SHESL conference 2025

Call for papers
SHESL conference 2025
Paris, 27-28 January 2025

Extended semiotics
Clues, signs, representation

organized by Didier Samain (SHESL, HTL, Sorbonne Université) et Astrid Guillaume (SfZ, STIH, Sorbonne Université)

Conference description

I. The semiotics that aimed to build a logical taxonomy of the different types of signs –linguistic or nonlinguistic signs, natural or non-natural ones– (Peirce, Bühler, Marty, Gatschenberger, etc.) were most often developed on the outskirts, or even at the margins of grammatical semantics, sometimes arousing opposition from professional linguists for this very reason[1]. And when, a little later, Lévi-Strauss drew on contemporary linguistic notions (borrowed from structuralism), he was concerned with social interaction and language in the broad sense of the term, with what he sometimes called the “symbolic function”, understood as man’s capacity to detect differential marks organized in a system. These approaches were therefore not linguistic, since they did not call on specific linguistic properties, but they did concern human communication. The situation became quite different when, later still, the μ group also used a model of binary oppositions inspired by structuralism to attribute to earthworm behavior a very elementary “grammar” governed by the light/dark contrast (Klinkenberg 2018, cited by Fontanille 2019). As Fontanille points out, Groupe μ applies similar analyses to material objects, such as a thermostat, which also interacts with its environment, since it can be considered to “select” relevant properties from it. More encompassing than the Saussurean notion of difference, the old notion of selectivity[2] here has nothing to do with language, except metaphorically, and if nevertheless we wish to characterize this phenomena as semiotic, the sign is then reduced to a signal, or even, rather, to an index, conceived as an unintentional sign[3].

The emergence of this generalized semiotics can be understood in different ways. In biology, recourse to the notion of sign, and, more generally, to a “non-causal” order, is part of a long history, in reaction to the limits inherent in physicalism. Driesch’s attempt to empirically test the Weismanian germ plasm thesis (Driesch 1919) comes to mind, as does Uexküll’s work. In Uexküll this is an assumed methodological artifact, which consists in expressing in a semiotic metalanguage what could not be described at the time in the language of chemistry or physiology. Similarly, Uexküll replaces the physical notion of milieu inherited from Comte and Lamarck with that of Umwelt, which designates what makes sense for a living being. Yet many biosemioticians of the following period went much further, abandoning this still-Kantian approach in favour of the much stronger thesis that semiosis embraces all levels of the living within organisms. “According to some scholars, Kull argued in a recent article (Kull, 2023), semiosis is even the criterial characteristic of life. This means that theoretical biosemiotics must be a part of theoretical biology, and the latter is incomplete without biosemiotics.” Such maximalist positions represent the historical culmination of a semioticization of the living, at the obvious risk of a petition of principle, which reduces semiosis to an ill-defined notion of information transmission. Whereas naturalist linguistics claimed to naturalize language, by an effect of inverse symmetry, we are witnessing a desire to assimilate the living world to semiosis[4]. Moreover this semiotic conception of the exchanges with the natural environment has its exact opposite counterpart, that of the naturalization of meaning and intentionality (Dretske 1981), but it seems thus that, despite their profound differences, both theses tend then to short-circuit the technical notion of sign in favour of that of information.

If we neglect these essentialist tropisms, such hypotheses were nevertheless echoed elsewhere. Suffice it to recall the words of Merleau-Ponty, who, like Uexküll, considers all perception to be semiotic by definition, adding in a famous passage directly influenced by Gestalt, that science “introduces sensations which are things, just where experience shows that there are meaningful patterns” (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 11). We might also consider Merleau-Ponty’s distinction between unity of correlation, which is the unity of physical systems, and unity of meaning, which is the unity of organisms[5].

II. Some internal developments in the history of biology were certainly facilitated by circumstances, notably the presence in the same university (in Tartu) of an anti-physicalist biological tradition (from K. von Baer to J. von Uexküll) and the semiotic school embodied by Yuri Lotman. T. Sebeok, for his part, attempted to adapt Peircean semiotics to animal communication, followed later by T. Deacon, this time from a clearly evolutionary perspective (Deacon 1997, see also François 2020).

