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Semiosis and Catastrophes

René Thom’s Semiotic Heritage


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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MARC CHAPERON Catastrophes. A testimony 23


Catastrophes. A testimony MARC CHAPERON 1. Encounter When I first met Thom, at the end of 1973, he was just fifty. At the École Normale Supérieure, where I had been admitted four years earlier with more musical projects than scientific ones, I had been astonished that our mathe- matics teachers would give us “the good viewpoint” without telling us on what.1 I had then sworn to myself that I would have nothing to do with those people, without realising that only laziness prevented me from fetching the (considerable) unspoken part of their message. During my stay at the school rue d’Ulm, gradually renouncing my ado- lescent dreams, I had engaged into not very intoxicating “applied” mathe- matics. Then, I read Stabilité structurelle et morphogenèse (Thom 1972a)2, of which I did not understand much3, apart from the facts that it contained magnificent mathematics and that I was in the presence of a rare phenome- non: a mathematician who thinks. Then, catastrophe! The engineering school where I should have had my first teaching position did not manage to ask for me in time, so that I had to spend one academic year with the very heavy responsibility of a mathématiques spéciales class.4 The disaster played an amazingly positive role in my life. When Michel Hervé, then co-director of the École Normale Supérieure, tried to help me, I I wish to thank the organisers of this worthy tribute to the memory of René Thom. It is essential...

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