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Yuri Lotman on metaphors and culture as self-referential semiospheres


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Yuri Lotman describes metaphors and culture as semiospheres or 'semiotic spaces.' This account of metaphors is self-referential insofar as it is itself expressed in the form of a metaphor. Moreover, according to Lotman, cultures in general are self-referential systems insofar as they tend to define themselves and evince isomorphic semiotic spaces at mutually inclusive levels and metalevels. Lotman describes semiospheres on the basis of dualisms, levels, stratifications, and spatial opposites that exemplify the Tartu semiotician's theory of the duality of the discreteness of semiotic spaces and their verbal representations versus the continuity of physical space and of pictorial representation.
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Yuri Lotman on metaphors and culture as
self-referential semiospheres
Yuri Lotman describes metaphors and culture as semiospheres or ‘semiotic
spaces.’ This account of metaphors is self-referential insofar as it is itself
expressed in the form of a metaphor. Mo reover, according to Lotman, cul-
tures in general are self-referential systems insofar as they tend to define
themselves and evince isomorphic semiotic spaces at mutually inclusive
levels and metalevels. Lotman describes semiospheres on the basis of dual-
isms, levels, stratifications, and spatial opposites that exemplify the Tartu
semiotician’s theory of the duality of the discreteness of semiotic spaces
and their verbal representations versus the continuity of physical space and
of pictorial representation.
Keywords: semiosphere; metaphor; self-reference; culture; mental space.
We are both a planet in the intellectual gal-
axy, and the image of its universum.
Lotman (1990: 213)
Yuri Lotman develops his semiotics of culture in a language full of spatial
metaphors. In the title of his book Universe of the Mind, in his key con-
cept of semiosphere, or in the passage quoted in the epigraph to this
paper, Lotman (1990) evokes images of open spaces of galactic dimen-
sions. Elsewhere, we find images of closed territories separated by bound-
aries, spaces enclosed within spaces like a matryoshka, a Russian puppet
in a puppet, or spaces reflecting other spaces within themselves like mir-
rors reflecting the space in which they are immersed (1990: 273, 5462).
His images are not with out poetic qualities; some of them imply inconsis-
tencies, lead to catachreses, or result in enigmatic logical paradoxes, as
Semiotica 1611/4 (2006), 249263 00371998/06/01610249
DOI 10.1515/SEM.2006.065 6 Walter de Gruyter
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in the aforementioned epigraph and in other similar passages, such as:
‘Thought is within us, but we are within thought,’ or ‘the world is both
within us and without us’ (1990). Such enigmatic paradoxes in Lotman’s
semiotic rhetoric reflect a view of culture as a self-referential system in
which semiotic spaces are embedded in more encompassing isomorphic
spaces of cultural semiosis. Metaphors, according to this theory, are
semiospheres representing mental images by means of verbal signs. Since
space plays such an important role in Lotman’s theory of metaphor, his
own metaphors of culture as semiotic spaces can thus, themselves, be
read as self-referential.
1. Lotman’s theory of metaphor
A first self-referential loop in Lotman’s theory of the semiosphere arises
from the fact that the Tartu semiotician himself has a theory of meta-
phor, a theory which not only serves to describe the metaphors of poets
and novelists, but also the ones of Lotman’s own semiotic prose.
1.1. Secondary modeling and dual coding
According to Lotman (1990: 38), metaphors ‘belong to the level of
secondary modeling and metamodels, and this distinguishes them from
the level of primary signs.’ The primary and secondary signs which come
together in a metaphor mediate between di¤erent ‘semantic spheres’ be-
tween which there exists a ‘semantic untranslatability’ (1990). Even ani-
mals may communicate metaphorically. For example, a sexual gesture
which one animal produces to indicate submission instead of sexual stim-
ulation is a gestural metaphor (cf. 1990).
It is no mere coincidence that the semiotician who creates so many
spatial images proposes a theory of metaphor in which the opposition be-
tween the discreteness of the signs in verbal discourse and the continuity
of nonverbal visual space plays an essential role. With reference to the
di¤erent cognitive functions of the two hemispheres of the human brain,
Lotman (1990: 3637) postulates the fundamental paradox that ‘within
one consciousness there are, as it were, two consciousnesses’ creating two
kinds of ‘texts,’ verbal and pictorial. Verbal texts consist of discrete linear
signs, and to construct the totality of a verbal text, its elements must
be read in a ‘bottom up’ direction; beginning with the elements, the
reader gradually arrives at the totality of the textual space. Visual ‘texts,’
by contrast, consist of a nondiscrete visual space which is cognitively
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constructed in the opposite direction, that is, ‘top down.’ Their semantic
space emerges holistically; the totality of th e textual space is apprehen ded
first, while its elem entary constituents are constructed by derivation from
it. Lotman emphasizes the essential di¤erence between discrete and non-
discrete texts and postulates the impossibility of their mutual translatabil-
ity, since ‘the equivalent to the discrete and precisely demarcated seman-
tic unit of one text is, in the other, a kind of semantic blur with indistinct
boundaries and gradual shadings into other meanings’ (1990: 3637).
However, the dilemma of untranslatability between incomp atible
semantic spheres, according to Lotman, can be overcome by means of
metaphors. Metaphors can serve as mediators between the two spheres
of the human mind. Although the results of such mediations between
the spheres of discreteness and continuity are nev er ‘precise translations’
but always only ‘approximate equivalences determined by the cultural-
psychological and semiotic context common to both systems’ (1990: 36
37), the resulting loss in precision does not merely mean a loss in the
course of translation. Instead, metaphors are the source of creative think-
ing, since the ‘‘illegitimate’’ associations’ which they create ‘provoke new
semantic associations’ (1990: 3637). This is why a metaphor is more
than a mere rhetorical ornament. It is not ‘an embellishment merely on
the level of expression, a decoration on an invariant content, but a mech-
anism for constructing a content which could not be constructed by one
language alone. A trope is a figure born at the point of contact between
two languages’ (1990: 44).
