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Semiosis and Catastrophes

René Thom’s Semiotic Heritage


Edited By Wolfgang Wildgen and Per Aage Brandt

The French mathematician René Thom (Fields medal 1958) died in 2002. In this volume his contributions to biology, semiotics and linguistics are discussed by a group of scholars who have continued his work and have shaped the new paradigm of dynamic semiotics and linguistics. Thom’s heritage is full of revolutionary ideas and deep insights which stem from a rich intuition and a sharp awareness of the current state of the sciences, including their potentials and risks. The contributions to this volume are elaborations of papers given at a colloquium at the International Center for Semiotics and Linguistics of the University of Urbino (Italy), in 2005.
The central concern of this volume is semiogenesis, i.e. the evolution and differentiation of meaningful («pregnant») forms in the field of symbolic systems – from bio-communication to language and cultural forms like music, art, architecture or urban forms. The basic questions are: How are meanings created and further differentiated? Where do they come from? What kind of forces drive their unfolding? How can complex cultural forms be understood based on simple morphodynamic principles?
Applications concern the perception of forms by animals and humans, the categorization of forms e.g. in a lexicon, and predication or other complex symbolic behaviors which show up in grammar or in cultural artifacts like the unfolding of urban centers.


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Introduction WOLFGANG WILDGEN 1. Intellectual biography of René Thom1 René Thom was born is Montbéliard (France) in 1923 (2nd of September). Until 1940 he lived there with his parents, his brother and several grand par- ents. In 1940 the brothers went to Switzerland to escape the war, but they were brought back to Lyon, where René Thom passed his “baccalauréat. In 1941 he entered the preparatory classes of the Lycée Saint-Louis in Paris and was inscribed in “Higher mathematics and special mathematics”.2 His fa- vored professor was teaching ancient Greek; this remained a center of intel- lectual concern during his life. In 1943 he entered the elite college ENS (École Normale Supérieure). After some difficulties at the end of the war (he was forced to work for the German troops to fortify Belfort) he returned to the ENS in Paris and then went to Strasbourg to finish his “Agrégation des sciences mathématiques” (his teacher was Henri Cartan) in 1946.3 Between 1947 and 1951 he was a lecturer and a research assistant at the CNRS (the French association of research).4 In 1949 he published his first scientific article, “Sur une partition en cellules associée à une fonction sur une variété”. At the same time he wrote a short novel which was only published in Thom (2003). In 1951 he made his PhD in Mathematics. Title: “Espaces fibrés en sphères et carrés de Steenrod” at the University of Strasbourg. From...

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