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Cybersemiotics and the Problems of the Information-Processing Paradigm as a Candidate for a Unified Science of Information Behind Library Information Science



As an answer to the humanistic, socially oriented critique of the information-processing paradigms used as a conceptual frame for library information science, this article formulates a broader and less objective concept of communication than that of the information-processing paradigm. Knowledge can be seen as the mental phenomenon that documents (combining signs into text, depending on the state of knowledge of the recipient) can cause through interpretation. The examination of these “correct circumstances” is an important part of information science. This article represents the following developments in the concept of information: Information is understood as potential until somebody interprets it. The objective carriers of potential knowledge are signs. Signs need interpretation to release knowledge in the form of interpretants. Interpretation is based on the total semantic network, horizons, worldviews, and experience of the person, including the emotional and social aspects. The realm of meaning is rooted in social-historical as well as embodied evolutionary processes that go beyond computational algorithmically logic. The semantic network derives a decisive aspect of signification from a person’s embodied cultural worldview, which, in turn, derives from, develops, and has its roots in undefined tacit knowledge. To theoretically encompass both the computational and the semantic aspects of document classification and retrieval, we need to combine the cybernetic functionalistic approach with the semiotic pragmatic understanding of meaning as social and embodied. For such a marriage, it is necessary to go into the constructivistic secondorder cybernetics and autopoiesis theory of von Foerster, Maturana, and Luhmann, on the one hand, and the pragmatic triadic semiotics of Peirce in the form of the embodied Biosemiotics, on the other hand. This combination is what I call Cybersemiotics. published or submitted for publication
LIBRARY TRENDS, Vol. 52, No. 3, Winter 2004, pp. 629–657
© 2004 The Board of Trustees, University of Illinois
Cybersemiotics and the Problems of the
Information-Processing Paradigm as a Candidate
for a Unified Science of Information Behind
Library Information Science1
Søren Brier
As an answer to the humanistic, socially oriented critique of
the information-processing paradigms used as a conceptual frame for li-
brary information science, this article formulates a broader and less objec-
tive concept of communication than that of the information-processing par-
adigm. Knowledge can be seen as the mental phenomenon that documents
(combining signs into text, depending on the state of knowledge of the re-
cipient) can cause through interpretation. The examination of these “cor-
rect circumstances” is an important part of information science. This arti-
cle represents the following developments in the concept of information:
Information is understood as potential until somebody interprets it. The
objective carriers of potential knowledge are signs. Signs need interpreta-
tion to release knowledge in the form of interpretants. Interpretation is
based on the total semantic network, horizons, worldviews, and experience
of the person, including the emotional and social aspects. The realm of
meaning is rooted in social-historical as well as embodied evolutionary pro-
cesses that go beyond computational algorithmically logic. The semantic
network derives a decisive aspect of signification from a person’s embod-
ied cultural worldview, which, in turn, derives from, develops, and has its
roots in undefined tacit knowledge. To theoretically encompass both the
computational and the semantic aspects of document classification and
retrieval, we need to combine the cybernetic functionalistic approach with
the semiotic pragmatic understanding of meaning as social and embodied.
For such a marriage, it is necessary to go into the constructivistic second-
order cybernetics and autopoiesis theory of von Foerster, Maturana, and
Luhmann, on the one hand, and the pragmatic triadic semiotics of Peirce
Søren Brier, Copenhagen Business School, Department for Management, Politics, and Phi-
losophy, Blaagaardsgare BB. DK–2200 Koebenhaven
630 library trends/winter 2004
in the form of the embodied Biosemiotics, on the other hand. This combi-
nation is what I call Cybersemiotics.
Library information science (LIS) devotes itself primarily to the study
of systems and methods for classification, indexing, storing, retrieval, and
mediation of documents that can cause the creation of information in the
user’s mind. The aim is to create information in the user’s mind to be un-
derstood as meeting social, cultural, or existential needs. The crucial ques-
tion is that of the interpretation of the document’s meaning for the indi-
vidual in a given organizational or institutional connection, and in a given
historical situation. Ingwersen (1996) describes the information need as built
from a cognitive state (including previous knowledge), a work task, inter-
est, and a domain. These social-pragmatic circumstances form the context
for understanding our informational desires and problems. He develops a
matrix with four distinct cognitive forms of information needs relevant for
determining search behavior and types of polyrepresentation. But thus far,
we do not have an explicit theoretical treatment of how varying forms of
aboutness come into existence and function in a social context. As informa-
tion, in this view, develops primarily in an individual mind in front of a doc-
ument-mediating system, there are no explicit theories about how informa-
tion develops in social practice. We still have difficulties with the construction
of a comprehensive theoretical framework, which can improve consistency
in our use of scientific concepts within LIS, guide our research and devel-
opment of research methods, and finally, provide the background for the
interpretation of empirical research. As in Machlup’s (1983) theory of in-
formation, the cognitive viewpoint focuses on the individual.
Hjørland and Albrechtsen (1995) describe the influence of knowledge
domains on concept formation and interpretation in the domain analytic
paradigm. They give theoretical reasons why classification and indexing
should be directed toward the ways signification is created in discourse
communities related to different knowledge domains, especially within the
different fields of science. This is followed up in a book by Hjørland (1997)
that has an activity approach to information science. But as Blair (1990)
points out in his foundational book Language and Representation in Informa-
tion Retrieval, then we need to add a pragmatic semiotic and language game–
based theory of interpretation to make the above-mentioned new develop-
ments function in a common framework and get access to the mystery of
meaning in human language that goes beyond computational approaches
(Fodor, 2001, points out that mystery). See also Bowker and Star’s (1999)
development of a pragmatic semantic embodied theory of classification.
This insight leads to the need for a general semiotic framework of com-
munication and sign interpretation. We need to open LIS to the results and
constructive thinking of a more general theory of how signs—such as words
and symbols—acquire their meaning through communication, be it oral
or written (Warner, 1990; Suominen, 1997; Thellefsen, Brier, & Thellefs-
en, 2003). Semiotics should encompass not only social and cultural com-
munication but also should be able to address natural phenomena such as
the communication of biological systems. It should have categories for tech-
nical information processing. At the same time, this transdisciplinary the-
ory should distinguish between physical, biological, mental psychological,
and social-inguistic levels and not reduce them to the same process of in-
Thus, LIS requires a theory of the cognition and communication of
signification by different types of systems. Neither the objective syntactic
approach of the information-processing paradigm nor the personal phe-
nomenological approach of Machlup can deliver a framework encompass-
ing communication processes in social, biological, and technical systems.
As Buckland (1991) points out, we also must draw on systems theory and
cybernetics, and I especially will point to the new second-order cybernet-
ics and autopoiesis theory. In contrast to Suominen (1997), who builds on
the French culture-centered structualistic semiology originating in Saussure’s
work, I chose to build on the American pragmatic transdisciplinary semiot-
ics founded by Charles Sanders Peirce as it promises to cover nature and
technology as well. More than anything LIS—and many other informational
fields—needs a theory that can dissolve the mutual ignorance and hostili-
ty between Snow’s two cultures. See, for instance, the work of Zadeh (1999)
and Sinha et al. (2000),2 making computing with words possible. The great
conceptual and methodological differences between the computational and
semantical approaches to communication divide LIS in two paradigms to
a degree that one can hardly talk about one knowledge domain—a prob-
lem that psychology, computer science/informatics, and medicine, to name
a few, also have.
Analyzing the Possibility of an Information Science
Science—especially natural science—has a double role as both devel-
oper of technology and worldview producer. Reliance on science as an in-
strument for obtaining knowledge is an important part of our faith in tech-
nology as the correct means for developing society. Science is also the
foundation of “the modern worldview,” indicated by rationalism and phys-
icalism and embedded in a theory of evolution. Science is therefore an
important element in the system world’s strengthening of its self-conscious
belief of having special access to the truth about reality and holding the key
to perpetual progress based on the steadily increasing control of nature.
The ideological tendency to view the acquisition of scientific knowledge
as a unique and privileged path to truth and reality is, in my opinion, one
of the main problems of the modern information society. All knowledge
other than the “laws of nature” determined by physics and mathematics is
632 library trends/winter 2004
regarded as uncertain and subjective. Part of our cultural project is to un-
cover all “laws of nature” to fulfill the desire to display the ultimate safe
basis for the construction of objective, true, and provable knowledge. Stone
by stone, we will erect the cathedral of truth and reach the final realiza-
tion and control of our own selves and surrounding nature, and with this
we hope to liberate the human intellect from natural and material forces.
This is the project that—according to our self-understanding—separates
us from, and raises us above, other human cultures and is central to our
view of ourselves as “modern.” Today this idea is embraced by great scien-
tific thinkers like Stephen Hawkins (1989) and E. O. Wilson (1999) but
questioned by philosophers and sociologists of science like Thomas Kuhn
(1970) and Bruno Latour (Latour, 1993). The latter argues, “we have never
been modern.”
One characteristic of modernity is faith in rationalism as the highest
value and the associated tendency to see science as a “meta-narrative.” The
empirical-mathematical science, formulated by Galileo among others, has
come to play a great role in our cultural self-understanding and worldview.
In the mechanical physics that consequently gradually developed lies a vi-
sion that Laplace clearly articulated about the possibility of achieving a
complete mathematical description of the collective expression for “The
Laws of Nature,” in short, a World Formula.