1.2. Demetaphorization of the metaphor of the semiosphere?
Culture manifests itself only partially in a three-dimensional form; for ex-
ample, in goods, clothing, furniture, architecture, or nonverbal communi-
cation, but not in language, music, myths, narratives, customs, laws, reli-
gion, or ideologies. To describe culture as a spa ce is therefore obviously
to describe it largely in metaphorical terms. It is therefore more than sur-
prising that Lotman, in his first paper ‘On the semiosphere’ of 1984, ex-
plicitly rejects the metaphorical interpretation of the semiotic space of
culture. His argument against the view of the semiosphere as a spatial
metaphor even seems to culminate in a contradiction in terms when the
Tartu semiotician claims in the same paragraph on the one hand that
‘the space of the semiosphere carries an abstract character,’ while on the
other hand, ‘this is by no means to suggest that th e concept of space is
used, here, in a metaphorical sense. We have in mind a specific sphere,
possessing signs, which are assigned to the enclosed spa ce. Only within
Yuri Lotman on metaphors 251
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such a space is it possible for communicative processes and the creation
of new information to be realized’ (1984: 207).
Is Lotman’s attempt to interpret culture as a ‘real’ space the attempt
to focus on the roots of cultural semiosis in real communicative spa ces in
which signs are transmitted from communicators to recipients by neces-
sity from one place to another? His ultralocalistic view of the semiosphere
as a sphere of real loci apparently shows the influence of Vernadsky, who
similarly distinguished between the biosphere and ‘noosphere’ without
distinguishing between matter and nonmaterial ideas. The Russian biolo-
gist, according to Lotman (1984: 206207), describes the noosphere as
‘a specific stage in the development of the biosphere, a stage connected
with human rational activity’ which nevertheless ‘represents a three-
dimensional material space that covers part of our planet.’ In 1984, the
Tartu semiotician still quotes Vernadsky’s materialist concept of the noo-
sphere as a sphere of products of ‘rational activity’ between the biosphere
and the semiosphere with the distinction that the semiosphere is of a more
‘abstract’ kind (1984: 207).
Since semiosis not only takes place in real space, but certainly also in
mental spaces as well as in time, Lotman may have recognized the weak-
ness of his strong argument for the nonmetaphorical and material nature
of the semiosphere when, in his book of 1990, he omitted any reference to
the noosphere and also of the material nature of semiosphere. In retrospec-
tive, both Vernadsky’s and Lotman ’s strong arguments for the noosphere
and the semiosphere as nonmetaphorical spaces seem to have been a con-
cession to the ideology of orthodox Marxist philoso phy which required the
sphere of ideas to be based in matter and not in a sphere of mere ideas.
1.3. Ubiquity of metaphors?
The creative potential inherent in metaphors with their ability to express
analogies between di¤erent spheres of thought and experience is the rea-
son why metaphors are not only useful as a tool of poets and orators but
also of scientists: ‘It would be a mistake to contrast rhetorical thinking
with scientific think ing . . . Rhetoric is just as much part of the scientific
consciousness as it is of the artistic one’ (1990: 45), and this is the point
at which Lotman’s theory of metaphor once more turns self-referential;
it clearly applies to Lotman’s rhetoric, a rhetoric full of spatial metaphors
through which the Tartu semiotician expresses his own ideas about the
nature of the semiosphere.
If metaphors can be found in science and poetry and even in the ges-
tures of animals, the question arises as to why Lotman did not go one
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step further to postulate an ubiquity of metaphors which extends to ev-
eryday verbal and nonverbal behavior, too. It is true that an acknowl-
edgement of the ubiquity of metaph ors would have shaken one of the
founding principles of Lotman’s theory of cultural semiotics, namely that
of the distinction between primary and secondary modeling. However, in
light of cognitive linguistic research into mental spaces and their represen-
tation in everyday metaphors, we know that spatial categories, such as
‘center versus periphery,’ ‘up versus down’ or ‘foreground versus back-
ground’ are omnipresent not only in the verbal representation of space
but also in the form of metaphors representing abstract concepts in every-
day language (cf. Fauconnier 1985; Lako¤ 1987: 282283; and see 3.2.).
The predominance of spatial imag e schemas in everyday metaphors
representing abstract concepts as well as in theoretical discourse are re-
flections and hence signs of our spatial cognition, our bodily experience
of human orientation in space. Considering these cognitive foundations
of metaphors, Lotman’s distinction between primary and secondary mod-
eling may take on a new light. If we reinterpret the idea of primary mod-
eling as referring to preverbal semiosis in a cognitive and an evo lutionary
sense (cf. Sebeok 1991), the theory of metaphors as a secondary modeling
of signs may indeed acquire a new but quite di¤erent semiotic relevance.
2. The metaphor of semiotic space immersed in a nonsemiotic universe
It is not by chance that Lotman chooses a spatial image to describe the
scope of cultural sign processes. For the semiotician from Tartu, the spa-
tial mode of thinking about and of representing culture is a universal law
of all cultural self-descriptions: ‘Humanity, immersed in its cultural space,
always creates around itself an organized spatial sphere; this sphere in-
cludes both ideas and semiotic models, and people’s recreative activity,’
Lotman (1990: 203) argues.
2.1. The semiosphere in a nonsemiotic universe
‘Semiosphere’ refers to the semiotic framework of human culture, but
also to culture itself. The neoclassical metaphorical compound suggests
that culture is a semiotic ‘space’ of stellar extensions. It is well known
that Lotman coined the term in analogy to and as an extension of Ver-
nadsky’s concept of the biosphere. While the biosphere, according to Ver-
nadsky and Lotman (1990: 125), is ‘the totality of and the organic whole
of living matter and also the condition for the continuation of life,’ the
Yuri Lotman on metaphors 253
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semiosphere is ‘the result and the condition for the development of
culture’ (1990: 125), ‘the semiotic space necessary for the existence and
functioning of languages’ (1990: 123), and the ‘unifying mechanism (if
not organism) . . . outside of which semiosis cannot exist’ (1984: 208).
Despite the galactic dimensions evoked by the concept of ‘semiosphere’
Lotman did not endorse the pansemiotic view of a universe in which signs
and semiosis are ubiquitous. Instead, he o¤ers a dualistic theory of the
Universe of the Mind consisting of a semiotic and a nonsemiotic sphere.
