with admitting its intolerance and oppression towards non-Western societies.
These being the circumstances at the beginning of the American school of anthropology, this school assumed in its methodology a preference for studying cultures
which would appear alien or, so to say, exotic, to the Western modern, particularly
American, mindset. This scientific program found that the weapon by which it would
defend the stateless and non-Western communities from Western imperialism would
be the crystallization of a sense of identity, ethnic or otherwise, in these communities
(see Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2010: 360–361). Thus, it was the same postcolonial West,
the historical oppressor, which, through its newfound ideology, decided that cultures
and societies about which it knew only too little are entirely dignified by default,
and, thus, cannot be judged against Western or other values. It might seem surprising
that while cultural relativism supposes that cultures cannot properly understand each
other’s forms of organization, it hastes to label each and any culture as dignified.
Actually, the latter is a consequence of the former: if we cannot understand each
other we must accept that the other’s practices are dignified in their own arbitrary
axiology, otherwise we risk external intervention. The problem with this attitude is
that, as Eriksen and Stjernfelt explain (2010, 2012), it is used to justify violations
of human rights and acts which, in a rather common sense perspective, are easily
acknowledged as anti-human. Such acts are justified on account of the presumption
in culturalism and, in its niche version, multiculturalism, that systems of thought
stem exclusively from culture. This theory of culture, insisted upon by post-World
War American Anthropology (see American Anthropological Association 1947),
particularly by Herskovits (1958), does not consider the possibility of other sources
of knowledge besides culture, such as innate, embodied competencies and tendencies or individual observations and experiences and, consequently, cross-cultural
circumstances and their economic, social and political dimensions.
To critically exemplify the anti-human rights consequences of this view, I argue
that a naïve and relativist form of multiculturalism should not be allowed to cultivate the pretense that contemporary societies should accept the practice of female
genital mutilation (FGM). In a cultural relativist perspective, the practice can be
justified as relative to the culture practicing it, but this argument entirely ignores
the embodied human condition and, in addition, individual freedom and the right
to self-determination. In many areas of the African continent and the Middle East,
FGM is claimed as a traditional and, thus, justified practice (see Committee on
Bioethics 1998: 153). The American Association of Pediatrics considers that the
practice presents life-threatening risks and thus entirely opposes it (Committee on
Bioethics 1998). This judgement rightly disfavors justifying what might be claimed
to be linguistically, historically constructed cultural practices in favor of the biological reality of the human body. The practice involves serious health risks. Furthermore,
it is easy to make the case that the practice is misogynistic, as cultures endorsing
1.5 Criticism of Culturalism-Based Multiculturalism
it suppose that altering the female, and not the male, body is acceptable. That the
practice is traumatizing, dangerous and that it deprives the person of experiencing
sexual pleasure is not a cultural judgement:
[…] personal accounts by women who have had a ritual genital procedure recount anxiety
before the event, terror at being seized and forcibly held during the event, great difficulty
during childbirth, and lack of sexual pleasure during intercourse. (Committee on Bioethics
1998: 154)
First, simply by accepting the biological reality of the human body, as a body
which entails culture, pain and health risks are not relative to a degree that could justify such a practice. Secondly, but no less important, the Committee on Bioethics here
explains that data show that while the subjects of FGM come from cultures where
FGM is supposedly traditional, they do not want it. The experience often involves
violence and it is traumatic. One does not need to suppose a cultural position to
recognize the obvious harmful violence and lack of empathy in FGM. Such practices
that obviously violate human rights should not be justified under the false pretense
of (multi)cultural acceptance. Even more, the claim that an intervention aimed at
putting an end to FGM from outside of a FGM-practicing community is not justified
is actually Western-supremacist and not the other way around. Such a claim uses culturalism to hide its essentially Western postcolonial supremacist assumptions, as it
supposes that some communities cannot understand what is wrong with this or other
oppressive practices. In the culturalist perspective, inherent of postcolonial Western
anthropology, “it is deemed impossible to pass judgement on the practices of other
cultures, and their institutions, practices, and conceptions may differ in any conceivable manner” (Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012: 7). Thus, the Western cultural relativist
tolerates FGM in non-Western communities, but is happy to live in a Western culture
where, she very well knows, FGM is labelled an atrocity. This stand justifies lack
of empathy by a false pretense of cultural tolerance. Cultural relativist anthropology
thus endorsed a rather unfounded, even inconsistent, position in regard to assuring
human rights, namely:
Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt
to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to
that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as
a whole. (American Anthropological Association 1947: 542)
The same argument, I shall explain, is used to endorse isolationism generally,
including in cases where isolationism has obvious inhumane consequences. Such
a case is the pretense that instead of granting asylum to war refugees, refugees
should be given the chance to be happy in their own homeland. In this case, another
straw-man, myth-flavored argument appears, namely that of the homeland. The idea
of a homeland, at least in this use, assumes the most dangerous and unscientific
connection between territory and culture.
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Chapter 2
Cultural Relativism and Politics
of Recognition
Abstract This chapter discusses the arguments from semiotic theories that cultural
studies have tended to draw on. In the atmosphere of the linguistic turn, the prevailing trends of semiotics supported a linguistic-centered epistemology, producing
the extension of the philological concept of text to the study of culture and society.
Valuable in its own right, this epistemological expansion of literary criticism also
carried certain assumptions about interpretation that, uncritically transferred to the
study of culture, resulted in a rigid understanding of culture as holistic code. Another
adoption from literary to cultural studies in structural semiotics was the centrality of
notions, such as opposition and difference in meaning-making. These two assumptions together endorsed a relativist epistemology whereby all of human activity is
seen relatively to an undisputable cultural structure. The argument stemming from
biosemiotics for studying culture and knowledge as modelling, instead of culture as
codified text, is explained and recommended as a realist epistemological alternative.
2.1 Différance and Identity
The realization in early American anthropology that imperialist oppression is dangerous and endorses violations of human and civil rights is most valuable. Nevertheless, scholarship in favor of this attitude did not leave behind some early modern
clauses of nationalism, but only bended them, transferring legitimacy from the concept of nation to that of culture. Thus, it led to some reductivist and anthropocentric over-generalizations about human culture. The tendency to over-generalize has
been endorsed by the assumption in structuralism that meaning stems from difference. Thus, the cultural relativism cultivated by anthropology found an ally in
(post)structuralism, which offered reassurance that cultural differentiation is material
for theoretical generalization. The assumption that meaning stems from difference
was first clearly expressed by de Saussure (1959 [1916]) and was accepted in the
structuralism and poststructuralism tradition to follow, finding an apogee in Jacques
Derrida’s idea of différance (1976 [1974], 1978 [1967], 1981). Most cultural studies,
by inheriting this theory of meaning from structuralism, have implicitly assigned a
central role to the concept of identity (see above, Sect. 1.1). As languages and cultures
© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019
A. Olteanu, Multiculturalism as Multimodal Communication,
Numanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress 9,
2 Cultural Relativism and Politics of Recognition
are analyzed in virtue of intrinsic and extrinsic differences, each culture appears to
have its own identity, which also corresponds, usually, to one language or, in some
cases, to a number of languages. This concept of cultural identity is connected to
the emphasis in modern philosophy on the individual identity of human subjects.
Despite the stress on individual freedom in much modern philosophy, in the context of culturalist anthropology, individual identity, no less important, is regarded as
entirely determined by cultural identity. For this reason, cultural relativism argues
the need of cultural autonomy to the point of separating social groups by criterion
of cultural inheritance: in this view, the individual is deprived of identity and, therefore, of the possibility to enjoy human rights and prosper, if she is deprived of a
distinctive cultural identity. As explained above, this cultural relativist thesis underpins the established framework for the study of acculturation in various areas, such
as psychology (e.g. Berry 1980, 1997) and sociolinguistics (Schumann 1976; Regan
et al. 2009). By contrast, biosemiotics can be used to approach culture in view of a
diagrammatic logic, as inherited from Peirce, which posits similarity as the primary
criterion of signification, not difference (see Stjernfelt 2007). In this view, cultures
are understood as evolving scaffoldings of diagrammatic structures. One of the main
implications of this view is that cultures are not entirely distinct, but share a common
biological ground and, furthermore, other similarities, due either to common history
or to the need to adapt to similar conditions through similar pragmatic choices, that
account for the possibility of conviviality and, much more, of merging.
The theory of meaning as difference originates in Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiology. Through the editorial work of his students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye,
who put his lectures together in the Cours de linguistique générale (1916), de Saussure developed a linguistic theory based on a notion of sign which regards language
as a system of signs (1959 [1916]: 10, 13, 16). Being particularly interested with linguistic signs, he defined the sign as a “two-sided psychological entity” (66) consisting
of a concept and a sensorial form (“sound-image”). He established the celebrated
terminology of signified (fr. signifié), for the conceptual side of the sign, and signifier (fr. significant) for the sensorial side (67). Studying language as a system of
such signs led de Saussure to announce a new academic project, which he termed
semiology (fr. sémiologie):
A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable it would be a part of
social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from
Greek semeion ‘sign’). Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern
them. Since the science does not yet exist, no one can say what it would be; but it has a right
to existence, a place staked out in advance. Linguistics is only a part of the general science
of semiology; the laws discovered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics, and the
latter will circumscribe a well-defined area within the mass of anthropological facts. (16)
Thus, de Saussure remarked the potentiality of a study of relations of signification
besides articulated language. Independently, this was arguably realized at the same
time by Charles Peirce, though with some important differences to how de Saussure
predicted. Nevertheless, the contradictions between how these two regarded signs
and sign systems can be accounted on the different foci: Peirce was concerned with
logic and de Saussure was concerned with language. Each of them recovered the root
2.1 Différance and Identity
of the same concept of medieval philosophy, as evolved from the Greek σημή¨ιoν
De Saussure’s announced semiology was followed-up and realized after
the World Wars, in the schools that came to be termed structuralism and poststructuralism. These schools of thought, starting mainly with Barthes (1972 [1957]), have
extrapolated and expanded the scope of the Saussurean sign from language to all
areas of philosophy, including metaphysics, particularly forming the mainstream
framework for discursive theory. An important implication of this philological process stands in the transmission of a psychologistic notion of the sign from language
to culture and even ontology. For de Saussure language is inherently psychological: “Everything in language is basically psychological, including its material and
mechanical manifestations” (de Saussure 1959 [1916]: 6).
The process of using a rather focused concept as the tool of language to explain
more general phenomena, cultural and not only, risked reductivism. As such, de
Saussure’s psychologistic clause of linguistics was spread by structuralism to logic
as well, resulting in a doctrine of psychologism which supposes “the idea that logic
is the empirical study of how minds and brains behave while thinking” or “that the
study of the content and structure of thought and signs forms part of the domain of
psychology” (Stjernfelt 2014: 14). The main problem of psychologism, according
to Stjernfelt is that “it immediately allows for relativism.” (2014: 14) The cultural
relativism accounted for by 20th century American anthropology was endorsed by
the same kind of theoretical generalization, noticed by Eriksen and Stjernfelt in
Ruth Benedict’s (1934) transforming “a methodological rule in anthropology into an
ontological postulate.” (Eriken and Stjernfelt 2012: 108). This is the case of Benedict
paralleling metaphysical possibility with the empirical reality of human cultures,
which led her to axiomatically conclude that cultures are “radically different” (see
Erisken and Stjernfelt 108–109). In contrast, Peirce’s logic, like that of Husserl
(1976a [1900], 1976b [1900]; see also Stjernfelt 2007: 161, 2014: 44) and Fregge
is anti-psychologistic, in the sense that it accounts for reference as a phenomenal
possibility which does not require access to mental imagery.
That psychologism implies relativism is already visible in de Saussure. By defining the sign in this way, de Saussure also considered both individual signs and sign
systems as arbitrary, as he stated that “language is a convention, and the nature of
the sign that is agreed upon does not matter.” (10)
This leads to assuming that we do not have any access to meaning or intentionality
intended in a code which we do not master linguistically: “When we hear people
speaking a language that we do not know, we perceive the sounds but remain outside
the social fact because we do not understand them.” (13)
Nevertheless, while announcing the more general project of semiology, de Saussure discussed only linguistic signs and sign systems. Even so, there is a tendency
towards over-generalization in the Cours: “from the very outset we must put both feet
on the ground of language and use language as the norm of all other manifestations
of speech.” (9)
It is thus contoured that de Saussure considered language to be a purely human
modelling system, which completely overrides other systems “Language […] is a
self-contained whole and a principle of classification.” (9) The distinction between
2 Cultural Relativism and Politics of Recognition
language and speech contains the idea, verified by evolutionary anthropology
(MacLarnon and Hewitt 1999; MacLarnon 2012) and explicated in biosemiotics
(Sebeok 1991: 55–56; see more in Chap. 5), that a modelling system prior to phonetic articulation affords the emergence of speech. However, at the same time, the
separation of language and speech in this dualist fashion, endorses cultural and linguistic relativism by subduing communicative possibilities to pre-existing linguistically modelled categories, thus critically differing from the biosemiotic account.
In this statement it is clearly illustrated how psychologism implies relativism: that
clause that language is self-contained, that is, hermetical and accessible only to its
speakers, involves a classification of the world. That the principles of classification
are linguistic implies anthropocentrism: “what is natural to mankind is not oral speech
but the faculty of constructing a language, i.e. a system of distinct signs corresponding to distinct ideas.” (10) This means that human beings have a mental capacity
for classification, independent of communication capacities, which cannot remodel
pre-existing mental classifications. Moreover, in this regard, the relevance for the
modelling (arguably in particular for social cognition) of the physiological capacity of phonetic articulation is exaggerated, in the detriment of other physiological
features. This is so because only speech seems to manifest the linguistic system.
Indeed, the relativist implications for language and culture of Boasian anthropology drew on de Saussure’s distinction that renders speech as rigidly determined by
the linguistic suprastructure. For instance, Sapir justified psychologism by the same
epistemological argument that justifies language structural holism:
The social psychology into which the conventional cultural and psychological disciplines
must eventually be resolved is related to these paradigmatic studies as an investigation into
living speech is related to grammar. (Sapir 1934: 411)
From the perspective that on language and classification led Ferdinand de Saussure
to famously state that:
[…] in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally
implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only
differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language
has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual
and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that
a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it. Proof of this is that
the value of a term may be modified without either its meaning or its sound being affected,
solely because a neighboring term has been modified […]. (1959 [1916]: 120)
Thus, de Saussure here explained some of the main and inseparable assumptions
of his theory of language. Some of these ideas which are particularly relevant to
the cultural criticism which semiologie later inspired are: (1) that language is an
articulation of form and content, (2) that meaning stems from difference, (3) that
meaning is arbitrary, as any meaning can be assigned to any form and that (4) the
language whole rigidly fixes all possible instances of use and, as language “is not a
function of the speaker” (1959 [1916]: 14), instantiations of language use seldom,
if at all, result in the language as such changing. The meaning of stemming from
2.1 Différance and Identity
difference is essentially connected with his assumption that meaning is an articulation of form and content within a system and this leads to the assumption that
the position of a linguistic sign within the system changes if its neighboring signs
change. In this perspective, the individual sign has no degree of autonomy of its own,
so to say, being entirely determined by the system. This idea was inherited later by
Martinet (1962), who established the hypothesis of language as double articulation.
Martinet referred to the production of oral speech as a double phonetic articulation
and not of sign systems in general. However, this sufficed for a generalized theory
of meaning where, again, human language is regarded as an over-whelming modelling system which overwrites the organism’s other modelling systems, stemming
from embodiment features other than the capacity for speech production. Martinet
inherited de Saussure’s distinction between language and writing, which qualifies
strictly oral speech as properly linguistic or, at least, closest to that assumed strictly
human capacity for linguistic classification. This hypothesis separates human beings
from the rest of the animal realm and, in general, from the rest of nature. It is a linguistic turn voicing of modern mind/body dichotomy: it ultimately states that mind
supposes language while body does not. From this perspective, a non-human animal
remains, as seen in modernity in general, construed as a mindless body. While cognition and degrees of behavioral intelligence can be noticed in non-human animals,
they are regarded as non-linguistic and therefore, mechanical, that is to say, purely
behavioristic. The idea that humans enjoy a modelling system that separates them
from the rest of nature means that humans have a unique way of learning. This supposedly uniquely human way of learning stands in linguistic classification as a very
efficient communicational means. This assumption supports the educational idea of
Enlightenment, as expressed in contractualism, that education is only a possibility
for humans (e.g. Hobbes 1909 [1651]: §61–62; Locke 1889 [1693]: §37; Rousseau
1911 [1762]: 5–6). Ultimately, assuming that human language, and the classification
principles which it entails, ontologically separates learning from natural evolution.
Even more so, it leads to some narrow construals of learning and teaching, as purely
cultural and strictly in the service of education. In addition, it presupposes psychologism by aligning linguistic categories, which for de Saussure are psychological and
logical operations. If, as de Saussure claimed, language is psychological and learning
capacities are linguistic, then logical operations also have to be psychological.
The hypothesis that language consists in double articulation endorses glottocentrism, by the implication that physiological features that allow for the production of
phonemes set humans apart from the rest of the animal world. As such, by endorsing
modern, Enlightenment anthropocentrism, it stresses on the importance of the concepts of difference, foundational to begin with for its constitution, and identity. Cobley (2016) remarks that glottocentrism imputes a rigid concept of identity, individual
and cultural, defined by differences between groups, and an individual/collectivity
dichotomy. He points out that this perspective on humanity, culture and social organization originates in the French Revolution, that is, precisely in the fundaments
of contractualist educational philosophy. By contrast, biosemiotics “upsets notions
regarding the distinction between collectivity and individual that have contributed to
common sense in the modern world and especially since the French Revolution (see
2 Cultural Relativism and Politics of Recognition
Siedentop 2015). Arguments regarding the human subject have been part of the burgeoning literature on ‘identity studies’ in the last 25 years. In the modern literature in
this area there is always a tension between what is referred to as ‘selfhood’ and what
is understood as ‘subjectivity’ (cf. Atkins 2005: 1–2).” (Cobley 2016: 45) Hence,
another more subtle dichotomy arises from the individual/collectivity dichotomy and
from the construal of humans as autonomous individuals, namely that between selfhood and subjectivity. According to Cobley, the attempts at blurring this dichotomy
are rather synthetic, even further on endorsing the individuality of human subjects
and, with it, capitalist ideology:
What has probably become axiomatic in much of the writing on identity, the subject and
the self in modernity is that subjectivity and selfhood are synonymous mainly because they
are no longer considered to be unitary or intrinsically constitute in character […]. (Cobley
2016: 45)
The double articulation hypothesis was inherited, though with some variations,
in most of sociolinguistics and structural semiotics to follow (see Hjelmslev 1954;
Jakobson 1990; Chandler 2002). I argue that this view of language endorsed the
cultural relativism of anthropology to follow, which has dominated cultural studies
since the mid-20th century. For instance, in her influential book which refutes early
20th century racial prejudices, Patterns of Culture (1934), Ruth Benedict, a student
of Franz Boas, paralleled language evolution with cultural structures. Erisken and
Stjernfelt notice that, as a means for illustrating the autonomy of cultures “Benedict selects language: the well-known linguistic fact that every language cuts up the
phonetic continuum each in their own fashion is quickly generalized to all other
social institutions. Every culture selects its own set of institutions (in a broad sense
of the word), which appears arbitrary and irrelevant if seen from other cultures.”
(Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012: 107) Certainly, Benedict’s book was published some
three decades before Martinet’s studies on phonetic articulation. Nevertheless, the
same commonly accepted at the time assumption about language as a closed and
autonomous system is used as a generalization for a theory of culture. Seen in this
way, a culture can only be perceived as absurd or meaningless when perceived by a
member of another culture. This is what Schmidt (1955) termed the cultural relativist
thesis and it has been jointly and simultaneously entertained by (post)structuralist
linguistics and philosophy, anthropology and philosophy of language. In this view,
cross-cultural criticism would be like listening to an unknown language: it cannot be
understood, because the listener does not know the code. An English native speaker
listening to a speech in Japanese does not understand what Japanese speakers understand (provided, of course, that the speaker of English did not undertake the effort to
study the Japanese language). The only thing that the English speaker understands
is the difference, that is, merely the fact that she is hearing an unknown language.
Certainly, in this view of language, even between two speakers of the same language,
a dialogue makes sense because of difference.
When mastering the code, differences (between words, phrases, intonations, etc.)
result in classifications whereas when not mastering the code, differences appear as
pure indexes (marks) without any content. The semiological and structuralist view
2.1 Différance and Identity
on language takes this reasoning as proof for the absolute arbitrariness of languages:
linguistic articulation only makes sense by use of symbols, which are complex and
conventional signs. This idea also underpins Ernst Cassirer’s definition of the human
being as a symbolic animal (1944), which inspired the centrality of anthropocentrism
in 20th century anthropology, cultural studies and meaning theories. Further on,
cultural relativism, founded on this linguistic claim, endorses the idea that it is the
same for cultures. For example, the sociolinguistic acculturation model has its starting
point in the distance that a learner of a secondary language perceives between her
culture and the culture associated with the secondary language (Schumann 1976;
see Regan et al. 2009: 10). This is where cultural relativism, such as in the case of
Benedict, comes up with a rather weak resolution, namely that cultural differences
and, all the more, divergences must be respected simply for the sake of the difference:
No man can thoroughly participate in any culture unless he has been brought up and has
lived according to its forms, but he can grant to other cultures the same significance to their
participants which he recognizes in his own. (Benedict 1959: 37)
In this view, acculturation (or enculturation) is impossible. By being brought up
in a certain culture, the individual is destined not to understand any other culture
properly, other than perhaps by full immersion in the respective culture, together
with an assumed effort of learning this new culture’s characteristics, beginning with
its corresponding language. This idea is mutually supportive of the instructionalist
hypothesis that there is a certain moment during infancy, mostly thought to be around
the age of nine months, when a human has peculiarly strong cognitive capacities for
language learning. Jean Piaget is known for entrenching this hypothesis:
Apart from thinking by images or autistic symbols which cannot be directly communicated,
the child up to an age, as yet undetermined but probably somewhere around age seven, is
incapable of keeping to himself the thoughts which enter his mind. He says everything. He
has no verbal continence. (Piaget 1959 [1926]: 23)
Certainly, what Piaget here terms “symbol” is a different concept than the symbol
concept in meaning theories and anthropology. The symbol concept which is debated
as either defining for the human species (Cassirer 1944), as underpinned by the principle and classes of linguistic modelling, or to be found more widely in nature as
a logical operation (see Martinelli 2010:72; Barsalou 1999; Stjernfelt 2014: 35) is
a different concept. Between Piaget’s symbol concept, most likely inherited from
psychoanalysis (e.g. Freud 2005 [1899]) and that of meaning theories and anthropology, there is mostly a coincidence of homonymous terminology. These concepts
are used to explain different phenomena, within the different spectra of interest of
these disciplines. The point is that Piaget’s theory reveals the contractualist underpinnings of the educational theory at the time. He identified in a psychological regard
what contractualism supposed, namely that enculturation takes the human individual out of animality and into humanity. On these lines of thought, educational theory
has preserved and disseminated this assumption further on. For instance, this same
hypothesis is present in the influential instructionalist educational theory of Davydov (2008). This theory accounted for a particularly instructional notion of learning,
2 Cultural Relativism and Politics of Recognition
as narrowly circumscribed by educational contexts and for educational goals. The
same hypothesis is present in Tomasello’s anthropological theories of human culture
and communication (1999, 2008). Tomasello’s ideas on culture and communication
involve a theory of symbols as well, rooted in the assumption that there is a humanspecific use of indexical signs, given humans’ particular cognitive capacity for joint
attention. In short, the capacity for joint attention is the social cognitivist answer
to questions regarding the connection between language acquisition and cognitive
This shared assumption about language acquisition implies that by this early
acquisition of a native language, the individual is also enculturated. Thus, in their
account of intercultural communication Hofstede, Hofstede and Minkov are led to
assume that the mental software that culture is for the individual is mostly “acquired
in early childhood” (2010: 4; see also 2010: 10). The argument is that the individual
learns to think in the semantic categories of the respective language or sign system,
more broadly, which overwrite any pre-existing modelling system. Through this
process, it is supposed, the individual is almost irreversibly cognitively wired into
a cultural system that reproduces itself (see Hofstede et al. 2010: 12). In a manner
of speaking, this is how and when the individual is detached from her animality and
becomes an acculturated, language-speaking and language-thinking human being.
The biosemiotic framework (Sebeok 1990: 42–43; Stjernfelt 2014: 4), particularly
visible in its zoosemiotic branch (Martinelli 2010: 72–73), opposes this anthropocentric theory of language and meaning.
This same idea of language as an arbitrary phenomenon which models culture has
been taken up in sociolinguistics. Thus, understandably, sociolinguistics identified
variation to be one of its main research topics (see Tagliamonte 2006). Variation
theory was developed in sociolinguistics about the same time as Martinet’s phonetic
and phonological studies, starting with William Labov (e.g. 1964, 1966). Labov
clearly expresses the starting point of this theory by remarking that “the moment we
hear a difference between two speakers or two speeches, our interest is quickened.
Does the difference recur? Is it generalized in any context or social group? Does it
have social meaning? As we turn from the study of linguistic constants to linguistic
variables, we acquire more realistic methods of comparing systems and measuring
differences between structures. Moreover, as we develop quantitative methods, correlations between linguistic patterns and other cultural patterns begin to emerge.”
(1966: 164)
Labov’s sociolinguistics focuses on language variation and, therefore, finds meaningful data in differences. From a Saussurean point of view, given de Saussure’s
distinction between langue (language) and parole (speech) and the rigidity of both
of these concepts, a variation of speech would be most interesting for comparing
languages. The identification of a variation could almost account for a code switch.
The research questions that Labov addressed are pointed at differences. He was interested in what produces speech variations and, arguably not a bad guess altogether,
he found sociocultural context to be the main explanation.
It is the bewilderment that semiology manifests when faced with empirical evidence of linguistic variation that inspired both (1) the transition from linguistics
2.1 Différance and Identity
studying linguistic phenomena intrinsically to sociolinguistics studying language in
sociocultural contexts and (2) that from structuralism to poststructuralism, as a system more comprehensive of meaning dynamics and language evolution, in cases such
as Derrida’s (e.g. 1978 [1967]). The emphasis on difference led Labov to insist on
the relevance of quantitative methods in linguistics, as differences can be measured,
arguably (see also Tagliamonte 2006: 3–4). This view follows the parallel between
language, seen as a rigid code governed by rigid syntax and culture: sociocultural
variation accounts for linguistic variation, which justifies sociolinguistic research.
While developments such as sociolinguistics and poststructuralism have the merit of
making steps towards a more comprehensive and closer to holistic study of language
and of meaning phenomena in general, they also encapsulate linguistic dynamics
within the broader dynamics of (one) culture. As such, language is regarded as the
gateway to understanding its corresponding culture. The fact that there is a strong
connection between language and culture is a 19th century romanticist assumption,
always present in cultural relativism and brought to surface, as variation theory, to
explain speech production variation. This assumption is rooted in the 19th century
concept of nation. The language-culture parallel is the cornerstone assumption that
underpins discourse analysis, the idea that culture and behavior can be understood
through the analysis of linguistic production. To analyze variation, sociolinguistics
supposes a mirroring of linguistic elements with social elements:
[…] variationist sociolinguistics is most aptly described as the branch of linguistics which
studies the foremost characteristics of language in balance with each other – linguistic
structure and social structure; grammatical meaning and social meaning – those properties
of language which require reference to both external (social) and internal (systemic) factors
in their explanation. (Tagliamonte 2006: 5)
While acknowledging the importance of sociocultural context and dynamics for
language, sociolinguistic research tends to exaggerate the extent to which culture and
language determine each other. The problem is that this qualifies language as the only
modelling system for culture and, more generally, for knowledge in a broad sense.
It also has a reversed implication: language, on account of which human modelling
is distinct from (or in) modelling in the zoosphere occurs only in cultural contexts.
2.2 Text or Model Semiotics
The very broad and heterogeneous paradigm for cultural studies developed from the
semiological acceptance of language has produced cultural analyses based upon a
certain notion of text. This idea of text was adopted from linguistics, as an interpretable and, thus, analyzable artefact and expanded to the broad study of culture.
Given its history, this concept carries modern dualism with it: text is thought of as a
weaving of meanings regardless of their material morphology, since the double formcontent articulation is arbitrary and any content can fit in any form. The notion of
text disseminated in cultural studies at large is disembodied. Also, as I shall explain,
it supposes that sign systems can be hermetically isolated.
2 Cultural Relativism and Politics of Recognition
Alternatively, I argue in favor of an understanding of culture in view of the notion
of universe of discourse, which Charles Peirce (see CP 2.373, 2.383) inherited from
Augustus de Morgan (see CP 2.517) and Boole (1854: 42). The most important
epistemological advantage that the concept of universe of discourse has to that of
text, even though terminology might appear misleading, is that the former does not
suppose human life to proceed, first and foremost, linguistically. As such, it also
avoids the attribution of life, in an organic sense, to language or culture. Peirce made
use of and developed this concept long before any development was made in what
is presently called discursive theory or discourse analysis—endeavors which are
rooted in structuralism. As a notion stemming from logic, a universe of discourse
can be understood to encompass culturally mixed structures and dynamics, rather
than being defined by cultural and linguistic borders. The universe of discourse,
within which reference is indexically anchored, is the “collection of individuals or
of possibilities, which cannot be adequately described, but can only be indicated as
something familiar to both speaker and auditor.” (CP 2.536) A universe of discourse
is not an isolatable system of signs or an isolatable platform for sign use, but simply
the “circumstances of […] enunciation” that render propositions meaningful and,
because of which, each related sign makes sense in the form of a proposition, even
though the sign itself might not be propositional, because it can relate indexically
to these circumstances. In contrast, text is generally thought of as an artefact, or set
of artefacts, within a strictly defined culture. An important difference between these
two concepts, in what regards cross-cultural communication particularly, is that a text
is supposedly understood only with a culture in its entirety, while signs belonging
to a universe of discourse can be interpreted even without a full understanding of
the universe of discourse. The universe of discourse cannot even be “adequately
described”, but is inferred in sign use. Due to signs relating to the same one or several
universes of discourse, they can be interpreted in view of various inter-relations and
inter-dependencies. Thus, the difference between these two approaches consists in the
semiotic mereology supposed by the notion of universe of discourse, more precisely,
that signs and sets of signs can be adequately interpreted in view of their relative
dependencies, and that an understanding of certain whole chunks of sign systems
is not necessary for the interpretation of particular sign structures. To draw lines
as to where the sign system begins and ends would in any case be arbitrary. It is
impossible to tell, and, more importantly, useless to inquire, where a language or a
culture begins or ends. For this reason, in the Peircean perspective, aspects of a culture
can be interpreted, understood and used contextually, that is, pragmatically, without a
holistic knowledge of the culture to which these aspects belong. Any cultural elements
(or patterns) most likely belong to several cultures at the same time. This mereological
analysis that pragmatic semiotics endorses is akin to regarding semiosis as resulting in
models. Within universes of discourse, organisms develop semiotic models by which
their behavior is determined. In this view, it is the semiosic parts, serving as models,
of the integrated whole or, rather of integrated wholes, that phenomenally determine
social organization, not the whole determining the hermeneutic possibilities of the
parts, which would be understood as texts.
2.2 Text or Model Semiotics
The distinction between model semiotics and text semiotics is similar to the distinction that Kull observes between what he calls –sciences and –sciences (2009).
Particularly in view of cultural analysis, Cobley notices that biosemiotics, namely
the study of life and culture in the interrogation of (semiotic) modelling, belongs
to –sciences, namely being “a science of knowing rather than a science of laws.”
(2016: 39) Thus, biosemiotics is concerned with culture in the regard in which culture
relates to knowing, in a qualitative understanding. In the same time, it does not seek
out universal laws in modelling. Therefore, the questions at stake are how is culture
modelled and, further on, what is the role of culture in modelling?