This belief in science and technology, where science becomes a “great
story,” has much in common with the myth of dogma-based cultures where
myth defines true knowledge, true values, and real beauty. Instead of be-
coming true liberating knowledge, science is, to a certain degree, finding
its limited viewpoint raised to a dogma called “the scientific worldview” that
promises to uncover the algorithms behind language and intelligence and
implement them in the computer.
From the French Age of Enlightenment’s philosophers, through
Comtes’s positivism, the ramifications of the Vienna Circle and logical
positivism, the idea of information has been interpreted in an increasingly
rationalistic and materialistic direction. Today this path has ended with the
split portrayed by C. P. Snow (1993) between “the two cultures,” where the
modern humanities in their divided specialization and often highly refined
aestheticism stand in weak opposition to financial power joined with a sci-
entific-technological system. The humanities have difficulty finding a com-
mon basis from which to formulate their value assumptions since they wish
neither to make ethics into religion or science, nor to define human na-
ture beyond sociolinguistic material consciousness. But even the mechan-
ical philosophy of nature’s rationality is being undermined inside science
itself through the so-called paradigm shift.
Here the task of formulating a new quantum mechanics has shown it-
self to be important. The discussions about Heisenberg’s Interdetermina-
cy Principle, the problems of measurement, and Bohr’s Complementarity
Theory relate to the cognitive limitations that quantum mechanics cogni-
tion sets for the traditional sciences. Ultimately concepts such as nonlin-
earity, chaos, and unpredictability are establishing themselves as fundamen-
tals in mathematics and science. In relation to its own self-understanding,
science has ended in a series of situations of powerlessness that should even-
tually lead to a deliberation over the status of scientific knowledge in a highly
industrialized society.
In spite of the increasing number of theoretical scientists and research-
ers who have acknowledged limitations in the scientific form of knowledge,
the Laplacian ideology of science seems to nevertheless influence a large
part of the system world. It is in this market-sphere that researchers must
find their grants. Perhaps that is why the “World-Formula Ideology” still
influences the headings of a series of larger research projects. For exam-
ple, work with the united Quantum Field Theoretical formulation of all pow-
ers’ and particles’ basic dynamics in the common mathematical description
today moves from the grand unified theory (GUT) to be formulated as “the
heterotic super string theory” as well as efforts to find and manipulate “the
fundamental laws of life” by uncovering “the genetic program in the hu-
man genome project.”
A similar idea is the assumed connection between the laws of nature,
logic and thought, and linguistic syntax. This lies behind the project that
attempts to uncover and transfer “the laws behind human intelligence” to
computers to create “artificial intelligence.” This also pertains to the
project’s more sophisticated continuation in “cognitive science” and cer-
tain forms of “information science.” The last project especially shows the
severe limitations of the mechanistic view of knowledge, nature, language,
and consciousness.
The information-processing paradigm will never succeed in describing
the central problems of mediating the semantic content of a message from
producer to user because it does not address the social and phenomeno-
logical aspects of cognition. Furthermore, it will fail because it is built on a
rationalistic epistemology and a mechanistic worldview with an unrealistic
world-formula-attitude toward science. Science can deal only with the de-
cidable, and, as Gödel has shown, there are undecidables even within math-
ematics. The problem with the now-classical functionalistic information-
processing paradigm is its inability to encompass the role of the observer.
It is the human perceptive and cognitive ability to gain knowledge and
communicate this in dialogue with others in a common language that is the
foundation of science. An awareness of this will lead one to start in the
middle instead of at the extremes, to start not with either subject or object,
but with the process of knowing in living systems. This is precisely what
second-order cybernetics and Peircian biosemiotics do.
634 library trends/winter 2004
The Cybernetic Turn
As one of the founders of second-order cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster
is keenly aware of the paradoxes of objectivity, the deterministic mechani-
cism of classical physics, and even modern quantum physics and relativity
thinking. He develops a position where he can offer dialogic theories of cog-
nition, language, and how reality and meaning are created in society.
Von Foerster (1984) demonstrates that if an organism is modeled as a
machine then it cannot be trivial (i.e., there is no deterministic mathemat-
ical description of its behavior). He therefore speaks of living systems as at
least nontrivial machines. The system organizes itself and produces its own
parts. The self-organizing ability and the historical dimension of living sys-
tems are important reasons why organisms are not trivial machines. They
are closed, self-organized systems. But this actually only makes the whole
problem more difficult. If information is not transferred from the environ-
ment to a mechanically describable system, what kind of dynamics are we
dealing with?
Von Foerster answers this question of information and dynamics as
follows: The organism reacts to disturbances/perturbation in its system by
means of self-referential dynamics (so as to conserve the sort of system it
seeks to be). The concept “outside” is not used because according to these
theories the concept “outside” or (objective) “reality” has no significant
objective meaning. As von Foerster explains:
. . . I see the notion of an observer-independent “Out There,” of “The
Reality” fading away very much . . . (Von Foerster, 1984, Preface)
In understanding the organization and function of information systems, it
is important to appreciate the role of system-regulated feedback from in-
fluential user groups of different parts of the system. This organizational
structure includes retrieval systems and user-interfaces. These feedback
analyses allow us to see information-storing and intermediary systems as self-
organizing cybernetic systems in a constant inner interaction that includes
users as causal parts of the system. Von Foerster formulates this basic insight
of cybernetics as follows:
Should one name one central concept, a first principle of cybernetics,
it would be circularity. Circularity as it appears in the circular flow of
signals in organizationally closed systems, or in “circular causality,” that
is, in processes in which ultimately a state reproduces itself. (Von Foe-
rster, 1992a, p. 226)
Transferred to document-mediating systems, this means that these systems
develop in a constant inner exchange between the producers’, indexers’,
and users’ intellectual horizons. Such an understanding is inspired by sys-
tems science and especially by the new second-order cybernetics (von Foe-
rster, 1979, 1984, 1992a), which works intentionally with the integration of
the observer’s observation process into the actual system description. This
promotes the understanding of the document-mediating systems and oth-
er informational systems as self-organizing processes.
Such systems cannot be controlled exclusively from within or without,
and the adequacy of their behavior and cognition should be judged by their
viability rather than by an objective idea of absolute truth, says another im-
portant contributor to second-order cybernetics, the radical constructivist
Ernst von Glasersfeld (1992). This places second-order cybernetics in the
same pragmatic as Wittgenstein’s language philosophy and Peirce’s semi-
otics. Blair (1990) makes use of a combination of these two theories in his
important book. Hjørland and Albrechtsen also rely to some degree on
pragmatic views of language, although not specifically on Wittgenstein
(1958) and Peirce (1931–58).
Cybernetics seeks to describe and explain how the function of struc-
tural constraints influences the development of self-organizing systems that
are now, due to the work of Maturana and Varela (1980), called autopoie-
tic systems. “Auto” means self and “poietic” means creation. Maturana and
Varela define an autopoietic system as one that produces its own limits and
organization through the production of the elements it consists of. It is
typical for second-order cyberneticians like Maturana (1988a) and von
Glasersfeld (1991) to take a deeper step into biology than most humanists.
Like Piaget, they descend to biology’s prelinguistic creatures. With their
concept of autopoiesis, Maturana and Varela (1980) show one of the rea-
sons for this. Maturana’s strength is his broad biological starting point in
living systems. With the concept of autopoiesis, he shows that organisms are
organizationally closed. The nervous system is also a closed circular system
that does not accept outside information in any objective sense. Perturba-
tions of the organism’s vital organization produce only knowledge in rela-
tion to the domain of distinctions that the organism has developed in rela-
tion to its own domain of living. Knowledge, therefore, also has a biological
foundation. The forms of distinguishing whether an organism or an observ-
er develops are not “true” in any universal sense. They acquire, however,
an operational effectiveness in relation to the life praxis of the system in
question. Viable patterns of differences are then established in the domain
of distinction as various kinds of objects. Along the same line of thinking,
von Foerster explains this bringing forth of objects and concepts:
Of interest are circumstances in which the dynamics of a system trans-
forms certain states into these very states, where the domain of states
may be numerical values, arrangements (arrays, vectors, configurations,
etc.), functions (polynomials, algebraic functions, etc.), functionals,
behaviors, and so on. Depending on domain and context, these states
are in theoretical studies referred to as “fixed points,” “eigenbehaviors,”
“eigenoperators,” and lately also as attractors, a terminology reintro-
ducing teleology in modern dress. Pragmatically, they correspond to
636 library trends/winter 2004
the computation of invariants, may they be object constancy, percep-
tual universals, cognitive invariants, identifications, namings, and so on.
(Von Foerster, 1992a, p. 226)
When we look at language as a means of information, it appears clear that
a word’s metaphorical meaning is dependent on the organization of the
living system (its body) and its context of living, as opposed to context-free
computer language (Lakoff, 1987). Meanings are the result of a coupling
process based on joint experiences. This is an important foundation for all
languages and all semiosis. Words do not carry meaning, rather meanings
are perceived on the basis of the perceiver’s background experience. Per-
cepts and words are not signals, but a perturbation whose effect depends
on system cohesion. After a long period of interaction, a concept acquires
a conventional meaning (eigen behavior) within a certain domain. The
perception and interpretation of words force choices that give opportuni-
ties for action and meaning (Luhmann, 1990, p. 32).