The latter not only comprises the biosphere of humans, animals, and bio-
logical organisms, but also a sphere of nonsemiotic phenomena in human
cognition that Lotman calls ‘nonsemiotic reality.’ This nonsemiotic sphere
comprises objects devoid of ‘semiotization,’ which have no cultural mean-
ing and are ‘simply themselves’ (Lotman 1990: 133). The philosophical
foundations of this theory, which distinguishes between nonsemiotic ob-
jects as they are and objects that are perceived as signs, is clearl y based
in Edmund Husserl ’s phenomenology (cf. No
th 2000: 37).
The Tartu semiotician often draws very sharp distinctions between the
semiotic and the nonsemiotic spheres and has a predilection for contrast-
ing them by means of terms with the negative prefix ‘non-,’ for example
when he states that ‘culture consists of the totality of nonhereditary infor-
mation acquired, preserved, and transmitted by the various groups of
human society’ (1967a: 213), or ‘against the background of nonculture,
culture appears as a system of signs (Lotman and Uspenskij 1978: 211).
By this definition, not only animals are excluded from participating in
processes of the semiosphere, but also human life to the degree that it
processes nonhereditary information. These distinctions establish a high
semiotic threshold between the semiosphere and the nonsemiotic universe.
The biosphere, for example, is not only characterized by the absence of
language, but also by the lack of communication: ‘Outside the semio-
sphere, there can be neither communication, nor language,’ is one of
Lotman’s axioms (1990: 124).
2.2. Topography of the loci of semiotic spaces
The characteristics of Lotman’s metaphorical spaces may be read as an
exemplification of his theory of the fundamental opposition between dis-
crete (verbal) and nondiscrete (visual) texts. Space, which is continuous in
human cognition, becomes transformed into a space with discrete loci in
the cultural semiosphere. Whereas the cognition of real space presupposes
perceptual continuity, the culturally organized semiotic space is as discon-
tinuous as the verbal signs that represent it. Furthermore, space which is
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geometrically symmetrical, evincing, for example, the symmetry between
left and right or above and below, becomes asymmetrical in the cultural
semiosphere, whose loci are coupled with marked opposites of cultural
values such as good versus bad or life versus death. Cultural spaces are
thus discontinuous and asymmetrical. The discontinuity of their loci is
particularly apparent in narrative representations of mythological spaces.
Lotman and Uspenskij (1973: 237) conclude that in myth ‘space is not
conceived of as a sign continuum, but as a totality of separate objects
bearing proper names. It is as if space were interrupted by the intervals
between objects and thus lacks from our viewpoint such a basic trait as
The binary topography of the semiosphere evinces opposites derived
from spatially symmetrical categories, such as figure versus ground,
center versus periphery, right versus left, inside versus outside, or internal
versus external space (Lotman 1990: 140). These symmetries become
asymmetries in cultural space when they serve to represent the opposition
between positive and negative cultural values: the center, inside, right, or
figure representing positive values in contrast to the periphery, outside,
left, or background which have the negative evaluation.
Visual asymmetry is hence the typical metaphorical representation of
such oppositions between the opposed loci in a semiosphere: ‘The struc-
ture of the semiosphere is asymmetrical’ (1990: 127). Asymmetry charac-
terizes the relationship between the center of the semiosphere with its con-
servative tendencies towards stability and stagnation versus its periphery
with its tendencies to instability and creativity.
In contrast to physical space, which is homogeneous, the semiosphere
is thus characterized by the heterogeneity of its loci (cf. 1990: 125). The
discontinuity and heterogeneity of the semiosphere is particularly appar-
ent whenever its loci are described by means of complementary opposites.
Such opposites do not admit grading but require either-or decisions
(cf. No
th 1997); something is either inside or outsid e, above or below;
there is no in-between, nor is there a gradual transition between the two
In the cultural conceptualization of semiotic loci and spaces in binary
opposition, the boundary between the two sphere s in opposition turns out
to be of special relevance. In Lotman’s cultural semiotics, it is the bound-
ary that separates a culture from nonculture or the culture of alterity. It
separates the territory of one’s own, good and harmonious culture from
its bad, chaotic, or even dangerous anticult ure. It is a frontier between an
inner and an outer space. To draw borders of this kind is a universal law of
culture, according to Lotman (1990: 131), for ‘every culture begins by di-
viding the world into ‘its own’ internal space and ‘their external space.’
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The boundary does not only separate, it also functions as a filter which
determines the flow of the messages into the semiosphere from without,
a process which requires ‘translation’ and ‘sem ioticization’ of the non-
semiotic signals that come from beyond the frontier: ‘Belonging simulta-
neously to the internal and external space, the semiotic border is repre-
sented by the sum of bilingual translatable ‘‘filters’’, passing through
which the text is translated into another language . . . outside the given
semiosphere’ (Lotman 1984: 208209).
3. Universe of dualisms, levels, and stratifications
Lotman’s semiotic universe is one of levels, strata, and hierarchies based
on the foundation of dualisms which begin with the axiom that ‘against
the background of nonculture, culture appears as a system of signs
(Lotman and Uspenskij 1978: 211).
3.1. Dualisms and levels
At the root of Lotman’s universe, there is a fundamental dualism between
the semiotic and the nonsemiotic. Human semiosis, marked by this dual-
ism, begins with the distinction between the two spheres:
Any act of semiotic recognition must involve the separation of significant and
insignificant ones in surrounding reality. Elements that, from the point of view of
that modeling system, are not bearers of meaning, as it were do not exist. The fact
of their actual existence recedes to the background in face of their irrelevance in
the given modeling system. Though existing, they as it were cease to exist in the
system of culture. (Lotman 1990: 58)
Lotman not only sets up his dualistic distinction between the semiotic and
nonsemiotic world but goes on to distinguish between levels and metale-
vels within the sphere of semiosis, again on binary principles. Further-
more, the Tartu semiotician’s dualistic view of the universe of the mind
is not restricted to the distinction between the bio- and the semiosphere;
it appears again in his description of the semiosphere itself.