There have been, however, some text-oriented semiotic schools that acknowledged
both an intrinsic plurality of meaning and interpretation and a hierarchically organized modelling, that interpretation arguably supposes, thus arguably allowing for a
semiotic mereology of cultures. Such are the cases of, most prominently, Kristeva
(1980 [1977]) and Lotman (1990, 1994, 2009 [1964]). A remarkable realization of
Kristeva consisted in the introduction of the concept of intertextuality (1980 [1977]):
64–91; see also Alfaro 1996: 268). What has made Kristeva’s concept very salient
for text analysis is not only its relevance for explicit text-to-text interaction, such as
the meeting of two cultures in the situation when a person beholds and interprets a
cultural artefact produced in an unknown culture for her. The interesting point that
Kristeva makes is that texts themselves are plural constructions and, as such, they
cannot be thought of otherwise than pervasive and interconnected:
[…] text is defined as a trans-linguistic apparatus that redistributes the order of language by
relating communicative speech, which aims to inform directly, to different kinds of anterior
or synchronic utterances. The text is therefore a productivity, and this means: first, that its
relationship to the language in which it is situated is redistributive (destructive-constructive),
and hence can be better approached through logical categories rather than linguistic ones;
and second, that it is a permutation of texts, an intertextuality: in the space of a given text,
several utterances, taken from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another. (Kristeva
1980 [1977]: 36)
At least in a synchronic perspective, if textuality implicitly is intertextuality, a
multicultural society is in no semiotic way different from one which could somehow
be regarded as mono-cultural or non-multicultural. In fact, there is no culture which
is not multicultural, because no text can be pure and isolated from other texts. Also,
Kristeva’s apology for a primarily logic, and not linguistic, approach to texts has to
be saluted by non-psychologic semiotics, such as (neo)Peircean biosemiotics. Nevertheless, the text still appears to belong to a (natural) language, hence determined
by it, and the conception of redistributivity suggests both (1) the relativist stance that
texts are empirically (or phenomenally) unverifiable, as they can be constructed and
destructed indefinitely and (2) the double articulation hypothesis of language, supportive of culturalism. The discussion on Kristeva’s notions of text and intertextuality,
not to mention her semiotics in general, cannot be exhausted here (nor is this the aim
of this monograph). It is fair to state, though, that while typical stances of glottocentric poststructuralism are present in her concept of text, the notion also comprehends
the intrinsic plurality of meaning phenomena. Moreover, it does so more conscientiously even than some more recent accounts which inherited the same notion of
2 Cultural Relativism and Politics of Recognition
intertextuality for the purpose of text analysis, particularly in ideological regards, but
which treat intertextuality as a characteristic which text and textual elements might
or might not have (e.g. Fairclough 2003).
Lotman also acknowledged, as illustrated by the celebrated expression of “the
text within the text” (1994), that semiotic entities are not atomistic. Lotman’s notion
of text is particularly interesting, given that he was the first to explicitly address
modelling from a semiotic perspective (see Lotman 1994). Thus, he bridged the
two versions of semiotics which I identify here, namely the more philologically
inclined text semiotics and the more phenomenally inclined model semiotics. Since
his early development of biosemiotics, Sebeok himself adopted the definition of
semiotic modelling from Lotman (see Sebeok 1991: 49–50, see also below, Chap. 5,
Sect. 5.1). To begin with, similarly to Kristeva in this regard, the sense of plurality
in Lotman is rooted in his consideration that texts are interpreted within and among
To function, a consciousness requires another consciousness – the text within the text, the
culture within the culture. (Lotman 1994: 378)
He remarked that heterogeneity in sign systems is due to novelty. Similarly, again,
Kristeva discussed the text as synchronic, not diachronic. Texts are plural themselves,
but heterogeneity is enhanced in a text-to-text interaction where the interacting texts
are radically different to each other. While this suggests an emphasis of difference
of a Saussurean kind, it is also common sense to consider that striking dissimilarity
draws attention:
The introduction of an untranslatable, alien semiosis excites the “mother” text: attention
shifts from the message to the language as such and discovers the manifest nonhomogeneous
codification of the mother text. (Lotman 1994: 379)
This already suggests, however, a construal of culture as a holistic, organic and
therefore isolatable sign system. It appears that texts themselves do the interpretation
and that there is no clear distinction between biological organisms that undergo
semiosis and textual constructions, biological or not. From here stems also a sense of
cultural holism wherein texts, as components of a culture, are entirely defined by the
self-governable culture that, also, is not controlled by the organisms which actually
populate and make that culture a reality. In this view, culture can be considered a
cognizant and self-determining text of which its constituting parts are fragments that
can only be understood in relation to the bigger text:
Removed from semiotic equilibrium, a text becomes capable of self-development. The powerful external textual eruptions in a culture conceived of as a huge text not only lead the
culture to adapt outside messages and to introduce them into its memory but also stimulate
the culture’s self-development, with unpredictable results. (Lotman 1994: 379)
On the one hand, development occurs on account of a semiotic imbalance, which
is due to cultural dialogue. On the other hand, the texts’ self-development, capacity to
adapt, memory, and un-predictability have a vitalist resonance which endorse cultural
holism, inseparable, in turn, from cultural relativism. Cultural holism implies cultural
2.2 Text or Model Semiotics
relativism because it does not allow for a mereology of cross-cultural dialogue. This
is because, in this view, component parts of a culture are meaningless outside the
culture itself. As reflected in Lotman’s choice of words, texts can be “untranslatable”
(a central thought, particularly in Lotman’s late writings, relative to his concept of
semiotic boundary, see Andrews 2003: 16).
All of this led Lotman’s argumentation to a reflection on diversity as a catalyst
for knowledge. This thesis can be accepted both in cultural relativism, generally
connected with text semiotics and in model semiotics. The critical difference lies
in what is exactly understood as diversity in each case. Cultural relativism supports
culturalist ideology by its claim that diversity must be cultivated by maintaining
distinct cultures present on the same territory, or at least in vicinity. Also, as the
culturalist line of argumentation goes (i.e. Kallen 1996 [1915]; Benedict 1934), this
must be maintained at all cost, even as Eriksen and Stjernfelt criticize culturalism
(2010, 2012), at the cost of democracy. Arguably, the cause for suspicion towards
Lotman’s argument consists in his examples mirroring psychological and cognitive
development with cultural development. Such argumentation is typical of cultural
relativism (Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012: 133), and suggests vitalism by comparing
cultural dynamics with the development of an organism:
Let us consider two examples of this process. The well-being of a child’s intellectual apparatus in its initial state of development does not guarantee that the child’s consciousness will
function normally. The child must meet others and be exposed to outside texts that stimulate
its intellectual development. A related example is the “accelerated development” of a culture (Gachev). A well-established, archaic culture is capable of remaining in a state of cyclic
enclosure and balanced immobility for an extraordinarily long time. The irruption of external
texts into the sphere of such a culture activates the mechanisms of self-development. The
greater the rupture and the more difficult it is to decipher the intruding texts by recourse to
the codes of the mother text, the more dynamic will be the ultimate condition of the culture.
(Lotman 1994: 379)
Accordingly, Lotman considers culture in its entirety a text composed of texts, or
fragments of texts. It is difficult to infer whether and to what extent does Lotman’s
cultural semiotics permit cross-cultural mereology. He endorsed the concept of text
with the initial metaphor that gave the word, namely the likeness between a piece of
writing and a piece of weaving:
Culture in its entirety may be considered a text – a complexly structured text, divided into
a hierarchy of intricately interconnected texts within texts. To the extent that the word text
is etymologically linked to weaving, the term’s original sense has been restored. (Lotman
1994: 384)
While a critical discussion, whether this metaphor allows for mereology or supposes rigid holism (see more in Chap. 6, Sect. 6.1) is beyond the purpose of the present
monograph. In general, text semiotic approaches anchor interpretation in a claimed
human-specific competence for interpretation. While realizing the importance of a
concept of model for theories of culture and representation, and thus pioneering
semiotic modelling theory, Lotman nevertheless committed cognition to language
by assuming that the first and most basic level of modelling is linguistic (see Eco in
Lotman 1990: x). The foundational hypothesis for biosemiotics as a modelling theory
2 Cultural Relativism and Politics of Recognition
consists in Sebeok’s observation that the much more widespread non-verbal means
of communication of almost all living species reflect a non-linguistic more basic, primary modelling system (Sebeok 1991: 55; also in Cobley 2001: 14–27). The manner
in which Sebeok formulates this in some places (1991: 49–50, 2001: 136) reveals it as
an additional, critical contribution to Lotman’s cultural semiotics, which thus appears
as a major step in the development of biosemiotics as a modelling theory capable of
cultural criticism. Discriminating to what extent would Lotman’s cultural semiotics
imply culturalism is a difficult task also because, having lived in the restrictive atmosphere of the USSR, different writings were popularized in the West than those that
remained most influential in the Russian and Estonian, (post-)Soviet academe (see
Andrews 2003, p. xiv). However, some of the aspects of Lotman’s understanding
of culture which, according to Andrews (2003) can be traced throughout his works,
are typical of culturalism. Namely, these are that “culture and natural language are
indivisible” (Andrews 2003: 3), that “culture generates structure in order to construct
its social basis”, and that a culture supposes a non-cultural space, from which it is
separated by semiotic boundaries. (2003: 3–4)1
Also, it cannot be ignored that Western anthropology, while claiming to bestow any
identifiable culture with an inner dignity that absolves it from any critical comparison,
itself inherited some difficulties in embracing the claimed dedication for human rights
and universal tolerance. With reference to the previous example of FGM, it can be
argued that the reason for which debates about it still endure in the West is that the
West has its own history of misogynism. Cultural relativism can be used to support
not only the violations of human rights in non-Western societies, but in Western
societies as well. Culturalism can justify any anti-human act on account of tradition
and cultural heritage.
2.3 The Anti-cosmopolitan Argument in Structural
The idea that meaning (or any material that can be used for formal generalization)
stems from difference supports the cultural relativism that justifies isolationism and
non-interventionalism. Generally, it endorses a localized, non-global social organization. Eriksen and Stjernfelt argue that, seen in this relativist way, culture is a political ideology which informs political discourses on multiculturalism of both political
left-wingers and right-wingers (2010, 2012: 237–239). While left- and right-oriented
political discourses have different attitudes towards multiculturalism, namely, the first
encourage cultural diversity but argue for isolating small, regional scale economies
and the latter defend the isolation of “national” or “regional” cultures, both stand
1 While in Eriksen and Stjernfelt’s critique, culturalism appears as an invention of American anthro-
pology, noticeable particularly in American pragmatism, herein a Soviet version of culturalism is
also revealed. It is, of course, similar with the American one. Such a Soviet culturalism should be
investigated on its own.
2.3 The Anti-cosmopolitan Argument in Structural Semiotics
upon the same fallacy of regarding cultures, and more generally, sign systems, as
autonomous and independent. Both of these attitudes, standing on the premise of
culturalism, endorse isolationism and they conflict with principles of democracy and
human rights. Right-wing discourse uses the mask of culturalism to endorse its narrowed version of culturalism, namely nationalism, which, as known, eagerly cuts off
many individuals and groups from full participation to civil society by discriminating on ethnic criteria. The left-wing discourse uses culturalism to endorse the above
mentioned version of multiculturalism as a conglomeration of cultural clusters which
each have their own organic life and can be used to justify any defiance of human
rights among its adepts.
A recent and clear example of this is the Brexit referendum (see The Electoral
Commission 2016) in the United Kingdom (UK), which took place in 2016, and
its aftermath. The referendum, which took place in 2016 inquired whether British
citizens wanted that the UK remains in or leaves the European Union (EU). The
referendum resulted in 51.9% of votes in favor of leaving the EU and 48.1% of votes
in favor of remaining. It is worth noting that in 2012, four years before the referendum, Eriksen and Stjernfelt anticipated that the UK was heading in the direction
of an intolerant and segregating multiculturalism (2012: 5). The British government
decided to take the course of action desired by the very slight majority of leave
voters, an action that is justified in a parliamentary democracy. The results of the
referendum marked a strong division between two public discourses in the UK (see
Dorling 2016), corresponding to the two voting possibilities. The public who did
not desire that the UK exits the EU had to find its own opinion leaders who would
defend its interests. While such leaders where found, they either belonged to the
non-political sphere (such as, for example, Gina Miller) or to marginally influential
political parties, such as the Liberal Democrats party or the Scottish National Party.
The other two historical, and presently much more influential, leading parties in the
UK expressed a Brexit-favourable discourse.
Perhaps it does not come as a surprise that the right-oriented Conservative Party,
which formed the government, found within itself the resources to support the Brexit
process. Of course, this required some internal changes. While it was the Conservative Party that supported having the referendum, guided by their then leader and
Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, this party expressed a pro-EU rhetoric
before the referendum. Thus, the referendum resulted in some internal changes for
the party, including replacing David Cameron as Prime Minister with another party
leader, Theresa May. Starting with that point, the Conservative Party embraced an
isolationist discourse to support its policy of leaving the EU. The interesting phenomenon is that the British population in favor of EU membership did not find
support for its cause in the left-oriented Labour Party. The Labour Party’s leader,
Jeremy Corbyn, expressed to be as well in favor of Brexit, though arguably not as
openly, for electoral reasons. Even during the referendum campaign, Corbyn did
not clearly voice that the Labour Party supports remaining in the EU (Goodwin
and Heath 2016), while the Conservative Party had done so. The Labour Party’s
leadership discourse followed some typical left-wing themes, such as the injustice
of transnational trade agreements, to which its traditional blue collar working class
2 Cultural Relativism and Politics of Recognition
audience would be sensitive (see Goodwin and Heath 2016: 331), thus resulting in
backing an isolationist stand as well. This attitude is rooted, as well, in culturalism.
In this case, the Labour Party recurred to the idea of a socialist cultural tradition,
which its core electorate would support by default. The Labour Party’s isolationism is justified on account of supposed traditionally leftist values. Thus, while it is
understandable that one might not adhere to these values, for the pretense of multiculturalism the Labour Party can avoid criticism because of its inherently dignified
socialist culture. Criticizing its political discourse can be publicly criticized back as
undemocratic intolerance towards socialism. This avoids actual democratic, critical
debates in the public sphere. Both discourses, that of the right-oriented Conservative
Party and that of the left-oriented Labour Party are isolationist because both of these
parties assume culturalism. Furthermore, both of these parties found the Brexit referendum as a good opportunity to move their discourses closer to extremes: closer
to traditional socialism in the Labour Party’s case and closer to nationalism in the
Conservative Party’s case.
The process of isolating the UK from the rest of the EU and from a globalizing
world fed the emphasis of cultural differences at all levels, even internally, within
the UK. For instance, soon after Theresa May took office as Prime Minister with
the mission of delivering Brexit, she stated that “if you believe you’re a citizen of
the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word
‘citizenship’ means.” (May 2016) What this implies in this context is that only by
embracing a clearly defined British identity can an inhabitant of the UK (or of any
state) have her citizen rights respected. Theresa May’s statement is an ideological
assumption, not a theoretical hypothesis as she would like to claim. It is entrenched
in culturalist ideology. This is clearly seen, for instance, in the bicultural integration paradigm, inherent of cultural relativism, which, as Rudmin and Ahmadzadeh
explain, because it “restricts the universe of cultures to two, attitudes which are
multicultural, cosmopolitan, international, global can only appear as the construct
mislabeled as “Marginalization”.” (2001: 44) Thus, holding on to the presumption
of a clearly defined, unitary local culture implies the “marginalization” of differently
cultured foreigners who enter into a bicultural relation with the locals. Implicitly,
like the foreigner, the locally originating cosmopolitan, who prefers global pluralism
instead of separatism, is also marginalized. The cosmopolitan-minded appears either
as a misinformed “citizen of nowhere,” as in Theresa May’s speech or as a “traitor”, as
pro-European Brits are often labelled in some of the British media (see Waugh 2017;
Hammond 2017) and by pro-Brexit activists, in the aftermath of the referendum.
These examples illustrate how the ideological assumptions of academic culturalism
cause separatism in the public sphere. Culturalism justifies separatism by the fallacious argument that cultural identity and the preservation of cultural inheritance is a
prerequisite for individual identity and citizenship.
As the political discourse of the Brexit referendum aftermath sought a clearly
defined identity of the British citizen, as a starting point of a multiculturalist justification of Brexit, not one but many such identities, finding themselves in contradiction,
were proposed. This led to the radicalization of each such possible identity and an
increased segregationism, though not necessarily on racial criteria, within British
2.3 The Anti-cosmopolitan Argument in Structural Semiotics
society. The tendency of radicalization, in any ideological direction, thus reveals the
common culturalist assumptions of apparently opposing ideologies. The problem
revealed is that, to begin with, the agendas of these political parties are ideologically
driven. The ideologization of culture leads the political left to a culturalism-based
multiculturalism and the political right to nationalism. None of these apparently
opposite political positions has a pragmatic goal of meliorating society and human
life. Instead, they define what is a good human society in an ideological, predefined
view, thus being “uncritical defenders of territorial nationalism or cultural-religious
particularism, respectively.” (Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012: 4). It supposes that the
reality of political states is an a priori category. In the culturalist perspective, the
particularist behavior of a group is empirical proof for cultural diversity, justifying
difference as the tool of cultural criticism and analysis.
The idea of meaning as originating in difference eventually justifying isolationism
should come as no surprise. Inspired from linguistics (de Saussure 1959 [1916]) and
supported by the linguistic turn, it has been the main methodological tool of cultural
analysis. In particular, Jacques Derrida took de Saussure’s idea further, advocating for
a concept of différance, around which cultural analysis revolves, as “the movement”
which “produces different things, that which differentiates” and which, thus, is “the
common root of all the oppositional concepts that mark our language, such as, to
take only a few examples, sensible/intelligible, intuition/signification, nature/culture,
etc.” (Derrida 1981: 9) The very idea of differences in linguistics, as well as Derrida’s
différance, are assumed in an explicitly dualist mindset. The concept of différance
is the starting point for what Derrida termed deconstruction and, thus, of cultural
analysis, on this account. This led Derrida to his famous statement expressing that
poststructuralism clings on to an idea of sign systems as closed systems, namely
that “there is no outside-text [il n’y a pas de hors-texte].” (1976 [1974]: 158) The
construal of sign systems as isolated or isolatable underpins political isolationism
and non-interventionism. If sign systems can exist in isolation, there is no reason
for intervening in an other-culture even for the purpose of stopping human rights
violations because, it is assumed in this perspective, by being from outside-text one
cannot have an understanding of the text. This assumption justifies isolationism and
implies a need of individuals and groups for an identity. It implies that one cannot
understand the human rights of a culture with which she does not identify. To have
access to the hermeneutics of a closed sign system it means to share identity with
all the others who have that access. Such is the claim in mainstream multicultural
theory that humans can prosper only by having such identities politically recognized
(e.g. Taylor et al. 1994). This is exemplified above, in Theresa May’s rejection of
global citizenship. In this view, a democratic pursuit for universal human rights, in
accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is only justified
after the recognition of ethnic, cultural, religious or other identities:
Recognizing and treating members of some groups as equals now seems to require public institutions to acknowledge rather than ignore cultural particularities, at least for those
people whose self-understanding depends on the vitality of their culture. This requirement
of political recognition of cultural particularity—extended to all individuals—is compatible
2 Cultural Relativism and Politics of Recognition
with a form of universalism that counts the culture and cultural context valued by individuals
as among their basic interests. (Gutmann in Taylor et al. 1994: 5)
Contrary to Gutmann’s statement, representative for culturalism-founded multiculturalism, recognizing cultural particularities in a formal, political manner implies
accepting that a certain qualitative otherness of some groups and individuals qualifies these to adhere to a distinct legislation. It undermines the principle of the rule
of law. Respecting human rights should have priority, more so than respecting a cultural particularity. The misconception of culturalism consists in considering that the
utmost respect and care for cultural patterns, down to the most peculiar matter of
detail, result in respecting human rights. To achieve this, it advocates from shifting
from the universal application of the rule of law to universalizing, instead, cultural
peculiarities as basic human needs. This is an unverified hypothesis, not an axiom.
Cultures, especially when taking ideological forms, can very well spread hatred and
advocate for anti-humane atrocities.
That self-understanding depends on a vitality of culture, a vitalist idea, implies that
one cannot learn her way through to assimilating the hermeneutics of a new culture.
Acculturation, or simply conviviality, in this perspective, is either not possible or
occurs in a mysterious, indescribable way, as it implies becoming a different being
altogether. Obviously, this notion of multiculturalism has culturalist underpinnings.
The idea of cultural vitality, as Eriksen and Stjernfelt point out (2010, 2012, see
above), is typical of the German romanticist idea of nation, which anthropology
inherited, though translated into a concept of society regardless of ethnic criteria.
To assume that a culture has a life of its own, in a biological sense, is highly
problematic and dangerous. In this view, a society is defined by its culture, as that
is where its particularism stands, which differentiates it from neighboring societies.
The vitalist view is that, as Gutmann states, there is no self-understanding outside the
politically recognized boundaries of culture. This is an implication of understanding
culture through the prism of the conventionalist idea of text, as seen in Derrida.
Even though not an adept of vitalism himself, Derrida’s idea of cultural analysis as
deconstruction aligns relativism with vitalism. The Saussurean notion of linguistic
sign and of language as a closed sign system when applied more broadly in cultural
analysis, as translated into Derrida’s concepts of text and différance, can support
cultural vitalism. Relativism and vitalism are thus aligned in what initially was a
good intention. The reason for cultural relativism’s aware or unaware uptake of
vitalism is that it needs to justify the dignity of any culture while accepting that it
cannot understand a culture from outside:
The upshot of such a culturalism, however, would seem to be immediate incompatibility,
enmity, hostility and war between cultures. This is why it is strange but understandable that
anthropological culturalism hastens to add the conclusion that all cultures possess equal
dignity and thus merit the same degree of tolerance and respect. The noble intention in this
idea is clear: to break with earlier theories of evolutionary scale of different human races.
Fair as it may seem, however, this culturalist doctrine entails some dark sides overlooked.
One corollary is that even the most cruel and antidemocratic practices must be accepted,
once they acquire the noble status of being “cultural” rather than political. Thus, many of
the tensions in actual multiculturalism originate in anthropological culturalism. (Eriksen and
Stjernfelt 2012: 7)
2.3 The Anti-cosmopolitan Argument in Structural Semiotics
Another problematic aspect of culturalism is that it often leads to assuming
that cultural exchange can occur without economic exchange, separating these two
spheres of human life. As mentioned, what makes culturalism problematic is its ideological stance that different areas of activity, such as economy, are culturally determined, the causality being one-directionally top-down. This was clearly expressed
by Benedict claiming that, in culture “The whole determines its parts, not only their
relation, but their very nature.” (1934: 52, 1959: 57)
In the case of the Brexit referendum, this was seen in the Labour Party’s reaction
to the results as well as in some electoral behaviors: it was a sense of pessimism
stemming from unfavorable economic transformation which “delivered” the vote for
Brexit (Goodwin and Heath 2016: 331; see also Dorling 2016). This fear was translated electorally in a desire for isolation, that is to say, in endorsing culturalism as
the key to a better economic situation. This construal of culture mirrors Ferdinand
de Saussure’s concept of a sign system and the (post)structuralist concept of text. It
implies that there is no proper individual freedom, the individual being thoroughly
determined by the culture that she inhabits. As Eriksen and Stjernfelt remark, according to Benedict’s culturalism, the constituting parts of a culture or society have no
self-determination or power to organize:
There is no discussion here about wholes of different strength, type or degree of organization,
but a quick and resolute claim for a holism which is so radical that the whole has the power
not only to organise the mutual relations of its parts, but even their very being. (Eriksen and
Stjernfelt 2012: 110)
This view, I shall explain, is contrasted to Peirce’s schematic semiotics, as most
clearly explained in detail by Stjernfelt (2007) and Pietarinen (2006). Even though a
leading researcher both in multiculturalism, where he remarks the holistic determinism of culturalism, and in Peircean semiotics, where he stands out for thoroughly
explaining Peirce’s schematism (2007) and doctrine of propositions (2014), Stjernfelt
has not yet employed Peirce’s semiotics to develop an alternative to the anthropological relativist view on culture. This endeavor is further pursued in this monograph
(see Chap. 5).
On account of culturalism’s isolationist stance, neighboring cultures can accept
each other’s inner violations of human rights for the sake of multiculturalism. A
recent example of this attitude of culturalism is noticed in the Catalan declaration of
independence, which came as a result of the referendum on October 1st, 2017. This
referendum, asking Catalonian citizens if they wanted Catalonia to become an independent republic, was declared illegal by the Spanish government. The following
declaration of independence by the Catalonian Government was deemed unconstitutional and led to the dissolving of the Catalonian Government. It appears that
if anyone outside Catalonia accuses the Catalonian Parliament of having declared
independence unconstitutionally and, as such, contrary to the rule of law of a parliamentary democracy, it can be, in turn, accused of interfering. One of many such
examples, as coming in a right-wing populist discourse, is British politician and
Brexit supporter Nigel Farage’s idea propagated by the newspaper The Express that
the “EU always interferes” (see Campbell 2017). As such, this form of multicultur-
2 Cultural Relativism and Politics of Recognition
alism is a silent social contract, which allows non-interventionism and, potentially,
the justification of human rights violations on ground of an assumed autonomous
dignity of any culture. It is a “hard” form of multiculturalism, as Eriksen and Stjernfelt label it (2012: 2) which straightforwardly justifies violations of human rights on
account of “the idea that single cultures have the right to self-government, including
law” (2012: 103). In the case of Catalonia’s attempt of secession from Spain, which
is actually a division, deepening a conflict and moving away from resolution and
conviviality, confirms multiculturalism: the nation-culture clusters of the globe are
multiplied. In particular, the sentiment for secession from Spain in Catalonia is not
only culturalist, but also nationalist (see Micó and Carbonell 2017: 430). Thus, in
this case, what is deemed a multiculturalist decision is used as a manifestation of
nationalism. Both of these, multiculturalism-endorsing isolationism and nationalism, stem from culturalism. Both the political left and right can take advantage of the
relativist epistemology that culturalism supposes, namely that there is no universal
non- or pre-cultural axiology of values by which an act can be deemed moral or
not, right or wrong, to impose a political ideology. In this view, any human action is
meant to be morally judged within a culture’s own relative axiology. This is one of
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Chapter 3
Semiotics and Multiculturalism
Abstract This chapter continues the arguments of Chap. 2, in greater detail. The
consequences of an ideological, language-centered and relativist theory of culture
are illustrated through examples. The chapter discusses policy-making based on
culturalism, particularly for education and research. The cases discussed reveal the
atomism (or monadism) of culturalism-based multiculturalism, which tends to hide
the ideological dimension of isolationist arguments under the pretense of an academic
cultural theory.
3.1 Cultural Relativism and the Roots of Culturalism
in the Linguistic Turn
From an epistemological perspective, during the 20th century, semiotics developed
in two branches: (1) the glottocentric branch, regarding human culture and thought
as intrinsically linguistic, and (2) the realist branch, regarding signification as continuous throughout nature and culture (see also Cobley 2010: 230, 2016: 2). The
glottocentric branch, while having its roots in Ferdinand de Saussure’s sémiologie,
found a strong confirmation in the linguistic turn, in the middle of the century. It
has been rather characteristic for this branch of semiotics to approach culture and,
therefore, occasionally, multiculturalism. This is the general framework for cultural
analysis that Cobley criticizes as entirely focused on discourse and therefore, conventionalist:
Because of the centrality of textuality to semiotics after Lotman and Barthes, a current of
thought which gained considerable traction in the humanities and the social sciences in
the latter part of the twentieth century became erroneously associated with semiotics. This
was the ‘linguistic turn’, inaugurated by Richard Rorty’s 1967 influential collection, which
coalesced various perspectives including those that later became prominent in Anglophone
cultural studies. The idea that knowledge is ‘constructed in discourse’ with humans’ apprehension of the world amounting to a mere figment induced by figures in language, arose out of
the ‘linguistic turn’ and (post)structuralism. As will be seen, the nominalism of the ‘linguistic
turn’ is at odds with the Peircean realist perspective in biosemiotics. It also posits a definition
of language based on ‘figures of speech’ and ‘chatter’ […] rather than the more sophisticated
cognitive perspective in biosemiotics offered by language as modelling. (2016: 18)
© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019
A. Olteanu, Multiculturalism as Multimodal Communication,
Numanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress 9,
3 Semiotics and Multiculturalism
This is also the line of thought which led to the development of the sub-field
of legal semiotics (see Wagner and Broekman in Wagner and Broekman 2010: v),
which has a particular bearing on the construal of multiculturalism. Even if often not
explicit of its semiotic inspiration, the broad framework of cultural studies inherited
the main conceptual tools and assumptions of this semiotic branch (see Cobley in
Cobley 2001:4). The approach developed in the present monograph is grounded in
the realist branch of semiotics, in agreement with recent theories such as MerleauPonty’s phenomenology of the body (Merleau-Ponty 1995) and cognitive semantics
(e.g. Lakoff and Johnson 1980). The cornerstone of such a semiotic framework for
culture and multiculturalism, as Cobley (2010, 2016) also explains, starts from the
premise that meaning phenomena (semioses) are continuous throughout the biological realm. This allows the acceptance, in a realist fashion, that communication and
understanding are possible inter-culturally, and even between different biological
species. It implies an environmental notion of communication and learning which
avoids an ideological concept of culture, and the extreme relativism that the denial
of ideology was supposed to imply, by philosophers such as Lyotard (1984 [1979]),
arguing in inspiration of, for instance, Nietzsche (e.g. 1967 [1901]) and Heidegger
(e.g. 2000 [1953]).
Stables convincingly explains that such a comprehensive semiotic approach to
education advocates that policy-making can be decided upon in a pragmatic and
non-ideological reasoning, thus resulting in an objective melioration of life quality.
From this perspective, he endorses a pragmatic liberalism, albeit not in an ideological
understanding of liberalism but, rather, in the acceptance of a vast yet not unlimited
individual subjectivity:
Taking the elements together, therefore, the argument is developed that all life proceeds
as response to signs and signals (though the specific signs to which humans respond are,
generally, unique to humans). Such an account might be construed as post-humanist liberal
pragmatism. It is post-humanist in that it extends respect for the phenomenal worlds of all
people to at least a minimal respect for the phenomenal worlds of all sentient beings, as
well as an appreciation of the dependence of the human on the non-human (and vice versa);
animals, for example, are not the ‘mere animals’ of John McDowell’s Mind and World any
more than the brutish automata conceived by Descartes. It is liberal not in the classical sense
of believing that persons have autonomous rational souls but in the more guarded belief that
no individual can have a God’s-eye view that justifies stipulating what is best for others, and
thus that the fiction, or feeling, of freedom is an important fiction or feeling for social policy
to recognize and maintain. It is pragmatic in that it fails to acknowledge a gap between what
is and what is meant and thus recognizes the touchstone of all judgments to be their impacts
on the phenomenal worlds of individuals; as things are their effects (after Peirce), it is the
‘then dimension’ in each sentient being’s perception that allows that being to survive and,
through survival in ever-changing contexts, to adapt. (Stables 2012: xi–xii)
The glottocentric branch of semiotics is intimately connected with the cultural
relativism that is implied by culturalism. According to Eriksen and Stjernfelt (2010,
2012), culturalism is linked to linguistic turn, and its roots can be traced to the main
theses of 1940s American anthropological studies, as shared in academia and among
the “educated” generally (see Mead in Benedict 1959: vii), by the disciples of Franz
3.1 Cultural Relativism and the Roots of Culturalism …
Boas, such as Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir and the disciple of the latter, Benjamin
Lee Whorf (see Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2010: 369, 2012: 105–106).
Boas (1938 [1911]), like all of his followers in anthropology, certainly had a good
intention that led him to draw on romanticist ideas such as considering “the enormous variation of human mentality in time and space” (Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012:
104). This implies cautiousness in interpreting others’ mentalities for the purpose of
“avoiding assimilating the alien position to one’s own” (Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012:
104), or what is now termed cultural appropriation. At the time, academic initiatives
such as Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934) had the purpose of dismissing
the pretense of a scientific endorsement of racism and Western imperialism. Nevertheless, this school of anthropology did not entirely shake off the romantic notion of
culture as an autonomous organism. Thus, it further disseminated the cultural relativism that underpins a view of multiculturalism as isolationism. As contemporary
cultural relativism is rooted in the linguistic turn, it regards culture as a holistic and
organic system, having the structure of a language.
In this vein, language is also understood in the particular fashion of
(post)structuralism and glottocentric philosophy, originating in de Saussure’s conception of a language as a homogenous system of signs (de Saussure 1959 [1916]: 15;
see also above). Being homogenous, a system cannot accept, in partiality, elements
from other systems. Neologisms or loanwords, or in general any words stemming
from a linguistic etymology which is supposed to correspond to a distinct culture,
would be at least meaningless or grammatically erroneous, if not properly damaging for a language and culture, in this strict concept of language. Naturally, cultural
relativism grounded its construal of culture in the semiological notion of system.
For instance, according to Eriksen and Stjernfelt, at least in Benedict (1934), it is
explicitly claimed that “[c]ultures are holistic, organic entities, in which the meaning
of each single feature can only be understood from the whole.” (2012: 135) Vitalism,
albeit not in an insistent manner, is present in de Saussure’s very formulation of semiology, namely the “science that studies the life of signs within society” (1959 [1916]:
16). Semiology presupposes that the (1) vitality of linguistic signs (2) is transferred
from language to society. As such, cultures can only but stand in clear contrast to
each other. It is impossible to infer any structural similarity between cultures because,
implicitly, there is no cross-cultural method of comparing elements from two distinct cultures. One can only be either entirely enculturated within a certain culture
or not. According to cultural relativism, one cannot live in accordance with various
cultural elements coming from various, different cultures. This is the assumption of
culturalism-based multi- and inter-cultural studies. For instance, Hofstede, Hofstede
and Minkov (see also above, Chap. 1, Sect. 1.5) claim that the purpose of their work
“is to help in dealing with differences in thinking, feeling, and acting of people around
the globe. It will show that although the variety in people’s mind is enormous, there is
a structure in this variety that can serve as a basis for mutual understanding.” (2010:
4) A drawback on Cartesianism can also be noticed in this assumption. The argument
is that since the variety of human cultural production and creativity is so vast that
it generates mutually incommensurable behaviors, worldviews and lifestyles, the
possibility to communicate must be explained on account of an a priori structure. If
3 Semiotics and Multiculturalism
we are to regard cultures as internally pluralistic and impossible to distinguish with
clear precision, the possibility of communication, interculturally but also in general,
is rather explained as an intrinsic character of culture(s).