This conception is complementary to “the transmission model” where
one imagines packages of information sent via language from a sender to
a receiver. In the cognitive view, this is modified to consider that which is
sent as only potential information. In second-order cybernetics, biological
and societal contexts are made explicit through the theory of autopoiesis,
and there is a clear understanding of the pragmatic origins of knowledge
from different knowledge domains. Von Foerster summarizes this position
in the following:
Another case of a net with circular organization that cannot be mapped
onto a plane is autopoiesis . . . an autopoietic system consists of interac-
tive components whose interactions produce these very same compo-
nents. Autopoiesis is thus a special case of self-organizing systems, whose
organization is its own eigen-organization . . . the notion of autopoiesis
allows the phenomenon of language to emerge as a consequence, as
the eigen behavior, of the recursive interactions of two organisms, each
in need of the other for the realization of its own autopoiesis . . .
Because language can speak of itself having language, syntax, word, and
so forth in its vocabulary, in conversations speakers can speak of them-
selves, thus preserving their autonomy in a social context by uttering,
for example, the first-person singular pronoun in the nominative case,
“I,” thus generating the shortest self-referential loop . . .
It is precisely at this point that the perspectives of second-order cyber-
netics can be seen. . . . Second-order cybernetics invites you to leave
Helmholtz’s locus observandi and to step into the dynamic circularity of
human give-and-take by becoming part and partner of the universe of
discourse and the discourse on the universe. (Von Foerster, 1992a, p. 311)
Language is therefore a self-organized, self-reflecting circular system based
on interactions of autopoietic systems that have the same kind of organi-
In this view, language emerges from a mutual coupling between humans
in society (whose consciousness emerges in the self-same process) through
a long historical process. Meaning and the semantic level in language are
“sense created in common,” and it is this understanding, and not some di-
rect objective empirical reference, that is language’s most important refer-
ence. The meaning of a word changes as a consequence of historical drift,
which is largely accidental. The development occurs partly because people
that communicate never have completely identical “horizons of understand-
ing” (Gadamer, 1975). The meanings of concepts are created, maintained,
or developed within discourse communities, a domain, a culture, or a soci-
ety among biopsychological systems having a material body.
What are the organizational principles, if any, of the observation or
cognition generating the living systems? Organisms are not only dissipative
structures. They are also self-organized. As systems, they produce their own
elements, internal organization, and boundaries. The system is organiza-
tionally closed, including the nervous system. All nerve cells impinge upon
each other. The senses have no privileged position. Maturana and Varela
claim that there is no “inside” or “outside” for the nervous system, but only
a maintenance of correlations that continuously change. The nervous sys-
tem thus does not “pick up information” from its surroundings. Instead it
“brings forth a world.” This is done by specifying which perturbations of
the sensory surface will lead to changes in the system’s behavior. This is
determined by the system’s organization. As these interactions are repeat-
ed over a period of time, the changes of states that are triggered by the
interactions will be adapted by the structure of the nervous system. These
repetitions will be conserved as sensory-motor correlations. The repetitions
of sensory-motor correlation patterns are conserved as part of the structural
dynamics of the network. Structural couplings are established. Thinking is
the part of sensory-motor correlations that occurs in the relations of the
observer. Thinking takes place in the interactions or relations of the observ-
er as coordination of behavior.
The problem here is how the scientific community sees the connection
between nature and mind or between the universe and the world of life,
mind, and meaning. In Maturana and Varela’s vision, the autopoietic sys-
tem is closed in its structure-dependent organization. The environment, or
a world, is only constructed by another observer. But who is this observer?
Is it another autopoietic system that also only exists through the observa-
tion of another autopoietic system, observing the observing system and its
surroundings? The “picture” of the environment is constructed through a
society of observers making structural couplings to the environment and
to each other through languaging. This leaves unanswered the question
about who made the first distinction between system and environment.
Maturana and Varela take biological systems, society, and language for grant-
ed, but not the environment. Instead of the usual physicalism, this is a bi-
638 library trends/winter 2004
ologistic worldview. It is an important step forward, but not a sufficient
answer to the basic epistemological and ontological questions of how cog-
nition, information, and communication are possible.
Spencer-Brown (1972), the philosopher and logician who came to
mean so much to second-order cybernetics and autopoiesis theory, was
aware of this question. He poses the metaphysical question differently than
others in the sciences. He includes the process of observing as an impor-
tant part of basic reality, which, as we shall see later, places him near Peirce,
who includes feeling in his concept of (unmanifest) Firstness. In light of
the developments of thermodynamics, chaos theory, and nonlinear dynam-
ics, today there is a tendency to change metaphysics from mechanics’ law-
determined to a probabilistic worldview. Many researchers, however, cling
to the mechanistic ideal while accepting the practical impossibility of deal-
ing with large ensembles of atoms. These cannot be modeled except with
probabilistic models. Prigogine and Stengers (1984) have shown the incon-
sistency in this approach that rejects chance as something real and only as
a subjective lack of knowledge. Their point is that objective chance is the
source of irreversibility and evolution, and therefore its products, such as
scientists themselves. There is a true metaphysical dilemma in modern
physics and information science. If one is a mechanicist and believes that
everything—including our brain and cognitive apparatus—is governed by
mathematical laws, then all we are is the expression of a world formula in
search of itself.
Alternatively, we are the products of chaos and chance, what Richard
Dawkins (1987) calls the blind watchmaker of evolution working through
selfish genes. No matter what theories one holds, in this metaphysics they
will, in the end, only be a product of pure coincidence. Something is epis-
temologically wrong with this framework and its concepts. This is what sec-
ond-order cybernetics attempts to solve by developing sociobiological con-
structivism. But it then fails to answer the question of how the first
observation that distinguished between system and nonsystem was possible.
How did the first distinction between the marked and the unmarked state,
as stated by Spencer-Brown in “The Laws of Form,” come about in a world
of structure-dependent systems? Varela (1975) points to self-reference as
the crucial factor in his development of a calculus based on Spencer-Brown’s
work. But from where can it arise? Constructivism cannot avoid ontologi-
cal problems. Some believe that the special quality of constructivism as a
scientific paradigm is its avoidance of ontological questions. But in my view,
even constructivism cannot avoid stating its preconditions. Of course, I
speak of a constructivism that goes beyond the social constructivism that
takes nature for granted and as objective and therefore is not able to in-
corporate a natural history of observing systems. Even if one has a “cookie-
cutter-constructivist viewpoint,” where one’s perception and concept cuts
out the form of some basic “world stuff,” one would have to say something
about the minimal requirement in order for this “stuff” to become con-
scious linguistic systems. As we saw in the above quote from Spencer-Brown,
he actually suggests a basic self-referent quality in the world/universe as the
process that started evolution.
Although the theories and concepts of von Foerster and Maturana led
to a much better grasp of the basic situation of observing and cognition,
they seem, in their radicalism, to have removed too much when they ne-
glect even “das Ding an sich.” The problem is that they have attempted to
find a scientific solution to a basically philosophical problem. Many social
constructivistics, on the other hand, avoid these basic questions.
On the other hand, both von Foerster’s second-order cybernetics and
Maturana’s “bring-forth-ism” are correct to focus our attention on creative
processes in perception and cognition. As I have already attempted to dem-
onstrate, one cannot resolve the problem of mind and intentionality in an
evolutionary philosophy through either mechanical materialism or physi-
cal indeterminism. Nor do I believe that this can be accomplished through
pure phenomenalistic idealism, subjective constructivism, or mentalism, all
of which underestimate the importance of the relative stability of the “out-
side” world to the possibility of knowledge, communication, and meaning.
In the discussion of differences and similarities in cognition and prob-
lem-solving in people and computers, the Dreyfus brothers (1986) and
Winograd and Flores (1987) have used Heidegger’s concepts such as “das
ein,” which underlines the “thrownness” of humans in the world. They use
this concept to show that a person’s relationship to the world is fundamen-
tally different from that of the digital computer. Winograd and Flores use
Maturana’s theory of autopoiesis and the closure of the nervous system to
show that this basic condition is common to both people and animals. The
basic situation toward the environment is not objective and separated. The
“domain of living,” a basic concept from Maturana, is rather an integrated
part of the structure of the system predating any cognitive separation be-
tween self and nonself.
This epistemological foundation of second-order cybernetics connects
it to important points in Heidegger’s phenomenology. The important point
from Heidegger is that as observers we are always already a part of the world
when we start to describe it. When we start to describe it, we, to a certain
degree, separate ourselves from the wholeness of the world of our living
praxis. This is an important development of the second-order cybernetic
and system thinking.
Niklas Luhmann (1990, p. 3) continues this development when he
summarizes how cybernetics and the concept of autopoiesis in Maturana’s
definition provide a new way of looking at things, while he simultaneously
maintains a sophisticated realism:
640 library trends/winter 2004
. . . autopoietic systems “are systems that are defined as unities as net-
works of productions of components that recursively, through their
interactions, generate and realize the network that produces them and
constitute, in the space in which they exist, the boundaries of the net-
work as components that participate in the realization of the network.”
Autopoietic systems then are not only self-organizing systems, they not
only produce and eventually change their own structures; their self-ref-
erence applies to the production of other components as well. This is the
decisive conceptual innovation. It adds a turbocharger to the already
powerful engine of self-referential machines. Even elements, that is, last
components (in-dividuals) that are, at least for the system itself, unde-
composable, are produced by the system itself. Thus, everything that
is used as a unit by the system is produced as a unit by the system itself.