The semiosphere is a semiotic space divided once more into two, since
it comprises signs that derive from two kinds of systems, primary and
secondary modeling systems. A modeling system, according to Lotman
(1967b: 7), is a code or language with signs to represent ‘the entire sphere
of an object of knowledge, insight or regulation.’ A natural lang uage is a
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primary modeling system in the sense that it is a means of represent-
ing the world. Secondary modeling systems, by contrast, ‘have a natural
language as their basis and acquire supplementary superstructures, thus
creating languages of a second level’ (1967b: 7). The latter systems are
created in mythological, religious, legal, ideological, or literary texts.
Table 1 gives a preliminary survey of these stratifications of the semio-
sphere and the nonsemiotic spheres from which it emerges.
3.2. In search of the level of primary coding
Lotman’s research on the semiosphere is almost exclusively concerned
with texts and codes generated by secondary modeling systems. His defi-
nition of the semiosphere as the sphere of secondary modeling systems oc-
casionally even seems to exclude everyday language, at least when Lot-
man defines (everyday) language as a primary modeling system and the
semiosphere as the domain of secondary modeling systems. However, the
account of language as a primary modeling system is never very explicit.
In which sense are verbal models of the world primary? The few contexts
from which an answer may be derived suggest that the signs of a primary
modeling system are less complex (Lotman 1974: 95), more direct in their
representation of the ‘sphere of an object of knowledge’ (1967b: 7) and
above all without ‘supplementary superstructures.’
Primary coding, according to Lotm an (1990: 58), is not restricted
to verbal language. Much of the reality of human life evinces primary
coding, which begins with the perceptual act of filtering cognitively
Table 1. Lotman’s semiospheres in the framework of his Universe of the Mind
Sphere Phenomena How phenomena are
(several) secondary
culture (metaphors, myth,
art, religion)
superstructure; second
level of meaning;
primary semiosphere (nonmetaphorical) gestures,
the signs represent the
‘world’ and have a
primary meaning; there is
(nonsemiotic) biosphere living beings life, symptoms, but no
(nonsemiotic) sphere of
objects objects ‘are as they are,’
without semiotization,
without cultural meaning
Yuri Lotman on metaphors 257
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significant from nonsignificant elements (see 3.1.), a process which takes
place at each level of coding (see 3.3.) but separates the semiotic from
the nonsemiotic world at the lowest level of semiosis.
Lotman’s sharp distinction between primary and secondary coding
is not without inconsistencies. If metaphors belong to the sphere of
secondary modeling, and thus to the semiosphere, but animals also use
metaphors (see 1.1.), then it cannot be maintained that animals do not
communicate, nor can it be maintained that animals are excluded from
the semiosphere. The sharp opposition between a semiosphere of hum an
culture and a nonsemiotic world of animals and objects in a sphere with-
out cultural significance appea rs too dualistic. Natural language is rarely
a system representing the world in a direct or even simple way, if at all
(cf. Sebeok 1991: 5859). Bakhtin had a more modern insight into the
nature of language when he a‰rmed, in 1930, that ‘all signs are subject
to ideological evaluation’ and that ‘the domain of ideology coincides
with the domain of signs’ (Volishinov 1973 [1930]: 910). From a very
di¤erent perspective , cognitive linguistics has more recently given similar
evidence. Natural language is permeated with metaphors; verbal signs
are hardly ever ‘simple’ or ‘primary’ representations of the world (see
Defined as a secondary modeling system, too much is exclud ed from
the semiosphere that has meanwhile been discovered to be part of it. The
dichotomous view of culture and nature as two opposed spheres appears
to carry the burden of the heritage of a semiotic structuralism that sought
to explain semiosis in terms of oppositions even where gradations and
transitions between the opposites prevail, as we have learned from
Peirce’s synechistic semiotics. In light of the results of decades of biosemi-
otic research, it can no longer be maintained that communication occurs
only in the cultural semiosphere, and we now know that the biosphere
and perhaps even the physical world are spheres of semiosis and hence
semiospheres, too (cf. Ho¤meyer 1996; No
th 2000a, 2000b, 2001, 2002a,
2002b; No
th and Kull 2001). The concepts of bio- and semiosphere must
hence be revised as follows: biosphere and semiosphere are not two sepa-
rate spheres of the universe, but the biosphere is included in the semio-
sphere, and semiosis begins with life, if not in the physical world before
life appears (cf. No
th 2001, 2002c, 2004, 2005).
The distinction between primary and secondary semiotic modeling
also raises the question of evolutionary priority, but Lotman (1974: 95)
has no evolutionary perspective in this respect and admits that ‘there are
not su‰cient grounds for concluding that the scheme ‘first primary, then
secondary modeling systems’ also corresponds to the historical process
of complex semiotic structures and can have chronological significance
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attributed to it.’ The primacy of the primary modeling system seems to be
a logical, not an evolutionary primacy.
3.3. Relational stratifications
However, despite the fundamental dualism inherent in the distinction
between primary and secondary modeling, the system created by Lotman
is more di¤erentiated than his dualisms occasionally suggest since pri-
mary vs. secondary is never a categorical but always a relational opposi-
tion. What is primary at a higher level may be secondary from the per-
spective of a lower level and even twice secondary from the point of
view of a still lower level. In this hierarchy of levels, the secondary levels
are always conceived of as semiotic space with more dimensi ons in rela-
tion to the space of its lower levels. Lotman illustrates this increase of
semiotic levels and spaces with the example of intermedial relationships
between texts:
This secondary ‘word’ is always, when we are speaking of literary texts, a trope: in
relation to ordinary non-literary speech, the literary text as it were switches over
into a semiotic space with a greater number of dimensions. To grasp what we are
talking about let us imagine a transformation of the following type: scenario (or
verbal literary narrative) ! film, or libretto ! opera. With this type of transfor-
mation a text with a certain quantity of semantic space coordinates turns into
a text with a greatly increased dimensionality in its semiotic space. (Lotman
1990: 47)
This hierarchy of stratified semiospheres begins above the level that is
still without any semiotic modeling, that is, at the level of the ‘non-
semiotic world of things.’ The transition to the first semiosphere leads to
‘the system of signs and social languages’ (1990: 47); higher semiospheres
are those of myth, art, and reli gion. At each higher level, there is a ‘unifi-
cation’ of the sign systems of the lower levels, for example, ‘the unifica-
tion of word and melody, singing, wall painting, natural and artificial
light, the aro ma of incense; the unification in architecture of the building
and the setting, and so on’ (1990: 48). The higher levels are unifications
but never mere translations of the lower ones since ‘no stage of the hier-
archy can be expressed by the means for the preceding stage, which is
merely an image (i.e., an incomplete representation) of it. The principle
of rhetorical organization lies at the base of this culture as such, trans-
forming each new stage into a semiotic mystery for those below it’ (1990:
Yuri Lotman on metaphors 259
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4. Lotman’s semiosphere as a self-referential system
Lotman’s concept of semiosphere is not merely a synonym of culture. The
metaphor of the semiotic space that constitutes the semiosphere refers to
culture and its semiotic environment. On the one hand, the languages or
codes of a culture are ‘a cluster of semiotic spaces and their boundaries,’
on the other hand, the semiosphere is the space in which these languages
are ‘immersed,’ and ‘it can only function by interaction with that space’
(Lotman 1990: 123125). Thus, while cultural codes consist of semiotic
spaces, the semiosphere refers to the larger framework that creates these
spaces. With the concept of semiosphere, Lotman usually means the larger
framework that constitutes and creates culture as a whole. The semio-
sphere in this sense precedes and is presupposed by cultural semiosis.