However, as we have just pointed out, these developments share similarities with evolutions in other fields, whether they concern the redefinition of the boundary between human and non-human, the extrapolation of “linguistic” notions, or the need to escape from the alternative between symbolism and materialism. While these developments are usually part of a reconsideration of man’s place among other beings, they also have methodological and disciplinary implications. We will limit ourselves to a few illustrative examples.

Among anthropologists, consideration may be given to the work of Philippe Descola and his students, who have chosen to take seriously the anthropomorphization of animals, plants and even things among First Peoples, in order to identify not only its cultural but also its epistemic function. This has led to a reconsideration of the very field of anthropology, by including the whole range of beings associated with man, even stones. Some of this school of thought’s formulations are thus similar to those of the sociologists of Actor-Network Theory (ANT, also called “sociologie de la traduction” in French), a spectacular feature of which was the attempt to formulate relations between heterogeneous human and non-human “actors” in a single sociological metalanguage, inspired by Greimasian semiotics[6]. In his (anthropological) work on the relations between Kyrgyz shepherds and wolves, Lescureux (2006: 472) writes that

For the stockbreeder as for the hunter, wolves and men are engaged in a dynamic interrelationship. Each protagonist is regarded as an actor in its own right whose behaviours, perceptions and practices act on the other and evolve in contact with the other.

This positive reappraisal of anthropomorphism has clearly been, if not made possible, at least facilitated, by the extrapolation of semiotic concepts. This is the case of the notion of actant for the ANT, and we mentioned above the mobilization of the Herbartian notion of selectivity to define the sign. But these extrapolations have come at a cost, all the greater for their breadth, starting with a weak conception of the notion of symbol, or even its outright abandonment, which then raises a practical question: what is the heuristic interest of a generalized notion of sign when an analysis in terms of affordances appears sufficient? We may also be surprised by the generalization of the notion of interpretation by certain anthropologists[7], just as we are by that of “translation”, which is also in danger of losing most of its technicality, whether in biology, where it seems to have appeared quite early (Gamow 1954), or in sociology (Callon and Latour).

On the other hand, the use of concepts derived from semiotics and, more specifically, linguistics, can be of real heuristic interest. For zoosemioticians, the aim is not just to better understand animal communication and societies, but also their particularities (Delahaye 2019). These include such now well-documented notions as zoolangues and zoodialectes (Guillaume 2021) that are used among other things to designate intra-specific variations in birdsong and mammalian communication. For many ethologists, since these “dialects” are indeed the result of social learning (even accompanied by the identification of isoglosses by the “actors”!), the term is more than just a metaphor. Even more intriguing is the evidence of probable recursivity and context-sensitivity in the language of certain primates[8].

III. The symposium Extended semiotics. Clues, signs, representation would like to document this extension of semiotic and even linguistic conceptions beyond the field of language itself.

While the biological filiation of biosemiotics has been documented, the historiography of this extended semiotics (of which Peircean semiotics is clearly only one component) and of the corollary reappraisal of anthropomorphisms, is far from complete. To date, a few general works have begun to document this extension (Dörries 2002), but without a precise historical framework.

Here are just a few of the questions that could be addressed, without excluding any others, and we welcome any factual (descriptive and/or historical) documentation.

– We can assume that extended semiotics is related to the theory of the sign extended to the inferential sign and the “representational” sign (cf. St. Augustine; Leblanc 2021). Discussion of these theories of the sign is therefore appropriate.

– Once perception and cognition have been equated to a process of semiotic interpretation (as in the case of the theory of “local signs” used to construct perceptual space), what form does this assimilation actually take? In what context did it appear?

– How did the transition from one disciplinary field to another come about? What, for example, was the role of someone like Bertalanffy, considered one of the fathers of cybernetics, who had completed his dissertation under M. Schlick, who acknowledged his debt to Uexküll, and who was later to have an influence on ethologists like J. Riedl and K. Lorenz?