This applies to elements, processes, boundaries, and other structures
and, last but not least, to the unity of the system itself. Autopoietic sys-
tems, then, are sovereign with respect to the constitution of identities
and differences. They, of course, do not create a material world of their
own. They presuppose other levels of reality, as for example human life
presupposes the small span of temperature in which water is liquid. But
whatever they use as identities and as differences is of their own mak-
ing. In other words, they cannot import identities and differences from
the outer world; these are forms about which they have to decide them-
selves. (Luhmann, 1990, p. 3)
Hence, we need a more sophisticated theory of how these identities and
differences develop, rather than resorting to the usual materialistic mech-
anism, eliminative materialistic theories, or functionalistic theories of mind.
But it must be supplemented by a theory of signs and signification, as well
as theories about those biological and social systems to which the difference
can make a difference, as cybernetics largely addresses the circularity of
differences in self-organized systems. To go deeper into an understanding
of the process, one must analyze the whole process of sign making, as C. S.
Peirce does in his semiotics, and discuss the functionality of meaning, which
is an important aspect of Luhmann’s theories.
My concern here has been the function of the concept of “outside re-
ality” in the analysis of behaviors of autopoietic or “observing systems.”
Although one has rightly abandoned the notion of “objective reality” in
second-order cybernetics, one should not give up the notion of a partly
independent “outside reality.” There is something lacking in the phenom-
enalistic or idealistic constructivist position that is not corrected by repeat-
edly referring to “experienced reality.” We cannot avoid ontological con-
siderations, but they must, of course, be constantly developed through
critical epistemological discussions and analysis. We need to develop a more
refined and complex understanding of the role of the concepts of reality
in relation to our understanding of our own processes of knowing.
Since we cannot avoid speaking of the nature of aspects of reality as a
prerequisite for various scientific paradigms, I suggest it would be more
fruitful to regard it not just as complex, but also as hypercomplex. Reality,
both in its entirety and its local manifestations, cannot be reduced to some-
thing simple, deterministic or random, material or spiritual, or be contained
in a linguistic or mathematical formulation. The spontaneous, intention-
al, anticipatory mind is an irreducible part of that same reality. We never
will be able to completely separate subject and object, for our own science
nor for the intentional systems we study.
For at least two hundred years, science has recognized that living beings
are an intrinsic part of physical and chemical realities. For more than one
hundred years, it has been recognized that humans and their culture are
an intrinsic part of the biological aspect of reality. Whereas physical and
chemical aspects have been considered basic for the universe, it is only within
the last thirty years that it has been realized how deeply connected our bio-
logical aspect is to the whole development of the universe. We are now on
the brink of discovering how the psyche penetrates the basic levels of our
reality as Bateson (1972), Bohm (1983), and Peirce (1931–58) have posited.
Because of reality’s hypercomplexity, there will always be “noise” in all
measurements that will affect our results unpredictably. We always “cut” in
an arbitrary way between the observed system and ourselves and between the
observed system and its “environment” as we define it through our own ex-
periences and our attempts to explain the “reactions” of observed system(s).
Galilean science has dominated us for over three hundred years. It has
shown that reality has aspects amenable to exact mathematical analysis. This
has been an enormously productive insight. We must admit that even mind
has its “sluggish” sides, especially in a primitive nervous system, which may
be partially describable by functional laws. This does not mean, however,
that the content of all behavior and language can be transferred to com-
puters, as some eliminative materialists and functionalists believe. There is
a hypercomplex “background problem” of individual and historical origin.
In both physics and psychology (especially the latter) that which can be
described formally has its background in that which is not formally describ-
able: the hypercomplex phenomena, which besides the predictable, and
regular, are also comprised of the spontaneous, unpredictable (chaotic),
intentional, and unconscious.
In evolutionary philosophy—which does not deny that reality can pos-
sess “deep” but formally indescribable absolute features—we may see the
development of even more complex and selectively unstable, “far from equi-
librium” individual environment systems. Maturana and Varela’s autopoi-
etic systems are one example of nature’s ability to reflect in ever-increas-
ing degrees the spontaneous, unpredictable, and intentional sides of reality.
This ability allows these systems to be centers of their own and to draw a
line between themselves as systems and their environment. Through the
use of language in society, systems can finally represent themselves socially
and by such means establish an individual, curious point of view from which
to reflect on knowledge, existence, and meaning.
642 library trends/winter 2004
A productive point of departure is to assume that none of these knowl-
edge systems should be placed in a position of authority where it does not
need to answer to critiques from the others. It is dangerous to claim that
one of them can provide all necessary information. Let me give some ex-
amples of how this has been done in several moments in history.
In the classical period of Greece, general philosophy tried to dominate
empirical science. Most philosophers were skeptical about the value of
empirical knowledge and the development of technology.
In the Middle Ages, Catholic scholastics had the same position as Is-
lam has today in Iran. Revealed knowledge was true knowledge and deter-
mined the limits and influence of other kinds of knowledge.
In the Soviet Union up until the 1970s, dialectical materialism held the
same position, banning and destroying routes of investigation that were
leading in directions other than the basic ideology.
Right now the major problem in our culture seems to be that for a long
period a certain kind of mechanistic science had the major authority and
reduced the influence of other areas of knowledge. Ethical and aestheti-
cal knowledge, for example, has been reduced to subjective emotional
opinions to which no general value can be ascribed, and semantic content
has been neglected in linguistics.
The scientific endeavor in the postmodern age is becoming increasingly
complex and transdisciplinary. Researchers and practitioners within the
fields of the arts and natural, medical, and social sciences have been forced
together by new developments in communication and knowledge technol-
ogies that broke the traditional limits of professional knowledge. They are
further forced together by problems arising from the limitation of the kinds
of knowledge that we have cherished so far.
The shortcoming of traditional information and communication anal-
ysis based on data or information-flow theories is raising fundamental prob-
lems with respect to the construction and organization of knowledge sys-
tems. New concepts of communication can help us understand and develop
social systems such as self-organizing and self-producing networks, and we
need a deeper understanding of the ethics and aesthetics foundational to
the existence of these new systems. Instead of communication of informa-
tion, we might speak of a jointly actualized meaning.
It is important to find a genuinely nonreductionist interdisciplinary
view of knowledge that allows different kinds of knowledge to interact in a
nonideological way. Only then may we develop a new view of cognition,
signification, information, and communication and the relation between
culture, nature, and our own bodies. It is difficult to change the way we think
of the world, of our society, and of our own lives. But as Bateson (1972) has
pointed out, this is the major key to change, and many things point to the
need for such a change if we are to survive and make the leap to a new glo-
bal culture.
At the present time, two nonmechanistic transdisciplinary frameworks
have drawn attention to their attempt to form a fruitful dialogue between
Snow’s two possible cultures. These are the second-order cybernetics and
autopoiesis theory of von Foerster, H. Maturana, F. Varela, and N. Luhmann
and C. S. Peirce’s triadic semiotics in the form of biosemiotics, especially
as developed by Thomas Sebeok (1976), Jesper Hoffmeyer (1997), and
Claus Emmeche (1998).
The theory of autopoiesis solves some of Bateson’s problems about for
whom the difference makes a difference, even though the relation between
mind and matter is still unclear. Maturana and Varela’s concepts of auto-
poiesis and multiversa are invoked. But where deriving information from
the concept of neg-entropy is too physicalistic, Maturana’s idea of a multi-
verse is too close to constructivistic idealism. To develop a more fruitful
nonreductionist worldview, it is shown that a more pragmatic understand-
ing of physics, such as Prigogine and Stengers, where thermodynamics is
understood as the basic discipline and mechanics as an idealization, opens
the space for a nonreductionist conceptualization of chaos. This is not ful-
ly developed in their theory. Attention is drawn to C. S. Peirce’s concep-
tion of pure chance as living spontaneity with a tendency to make habits as
a realistic but nonreductionist theory that comprises a solution to the world-
view problems of Bateson, Maturana, Prigogine, and Stengers and the ethol-
ogists. A fruitful connection between second-order cybernetics and semi-
otics will then be possible through the new biosemiotics, Hoffmeyer (1997),
and until and with Emmeche, and a bridge between the technical-scientific
and the humanistic-social parts of cybernetics can be developed as Cyber-
Let me briefly sketch how I see Peirce’s work and its value as a trans-
disciplinary framework for information, communication, and cognitive sci-
ences before I attempt a more detailed analysis.
Following Peirce, I believe that our problem is that we view chaos as
the absence of law, which is a negative definition. It’s closer to the original
Greek definition of “Chaos” as the origin of the world of time, space, ener-
gy, and information (Gaia), where Eros is the creative evolutionary force
and mathematics only a way to bond back to the source, not the answer in
itself. Abraham (1993) points this out in his attempt to resurrect the Or-
phic tradition to encompass the knowledge of modern science and chaos
theory. Peirce already has done important work on this construction of a
new framework, and even more importantly he integrates it with both a
transdisciplinary theory of signification in his semiotics and an evolution-
ary theory of logic through his concept of vagueness.
An important difference between modern physics and Peirce’s theory
lies in the conception of chaos and Peirce’s unique triadic theory of basic
categories. I will not describe or discuss the triadic theory of signification
and semiosis at any length here. Instead, I offer a central quotation from
644 library trends/winter 2004
the Monist-paper, “The Architecture of Theories,” which clearly states the
direction and possibilities of the theory of his three metaphysical catego-
ries: Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness (see also Christiansen, 1995).