This is what Lotman aims at when he emphasizes that the semiosphere is
‘the semiotic space necessary for the existence and functioning of lan-
guages,’ a space which has ‘prior existence and is in constant interaction
with languages’ (1990: 123), or when he argues that ‘the unit of semiosis
. . . is not the separate language but the whole semiotic space of the cul-
ture in question’ (1990: 125). Occasionally, the Tartu semiotician also de-
fines the products of culture, and hence all cultural codes and texts, as a
semiosphere, for example, when he states that ‘the semiosphere is the re-
sult and the condition for the development of culture’ (1990).
The boundary that separates and filters by means of translations from
an external sphere into the codes of the internal semiosphere (see 2.2.)
also constitutes the identity of a semiosphere. Its function is not only to
protect the system from undesired external influences, but also to define
the semiosphere itself. In this sense, the boundary is a semiotic necessity
of the semiosphere. The semiosphere even ‘requires a ‘‘chaotic’’ external
sphere and constructs this itself in cases where this does not exist’ (Lot-
man 1984: 6). A boundary which is determined by a system itself is the
boundary of a self-referential system. Moreover, since ‘culture not only
creates its internal organization but also its own type of external disorga-
nization’ (1984: 212), the self-construction of a semiosphere does not only
extend to the construction of its own boundary, but also to the ‘chaos’
which surrounds it, a chaos which makes the own internal structure ap-
pear the more orderly.
If the semiosphere is the semiotic space in which culture is immersed,
a space that even exists prior to the semiotic spaces it creates, and if the
spaces it creates are also semiospheres, we arrive at a paradox, for what
else can the semiosphere in which culture is immersed be than a cultural
sphere? How can the semiosphere be both the space that creates culture
and the cultural space itself ? How can a culture precede language, when
260 W. No
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language is defined as culture? The kind of paradox with which we are
faced at this point does not necessarily imply self-contradiction; it is
well known from the theory of self-referential systems (cf. No
th 2002).
Lotman’s description of the semiosphere is the description of a self-
referential system. It is an adequate description of culture to the degree
that culture indeed creates and is created by culture.
Any description of culture, according to Lotman (1990: 37, 134), is a
‘meta-cultural structure,’ that is, a ‘text in the system of self-descriptions
which form the metacultural level’ (1990: 46). Culture is thus a system of
two spaces relating to two levels of cultural semiosis. One is the textual
space created in the arts, in myths, social codes, or ideologies, the other
is the metatextual space created in the form of cultural self-descripti ons.
The prefix ‘meta-’ referring to this latter space conveys the idea of a sepa-
rate semiotic space at a higher level, but the two semiospheres of culture
and cultural self-description do not exist as separate spaces; rather one is
included in the other like a Russian puppet in a puppet.
Semiospheres create their own metasemiosphere in a self-generative and
self-referential way. They do so within their very center with the purpose
of the self-stabilization of the cultural system (1990: 128): ‘Whether we
have in mind language, politics or culture, the mechanism is the same:
one part of the semiosphere (as a rule one whic h is part of its nuclear
structure) in the process of self-description creates its own grammar . . .
Then it strives to e xtend these norms over the whole semiosphere. Modes
of social behavior, for example, are self-descriptively stabilized by means
of books of etiquette or legal codes; languages a re controlled by means of
normative grammars; the architectural space of a capital depicts the rela-
tionships of political and cultural power in the whole country, and in this
sense, it is not only a product of culture, but also its self-description. Like
so many forms of self-reference, this self-referential circle between de-
scription and self-descripti on leads to a paradox, for, on the one hand,
‘culture organizes itself in the form of a special space’ and on the other
hand, ‘this organization . . . in the form of the semiosphere . . . comes
into being with the help of the semiosphere’ (1990: 133).
An appropriate image for characterizing the relationship between
a semiosph ere and its metasemiosphere is that of the mirror, since it is
able to characterize the relationship of iconicity between the two spaces
(cf. Lotman 1990: 5456). The semiosphere is a mirror that depicts its
metasemiosphere, but the metasemiosphere is also a mirror of the semio-
sphere of which it is an image. Lotman illustrates this argument with the
example of the semiotics of urban spaces in which the main church of a
city or the capital of a country function as an idealized center of a much
larger cultural universe: ‘On the one hand, architectural build ings copy
Yuri Lotman on metaphors 261
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the spatial image of the universe, and, on the ot her hand, this image of
the universe is constructed on an analogy with the world of cultural con-
structs which mankind creates’ (1990: 203). The iconic principle which is
apparent in this kind of bidirectional cultural modeling is the following:
‘Real space is an iconic image of the semiosphere, a language in which
various nonspatial mean ings can be expressed, while the semiosphere in
its turn transforms the real world of space in which we live in its image
and likeness’ (1990: 191). In a most poetic image almost reminiscent of
the Renaissance doctrine of signatures (No
th 2000: 14), Lotman (1990:
223) epitomizes: ‘We are both part and a likeness of a vast intellectual
mechanism . . . We are within it, but it all of it is within us. We are
at the same time like matr yoshkas . . . and the likeness of everything ...