– What is the temporal span of this extended semiotics? Is it specific to the 20th century and the beginning of the next? A comparison with other temporal and/or spatial areas would be welcome. Under what technical or institutional circumstances did researchers have recourse to it?

Some state-of-the-art notions, such as anthroposemiotics and ichnos-anthropos, or “Human-Trace”, seem close to notions already sketched out long ago, and this calls for explanation. The same is true of certain arguments: the modern thesis that animal behavior cannot be reduced to responses to stimuli, and that its explanation therefore requires the inclusion of a semiotic parameter, de facto takes up the methodological argument put forward by Uexküll a century ago[9]. It should be noted that this choice has led many contemporary authors to introduce the notion of representation, but without calling on the linguistic symbol.

– If this theme is recurrent, is it simply a question of analogous responses to similar problems, or should we simultaneously understand this (the two explanations are compatible) as a persistent mechanism over a long period of time? Consider that W. Dilthey already distinguished between the event as such, i.e. the way in which it occurs, and the lived experience of this event… The legacy of such a distinction cannot be reduced to the academic distinction between sciences of nature and sciences of the mind.

– What was the heuristic benefit of what was often, originally, no more than a methodological artifact? Did the extension of semiotic thought to fields hitherto excluded have a retroactive effect on the conception of the linguistic sign? If extended to animals, what remains of the three facets that semiotic traditions had associated with the notion of representation: Vorstellung (mental representation), Bedeutung (the “signified” or “meaning”), and Darstellung (symbolic representation or figuration)?

All these questions, as the examples borrowed from anthropology sufficiently demonstrate, should facilitate exchanges with cultural spaces other than the modern European one.


Benveniste, Émile. 1974[1969]. Sémiologie de la langue. Problèmes de linguistique générale, 2. Paris : Gallimard. 43-66.

Callon, Michel. 1986. Éléments pour une sociologie de la traduction. La domestication des coquilles Saint-Jacques et des marins pêcheurs dans la Baie de Saint-Brieuc. L’année sociologique 36. 169-208.

Deacon, Terrence. 1997. The symbolic species: the coevolution between language and the brain. New-York & London: W.W. Norton.

Delahaye, Pauline. 2019. Des signes pour le dire. Étude sémiotique des émotions complexes animales. Rennes : Presses universitaires de Rennes.

Dennett, Daniel. 1991. Real Patterns. The Journal of Philosophy 88(1). 27-51.

Demolin, Didier, César Ades & Federico Dyonísio Mendes. 2016. Context-sensitive grammars in Muriqui vocalizations. Scientific Reports. ⟨halshs-01869928⟩

Descola, Philippe. 2014. All too human (still). A comment on Eduardo Kohn’s How forest think. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4(2). 267-273.

Dörries, Matthias, ed. 2002. Experimenting in Tongues. Studies in science and language. Stanford California: Stanford University Press.

Dretske, Fred. 1981. Knowledge and the Flow of Information. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Fontanille, Jacques. 2019. La sémiotique des mondes vivants. Du signe à l’interaction, de la téléologie à la structure. Actes sémiotiques 122. 1-48.

François, Jacques. 2020. Sémiosis et évolution: le double héritage biolinguistique d’Erich Lenneberg et biosémiotique de Thomas Sebeok. Horizontes Biolingüísticos : Tras las huellas de Eric Lenneberg, ed. par Miguel Ángel Mahecha Bermúdez & Rubén David Arboleda. Bogota : Independently Published.

Gamow, Georgij. 1954. Possible relation between deoxyribonucleic acid and protein structures. Nature 173. 318.

Guillaume, Astrid. 2021. Zoolangages, zoolangues, zoodialectes : précisions contextuelles et définitions. Texto! Textes et Cultures. Revue de l’Institut Ferdinand de Saussure. XXVI(2-4).