Three conceptions are perpetually turning up at every point in every
theory of logic, and in the most rounded systems they occur in connec-
tion with one another. They are conceptions so very broad and conse-
quently indefinite that they are hard to seize and may be easily over-
looked. I call them the conception of First, Second, Third. 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 a second are brought into relation. . . . The origin of things, con-
sidered not as leading to anything, but in itself, contains the idea of
First, the end of things that of Second, the process of mediating be-
tween them that of Third. . . . In psychology Feeling is First, Sense of
reaction Second, General conception Third, . . . In biology, the idea of
arbitrary sporting is First, heredity is Second, the process whereby the
accidental characters become fixed is Third. Chance is First, Law is
second, the tendency to take habits is Third. Mind is First, Matter is
Second, Evolution is Third.
Such are the materials out of which chiefly a philosophical theory
ought to be built, in order to represent the state of knowledge . . . it
would be a Cosmogenic Philosophy. It would suppose that in the be-
ginning—infinitely remote—there was a chaos of unpersonalized feel-
ing, which being without connection or regularity would properly be
without existence. This feeling, sporting here and there in pure arbi-
trariness, would have started the germ of a generalizing tendency. Its
other sportings would be evanescent, but this would have a growing
virtue. Thus, the tendency to take habits would be started; and from
this, with the other principles of evolution, all regularities of the uni-
verse would be evolved. At any time, however, an element of pure
chance survives and will remain until the world becomes an absolutely
perfect, rational, and symmetrical system, in which mind is at last crys-
tallized in the infinitely distant future. (Peirce, 1955, pp. 322–323)
Translated into second-order cybernetic concepts, Secondness is the first
distinction made by an observer marked by a primary sign, the Represen-
tamen. The observer is Peirce’s Interpretant that belongs to Thirdness. Only
through this triadic semiosis can cognition be created. To become infor-
mation, differences must be seen as signs for the observer. This happens
when they become internally developed Interpretants. Peirce writes about
this in his famous definition of the sign process:
A Sign, or Representamen, is a First which stands in a genuine triadic
relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining
a Third, called its Interpretant, to assume the same triadic relation to its
Object in which it stands itself to the same Object. . . . A Sign is a Rep-
resentamen with a mental Interpretant. (Peirce, 1955, pp. 99–100)
The object here is that aspect of reality that the Representamen signifies.
In a way, Peirce’s Object is also a sign. Peirce’s semiotic philosophy devel-
ops cognitive science beyond the limitations of rationalistic and mechanis-
tic information, as I—and many others—have pointed out. It is an Aristo-
telian, golden middle between the mechanicist at one extreme and the pure
(nonontological) constructivist at the other. Like Aristotle, Peirce is a syn-
echist (“matter” is continuous) and a hylozoist (“matter” has an internal
cognitive-emotional aspect). From this we get a non-Cartesian cognitive
formulation for science with no absolute predistinction between mind and
matter and a field view of “substance” that is compatible with modern quan-
tum field theory and general relativity theory. Most forces are described
today by fields, as are subatomic “particles.” These fields are not actually
“matter” as classical physics perceived it in atomistic mechanics. The devel-
opment of thermodynamics as one of the most fundamental physical the-
ories deploys time and evolution at the basis of physical theory in a way
clearly beyond classical mechanistic physics.
When we create deep scientific theories such as information science,
we cannot avoid reflecting on the nature of reality as a prerequisite for our
various scientific paradigms. It is far too presumptuous to claim that basic
knowledge is expressible in one unified and precise form. There are no
“ideas” or mathematical “world formulas” waiting to be uncovered in basic
reality. Like Peirce, I believe that basic reality or Firstness starts as vague-
ness and only later develops into distinct forms. No doubt, mathematics has
a lot to say about the possibilities and limits of our epistemological situa-
tion and is able to connect us back to reality as Abraham (1993) suggests.
Nor can we a priori expect words to fully describe “the universe” or “basic
reality,” because our investigations show that signs and concepts work on
differences in local contexts. There does appear to be intrinsic order in re-
ality, although it may be partly created by the process of cognition itself.
In ethology one says that ritualized instinctive behavior becomes sign
stimuli in the coordination of behavior between, for instance, the two sexes
of a species in their mating play. So—as it is already in the language of ethol-
ogy—a piece of behavior or coloration of plumage in movement, for in-
stance, becomes a sign for the coordination of a specific behavior. It is the
mood and context that determine the biological meaning of these signs,
which are true triadic signs. Ethology presents a fundamental ecological and
evolutionary view on cognition and behavior that dovetails with how Peirce
conceives the construction of meaning. We see here the aptness of Peirce’s
sign definitions. It is from Collected Papers 1–339 and is an unidentified
fragment (he wrote about 100,000 pages), but it is still commonly recognized:
The easiest of those, which are of philosophical interest, is the idea of
a sign, or representation. A sign stands for something to the idea, which
it produces, or modifies. Or, it is a vehicle conveying into the mind
something from without. That for which it stands is called its object;
that which it conveys, its meaning; and the idea to which it gives rise,
its interpretant. The object of representation can be nothing but a
representation of which the first representation is the interpretant. But
646 library trends/winter 2004
an endless series of representations, each representing the one behind
it, may be conceived to have an absolute object at its limit. The mean-
ing of a representation can be nothing but a representation. In fact, it
is nothing but the representation itself conceived as stripped of irrele-
vant clothing. But this clothing never can be completely stripped off;
it is only changed for something more diaphanous. So there is an in-
finite regression here. Finally, the interpretant is nothing but another
representation to which the torch of truth is handed along; and as rep-
resentation, it has its interpretant again. Lo, another infinite series.
(Peirce, CP, 1–339)
There is no final and true object and representation. Both are under con-
stant evolution. The meaning of a sign (a Representamen) is determined
by the context, christened “life form” by Wittgenstein, that makes the con-
cept usable in biological contexts. For instance, the red belly of a female
stickleback is the Representamen for a male autopoietic system languaging
with the female—because it is in a sexual mood—creating in him the In-
terpretant that she is worth mating with. Mating or reproduction is the
Object, which is a biosocial construct. It is a context for the play of signs
that in this specific mood of mating attains shared meanings based on an
evolutionary established habit:
In the first place, a “Representamen,” like a word,—indeed, most words
are representamens—, is not a single thing, but is of the nature of a
mental habit, it consists in the fact that, something would be. (Peirce,
Peirce changed Kant’s categories of pure reason—with their awe for me-
chanical science and classical logic—to three natural categories bridging
mind and nature. As mentioned above, he called them Firstness, Second-
ness, and Thirdness. In Peirce’s semiotics, everything in nature is a poten-
tial sign. This is a meeting point with Bateson from cybernetics, where in-
formation is a difference that makes a difference, if one chooses to view
every difference as potential information that becomes informative through
semiosis. With Peirce we can say that differences become information when
an interpreter sees them as signs.
The implication of this is that qualia and “the inner life” are potentially
there from the beginning, but they need a nervous system to achieve full
manifestation. Peirce speaks of the potential qualities of Firstness. The point
is that organisms and their nervous systems do not create mind and qualia.
The qualia of mind develop through interaction with nervous systems, which
living bodies develop into still more manifested forms. Peirce’s point is that
this manifestation happens through the development of sign process.
Second-order cybernetics sees information as an internal creation of an
autopoietic system in response to a perturbation. Only in established struc-
tural couplings can signs acquire meaning. Second-order cybernetics brings
to semiotics the ideas of closeness, structural couplings, and languaging.
The suggestive value is always working in the context of a life form, both
in biology and in human cultural life. The key to the understanding of
understanding and communication is that both animals and humans live
in self-organized Umwelts that they not only project around themselves, but
also project deep inside their systems. The organization of signs and the
meanings they attain through habits of the mind and body follow from the
principles of second-order cybernetics, in that they produce their own eigen
values of signs and meanings, and thereby their own internal mental orga-
nization that is then projected onto the environment.
In humans, these signs are organized into language through social self-
conscious communication, and accordingly our universe is organized as and
through texts. But that is, of course, not an explanation of meaning. It is
an attempt to describe the dynamics of meaning-generating and sharing
systems and how they are organized.
Peirce’s reflexive or cybernetic definition of the interpretant points to
culture, history, and the never-ending search for truth and knowledge. It
considers habits and historical drift—as Maturana and Varela (1980) do—
as the social constructors of meaning. Evolutionary science attempts to find
relatively stable patterns and dynamic modes (habits); it is not a science of
eternal laws (a grand narration). As it is dealing with living systems in an
empirical manner, it cannot adopt the dualistic ontological view of mech-
anistic materialism. A more comprehensive view must be found.
The Necessity of an Alternative Epistemology in
LIS Context
I have not created a brand-new theory of LIS that reveals the correct
way to design, maintain, run, and mediate document-mediating systems to
different domains and user-groups on worldwide, connected computer
systems. My task has been to create a theoretical framework that encompass-
es the problematique that librarians and documentalists have struggled with
for centuries. No comprehensive, theoretical framework in LIS encompass-
es all interdisciplinary aspects of the subject, although the field is becom-
ing increasingly scientific and technical.
A science must at least have a reflected metatheory of the subject area
over which it claims cognitive authority. Without that, the science cannot
compete and discuss with other sciences what “true” LIS is, or what is unique
about the work of librarians and documentalists such that the subject de-
serves to be recognized as a science with cognitive authority by other fields,
such as computer science and AI. Few computer scientists recognize that
DR (document retrieval) is as complex as the other many areas for which
computer science has tried to create automated expert systems, and that
DR attempts to form a new logic for the field of LIS. Keith van Rijsbergen,
for instance, proposed a “logic of uncertainty” (1996, pp. 1–10) that seems
to have impacted fields outside of LIS.