Furthermore, in Benedict’s view, as perpetrated by Hofstede, Hofstede and
Minkov’s classic (2010), one culture can seldom learn from another, as it cannot
observe different cultural structures and dynamics other than in relation to itself as
a whole. That is why, in this view, intercultural cooperation depends on unlearning one’s own (cultural) patterns rather than learning more about another (Hofstede
et al. 2010: 4–5). It appears then that glottocentric cultural relativism regards diagrammatic reasoning across cultures as impossible. There can be no iconic relation
between cultures. In addition, paralleling language and culture as holistic systems
that reflect each other makes it impossible to distinguish between one another, as
the semantic and grammatical categories of a language coincide with and, over time,
shape the categories of a culture and, implicitly, the cognitive possibilities of its
If “language” in the generalization often promoted by “the linguistic turn” thus may mean
“cultural systems of value and thought in general”, then the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis becomes
easy to reconcile with […] the idea that culture, as a whole, is learned like a language. […]
[T]he idea that a language comes with a world view […] is highly problematic, if only for the
simple reason that it is well known that several and even antagonistic world views may be
articulated and struggle within one and the same language (and, a fortiori, culture). This idea
leads to the widespread assumption that cultures as such imply a world view or an ideology
which is shared by all its members.” (Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012: 134)
This is the starting point of culturalism: all of the members of a society share the
same ideology. This then justifies the idea that a political state should coincide with
a culture, as all its members would share the same idea of what is good governance
and would voluntarily collaborate. In this view, the foreigner or any alter-cultured,
appears detrimental to the solid functioning of the state. Not only does the organic
conception of culture endorse xenophobia, but it also ignores the inner pluralism,
that is the heterogeneity and entropy, the possible contradictions and evolutionary
forces within a culture. Regarding cultures as organic ultimately implies cultural
Politically, it immediately entails the danger that anthropology allies itself with the most
traditionalist, most reactionary, even authoritarian forces which have an interest in keeping
tradition “pure” and unchallenged, in enforcing the doctrines of culture and persuade or
force ill-adjusted, deviant, or rebel members of the culture to submit. (Erisken and Stjernfelt
2012: 135)
Since this conclusion rests on the culture-language parallelism to begin with, the
purification of culture is best assured by linguistic purification. Language “purification” is an accepted standard practice in some supposedly democratic states, such
as, among others, the French Republic and the Republic of Lithuania. These two
cases reveal exemplar clauses of culturalism endorsed by language-culture parallelism. France is known for having its controversial Académie Française working
in this regard since 1635. According to its Statuts et règlements, the rationale of the
3.1 Cultural Relativism and the Roots of Culturalism …
Académie Française is to purify the French language according to certain norms of
the academic French language:
La principale fonction de l’Académie sera de travailler, avec tout le soin et toute la diligence
possibles, à donner des règles certaines à notre langue et à la rendre pure, éloquente et capable
de traiter les arts et les sciences.1 (Académie Française 1995 [1635, 1752, 1816], Status et
règlements, article 24)
It is unclear what are the “certain rules” of the French language and why is its purity
interdependent with its possibility for eloquence and capability of addressing art and
science. This foundational text of the Académie was written in 1635 and remains this
institution’s raison d’être, defying any progress that sciences might have revealed in
the meantime. The sciences and the arts that the document discusses thus appear to
be rather subjectively depending on the French language, and to its “certain rules”,
than the latter showing any flexibility or disposition to keep up with the dynamics of
human societies, arts or sciences. This is manifestly the main clause of culturalism.
3.2 An Example of Glottocentric Culturalism: The Case
of Lithuania
The same attitude is implemented, though usually in a lighter version than in France,
in many supposed democracies. A hard version of such culturalism is officially and
formally practiced, for instance, by the Republic of Lithuania. This can be seen in the
activity of at least two of its government-supported institutions: firstly, the Lithuanian
Language Institute (lt., Lietuvi˛u Kalbos Institutas, henceforth LKI) and, secondly,
the Research Council of Lithuania (lt., Lietuvos Mokslo Taryba, henceforth LMT).
According to LKI (Lietuvi˛u Kalbos Institutas 2018), “numerous linguists regard
Lithuanian language as the purest surviving Indo-european language which is least
changed by outside influences.” Leaving the tautology (that the purest is the least
changed) of this statement aside, this is the central claim for Lithuanian culturalism
as an ideology practiced by the Republic of Lithuania. While the Lithuanian language
might well be the most conservative Indo-European language still in use, LKI does
not offer any references as to whom might the “numerous linguists” be. This Institute
admittedly admires the “19th century National Revival” which “restored the prestige
of speaking the Baltic languages” (2018). It thus endorses language “purification”:
Under the influence of Jonas Jablonskis the language was purified by replacing Slavic loanwords with neologisms and establishing the modern orthography. (2018)
The endeavor of impoverishing Lithuanian vocabulary for the sake of etymological purity is saluted by LKI, which currently carries on this process of purification.
LKI practices a handbook example of culturalism. For instance, it uncritically takes
1 “The primary function of the Academy would be to work carefully and diligently on establishing
specific rules to our language rendering it pure, eloquent and capable of expressing arts and
3 Semiotics and Multiculturalism
for granted the situation of having Lithuanian as “the sole official language in Lithuania while there are official areas where ethnic minorities may use their own languages
(for instance as the medium of instruction in schools), the position of Lithuanian as
a language for interethnic communication strengthened over the time since 1990.”
(2018) Through this statement, LKI admits that it subscribes to a number of typically
culturalist clauses:
(1) A political state should correspond to a (majoritarian) ethnicity;
(2) The ethnicity which defines the political state has one corresponding language
(in this case, Lithuanian);
(3) Other languages can only be tolerated by having them isolated and formally
accepted in designated “official areas” only. This is the typical picture of the
culturalist construal of multiculturalism: cultural plurality means the territorial
co-existence of unmixed various cultural clusters, each objectively identifiable
and distinguishable from the others;
(4) The national language is imposed upon ethnic minority groups, as it is the
language favored in interethnic communication. That minority groups should
learn Lithuanian is not problematic. Rather, it is quite a pragmatic necessity. A
problem, however, lies in the conception of Lithuanian as a “pure” language, to
which it is forbidden to mingle with other languages. This can well contribute
to marginalizing minority groups, as their supposedly corresponding languages,
in this view, could not contribute to the national language and its accompanying
The concept of the state as a political expression of language-culture implies that,
as LKI clearly expresses, there is a “wrong side of the state boundary” (2018)2 where
one can find herself. LKI expresses its disappointment for the fact that emigrating
Lithuanians tend to choose a cosmopolitan life that inevitably leads to their descendants losing the capability of speaking Lithuanian. Nevertheless, “[s]ome historical
Lithuanian communities “on the wrong side of the state boundary” have been more
successful at preserving the language, namely the Punks/Punskas community in
Poland where Lithuanian language schools exist and Lithuanians make the majority
of the population.” (2018) An unfortunate situation according to LKI, some Lithuanians, who find themselves in the neighboring Republic of Poland, are on the wrong
side of the border, unlike the fortunate ones, who, implicitly, are on the correct side
of the border, namely within the territory where Lithuanian culture and language are
given political expression. This implies that all the ethnic minority groups or foreign
individuals within Lithuania are, as well, “on the wrong side of the border”. This is
a perfect example of undemocratic culturalism: it is not necessarily that the principles of nationalism were, in this case, transferred “from state to society” (Eriksen
and Stjernfelt 2010: 360; see also above), but a clearly bounded and rigid notion of
Lithuanian culture is given a political expression and territorial form. The implicit
argument is that if a native speaker of Lithuanian wants to have her citizen rights
respected, she should live in Lithuania, because there is no other political state that
2 See
3.2 An Example of Glottocentric Culturalism: The Case of Lithuania
is properly comprehensive of Lithuanianness, of its specific cultural traits, and of the
needs that this involves for Lithuanians. As LKI describes this with perfect accuracy,
a Lithuanian outside Lithuania is on the “wrong side of the state boundary”.
Consequently, the LKI sets the direction for language and culture research carried
out in Lithuania along its culturalist presuppositions. The Institute is in charge of
the publication of several academic journals, such as Acta Linguistica Lithuanica,
Archivium Lithuanicum, Kalbos Kultūra (Eng., Language Culture) and Terminologija
(Eng., Terminology). For instance, the journal that states language-culture parallelism in its denomination, Kalbos Kultūra, deals with matters of “the theory and
practice of the culture of language” (2018).3 The hardest version of the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis, namely that there is a “culture of language”, is here accepted without
reservation and in ignorance of existing research on the matter. Recent empirical
research (i.e. Levinson 2003; Bennardo 2009) actually justifies a “weak” version
of the hypothesis, revealing a rather complex relation between environmental constraints, linguistic variability, cultural diversity and cognition. Nevertheless inherent
in modelling, it appears that linguistic categories influence only to a limited degree
one’s understanding of the world and, as such, one’s semiotic competences.
This attitude, popular among some Lithuanian linguists and in policy-making
Lithuanian institutions, concerning language and culture is reflected in Lithuania’s
research policies, as carried out by LMT, which are further on reflected in the way
Lithuanian universities formulate their policies and missions. For instance, in 2017,
a research project application submitted to a LMT call by the author of the present
monograph together with other colleagues from Kaunas University of Technology
(KTU) was not awarded for no other explicit justification from the part of the LMT
than that non-Lithuanian researchers cannot understand Lithuanian culture. This
project had the purpose of contributing to semiotic approaches to culture, in consideration of social positioning theory (Harré 2015), by conducting a case study of
cultural dynamics in Lithuania, in the context of the process of Sovietization, as
taking place starting with the Soviet occupation and until the immediate aftermath of
Lithuania’s second independence (or re-establishment) in 1990. As such, the international team of KTU-based researchers who participated in this application claimed
no inside knowledge of Lithuanian culture but only that they would apply existing
scientific methods for scientific outcomes. LMT chose not to fund this project. While
there has undoubtedly been a strong competition for such funding, the review panel
did not invoke the existence of more solid, competing research projects and did not
indicate any methodological, epistemological or other such flaw in this application.
LMT explicitly declared that the project in question was not to be funded because
the various senior international researchers involved cannot understand Lithuanian
culture since they are not Lithuanian. More precisely, LMT considered that the only
project members who had some competence to conduct such research were the only
Lithuanian nationals belonging to the group of researchers. As it happens, one of
these researchers considered competent by LMT, while considerably capable of car-
3 See
3 Semiotics and Multiculturalism
rying out the research required, was the least experienced researcher in the team. For
instance, the review from LMT mentions:
The project leaders […] have a significant expertise in the area of semiotic research. [One
of the Lithuanian researchers] also has a significant expertise in the area of music research.
[The others] are young researchers who only started working in the area of semiotics and [the
other Lithuanian researcher] is a Ph.D. student who works in music research. Sovietism and
Lithuanianness, Soviet and Lithuanian identity are not merely given, but a matter demanding
for a clear conceptualization. Unfortunately, even the most experienced researchers [of this
application] do not have experience in carrying out research on Soviet/Lithuanian identity.
Only [the two Lithuanian researchers] carried out research on Lithuanian identity, related to
The review makes a fine slalom, avoiding to explicitly state nationalist, even
border-racist assumptions, such as that non-Lithuanians cannot conduct research
on Lithuanian (cultural) identity, but cannot avoid obvious culturalist assumptions.
Some discriminatory statements are explicit, nevertheless: two of the researchers
involved are deemed not competent enough, not in consideration of their research
record, but because of their age, being too “young” (Lit. jaunieji). The implicit
culturalist assumptions stem most obviously from the review’s contradictions. After
having admitted, nevertheless, that the project leaders have a significant expertise in
semiotic research and that the only two Lithuanians of the group prove competence
in conducting research on Lithuanian and Soviet identity, the reviewers categorically
stated that:
The composition of the project group is not optimal because all the members lack experience
in researching Lithuanian identity.
With this argument, LMT proves to be aligned to the culturalist ideology and
policy of LKI: they consider that (1) non-Lithuanians cannot understand (elements
of) Lithuanian culture and that (2) a scientific investigation of Lithuanian culture
can only be carried out by Lithuanian scholars. This implies that there is a specific
Lithuanian science, which is subject to Lithuanian culture. The subordination of
science to culture is one of the specific fallacies of culturalism.
As such, given this ideology practiced by governmental Lithuanian bodies, universities correspondingly adapt and adopt culturalism. For instance, the Department
of Lithuanian Studies of Vilnius University addresses its prospective students in a
thorough culturalist rhetoric (Lituanistini˛u Studij˛u Katedra 2018). In this department’s address to non-Lithuanians interested in studying the Lithuanian language,
the Lithuanian language is described as special and interesting in an objective way.
For instance, Lithuanian is declared “[m]elodic and pleasant to the ear” in absolute,
objectively, regardless of the students’ native languages and backgrounds (see http://
Due to its glottocentric and culturalist perspective, the address is thoroughly
uncritical about a number of issues. It is commonly accepted in scholarship on the
matter that Baltic languages, among which Lithuanian, share a substantial amount of
common etymologic linguistic features with Slavonic languages (e.g. Kroeber 1960).
This common linguistic ancestor, which probably is not one language strictly but a set
3.2 An Example of Glottocentric Culturalism: The Case of Lithuania
of multilinguistic elements, is referred to as Slavo-Baltic or Balto-Slavic (see Balode
and Holvoet in Dahl and Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2001a: 20, 43; Ambrazas in Dahl and
Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2001b: 406; Koptjevskaja-Tamm in Dahl and KoptjevskajaTamm 2001b: 540). The Department of Lithuanian Studies of Vilnius University
makes it sound as if there is no such commonality between the Baltic and Slavonic
languages. The following paragraph from a text written by Inga Hilbig on behalf of
the Department of Lithuanian Studies is very telling (see
We often have to explain to foreigners that “No, Lithuanian is not a Slavic language, it’s a
Baltic language. Most of the inhabitants of Lithuania know or at least understand Russian
due to historical and political circumstances, while in the Vilnius region Polish is another
language widely spoken or understood, however neither Russians, Poles or any other person
who has not specifically studies Lithuanian will understand it. The only surviving living language close to Lithuanian is Latvian, which is also a Baltic language, however we cannot be
understood even by who we often refer to lightheartedly as our Baltic “brothers”. Estonians,
who are often mistakenly referred to as Baltic, speak a Finno-Ugric language, and not an
Indo-European language, so it is not worth looking for similarities between Estonian and
Lithuanian. Lithuanian is special because of that fact that it survived at all. It could have very
well disappeared in the margins of history for all times from the language map of Europe,
just like Lithuania itself from the geographic and political face of the earth. Often it was
forced to make a decision to “be or not to be”. (Hilbig in Lituanistini˛u Studiju Katedra 2018)
By such statements, this academic department implies various non-scientific, ideological positions and manifests the undemocratic assumptions of culturalism. First
of all, by the categorical rhetoric by which it delimits Lithuanian from Slavonic,
labelling it as Baltic, it implies that there is hardly any linguistic connection between
Baltic and Slavic languages. This is not true. Latvian is mentioned as another Baltic
language, which leads us to a use of bloodline metaphor: Latvians are called “brothers” of Lithuanians, in contrast with everyone else. As such, nobody who is not a
Latvian can aspire to a metaphorical “brotherhood” with Lithuanians. All the more,
even Latvians can only be regarded as brothers in a “lighthearted” acceptance. The
statement is also inconsiderate of gender neutrality, as Lithuanians and Latvians are
mentioned to be brothers only, but not sisters. The implicit male-centeredness is one
more indicator of uncritical culturalism. The text cuts of Finno-Ugric languages,
such as Finnish and Estonian from the “Baltic” sphere, which is inaccurate. While
in a strictly etymological sense, Lithuanian and Latvian are what has been labelled
as Baltic languages, while Finno-Ugric languages are not; etymologically these languages being distinct to Indo-European generally, scholarship in areal linguistics
acknowledges a set of Baltic Finnic languages, in the context of a wider group of
Circum-Baltic languages (see Dahl and Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2001a, b). This is to say
that, as languages around the Baltic Sea have been historically mixing irrespective
of etymological origin, they share various elements in various ways. Thus, linguistic
scholarship accounts for the use of the term Baltic as a geographic region of particular linguistic, topological mingling. At least in these statements to its international
students, Vilnius University’s Department of Lithuanian Languages does not admit
such a use of the term Baltic. Of course, this is not explicitly stated but rather implied
by singling out differences, which are thus claimed to be clear, a typical strategy of
3 Semiotics and Multiculturalism
glottocentrism (see above), and by not mentioning similarities. Not mentioning similarities is a good defensive rhetorical device: the department can only be accused
of what it explicitly states about the Lithuanian language not about what it does not
state about other languages. However, in the view of this criticism of culturalism, its
implications become clear.
The text mentions that the brotherhood of Lithuanians and Latvians is not that
strong a bond after all, because these two populations do not really understand each
other, once more stressing linguistic differences. The text allows for a vague space of
(mis)interpretation as it does not claim that the Lithuanian language and the Latvian
language, while related, are mutually incomprehensible, but that Lithuanians, the
people themselves, are not understood by their Latvian “brothers”. Thus, the term of
endearment “brother” is eventually tweaked to stress the difference and suggest a lack
of understanding, perhaps a light enmity, between the people themselves. Further on,
Estonians are mentioned. The Estonian people constitute the grammatical and logical subject, not the Estonian language. The text defines Estonians as the people who
“speak Estonian”, thus proving utter, uncritical indiscrimination between language,
citizenship and ethnicity. As the Estonian language is of an entirely different origin,
the text claims, “it is not worth looking for similarities between Estonian and Lithuanian”. In what regards scientific accuracy, this is another statement which does not
correspond to the common opinions in current scholarship, where many linguistic
exchanges between these languages in the Baltic region are rather acknowledged
and deemed valuable for analysis in search of similarities (see Larsson in Dahl
and Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2001a: 238–253; Holvoet in Dahl and Koptjevskaja-Tamm
2001b: 363–390; Christen in Dahl and Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2001b: 499–520). In what
regards cultural separatism, Estonians are simply dismissed as not worth looking at.
A typical implication of glottocentrism, supposed lack of similarity implies that any
attempt of collaboration is artificial. All of this leads to the conclusion sought by the
Department of Lithuanian Language in this paragraph, namely that “Lithuanian is
special”. The reason invoked for the outstandingness of Lithuanian is its survival.
This could be claimed, however, about any language, particularly any of the littlespread but still spoken languages of the Baltic area. Moreover, the language used
here, namely the term of survival, reveals vitalist assumptions about language, typical of culturalism (see above). This leads to a supposed justification for separatism
by the author’s statement that Lithuanian “was forced to make a decision to be or not
to be.” This implies that there is no middle way: Lithuanian either is or is not, and
this situation is forced upon Lithuania and Lithuanians by the external context. Thus,
Lithuania is justified to choose separatism because otherwise, if it chooses language
and implicitly cultural mixing, it will cease to be.
The text continues with other fallacious claims about language and culture but
the main points are explained. The want of English grammar of the text is also an
indication of culturalism and ethnocentrism. The endorsement of linguistic separatism is, of course, ideological and obstructs the properly scientific investigation of
languages. It has been long noticed that, particularly in the Baltic context, nationalist
pride from all sides has been blurring language research:
3.2 An Example of Glottocentric Culturalism: The Case of Lithuania
Subjectivity is, as we have noted above, very much in evidence in the investigation of
Balto-Slavonic linguistic unity. We have already become aware of the natural or ‘objective’
difficulties of the issue; but these are complicated by emotional interpretations in the form of
personal egoisms and even of national passions. It seems obvious that it is chiefly the Balticspeaking scholars like Endzelins, Buga, Skardzius, and others who are against the theory, as
it is perhaps offensive to their national susceptibilities and to their desire for recognition of
separateness. On the other hand Slavonic scholars, no matter what their nationality, but more
particularly the Poles (e.g. Porzezinski, Rozwadowski, and Otr˛ebski), are strongly in favour
of the theory. Here no doubt historical and political reasons as well as a priori personal
considerations are involved. ‘Objective’ Western scholars like Meillet and Pisani, on the
other hand, are understandably guided by the light of their own knowledge and take sides
accordingly. (Matthews 1957: 425)
Thus, the position adopted by the Department of Lithuanian Language is one of
many such examples of a culturalist war raging among ideologically-biased linguists.
While in the Baltic area such ideological quarrels with academic pretenses stand out,
the situation is, unfortunately, not unique.
The same can be observed in many instances within the European Union, in
its struggle for political unity. Unfortunately, the problem is propagated from the
superior levels of leadership, repeating the naïve benevolence of multiculturalism,
as endorsed by classic Boasian anthropology. For instance, as often the case, in a
recent speech, the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani stressed the
importance of “European values” (Tajani 2017). He stated that the future of the European Union relies on “three pillars”, namely not building borders between Europeans,
defending “European values” and placing “citizens at the heart of all political action.”
(2017) He explained that the EU “means more than just banking and the euro,” but
“[a]bove all it means the defense of our values: freedom, democracy, equality, the
rule of law and safeguarding human rights among others.” (2017) While this list
of values is easily accepted in view of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(1948), it conflicts with the principles of the Declaration by endorsing a specifically European cultural identity as crystalized around these democratic principles.
The problem consists, first of all, in crystalizing (European) public opinion around
a notion of cultural identity. This leads to (1) claiming a European monopoly on
what in fact are universal human rights and (2) calling these, not only European, but
in a classic Aristotelian fashion, values instead of rights. The multiculturalism that
this supposes inevitably implies politics of identity, which regards values as cultural
traits. Also, it indirectly suggests that non-Europeans are not a European concern
because they might not abide by these, so-claimed, European values. This opinion is
what, ironically, justifies separatist movements such as Brexit: if it is not universal
human rights, but a set of cultural values that defines the social organization, and the
political and economic decisions of the EU then many might not want to be part of it.
Ultimately, in this view, what defines Europeans is an ideological theory of culture.
In the same way as a century ago the USA managed, though not without difficulties,
to receive a massive wave of immigrants by redefining American identity, in light of
the various positions regarding the melting pot, so is the EU currently trying.
While the intention is noble, the same risk exists as with early American anthropology and pragmatism, namely the fabrication of a cultural European identity that, in
3 Semiotics and Multiculturalism
the best case, can become a continental-scale nationalism or a more acute culturalism.
Fabricating a broader and more inclusive identity is a solution only to an immediate
impasse, but in the long term, not only does it not solve the initial problem, but can
cause a setback. It is because of the ideological biases of early American anthropology and the presuppositions of the linguistic turn which enforced it, despite its
localized solution, that culturalism remains a widespread ideology, conflicting with
human rights, and occasionally slipping into nationalism.
All of these manifestations of culturalism indicate the need for a new understanding of culture, detached from cultural and linguistic relativism.
3.3 The Monocultural Pluralism of Culturalism
It would be hasty to assume that the early anthropologists, the promoters of culturalism, would consciously endorse the separatism that their theory of culture came
to endorse. Franz Boas’ The Mind of Primitive Man 1938 [1911] was published in
the midst of an unprecedented intake of immigrants in the USA. Between 1870 and
1920 the United States received more than 27 million immigrants, which fueled an
American collective skepticism towards immigration and a rise of racism. This racist
surge was so intense that it even produced pretenses of scientific evidence for the
superiority of the “white race” (see Bernstein 2015: 347–348). Thus, Boas’ relativism had as an aim countering such a wave of fake science and racism. Boas made
the fundamentally critical separation of physical anthropology and cultural anthropology by making a categorical distinction between biological and cultural variation
(see Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012: 103). Also, Boas advocated for a concept of “cultural cosmopolitanism” which, while seemingly liberal and aiming at protecting the
human rights of minority groups, especially in the context of Western imperialism,
inherited the romanticist idea of nation:
Michael Forster argues that Boas also inherited what he calls Herder’s “pluralist cosmopolitanism”, the ethical insistence on the right of the single nations or single cultures to develop
their individuality. (Eriksen and Stjernfelt 2012: 104)
Thus, while this notion of pluralism came out of a noble intention, it has also been
a Trojan horse of the nationalist concept of culture into American anthropology. A
problematic aspect of it is that while very well distinguishing between cultural and
physical anthropology, it ignored the role of the body for language production and,
more generally, for modelling. This feeds well into the program of the linguistic turn.
Interestingly, a similar agenda is found in the American pragmatism of the time,
in Charles Peirce’s direct disciples, James (2008 [1909]) and Dewey (1937), as Bernstein explains (2015). James was the first to openly address the plurality of culture
in his 1908 lectures at Oxford University, which were published one year later in the
collection A Pluralistic Universe (2008 [1909]). While pluralism seems to be a reoccurring theme in pragmatism generally, it is safe to assume that James’ emphasis on
pluralism as an ontological concept (see James 2008 [1909]: 141–142) was inspired
3.3 The Monocultural Pluralism of Culturalism
by Peirce. From James, also Dewey and Kallen inherited this concept as a central
aspect of culture, though in different forms. I argue that Dewey’s concept makes his
educational and political philosophy rather compatible to Eriksen and Stjernfelt’s critique of multiculturalism, while Kallen did not resist the assumption of culturalism.
While early pragmatists such as James and Dewey had a tendency towards empiricism, later ones, such as Rorty or Kallen, bounded pragmatism to the linguistic turn
(see Koopman 2009). Given his linguistic turn philosophy, it is understandable why
Kallen’s pluralism assumed the relativist positions of culturalism. However, both of
these versions of pragmatism, and thus, their pluralistic implications for culture differ
to Peirce’s notion of pluralism and its implications for culture. The cornerstone of a
Peircean approach to culture, as Cobley argued in a biosemiotic perspective, stands
in Peirce’s notion of continuity (Cobley 2016: 3).
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Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Patterns of Culture. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Benedict, Ruth. 1959. Patterns of Culture. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Bennardo, Giovanni. 2009. Linguistic relativity and spatial language. In Linguistic Anthropology,
ed. Anita Sujoldzie, 137–152. Oxford: Eolss.
Bernstein, Richard. 2015. Cultural pluralism. Philosophy and Social Criticism 41 (4–5): 347–356.
Boas, Franz. 1938 [1911]. The Mind of Primitive Man. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Cobley, Paul (ed.). 2001. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics. New York: Routledge.
Cobley, Paul. 2010. The cultural implications of biosemiotics. Biosemiotics 3: 225–244.
Cobley, Paul. 2016. Cultural Implications of Biosemiotics. Dordrecht: Springer.
Dahl, Östen, and Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm (eds.). 2001a. The Circum-Baltic Languages. Volume
1: Past and Present. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
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2: Grammar and Typology. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1959 [1916]. Course in General Linguistics. ed. Charles Bally and Albert
Sechehaye. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York, Toronto, London: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Dewey, John. 1937. Education and social change. Bulletin of the American Association of University
Professors 23 (6): 472–474.
Draft Committee. 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations. Available at
Eriksen, J.-S., and F. Stjernfelt. 2010. Culturalism—From idea to unconscious presupposition.
Sociologija II (4): 359–376.
Eriksen, J.-S., and F. Stjernfelt. 2012. The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism. New
York: Telos Press.
Harré, Rom. 2015. Positioning theory. In The International Encyclopedia of Language and Social
Interaction, ed. Karen Tracy, Cornelia Ilie, Sandel Todd, 1–9.
Heidegger, Martin. 2000 [1953]. Introduction to Metaphysics (Einführung in die Metaphysik). New
Haven, London: Yale University Press.
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Hofstede, Geert, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov. 2010. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. Intercultural Communication and Its Importance for Survival, 3rd ed. New
York: McGraw-Hill.
James, William. 2008 [1909] A Pluralistic Universe. Rockville: Arc Manor.
Koopman, Colin. 2009. Pragmatism as Transition: Historicity and Hope in James, Dewey, and
Rorty. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kroeber, A.L. 1960. Statistics, Indo-European, and Taxonomy. Language 36 (1): 1–21.
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Chapter 4
Language, Culture and Pluralism
Abstract This chapter focuses on the contribution to cultural theories of pragmatic
philosophy. In its early forms, pragmatism developed its own concept of pluralism.
While inspired from Charles Peirce’s idea of plurality in logic, starting with William
James, the debates on pluralism in pragmatism have had culture as a main concern.
Developing simultaneously with cultural anthropology, in pragmatism as well, pluralism has often been regarded as a result of a rather monadic multi-culturalism:
the situation where cultures co-exist territorially, but are carefully separated for the
sake of preservation. In view of post-Peircean developments, the case is made for a
pragmatic semiotic approach to culture that avoids the relativist construal of culture
as mirrored in language.
4.1 Pragmatic Concepts of Pluralism
The idea of cultural pluralism originates in American pragmatism (see Bernstein
2015: 1), which developed its own metaphysical concept of pluralism (see also
Chap. 1, Sect. 1.4). This development is simultaneous and aligned with the advocacy
for cultural relativism in the early American anthropology of Franz Boas, and its
disciples, among which most prominent Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf and
Ruth Benedict. Thus, together with classic anthropology, pragmatism is part of the
milieu that led to the more recent notion of multiculturalism. The first influential
and explicit development of pluralism in pragmatism is attributed to James (2008
[1909]). His concept of pluralism was further adopted in Kallen’s pragmatic cultural
criticism (1996 [1915], 1956). Kallen found this concept instrumental in his refutation of the “melting pot” (see Chap. 1 in the present book and Shumsky 1975) view
of American society, namely the idea that differently cultured immigrants arriving in
the USA “melt” together with the existing population into what is a newly refreshed
and dynamic American democracy.
Kallen did not agree with the melting pot view because he found it undemocratic on
cultural relativist grounds. Most of all, he took issue with the disregard of American
society towards the loss of cultural heritage and identity of the newcomers. His
criticism is exemplary for the ideology of (multi)culturalism, preferring separatism
© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019
A. Olteanu, Multiculturalism as Multimodal Communication,
Numanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress 9,
4 Language, Culture and Pluralism
and expressing it politically, rather than cultural blending with the risk of changes
of identity. As such, he argued for replacing the “melting pot” metaphor for society
with the metaphor of a symphonic orchestra. The differently performing individuals
and social groups would each play their distinctive role in a symphonic democracy,
in this view, each according to their own “specific timbre and tonality” (Kallen 1996
[1915]: 42). Not only is the culturalist view on cultural plurality clearly expressed in
this metaphor, as every social player is distinct and, as it were, plays distinctively, but
Kallen also held to a clearly defined concept of “nation” as the expression of a reality,
which, also, has a “spirit” (Kallen 1996 [1915]: 42). As such, the inherited culture and
nationality of an individual or group cannot change. He considered that the prosperous
development of the individual, her very happiness, irrevocably depends on “ancestral
endowment” (Kallen 1996 [1915]: 92). In this view, if happiness ultimately depends
on each individual on nationality and heritage culture, it would be impossible to set
out a list of universal human rights. Any such claimed rights would be unimportant
for some and abusive for others.
Coming from a much less relativist and rather realist position, another loud
defender of democracy and student of James, namely John Dewey, held with suspicion (see Bernstein 2005: 5; Menand 2001: 400; Eisele 1983: 151–152), to say
the least, Kallen’s refutation of the melting pot. Dewey tended to disagree with the
metaphor of society as symphonic orchestra. Nevertheless, he saw a good potential
in this metaphor as well, namely that society should have a symphonic cohesion.
Despite his criticism, there is common ground between Dewey and Kallen’s theories of cultural assimilation. Dewey too held to the reality of the nation concept and
admitted with Kallen that “each cultural section should maintain its distinctive literary and artistic traditions” (Dewey in Eisele 1983: 152, see also Menand 2001: 400).
However, Dewey expressed his reluctance towards the risk of separatism within society. His warning to Kallen was that the distinctively performing parts of an orchestra
have to make the effort of harmoniously playing together (see Bernstein 2005: 4;
Menand 2001: 400). A main difference between Dewey and Kallen is that Dewey
considered democracy necessary for cultural pluralism, while Kallen saw it the other
way around. In Kallen pluralism appears to be a metaphysical concept which, if practiced in society, should naturally lead to democracy. Thus, Kallen made of pluralism,
arguably, an a priori principle for politics. This is likely an inheritance from James’
metaphysical notion of pluralism, which Kallen applies in a top-down fashion in
his model of society. It is noteworthy that both Peirce and Dewey expressed some
reluctance towards James’ more radical notion of pluralism and his preference for
replacing the view of the world as universe to one of a pluriverse (see Menand 2001:
88). The Peircean criticism in this regard would aim at recognizing the presence
of the monadic element in reality simultaneous with the elements of dualism and
triadism (more below in Sect. 4.2). James’ idea of the pluriverse is dismissive of any
form of monadism at any time present in reality. For Dewey, concretely, democracy
is the frame within which education can cultivate an integrative and tolerant society:
Our public school system was founded in the name of equality of opportunity for all, independent of birth, economic status, race, creed, or color. The school can not by itself alone
create or embody this idea. But the least it can do is to create individuals who understand
4.1 Pragmatic Concepts of Pluralism
the concrete meaning of the idea with their minds, who cherish it warmly in their hearts, and
who are equipped to battle in its behalf in their actions. (Dewey 1937: 474)
Thus, Dewey has a rather empirically-grounded, bottom-up view on society. A
democratic society is a frame within which education can be practiced not manipulatively. Thus, in such a context, education can cultivate pluralism. It is democracy
supported by a non-coercive educational system that assures plurality, not the other
way around. In this view, the melting pot does not appear to be destructive of identity
(or personality). What makes the cultures in the pot melt together is a liberal, progressive, and pluralist-supportive education that empowers rather than manipulates.