We are both a planet in the intellectual galaxy, and the image of its
* An expanded version of a lecture contributed to the First International Conference for the
Study of the Semiosphere at the Centro Universita
rio Belas Artes de Sa˜o Paulo, August
2226, 2005. Thanks are due to the conference organizer, Professor Irene de Arau
Machado, Pontifı
cia Universidade Cato
lica de Sa˜o Paulo, Programa de Estudos Po
Graduados em Comunicac¸a˜o e Semio
tica, for inviting the author to deliver this lecture
on August 26, 2005, and to Wilma Clark for valuable comments.
Fauconnier, Gilles (1985). Mental Spaces. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Ho¤meyer, Jesper (1996). Signs of Meaning in the Universe. Bloomington: Indiana Univer-
sity Press.
Lako¤, George (1987). Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about
the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lotman, Yuri M. (1977 [1967a]). Problems in the typology of culture. In Soviet Semiotics,
D. P. Lucid (ed.), 213221. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
(1977 [1967b]). Theses on the problem ‘art in the series of modeling systems.’ Partial
quote in Soviet Semiotics, D. P. Lucid (ed.), 7. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
(1977 [1974]). Primary and secondary communication-modeling systems. In Soviet Semi-
otics, D. P. Lucid (ed.), 95105. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
(1990 [1984]). On the semiosphere, Wilma Clark (trans.). Shmeiotikh
: Sign Systems Stud-
ies 33 (1), 205229.
(1990). Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Bloomington: Indiana Uni-
versity Press.
Lotman, Yuri M. and Uspenskij, Boris A. (1977 [1973]). Myth name culture. In Soviet
Semiotics, D. P. Lucid (ed.), 233252. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
262 W. No
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(1978). On the semiotic mechanism of culture. New Literary History 9 (2), 211232.
th, Winfried (1997). The semantic space of opposites: Cognitive and localist foundations.
In The Locus of Meaning: A Festschrift for Yoshihiko Ikegami, Kei I. Yamanaka (ed.),
6382. Tokyo: Kurosio.
(2000a). Handbuch der Semiotik. Stuttgart: Metzler.
(2000b). Umberto Eco’s semiotic threshold. Shmeiotikh
: Sign Systems Studies 28, 4961.
(2001). Protosemiotics and physicosemiotics. Shmeiotikh
: Sign Systems Studies 29 (1),
(2002a). Paradigmen des Dualismus, Kultur vs. Natur’ und Ansa
tze zu dessen Dekon-
struktion. In Kultur und ihre Wissenschaft, U. Helduser and T. Schwietring (eds.), 4968.
Konstanz: UVK.
(2002b). Selbstreferenz in systemtheoretischer und semiotischer Sicht. etc: Empirische
Text- und Kulturforschung 2, 1–7.
(2002c). Semiotic machines. Cybernetics and Human Knowing 9 (1), 522.
(2004). Semiogenesis in the evolution from nature to culture. In In the Beginning: Origins
of Semiosis, M. Alac
and P. Violi (eds.), 6982. Turnhout: Brepols.
(2005). Semiotics for biologists. Journal of Biosemiotics 1, 113.
th, Winfried and Kull, Kalevi (eds.) (2001). Semiotics of nature. Special issue, Shmeio-
: Sign Systems Studies 29 (1).
Sebeok, Thomas A. (1991). In what sense is language a ‘primary modeling system’? In A
Sign is Just a Sign, T. A. Sebeok, 4958. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Voloshinov, Valentin N. (1973 [1930]). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language,L.Ma-
tejka and I. R. Titunik (trans.). New York: Seminar Press.
Winfried No
th (b. 1944) is Professor of Linguistics and Semiotics and Director of the Inter-
disciplinary Center for Cultural Studies of the University of Kassel and Visiting Professor at
the Catholic University of Sa˜o Paulo (PUC) 3noeth@uni-kassel.de4. His research interests
include general semiotics, Peirce’s semiotics, semiotics of the media, semiotic linguistics, and
pictorial semiotics. His recent publications include Origins of Semiosis (1994); Semiotics of
the Media (1997); Crisis of Representation (with C. Ljungberg, 2003); Imagen: Comunica-
n, semio
tica y medios (with L. Santaella, 2003); and Comunicac¸a˜o e semio
tica (with L.
Santaella, 2004). His Handbook of Semiotics has been translated into Croatian, Portuguese,
Spanish, Russian, and Bahasa Indonesian.
Yuri Lotman on metaphors 263
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... O uso de metáforas constitui precisamente uma das principais caraterísticas de Lotman, que utiliza frequentemente imagens de espaços abertos de dimensões galácticas, imagens de territórios fechados separados por fronteiras, espaços encerrados em espaços como uma matrioska ou espaços re etindo outros espaços dentro deles, como espelhos re etindo o espaço em que estão imersos, sendo, em última análise, as próprias metáforas semiosferas que representam imagens mentais através de sinais verbais (NOTH, 2006). Também Baptista (2008) faz notar a similitude entre as duas esferas, ao referir que a abordagem da semiótica da cultura resulta da análise das relações entre o homem e o mundo, sendo a semiosfera (de nida por analogia com o conceito de biosfera) o domínio em que todo o sistema sígnico pode funcionar. ...
... Também Baptista (2008) faz notar a similitude entre as duas esferas, ao referir que a abordagem da semiótica da cultura resulta da análise das relações entre o homem e o mundo, sendo a semiosfera (de nida por analogia com o conceito de biosfera) o domínio em que todo o sistema sígnico pode funcionar. E completa a rmando que a comunicação não existe fora da semiosfera, posição corroborada por Noth (2006), que refere que tal constitui um dos axiomas de Lotman. Já Kirchof (n.d.) refere que a semiosfera é o oposto da biosfera, pois enquanto que a segunda compreende o mundo da natureza ainda não organizada a partir de qualquer código ou sistema semiótico, a primeira corresponde ao mundo da semiose, em que funcionam os sistemas semióticos, responsáveis pela comunicação. ...