648 library trends/winter 2004
The computer has seduced us into framing our questions within its
algorithms, so that we have forgotten to maintain and develop a theoreti-
cal framework for our subject area that allows us to see beyond the hori-
zon of the computer and to make demands of those researchers develop-
ing computer systems. If we do not provide a metatheoretical description
of our own area, it becomes difficult for others, such as computer scientists
and software developers, to understand that they have entered a new terri-
tory with different rules. We must provide a strong theoretical understand-
ing of the difference between physical and intellectual access. The growth
of the Internet makes this knowledge more important every day.
What is new in the Cybersemiotic approach is the knitting together of
a theoretical framework for LIS from recognized theories of cybernetics,
systems, semiotics, communication, and language that span the gap between
technical, scientific, social scientific, and humanistic approaches to the
design and development of DR-systems in LIS. This transdisciplinary frame-
work will make communication between the different approaches and the-
ories of these processes possible, without reducing everything to mere in-
formation processing, as was done in the textbook Information Science in
Theory and Practice. (Vickery & Vickery, 1989).
One of the most important theoretical moves within LIS, coined by
Belkin and Ingwersen as “The Cognitive Viewpoint,” was to change the
concept of information from Vickery and Vickery’s objectivistic-mechanis-
tic view where the observer plays no vital role, to a more semiotic and pro-
cess-oriented view where the observer is foundational. Belkin and Ingwers-
en posit that what are objectively exchanged between living communicators,
or between documents and users, are signs and not information. Signs are
potential information. They depend on the interpretation of the receiver.
There is no information without an interpreter. This theory is in accordance
with the practice in LIS of beginning a search for semantic relationships
between concepts used in documents, and indexing in the human social
realm of discourse communities and knowledge domains, rather than in
an objective universal classification schema.
It is clear that the document is a sign of the domain and further that its
meaning is anchored in the ground of the domain. There is a semantic/semi-
otic exchange of meaning between the domain and the document. This se-
mantic exchange makes it possible to index while maintaining a contextual
understanding of the descriptor. What we (Thellefsen, Brier, & Thellefsen,
2003) call the significance-level concepts of the domain is an expression of self-
understanding within the domain. It is a concept inspired by Rosch’s (1973,
75, 78)work on basic level use of classification in ordinary language.
In specialized knowledge systems such as the sciences, there is a seman-
tic/semiotic relation between document and domain, and therefore the
context of the documents appears in the descriptors as a metaphorical dis-
placement that maintains their meanings through the ground of the
domain. Indexing theory is capable of maintaining the context of the doc-
uments in the indexing, provided that it is possible to identify the basic level
use in that given knowledge domain. This is what we call the significance-
level concepts of the domain.
The words Rosch uses as examples of basic-level concepts are all every-
day words—oak, chair, table, lamp—not words that are part of a scientific
domain. Is it possible, within a knowledge domain, to identify basic-level
terms at a scientific level?
If we posit that basic-level concepts are signs, we must expect that these
signs can alter their (information) nature according to the knowledge-lev-
el of a single user, so that the basic-level theory also will apply to special-
ized knowledge domains. We (Thellefsen, Brier, & Thellefsen, 2003) have
chosen to call this level the significance-level, and to call the fact that the
concepts at this level submit the most information to certain users the signifi-
cance-effect of the concepts.
As signs, the words oak, fugue, or autopoiesis are similar. As nouns
(Rhemes), they all refer to a certain idea on a basic-level. However, it is
decisive that the user of the sign is able to understand and thus conceptu-
alize the sign. Therefore signs, which are analogous to basic-levelness, ap-
pear to work as a conceptualizing function at all levels of cognition. This
argues solidly for the possibility of understanding terms within specialized
knowledge domains as signs of conceptualization at the significance-level.
By indexing with the identified concepts at the significance-level, is it pos-
sible to signal the ground of the domain in the descriptors. On this basis,
there is good reason to believe that the sign-function of the concepts at the
significance-level has the greatest information value and strength of refer-
ence to the interpreter. That is why indexing with significance-level concepts
specific to a defined user group submits the most information to this group.
Embodied cognitive semantics and pragmatic semiotics are excellent tools
for analyzing the ground of a knowledge domain and are regarded as the
best way to index documents within a knowledge domain.
Summarizing the conceptual changes suggested by the above analysis,
I underline that knowledge is not just a lexically, logically organized, and
truth-oriented cognitive structure; it is also a historically and culturally de-
termined preunderstanding, as hermeneutics suggest, and a bodily-biolog-
ical evolutionary preunderstanding of the autopoietic system, as second-
order cyberneticians and cognitive semantics suggest. It is through body,
culture, and awareness that we create feelings, meaning, and rationality.
Knowledge is therefore both logical-rational-structural and meaning-emo-
tional-processual. One overlooks something decisively important about
human intelligence and cognitive ability if, as logical positivists attempted,
one separates these two aspects.
To accept a social pragmatic theory is to acknowledge that semantics
springs from a sociolinguistic context, not from referential truth conditions.
650 library trends/winter 2004
One must adapt the system, or at least the mediation of it through human
or machine intermediaries, to both the domain of knowledge and to how
the organization actually uses that domain based on its interests and lan-
guage games. Liebenau and Backhouse (1990) have already seen this in MIS
(management information systems), of which document-mediating systems
are an integral part. They offer practical business examples of why it is
necessary to analyze the work task of the company, its knowledge domain,
and the practical meaning of concepts before attempting to implement an
information system.
Liebenau and Backhouse (1990) outline a research strategy for MIS that
also applies to bibliographic systems that fit into an organization. One
should start with a pragmatic analysis of the informal communication sys-
tem. This is the most powerful semiotic force to which any information
system must adapt, and as Lakoff (1987) demonstrates, its semantic patterns
are neither logical nor random—they are motivated. This accords with the
cybernetic view of information as generated within an autopoietic system,
and language communication as occurring within generalized media.
Motivation stems from the type of media, but the actual language game
chosen within the media determines a large part of the motivation for the
relationship between concepts. If there is no proper feedback between pro-
ducers, indexers, and users, the system will not produce information—it
will not fulfill our expectations. We all participate in several language games
simultaneously, but professionally we must consciously select and maintain
one at a time whenever possible. As information is only potential when there
is no interpretant, the only information in our systems is relevant retrieved
documents. This further supports much of Bates’s work on the sense-mak-
ing approach (1989).
The pragmatic approach generally means, as previously mentioned,
that a philosophy of science analysis of the domains/subject area/work tasks
and paradigms in science, as well as a knowledge sociological analysis of
communication patterns such as the discourse analysis of written text, are
important for describing the decisive context of the use of our systems. They
must be adjusted to our context, work task, and the budget allotted the
research. These methods should be supplemented by questionnaires, as-
sociation tests, and registration methods. The expense of this research is a
challenge, but the willingness to pay for basic research is connected to the
users’ awareness of how central insights into the sociopragmatic linguistic
framework are to the performance of the designed systems. We are mov-
ing past the phase of unreflective fascination with electronic systems and
into a more realistic evaluation of how they can help us mediate commu-
nications between humans via documents. If one considers Ingwersen’s
(1992) analysis of what a mediator system must do to function properly, one
realizes we cannot expect machines to solve the complexity of human com-
munication without human mediation.
This knowledge also tells us that there is limited utility to the enormous
scientific and technical bibliographic bases where many millions of docu-
ments have been categorized into Boolean systems by trained documental-
ists. Here, the users are the documentalists themselves, and the trained
researchers from part of the domain search bases that have not been made
generally accessible through the Internet. New digital libraries based on the
same outdated principles and word-to-word matches are constantly being
established. A bibliographic system such as BIOSIS, based on the present
theory, will only truly function within a community of biologists. This means
that both the producers and the users must be biologists—and so must the
indexers. Even then there will be difficulties, because the producers and
the users of the bibliographic database also will be researchers. This is a life
form that follows a language game different from that of indexers. But if
indexers maintain contact with both users and producers, solicit their feed-
back, attend their conferences, and investigate their ways of utilizing liter-
ature and scientific concepts, the system will holistically produce informa-
tion. One should not understand document-mediating systems as merely
information keepers and deliverers. They are information producers, once
we include interactions with users as part of the system!
In enormous, outdated, domain-specific systems, we have to accept a
centrally organized knowledge system. We can simplify through menu-driv-
en systems only at the cost of speed and precision. We can help users un-
derstand what kind of system they are working with by providing thesauri
to consult and work from directly. We can remind them to consider specific
vital details by asking them to answer questions as part of an obligatory
procedure. All this is now done in new types of interfaces. Blair (1990)
suggests offering users the opportunity to view extracts of papers that the
use of specific index terms will access, and what other users have accessed
using similar searches. Any technique that helps users understand the lan-
guage game they are participating in, how it is structured, and how words
work within it is fruitful when combined with opportunities to navigate,
explore, and learn the system by oneself.