Individuals and minority groups are thus empowered to learn, and the process of
acculturation happens critically and voluntarily:
Democracy also means voluntary choice, based on an intelligence that is the outcome of
free association and communication with others. It means a way of living together in which
mutual and free consultation rule instead of force, and in which cooperation instead of brutal
competition is the law of life; a social order in which all the forces that make for friendship,
beauty, and knowledge are cherished in order that each individual may become what he, and
he alone, is capable of becoming. (Dewey 1937: 474)
Nevertheless, while the disputed conception of the melting pot was (and remains)
rather vague and anecdotal, it too is not entirely free of elements of culturalism. To
begin with, it supposes a cultural transformative process in which cultural identity can
be lost along the way. As disputed, it occurs that all those who “melt” together in the
pot change cultural identity. The old population changes cultural identity to a small
degree, according to the force of the intake of immigrants, and the immigrants change
their cultural identity altogether, as they are thrown into a cultural pot incomparably
bigger to their immigrating cultural group. In addition, the melting pot supposes that
the resulting culture is homogenous: it supposes that for a democratic governable
society, a homogenous culture is necessary. In this regard, Kallen’s criticism has a
valuable point: there is no reason for supposing that cultural heterogeneity, which he
termed cultural pluralism, would obstruct democracy. However, both Kallen and the
defenders of the melting pot held to a strong notion of cultural identity which, more
problematic, was assumed to be rigidly bound to the individual’s (or the group’s)
lifestyle. In the melting pot view, diverse cultural identities have to blend into a
homogenous culture that can claim one identity under one banner, such as American,
in this case. In Kallen’s view, the loss of cultural identity implies the loss of personal
identity and the bending of a person’s lifestyle and worldview into one uniform
In the perspective of the present semiotic approach to culture and multiculturalism,
it must be considered, though, that William James was substantially influenced by
Charles Peirce. It is hence insightful to inquire on just how much was the established
pragmatic notion of pluralism originating in Peirce’s semiotics, and what would a
more-Peircean, less-Jamesian account of pluralism imply for the discussions around
the melting pot and the orchestration metaphors, and for multiculturalism and democracy.
4 Language, Culture and Pluralism
James observed that Peirce’s notion of plurality is essentially bound to his notion
of continuity, termed synechism (CP 5.484, 6.169). This is because continuity begins
from the first principle of evolution and organization, which Peirce identifies to be
chance. The idea that chance is always present in evolution is Peirce’s doctrine of
tychism, to which James adhered, albeit without being in full agreement with Peirce’s
connected idea that categorically monadic entities are entirely governed by chance:
Mr. Peirce’s views […] are altogether congruous with Bergson’s. Both philosophers believe
that the appearance of novelty in things is genuine. To an observer standing outside of its
generating causes, novelty can appear only as so much ‘chance’; to one who stands inside it is
the expression of ‘free creative activity’. Peirce’s tychism is thus practically synonymous with
Bergson’s ‘devenir réel’. The common objection to admitting novelties is that by jumping
abruptly, ex nihilo, they shatter the world’s rational continuity. Peirce meets this objection
by combining his tychism with an express doctrine of ‘synechism’ or continuity, the two
doctrines merging into the higher synthesis on which he bestows the name of ‘agapasticism[’]
[…] which means exactly the same thing as Bergson’s ‘evoltuion creatrice’. Novelty, as
empirically found, doesn’t arrive by jumps and jolts, it leaks in insensibility, for adjacents in
experience are always interfused, the smallest real datum being both a coming and a going,
and even numerical distinctiveness being realized effectively only after a concreted interval
has passed. The intervals also deflect us from the original paths of direction, and all the old
identities at last give out, for the fatally continuous infiltration of otherness warps things
out of every original rut. Just so, in a curve, the same direction is never followed, and the
conception of it as a myriad-sided polygon falsifies it by supposing it to do so for however
short a time. Peirce speaks of an ‘infinitesimal’ tendency to diversification. The mathematical
notion of an infinitesimal contains, in truth, the whole paradox of the same and yet nascent
other, of an identity won’t keep except so far as it keeps failing, that won’t transfer, any
more than the serial relations in question transfer, when you apply them to reality instead of
applying them to concepts alone. (James 2008 [1909]: 163)
Thus, James inherited from Peirce the idea that the presence of an element of
chance in any evolutionary phenomenon accounts for pluralism, as a metaphysical
principle of the universe. Plurality appears as implicit within evolution, stemming
from the continuous dispersion of chance. The notion of cultural pluralism in pragmatism thus originates in a theory of evolution as synechistic pluralism, as James
names it in Peirce’s terms:
[…] if such a synechistic pluralism as Peirce, Bergson, and I believe in, be what really
exists, every phenomenon of development, even the simplest would prove equally rebellious
to our science should the latter pretend to give us literally accurate instead of approximate,
or statistically generalized, pictures of development of reality. (James 2008 [1909]: 164)
In this view, pluralism permeates culture, implying that no culture, though distinguishable, can exist in a monadic, isolated manner. No culture ever existed in a
pristine, original state, as Cobley and Stjernfelt argue, in what is a generally Peircean
semiotics (2015: 303, see above Chap. 1, Sect. 1.4). Peirce grounded his theory of
evolution in his phenomenal categories, which James did not fully adopt. In the
Peircean view, pluralism is triadism. Plurality is meaning which, in turn, is that
which characterizes life. More precisely, in this vein, Kull describes life as “local
plurality” (in Bundgaard and Stjernfelt 2009: 119, see also Kull 2007 and above
Chap. 1, Sect. 1.4).
4.1 Pragmatic Concepts of Pluralism
In his development of pragmatic philosophy, James did not consider the semiotics
of Peirce, or, at least, he did not regard it as the main purpose of Peirce’s inquiries.
For the latter pragmatism meant a principle of semiotic logic (CP 5.14), while for
James pragmatism was a theory of knowledge meant to drive philosophical inquiry.
As generally agreed upon, James’ pragmatism, like that of Dewey, is an empirical pragmatism (e.g. Koopman 2009). The following generation, of mid-twentieth
century pragmatism, represented by philosophers such as Richard Rorty or Robert
Brandom adopted and even led the linguistic turn, trading empirical pragmatism for
a linguistic pragmatism (i.e. Rorty 1967). Koopman distinguishes between what he
terms classicopragmatists, namely the empiricists of James’ generation, and neopragmatists, namely the linguistic pragmatists of Rorty’s generation, and argues in
favor of the current possibility in pragmatism for a new comprehensive and synthetic turn to a doctrine of meliorism (Koopman 2009: 5). This can be described as a
processual turn: instead of founding a pragmatic theory of knowledge that attributes
knowledge acquisition to experience, be it a rich notion of experience as characteristic of pragmatism, or to linguistic phenomena, Koopman explains that the focus of
pragmatism can now be directed to the process of transition itself. He describes it
as “transitional and meliorative cultural criticism” (Koopman 2009: 7). While this
is an insightful and revealing reflection on pragmatism, I argue, Koopman does not
take into account the possible contribution that Peirce’s pragmatism can have for the
doctrine of meliorism and for cultural criticism. Not unusual for pragmatic scholarship in general, this account considers Peirce’s pragmatism independently of his
semiotics. James himself did not manifest a particular interest for semiotics. This is
why, after James’s version of pragmatism became popular, albeit a term explicitly
attributed to Peirce (see James 1907: 46), Peirce re-termed his principle of logic. He
did not want to have his maxim of logic mistaken for a theory of knowledge, but also
(pragma, translatable as action),
did not want to give up on the Greek root
Peirce renamed his initial pragmatism to pragmaticism (CP 5.414).
4.2 Peirce’s Semiotic Pragmaticism and Triadism
as Pluralism
Peirce’s semiotics is, thus, of twofold importance for the present critique of multiculturalism. One of the reasons is that it is one of the main sources for the development
of biosemiotics, a biological theory of signification that, unlike classical anthropology, approaches culture in non-glottocentric and non-anthropocentric terms (Cobley
2016, see more in Chap. 5, Sect. 5.1). The other reason, which is discussed in the
present chapter, consists in Peirce’s influence on the pragmatic notion of pluralism
and the discussions of cultural pluralism that followed in this vein. These matters,
of course, are interconnected. Both the emergence of American anthropology with
a focus on culture and language and the pragmatic interest for pluralism are bound
to the unprecedented flux of immigration into the USA at the beginning of the 20th
4 Language, Culture and Pluralism
century and the surge of nationalism and racism, particularly in Europe. Peirce’s
pragmatism and the theory of modelling implicit in his semiotics, which inspired
the development of biosemiotics, are intimately connected. This connection comes
down to the centrality of the concept of continuity in Peirce’s thought, accounting for
the continuity of signification across nature and cultures. It is noteworthy that Peirce
wrote and, particularly, had his most fertile intellectual phase, just before the climax
of the immigration influx. The following generation of American pragmatists, which
witnessed and reacted to the growth of racist and nationalist ideologies, had, thus, a
concept of pluralism to build upon. Nevertheless, like several of Peirce’s concepts,
his ideas on pluralism have also been biasedly received.
In a Peircean view, pragmatism can be thought of as critical common sense:
I have myself called pragmatism “critical common-sensism”; but, of course, I do not mean
this for a strict definition. (CP 5.494)
While James likely subscribed to this as well, he had a different concern than
Peirce, in his development of pragmatism. Peirce’s main concern consisted in developing a system of logic. He considered that logic consists in actions of signs, a
phenomenon which he termed semiosis (see below), thus affirming, “[l]ogic […] is
[…] only another name for semiotic ({sémeiötiké}), the quasi-necessary, or formal,
doctrine of signs.” (CP 2.227) The tool of logic, namely the sign, was defined by
Peirce in a manner similar to that of de Saussure, but also critically different. The
similarity stands in recognizing that signification is a relation. The first main difference between Peirce’s semeiotic and de Saussure’s semiologie stems from their
different interests. While de Saussure was interested in developing a theory of language, Peirce’s concern was developing a relational logic. Throughout 20th century
semiotics, these similar endeavors were often fused (or confused) for the purpose of
developing a complex philosophy of meaning (or theory of representation). These
synthetic efforts could only have been biased and dishonest to either Peirce or de Saussure because of how the relation between logic and language was seen by these two.
The main concern in this regard is that Peirce’s logic is anti-psychologistic, meaning that he regarded psychological phenomena as sub-cases of logical phenomena,
not the other way around (CP 2.209, 2.309, see Stjernfelt 2014: 44). Furthermore, in
Peirce’s view, physiological phenomena are sub-cases of semiosis (see Sebeok 2001:
70–71). Consequently, in this view, language appears as a fine-tuned formal system
that reflects (or can reflect) logic. Logic is not expressed linguistically only. Rather,
the recognition and production of language is possible due to logical operations. On
de Saussure’s account, the sign necessarily contains a psychological dimension (see
above Chap. 2, Sect. 2.1, de Saussure 1959 [1916]: 66). It is for this reason that
Sebeok has drawn primarily on Peirce’s notion of sign to develop a biological and
zoological theory of meaning (see below Chap. 6, Sect. 6.1, Cobley 2016: 28; Sebeok
1991: 17, 2001: 70–71).
On Peirce’s account, the pragmatic dimension of signs is connected with antipsychologism. Peirce famously stated that “[a] sign is only a sign in actu by virtue
of its receiving an interpretation, that is, by virtue of its determining another sign of
the same object.” (CP 5.569) Once his semiotic taxonomy developed, Peirce thus
4.2 Peirce’s Semiotic Pragmaticism and Triadism as Pluralism
defined the principle of pragmatism in semiotic terminology. The sign is a pragmatic
phenomenon. Retrospectively, more than semiotics being founded on pragmatism,
pragmatism is a logical consequence of semiotic logic (see Bellucci 2013: 342).
Peirce’s definitions of pragmatism (or pragmaticism) that do not make use of semiotic
terminology are equivalent with the statement that signs are only signs in actu, once
admitted that the tool of logic is the sign. Such a definition, for instance, was that of
stating that indicative judgments are possible only because they are simultaneously
imperatively expressible:
Pragmatism is the principle that every theoretical judgment expressible in a sentence in the
indicative mood is a confused form of thought whose only meaning, if it has any, lies in its
tendency to enforce a corresponding practical maxim expressible as a conditional sentence
having its apodosis in the imperative mood. (CP 5.18)
Peirce was explicit about the central place that pragmatism occupied for his philosophical thought and its relevance, as he saw it, for epistemology:
A certain maxim of Logic which I have called Pragmatism has recommended itself to me
for diverse reasons and on sundry considerations. Having taken it as my guide in most of my
thought, I find that as the years of my knowledge of it lengthen, my sense of the importance
of it presses upon me more and more. If it is only true, it is certainly a wonderfully efficient
instrument. It is not to philosophy only that it is applicable. I have found it of signal service
in every branch of science that I have studied. My want of skill in practical affairs does not
prevent me from perceiving the advantage of being well imbued with pragmatism in the
conduct of life. (CP 5.14)
While this latter example is insightful as well, it occurs that Peirce could more
easily describe (his notion of) pragmatism retrospectively, once the pragmatismunderpinned logic of signs was established.
The insight that Sebeok observed, in otherwise high times of the linguistic turn
and glottocentric philosophy in general, was that a theory of biology does not need
to be founded on a theory of cognition. Instead, it can be founded on a theory
of meaning which does not require from the human researcher to infer upon the
psychology of the non-human (without ruling out the possibility of a science such
as animal psychology, of course). Unlike cognition or linguistic structures, meaning
is continuous throughout the biosphere. This is the case, of course, if meaning is not
necessarily a psychological phenomenon. Furthermore, since semiotics is logic, the
biosphere can be investigated in view of how organisms pragmatically organize their
environment(s) in models. Models are signs or sign systems. Hence, in the age of the
linguistic turn, Sebeok proposed a modelling turn. This proposal was partly inspired
by Lotman (see 1990: 123), who, in his own turn, had developed a cultural modelling
theory inspired from Vernadsky’s notion of biosphere (2005 [1943], 2012 [1938]).
While Lotman drew on natural sciences in his theory of culture, he was not concerned
with discussing meaning in non-human worlds. Thus, the post-Peircean project of
biosemiotics, through a synechistic account of signification and life, reveals the latent
possibility of Peircean pragmatism for cultural criticism.
While Sebeok’s proposal was received with some enthusiasm in academic semiotic circles, it took much longer for this idea to be closely considered more widely
4 Language, Culture and Pluralism
in the humanities. Still, in the humanities broadly and in some semiotic theories,
anthropocentric and/or glottocentric accounts of knowledge, cognition and social
organization led to skepticism towards the Sebeokian hypothesis. Interestingly, it
seems that modelling theories akin to natural and hard sciences are more favorable
of the Peirce-Uexküll approach than humanities research, as classically conceived,
has been (see Stjernfelt 2007: 79; Kralemann and Lattmann 2011: 52, 2013: 3398).
The epistemological quality that recommends (which I hereby term) the PeirceUexküll approach for mediating between the humanities and natural and hard sciences stands in the schematicism or mereology intrinsic to this semiotic theory, in
contrast to otherwise sterilely analytic and symbolic-centered theories of knowledge.
This schematicism is precisely the same as the quality of the biosemiotic approach to
culture that renders knowledge, dependent or independent of culture, as modelled not
necessarily and never exclusively in linguistic categories. Consequently, it is in the
new, technology-inspired digital humanities that the Peircean account of modelling,
particularly as received via Kralemann and Lattmann’s theory of semantic as iconic
modelling (2011, 2013), is gaining ground (see Ciula and Marras 2016; Ciula and
Eide 2017). This points out an opportunity for considering Peirce’s semiotics more
carefully in view of addressing the current crisis in the humanities (Nussbaum 2010;
Cobley in Bankov and Cobley 2017: 4–5; Martinelli 2016: 1), which, it is argued
here, has to be seen as connected with the current refugee crisis and the impasse
of multicultural theory (see above in Chap. 1, Sect. 1.4 and more on this below in
Chap. 6). One area of the humanities which can reconsider Peirce’s semiotics, therefore, is pragmatic philosophy which, since James, supposed a non-semiotic version
of Peirce. Peirce’s pragmatism begets its proper purpose in a sign-based logic, which
implies a phenomenological modelling theory.
Peirce offered many similar and complementary definitions for the sign concept.
One simple formula by which he defined this concept is that “a sign is something, A,
which denotes some fact or object, B, to some interpretant thought, C.” (CP 1.346)
Thus, for Peirce the sign has three elements (CP 2.228, 2.242): (1) the sign-vehicle
which he also termed Representamen, (2) the Sign’s Object, which is denoted, and
(3) the Interpretant, which is the conclusion of the sign. The sign is not the sum of
the three dyadic relations between these three elements. The sign is one relation,
namely the simultaneous cooperation of the three elements. It can be illustrated
as a tripod (see Fig. 4.1), and not as a triangle, as often misinterpreted (e.g. Fiske
1990), particularly as popularized by Ogden and Richards (1923). A triangle as a
representation of the Peircean sign is misleading because it can be fragmented into
three composing relations between each of the three couples of the three termini.
Peirce was explicit in that the triadic sign-relation is not reducible to the sum of its
composing parts (CP 5.70-5.72, 5.82-83, 5.209, 1.567). The relations between any
two of the sign’s elements are exterior to the sign itself. This is inferred from Peirce’s
argument that third degree graphs are not reducible to graphs of lesser degrees while
any graph of a higher degree can be represented by a graph of the third degree without
losing any of its qualities.
Peirce’s notion of pluralism consists in this notion of triadism. In the sign-relation,
monadism, dualism and triadism are implicitly manifest while qualitatively differ-
4.2 Peirce’s Semiotic Pragmaticism and Triadism as Pluralism
Fig. 4.1 The sign-relation
according to Charles Peirce
ent. In addition, this notion of the sign does not allow for the isolated real existence
of monads, dyads, or even of signs. The possibility of signification is the monadic
dimension present in each of the sign’s elements, particularly the Representamen.
Nevertheless, none of the individual elements has a proper existence of its own, outside the relation. The same is true for the dyads that can be drawn among the three
elements. While exterior to the sign relation, they nevertheless have to be supposed
as real existents: if the elements are there, the relations between them cannot be
ignored. They determine the actuality of the sign. Finally, the proper sign is the triadic relation, and such triadic relations cannot exist in atomistic states, separated or
separable from the rest of reality. The three elements of the sign correspond to three
phenomenal categories, which Peirce termed Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness
(e.g. CP 8.328). These categories, particularly the apparently hierarchical terminology (first, second, third) that Peirce chose for them, stirred some skepticism and
criticism, particularly in pragmatism. For instance, the idea that an element of Firstness somehow precedes an element of Secondness led some pragmatists to suspect
Peirce of a priorism. Colin Koopman considers that Peirce’s quest for truth in a
logical and metaphysical concern implied a strictly factual theory of truth as external and inconsiderate of cultural and epistemological meliorism (Koopman 2009:
43, 57). However, the categories are phenomenally inter-twined, as manifested in
signs. Signs might be cultural or cognitive, but not necessarily. The instrumentality
of the categories consists in the analysis of signs in view of the relations among the
termini. Signs develop within sign contexts, that is, within Universes of Discourse
(see CP 2.373, 2.383, see above Chap. 2, Sect. 2.1). Rather, I argue that through his
pursuit of signification as logical, Peirce’s semiotics escapes psychologism and culturalism without ignoring the cultural reality of humans (and of other animals). As
signs are contextual, they continuously evolve together, towards new Interpretants.
Peirce termed semiosis the phenomenal triadic cooperation generative of meaning,
which he contrasted to dyadic interaction, described as dynamic, which implies its
mechanistic characteristic:
4 Language, Culture and Pluralism
All dynamical action, or action of brute force, physical or psychical, either takes place
between two subjects [whether they react equally upon each other, or one is agent and the
other patient, entirely or partially] or at any rate is a resultant of such actions between pairs.
But by “semiosis” I mean, on the contrary, an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a
cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this trirelative
influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs. (CP 5.484)
As such, the sign is phenomenal and purposeful. The phenomenon of semiosis
suggests an implicit meliorism in Peirce, to use Koopman’s term, which could be one
interesting way of drawing afresh the attention of contemporary pragmatism to more
recent readings of Peirce in contemporary pragmatism. Semiosis is the cooperation of
signs and it is an evolutionary, that is, transitional phenomenon. Interpretation follows
interpretation, not in a relativist infinite regression, but framed in the actuality and
contextuality of universes of discourse (see Feil and Olteanu 2018). Universes of
discourse, like the signs which belong to them, do not have an atomized, isolated
being. They are linked by continua of signification, on account of which they are
also accessible from the exterior, in contrast to Derrida’s concept of text as isolatable
(see above Chap. 2, Sect. 2.1, Derrida 1976 [1974]: 158).
Continuity is therefore a central concept of the phenomenal logic that Peirce developed upon his pragmatic maxim, as James was aware (see above, Chap. 3, Sect. 3.1).
Peirce termed his doctrine of continuity, mutually implicit with the schematic character of his semiotics (see above Chap. 1, Sect. 1.1, Favareau 2010: 706–707; Cobley
2016: 3), synechism. He described synechism as “that tendency of philosophical
thought which insists upon the idea of continuity as of prime importance in philosophy and, in particular, upon the necessity of hypotheses involving true continuity.”
(CP 6.169) Synechism, Peirce clearly stated, is conceived in the “synthesis of tychism
and of pragmatism” (CP 5.484). That is to say, it is a consequence of the doctrine
that evolution begins by chance in conjunction with the thesis that signs are only
signs in the way in which they are used. In brief, if sign use begins by chance, its
further evolution, into more complex interpretants, will stay continuous, retaining an
element of chance all throughout semiosis.
As such, essentially, synechism is an anti-dualistic doctrine:
Synechism, as a metaphysical theory, is the view that the universe exists as a continuous
whole of all of its parts, with no part being fully separate, determined or determinate, and continues to increase in complexity and connectedness through semiosis and the operation of an
irreducible and ubiquitous power of relational generality to mediate and unify substrates. As
a research program, synechism is a scientific maxim to seek continuities where discontinuities are thought to be permanent and to seek semiotic relations where only dyadic relations
are thought to exist. Synechism and pragmatism mutually support each other: synechism
provides a theoretical rationale for pragmatism, while use of the pragmatic maxim to identify conceivable consequences of experimental activity enriches the content of the theory by
revealing and creating relationships. (Esposito, n.d., see also in Cobley 2016: 3)
Despite suspicions of a priorism, Peirce particularly inspired the anti-dualist
direction of pragmatism to begin with. In what particularly concerns the present
monograph, in a synechistic account of semiotics, meaning is seen as continuous
throughout nature and culture and, consequently, across cultures. Culture, humanity,
4.2 Peirce’s Semiotic Pragmaticism and Triadism as Pluralism
as well as the entire biosphere are understood as wholes composed of parts. Regional
cultures are parts of the culture of humans in a global dimension. As such, distinguishable cultures are neither fully separate and independent, nor entirely determined
by a whole. This is true at any level. Neither should culture at a global scale be conceived, as it were, “in the singular”. The principle of synechism claims that aspects
of cultures, while together forming cultures, have a degree of relative independence
that allows for their pragmatic adoption in different (cultural) contexts. The (vertical)
nature-culture continuity and gradual and disparate growth of cognitive complexity
implies a (horizontal) cross-cultural continuity. Given the purposeful dynamics of
semiotics, such a doctrine of continuity led Peirce to develop a theory of evolution.
As explained above (Chap. 3, Sect. 3.2), James (2008 [1909]: 163) considered the
implicitness between continuity and evolution in Peirce, but did not explicitly bring
semiosis into the discussion. For Peirce, evolution at any scale is a continuous growth
of meaning. This involves a mereological view of evolution in biosemiotics (see more
in Chap. 5, Sect. 5.3). The continuity of semiosis and the inseparability of triadic
sign relations necessarily imply, Peirce considered, a theory of evolution:
First is the conception of being or existing independent of anything else. Second is the
conception of being relative to, the conception of reaction with, something else. Third is the
conception of mediation, whereby a first and second are brought into relation. […] Feeling
is First, sense of reaction Second […] the tendency to take habits is Third. Mind is First,
Matter is second, Evolution is Third. (CP 6.32)
Here there is the risk of claiming mind/matter dualism in Peirce. This is not
the case, however, if mind, matter and evolution are considered as simultaneously
triadically dependent. Evolution is not a reaction to the action of mind and matter.
Rather, all these three are equally and simultaneously participating in semiosis, a
hypothesis which drew the attention of biosemioticians to the notion of coevolution
(see Deacon 1997, 2012; Pietarinen 2012; Scalia 2019), where the coevolution not
only of species but also of features within one species is considered. Through this
statement Peirce is not claiming that mind and matter are two sides of the same
coin. More than the claim that mind and matter cannot be considered separately, they
cannot be considered in abstraction of evolution.
4.3 Language and Culture Parallelism
Besides pragmatism, the beginning of the discipline of anthropology in the USA at the
dawn of the 20th century was marked by the same debates about cultural integration.
As explained above, the immediate solution at hand against racism, at the time,
was relativism (Chap. 3, Sect. 3.3). The relativism inspired by Franz Boas became
the main post-war academic approach to culture. By the 1950s and 1960s, when
Roland Barthes (e.g. 1972 [1957]) established the semiotic approach to contemporary
culture, grounded in de Saussure’s semiology, cultural relativism of Boasian origin,
as developed by Benedict (1934), was the normative cultural criticism. From then on,
4 Language, Culture and Pluralism
structuralism and, later on, post-structuralism, which carried the banner of semiotics
for most of the second half of the 20th century, have been inherent of the culturalist
clause. The two main philosophical traditions originating in Peirce, semiotics and
pragmatism, succumbed to the linguistic turn: the former in the form of semiologie
and structuralism, and the latter as a language-based theory of knowledge. At this
stage, it is interesting to note that semiotics and pragmatism turned their attention to
articulated language, as the vehicle of knowledge when they have split. It seems that
20th century philosophy of language ignored that these two were present in Peirce
at the same time, pragmatism being, for Peirce, the maxim on which semiotic logic
is founded. The history of the last century suggests that the separation of semiotics
and pragmatism into either non-pragmatic semiotics or non-semiotic pragmatism, is
bound to glottocentrism and, as such, relativism.
The culturalist view of culture is analogical to the Sapir-Whorf view in sociolinguistics, according to which how we speak shapes how we think, to various extents
(see Hill and Mannheim 1992; Pütz and Verspoor 2000). For instance, Sapir, one
of the three main advocates of this linguistic relativism, considered that “the tacit,
“aesthetic” quality of the form-feeling of actors for their culture meant precisely that
pattern in culture was like pattern in language.” (Hill and Mannheim 1992: 380) In
this line of thought, then, the relations between cultures have been understood like the
relations between languages. This means that to understand each other, two individuals with different cultural backgrounds need a translation. It leads to assuming that
until the interlocutors have become acculturated into a common culture, they cannot
properly understand each other. This also fits in the holistic determinism construal of
culture: like signs in a Saussurean sign system, composing parts of a culture have no
autonomy. As such, culture itself is not a pluralistic phenomenon. The identification
of a pattern in a culture supposes a rigid top-down imposed law, which cannot be
negotiated and cannot be properly understood from outside of the respective culture.
As such, the conventionalist perspective of language that the linguistic turn and
structuralism inherited from Ferdinand de Saussure makes intercultural translation
seem all the more rigid. Since languages are arbitrary codes, there is no possibility
for two humans to properly communicate unless they share the same code. This
idea, I explain in the present book, is rooted in the various forms of the hypothesis of language as double articulation. In this view, two individuals from different
cultures can never have a proper dialogue: it is not possible for them to teach each
other a common code if the codes that each of them master are purely conventional,
and thus, unrelated. The positivist answer to this impasse of relativism is that the
individuals’ languages, while different, nevertheless refer to the same empirically
objective reality, which becomes the middle term for translation. This answer, however, besides revealing the main assumptions of the linguistic turn, comes from an
extreme empiricist perspective, which all the more emphasizes the irreconcilability
between mental and material processes. The answer developed in this book differs
from both of these accounts. Firstly, I consider that inter-cultural communication is
possible not only on account of linguistic codification. Secondly, I argue that languages are inter-translatable not merely because they refer to the same objective
4.3 Language and Culture Parallelism
empirical reality, but because linguistic phenomena are embodied phenomena and,
as such, languages are ecological and open systems.
Eriksen and Stjernfelt note that the romantic notion of nation, the cornerstone
of nationalist ideology, as stemming from 19th century German romanticism, such
as clearly the case of Herder, was inherited by linguistic relativism and post-war
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has, however, had a huge effect, and it can still be encountered
today, often accompanied by the “linguistic turn” in philosophy. The idea has thus given rise
to popular but incorrect cultural relativist imaginings such as that about the manifold Eskimo
concepts of snow and the like […]. If “language” in the generalization often promoted by
“the linguistic turn” thus may mean “cultural systems of value and thought in general”, then
the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis becomes easy to reconcile […] with the idea that culture, as a
whole, is learned like a language and is as systematic and coherent as a language. (2010:
370–371, 2012: 134)
This relativist view on culture and language survived in the mainstream semiotic approaches to culture of the late 20th century, namely what I hereby refer to
as glottocentric semiotics, adopting Cobley’s (2016) term. For instance, the broad
area of sociosemiotics (or social semiotics), overlapping to large extents in scope
and methods with cultural semiotics, inherited the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis from
sociolinguistics. Randviir and Cobley note so:
Indirectly […], the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis influenced the development of sociolinguistics
and, in turn, this influenced part of the development of sociosemiotics. (in Cobley 2010:
The structuralist vein of semiotics, having its roots, firstly, in Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiology, and also, in Roland Barthes’ analysis of culture (e.g. 1972 [1957],
1977) has been the mainstream semiotic approach to society and culture in the second part of the 20th century. This tradition of scholarship is inherent of cultural
relativism, which, as explained, is mutually implicit with culturalism. Thus, many
discourse analysis attempts, stemming from this semiotic school, endorse the same
ideological multiculturalism, embedded in culturalism, which is nothing more than
“so to speak, nationalism transferred from state to society.” (Eriksen and Stjernfelt
2010: 360)
The present study employs a different semiotic approach to multiculturalism,
that is, the realist branch, which for arguably inevitable reasons took the form of a
biological theory of meaning, termed biosemiotics (see Stepanov 1971; Sebeok 1991,
2001). In this view, diversity is seen as a condition for development in the broadest
sense. Scholarship along the lines of what was termed realist semiotics (Deely 2001;
Stjernfelt 2006) endorses that culture presupposes plurality. On this account, culture
cannot be conceived as isolated: culture is multi-culture. The biosemiotic clause
that semiosis is continuous that recommends a phenomenal theory of knowledge of
assumed subjectivity, a –science to use Kull’s (2009) term (see Chap. 2, Sect. 2.2),
implicitly dismisses nationalism:
It is certainly misleading simply to equate ‘society’ with the nation state. Rather than seeing
each person as a stable representative of a stable society, to make sense of human living, we
4 Language, Culture and Pluralism
should start with where human living makes sense: with my (and your) sense of being alive,
now. (Stables 2012: xi)
Studying human organization in awareness of individuals’ subjective phenomenality and extensive, though relative freedom, leaves no space for the suprastructural
supposition of nation. This argument, however, requires much care, as alone it does
not deny the possibility of culturalism. It is, however, as proved in Stables’ approach
to education, an excellent starting point for discussing the organisation of post-human
societies in views free of dualism and solipsism. The relevance for modelling of hereand-now phenomenality is also stipulated in biosemiotics by Hoffmeyer’s concept of
skin (2008), and, additionally in cognitive semiotics as well by Stjernfelt’s concept
of co-localization (2014: 108–114), and in zoosemiotics by Martinelli’s observation
that indexicality, while not semiotically basic, does not require complex cognition
(2010: 70).
Given its Peircean origins, biosemiotics belongs to the pragmatic school of semiotics. As mentioned above, Peirce-inspired pragmatists, such as William James and
John Dewey, were the first to promote a notion of pluralism in regard to culture (see
Bernstein 2015), which led to Horace Kallen coining the concept of “cultural pluralism” (1998 [1924]). Nevertheless, in a similar way to the relativism of non-pragmatic
semiology, non-semiotic pragmatism also fell short in developing an unbiased and
non-anthropocentric framework for cultural analysis.
I argue that a biosemiotic approach would bring a biocentric turn to multiculturalist
theory, as well as to cultural criticism in general. Implicitly, a biocentric multicultural
theory would easily shake off epistemological relativism, given its account of meaning as modelled ecologically and not only linguistically. Until recently, researchers
in biosemiotics hesitated to approach culture and, particularly, human culture. This
hesitation can be explained on account of the cautiousness of avoiding a number
of confusions that can stem from the epistemological entanglements of glottocentrism and semiotic realism. The main tool of sociosemiotics for cultural analysis
is the language-bound concept of text (see Marrone 2017 in Bankov and Cobley:
105–120), which presents certain difficulties for a biosemiotic approach.
