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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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WOLFGANG WILDGEN Thom’s Theory of “Saillance” and “Prégnance” and Modern Evolutionary Linguistics 79


Thom’s Theory of “Saillance”and “Prégnance” and Modern Evolutionary Linguistics WOLFGANG WILDGEN 1. Introduction René Thom, the famous mathematician and critic of current science was only attracted by semiotics and linguistics indirectly. At a point in his career as a mathematician,1 being appointed to the Institute of Advanced Research in the Sciences (Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques) in Paris, he began to reflect on the role of topology and topological dynamics in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology. In the 60s he exchanged letters with the English theoretician of biology C.H. Waddington, who wrote a preface to the first (French) edition of Thom’s book “Stabilité Structurelle et Morpho- genèse” (1972) and to its translation into English (1975). In the second preface Waddington refers to his own book published in 1940 “Organizers and Genes” (cf. Thom, 1977: XVIII), where he formulated some fundamental questions of theoretical biology, to which Thom found a mathematical answer. One problem of biology is that it cannot be explicitly founded in laws of physics or chemistry. Such a foundation would ask for systems with millions or billions of factors. A topological treatment allows us to jump (theoretically) over these complexities and to formulate the gen- eral contours of an explanation (with all the risks such a jump implies). In his foreword to the English translation of Thom’s book (1975), Waddington says that the last chapter of Thom’s book, “From animal to man: thought and language”, is the most stimulating. The reader of...

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