8.1. Biosemiotics: Learning about Nature's
8.2. The Development of Humanity on the Biospheric Record
8.3. The Role of Academic Science in the Techno-Capitalist Revolution
8.4. Human society growth parameters similar to bacteria colonies
8.5. Academic Science and the rising Publication Mountain
8.6. A cademic Power Structures and Feudalism
8.7. The A cademics and the Universal Priesthood Syndrom
8.8. The Operation of the Academic Power Machine
8.9. The Educational Mega-Machine
8.10. The Role of Scientific Jargon in the Power Game of Expert Elites
8.11. The Eethno-Psychoanalytical Analysis of Mathematics Terminology
8.12. Harold Innis on the Writing System
8.13. Goethe and the "Gedankenfabrik"
8.14. Strategies for Improving the Infrastructure of Scientific Terminology
8.15. Excerpt from Peirce: "The Ethics of Terminology"
8.16. Kant: Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?
© Dr. Andreas Goppold
URL: http://www.noologie.de/symbol09.htm (URL)
Proceedings of TKE '99, 23-27.8.1999, p. 771-780, TermNet,
Biosemiotics (Sharov) is a recent field of inquiry that interprets the events taking place in the biosphere (Hofkirchner 1997, Vernadsky 1930, 1997) under the aspect of sign exchanges between organisms (aka the Semiosphere: Hoffmeyer 1997, Lotman 1990) and within their bodies (Endosemiotics, Posner 1997: 464-487). In his overview article on biosemiotics, Thure v. Uexküll describes the health of an organism with the fluent and efficient integration and functioning of all the multitudinous communication activities of all its subsystems on and across all hierarchical levels, and he defines illness as deviation from this communicative "communion" (Uexküll 1997, 454). With a glance at human affairs, he notes the difficulties of scientists to communicate efficiently across the borders of their departments (let alone make themselves understood by the lay public), and contrasts this with the apparent ease of organic communication (p. 454-455). Of course, we must not confuse the character of bio-molecular "communication" with human verbal and symbolic exchanges, and there is a danger of carrying the metaphor too far when making the comparison. But biosemiotics will surely help us with some lessons and advices to be heeded for matters of human communication in general and scientific in specific. The crucial communication-and-control tradeoff that general systems researchers have found in all functioning organic systems is that of the constraint of activity bandwidth (and/or) proliferation, of the lower-level systems by the requirements of their superordinate system. Cancer is the prime example of bodily control of subsystem activity gone out of bounds.
For the present argument, it is useful to put the scientific and technological development of the last 300 years into the wider perspective of cultural evolution, specifically of the last 5000 years of writing civilizations, and the last 4-5000 million years of molecular and biological evolution. This is based on the assumption that the present development of humanity is a phenomenon still under the reign of biospheric laws and that we can find parallels in earlier biospheric and civilatory processes. (More background materials in: Bloom, Diamond, Gumilev, Jantsch, Neirynck, Margulis, Salthe, Vernadsky). Some interesting observations can be made in such a comparison. There have always been explosive increases of some life forms during the planetary history, and the present techno-capitalist revolution and human population explosion is, on the global biospheric level, still insignificant compared to the events that took place about one billion years ago, when the prokaryotic photosynthetic organisms (cyanobacteria) exchanged the whole earth atmosphere to the oxygen-rich state that it has now. As a biospheric phenomenon, techno-capitalist humanity has gone on some similar thermodynamic binge as did those photosynthetic prokaryotes of 1 billion years ago, a dynamics known as autocatalysis. By biosphere laws, this binge will go on, until some corrective factors in the planetary supersystem are activated (or until those systems are destroyed, and a large part of the biosphere, taking humanity with it into global eco-destruction). There are also enough earlier mass extinctions on the biospheric record to account for this.
Academic science has served its role in underpinning the techno-capitalist revolution with the conceptual instrumentarium, the base research, and the training of the necessary manpower for staffing the industry research laboratories, and providing the medical know-how for the explosive charge for the human population bomb that is going off now. Yet it is also through the scientific research, that we are able to get a grasp of the breadth and depth, and the expectable consequences, of the thermodynamic, geochemical, and ecological transformation process (aka global eco-holocaust) that is presently going on world-wide. This is what distinguishes humanity from all prior large-scale biospheric phenomena. But all the while, science has religiously abstained from any moves (or was kept away from any influence on political and industrial decisions), that would allow our present understanding of general system behavior to install any such governor processes as they are operating in the organic world on all systems levels to set a check on autocatalytic runaway developments before they destroy their container systems. Science has boosted the technological ability of humanity (or rather, of the industry and political elites: Veblen), while the expertise on the cybernetics of political mechanisms has languished pretty much at the same level as in the time of Hobbes, who analyzed them in "The Leviathan" (Skoyles).