A fully and explicitly semiotic approach to multiculturalism has not yet been
developed, despite abundant recent cultural and social semiotic research. These recent
approaches inevitably carry on the 20th century linguistic turn relativist epistemologies. This could be the reason for the lack of a sociosemiotic theory of multiculturalism: it would largely overlap with existing theories grounded in anthropology
and sociolinguistics. A biosemiotic approach, on the other hand, can offer fresh and
critical insights by making possible the bridging of, for instance, cultural and evolutionary anthropology and sociobiology and sociolinguistics. In the next chapter,
I explain my view that the biosemiotic approach to multiculturalism reveals construals of knowledge and communication as environmental, thus handing over the
discussion on multiculturalism to ecosemiotics, its ecological offspring.
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Chapter 5
Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
Abstract The biosemiotic approach to multiculturalism, introduced in the previous
chapter, is explained in more detail. The main argument is that a theory of multiculturalism can only be a theory of culture, as cultures are intrinsically plural and
cannot be clearly distinguished one from the other. Furthermore, cultures are deemed
as schematic scaffoldings, facilitating learning in general, rather than holistic blocks
whose composing elements cannot be translated outside the cultural context. A most
relevant, unsettled and ongoing discussion regarding culture and human organization is that of the use of symbols. Not surprisingly, this discussion has mostly been
carried out in semiotic frameworks. While anthropocentric and language-centered
opinions are not infrequent, biosemiotics and cognitive semiotics offer some subtle
ways forward in this debate, by considering a fine-grained taxonomy of signs, where
symbols are not considered in the interrogation of the competences of a species, but
more broadly in a semiotic ecology, comprehensive of research in the humanities,
social and natural sciences. Peirce’s semiotic theory of evolution is proposed as a
research guideline for a non-dualist theory of culture.
5.1 Peirce and Biosemiotics: Culture in View of Modelling
Cobley (2010a, 2016) recently set the ground for a biosemiotic and, implicitly, realist (non-relativist) theory of culture. Cobley’s theory stands in contrast to relativist
epistemologies such as championed by Kuhn (1970) or Lyotard (1984 [1979]). He
argues that epistemological relativism can be traced back to the modern ontological
dichotomies of mind and matter and nature and culture, present in the linguistic turn’s
mirroring parallelism between thought and language:
The issues of continuity of matter and mind, as well as the spurious separation of nature and
culture, have had, in the scheme of things, very little purchase in cultural analysis. These big
issues for science have simply not translated well in the terms of the humanities. One reason
for this, of course, is the way that science has offered all manner of hostages to fortune to
cultural studies, from social Darwinism, through Lysenkonism, eugenics, sociobiology and
the development of the nuclear bomb, not to mention science’s masculine bias and other
© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019
A. Olteanu, Multiculturalism as Multimodal Communication,
Numanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress 9,
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
institutional factors that have vitiated its claims to knowledge. As such, observations including Kuhn’s (1970) on the philosophy of science or Lyotard’s (1984) report on knowledge
pronouncing an era of incredulity towards the grand narrative of scientific progress, have
become the common sense of the humanities. Yet there seems to be a chance, greater than
any offered hitherto, to bridge the gap between the two cultures through semiotics as it has
been reinvigorated by biosemiotics. (Cobley 2016: xii–xiii)
In their criticism of mainstream multiculturalism, Eriksen and Stjernfelt (2010,
2012) also found Kuhn’s theory of science as the grassroots of cultural relativism.
Kuhn’s idea of scientific paradigms as enclosed and self-sufficient endorsed an
account of cultural paradigms, which appear as distinct and isolatable between one
[…] anthropological relativism had, to a large extent, proved academically victorious and
even received support from other disciplines. In the theory of science, the prevailing interpretation of Thomas Kuhn’s idea of science as based on different and mutually exclusive
“paradigms” was that the paradigm was holistic and that it thoroughly determined the single scientific facts; just like a Benedictian culture determines its individuals. (Eriksen and
Stjernfelt 2010: 362)
Kuhn’s theory implies that scientific communities determine scientific research
as construed within the linguistic possibilities of their technical language which has
to be, in turn, determined within the possibilities and structures of the natural language(s) in which research was carried. The semiotic realist reply to this is that Kuhn’s
position does not justify the falsifiability of scientific hypotheses and the fallibility
of scientific theories but, rather, it renders science infinitely subjective, limited and
limiting instead of insightful and revealing. Like in the case of Marrone’s concept
of text (in Bankov and Cobley 2017), it can be argued that, in Kuhn’s conception,
a scientific paradigm cannot offer conclusive proof of phenomenal evidence. Such
is also the reason that led Lyotard (1984 [1979]) to consider metanarratives unconvincing and that postmodernity is the condition of human societies realizing the
unavoidable ideological bias of all knowledge. As such, in this view, as Kuhn considers, any scientific progress can only be perceived as due to chance and consisting
in a revolution, the unexplainable and accidental happening of scientific paradigms
agreeing on a new understanding. It is obvious that the criticism that Eriksen and
Stjernfelt address to cultural relativism is the same that biosemiotics (e.g. Cobley
2016) addresses to the glottocentrism of (post)structuralism. The same criticism is
applicable to linguistic turn pragmatism, with its notion of cultural pluralism, as seen
most evidently in Kallen (1996 [1915], 1956).
Biosemiotics, the semiotic theory of biology (coined in Rothschild 1962; Stepanov
1971; see Favareau 2010: 34; Sebeok 2001; Kull 2005, 2009) is pregnant with the
thesis that evolution and learning require diversity, or, more precisely, that diversity
is intrinsic to any phenomenon of growth. This semiotic theory was mostly developed in view of Charles Peirce’s semiotics. Biosemiotics proper started with Thomas
Sebeok’s research in the 1960s, when Sebeok discovered the compatibility between
Peirce’s semiotics and Jakob von Uexküll’s Kantian approach to biology. Sebeok
considered von Uexküll’s interpretation of the environment inhabited by an organism as a model. Uexküll’s theoretical biology is based on the idea that organisms
5.1 Peirce and Biosemiotics: Culture in View of Modelling
make sense of their environments in loops of perceptions and actions (1926). Such
loops result in each embodied organism organizing its own self-world, organization for which he used the (German) word Umwelt. In this regard, Umwelt, that is,
the environment is subjectively experienced and constructed. Thus, von Uexküll’s
groundbreaking contribution was that of introducing the category of meaning in the
study of biology, as this notion of environment endorses that organisms organize
their phenomenality according to their competences for discovering meaning. He
explained that by using objects found in the environment, these become “carriers of
meaning” (2010 [1934, 1940]: 140) for an organism. That use consists in assigning
meaning is a pragmatic account of environment modelling. Assigning meaning, in
this case, is not merely naming, and thus organizing the world in linguistic classes,
as per de Saussure’s hypothesis of arbitrariness in signified-signifier articulation.
The notion of carrier of meaning explains how the same physical object can be used
for different pragmatic outcomes by the same organism, in different situations. For
instance, a wooden object consisting of a platform supported by four legs can be used
as a chair, as a stair or as a weapon, depending on circumstances. To use Gibson’s
celebrated terminology (2014 [1979]), the physical object of such shape and size
“affords” such uses. Particularly, it affords the specific uses given the user’s semiotic
competencies for modelling. This compatibility between von Uexküll’s theoretical
biology, as taken up in biosemiotics, and Gibson’s affordance theory opens up a
research avenue in semiotics on problem solving, by studying creativity as innovative use of tools, as exemplified in Duncker’s famous candle problem (1945). Such an
embodied account of problem solving constitutes the pre-linguistic and non-cultural
ground for collaboration. As a theory of modelling, biosemiotics makes some critical
claims in common with James Gibson’s physical ecology. According to Gibson, the
senses evolved along with the organisms’ evolution within environments (e.g. 1986).
The environmental conditions that afforded the evolution of certain perceptive and
modelling capacities have been rather stable across generations. However, in historical time, humans have changed the shapes and substances in the environment. We
have done so, Gibson argues, to change what the environment affords us to do (1986,
2014 [1979]: 56). In a semiotic concern, we have done so according to the affordances of our modelling systems, which, as a result, change in turn. Such dynamics
are explained in biosemiotics as semiotic scaffolding (e.g., Hoffmeyer 2008a, 2014,
2015; Cobley and Stjernfelt 2015). Semiotics, particularly, the biosemiotic school
of semiotics, defines itself simultaneously as a theory of meaning and a theory of
modelling (Lotman 1977; Sebeok 1991). That a theory of meaning is synonymous
with a theory of modelling is a critically insightful remark. It reveals the starting
point of biosemiotics of considering the environment a model. It generally agrees
with Gibson’s point that:
We all fit into the substructures of the environment in our various ways, for we were all, in
fact, formed by them. (Gibson 2014 [1979]: 56)
In von Uexküll’s terminology, the corresponding use of a platform supported by
four legs makes the object acquire a chair, or stair, or weapon “tone”, becoming
an according carrier of meaning. The totality of such competences of an organism
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
to discover meaning carriers, in their non-linguistic form constitutes, according to
Sebeok, a primary modelling system (Sebeok 1991: 55, 2001: 145–146). Sebeok
explained that:
The term Umwelt has proved notoriously recalcitrant to translation, although “subjective
universe,” “phenomenal world,” and “self-world” variously approximate Jakob von Uexküll’s
intent. However, “model” renders it more incisively, especially in view of his credo (1982:
87) that “every subject is the constructor of its Umwelt.” (Sebeok 1991: 54, 2001: 144)
The primary modelling system of organisms, in this biosemiotic prospective, gives
form to an animal’s inner-world, its Innenwelt:
The Innenwelt of every animal comprises a model […] that is made up of an elementary
array of several types of nonverbal signs […]. (Sebeok 2001: 145)
Sebeok’s innovation stands in dismissing the anthropocentric and glottocentric
thesis that rendered modelling systems as strictly linguistic and, therefore, strictly
human. Before Sebeok’s biosemiotics, a semiotic theory of modelling was developed
in the Moscow-Tartu school of semiotics, represented first of all by Yuri Lotman
(see Andrews 2003: 11). Sebeok himself adopted Lotman’s definition of model (see
Sebeok 2001: 140), namely,
a structure of elements and of rules for combining them that is in a state of fixed analogy
to the entire sphere of an object of knowledge, insight or regulation. Therefore, a modeling
system can be regarded as a language. Systems that have a natural language as their basis
and that acquire supplementary superstructures, thus creating languages of a second level,
can appropriately be called secondary modeling systems. (Lotman in Lucid 1977: 7)
Sebeok also adopted Lotman’s distinction between what the latter termed primary
and secondary modelling systems, but, as explained, he introduced another more
basic, non-verbal system, characteristic for zoosemiosis (the semiosis of animals)
generally. He considered this to be the justifiably termed primary modelling system
while the human-specific systems thus become secondary and tertiary. This view
takes into account the obvious reality that, while not in possession of language and/or
speech, non-human animals too model their environments, as Sebeok explained (see
above, Sebeok 2001: 23).
Particularly important for the present thesis is the implication that human-specific
modelling systems, hence the cultural organizations of humans and their scientific
pursuits, are rooted in non-linguistic modelling systems as stemming from each
species’ and individual’s semiotic competences. This means that, like semiosis, modelling is continuous from the modelling of natural environments, through culture and
all the way to the most complex scientific modelling. This non-anthropocentric view
implies that all human beings, regardless of linguistic competences and cultural
peculiarities, understand reality starting from the same, basic semiotic competences,
which come with human body morphology and physiological features. In addition,
many such competences are shared across species, implying that modelling systems
of distinct species overlap to various extents. Indeed, our cultural organizations cannot make abstraction of the physical (hard) environment and, more importantly so,
of the environment as perceived by human physiology.
5.1 Peirce and Biosemiotics: Culture in View of Modelling
The capacity of humans and other animals for cultural organization rather places
the species on a continuum of semiotic similarity rather than it would differentiate
it into groups. This thesis also acknowledges all the specific physiological features
of humans as involved in modelling, not only the physiological competence for the
double articulation of grunts into phonemes and of phonemes into linguistic units
and structures. Therefore, it appears that physical rather than cultural differences
between two individuals account for Umwelt distance, for these individuals’ populating distinct Universes of Discourse.
Arguably, a person who lives in Barcelona, and is a native speaker of Catalan,
and is two-meters high is phenomenally more proximal to a native speaker of Urdu
who lives in Lucknow and is two-meters high, rather than to another Catalan native
who lives in Barcelona but is one-and-a-half-meters high. The two taller individuals,
for instance, could rather play basketball together than with the shorter person from
Barcelona. They would share phenomenal worlds (Umwelten) to a larger extent,
having common experiences, such as of how is it like to be taller than the average
and how are they perceived in their societies. Of course, the immediate reply to this,
not to be underestimated, is that the two speakers of Catalan can much more easily
express to each other their agreements and disagreements, negotiate and, in general,
collaborate. This modelling theory points out to just how important cooperation is,
in both nature and culture. Scaffoldings that facilitate cooperation, such as linguistic
codes, prove extremely efficient and valuable. As such, the biosemiotic modelling
theory does not suppose the otherwise rather racist claim that from physical differences communication difficulties occur. Rather, it is explicative of how attuned to
communicate we are, while individually unique:
Any observer’s version of his/her Umwelt will be one unique model of the world, which is
a system of signs made up of genetic factors plus a cocktail of experiences, including future
expectations. (Sebeok 2001: 34)
According to Sebeok’s classification, natural languages are secondary modelling
systems. Thus, it occurs just how important communication devices are. Evolutionarily, the role of language is not that of distinguishing one population from another,
or one tribe from another, but actually, to facilitate collaboration. These secondary
modelling systems are meant to enhance and facilitate collaboration led to the development of superstructures, such as culture and their many further developments,
technology, art, science, and so on. Sebeok eagerly adopted the hypothesis that
speech evolved as an exaptation of language, having adopted this term proposed
by Gould and Vrba (1982). Hominids have undergone a swift biological evolution
once with the appearance of language in Homo erectus. The appearance of language
led to the exaptation of its codification in speech in the case of Homo sapiens. Sebeok
considered that:
The cardinal points in this brief scenario are twofold: language evolved as an adaptation;
whereas speech developed out of language as a derivative exaptation over a succeeding
period of approximately two million years. These twin propositions need to be made plain
with reference to a suggestion by Gould and Vrba (1982). These authors emphasize the
distinction between historical genesis and current utility, suggesting that characters that
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
evolved for other usages (or none) may later come to be coopted for their current role.
The former operation is customarily called adaptation; for the latter, they propose a new
designation, exaptation.
Accordingly, language consisting of a set of features that promotes fitness had best be
thought of as having been built by selection for the cognitive function of modeling, and, as
the philosopher Popper and the linguist Chomsky have likewise insisted […], not at all for
the message-swapping function of communication. The latter was routinely carried on by
nonverbal means, as in all animals, and as it continues to be in the context of most human
interactions today. (1991: 55–56)
Regarding speech as an exaptation of language implicitly avoids the Saussurean
qualitative distinction between speech and other signifying codes, such as writing.
Both speech and writing, as well as other such possible methods of communication
are exaptations of language which a species affords. The physiological features of
Homo sapiens equip this species with semiotic competences of designing both oral
speech and writing. Regarding speech as a result of evolution by exaptation is yet
another aspect in which semiotics aligns theory of representation with research in the
natural sciences. According to MacLarnon (2012) human speech production can be
explained either as “specific adaptations” (224) or as “exaptations, commandeering
existing features.” (225) The generally accepted hypothesis in evolutionary anthropology, as pioneered by MacLarnon, is that the production of human speech is first of
all possible due to the same exaptation which justified Sebeok to attribute meaning
to modelling in the most general sense and not strictly linguistic, followed by some
further layers of adaptations:
Diet and technology-related changes through human evolution, from the time of early Homo,
have produced decreases in jaw and tongue length exaptive for the evolution of human speech
capabilities. In addition to these, a three-stage framework for the major features of human
speech evolution can tentatively be proposed: first, the evolution of obligate bipedalism in
Homo erectus produced the exaptations of laryngeal descent, and the loss of air sacs and the
hiatus intervocalis; secondly, during the Middle Pleistocene, human speech breathing control
evolved as a specific speech adaptation; thirdly, with the evolution of modern humans, the
optimal vocal tract proportions (1:1) were evolved adaptively. (MacLarnon 2012: 235)
As such, the capacity of speech production, as present in the modern human,
has undergone layers of scaffolding, starting with an exaptation. In the biosemiotic
view, the double articulation hypothesis can be avoided as well, as the discovery of
meaning carriers does not primarily rely on phonological articulation but on modelling competences that constituted the prerequisite for verbalization and phonological production in the first place (see Sebeok and Danesi 2000: 108; Cobley 2016:
35). The layered scaffoldings that resulted in oral speech were a pragmatic pursuit
of more efficiently communicating and sharing (cognitive) models. Sebeok’s threelevel modelling theory has its main source of inspiration in Peirce, particularly in
Peirce’s three phenomenal categories, a central idea in his semiotics (see Chap. 4). In
a study conducted together with Marcel Danesi, the two mapped, albeit admittedly
“grosso modo” (Sebeok and Danesi 2000: 10), the three levels of modelling (nonverbal, verbal, supralinguistic) onto Peirce’s phenomenal categories (see also Cobley
2016: 36). Interestingly, after introducing the idea of speech as exaptation, Sebeok
5.1 Peirce and Biosemiotics: Culture in View of Modelling
explained that cognition and modelling can and should be regarded as signs in the
Peircean sense. One of the reasons for Sebeok’s preference for the Peircean concept
of sign, as he explained, is also the affordance of Peircean semiotics to explain the
continuity of modelling from simple biology to complex scientific modelling:
As Peirce (1935–1966: 1.538) taught us, “Every thought is a sign,” but as he also wrote
(ibid.: 5.551), “Not only is thought in the organic world, but it develops there.” Every mental
model is, of course, also a sign; and not only is modeling an indispensable characteristic of
the human world, but also it permeates the entire organic world, where, indeed, it developed.
The animals’ milieu extérieur and milieu intérieur, as well as the feedback links between
them, are created and sustained by such models. A model in this general sense is a semiotic
production with carefully stated assumptions and rules for biological and logical operations.
This is as true of bees (Peirce 1935–1966: 5.551) as it is, on a far vaster scale, of Isaac
Newton’s and Albert Einstein’s grand models of the universe. Einstein, for one, it will be
recalled, constructed his model from nonverbal signs, “of visual and some of muscular
type,” and labored long and hard “only in a secondary stage” to transmute this creation into
“conventional words and other signs,” so that he could communicate it to others. “The words
or the language, as they are written or spoken,” Einstein wrote in a letter to Hadamard (1945:
142–143), “do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities
which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images
which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined. (Sebeok 1991: 57)
From Einstein’s explanations on which Sebeok drew here, it clearly occurs that
Einstein formulated his theory in a conviction contrary to the glottocentric and culturalist views, so common in his time, that a natural language frames cognition and,
further on, scientific modelling. Language served him as a support (scaffolding) to
express and contribute to knowledge, making his knowledge available for others as
well. His knowledge was initially modelled non-verbally. Of course, this was no
easy task. He successfully used natural and scientific languages to communicate his
understanding. Natural language was not ideal for communicating his model of the
universe, but eventually he arrived at the right formulations. This is to say that second and third level modelling systems made it possible for the communication and
for the finer understanding of a primary level modelling of the world. In this view,
science can be developed without ideological, cultural or linguistic biases. Precisely
this affordance recommends Peirce’s semiotics, according to Sebeok, as the starting
point for a biological theory of signification or a semiotic theory of biology. These
two appear to be the same in this Peirce-Uexküll cooperation. This modelling theory
also endorses that language itself changes, according to the development of models.
In time, a scientific theory can impact on the everyday use of language. It is safe to
assume that since Einstein’s theory popular conceptions of space and time changed
In a critical discussion on his version of pragmatism (or pragmaticism), when
explaining that continuity (the principle of synechism) is essential for this doctrine, Peirce particularly insisted on the idea that natural and scientific modelling
are semiosic phenomena of the same continuum. He claimed, to begin with, that
scientific experiments do not have any value if considered in isolation to each other.
Rather, Peirce considered “that every connected series of experiments constitutes a
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
single collective experiment.” (CP 5.424) Once the principle of synechism is established, Peirce described scientific experimentation, for the purpose of modelling:
What are the essential ingredients of an experiment? First, of course, an experimenter of flesh
and blood. Secondly, a verifiable hypothesis. This is a proposition relating to the universe
environing the experimenter, or to some well-known part of it and affirming or denying of
this only some experimental possibility or impossibility. The third indispensable ingredient
is a sincere doubt in the experimenter’s mind as to the truth of that hypothesis. (CP 5.424)
This brief account of scientific experimentation and modelling proved seminal for
all (bio)semiotic modelling theory (or theories) to come. First, Peirce declared that
only a living biological organism, that is, flesh and blood, could conduct scientific
experimentation. Natural, environmental modelling, that is to say, a subjective and
unique Umwelt is necessary for scientific modelling. The second element in this
process is the formulation of a hypothesis by this knowing subject. The hypothesis
has the form of a proposition (or dicisign, in Peirce’s terminology) which is derived
from the experimenter’s Umwelt. As such, it is claimed that the experimenter can
relate to the environing reality around him with some reliability of phenomenal evidence. The third element that Peirce presents is rather characteristic for scientific
thought in particular, namely entertaining a degree of doubt towards the hypothesis.
This is possible because a propositional modelling of the environment is verifiable.
This claim about propositions stands in stark opposition with the relativist account
of text semiotics, where it is considered that semiotic artefacts (texts) do not provide
phenomenal evidence (see above, Marrone in Bankov and Cobley 2017). It grounds
propositional knowledge in the organism-environment relation or, to use the biosemiotic term, in the Umwelt. Such propositions are relevant because they are verifiable.
The organism which made a subject-predicate structured observation can doubt it,
verify it and, if so proven, deny or change it. Not only does this account for semiotic
ground modelling in the organism’s embodied, phenomenal world, but while doing
so, it admits that organisms can change their minds. If one’s linguistically expressed
notion of the world proves wrong, she can change her mind. Language does not act
as a rigid superstructure, blocking partial structural changes of cognitive models or
behavioral decisions.
To illustrate the consequences of this logic with a previous example, if one considers that female genital mutilation (FGM) is a standard and acceptable, or even desirable cultural practice, when confronted with evidence that FGM is often unsafe and,
perhaps more importantly, that females who undergo such procedures suffer traumas,
one can change her mind about it. Habits, supposedly cultural, can be proven wrong
and changed. Phenomenal (or empirical) evidence cannot be denied for the sake of
cultural relativism. This is especially so when such evidence is of basic, undeniable
biology. If culture has such grip over individuals and groups that these cannot accept
or even notice tensions between phenomenal evidence and rooted practices, then
there is nothing worthwhile in knowledge anyway. If this were the case, we would
never properly know anything useful, other than perhaps by fortuitous accident. If
we cannot change our minds then we cannot learn at all. As mentioned (Chap. 1), a
theory of multiculturalism implies a theory of learning and of communication, as it
5.1 Peirce and Biosemiotics: Culture in View of Modelling
problematizes how cultures relate to cultures, how individuals relate to individuals,
and how individuals relate to their own and others’ cultures.
Peirce’s account of scientific experimentation supposes that while it is necessary to doubt our own hypotheses, our own observations of the environment, for
the purpose of testing them and of attaining more and more refined understandings
of the environment, it is nevertheless necessary to accept that we can extract satisfactory observations from immediate surroundings quite intuitively. As I remarked
somewhere else, together with Andrew Stables and Maria Kambouri-Danos, “[w]e
cannot and we do not proceed with most of our lives by doubting everything. We
accept (which is distinct from approve).” (Olteanu et al. 2016: 629). Peirce’s semiotics accounts for such anti-Cartesianist epistemology. For him, modelling inevitably
starts with abduction, also termed retroduction and hypothesis:
Retroduction goes upon the hope that there is sufficient affinity between the reasoner’s mind
and nature’s to render guessing not altogether hopeless, provided each guess is checked by
comparison with observation. It is true that agreement does not show the guess is right; but
if it is wrong it must ultimately get found out. The effort should therefore be to make each
hypothesis, which is practically no more than a question, as near an even bet as possible.
(CP 1.210)
Thus, learning and modelling suppose doubt but do not start with it (see also
Stables 2012: 55, 124). The passage from accepting relations in the environment
which seem obvious to doubting and to remodeling them is continuous. Culture
itself could not develop in omission of natural environments, the morphology and
phenomenology of embodiments and all the physical restrictions that these suppose.
Correspondingly, the biosemiotic account of modelling frames learning, understanding and communication are as environmental phenomena, instead of regarding
them in view of an individual/collective dichotomy. This is foundational for ecosemiotics, the semiotic theory of ecology, which accounts for culture as regulated in
looping processes of modelling between organisms and environments. When Winfried Nöth coined ecosemiotics in 1998, he explained that biosemiotics implies an
ecological account of knowledge:
The semiotic nature of the organism-environment relation according to Uexküll is most
apparent in his model of the functional circle (Uexküll 1982: 8). It shows the organism (the
subject) as a ‘receiver of meanings’ with perceptual and operational organs in an environment
whose objects are defined as “carriers of meaning”. The meanings and signs of this Umwelt
are by no means transmitted from an exterior environment to the interior of an organism.
Instead, there is a relation of complementarity between the Umwelt and the inner world of
the organism. The carrier of meaning has the function of a “counter-structure” of the receiver
of meaning (Uexküll 1982: 8). Umwelt and inner world thus constitutes a hermeneutic circle
for the organism’s inner world contains, in more recent terminology, a cognitive model of its
Umwelt so that we can conclude that the organism is not just a recipient, but a constructor
of its own environment. (Nöth 1998: 339)
Considering this, social behavior can be explained as grounded in environment
modelling, and not subjected to the horizon of the semantic categories of one (or a
few) languages. This explains how the same physical object can be used differently,
according to an organism’s needs. A chair, for instance, can be used as a particular
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
kind of chair, given the circumstance: it can be a pupil’s chair or the teacher’s chair
depending how it is positioned in the classroom, or even a king’s throne if positioned
in the right manner. As exemplified by Duncker’s (1945) famous candle problem,
while it is difficult for humans to forget their socially constructed meanings, they
can nevertheless do so for the purpose of solving a problem. The solution to the
situation that Duncker presented to the subjects of his study was to reinterpret an
object that was used as a box, as a shelf-like support instead. The subjects had to
find a way to attach a candle vertically, by a wall, with nothing else but a hammer
and some thumbtacks, placed in a box. The solution to this is to empty the box of
thumbtacks and to hammer it into the wall, as a support for the candle. To reshape
well-established sign-relations requires an effort of imagination. Reshaping signrelations is the very definition, in a semiotic perspective, of creativity. The fact that
in one’s Umwelt some objects and structures are recognized as corresponding to the
language-culture categories of “box” and “support” or “shelf” does not mean that
they cannot be pragmatically remodeled at all.
According to Nöth’s observation above, the fact that an organism’s inner world
contains a cognitive model of its Umwelt, implies that, much more than being mirrored in language, culture reflects biology. The highest degree of difficulty in being
creative consists in reshaping primary modelled relations. This is more difficult than
reshaping second or third level models, such as linguistic labels, yet still possible
and often necessary either for improving quality of life, or even for survival. Such
efforts of imagination resulting in remodeling could prove critical in the context of
the current ecological crisis. Related to our environmental awareness, the peaceful
cooperation across cultures proves critical for survival. To accept that we are stuck
in linguistic categories means to accept impending ecological disaster, if not annihilation by war before that. If we are prisoners of a solipsistic language-culture selfdefining circle then we are alienated from nature, and detached from our biosemiotic
competences, in a way in which we cannot hope to cooperate with nonhuman nature
or with other culture-language blocks anymore.
Regarding behavior in the interrogation of modelling, as per Cobley’s (2016)
recommendation for a biosemiotic approach to culture, we can liberate the concept
of learning from the narrow scope of (modern) pedagogy. This is necessary for
detaching theory of knowledge and educational philosophy from the dualism of
contractualism. While Eriksen and Stjernfelt (2012) criticized the cultural relativism
endorsed by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as contradicting democratic principles and
human rights and being empirically unfounded, independently, Cobley proposed
a biosemiotic approach to culture precisely as an alternative to the glottocentric
epistemology endorsed by this hypothesis:
Commonly, the important distinction between language as a cognitive capacity and the verbal
interaction which is one of that capacity’s manifestations is not made. So, any cognitive
considerations in [the notion of language as]’chatter’ that remain knowingly or unknowingly
embrace the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or linguistic relativism too readily (for example, Bragg
2003; Bryson 1990; McCrum et al. 2002; Deutscher 2010). In such popular accounts, it is
implicit that language as manifest in speech is ‘special’ and little heed is given to other forms
of semiosis. (2016: 30)
5.1 Peirce and Biosemiotics: Culture in View of Modelling
Cobley’s critic is pointed at the anthropocentric idea that language overwrites other
capacities for meaning-making and thus constitutes, where it occurs, a sufficient and
primary modelling system. What recommends studying culture in the interrogation of
modelling comprehensively in contrast to language strictly is not only the realization
that language behavior does not overwrite other biological modelling competences
but also that language behavior is a subset of semiosic behavior. This admits that
language is an evolutionary realization to which semiosis led. Language inherits the
features of semiosis in general, as developed at an evolutionary scale, which makes it
“important to emphasize the centrality in biosemiotic thinking that language behavior, as a subset of semiosic behavior, inherits all the latter’s definitional properties,
and that therefore it could not be otherwise that sign behavior of all sorts is grounded
in situated, instantiated actions at all points—just as both Charles S. Peirce and Jakob
von Uexküll each independently observed, approximately 100 years ago.” (Favareau
and Kull 2015: 14, see also in Cobley 2016: 30) As such, biosemiotics is detached
from three mainstream competing views on language, namely (1) the view that language has nothing to do with hard, objective reality, being a purely conventional
“chatter”, (2) that language consists in grammatical constructions imposed upon formal models and (3) that language is a species-specific cerebral capacity (see Cobley
2016: 30).
5.2 The Symbolic Species Debate and Its Consequences
for Multiculturalism
It took a couple of decades for biosemiotics, since its emergence on the academic
stage, to explicitly address culture. This delay is partly due to the scholarly established topics of certain semiotic schools. Cultural semiotics (see Posner 2004) and
sociosemiotics (Randviir and Cobley in Cobley 2010b: 118–134) have mostly been
developed in the structuralist and poststructuralist vein of semiotics. These schools
are contrasted with Peircean semiotics in ways similar to sociolinguistics, and in
a historical process, they have assumed an anthropocentric position by discussing
meaning as a characteristic of human culture. In this regard, they are particularly
contrasted with biosemiotics. The roots of the established semiotic approaches to
culture are found in the anthropocentric idea that only human culture makes use
of symbolic forms. The landmark scholar to have entrenched the idea of humanity
as a symbolic species was Cassirer (1944). Cassirer distinguished between signs, as
widely used in the animal world, and symbols, as specific to humans. Symbols, in this
view, appear as complex and particular signs, a distinction echoing the Saussurean
binary distinctions. This is contrasted to trinary sign classifications, such as, most
prominently, Peirce’s classification, which constitutes the backbone of biosemiotics:
The binary classification of signs (in the generic sense) into subjective symptoms and objective signs (in the specific sense) is only one of many. Cassirer, for example, had a considerably
different binary classification, signs and symbols, the latter being a characteristic only of
humans. The most widely accepted classification today, however, is not binary but one based
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
on a trinary principle, established by Peirce. Peirce’s classification is complex and has many
far-reaching ramifications, but it is rooted in a three-way distinction between icon and index,
with both opposed to symbol, all of which are really different facets of one generic sign.
(Sebeok 1991: 24)
The assumption that humans are differentiated to other animals by their use of
symbols has been, thus, disseminated in many branches of semiotics. However,
in biosemiotics this thesis reveals a more detailed criticism, with subtler borders
between signification types. Peirce himself did not attribute symbols to humans only.
On the contrary, he seemed to consider that the general, logical modelling capacities
of humans are more spread along biological evolution:
Look at the little birds, of which all species are so nearly identical in their physique, and yet
what various forms of genius do they not display in modelling their nests? This would be
impossible unless the ideas that are naturally predominant in their minds were true. It would
be too contrary to analogy to suppose that similar gifts were wanting to man. Nor does the
proof stop here. The history of science, especially the early history of modern science […]
completes the proof by showing how few were the guesses that men of surpassing genius
had to make before they rightly guessed the laws of nature. (CP 5.604)
In this text, Peirce was referring to abduction, the logical operation of advancing
hypotheses. His point was that intuitive guesses are often close to being true or, at
least, a right starting point for further, even scientific inquiries, because of biologically
developed modelling capacities. As such, it is pragmatically recommended to act in
accordance to intuitions, rather than to doubt. Of course, in abduction, signification is
not predominantly symbolic, but rather iconic, mostly pertaining to Peirce’s category
of Firstness. Thus, in view of the Sebeokean modelling theory, Peirce here accounted
for birds building nests as a primary level modelling capacity.