In these cases we cannot bring the system to the user, so we must bring
the user to the system. This will not happen if we simply install a natural
language processing interface that tells users that this system will do most
of the thinking for them. We should clarify that these systems only help users
who do not have the time or ability for other types of search process, be-
cause users will have practically no control over the processes by which
papers are accessed. This might nevertheless be useful if these users want
only a few documents on a subject of interest. The same can be said for the
automatic indexing of full-text documents (Blair, 1990), unless it is in a
sharply delineated and rigidly formalized subject area. Automated proce-
dures give users little insight into what occurs within a system. Users have
very little opportunity to control the language game they are participating
652 library trends/winter 2004
in. This does not even broach the issues that arise when index terms from
one language game are used to seek documents in another.
The problem of intellectual access cannot be resolved by intelligent
user-interfaces in the preexisting Boolean system. Nor will the addition of
automated indexing, including natural or knowledge-domain specific lan-
guage manipulation, or including full-text systems (Blair, 1990). Undoubt-
edly each is useful within limited contexts. In currently existing large sci-
entific bibliographic databases, considerable efforts have been made to
deliver interfaces that obligate users to pay attention to how the base is struc-
tured and remember its most relevant aspects. By reading manuals, one can
acquire a simplified theoretical impression of how the controlled index
terms are used. Blair’s strategy permits users to gain experience about how
words function within the language game of the classification system and
through this learn their meanings. The BIOSIS Previews manual, for ex-
ample, gives theoretical examples of this kind. It is also important to allow
as much opportunity for exploring as possible.
When we contemplate designing a new document-mediating system
from the bottom up, the suggestion is to specialize document-mediating
systems for specific knowledge domains, knowledge levels, and points of
interest, and to consider the size of the system. This means constructing
bases entirely from users’ needs and conceptual worlds. We must supple-
ment current methods with pragmatic analysis of discourse communities
with various knowledge domains, both scientific and nonscientific.
Most current bibliographic databases contain documents produced by
different paradigms, specialties, and subject areas, all of which have differ-
ent language games even when they share a vocabulary. I only need men-
tion how data-engineers, cognitive psychologists, and information scientists
use the concept of information, or how Newtonian physics and Einstein’s
general relativity use the concept of space. Each subject area with interest
in the documents of a database should have these documents indexed ac-
cording to their own language game to make precise searches possible. As
is already acknowledged in BIOSIS, for example, chemists, physicians, and
biologists each have specific terms for chemicals, illnesses, and classifica-
tions of plants and animals that are respected by the BIOSIS indexing pro-
cedure. But under current indexes, as a biologist, I must use chemical no-
tation searching for a chemical, and chemists must use the correct biological
name for a plant to find articles about a chemical substance it produces.
What is not addressed are those words common to all three subject areas
but that have different meanings because they are part of different language
games. We must develop methods to more fully analyze the discourse com-
munities in various knowledge domains, both scientific and nonscientific,
theoretical and practical. We must get a firmer grasp on the social-pragmatic
connotations of words and concepts to integrate them into the semantics
of semiotic nets as a basis for thesaurus building.
As a result, one of the large research areas of LIS is how to integrate
bibliographic databases and full-text databases into different domains, or-
ganizations, interests, and levels in organization. This demands one to dis-
tinguish and characterize different domains, levels, and language games in,
for instance, an organization. In addition to the methods already employed
by LIS, these analyses will benefit from methods derived from discourse and
conversation analysis, as well as from socio- and ethno-linguistic empirical
analysis of cultural communication.
Most fields today are, at least to some degree, interdisciplinary—BIO-
SIS is a good example, as it is relevant to medicine, chemistry, and the be-
havioral sciences—and one could imagine that eventually interest groups
from different domains would develop their own systems for indexing doc-
uments so they can choose their own point of entry to these systems. In
addition, there will be various offers to visualize systems and their language
games aimed at searchers who lack domain knowledge or technical search
knowledge, combined with many possibilities for navigation. As Blair (1990)
suggested, one of the major problems of subject searching is that indexers
and searchers do not participate in the same language games. Their work
and social environments are different, and therefore their uses of words will
be different. Blair makes an interesting attempt to integrate Wittgenstein’s
language-game theory, aspects of Peirce’s semiotics, later developments
such as the speech act theory of Searle, and elements of Lakoff’s cognitive
linguistics into a theory of indexing and DR that connects information sci-
ence retrieval perspectives to social and cultural dynamics within a prag-
matic framework (Blair, 1990, p. 169).
To summarize, our major challenge in LIS now is how to map seman-
tic fields of concepts and their signifying contexts into our systems in ways
that move beyond the logical and statistical approaches that until now
seemed the only realistic strategies given available technology. We need a
deeper theory of both computation and interpretation. In summary, here
are seven basic steps to move in that direction:
1. Information is differences and patterns and is therefore only potential
knowledge until somebody interprets it as a sign. To develop Bateson’s
definition that “information is a difference that makes a difference,”
then it first happens when it becomes a sign.
2. The objective carriers of potential knowledge are signs.
3. Signs need interpretation to release knowledge in the form of Interpret-
4. Interpretation is based on the total semantic network, horizons, world-
views, and experience of the person including the emotional and social
654 library trends/winter 2004
5. The realm of meaning is rooted in social-historical as well as embodied
evolutionary processes that go beyond computational algorithmically
6. The semantic network derives a decisive aspect of signification from a
person’s embodied cultural worldview, which in turn derives from, de-
velops, and has its roots in undefined tacit knowledge.
7. To theoretically encompass both the computational and the semantic
aspects of document classification and retrieval, we need to combine the
cybernetic functionalistic approach with the semiotic pragmatic under-
standing of meaning as social and embodied.
A transdisciplinary (second-order) framework acknowledging the multidis-
ciplinary character of knowledge organization seems a more fruitful theo-
retical groundwork than the algorithmic rationalism of the information-
processing paradigm for including differences in knowledge organization
between domains. For further argumentation and developments of the
framework outside LIS, please see Brier (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000a, 2000b,
2001, 2002, 2003a,b,c). The book The Cybersemiotic Framework, describing the
whole new framework including LIS, is in the publication process.
1. The present paper is a follow up on my 1996 articles in Journal of Documentation (Brier,
1996a) and Cybernetica (Brier, 1996b). Theoretical development of the field I am here de-
scribing can be found in Cybernetics & Human Knowing, of which I am the editor.
2. The BISC program (The Berkeley Initiative in Soft Computing) at Berkeley University,
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... ‫و‬ ‫اطالعات‬ ‫علم‬ ‫نشانه‬ ‫شناسی‬ ‫نظام‬ ‫طراحی‬ ‫اطالعاتی‬ ‫های‬ (Andersen, 1997;Gonzales, 1997;Stamper, 1991;Stamper, Liu, Hafkamp, Ades, 2000;Liu, 2000;Mingers and Willcocks, 2017) ‫اطالع‬ ‫رفتار‬ ‫یابی‬ (Huang, 2006) ‫اطالعات‬ ‫تعریف‬ (Artandi, 1973;Stamper, 1993;Buckland, 1997;Raber & Budd, 2003;Brier, 2004Brier, , 2006Thellefsen, Thellefsen, Sørensen, 2013, 2018Sørensen, Thellefsen, Thelefsen, 2016) ‫دانش‬ ‫سازماندهی‬ (Friedman & Smiraglia, 2013;Friedman & Thellefsen,2011;Thellefsen, et al, 2003Thellefsen, et al, , 2004Thellefsen, et al, , 2010Thellefsen, et al, , 2011Thellefsen, et al, , 2014 ...
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Purpose: The purpose of this research is to study the concept of information through the lens of semiotics, especially the Peirce’s sign model. Methodology: This study is an analytical study of researches on the concept of information based on semiotics in the field of information science as well as a review of researches that has defined information in the context of information systems. Information science is an interdisciplinary field that has used the concepts, patterns, and theories of other sciences to explain some of the concepts in its subject areas. One of the sciences that is very similar to information science is semiotics: The purpose of this research is to study the concept of information through the lens of semiotics, especially the Peirce’s sign model. Results: An analytical study of researches that have used theories of semiotics in various fields of information science showed that among the concepts, patterns and theories in semiotics, " Saussure's dyadic model of sign and Peirce’s triad model of sign were the most widely used semiotic models in this field. Among these two models, Peirce’s triad model of sign was more used in information science. Conclusions: If information is considered as a sign, a better explanation of it can be provided based on the characteristics of the sign because the information is carried by a variety of signs. On the other hand, the definition of information from the lens of semiotics, in particular, Peirce’s Triad model of sign information divides into two types "passive information" and "active information". And thereby take into account both the ontology and the epistemology of information
... In that sense, if we well understand Brier, we think, he ran his conception of information in a kind of naive objectivism, the result of the positivist tradition of physics (even the quantum) that despite the scientific evidence that supports it has not been able to radicalize his view to understand philosophically the implications of assuming information as a dependent magnitude of observers and the observation processes themselves. Brier (2004) argues, in agreement with and others, that information is difference; hence, it appeals to the fact that information is potential knowledge. This distinction between information and knowledge also appeals to the distinction between the "objective" and the subjective, between that which depends on our conscience and what does not. ...
