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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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PEER F. BUNDGAARD AND FREDERIK STJERNFELT René Thom’s Semiotics and Its Sources 43


René Thom’s Semiotics and Its Sources PEER F. BUNDGAARD AND FREDERIK STJERNFELT This paper introduces to the sources of René Thom’s theory of meaning. It does so in an almost systematic, yet unhierarchical manner, by way of ency- clopedic entries, as it were. However, the first four entries address the way in which Thom developed his catastrophe semiotics on grounds of his morpho- dynamical investigations in biology. This reflects, of course, our understand- ing of Thom’s semiotics as being deeply rooted in his mathematical and biological thinking. We do evidently not claim to be exhaustive, as will be clear from our closing statements, but we do hope and aim to capture essen- tial influences on René Thom’s original, both genetical and structural deter- mination of meaning, the nature of meaning, and the naturality of meaning – thereby also providing an understanding of the original synthesis which Thom’s semiotics constructs from these sources. Mathematics, Biology, and Meaning As an integral part of his famous Theory of Catastrophes, René Thom devel- oped, from the mid-60s and onwards, a semiotics. This semiotic theory de- velops out of the basic ideas of Catastrophe Theory (CT) to draw inspiration from a long series of theoretical sources in biology, philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, etc. This development has the main character that while the deci- sive impetus of Thom’s semiotics comes from the mathematical-biological kernel of CT, the further development of the theory draws on an eclectic amount of inspiration from different sources. Main such sources are biolo- gists...

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