... A fronteira do espaço semiótico é uma posição funcional e estrutural muito importante, que, segundo Vólkova Américo (2017) ou Noth (2006), desempenha simultaneamente duas funções. Em primeiro lugar, limita a invasão incontrolável dos elementos "alheios". ...
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A Região Demarcada do Douro (Portugal), a mais antiga, maior e mais heterogénea região vinícola do mundo, foi criada em 1756. Desde aí tem vivido um contínuo processo de evolução, sendo de destacar os efeitos positivos da entrada de Portugal na União Europeia e, sobretudo, a mais recente classificação do Alto Douro Vinhateiro como Património Mundial pela UNESCO. Mas como vive a região o seu dia a dia, como se organiza, que relações são estabelecidas dentro dela e fora dela, como se concretizam, como e quem detém o poder, que momentos na sua história causaram mudanças, quais os seus efeitos, como influenciaram o seu desenvolvimento? O objetivo base deste trabalho é analisar e interpretar a Região Demarcada do Douro, e assim responder a estas questões, recorrendo à teoria semiótico-cultural de Iuri Lotman, numa abordagem inovadora, incidindo em especial sobre conceitos essenciais como semiosfera, fronteira, centro e periferia, explosões e tradução. Foi possível identificar na sua estrutura, organização e vivência, nas relações que se estabelecem dentro dela e fora dela, as principais características do pensamento de Lotman, nomeadamente ao nível das fronteiras, do centro e da periferia, das explosões e da tradução. São ainda apontados caminhos a seguir pela Região no futuro, à luz dos princípios da semiosfera lotmaniana.
... Giddens states that a macro/micro social theory is not enough, that there needs to be consideration of the agents within the social space and the actions of such actors intersect with the structures of the wider society. With the semiosphere model, we have been able to examine individual umwelt within the wider semiotic structures as it is self-referential (Nöth 2006). This self-referencing is seen as a key to humanity by Tanaka-Ishii, while Baudrillard sees the subject as eventually unable to escape the self-referential space and becomes trapped (or seduced) into hyperreality. ...
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This thesis aims to semiotically model hyperreality in contemporary digitized society and beyond into the burgeoning Web 3.0 era of ubiquitous virtuality. The upcoming Web 3.0, as an evolution of the current digital space, leads us to an evolution of hyperreality (where the virtual is more real than reality). We call this next step “hypervirtuality” as a portmanteau of “virtual” and “hyperreality”, where the physical becomes a meaningless canvas, overlaid by digital information, which is itself appended by virtual spheres of digital signs that attempt to differentiate themselves from the mundane digital world. We investigate virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality models, stating that virtual reality and augmented reality lack the interaction with the physical space to create hypervirtuality, but mixed reality could overlay the physical with a digital layer of information that increasingly becomes more significant and symbolic than mundane physicality. These spaces can replicate the physical or exaggerate the virtual, pointedly marking themselves as more virtual-than-virtual. The transmediality of identity between the user and their avatar is one of the last relationships where the physical, offline, signs form a primary foundation to the semiotic communication model. Our thesis concluded that an enhanced digital literacy education within the classroom would enable the contextualisation of self within the physical space, thus avoiding the loss of the physical sign as a meaningful part of one’s identity schema. The virtual space should add meaning and not replace offline signs completely.
... e relevant texts for (C) were both not published in Russian, and appeared in editions outside the interests of the Slavists. e previous works in which Lotman's relationships to life sciences (or the topic of Lotman and biology) have been analysed include, in particular, Alexandrov (2000), Andrews (2003), Favareau (2010), Kotov (2002), Kotov andKull (2011), Kull (1999;2015a), Kull and Lotman (2012), Kull and Velmezova (2018), M. , Machtyl (2019), Mandelker (1994), Maran (2020), Marinakis (2012), Markoš (2014), Nöth (2006), Patoine and Hope (2015), Sebeok (1988;, Semenenko (2016) and so on. Remarkably, almost all these belong to the twenty-rst century. ...
... Poin utama dari pendekatan semiotika Lotman terletak pada semiosfer, sebuah konsep yang diilhami dari biosfer atau semesta makhluk hidup (Cheregi, 2017;Kull, 2015;Lorusso, 2015;Lotman, 2005;Nöth, 2014;Novikova & Chumakova, 2015;Torop, 2005). Konsep tersebut menggunakan model spasial (semesta) berbatas, dalam interpretasi budaya (Nöth, 2006(Nöth, , 2014. ...
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This paper focuses on finding out what meaning is reflected in the phenomenon of rejection of ornamental design of the 75th Anniversary of Indonesia's Independence, from the perspective of Yuri Lotman's (Tartu-Moscow-Semiotic School) cultural semiotics. This ornament has become a polemic in society, because a group of people feels that there is a visual cross in it, which is a representation of a certain group. The research finding states that rejection of the ornamental design for the 75th anniversary of the Republic of Indonesia occurred because a group of people felt that the “sign” in the design represented a certain group, outside them. This opinion is described by Yuri Lotman as the concept of "the inner space" (we/us) and "the outer space" (them). According to him, each culture has boundaries for defining itself (Semenenko, 2012). Everything outside "us" is "not our culture" (non-culture) or "foreign" (alien), and is often considered not good because it is not "like us" (Lorusso, 2015). yuri lotman's (Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School) cultural semiotics, nationalism, plurality
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Starting form some city concepts coming from some scholars (Mumford, Benveniste, Rapoport, Heidegger, Volli) this reflection aims understand urban phenomenology. The next step is the insight of the city as a text mainly from Lotman and Hjelmslev. The Itueta (Brazil) eradication and the West End (Boston - USA) reshuffle are examples of radical changings in the urban text and their effects over their inhabitants. The cultural, sociological and psychological changings - grief, psychological pathologies, discomfort - are at stake in this analysis. So, as conclusion: city is actually the end outcome of a text - as a write down and as a testimony - stablishing deep and meaningful relationships to the life of its dwellers.