The discussions in biosemiotics on symbol use in the biosphere prove more caution than, say, cultural studies or discursive theories because Peirce’s sign taxonomy
does not come down to the icon-index-symbol triad merely, but is grounded in his
three phenomenological categories, which endorse several trichotomies of signs (see
Table 5.1). Thus, features of symbols, which an index might not have, are shared in
other sign types, which are less complex than an index in some regards but more
complex in other regards. An example for this is the legisign sign type which, while
it does not suppose such a concrete relation to actual existence as indexes and,
implicitly, symbols, it nevertheless represents its representamen in a general, rather
Table 5.1 Peirce’s
trichotomies of sign types
Category of
5.2 The Symbolic Species Debate and Its Consequences …
habitual, way. Another such example is constituted by rhemes, signs that are predicates. Rhemes, as well, do not show a causal existential relation to their object,
but are qualitatively descriptive of the sign’s conclusion. Thus, particularly in view
of legisigns, many meaning phenomena in the non-human (parts of the) zoosphere
could be accounted for as habitual, for instance ritualistic, without necessarily being
The discussion, however, is rather complex and the hypothesis that non-human
animals make proper use of symbols must still be considered (e.g. Martinelli 2010: 72,
Stjernfelt 2014: 162–177, 296–299). Interestingly, yet not entirely surprising, given
his criticism of the Homo symbolicus hypothesis, on some occasions Sebeok himself
attributed symbol use to non-human animals. In the development of zoosemiotics,
Martinelli points out to this criticism in Sebeok (1990: 42–43):
The concept of symbolicness has been for many years […] defined as “the ultimate sign
of human distinction”, that is, a concept (and a consequent mental/interactive capacity) of
which only humans were claimed to be capable. As with many other anthropocentric barriers,
this one too met its unavoidable fate. As symbolicness is primarily a semiotic concept, it is
no wonder that it has been up to a semiotician, Thomas Sebeok, to set the record straight
[…]. (Martinelli 2010: 72)
In this regard, Martinelli cites Sebeok that:
The fondly cherished mythic characterization of man, adhered to by E. Cassirer’s epigones
and many others, as a unique, animal-Symbolicum can be sustained only if the definition of
‘symbol’ is impermissibly ensnared with the concept of natural language […]. By every other
definition—invoking the principle of arbitrariness, the idea of a conventional link between a
signifier and its denotata, Peirce’s ‘imputed character’, or the notion of an intentional class
for the designatum—animals demonstrably employ symbols. (Sebeok 1990: 42, see also in
Martinelli 2010: 72)
Martinelli’s argument comes down to the observation that, compared to humans,
organisms of rather simple biology and cognitive apparatus, show complex social
behavior, inherent of ritualization and habits. As he points out, Sebeok did not refrain
to recognize symbol-use in the cases of the sexual rituals of dipterans of the Empididae family and in the dance of honeybees. However, in light of the state of affairs
of the current debate on symbolism in the animal world, whether these are proper
symbols in the Peircean sense is less important. Deacon (1997, 2012) has led this
debate, making the case for humanity as the symbolic species, in a comprehensive and
interdisciplinary perspective, using Peirce’s semiotic triad of the icon-index-symbol.
However, I consider that, given Peirce’s richer classification of signs, particularly
whether humans only show symbol-use strictu sensu is not necessarily revealing for
what distinguishes the human species. In contextual use, the distinctions between,
on the one hand, symbols and, on the other, legisigns, propositions and arguments
are so vague that the discussion might be obsolete (see more below).
At this stage, it is important to take note that in the cultural, social and interpretative semiotic schools the anthropocentric account of symbols was disseminated
as inherited, to some extent, by the young Umberto Eco’s general theory of semiotics (1976 [1979]). These are the branches of semiotics which have been developed
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
independently of a theory of biology. When interdisciplinary approaches to symbol
use, such as cognitive, evolutionary and neuroscientific found it useful to draw on
semiotic theories, they relied on biosemiotics, as exemplified by Deacon’s approach.
Recently, as a pragmatic tendency towards a unified semiotic framework can be
noticed, approaches to sociosemiotics emerged (i.e. Kress and van Leeuwen 2001;
Kress 2010) which are, arguably, more compatible with biosemiotics. This can be
observed, for instance, in the mutuality of the concept of semiotic resources (Kress
2010) in sociosemiotic studies on multimodality and that of semiotic competence
(Stjernfelt in Nöth 2006), explaining organisms’ capability of constructing Umwelten. Arguably, this is due to the shared interest for communication, as biosemiotics
itself came to be developed as a theory of modeling on account of the concepts
shared between biology and communication studies (Sebeok 1991: 23; Stjernfelt
2007: 197).
It is noteworthy that while most semiotic approaches to communication have
rightly criticized classical information theory (e.g. Shannon and Weaver 1964) for
being hermeneutically rigid (see Fiske 1990: 40–46), biosemiotics tended not to
dismiss the terminology of information theory, but to add to such concepts a more
comprehensive load. This is, first of all, possible due to the semiotic notions of sign
and semiosis. In the biosemiotic perspective, like in semiotics in general, a message
is not merely a package of information that one can unpack and, thus, by decoding
it, derive information expressed in a set of raw data which are not open to subjective
and contextual interpretation. Sebeok, simply but much more comprehensively, stated
that “A message is a sign, or consists of a string of signs.” (1991: 23). In addition,
following the premises of information theory, Sebeok states that the inception of a
message “can be pictured as in a box, designated the source” (1991: 23). Nevertheless,
here as well, he made a critical addition that changes the meaning of these concepts,
namely that:
The source box is nothing more than a formal model used for facilitating the comprehension
of hypothetical constructs: given a certain input, one must, more or less, guess at what takes
place to account for the output. (1991: 25)
By regarding the coding of messages as a matter of formal modelling, Sebeok
implies that communication processes are bound to what can now be termed semiotic
competences (see Stjernfelt in Nöth 2006), in accordance with Gibson’s theory of
affordance (e.g. 2014 [1979], see above) and with the discussion on competence in
the semiotic approach to education (Pikkarainen 2014, see above). To put it briefly,
by taking into account the complexity of life, in a biological sense, as the starting
point of communication, cybernetic notions beget a hermeneutical dimension. This
is clearly seen in Sebeok’s conclusion that
[…] communication is that criterial attribute of life which retards the disorganizing effects
of the Second Law of Thermodynamics; that is, communication tends to decrease entropy
locally. In the broadest way, communication can be regarded as the transmission of any
influence from one part of a living system to another part, thus producing change. It is
messages that are being transmitted. (1991: 22)
5.2 The Symbolic Species Debate and Its Consequences …
Sebeok’s argument revolves around the foundational idea for biosemiotics that
exosemiosis is a further development of endosemiosis. This is to say that as an organism communicates within itself, it has acquired the competence of communicating
to other organisms outside itself, as well. This is the starting point of biosemiotics,
which should seek, according to Stjernfelt, to establish the concept of sign as the
basic concept for biological science, without falling into vitalism:
The semiotic metaphors abundantly used by the biology of our day have often been noticed:
‘genetic information’, ‘messenger-RNA’, ‘DNA code’ etc. pointing to the semiotic role of
certain entities in a goal-oriented process and thus bearing witness to the indispensability of
the teleological or intentional concepts even at the most tiny orders of magnitude in biology.
Now, the introduction of biosemiotics is an attempt to take this mass import of metaphors
seriously without on the other hand falling prey to vitalist excesses. Such recurring expressions must be a sign that biology is basically a semiotic science and that it – pace Kant – will
never get rid of its semiotic vocabulary. Thus, the basic idea of biosemiotics is to establish the
sign as a primitive concept in biology, and something like a Bohrian complementarity seems
to appear: no matter how thorough a purely biochemical description of biological processes
might become, it seems it will still be lacking the intentional understanding conveyed by the
semiotic concepts or metaphors – and, probably, vice versa, semiotics needs the biochemical
underpinning before becoming real biosemiotics. (Stjernfelt 2007: 197–198)
The extreme opposite to vitalism that also presents an epistemological danger
would be a rigid cybernetic theory that treats communication in a positivistic manner. Avoiding this position, however, does not require as much care, as long as the
biosemiotic program remains mindful that “biology cannot be reduced to mechanistic physics” (Stjernfelt 2007: 197). The production of speech is surprisingly similar
to the transmission of, for example, genetic code. That human beings, as well as
other species, communicate, as it where, from one “box” to another requires some
presumptions that semiotics avoids to start with: (1) the solipsistic understanding of
the individual organism as a “box”, (2) of knowledge as quantifiable and, therefore,
(3) as perfectly possible to codify without altering it. Thus, one of the reasons for
which multicultural theory, as well as any theory of culture, supposes a biological
theory is because communication theory requires a biological theory. The purpose
of endosemiosis is (often) the same with that of exosemiosis, namely cooperation.
Cooperation is essential for survival, either of the individual organism or of the
species, and, inseparably related to survival in the case of complex organisms, is
a more complex state of wellbeing. For this reason, Cobley finds the concept of
endosemiosis of foundational importance for a theory of culture. Since semiotics, in
its biological theorization, seems to be the only theory of potential cultural criticism,
to provide such a concept that is comprehensive of both intra- and extra-organism
communication, pointing to Deacon’s theory of consciousness, he argues that:
Not only is endosemiosis, as a concept, less common than it ought to be, but its role in the
formation of the self that Deacon shows to be indispensable in the growth of life struggles
to get on the agenda of considerations of either sociality or cultural production. (Cobley
2016: 6)
The recent uptake of the concept of competence in the semiotic approach to education (Pikkarainen 2014) shows very similar considerations. Competence is one of the
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
classic common interests of semiotics and, as Pikkarainen explains (2014: 622) educational philosophy and theory. As in biosemiotics, in an educational regard, semiotics discusses competence as a communicational but not instructional phenomenon.
Here as well, it is revealed how in its approach to knowledge as meaning, semiotics
implicitly takes an ecological position in what regards learning, aligned with Gibson’s theory of affordances (2014 [1979], see the previous section). Pikkarainen
dismisses the spread educational perspective on competence as a product of the
educational process. He is particularly critical of the term product, suggestive of
cybernetic undertones. The discussion of competence as a product of education is
inherent of ideological assumptions, as observed in the various other themes that it
implicitly addresses:
Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—there are deep problems and discrepancies in the
definition of the concept of competence and its relationships to relative concepts like qualification, competency, attribute, skill, ability, capability, knowledge, attitude, value, etc. Also,
the theoretical and ideological contents of the concept’s use have been an object of criticism.
(Pikkarainen 2014: 622)
The semiotic take, according to Pikkarainen, is, like the biosemiotic one, aware of
the intimately hermeneutic phenomenon of knowledge acquisition, unlike the cybernetic approach. This semiotic discussion on competence, however, does not mystify
the concept in metaphysical speculations, which would slip into gnostic relativism.
Rather, semiotic criticism reveals the danger posed by the trivializing of the notion of
competence, in an ideological framing of education, namely the acceptance of mechanistic and rigidly instrumental accounts of knowledge and interpretation, because
the possible usefulness of the concept of competence lies more in the analytical
understanding and not, at least not directly, in the detailed measurement of the product of education. The promise of the semiotics of education lies in its possibility to
help in understanding the meanings of education and educational action as meaningmediated meaning-making. The concept of competence is central in understanding
all action and thus an essential but neglected part of any viable theory of action.
(Pikkarainen 2014: 622)
Thus, as endorsed by these social, biological and educational semiotic theories,
the transmission of messages cannot be reduced to an isolated and mechanical, bilateral exchange. Instead, it involves a complex hermeneutics that gives biological
organisms existential bearing. It is notable that Pikkarainen’s argument suggests the
exploration of competence regardless of structures classically considered symbolic,
such as attitudes and values.
Ahti-Veikko Pietarinen comments that one of the most valuable novelties of
Peirce’s semiotics, for philosophy in general, stands in its revealing of “the possibility of the immanent dialogical or communicational character of logic” (2006:
53). It is in this basic hypothesis of biosemiotics, inherited from Peirce, that the
key to a biosemiotic theory of culture which essentially avoids culturalism is found.
Communication is a criterial attribute of life, accounting for the inner plurality of
organisms, due to endosemiosic phenomena, and for the inner plurality of culture(s).
In this perspective, no semiosic (strict) thresholds can be drawn between cultures
5.2 The Symbolic Species Debate and Its Consequences …
within a society (or community). Culture is inherently pluralistic as the communication of life forms is inevitable. However, if cultural phenomena can only be pluralist
because biological phenomena are pluralist, it does not mean that culture also inherits
a life of its own, greater than that of biological organisms, in a vitalist sense. Neither
does it mean that we can ignore the possibility of the emergence of censorship and
dictatorship or the circumstantial willingness of one population to wipe out another
population, instead of the arguably more pragmatic option of cooperation. Rather,
biosemiotics undermines the supposed importance and role of cultural identity. It
is by means of fabricating the sense of cultural (or national) identity that neighbors
become aware of the other’s otherness as a reason and justification for conflict. All
of this supports biosemiotics’ biocentrism as a rather adequate platform for cultural
tolerance than the anthropocentrism of some cultural and anthropological studies. As
well, such biocentrism does not endorse vitalism: if culture is studied in the interrogation of modelling, the same as life, and if semiosis is continuous along biological
existence, it does not imply that culture behaves like biological organisms, but only
that life is a prerequisite of culture, and culture is an evolutionary consequence of
life’s criterial attribute of communication.
These critical arguments in biosemiotics notwithstanding, scholarship is still
required to bridge certain gaps and address matters of epistemological compatibility
between biosemiotics, cultural semiotics (as well as cultural studies in general) and
communication theory. Sebeok pointed out that a source of much confusion in what
regards the use of symbols and the specifics of human animals is that the central place
that verbal, linguistic expression has in human societies obscured the importance of
nonverbal communicative expressions, which are much more spread not only in the
zoosphere and biosphere, but in humans particularly too:
The human’s rich repertoire of nonverbal messages by sharp contrast with language never
constituted a unified field of study, and therefore lacks a positive integrative label. What all
nonverbal messages have in common is merely that they are not linguistic. This negative
delineation has led to terminological chaos in the sciences of communication, which is
manifoldly compounded when the multifarious message systems employed by the millions
of species of languageless creatures, as well the communicative processes inside organisms,
are additionally taken into account. (Sebeok 1991: 23)
Biosemiotics itself is not entirely spared by the symbolic animal hypothesis, as
ultimately, the articulated language of human beings is thoroughly symbolic. This
is probably the main reason for which the linguistic turn appeared very alluring:
once natural evolution theory has become unavoidable, philosophy had to explain
the chimaera-like concept of mind in light of everything that natural evolution entails:
genetic, cognitive and neurological evolution, human migration, and so on. The first
such philosophical attempt, the linguistic turn, fell for the temptation of considering
human linguistic communication altogether conventional, supporting a notion of
symbol (e.g. Cassirer 1944), on some accounts even of sign (e.g. Eco 1976 [1979]),
as (purely) conventional. The linguistic turn, then, consisted in the reasoning chain
that (1) since abstract convention in the form of linguistic articulation is the distinctive
feature of humans then (2) mind and, consequently, culture, are linguistic structures,
which means that (3) all sociocultural reality is conventional.
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
Thus, biosemiotics as well did not altogether avoid the problematization of humans
as distinguished by their use of symbols, but the debate here is much subtler. This
topic started to be explicitly discussed in biosemiotics once with Terrence Deacon’s book (1997) The Symbolic Species. Deacon, by accommodating semiotics
with a neurological and anthropological framework, developed a theory of evolution, comprehensive of various classic theories such as Baldwinian, Larmarckian and
Darwinian. Consequently, Deacon uses Peirce’s semiotics, particularly the Peircean
icon-index-symbol trichotomy as a semiotic theoretical support. Peirce’s taxonomy
of signs fits very well this framework, as Peirce developed his semiotics in view of
a teleological phenomenology of sign evolution. By his most famous icon-indexsymbol trichotomy, Peirce posits that habitual signification, which contains a degree
of conventionality, rests upon signification necessarily consisting in actual connection
which rests, in turn, on signification due to accidental similarity. Thus, to begin with,
the biosemiotic position on symbol use excludes the possibility of purely conventional signification. Abstractions and conventions, in this view, while proved useful,
given the pragmatic purposefulness of semiosis can only be used on ground of more
basic semiotic competences of organisms of using indexes and icons. This means that
conventionality is either impossible or useless unless it is nested in actually existing
connections and similarities. This is the starting point for the biosemiotic view on
language. The discussion has become more precise since, as, for instance, Stjernfelt
criticizes the idea that pure icons and then indexes are chronologically manifested
in evolution for semiosis to arrive at symbolic structures only in a late stage, in
very complex organisms, namely in primates, and fully assumed into a symbolic
modelling system by humans (Stjernfelt in Schilhab et al. 2012: 39–63).
Ultimately, Stjernfelt’s resolve is that organic evolution and semiotic evolution
do not parallel each other, growing in complexity together but, instead more evolved
species acquire more semiotic competences and, therefore, freedom, by gaining a
more refined access to distinguishing among meaning phenomena (Stjernfelt 2014).
What more biologically complex organisms discover is not more complex signs, but
the more refined divisions of experienced signs allows for a more complex semiotic compositional design. Stjernfelt finds that propositional structures, the Peircean
dicisign, is a pivotal sign type in navigating the physiology of arguments (Stjernfelt
2014). It is insightful to note, at this stage, that Stjernfelt’s interrogation of human
cognition draws on sign types, such as the dicisign, that do not belong to the iconindex-symbol trichotomy, Thus, this more subtle analysis of symbol use is possible
by making use of Peirce’s fine-grained sign taxonomy in its entirety. This observation
leads Stjernfelt to:
…the fact that semiotic evolution should not be seen as going from the simple to the complex
in terms of beginning with atomic signs which later serve as building blocks for more complex
signs. The process from simple to complex should be conceived of in a non-compositional
way: the overall semiotic argument process structure is there from the metabolic beginning
– and semiotic evolution rather takes the shape of the ongoing subdivision, articulation, and
sophistication of primitive signs, an ongoing refinement of parts and aspects acquiring still
more autonomy. Hence, on this view, semiotic compositionality rather forms an important
achievement than it forms the starting principle: the ongoing autonomization of parts and
aspects of Dicisigns and their combinations may make them more and more compositional –
5.2 The Symbolic Species Debate and Its Consequences …
resulting in a growth of combination possibilities and hence increasing cognitive plasticity.
Such segmentation of the argument process thus constitutes the overall shape of the increase
in “semiotic freedom” during evolution, highlighted by Hoffmeyer (2010). (Stjernfelt in
Schilhab et al. 2012: 47)
Thus, the development of cognitive capacities results in the acquisition of higher
degrees of semiotic freedom by facilitating more sophisticated means for the segmentation of arguments. Without further scrutinizing the discussion in biosemiotics
on the emergence of symbol use here, it occurs that such an approach to culture can
avoid anthropocentrism and glottocentrism by aligning natural evolution and cultural
learning on a wide spectrum of modelling:
So as to the “cognitive field” as a whole, Peirce articulates a broad conception of cognition, not defined in opposition to perception, not presupposing language nor consciousness,
which has the character of generalised inferences between generalised propositions called
Dicisigns. As endemic to pragmatism, this conception is inimical to hypostasized dualisms
often pervading the cognitive field: subject/object, sign/perception, image/language, animal/human, proposition/non-conceptual content - many of which are even often coupled on
top of one another to large lumps of presuppositions such as that of man and animal differing so that man only has the privileges of objects, signs, language, propositions… Not that
Peirce’s doctrine lacks distinction; anti-Cartesianist as he is, however, he avoids taking such
distinctions to refer to nicely separated ontological realms which invariably lead to artificial
conceptual problems of how to reconnect again what was once cut apart - rather reality is
taken to display continuous transformation and intermediary forms between the phenomena
distinguished. (Stjernfelt 2014: 6–7)
It is a similar argument, in Stjernfelt’s view, that caused Umberto Eco’s conversion to a semiotic theory more accepting of primary, prelinguistic and pre-cultural
modelling occurring by cognitive types (CT) (1997) than his original general theory
(1976 [1979]). However, Eco’s theory is not inclined to draw on iconic signification
as an explanation, and thus, adopt a mereological analysis method, but on typicality
of a more basic semiotic kind than symbolic, such as manifest in legisigns:
The CT, even if subject to ongoing trial-and-error negotiations, has the property of being
a perceptual type, hence pre-linguistic, and hence safe from all semiotic doubt, cultural
relativism, etc. True, different cultures will form different CTs, but as a rule not entirely
different – they will still be constrained by certain ‘lines of resistance’ as it is called in
Eco’s weak ontology. Its main function is to facilitate the recognition of yet-unseen tokens
of its type. The important step here is that Eco succumbs to Peirce’s insistence that the
generality of the symbol is not the only generality in semiotics; it is preceded by – and
conditioned by – typicality, the fact that phenomena tokens are organized in types before
symbolicity and linguistic categorization further organize them. However, the CT is, due to
its perceptual status, pri-vate, so how do we guarantee that a CT is in fact present? – only by
the intersubjectively controllable detour of successful referring. If speakers pragmatically
agree in referring to a phenomenon this must count as a proof of shared (or, in any case,
sufficiently similar) CTs. (Stjenrfelt 2007: 69)
In this regard, Eco’s theory presents some similarities to Deacon’s symbol theory,
as revised in the more comprehensive view of Peirce’s rather complex taxonomy of
signs (in Schilhab et al. 2012).
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
In general, in the pragmatic vein of semiotics, modelling appears not as a deconstruction, as poststructuralism might suggest, nor as a purely conventional construction, as most of 20th century philosophy, including classic constructivism might
endorse, but, as the scaffolding of arguments by propositional signs and the finegrained sign typologies that these entail. Hoffmeyer’s (2008a, 2015) uptake of the
constructivist concept of scaffolding in semiotics is therefore not accidental. The
insights that classic socioconstructivism revealed about learning (Vygotsky 1978;
Bruner 1957, 1999 [1960], 1966) are prescinded from their non-realist clauses in
Hoffmeyer’s biosemiotics, leading to a comprehensive view on knowledge acquisition as semiotic discovery, occurring through semiotic competences, resulting in
greater semiotic freedom. From this perspective, acculturated human beings rather
possess a higher freedom of adopting aspects from various and different cultures in
a pragmatic modelling purpose. Once with the growth of semiotic freedom, semiotic
devices are designed for systems more and more mereologically operational, instead
of holistically rigid, as cultural relativism claimed (see Chap. 1, Sect. 1.5, Chap. 2,
Sect. 2.2 and Chap. 3, Sect. 3.3). Thus, instead of abstract generalizing through use of
symbols, Stjernfelt proposes the cognitive-logical capacity of hypostatic abstraction
as a description of human specificity (2014: 162–168). In brief, Peirce’s hypostatic
abstraction consists in deducing (the singularity of) qualities from dyadic relations.
For example, at the perceiving of a black wall it is hypostatically abstracted that
blackness exists in the respective wall. Without going into further detail, the relevant point here is that biosemiotics allows for a plastic understanding of generality,
abstraction and symbolicity, admitting species specific distinctiveness, while avoiding anthropocentrism and, also, glottocentrism, which is often linked to the symbolic
species thesis.
All of these considered, biosemiotic modelling theory accounts for a mereological theory of culture, wherein cultures are inner pluralistic, and their components
have relative independence from the whole. As such, since cultural structures can
be inherited from one culture to another, neither can cultures be clearly and strictly
be separated one from the other. As Cobley observes, Sebeok’s semiotic notion of
environment, Umwelt, as inherited from von Uexküll is best translated into English
as model (Cobley 2016: 7). In Sebeok’s words, “All organisms communicate by
use of models (umwelts, or self-worlds, each according to its species-specific sense
organs), from the simplest representations of manoeuvres of approach and withdrawal to the most sophisticated cosmic theories of Newton and Einstein.” (Sebeok
2001: 23) In this view, the biosemiotic approach to cross-cultural communication
largely coincides with ecosemiotics (Nöth 1998; Kull 1998, 2008). Biosemiotics is
also compatible in most ways with the semiotic framework of education (see Gough
and Stables 2012; Olteanu 2015), termed edusemiotics (Semetsky 2010; Stables and
Semetsky 2015). The edusemiotic framework also underpins a construal of learning as coextensive with living, liberated from the narrower scope of pedagogy and
educational sciences. This account of learning recommends regarding intercultural
communication as a learning phenomenon.
From this semiotic perspective on learning, the framing of diversity as unavoidably generating conflict misses the main consequence of diversity, namely that it is
5.2 The Symbolic Species Debate and Its Consequences …
a prerequisite for the possibility of communication and a catalyst for learning. This
holds true not only in human societies, but everywhere in nature, because everywhere in nature communication phenomena are manifest. Certainly, the many historical examples of cultural, religious or ethnic conflicts should not be ignored in
an inquiry on communication across cultures. Diversity generates conflict because
communication itself consists in a tension, and not because of a specific characteristic of diversity underpinning conflict. Communication always implies learning, to
some extent. Learning never ceases. It is potentially infinite because the generation
of signification is infinite. That signification is infinite is one of the main thesis of
Charles Peirce (CP 5.484, CP 2.92), crucial for the development of semiotic theory. Interlocutors always learn something in an act of communication because the
knowledge of two different knowing subjects can never coincide. Even in the simplest dialogue, such as when I ask a friend what time it is, learning is manifest.
Besides the discovery of obvious information, such as finding out what time it is,
there are profound learning phenomena involved in any communicational act. For
instance, through this interaction the idiolect that me and my friend communicate
by is evolving. Also, perhaps, we learn how much or in what ways we can trust (or
mistrust) each other. In Peirce’s view, that reasoning is generally infinite, as it always
involves more reasoning, is the answer to the paradox of learning, namely how it is
possible to learn, since learning involves acquiring knowledge about the unknown?
This is, as well, the Peircean answer to multicultural situations. Peirce’s solution is
based on the idea that similarity experientially bridges the known and the unknown,
which he answers by recurrence to the three categories:
Thus, every reasoning involves another reasoning, which in its turn involves another, and
so on ad infinitum. Every reasoning connects something that has just been learned with
knowledge already acquired so that we thereby learn what has been unknown. It is thus that
the present is so welded to what is just past as to render what is just coming about inevitable.
The consciousness of the present, as the boundary between past and future, involves them
both. Reasoning is a new experience which involves something old and something hitherto
unknown. The past as above remarked is the ego. My recent past is my uppermost ego;
my distant past is my more generalized ego. The past of the community is our ego. In
attributing a flow of time to unknown events we impute a quasi-ego to the universe. The
present is the immediate representation we are just learning that brings the future, or nonego, to be assimilated into the ego. It is thus seen that learning, or representation, is the third
Kainopythagorean category. (CP 7.536)
As in Deacon’s discussion on sign types and symbol use, Peirce’s semiotics
implies a theory of evolution. This, as well, must be considered in view of an approach
to culture:
In biosemiotics, Peirce provides an evolutionary philosophy, a cosmology and a sustained
consideration of purpose, causation and finality (see, for example, Hoffmeyer 2008a, b).
(Cobley 2016: 40)
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
5.3 Peircean Categories and Evolution
The cornerstone of Peirce’s theory of evolution is a bold claim about cooperation and,
even more so, a strong advocacy for altruism. This is a principle properly manifested
in the Third category, namely the category of mediation and of logical types:
Logicality inexorably requires that our interests shall not be limited. They must not stop at
our own fate, but must embrace the whole community […]. This community, again, must not
be limited, but must extend to all races of beings with whom we can come into immediate or
mediate intellectual relation. It must reach, however vaguely, beyond this geological epoch,
beyond all bounds. He who would not sacrifice his own soul to save the world, is, as it seems
to me, illogical in all his inferences, collectively. Logic is rooted in the social principle. (CP
This is to say that the logical apodosis of (endo)semiosis consists in social cooperation. From this perspective, racism, nationalism and culturalism are obvious logical
errors that would “block the way of inquiry” (CP 1.135), to use a celebrated Peircean
phrase. Refusing social cooperation looks very much like the contemporary pointless
(non-pragmatic) rhetoric which is contemporary known as populism:
When society is broken into bands, now warring, now allied, now for a time subordinated
one to another, man loses his conceptions of truth and of reason. If he sees one man assert
what another denies, he will, if he is concerned, choose his side and set to work by all means
in his power to silence his adversaries. The truth for him is that for which he fights. (CP
Peirce termed the principle of altruistic sacrifice agapism, using the Greek etymological root of referring to selfless love (CP 6.302). Self-centered isolation does
not preserve diversity, as the politics of recognition would have it (e.g., Taylor et al.
1994), give its inheritance of the (post)structuralist construal of system and the relativist concept of culture. When he prescribed that the “first rule of reason” is the
expression “Do not block the way of inquiry”, Peirce was explicit that learning and
the desire to learn imply looking outside oneself:
in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you
already incline to think. (CP 1.135)
Thus, in this view, preserving a certain state of cultures and their supposedly corresponding identities by isolating them blocks learning. To the evolutionary doctrine
based on the principle of self-sacrificial love, Peirce referred to as agapasm (see
also James 2008 [1909]: 163 and the discussion in Chap. 4, Sect. 4.1). He described
agapism as the movement of love or, as altruism is often referred to, the Golden Rule
(see also Olteanu 2015: 211):
The movement of love is circular, at one and the same impulse projecting creations into
independency and drawing them into harmony. This seems complicated when stated so; but
it is fully summed up in the simple formula we call the Golden Rule. This does not, of course,
say, Do everything possible to gratify the egoistic impulses of others, but it says, Sacrifice
your own perfection to the perfectionment of your neighbor. Nor must it for a moment be
confounded with the Benthamite, or Helvetian, or Beccarian motto, Act for the greatest good
5.3 Peircean Categories and Evolution
of the greatest number. Love is not directed to abstractions but to persons; not to persons we
do not know, nor to numbers of people, but to our own dear ones, our family and neighbors.
“Our neighbor,” we remember, is one whom we live near, not locally perhaps but in life and
feeling. (CP 6.288)
Our neighbour, in the purpose of the present inquiry, can be understood as the
culturally different. With the doctrine of agapasm Peirce offers, besides a full-blown
theory of evolution of meaning, a shortcut to what a theory of multiculturalism, in
his view, should be based and focused on. In this view, genuine care, even love, for
the culturally different is intelligent semiosic behavior that allows for the development of arguments by the creative use of cross-cultural coupling of meaning
structures. To lack such semiotic competence is a critical limitation. As a result
of cross-cultural communication, the interlocutors gain competences for the composition of sign-relations of higher degrees of freedom and, as such, more operational.
The mereological and anti-culturalist underpinning of this theory is straightforward
as it construes the resistance towards such cooperation as semiotic impoverishment.
That cooperation is possible on account of mereological freedom, and inner pluralism accounts for that communication and signification can never be perfectly
clear and precise, but always contain a certain degree of vagueness. As Nöth and
Santaella notice (2011), if signification would not be partly vague, but everything
that had to be expressed would be expressed with perfect precision, complete, as it
were, there would be nothing left to discuss. Lotman observed the same, arguing that
while if there is no intersection (or overlap) between the linguistic codes mastered
by two interlocutors there can be no communication, “a full intersection […] renders
communication insipid.” (Lotman 2009 [1964]: 5) Culturalism is largely unaware
of this: if culture in its entirety strictly determines how its composing elements and
the relations among them are interpreted, then there is nothing that can be discussed
cross-culturally. If an act of communication would not contain any tension at all,
there would be nothing to learn and, as such, communication would be impossible.
Tension is, in a Peircean view, a criterion of signification in its Second Dimension,
such as indexes and propositions. Thus, it corresponds to the second principle of
evolution, namely necessity. Peirce termed this evolutionary principle anancasticism
and its corresponding doctrine, anancasm (CP 6.302). In this view, following the
principle of synechism that evolution is continuous, necessity is present in, but also
transcended by agapism.
Communication is possible, to begin with, because of a syntax of embodiment,
which renders individuals similar, and not primarily because of differences, as supposed in the (post)structralist vein(s). Diversity, while it generates differences, primarily generates structural similarities. Identity does not evoke differences and nor
does it evoke similarities. Thus, on a Peircean account, difference is not the criterion
of meaning-making and of learning. Rather, it is similarity that makes discovery
possible (CP 2.278, Stjernfelt 2007: 57; Olteanu 2015: 52, 55). While for Peirce
similarity and difference (or dissimilarity) are, so to say, two inseparable sides of the
same coin (see above Chap. 3, CP 1.567), he thought of identity as the complementary
opposite of otherness (CP 1.566). Between these two pairs (which do not constitute
dichotomical relations) there is a categorical difference: similarity and dissimilar-
5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
ity are characteristics of Firstness, while identity and otherness are characteristics
of Secondness. Thus, in an evolutionary regard, identity and otherness, which are
the currencies of mainstream multicultural theory (e.g. Taylor et al. 1994; Kymlicka
1995, 2001; Máiz and Requejo 2004, see Chap. 1 in the present monograph) occur by
necessity. Certainly, there is an immediate need to recognize the distinction between
self and other. On Stjernfelt’s account, this is simply the effect of basic logical syntax,
which he terms co-localization (Stjernfelt 2014: 108–114; see also Martinelli 2010:
70 and more in Chap. 6, Sect. 6.4). By necessity, secondary modelling systems, such
as native languages, reproduce the logical structure of space-time co-localization, as
particularly reflected in the coupling of subjects and predicates in propositions.