After Thomas Sebeok’s proposal of global semiotics in the 70s, an attempt to move beyond anthroposemiotics to the realm of zoosemiotics, phytosemiotics, endosemiotics, and, ultimately, to the all-encompassing realm of biosemiotics was made. Semiotics was then established as a serious candidate as the transdisciplinary base of science and humanities –particularly from the triadic and pragmaticist semiotic proposal of C. S. Peirce. However, the semiotic attempt to explain the fundamental aspects of living systems from the standpoint of meaning production and reproduction demonstrate that in order to explain the meaning-making process in living organisms a systemic, biological, cybernetic and informational approach was also needed. The integrative visions have discovered some basic similarities among these theoretical perspectives from which it has been possible to recognize complementarities among them. At the same time, it also made possible to identify variations at the very bottom of each approach, which resulted in a complex task of theoretical integration. Thus, in order to uncover these tensions and complementarities, I will focus my attention in the process of communication in an attempt to move from cybernetics to semiotics and further on to cybersemiotics considering some aspects of biosemiotics, first and second-order cybernetics, Peircean semiotics, and information theory. The goal of this chapter is to overcome the problem of defining the limits and boundaries of communication as a physical, biological, and social phenomena and its nature as an academic field by proposing communication as a transdisciplinary concept from the point of view of cybersemiotics (Vidales, Commun Soc 30:45–67, 2017b), from which it is also possible to address the process of communication, explained in what Brier (Cogn Semiotics 4:28–63, 2009) considers to be the levels of cybersemiotics, and the consequences it may have for the explanation of meaning-making processes in living systems.
... Grouping individual research areas together allows for the analysis of these boundaries. According to Brier (2004), knowledge can be viewed as the phenomenon that can occur when documents are mentally interpreted under "correct circumstances." When individual researchers are involved (Ridenour 2015), documents must be accessed, understood, and reinterpreted into the lens of the individual researcher encountering these documents. ...
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The internet in its Web 2.0 version has given an opportunity among users to be participative and the chance to enhance the existing system, which makes it dynamic and collaborative. The activity of social tagging among researchers to organize the digital resources is an interesting study among information professionals. The one way of organizing the resources for future retrieval through these user-generated terms makes an interesting analysis by comparing them with professionally created controlled vocabularies. Here in this study, an attempt has been made to compare Ubrary of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) terms with IibraryThing social tags. In this comparative analysis, the results show that social tags can be used to enhance the metadata for information retrieval. But still, the uncontrolled nature of social tags is a concern and creates uncertainty among researchers.
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to discuss and clarify a possible realist foundation of domain analysis and knowledge organization, and in this vein, investigate into how the concept of information is to be understood at a lower but necessary conceptual level in domain analysis. Design/methodology/approach The paper investigates into the foundation of domain analysis as formulated by Birger Hjørland, and develops a realist framework for domain analytical information and knowledge organization based on critical realism. Findings Information can meaningfully be considered as the prerequisite for domain analysis, and critical realism may provide for a realist ontological framework for domain analysis and knowledge organization. Originality/value The paper includes new insights into the foundation of information and domain analysis.
This text proposes a conceptual model to understand and study the communicative phenomenon. It does this by understanding communication as a phenomenon of life, so that it can be conceptualized as an expressive behavior that results in an expressive act within the framework of the theory of evolution, which makes the expression as a unit viable of primary observation of communication. Although it is based on a concept of communication slightly different from that assumed in the cybersemiotic program, we consider that the biophenomenological proposal of the communication presented here can serve as an articulation for the development of at least three of the arms proposed by Brier in his Star Cybersemiotics, so that it contributes to the development of this ambitious and necessary transdisciplinary program.
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Introduction: The main problem described by Wittgenstein is language, which initially conceives language as the illustrator of the facts and later in its second philosophical period, as a form of life. This paper seeks to analyze the dimensions of information storage and retrieval in light of Wittgenstein's picture and language games theories. Methodology: Wittgenstein's analytical method used in both of his books is a method of analysis or argumentation and a conceptual-linguistic method. This research was carried out by using analytical method and literature review. Information was gathered by searching for printed and electronic sources (related articles and books). Findings: Analysis of the information storage and retrieval systems from texture, knowledge representation, indexing, spoken communities, natural language, meaning and relevance and access to content dimensions showed that the information storage and retrieval systems in the realization of their main goal, which is the transfer of information from the source of information to the searcher is faced with fundamental semantic problems. The information storage and retrieval system that provides well access to information does not function well in access to the intellectual content. Conclusion: The process of analyzes and basic assumptions in the information storage and retrieval systems implies that the information storage and retrieval systems are designed based on the search indexes and expressions with static meanings and the rule of the individualism and subjectivity approach influenced by the picture theory of language. But the text as the source of information that feeds the information storage and retrieval system is no longer the area of language games, and it is impossible to conceive of what the indexing system considered constant conceptions for the text as the ultimate and definitive meaning of the text.
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This chapter is based on the hypothesis, that the major problem of the dominating biomedicine paradigm of western medicine lies in its inability to include the psychological and sociological realities in its theoretical foundation for describing the healthy embodied person and develop models of the causes of health and illness as a basis for finding ways to treat illness. I believe that this is most clearly shown in the lack of explanation of placebo effects. A way to understand placebo effects is that they are caused by psychological and sociological meaning producing effects and they are outside the scope of the biomedical paradigm’s explanatory models.
Purpose: This article discusses the relationship between philosophy and library and information science (LIS). Method: The study uses a literature-based analysis of the relationship between philosophy and LIS. Important recent articles (published from May 2003 to April 2013) about philosophy in the field of LIS are collected, and their contents are analyzed. Results: Most of the recent articles about philosophy in the field of LIS use philosophy (for example, neo-pragmatism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, and post-structuralism) to study LIS. These articles argue that philosophy can contribute to the development of LIS, but do not use philosophy as a foundation for LIS studies. That is, they do not claim that philosophy involves rational methods; rational methods are imported or applied to LIS, thereby making LIS a scientific field. However, philosophy appears in ontological or epistemological approaches to LIS studies. These articles argue the kind of ontological or epistemological approaches that can contribute to the development of LIS, using concrete examples from LIS studies. Examining whether an ontological or epistemological approach can contribute to the development of LIS is important not only for studies of LIS but also for studies of philosophy. Showing that such an approach is useful involves proving the appropriateness of the approach. Hence, philosophy and LIS are closely related.
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This article is structured so that it offers the reader some of the basic concepts from C. S. Peirce’s pragmatic semiotics and G. Lakoff’s cognitive semantics in order to provide linguistic tools to describe and elucidate the complexity of indexing, and hopefully to clarify and improve the foundation of indexing. The article is also a further development and application of Brier’s (1996) cybersemiotic approach to library and information science (LIS). It is our hypothesis that Peirce’s semiotics offers concepts and methods that make it possible to analyze and to identify different complexes of problems regarding meaning and therefore describe the ways in which words and signs can stand for texts’ meaning. Furthermore semiotics gives us an opportunity to conceptualize the relations between representation of documents and users, which is an important aid in analyzing where problems arise in the indexing and information searching process. Throughout our discussions of the theories we will demonstrate the perspectives this has concerning the effectiveness of indexing and bibliographic representation. This is an area of growing importance because of the exponential growth of produced documents and the growing number of people who, through the Internet, have physical access to these documents or their bibliographic databases. Furthermore, many people now build their own document bases trusting some automatic indexing program while seldom knowing much about the underlying complexity of intellectual access through subject searching by different types of users. Indexing and bibliographic representation is no longer only a specialist’s (librarian, documentalist’s) craft but has become a central task in the information — or rather — document society. Further, we argue that Lakoff’s cognitive semantics offers a method to deal with some of the problems concerning the reference of concepts for different users identified in the semiotic analysis. It is based on his theory of categories, basic levelness, the existence of Idealized Cognitive Models (ICMs) as the background for categorization, metaphors, metonymies, and finally our derived concept ‘significance effect’.
Irreversible processes are the source of order: hence 'order out of chaos.' Processes associated with randomness (openness) lead to higher levels of organisation. Under certain conditions, entropy may thus become the progenitor of order. The authors propose a vast synthesis that embraces both reversible and irreversible time, and show how they relate to one another at both macroscopic and minute levels of examination.-A.Toffler
This article develops a non-reductionistic and interdisciplinary view of information and human knowing in the light of second-order cybernetics, where information is seen as "a difference which makes a difference" for a living autopoietic (self-organizing, self-creating) system. Another key idea comes from the semiotics of Peirce : the understanding of signs as a triadic relation between an object, a representation, and an interprétant. Information is the interpretation of signs by living, feeling, self-organizing, biological and social systems. As a concrete example we attempt to describe Library & Information Science (US) - especially information retrieval (IR) - in a way that goes beyond the cognitivist "information processing paradigm". The main problem of this paradigm is that its concept of information and language does not deal in a systematic way with how social and cultural dynamics set the contexts that determine the meaning of those signs and words that are the basic tools for US to organize and retrieve documents. The paradigm does not distinguish clearly enough between how the computer manipulate signs and how meaning is generated in autopoietic systems, and thereby the difference between physical and intellectual acces. The 'cognitive viewpoint' of Ingwersen and Belkin in LIS makes clear that information is not objective but rather only potential until it is interpreted by an individual mind with its own internal mental world view and purposes. But this approach is not yet fully developed. Signification is created and controlled in a cybernetic way within social systems and is communicated through what Luhmann calls generalized media, such as science and art. The modern socio-linguistic concept 'discourse communities' and Wittgenstein's 'language game' concept describe further the pragmatic aspect of the selforganizing systems dynamic that determines the meaning of words in a social context. It is these semantic fields of signification that are the true pragmatic tools of knowledge organization and document retrieval. It is in this context the 'domain-analytic paradigm' of Albrechtsen and Hjzrland underlines the influence of scientific knowledge domains.