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Meaning, Mind and Communication

Explorations in Cognitive Semiotics

Edited By Jordan Zlatev, Göran Sonesson and Piotr Konderak

This volume constitutes the first anthology of texts in cognitive semiotics – the new transdisciplinary study of meaning, mind and communication that combines concepts and methods from semiotics, cognitive science and linguistics – from a multitude of established and younger scholars. The chapters deal with the interaction between language and other semiotic resources, the role of consciousness and concepts, the nature of metaphor, the specificity of human evolution and development, the relation between cognitive semiotics and related fields, and other central topics. They are grouped in four sections: (i) Meta-theoretical perspectives, (ii) Semiotic development and evolution, (iii) Meaning across media, modes and modalities, (iv) Language, blends and metaphors.

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Chapter 4. Agency in Biosemiotics and Enactivism (Morten Tønnessen)


Morten Tønnessen

Chapter 4

Agency in Biosemiotics and Enactivism

1. Introduction: what is an agent?

Although there is currently no consensus in the biosemiotic community on what constitutes a semiotic agent, i.e. an agent in the context of semiosis (the action of signs), most respondents to a recent survey agree that core attributes of an agent include goal-directedness, self-governed activity, processing of semiosis and choice of action, with these features being vital for the functioning of the living system in question (Tønnessen 2015).1 In this chapter I seek to compare the biosemiotic understanding(s) of agency with the enactive understanding(s) of agency. Despite considerable overlap in views and outlook, there are in some cases sharp differences in how agency is understood in biosemiotics and enactivism (e.g. Varela et al. 1991). Mapping the differences in outlook and understanding is complicated indeed, given the diversity of views in both camps.

Before we get into any intricacies, however, we should first ask: Why is it of interest to compare enactivism and biosemiotics, with regard to their respective notions of agency? And what does this have to do with cognitive semiotics? A partial answer to the first question is found in the fact that the phenomenon of agency is without doubt central to both enactivism and biosemiotics, and their respective perspectives on the nature of life. This is outlined below. But even if it makes sense to compare enactivism and...

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