Similarity consists in a partial sharing of qualities, while the total sharing of
qualities would be identity. From a partial overlapping of qualities stems structural
similarity, the prerequisite for diagrammatic reasoning. The sharing of qualities is
the implication of inhabiting overlapping phenomenal worlds. According to Stables,
the overlapping of phenomenal worlds is a prerequisite for learning (Stables 2012:
49). This is another thesis shared by both the semiotic approach to education and biosemiotics. In the biosemiotic view, as explained, each organism models its own environment, according to its own species-specific and individual capabilities (Sebeok
2001: 140–146). This does not endorse a solipsistic notion of knowledge and reality.
On the contrary, the understanding of environments as self-worlds accounts for their
interaction and for a supra subjective phenomenality (see Deely 2001). Interactions
between organisms contribute to the development of environments which phenomenally overlap according to the interactors’ possibilities to engage with and articulate
meaning. The organization of a self-world is fundamental for the possibility of purposeful communication. In the self-world, structures of meaning are organized and
these structures, defining an organism’s phenomenality, will be used by the organism
for any comparison, that is, for any interaction with a non-self.
In instances of intercultural communication, therefore, it is supposed that interlocutors are learning something that makes them more acquainted with a culture
different then their own. As such, dissimilarity, as relatively contrasted to similarity,
is, as well a prerequisite for learning. This contradicts the politics of recognition view
on multiculturalism (Taylor et al. 1994), which stresses the importance of enforcing
distinction for the purpose of preserving cultural identity.
As a definition, an intercultural act of communication supposes an inquiry into a
culture less familiar than the culture which the interlocutors inhabit. For this reason,
the present theory is developed in view of a mereological theory of learning, namely a
semiotic one, that renders similarity as accountable for the possibility of communication and learning in general and distinction as necessary for the articulation of Second
sign types. Learning, at the same time, opens new possibilities for inquiry for the
learner while also limiting them. However, in this mereological view, the insistence
on difference in (post)structuralism-inspired multicultural theory is exaggerated. By
learning, in general, organisms rather gain competences, much more than losing
them. Consequently, by learning, organisms gain semiotic freedom. This means, for
instance, that adaptability to cultural context is a semiotic virtue. To adapt is a smart
semiosic behavior. It is true, nevertheless, as Peircean semiotics expresses as well,
5.3 Peircean Categories and Evolution
that learning contains, among other aspects, a dimension of Secondness consisting
in focused signs, such as indexicality, which implies excluding certain objects from
the attention of a reasoning process, in favor of others. Learning consists in shaping
one’s phenomenal world and, as such, it has a degree of plasticity. In the larger scope
of developing a semiotic theory of learning and education, Andrew Stables remarks
[…] while personal history enables new understanding, it also constrains it, for without
such history, there can be no response at all. It is an important truth little acknowledged
in educational theory that that which makes knowledge and understanding possible – our
interpretive frameworks including our assumptions and prejudices – is also that which limits
them. (2012: 46)
Living in a certain community and acquiring certain cultural practices shapes
one’s possibilities of learning in a certain fashion. It opens up some interpretative
possibilities and it limits others. Thus, by living in a certain community one might
become little attuned to the concerns and particularities of a different community. This
is a common sense limitation and it can be overcome when necessary, as it is a matter
of learning. Circumstantiality is simply the First element in learning, and hence, in
a semiotic theory of evolution. According to Peirce, learning (signification) starts
by chance. This is the evolutionary principle of tychism (CP 5.602). As an example,
a young child might not see the need for and the beauty of mathematical calculus,
but she can certainly discover these spontaneously. To understand them in a way
that facilitates their communication may take years of effort and studying, but this
is no reason to abandon the pursuit (see Sebeok’s anecdotal example about Einstein
in Sebeok 1991: 57 and in the present chapter of this monograph, in Sect. 5.1). Of
course, there could be good reasons for abandoning, at least temporarily, a curricular
subject, such as calculus. For instance, at a certain stage of her life, a person can feel
a complete lack of interest for the subject, or experience interests for other subjects to
the extent that she has no time to dedicate to calculus, or, for what explanation may it
be, experience a psychological distress. In short, the reason for abandoning a certain
study, at least temporarily, is what John Dewey described as losing one’s soul (Dewey
1997 [1938]: 49), which is aligned to the principle of agapism: if phenomenally no
love is manifest, a different anancastic path can be pursued eventually.
Genuine interest for other societies, communities and cultures, not merely as
an intellectual curiosity, but in an agapic regard, is something that we learn. The
process of learning to care about others starts by chance, proceeds, in various ways,
by necessity, because drawing distinctions is necessary for survival and continues
agapically, as the apodosis of semiosis is manifest in altruism, the best principle of
social organization.
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5 Biosemiotic Multiculturalism
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Bruner, Jerome S. 1957. Going Beyond the Information Given. New York: Norton.
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Chapter 6
An Embodied Approach to Intercultural
Abstract The main stake for a semiotic theory of multiculturalism consists in understanding communication in cross- and inter-cultural contexts. This chapter explains
how the semiotic approach to multiculturalism, as developed in this book, questions
the main lines of argumentation in intercultural communication theories. The first
observation is that, in view of an embodied and multimodal construal of meaning, no
communicational instance can be labelled as non-intercultural, just like no particular
translation can be monomodal. This hypothesis is pursued on account of the argument
that an embodied notion of meaning implies that organisms’ modelling of environments is a process of design, wherein resources are used according to competences.
Such design loops lead to new competences, which make possible the discovery of
new resources and, thus, the acquisition of higher degrees of semiotic freedom. The
concept of text here becomes useful as it allows for an exploration of modelling as
morphological, in conjunction with insights from typographic design. From this unified semiotic perspective, every communicational act supposes a translation, which is
always multimodal. The implications of regarding higher degrees of inter-culturality
in communication as corresponding to higher degrees of multimodality are explored.
6.1 Semiotic Body, Semiotic Text and Semiotic Culture
In previous chapters (see particularly Chap. 2, Sect. 2.2), I explained that the notion
of text as the main tool for cultural analysis has mostly been thought of as disembodied, underpinning a Cartesian, purely mental construal of meaning (for a discussion
on the distinction between text and model semiotics see Chap. 2, Sect. 2.2). This
idea, entrenched in the linguistic turn, is rooted in de Saussure’s distinction between
language (langue) and speech (parole) and, as well, from the resulting distinction
between speech and writing as different systems of signs. For a biosemiotic criticism
of multiculturalism and a corresponding model of intercultural communication, a
non-dualist concept of text or modelling is required. The language/speech distinction leads to other Cartesianesque dichotomies, expressed not in terms of mental
structures, as typical of post-Cartesianism, but in terms of social and linguistic structures:
© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019
A. Olteanu, Multiculturalism as Multimodal Communication,
Numanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress 9,
6 An Embodied Approach to Intercultural Communication
In separating language from speaking we are at the same time separating: (1) what is social
from what is individual; and (2) what is essential from what is accessory and more or less
accidental. (de Saussure 1959 [1916]: 14)
Cobley recommends that, in its approach to culture, to abide to its synechistic
principle of pragmatism, biosemiotics must avoid this typically modern dichotomy
(2016: xii, 22, 45, 57, 56). Such a dichotomy that isolates the individual from and
within the community is, I argue, non-agapic. Regarding language as an a priori
category of human knowledge is the fundamental assumption of the linguistic turn.
It endorses an ideological view on language and its defining role for culture and, in
some cases, cognition. A non-dualist, non-essentialist and non-ideological approach
to culture should collapse the dichotomy between language and speaking. Biosemiotics, following the principle of synechism, eliminates this distinction by its embodied account of meaning: meaning is always embodied in some form. An insightful
observation is that both writing and oral speech are competences of the body. Speech
and writing do not merely represent the superimposed system that is language. Neither does writing represent speech. Rather, writing and speaking are modalities that
embody meaning. We speak and write by using our bodies. The means used in speaking, writing or any form of communication are, according to Elleström, “technical
media of distribution of sensory configurations” (2018: 285), which participate in
the production of a media product, as the intermediate stage of a communicative
act, which makes transfer (of information and meaning) possible. While some parts
of the body are directly used in the act of writing, such as fingers, arms and eyes,
the whole of the body participates in the act. This holistic participation of the body
is, nonetheless, diagrammatic: composing parts of the body participate each in their
own functionality, thus building up the body’s communicational affordances.
The recent advancements in biosemiotics theory inevitably led to the development of a semiotic concept of the body (Stjernfelt in Nöth 2006; Hoffmeyer 2008b).
Such a concept should free a construal of meaning from the supposed arbitrariness
of Saussurean sign systems and, instead, create root meaning in the body. Stjernfelt
considers that in the (post)structuralist view, “the body concept would be conceived
of as subjected to the free arbitrariness of semiotic systems—and no special attention would be paid to the body as a crucial prerequisite of semiotic articulation.”
(Stjernfelt in Nöth 2006: 14) A disembodied notion of meaning, subject to absolute arbitrariness results in a relativist view of meaning, where the morphological
aspect is ignored. This is mutual with the signifier/signified dichotomy, that is, the
separation of meaning and its form. Thus, Stjernfelt explains that:
What is called for is a concept of the body which, in itself, makes evident the basic semiotic
competences of an organism, i.e., a body concept which entails semiotics. It is to be expected,
naturally, that this will give rise to a more fine-grained typology of bodies depending on how
complicated and sophisticated semiotic behavior the organism in question is able to indulge
itself in. (in Nöth 2006: 14)
From a text semiotics perspective, reading and writing, namely the operations
performed on texts, are the semiotic behaviors behind cultural production. In consideration of the semiotic account of the body, these human capabilities have to be
6.1 Semiotic Body, Semiotic Text and Semiotic Culture
conceptualized as embodied. However, the simple observation that interpretation is
embodied has been ignored in many of the late modern theories of language and
representation. In general, cultural studies and most of the established textual semiotic approaches to culture dissociated text and its morphology (discussed above,
see Chap. 2, Sect. 2.2). To refer to the morphology of a text, I shall use the term
typography. The semiotic notion of the body implies a semiotic, that is, non-dualist
tool, for discussing culture. For this purpose, the concept of text should be expanded
to encompass the materiality of signification, as per Elleström’s argument that, in
communication, “the intermediate entity connecting two minds with each other is
always in some way material, although it clearly cannot be conceptualized only in
terms of materiality.” (2018: 280) This is what recommends a biosemiotic approach
to writing morphology, that is, to typography. From a biosemiotic perspective, the
concept of text is necessarily typographic, in the sense that text is a design, not only a
dyadic articulation. Developing a typography of signification, as more specific than
a typology of signification, is a step towards unifying biosemiotics and the recent
social semiotic approaches to multimodality (Kress and van Leeuwen 2001; Kress
2010), given the former’s program of a “fine-grained typology of bodies” (Stjernfelt
in Nöth 2006: 14) and the latter’s interest for design. To this purpose, not only the
semiotic concept of text but also the aesthetic concern of typography should undergo
refinement. In accordance to Elleström’s remark, text cannot be conceived as purely
mental and design cannot be conceived as purely material.
In literature on design, it is assumed that text and typography are mutually implicit.
For instance, Bringhurst describes typography as “a craft by which the meanings
[…] of a text can be clarified, honored and shared, or knowingly disguised.” (2004:
17) While the relation between text and typography is implicit here, an arbitrariness
between text and typographic style is still assumed. Nevertheless, typographic design
scholars, such as is the case of Bringhurst, are aware that content and morphology
are inter-dependent:
The typographer’s one essential task is to interpret and communicate the text. Its tone, its
tempo, its logical structure, its physical size, all determine the possibilities of its typographic
form. The typographer is to the text as the theatrical director to the script, or the musician to
the score. (Bringhurst 2004: 20)
The production of typography is a pragmatic use of the body’s semiotic competences. The same holds true for speech. Modern culture, inherent of postCartesianism, ignored the natural ground of culture and, therefore, that embodiment
is the starting-point of design. There is, nevertheless, at least one interesting example
in late modernity of a non-dualist approach to design which points straight to biosemiotics. Modern constructivist architecture offered a biocentric account of design by
adopting, most interestingly, precisely the theoretical biology of Jakob von Uexküll,
the forefather of biosemiotics.
Botar (2001) notes that Bauhaus architectural style was inherent of von Uexküll’s
biologische Weltbetrachtung (biological (world) observation). As Botar explains, this
connection can be explored in view of developing a “category in the history of ideas
broad enough to be useful to cultural historians concerned with attitudes towards
6 An Embodied Approach to Intercultural Communication
nature”. (2001: 593) While Botar’s concern was the interwar period, his observation
can contribute to a general theory of cultural history or intellectual history, such as
Deely’s (2001) project of understanding intellectual history from the point of view of
contemporary semiotics. Such an endeavor has the potential to reshape the language
of history of ideas towards a history of meaning dynamics. In this view, cultures are
not deemed as distinct, but co-evolving by shared scaffoldings, which can be adopted
from one culture to the other. Addressing the subject of writing from a biosemiotic
perspective means addressing typography, as an embodied phenomenon.
6.2 Dualism and Monomodality
The dualism of modern philosophy implied a paradigm of monomodal expression:
if knowledge is purely ideal, not materialized, then the shaping that senses perform
should be avoided as much as possible in the pursuit of knowledge. Philosophical
inquiries have been conducted in the ideal of a linear linguistic expressivity, so as
to favor the communication of proper ideas as purely mental. As such, a text should
be as linear and plain as possible. Modern Western culture thus inherits a preference
for monomodality, as Kress and van Leeuwen write:
For some time now, there has been, in Western culture, a distinct preference for monomodality. The most highly valued genres of writing (literary novels, academic treatises, official
documents and reports, etc.) came entirely without illustration, and had graphically uniform, dense pages of print. Paintings nearly all used the same support (canvas) and the same
medium (oils), whatever their style or subject. In concert performances all musicians dressed
identically and only conductor and soloists were allowed a modicum of bodily expression.
The specialized theoretical and critical disciplines which developed to speak of these arts
became equally monomodal: one language to speak about language (linguistics), another to
speak about art (art history), yet another to speak about music (musicology), and so on, each
with its own methods, its own assumptions, its own technical vocabulary, its own strengths
and its own blind spots. (Kress and van Leeuwen 2001: 1)
To these examples, I add that the one language developed to speak about history
of ideas is history of ideas: our construal of history is post-Cartesian. This evidently
infuses post-Cartesianism in our cultural history and, also, in cultural criticism, as
implied by the metaphorical conceptualization of culture as “software of the mind”
(Hofstede et al. 2010). A post(Cartesian) account of culture and cultural evolution
inevitably supposes the construal of culture in the singular, as seen in classic American anthropology. For this reason, I consider Deely’s (2001, 2009) project of a
semiotic approach to history particularly relevant. While arguably incomplete still,
Deely’s intention has to be considered in what is a semiotic approach to culture and to
multiculturalism. Monomodal culture is the result of the effort of stripping meaning
of its morphological design for the pretended purpose of achieving a clear expression
of ideas undisturbed by their material embodiment. I take the following quote, as an
example for manuscript research as an endeavor of history of ideas, which would
considerably affect construals of culture:
6.2 Dualism and Monomodality
[…] because artificial things belong to the genus of substance by reason of their matter, but
natural things by reason of their form, as appears from the Philosopher (Phys. ii, 1) and again
from the Commentator (De anima ii). (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Suppl. IIIae
The quotation is from Thomas Aquinas, who refers to the Philosopher, Aristotle,
and to his Commentator, Ibn Rushd. In this passage, Aristotelian concepts, as handed
down to scholasticism, are used to discuss matter and form. In modern scholarship
there is, of course, a clear awareness that Aquinas wrote in Latin, using concepts
expressed initially in classical Greek, which have reached him as translated into Latin
from Arabic. Our mode of addressing language, namely linguistics, developed a by
now well-established tradition of translation. Scholarship in linguistics has mostly
been aware that translations and technical idiolects are an intrinsic part of the history
of ideas. What this monomodal language about language does not consider is the
very morphology of the media used in these series of translations and interpretations.
The analysed subject does not consist only in ideas expressed in Latin via Arabic and
via Greek, but it is inherent of cross- and multi-modal transductions from Ancient
Greek language and script, to Arabic, Al-Andalus language and script, to Medieval
Latin language and script. Each of these languages has its specific alphabet, with its
specific morphology, style, technique and technology. In brief, translation is always,
though to various degrees, intermedial. By acknowledging that meaning is embodied it appears naïve to assume that the designs of the manuscripts and the many
transductions undertaken are irrelevant for intellectual history. If we take it to be a
history of purely mental ideas, then their morphological design can be avoided, but
this should raise the question as to whether a history of ideas perspective is therefore
satisfying, for cultural criticism. The semiotic modelling of this history would take
into account the design of ideas, or, rather, of signs, in their multimodal complexity. It
would accordingly reveal new insights about cultural history. Such a project is, since
recently, underway in digital humanities (e.g. Ciula and Eide 2017). This initiative
is representative for the kind of social impact that the digital turn has. Digital media
have made obvious the multimodal and schematic character of the human Umwelt,
inclusive of culture and communication.
While during modernity various schools of linguistic translation were established,
no school of multimodal transduction was developed. It is only with the recent
and ongoing change of media, from linear printed text to multimodal texts, that
the importance of multimodality was noticed in translation studies (Pérez-González
2014). In addressing multimodality, translation studies make explicit reference to
semiotics, thus admitting the linearity of the tools that linguistics so far made available
for translation. For instance, multimodality is mentioned in translation studies in
the context of discussions on advertising translation and always with a reference
to semiotics (see Torresi in Baker and Saldanha 2009: 6–9, González in Baker and
Saldanha 2009: 13–20, Stecconi in Baker and Saldanha 2009: 260–263). Particularly
interesting, it is in the context of digitization and the multimodal shift that this
produces that “[t]ranslation and interpreting often interact with the semiotics of
the human body.” (Pérez González 2014: 122) Moreover, the semiotic approach
to translation takes as a starting hypothesis the Peircean notion of semiosis (see
6 An Embodied Approach to Intercultural Communication
Stecconi in Baker and Saldanha 2009: 261). Stecconi bases the semiotic approach to
translation on Jakobson’s explanation that “the meaning of any linguistic sign is its
translation into some further, alternative sign” (Jakobson 2000 [1959]: 232). Even
more so, semiotics serves as an appropriate multimodal translation theory given that
“[t]ranslation, according to Charles S. Peirce, is semiotic mediation.” (Nöth 2012,
p. 279) Thus, the semiotic approach to translation implies that translation is present
in any interpretative act, even when trans-linguistic translation, from one code to
another, is not necessary. Actually, any understanding supposes a transduction, as it
supposes a multimodal schematic model of what is apprehended. It is for this reason
that acculturation always supposes translation, but not because acculturation depends
to a high degree on language acquisition, as rather assumed in sociolinguistics (Regan
et al. 2009: 10). In this view, intercultural communication does not appear more
obscured by the need of translation than any other communicational instance.
Translation studies based on non-semiotic theories of language (read mainstream
linguistics) tended to ignore the cross- and multi-modal aspect of meaning. This is
the reason for which Sebeok established biosemiotics as a modelling theory (1991,
2001) and for which, Elleström argues (2018, 2019), a new model of communication
is currently needed. The linearity of monomodal texts, as preferred in modernity,
entrenched the habit of overlooking a whole range of potential meanings and interpretations in its scholarly approach to the history of ideas by ignoring ideas’ inherent
morphological embodiment. Modelling in the modern view assumes that knowledge is communicated by the transmission of mental entities—ideas—which are
best transmitted monomodally. In this regard, text is stripped of typography. This is
seen in Ferdinand de Saussure’s synthetic account of (modern) linguistics, through
his idea of language as articulation of meaning and form. De Saussure’s distinction
between signifier and signified, which allows the construal of language as a purely
conventional code, rests on the assumption that form can be empty of meaning and
it is up to interpreters to use form as they please. This disembodied view of meaning
is justified, Stjernfelt explains, in view of a body concept “as subjected to the free
arbitrariness of semiotic systems” (in Nöth 2006: 14).
Of course, the fact that semiotic systems are entirely arbitrary is a Saussurean
presupposition as well. The view that interpreters can use any form for any meaning
is un-ecological. An Umwelt, rather, is constructed as simultaneously made possible
and limited by available semiotic competencies for discovering and using semiotic
resources. In this view, having a form is a metaphysical possibility and condition
without which encoding would be impossible. In the (post)structuralist view, form
can be void of meaning, unless we conventionally assign and, thus, encode it. For
this reason, the more linear and monomodal is the signifier, the more precise is the
intended signified. Design, namely the relation between and inclusive of signifier
and signified, is ignored. The extreme example of this view is the situation where the
stylization of typography is regarded as a change of code. The biosemiotic alternative
to this is that meaning articulation is a design dependent on semiotic affordances,
competences and resources.
6.3 Double Articulation: Linguistic Cartesianism
6.3 Double Articulation: Linguistic Cartesianism
The double articulation hypothesis in linguistics, as advanced by André Martinet
(1962, see also Chap. 2, Sect. 2.1 in this monograph), is an expression of modern
mind/body dualism, not taking fully into account that meaning is embodied. Martinet interestingly noticed that language is an economical means of communication:
thousands of possible grunts are articulated into a few dozens of phonemes, which
can be further articulated into thousands of morphemes (words), which can be used
in an infinity of communicative instances. According to Martinet, languages can be
recognized and, thus, distinguished from one another because of double articulation:
What we consider properly linguistic is what is achieved, in matters of communication, by
means of the double articulation pattern: double articulation is what protects the linguistic
frame against interference from outside, what makes it really independent and self-contained.
(Martinet 1962: 59)
Martinet inherited de Saussure’s semiological distinction between spoken language and writing considering that the criterion for differentiating language resides
in the oral articulation of speech. The idea behind Martinet’s phonetic double articulation hypothesis stems from Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinctions of form and
content and of speech (parole) and language (langue). The form/content distinction parallels the Cartesian mind/body distinction. The speech/language distinction
is entrenched by the double articulation hypothesis, which imposes that speech is
responsible for a specifically human cognitive competence of dealing with meaning.
Thus, Martinet’s functionalism inherited de Saussure’s conventionalist and anthropocentric view on language. In contrast, the biosemiotic approach to language evolution draws on Perice’s maxim of pragmatism, arguably more comprehensive than
the account of language as function responding to needs. Martinet considered that
double articulation
describes perfectly what characterizes human language, less in contradistinction to various
forms of animal communication than in contrast with human experience before it has been
analysed with a view to linguistic communication. What characterizes linguistic communication and opposes it to prelinguistic groans is precisely this analysis into a number of units
which, because of their vocal nature, are to be presented successively in a linear fashion.
[…] Monemes [these units] are the smallest segments of speech that have some meaning
attached to them. According to Saussurian terminology, they are minimal ‘signs’, with two
faces: signifiant and signifié. (1962: 22)
Thus, two thresholds are supposed in support of double articulation: (1) one
between humans, capable of speech, and non-human animals, and (2) a second one
between humans who do not speak yet, such as infants, and speaking humans. Particularly the second distinction indicates that the old psychoanalytic assumption,
as found in Piaget (1959 [1926], see Chap. 2, Sect. 1.2) as well, of a capability of
infants for language acquisition, is a default standard in double articulation linguistics. Alternatively, Danesi (2000) considers that the advantage of a semiotic approach
to language acquisition resides precisely in ignoring how age determines cognitive
6 An Embodied Approach to Intercultural Communication
capabilities for language learning in favor of a focus on the learning process as semiotic. Considering this, if semiotic structures that influenced the quick acquisition
of a native language are repeated in the process of secondary language learning,
the secondary language would be as easily acquired as the native language. This,
of course, supposes replacing the stress on cognitive abilities for learning language
with a focus on semiotic competences. Discussing educational contexts, Pesce (2013)
makes a similar argument. He considers that by defining knowledge in a Peircean
manner as “the result of semiosic processes” (2013: 766), by which interpretants are
produced, communicating knowledge appears as a rhetoric design, in light of a “new
metaphor of cognition” (766), where “[t]he ‘phantasm of control’ must be abandoned
insofar as a sign gives rise to interpretants that are never fully determined; multimodal aspects of teaching situations become an essential issue; and […], the part
played by teachers’ speech must be strongly questioned and the function of group talk
reconsidered.” (766) This new metaphor of cognition, which, Pesce explains, Peirce
implicitly suggested, supposes but a weak connection between cognition and language; the Sapir-Whorfian presumption. Furthermore, it also implies a rather weak
limitation that culture imposes on individuals and collectives. This semiotic alternative to (psychological and sociological) pedagogy is so far underexplored. It has
been, however, one of the main foci of the recent and heterogeneous framework of
edusemiotics (e.g. Semetsky 2010; Stables and Semetsky 2015), within which Pesce
writes as well.
Martinet’s concept of double articulation is bound to Ferdinand de Saussure’s
articulation of expression and content into linguistic signs, on ground of de Saussure’s
idea that a system of signs (such as language) supposes “oppositions” among the signs
constituting it, as Akamatsu explains:
The paramount importance that the concept of “opposition” assumes in phonology as elaborated by Martinet is undeniable in the whole of phonematics but also in the relevant parts
of prosody.
The concept of “opposition” is fundamentally a Saussurean one – “… dans la langue il n’y
a que des différences…” – and underlies a number of phonological concepts and analytical tools with which phonology operates, viz. “distinctive function”, “commutation test”,
“phonological opposition”, “relevant feature”, “phoneme”, “neutralization”, “archiphoneme”, and so on. (2009: 62–63)
On this account, a sign, such as a word, is meaningful because of its opposing
neighboring signs of the same language. This thesis supports a rigid understanding
of code (and language) as consisting of a finite number of possible signs. Also, it
endorses that language is a predominantly arbitrary system: within itself, a language
might present an iconic structure as according to the relations of oppositions between
its signs, but in relation to other sign systems (languages or not), a language appears
arbitrary. As explained above, this is the central claim in culturalism, as perpetrated
especially from post(structuralism) and sociolinguistics, with an apogee in Derrida’s
différance (1976 [1974]).
In this Saussurean line of thought, language and writing are distinct sign systems,
as de Saussure explicitly stated:
6.3 Double Articulation: Linguistic Cartesianism
Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose
of representing the first. The linguistic object is not both the written and the spoken forms
of words; the spoken forms alone constitute the object. But the spoken word is so intimately
bound to its written image that the latter manages to usurp the main role. People attach even
more importance to the written image of a vocal sign than to the sign itself. A similar mistake
would be in thinking that more can be learned about someone by looking at his photograph
than by viewing him directly. (1959 [1916]: 23–24)
On account of this distinction, form appears as a meaningless container into which
meaning can be arbitrarily inserted. Contrary to de Saussure’s claim, a detective, an
artist or a digital native well know that a photograph can reveal arguments that
are not as easily noticed in the direct observation of the photographed object. This
observation pinpoints the problems that Saussurean linguistics presents for crossmodal communication, such as often the case in digital media and, particularly,
for the process of digitalization itself and for digital literacy. Instead of modelling
communication in view of this semiological conceptualization of language and its
implied distinction between speech and writing as different sign systems, Elleström
considers that media products, namely anything that is communicated need “technical
media of distribution of sensory configurations” (2018: 285) to be realized. From
this point of view, speech and writing are such technical media:
Technical media are material devices, either simply present in the producer’s mind’s environment or more or less crafted, that cause media products to physically manifest in the world.
They are entities that have the capacity to display media products and make them available
for the senses of the perceiver; they distribute sensory configurations […]. (Elleström 2018:
In view of this modelling of communication, he considers “that semiotic
approaches to communication based on the tradition of Ferdinand de Saussure, which
downplay the role of iconicity and indexicality, have been harmful to the development of theory that also embraces non-verbal communication. Peirce’s semiotic
framework is much more fruitful as it incorporates sign types that work far outside
of the linguistic domain.” (Elleström 2018: 288) Arguably, that all communication
implies an intermedial translation to some extent has been the cause of much confusion in both intercultural communication and cross-modal translation. Digital culture
and multiculturalism are both difficult to reconcile with the implications for culture
that were developed upon Saussurean linguistics. In the Saussurean view, to write
is to translate from a natural, human language, into a different mode of communication, which, like oral speech consists in a set of possible morphological units,
void of meaning on their own, can arbitrarily contain any meaningful content. This
assumption of de Saussure’s, retained in many schools of linguistics and often present
cultural studies and anthropology, is accounted for on the grounds of the prevalently
monomodal expressivity of (late) modern philosophy and culture of the time. In
that view, different sensory modalities meant different codes which meant different
languages, which results in disregarding that morphology and syntax have meaning
intrinsically. Rather, I argue, morphogenesis is a matter of design. Design, that is
form-content articulation, is a possibility of embodied morphology, realized through
technical media.
6 An Embodied Approach to Intercultural Communication
6.4 Double Articulation in Semiotics
In semiotics, double articulation has been discussed from a number of perspectives.
In Hjelmslev (1954) and Jakobson’s (1990: 230) approaches, double articulation
remains an anthropocentric cornerstone of linguistics and often semiotics. Bound to
its anthropocentrism, this hypothesis also underpins a relativist knowledge theory
wherein meaning stems from difference and opposition. In brief, in this view, culture
is considered a codified system that determines cognition, to a large extent.
This line of thought survives in Chandler’s (2002) recent semiotic account of double articulation. While Chandler is aware that semiotics regards even a phoneme as
signifying, his account of articulation still shares, to a large degree, the Saussurean
hypotheses that Martinet inherited as well. This has been a mainstream assumption in semiotic approaches to communication, starting with Roland Barthes’ first
semiotic analysis of media products (1972 [1957]) and being properly established
in media semiotics with Danesi’s reception of the opposition-based theoreticians of
semiotics such as Barthes, Jakobson, Greimas (Danesi in Cobley 2010b: 142–143).
However, in Danesi’s media semiotics, the concept of opposition as meaning generator arrived in a more refined form, in view of several versions of its application,
such as, for instance, semantic differential, Greimas’ semiotic square, Lévi-Strauss’
set-based organization of oppositions, accepting of a spectrum of “levels and scales
of opposition” (Danesi in Cobley 2010b: 143). I consider that biosemiotics, given the
centrality that embodiment has for meaning-making in this regard, does not discuss
meaning relative to concepts of opposition or difference. Rather, like in Stables’ semiotic refutation of philosophical Cartesianism (2012), biosemiotics discusses meaning
mereologically and relatively to a conceptualization of phenomenal presence.
In the purpose of developing a discursive theory in awareness of multimodally
constructed culture, Kress and van Leeuwen (2001) and, more recently, in the purpose
of developing a sociosemiotic theory of communication, Kress (2010: 5–8) contradict
this notion of language articulation. Instead, in these instances, meaning is construed
as conceived in multiple articulations occurring through semiotic resources:
Where traditional linguistics had defined language as a system that worked through double
articulation, where a message was an articulation as a form and as a meaning, we see
multimodal texts as making meaning in multiple articulations. (Kress and van Leeuwen
2001: 4)
This account of multiple articulation can be supported and further explained in
light of Stjernfelt’s idea of co-localization (2014: 108–114), namely the idea that colocalization (in time and space) consists in the basic syntax that allows for subjectpredicate articulation.
The fact that the presence of a perceivable body is an implicit index is a central
hypothesis in zoosemiotics. For instance, Martinelli notices that indexical signification “does not require complex and multi-layered mental processes […] because an
index tends to require temporal presence and spatial continuity, and its encoding is
strongly bound to the hic et nunc of semiosis.” (Martinelli 2010: 70) Accordingly,
the basic common feature that makes modelling possible in all animals, according to
6.4 Double Articulation in Semiotics
Sebeok, stands in the competence for survival resulting from “the correct decipherment of indexical signs ceaselessly barraging their Umwelt.” (Sebeok 1997: 282, see
also Kull 2003). The hic et nunc itself is articulation and it necessarily corresponds
phenomenally to an organism’s capacities for modelling which imply the totality of
sensoria available. As such, in the case of many species, among which, obviously,
humans, the hic et nunc is multimodal. Humans cannot conceive of meaning other
than multimodally. This supports Stjernfelt’s co-localization hypothesis. The hic et
nunc is the only prerequisite for articulation and it is necessarily multimodal.
It is the process of digitalization that recently evoked this focus on multimodality in meaning theories. The translation of texts from non-digital onto digital media
reminds that the human Umwelt is multimodal. Accordingly, Danesi remarks that
instead of furthering the disembodying of human culture of modernity, “the Digital Galaxy will […] bring about a reintegration of the body and the mind” (2002:
177). Here Danesi uses one of McLuhan’s expressions to refer to the social world of
digital technology and its corresponding communication media. Marshall McLuhan
coined the celebrated “Gutenberg Galaxy” expression to refer to the sociocultural
world of humans as shaped by the printing press and its corresponding media (1962).