The paper studies the literary dimensions of ‘the nuclear evil’ imaginaries in U.S. nuclear fiction, which helps to defining the cultural/social parameters of considering nuclear energy as a concept of nuclear narrative discourse against the background of rising interest in sustainable energy’s agenda. The literary implications of materialized ‘invisible nuclear evil’ in U.S. nuclear writing practices are regarded on the example of narrating the Chernobyl disaster as the fictional embodiment of ineffective nuclear energy policy in the context of studying duality of technologies and scientific knowledge. Clarifying the narrative tools of implementing ‘the nuclear evil’ in U.S. nuclear fiction can contribute to shaping the unbiased perception of ‘nuclear energy’ as a social-cultural concept and setting nuclear awareness in its multidisciplinary implication.
The chapter outlines cybersemiotics in relation to the research fields of systems theory and semiotics in general. It introduces and defines the key concepts of the first, second, and third generations of systems theory and gives a survey of systems theoretical approaches to general and cultural semiotics. The author argues that the notions of system, communication, self-reference, information, meaning, form, autopoiesis, and self-control are of equal topical interest to semiotics and systems theory. In particular, the paper inquires into the way in which N. Luhmann, Maturana/Varela, and C.S. Peirce define and use these concepts and how these authors differ with respect to them.
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If religion is a socio-cultural meaning system as part of the socio-cultural sphere, then how does it relate to mental, organic, and physical processes that belong to the environment of religion? The article contributes to answering this question by referring to semiotics, systems theory, and theoretical biology. The starting point is understanding religious evolution as a co-evolution to societal evolution, namely, as one of the latter’s internal differentiations. In turn, societal evolution is a co-evolution to mental, organic, and physical evolution. These evolutionary spheres mutually constitute one another’s environments. The eigenstate of the socio-cultural sphere consists of language activated via communication. Language is the replicator of socio-cultural processes corresponding to the function of the genome in organic processes. The differentiation of spheres in general evolution concerns respective organic, mental, and socio-cultural substrates, while the substrate-neutral structure of the two evolutionary dimensions of organic and societal processes, including religion, is revealed as semiotic patterns that organic and societal processes have in common. Organic and religious processes of generating information are isomorphic. Thus, semiosis mediates between religious communication and its environment.
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Much writing on, first, analogue and, later, digital archives has focused on related power-dynamics and the structuring effects of archives and their technologies on discursive freedom and cultural dynamics. In recent years, however, work within the media archaeology domain, especially by Wolfgang Ernst, has addressed how the specific materialities of digital archives, and the nature of their algorithms and particular functions, could be seen to facilitate dynamics in cultures. This article sets this work in dialogue with the cultural semiotics of Juri Lotman, whose late work focused on how communicative processes between and within different subsystems of culture facilitate their dynamic change and the production of new forms and cultural systems. The article suggests further interdisciplinary dialogue between media archaeology and cultural semiotics in order to understand the role of archives in facilitating communicative processes and interlinking in culture and the emergence of novelties – that is, for understanding the ‘creativity’ of archives.
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Protosemiotics is the study of the rudiments of semiosis, primarily in nature. The extension of the semiotic field from culture to nature is both necessary and possible in the framework of Peirce's semiotic theory. Against this extension, the critique of pansemiotism has been raised. However, Peirce's semiotics is not pansemiotic since it is based on the criterion of thirdness, which is not ubiquitous in nature. The paper examines the criteria of protosemiosis in the domain of physical and mechanical processes.
This article, first published in Russian in 1984 in Sign Systems Studies, introduces the concept of semiosphere and describes its principal attributes. Semiosphere is the semiotic space, outside of which semiosis cannot exist. The ensemble of semiotic formations functionally precedes the singular isolated language and becomes a condition for the existence of the latter. Without the semiosphere, language not only does not function, it does not exist. The division between the core and the periphery is a law of the internal organisation of the semiosphere. There exists boundary between the semiosphere and the non- or extra-semiotic space that surrounds it. The semiotic border is represented by the sum of bilingual translatable “filters”, passing through which the text is translated into another language (or languages), situated outside the given semiosphere. The levels of the semiosphere comprise an inter-connected group of semiospheres, each of them being simultaneously both participant in the dialogue (as part of the semiosphere) and the space of dialogue (the semiosphere as a whole).
The "semiotic threshold" is U. Eco's metaphor of the borderline between the world of semiosis and the nonsemiotic world and hence also between semiotics and its neighboring disciplines. The paper examines Eco's threshold in comparison to the views of semiosis and semiotics of C. S. Peirce. While Eco follows the structuralist tradition, postulating the conventionality of signs as the main criterion of semiosis, Peirce has a much broader concept of semiosis, which is not restricted to phenomena of culture but includes many processes in nature. Whereas Eco arrives at the conclusion that biological processes, such as the ones within the immune system, cannot be included in the program of semiotic research, Peirce's broader defmition of semiosis has meanwhile become thefoundation of semiotic studies in biology and medicine and hence in biosemiotics and medical semiotics.
Mental Spaces Signs of Meaning in the Universe
  • Fauconnier
  • Gilles
Fauconnier, Gilles (1985). Mental Spaces. Cambridge: MIT Press. Ho¤meyer, Jesper (1996). Signs of Meaning in the Universe. Bloomington: Indiana Univer-sity Press. Lako¤, George (1987).
Problems in the typology of culture Theses on the problem 'art in the series of modeling systems Primary and secondary communication-modeling systems On the semiosphere Shmeiotikh´:Shmeiotikh´
  • Yuri M Lotman
Lotman, Yuri M. (1977 [1967a]). Problems in the typology of culture. In Soviet Semiotics, D. P. Lucid (ed.), 213-221. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.-(1977 [1967b]). Theses on the problem 'art in the series of modeling systems.' Partial quote in Soviet Semiotics, D. P. Lucid (ed.), 7. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.-(1977 [1974]). Primary and secondary communication-modeling systems. In Soviet Semiotics, D. P. Lucid (ed.), 95-105. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.-(1990 [1984]). On the semiosphere, Wilma Clark (trans.). Shmeiotikh´:Shmeiotikh´: Sign Systems Studies 33 (1), 205-229.-(1990). Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
The semantic space of opposites: Cognitive and localist foundations
Nö th, Winfried (1997). The semantic space of opposites: Cognitive and localist foundations. In The Locus of Meaning: A Festschrift for Yoshihiko Ikegami, Kei I. Yamanaka (ed.), 63–82.