Groupe μ. 2015. Principia semiotica. Aux sources du sens. Bruxelles: Les Impressions Nouvelles.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley : University of California Press.

Kull, Kalevi. 2023. Interview with Gerd B. Müller on Theoretical Biology. Biosemiotics 16. 381-394 [Online:]

Leblanc,  Hélène. 2021. Théories sémiotiques à l’âge classique. Paris: Vrin.

Lescureux, Nicolas. 2006. Towards the necessity of a new interactive approach integrating ethnology, ecology and ethology in the study of the relationship between Kyrgyz stockbreeders and wolves. Social Science Information 45(3). 463-478.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1945. Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris: Gallimard.

Vauclair, Jacques & Joël Fagot. 1996. Categorization of Alphanumeric Characters by Baboons (Papio papio): Within and between Class Stimulus Discrimination. Current Psychology of Cognition 15. 449-462.

Wimsatt, William. 1980. Randomness and Perceived Randomness in Evolutionary Biology. Synthese 48. 287-329.


Scientific committee

Pierluigi Basso (Université Lumière Lyon 2, ICAR)
Pauline Delahaye (SfZ, Université de Tartu)
Jean-Michel Fortis (SHESL, CNRS, HTL)
Jacques François (SHESL, Université de Caen)
Janette Friedrich (Université de Genève, HTL)
Astrid Guillaume (SfZ, Sorbonne Université, STIH)
Lia Kurts (Sfz, Université Bordeaux Montaigne, TELEM)
Hélène Leblanc (LabEx COMOD, Université Lumière Lyon 2)
Philippe Monneret (Sorbonne Université, STIH)
Franck Neveu (Sorbonne Université, STIH)
Luca Nobile (SfZ, Université de Bourgogne, CPTC)
David Piotrowski (CNRS, HTL)
Didier Samain (SHESL, Sorbonne Université, HTL)
Malika Temmar (Université de Picardie Jules Verne)
Anne-Gaëlle Toutain (Université de Berne, HTL)
Ekaterina Velmezova (SHESL, SfZ, Université de Lausanne)

Organizing committee

Lionel Dumarty (SHESL, CNRS, HTL)
Astrid Guillaume (SfZ, Sorbonne Université, STIH)
Chloé Laplantine (SHESL, CNRS, HTL)
Didier Samain (SHESL, Sorbonne Université, HTL)

Please send abstracts for contributions by 19 July 2024 to
Abstracts should be around 250 words long and include a bibliography.

Information: and

[1] Benveniste’s criticisms of Peirce will come to mind (Benveniste 1974: 44-45).

[2] It most likely originated in Herbartian “empirical psychology”, in this case the notion of “aperceptive mass”. Whether or not there is any conscious filiation, the permanence of this notion deserves to be emphasized. Wimsatt (1980) provides here a nice illustration when he compares the “discrete” perception of an insect by an insectivorous bird with the “massive” perception of an insect by an anteater. See also the commentary by Daniel Dennett (1991). Many of Uexküll’s now famous analyses are in this vein.

[3] Whereas an index (e.g. smoke as a « sign » of fire) is based on a causal relationship that is “interpreted” by the receiver, a signal is semiotic per se, because the connection must be imposed. In other words, the traditional distinction between natural and artificial signs drew a demarcation line that is lost in the notions of difference or selectivity. This is one of the many weaknesses of generalised structuralism, particularly in its French version..

[4] Not all biologists who are open to semiotics venture this far. G. Müller, for example, believes that communication processes are inherent in biological organisation, but considers any attempt to replace theories of development or evolution with abstract concepts of sign and code to be illusory.

[5] We can see that this distinction does not reduce the signal to the index, as the notions of difference and selectivity tend to do.

[6] See Callon’s seminal paper (1986).

[7] This drift has earned Kohn (2013) justified criticism, including from Descola (Descola 2014).

[8] See for example Demoulin & alii (2016).

[9] See for example Vauclair & Fagot (1996).

Société d'histoire et d'épistémologie des sciences du langage