Danesi considers that “[t]his process of re-embodiment is a result of what McLuhan
(1964) called ‘re-tribalization’.” (2002: 177) The reason for which “[r]e-tribalization
involves re-embodiment”, Danesi further explains is that “it engages people in faceto-face contact.” (Danesi 2002: 177) The turn to multidmodality, generated by digitalization, reverses the disembodiment implied by Cartesian dualism without merely
substituting mental ideas for linguistic categories, as was the case of the linguistic turn. It may appear paradoxical, but as much as digitalization means mediation,
hence thickening the layers of social representation(s), its phenomenality brings
human organization in the embodied here and now. This is because digital media are
akin to the human Umwelt and, thus, prove rather ecological, at least in comparison
to printing and broadcasting media.
This is accounted for from a bio- and cognitive semiotic perspective through
Stjernfelt’s hypothesis of co-localization as basic syntax. The idea of co-localization
accounts for the creative economy of language, due to our embodied semiotic competences. Particularly, as knowledge is subjectively embodied, the co-presence of
two distinguishable entities results in a perceptual judgment of propositional structure. An Interpretant of a Subject-Predicate structure results where two elements,
acting as Representamen and Object are together present. This account of meaning
articulation differs from de Saussure and Martinet’s conventionalism, justifying that
meaning articulation is not necessarily linguistic. Meaning stems from the way in
which two elements relate to each other so as to imply a third. Stjernfelt explains this
either by what he terms collateral information or because of the continuity of logical
predicates, a central idea in Peirce’s semiotics (Stjernfelt 2014: 90–91, see also Bellucci 2013). Given the co-localization of two elements, one is used as Subject (Object
of the sign) and the other as Predicate (Representamen), implying a propositional
As such, this view does not concern languages (or codes, in general) as arbitrary
to each other, but inter-connectable given their co-existence (their phenomenal over-
6 An Embodied Approach to Intercultural Communication
lapping). The notion of co-localization, that for biological organisms phenomenal
presence is meaningful, endorses that articulation is a basic semiosic phenomenon.
Thus, it explains the phenomenal overlapping and translatability of simultaneously
present codes. Therefore, languages are inter-translatable, because they share ecological relations, and not because of the positivist stance that they refer to in the same
empirically objective reality. Certainly, this also evades the relativist and solipsistic
assumption that the empirical reality to which each language refers is languagemodelled.
According to Elleström, media products “can be analyzed in terms of four kinds of
basic traits,” (2018: 286) which he terms media modalities. The first three of these he
terms presemiotic, the fourth being the semiotic modality. The presemiotic modalities
are material, spatiotemporal and sensorial, the third implying interpretation. It is
these three presemiotic modalities that together constitute phenomenal presence: if
aspects of materiality, spatiotemporality and sensoriality are perceived, an entity
which corresponds to these traits is present in the Umwelt of an organism, being thus
invested with meaning.
As a modelling system developed by embodied beings, language is ecological.
For instance, two human beings having a chat while walking through a forest understand many elements of the forest’s semiotic system, immersed as they might be in
their human dialogue. Similar intra-language examples can be found: an Englishman makes sense of his walk through the streets of the non-English looking city
of Tokyo. If another Englishman accompanies him, their dialogue overlaps with the
phenomenality of Tokyo, as they interact with various semiotic systems and articulate
meanings according to their competences for using the encountered resources. The
cultural differences that Englishmen might be exposed to in Tokyo do not constitute
a world altogether alien for the Englishmen. They still make sense of their environing
6.5 Text as Multimodal Presence
Still, in view of Danesi’s media semiotics, digitalization presents a semiotic paradox
stemming from a merging of the supposedly opposite realities of globalism and
[…] rather than having resolved conflicts among people by allowing them to get into contact,
digital technology has brought out the ‘tribal animal’ within us even more. Not only across
the globe, but also within nations, there are more and more subcultures (such as teenage
gangs) which have developed their own peculiar forms of tribalism. Indeed, the more the
computer is used to conduct everyday affairs, the more people seem to resort to traditional
forms of discourse and interaction. The paradox of everyday life in the Digital Galaxy is that
it engenders both ‘globalism’ and ‘tribalism’ at once. (Danesi 2002: 177)
This paradox, however, holds only in view of the Saussurean and (post)structuralist
notion of sign systems and its subsequent culturalism. Danesi does not hesitate to
6.5 Text as Multimodal Presence
acknowledge the individual existence of nations, within the globe, or of (other) subcultures in isolated, or at least clearly identifiable, and independent forms. Precisely
because culture is embodied, from a biosemiotic perspective, in the interrogation of
modelling, I claim that that conflict between the notions of global and tribal societies
and cultures is eluded. The starting point of biosemiotics as a theory of modelling is
the impetuous need of life forms to communicate (e.g. Sebeok 1991: 38). Communication, I argue, starts from bodily presence. “Face-to-face contact”, Danesi’s own
wording, does not suppose tribalism in the sense of separatism but only phenomenal
presence and evidence.
Grounded in biosemiotics, zoosemiotics already consists in a theory of multimodal
representation, assuming that animals make sense of their environment through the
use of all available channels of sensory perception. This observation goes back to
Darwin (1897 [1872]), but modern philosophy has long been ignoring it. Implicitly,
as Martinelli explains (2010: 91–93), the awareness in zoosemiotics that high social
behavior in animals corresponds to multi-sensorial semiosis blurs the mind/body
The modern, Cartesian mind/body dichotomy detached our construal of humanity
as grounded in the hic et nunc of embodiment. It alienates our understanding of ourselves as belonging to the animal realm. The depreciation of embodied presence and
morphology is linked to modernity’s monomodal expressivity. Philosophers in the
Cartesian tradition have considered nature and culture as an irreconcilable dichotomy
because it was the print medium that framed the mind of modernity. Danesi takes
this mediatic shaping of epistemology as the cornerstone of media semiotics:
Reading and writing activate linear thinking processes in the brain, because printed ideas
are laid out one at a time and can thus be connected to each other sequentially and analysed
logically in relation to each other. Orality, on the other hand, is not conducive to such precise
thinking, because spoken ideas are transmitted through the emotional qualities of the human
voice and are, thus, inextricable from the ‘subject’ who transmits them. Literacy engenders
the sense that knowledge and information are disconnected from their human sources and
thus that they have ‘objectivity’; orality does not. (Danesi 2002: 15–16)
This linear medium inspired de Saussure’s separation of language and writing
as two distinct systems of signs. Descartes’s mind/body dichotomy is rooted in the
abstract modelling system of linear text. In modern monomodal textbooks, the vehicles by which, as Danesi explains, literacy becomes a social reality, the purpose of
design was that of being invisible (perhaps minimal), so that the materiality and
morphology of the text would not hinder the reception of pure ideas, transmitted by
linguistic means. In a sociosemiotic approach to literacy, Bezemer and Kress note
that the emergence of multimodality reveals that the relation between social reality
and modes of representation is a matter of design (see also Crook and Lackovic
Frequently writing is now no longer the central mode of representation in learning materials—textbooks, Web-based resources, teacher-produced materials. Still (as well as moving)
images are increasingly prominent as carriers of meaning. Uses and forms of writing have
undergone profound changes over the last decades, which calls for a social, pedagogical,
and semiotic explanation. Two trends mark that history. The digital media, rather than the
6 An Embodied Approach to Intercultural Communication
(text) book, are more and more the site of appearance and distribution of learning resources,
and writing is being displaced by image as the central mode for representation. This poses
sharp questions about present and future roles and forms of writing. For text, design and
principles of composition move into the foreground. (Bezemer and Kress 2008: 166)
Bezemer and Kress are here describing the recent iconic turn, consisting in the
hypothesis, as Moxey has it, “that physical properties of images are as important
as their social function. In art history and visual studies, the disciplines that study
visual culture, the terms ‘pictorial’ and ‘iconic turn’ currently refer to an approach
to visual artifacts that recognizes these ontological demands (Boehm 1994; Mitchell
1994).” (Moxey 2008: 132) It is telling that in their investigation of digital educational
materials, Bezemer and Kress recur to Uexküllian terminology, namely the concept
of carrier of meaning, which is not common to sociosemiotics’ pre-iconic turn.
Typographical design thus appears as an indispensable characteristic of any text,
which is, as Gianfranco Marrone states “the specific object of study for the semiotician” (2017: 108). Therefore, as the semiotic concept of text has been enlarged
to comprehend social reality (Stables 1997; Posner 2004), a concept of typography should be explored and expanded in such a direction. In this view, architectural
design and urban planning are instances of typography because they constitute texts
of which society is weaved. Text as such, biosemiotics reminds us, is morphological. This is one of the main and most fertile contributions of biosemiotics which,
unfortunately, is often overlooked. According to Marrone, for the long tradition of
text semiotics:
The text is not a given entity nor phenomenal evidence; it is the result of a double construction:
a socio-cultural configuration before and analytic re-configuration afterwards. (2017: 108)
The sociosemiotic school, which Marrone adopts here, always insisted on and
expanded this concept of text which, via de Saussure, inherited Cartesian dualism.
A theory of culture founded upon this concept of meaning implies a disembodied
concept of culture that affords relativism, being disengaged from embodied phenomenality. If meaning is the double construction of socio-cultural configuration
and analytic re-configuration, it is in no way anchored in the empirical, or, to use
Martinelli’s zoosemiotic expression, epistemologically minimal, in the hic et nunc.
A convenient consequence, in this conception, sociosemiotics takes the form of culturalism: all we know is the codified culture that, as well, determines our behavior.
6.6 Ecosemiotics as a Digital Media Theory
As mentioned above (Chap. 4, Sect. 4.3 and Chap. 5, Sect. 5.2) the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis that language determines reasoning, largely influenced the development
of sociosemiotics (see Randviir and Cobley in Cobley 2010b: 119). Herein occurs
why the biosemiotic corpus hesitated for a long time to use the otherwise central
semiotic concept of text and, along with it, until recently also hesitated to approach
head-on matters of human culture and society. From a biosemiotic perspective, text
6.6 Ecosemiotics as a Digital Media Theory
is morphological, and thus, it can only be typographical. As such, text is phenomenal
evidence. This is, most likely, what Bauhaus architecture found inspiring (and design
in general can find inspiring) in von Uexküll’s theoretical biology: namely that “carriers of meaning” (2010 [1934]: 140) are morphological. There cannot be a bodiless
semantics or a meaningless embodiment. Peirce’s semiotics accounts, particularly
through its notion of dicisign implying a syntax which Stjernfelt calls co-localization,
for the phenomenal evidence of signification (see Stjernfelt 2014: 51–55). In short,
interpretation, particularly the propositional type, which consists of an index and a
predicate, carries phenomenal evidence.
Interestingly, it is now, in the age of digitalization, coinciding with the age of
(accelerated) globalization, and its multicultural problematizations, that meaning,
representation and translation theories turn to semiotics for insights more comprehensive then classically found in linear theories of meaning, such as much linguistics
and philosophy of language. Digitalization, as a shift from linear and monomodal to
multimodal media, reminds that the human Umwelt is multimodal. This suggests that
communication which involves a plurality of cultures is a sub-case of cross-modal
translation. Thus, cross-modal communication is a more appropriate idiom for referring to what has been labelled intercultural communication (see Chap. 1, Sect. 1.1,
Gudykunst 2003; Kiesling and Paulston 2005; Kotthoff and Spencer-Oatey 2007;
Hofstede et al. 2010).
Given the globalizing context in which discussions on multiculturalism ought to
take place, any current discussion on multiculturalism must take into consideration
a media theory comprehensive of digitalization. As explained, such a theory is likely
to be a semiotic one. In turn, the mainstream semiotic approaches to culture, in the
search for a non-dualistic meaning theory, dismissive of double articulation, turned
to Charles Peirce. Thus, biosemiotics, the Peircean school par excellence recently
gained a popularity that brought it on the central stage of semiotic theoretical debates,
finally finding its own theory of culture, either directly as a theory of modelling
(Cobley 2010a, 2016) or, complementary, through its ecology-focused sub-branch,
ecosemiotics (Nöth 1998; Kull 2008; Maran and Kull 2014). Through the prism of
a multimodal sociosemiotic theory, Kress (2010) addresses the topic of intercultural
communication and integration and points out, as well, the need for a remodeling of
communication theory for the global context:
European (nation) states have, for the last three or four decades been in a phase of rapid
and deep transition. After a period of about 150 years in which the aims of the (nineteenthcentury) nation-state, with a nationally conceived and to some extent nationally controlled
economy, shaped conceptions and practices of communication, the trend now is towards
a situation where the demands of globally organized markets are reshaping the ground of
communicational conditions. The still ruling conceptions and metaphors around communication – as for other social practices and structures – come from that earlier period, shaped
by its requirements and structures. One instance is the still active even though by now
barely residually present nineteenth-century notion of the ‘mass’ – as in ‘mass-society’,
‘mass-communication’. New social, economic, political and technological givens require
new names/metaphors capable of functioning as essential guides to thought and action.
(Kress 2010: 19)
6 An Embodied Approach to Intercultural Communication
I consider that contemporary sociosemiotic theory, such as Kress’ account, is in
need of more clear biocentric and ecological awareness. This can be provided by bioand eco-semiotic theories. Ecosemiotics was initially defined by Nöth as “the study
of semiotic interrelations between organisms and their environment” (1998: 333).
Maran and Kull notice that, since semiotics is often defined as a “study of mapping
and maps, that is a study of modelling systems” (2014: 41), it particularly studies “the
impact of the maps on the mapped” (41). On this account, meaning structures, such
as texts or maps, are regarded as ecological dynamics occurring between organisms
and their environments. The discursive approaches to digitalization make notice that
mediations impact on the material, but such theories remain glottocentric, inheriting
the un-ecological emphasis on difference and opposition in language and, hence,
in modelling in general. The discursive approach to digitalization is pregnant with
glottocentrism and its claims for ideology:
Online or offline, spoken or typed, face-to-face or digitally “mediated,” what people do with
language has material consequence (cf. Foucault 1981), and language is instrumental in
establishing categories of difference, relations of inequality, or at the very least, the social
norms by which we all feel obliged to live our lives [...]. (Thurlow and Mroczek in Thurlow
and Mroczek 2011: xxvii)
On the biosemiotic and ecosemiotic perspectives, meaning is not something
merely created or invented by human observers, a reading that human cognition
alone can effect. The reception of Uexküll’s theoretical biology in Bauhaus architecture (see above, Botar 2001), is an inspiring example for the reception of a theory
of embodied meaning in socio-cultural modelling. Interestingly, this aesthetic style,
gaining popularity in the first half of the 20th century, was interrupted precisely
by nationalist and isolationist worldviews, which culminated with the devastating
Second World War.
Like in humans’ natural environment, meaning in digital media is articulated in
combinations of multiple modes of representation (visual, audio, moving images),
which is not the case of plain text-books. Given this similarity, the digitalization
of society reveals that human culture and language are grounded in the biosphere.
Hence, scholarship from semiotics and digital humanities (henceforth DH) can be
brought together in an interdisciplinary framework for modelling. Following scholarship in the DH (Ciula and Marras in Olteanu et al. 2018), a model is understood as a
pragmatic representational device in an interpretative context. As generally the trend
in representation theories, digital humanities mentions that semiotics can bridge, as
a conceptual framework, our modelling of the natural, pre-alphabetic environment
and of digitalized societies on account of the attribution of signification to living
organisms (Ciula and Marras 2016). As such, Ciula and Marras find that Kraleman
and Lattmann’s (2011, 2013) “theory of models as icons in the Peircean sense acts as
a generic framework to contextualise the creation and use of models in the sciences,
humanities and, we could even say, life.” (Ciula and Marras 2016: 5) This recent
observation opens up new avenues for research in DH, semiotics and modelling
in general. It is from this same interdisciplinarity that a modelling-based theory of
global multiculturalism should develop.
6.6 Ecosemiotics as a Digital Media Theory
Kralemann and Lattmann (2011, 2013) proposed Charles Peirce’s semiotics as
a ground for modelling in scientific research and life in general. Together with
Elleström’s Peircean-based theories of media and iconicity (2010, 2013), their theory was adopted in DH (see also Ciula and Eide 2017), particularly in view of
the consideration that “models can and should be understood as signs” (2011: 51)
because the relation of the model to its object is like the one between the sign and
its object. Similarly, Danesi argues for the similarity and compatibility of Peirce’s
concept of representation (Representamen) and the McLuhnian concept of medium
as message (2008: 117). Kralemann and Lattmann’s modelling theory is indicative
of the iconic turn, which grounds meaning in mental images and diagrams (see also
Stjernfelt 2007: 53). It is contrasted to the linguistic turn’s grounding of meaning in
strictly articulated language. The iconic turn implies, thus, a multimodal turn. Consequentially, it highlights an affinity between archaic and digitalized societies, which
distinguishes these from societies dominated by the print medium. This affinity was
first observed by McLuhan, in the early stages of media theory:
In the electronic age which succeeds the typographic and mechanical era of the past five
hundred years, we encounter new shapes and structures of human interdependence and of
expression which are “oral” in form even when the components of the situation may be
non-verbal. (in McLuhan and Zingrone 1995: 178)
This is the reason for which both Sebeok (e.g. 1991, 2001) and, more recently,
Elleström (2018, 2019) advocated for a modelling theory as a communication theory. Thus, the recent iconic turn in academic disciplines might well be an effect of
digitalization broadly in society. The icon, according to Peirce, is the sign that signifies due to similarity to the object of reference (CP 2.247). As Peirce did not assign
signification to the verbal modality, his semiotics is proving very fertile now, in the
digital age. Peirce had an avant-gardist interest for what is now referred to as multimodality, by discussing similarity across sensory modes (CP 1.312). Kralemann and
Lattmann (2013) find fertile Peirce’s idea that similarity is the criterion that renders
a representation operational (see also Stjernfelt 2007: 79). On account of Peirce’s
notion of iconicity, a model presents its object as operational without the representation losing the object’s other characteristic elements. In this view, culture is modelled
radically differently from textual analytic re-configurations of sociocultural configurations. The main difference stands in the ecosemiotic awareness that the model
impacts back on the modelled, an idea present in Gibson’s theory of affordances
(2014 [1979], 1986) too, albeit in different terminology. The root is the biosemiotic
claim that nonverbal modelling systems pre-exist and define secondary modelling
systems, such as phonetically articulated language. Hence, the biosemiotic approach
can bring a biocentric awareness in cultural studies, closing the epistemological
and methodological gaps between the various humanistic approaches to culture and
theories considering of natural evolution and environmental matters, such as sociobiology, evolutionary anthropology and ecology. It is unsurprising that the emergence
and relevance of ecosemiotics itself has been remarked to be bounded to the iconic
turn, which accounts for a smoother continuity of nature and culture:
6 An Embodied Approach to Intercultural Communication
Ecosemiotics has partly emerged due to the deepened understanding of the non-symbolic
sign processes’ role in the research objects both in biology and the humanities. […] In
many recent approaches in the humanities, such as posthumanism and ecocritical studies,
the conception of purely cultural objects has been problematized. These observations point
to the need for an interdisciplinary re-ordering that would allow their models to perceive the
natural environment as influenced by human signifying and modifying activities and cultural
texts, and to be rooted in the human perception of the environment and bodily engagement
with that environment. (Maran and Kull 2014, p. 42)
Connected to his observation about the orality of the electronic age, McLuhan
anticipated yet another potentiality of the digital that regards multiculturalism even
more directly. He considered that “Printing evoked both individualism and nationalism in the sixteenth century.” (1997: 10) In a semiotic concern, as Cobley explains,
individualism and, consequently, isolationism, of which nationalism is a common
sub-case, were evoked by glottocentrism (2010a, 2016). These two considerations
can constitute together the nucleus of a semiotic media theory. This would be a media
semiotic theory different to Danesi’s (2002, 2008), though similar in many regards.
However, the main difference stands in the biocentrism of this new proposal.
In view of McLuhan’s theory, it can be argued that during the age of modernity
ways of production were developed that are harmful for the natural environment
because the modern medium of printed text alienated human society from some of
the basic characteristics of its possible Umwelten. As characteristic for highly social
animals (Martinelli 2010: 91), human beings model their environment multimodally,
by using a variety of sensory channels. Thus, the monomodal medium of the textbook,
as spread by print technology, proves un-ecological for human society. In the same
way, the semiotic concept of text, upon which media semiotics as well has been
developed, results in un-ecological because relativist meaning theories.
Dominated by printing technology, the philosophy of modernity conceived of education as human-specific, endorsing a non-ecological secondary modelling system
of humans. In contrast, I argue that learning processes, even in an educational sense,
are manifest widely in nature. This is a common claim in semiotics because, as Nöth
sees it, learning and teaching reveal the processes of meaning-making in general
(Nöth 2014: 456). As the expansion of the concept of text (see above, Stables 1997;
Posner 2004) resulted in an expansion of the notion of literacy, particularly, towards
niche conceptualizations of environmental (Stables and Bishop 2001), media (Gaines
2010) and, particularly, digital literacy (Kress 2003; Lankshear and Knobel 2008),
a bio- and eco-semiotic account of text or, better, of model, requires the development of an according notion of literacy. The development of such a comprehensive
literacy concept has been the concern of ecosemiotics (see Maran 2014), as a development of ecocriticism in view of the Umwelt theory. Concerning multiculturalism, an
understanding of multicultural or cosmopolitan literacy should be established. Such
literacy can be properly explained in semiotic terms, as competences for using semiotic resources. In brief, an account of cosmopolitan literacy is necessary. It should
be understood as the capacity for modelling that allows for the scaffolding together
of semiotic devices belonging to different cultures, which results in an increase of
semiotic freedom. Higher levels of semiotic freedom imply increased proficiency for
6.6 Ecosemiotics as a Digital Media Theory
intercultural (cross-modal) communication. Given the context of globalization, such
a notion of literacy must necessarily be comprehensive of digital and environmental
literacies (see also Healy and Morgan 2012: 1048). This comes as contradictory to
the mainstream assumption, as inherited in sociosemiotics as well, that “differences
between societies and cultures means differences in representation and meaning” to
the point “that languages differ and that those differences are entirely linked with
differences of histories and cultures.” (Kress 2010: 8). This latter view leaves too
little space for individual (or collective) freedom.
The contribution of digital texts to contemporary society implies a construal of
literacy different to the traditional concept as mastering a finite set of skills such as
reading, writing and arithmetic. Literacy is still understood to consist in the competence of reading, or interpreting, that enables one’s participation to social life
(Lankshear and Knobel in Lankshear and Knobel 2008: 5), but as texts are translated from print to digital media, the notion of reading is expanded to comprise of
modalities other than visual perception and decoding of writing systems. Inhabiting
an environment to which digital designs contribute implies a plurality of such digital
literacies (Kress 2003: 4; Lankshear and Knobel in Lankshear and Knobel 2008: 1;
Bawden in Lankshear and Knobel 2008: 28; Erstad in Lankshear and Knobel 2008:
184). The better understanding and cultivation of digital literacies is mandatory if
democracy is to survive in the current trend of nationalistic isolationism, as the spread
of populist rhetoric, at least in Europe, can be traced through online behavior (Bartlett
et al. 2011).
6.7 A Biosemiotic Account of Typography
As it clearly occurs in Stjernfelt’s (2007) Diagrammatology, biosemiotics flourished
exponentially once with the recent iconic turn, which grounds meaning in embodied
schemata formed in any combination of modalities. As such, the iconic turn, which
Stjernfelt also terms a “morphological turn” (2007: 53), implies an “embodiment
semiotic turn” (Stjernfelt in Nöth 2006: 14). Stjernfelt explains that liberating the
concept of meaning from the linguistic relativism of structuralist conventionalism
allows for a semiotic concept of the body:
Structuralists would emphasize that the body concepts differ in various languages and cultures, in short, in different semiotic systems, and that a study of such systems would produce
just as many cultural representations of the body. In this line of thought, no extra-structural
constraints are supposed to determine the spectrum of possibilities of body representation.
(Stjernfelt in Nöth 2006: 14)
With this observation, Stjernfelt clarifies that the biosemiotic criticism to cultural
relativism starts from the accusation that the latter supposes a dualist philosophy and a
disembodied conception of language. The role of the development of a (bio)semiotic
concept of the body is that it follows the merging of embodied experience and articulated language into a modelling theory where linguistic modelling does not overwrite
non-linguistic schematic models.
6 An Embodied Approach to Intercultural Communication
Furthermore, in terms of visual art, Moxey explains that the turn to a pictorial
phenomenality emphasizes the role of the (human) body in aesthetic experiences
(2008: 137–138). However, for Moxey images “cannot be read,” as they exceed “the
possibilities of a semiotic interpretation.” (132) This would be the case only in view
of the classic sociosemiotic account of text, because of its assumption that articulated language is always present in the act of reading, that is, in manipulation of
meaning. Instead, the iconic turn in semiotics well exploits the possibilities for multimodal semiosis. Stjernfelt (2007) describes the iconic turn as a switch of attention
to “continuous models not reducible to algebra” which “are introduced alongside
feature-preserving mappings of such models between (mental) domains—in cognitive semantics, cognitive linguistics, in the Peirce renaissance in semiotics, etc.”
(2007: 53) The main idea that generated the iconic turn is the pragmatization of
the Kantian notion of schema in areas of research such as mentioned by Stjernfelt.
The same was accomplished by von Uexküll’s Kantian theory of biology, through
concepts such as Umwelt, meaning carrier and tone (1926, 1934, see above Chap. 5,
Sect. 5.1). Such a theory accounts for knowledge acquisition as modelling by means
of embodied icon manipulations such as mapping, framing, diagrammatic reasoning, etc. In this perspective, meaning phenomena are intrinsically multimodal. For
instance, as a crucial point in their theory of multimodal discourse, Kress and van
Leeuwen note that:
[…] clearly, framing is a multimodal principle. There can be framing, not only between
elements of visual composition, but also between the bits of writing in a newspaper or
magazine layout […], between the people in an office, the seats in a train or restaurant
[…], the dwellings in a suburb, etc., and such instances of framing will also be realised by
‘framelines’, empty space, discontinuities of all kinds, and so on. (2001: 3)
The iconic turn is in contrast with the linguistic turn’s grounding of meaning in
strictly articulated language. As Peirce did not assign signification to a modality in
particular (e.g. verbal), his semiotics is proving very fertile now, in the digital, iconic
and, implicitly, multimodal age. It is in this age that globalization and its perceived
multicultural challenges occur. As noticed in Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2001) theory of multimodal discourse, the main argument that recommends semiotics as a
modelling theory of culture and multiculturalism is that it satisfies the theoretical
challenges that digitalization brings for linguistics, media and communication theory. This is what determined Danesi, in the first place, to develop a semiotic theory
of media:
Cyberlanguage will become more and more the target of investigation in the study of linguistic change. It has already become a “philological” barometer, so to speak, for inferring
evolutionary patterns in language and social institutions. As McLuhan anticipated, digital
forms of communication are indeed reshaping language and, as a consequence, social interaction and rituals. Unlike traditional forms of writing, such as the poem and the novel, the
new cyberforms are created by the “common person” in our lifetime and, thus, as semioticians and we are in a unique position of being able to see how they unfold and how they are
changing the world (for better or worse). (Danesi 2008: 125)
Peirce had an avant-garde interest for what is now referred to as multimodality,
by discussing similarity across sensory modes. For instance, he criticized precisely
6.7 A Biosemiotic Account of Typography
the modern educational paradigm of Enlightenment, par excellence the education
of linear media such as the textbook, for lacking at once an understanding of the
importance of intuition (abduction) and a sense of multimodality. This suggests that
abduction is often nonverbal and, as such, supposes transductive processes. He did
so by explaining that the scarlet color and the blare of a trumpet could well be an
operational iconic relation, if only one has the semiotic freedom to abduct so:
One of the old Scotch psychologists […] mentions, as strikingly exhibiting the disparateness
of different senses, that a certain man blind from birth asked of a person of normal vision
whether the color scarlet was not something like the blare of a trumpet; and the philosopher
evidently expects his readers to laugh with him over the incongruity of the notion. But what
he really illustrates much more strikingly is the dullness of apprehension of those who, like
himself, had only the conventional education of the eighteenth century and remained wholly
uncultivated in comparing ideas that in their matter are very unlike. (CP 1.312)
6.8 Writing as Scaffolding
The iconic turn implies that modelling systems are ecological, as meaning is
attributed to ecological relations (between organisms and their environment), and
not on an assumed arbitrariness of semiotic systems. It liberates the concept of
meaning from what is strictly human articulated language by not supposing an idealist philosophy, whereby meaning would be unmaterialized. A widely accepted
claim by now, Peirce accounted for an isomorphism between logical and material
processes (see Pape in Brunning and Forster 1997: 173). Meaning is the result of
interactions between organisms with and within their environment. Thus, the iconic
turn in semiotics is linked to the development of a semiotic notion of the body (see
above, Stjernfelt in Nöth 2006, Hoffmeyer 2008a). The observation that led to this
development consists in the iconicity between body morphology and environment,
arguably the main concern in Gibson’s (1986, 2014 [1979]) theory of affordances
too. For instance, if the body can grasp, the subjective environment presents graspable elements; if the body can walk, it has what it needs to walk on, or if it can
swim, it has what it needs to swim in (see also Olteanu in Stables et al. 2018: 104).
These are examples of what we can read because we have what we need to read,
namely a morphology which we came to term text, eventually, as extrapolated from
literary theory. Literary theory, which thus essentially contributed to the modern view
on knowledge and to modelling theories, including semiotic modelling theories (see
Lotman 1994), has been developed and shaped in the linear and monomodal printed
media of modernity. The crucial contribution of biosemiotics stands in explaining
the relation between the morphology of the body and its behavior as iconically developed. By this claim, biosemiotics holds that models, or texts, provide phenomenal
evidence. While claiming phenomenal evidence, texts, which in this case are ecological relations, continuously undergo re-modelling. Their reshaping is what we came to
call writing. Writing, thus, consists in the iconic manipulation of typographic forms.
The reason for which icons are the most operational signs, as it occurs in Peirce (see
6 An Embodied Approach to Intercultural Communication
Stjernfelt 2007: 78), resides in our existence as embodied organisms. In this sense,
modelling starts with and is regulated by the body’s morphology. In his biosemiotic
approach to the body, Stjernfelt adopted Merleau-Ponty’s idea that there is a plastic
relation between embodied morphology and behavior (see Stjernfelt in Nöth 2006:
25–33; Stjernfelt 2007: 233, 257).
From a biosemiotic perspective, the environment (Umwelt) is modelled, or, to
use a term preferred in Kress’ sociosemiotics, designed (Kress and van Leeuwen
2001: 45–66; Kress 2003: 96–99, 2010: 26–27). Design starts with basic embodied
icon manipulation. This ecological design process is explained in a biosemiotics
perspective by Hoffmeyer through the concept of semiotic scaffolding (see above
Chap. 1, Sect. 1.4, Hoffmeyer 2008a, 2015):
The network of semiotic interactions by which individual cells, organisms, populations,
or ecological units are controlling their activities can thus be seen as scaffolding devices
assuring that an organism’s activities become tuned to that organism’s needs. (Hoffmeyer
2008a: 154)
Because we make sense of our environment(s) by layers of scaffoldings constructed upon each other, every new layer of meaning which participates in our
phenomenality must fit onto existing structures. This must be considered in what
regards the evolution of alphabets and typographic styles and their extention into
the plastic arts. This mereological understanding of scaffolding is yet another particularity that recommends Hoffmeyer’s semiotic uptake of the classic constructivist
notion, which Cobley and Stjernfelt explain:
Here, the scaffold metaphor is stretched a bit - or used creatively, as it were: the scaffold
is not taken down when the building behind it is finished, rather, the scaffold becomes,
over time, part of the building itself. […] Finally, according to Hoffmeyer’s argument, such
scaffolding invariably has semiotic aspects: the piecing together of the semi-autonomous
parts of a scaffolding has the character of meaning-bearing couplings as they support still
more complicated versions of the basically significant perception-action cycle. (Cobley and
Stjernfelt 2015: 292)
As mentioned in the beginning of this monograph, Cobley and Stjernfelt find this
notion of semiotic scaffolding as foundational for a non-relativist theory of knowledge which denies the possibility of cultures emerging or developing separately, in
isolation (Cobley and Stjernfelt 2015: 303). The biosemiotic uptake of scaffolding
avoids the fallacy of culturalism.
Writing, or more generally, what the Greek word γ ρ άϕω (gráphō) well designates, is a perfect example of such scaffolding: it is an expression of our embodiment,
carved historically. This is to say that any instantiation of typographical style, the
very morphology of writing, is an inherent part of the cultural history that follows
it. Cobley and Stjernfelt’s analysis of semiotic scaffolding reveals how organisms
model their world by what can be termed diagrammatic reasoning—a manipulation
of icons that signify on account of their part-whole similarities (see also Stjernfelt
2007). Alphabets and writing systems, generally, present such an iconic syntax: small
linguistic units, such as phonemes or letters, are structurally similar to the words and
6.8 Writing as Scaffolding
phrases to which they contribute. Moreover, these constructions are similar to the
bodies that perform them and, as such, incorporate these structures into their history.
Thus, incorporating the biosemiotic notion of scaffolding with the sociosemiotic
concept of text, leads to an extension of the latter as embodied, and not only the
result of interpreting as reading, but also as writing. This agrees with and can build
upon the claim in ecosemiotics (Maran and Kull 2014) that maps impact on the
mapped. In this view, text and model are interchangeable and each of them can serve
as the central tool for a media semiotic theory fit for the digitalizing context of global
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