Of course, this is not the place for an in-depth analysis of the precarious relations between the adademic sciences and society at-large, especially their use (and abuse) by the power elites of the industrialized nations. (More material: Erdheim). For the aspects of "Terminology and Knowledge Engineering", a crucial aspect of the political impotence of science is its parochial, or in other words, quasi-feudalistic, structure. The biologist looking through her microscope at a blooming bacteria colony (Ben-Jacob 1998), and the historian, looking through a "chronoscope" (a hypothetical device to monitor the patterns of human societies over several hundred years of development), will see very similar pictures developing: A bacteria colony will "be fruitful and multiply" in a boom-and-bust cycle in the nutritive medium and its growth is regulated by the local nutritional- / waste-parameters. This is quite the same in human societal developments (Gumilev 1990) and science is no exception. Industrial growth, and scientific paper production, both follow the growth dynamics of a lively bacteria colony that is completely oblivious of the carrying limits of its ecological environment. The dire condition of the collective intelligence of societal bodies has already been noted by Wiener (1982: 162).
Academic science is caught in a runaway autocatalytic feedback trap, the only measure of scientific "success" is the amount of research data and scientific papers, which are therefore produced in copious quantities, with each scientist happily working along in his research lab and writing as many "publish or perish" papers as will be supportive for his academic vita and career. Since the number of scientists has been rising exponentially, and by an estimate, there are now more scientists alive and producing, than in the whole of scientific history, this amounts to a swelling deluge of paper material. (Kornwachs 1998). Apparently no-one seems to be overly concerned with how this fits in with the accomodative ability of the general society to make use of all this. Academic adminstrators seem to have taken recourse to two strategies: academic bureaucracy, and specialization. In order to stay abreast of the ever increasing amounts of materials thus produced and accumulated, science had to fracture into ever smaller disciplinary niches, and thus losing the connection between sciences. Apart from the purely quantitative aspect, this leads to a babylonic explosion of specialized mutually unintelligible scientific jargons. Academic science is perhaps the only candidate for a human social subsystem whose collective intelligence may exceed that of a bacteria colony, but it has not (yet) found a way to manifest its intelligence in a politically consequential manner. It has not even been able to consolidate its own production into a coherent intellectual edifice and set the work of the different departments into adequate proportion and perspective. Since 300 years is a comparatively short time for societal dynamics (and 500 years seems like a reasonable "maturation figure"), this may be understandable. On the other hand, it is imperative that this issue gets more attention.
What do we mean when we say that academic power structures have a feudalistic flavor? Feudalism is connected to a certain period in European history, during the middle ages, when it was the prevalent power structure and it slowly was succeeded by centralized, bureaucratic nation states, first under monarchic rule, and later under representative parliamentary rule. In von Neumann diction, feudalism is a political power game of territorial autonomy of rulers, based on strongholds (fortifications), and a network of alliances and obligations. Its medieval rules were dependent on the standard of weapons and communications technology. For the European feudal aristocracy, their time was over, when firearms were able to bust the strongholds, leading to its demise, and the rise of centralized nation states that were able to raise the capital for large armies with cannons. It was also the rise of the proto-captialist merchant venturer class like the Fuggers, who organized the necessary large-scale mining and shipping operations to procure the metals for the firearms, and all the other army hardware.
The academics have a distinctly aristocratic aspiration in the Platonic politeia sense, forming an elite group of "aristoi", even if they are not overtly and directly connected to the political power structures of modern societies. As with most societal institutions, the academics should be viewed from two sides: the official front side with which they like to represent themselves, and the back side, which is mainly that of the power machinations that are being conducted in the back rooms and "old boy's networks". For this we can look into the structural history of elite societies. Viewed from a distance over the last 5000 years with our chronoscope, this societal macro-pattern can be called the "universal priesthood syndrom" of the religious elites. Whenever a society has been "pacified" i.e. has gone beyond the tribal level of clan groups fighting against each other, and is now under a central authority that bans the use of force in internal affairs (the Leviathan, Skoyles), then this will be the high time of "the priesthoods", who establish their power through symbolic means, in "entente cordiale" (and sometimes in conflict) with the military rulers, who wield the physical force. (Bloom 1995, Carneiro 1967, Diamond 1976, Gellner 1993, Levi-Strauss 1978). The rise of professional elites follows an ethnic pattern that echoes the old tribalism in some ways, except that tribes are physically coherent like the cell body of an amoeba, bound to a territory, and reproduce sexually, whereas professional elites form networks that presently spread all over the globe (like a fungus growth), and reproduce through colleges (a kind of bee-hive gerontogenesis). The colleges have their roots in the tribal initiation schools, and as social machines, they are direct descendants of the religious priesthood seminaries. Even if the subject matter changes, the social "deep structures" are faithfully reproduced, as the French say: "le plus ça change, le plus ça reste le même." Technically, religious elites are gerontocracies, where all the power is wielded by an assembly of the most senior members of the club. The Australian Aboriginal society represented one of the most extreme cases of indigenous gerontocracy, and the Roman Catholic church is the best known such example in modern European societies. It represents a thoroughly hierarchical system, with a visible central structure, whereas the power structure of the academics is more decentralized, like that of the Greek Orthodox church, or the Islamic clerical intelligenzia.
The operation of the academic power machine operates through several channels: First, through its initiation system, which is less visible nowadays than in the indigenous cases, as it operates on different principles. The key mechanism here is the intensive dependency of the neophytes upon their superiors, which faithfully weeds out characters that are too independently minded. Their career is better made in the business world, where the self-made man still has his playground. The next mechanism is the "peer" review system, which is "peer" more in "ye olde english" sense of the higher nobility subtly directing what the lower echelons may or may not publish (or perish). Since peer review is a "closed shop affair" it is intransparent who peers on whom, and on what criteria. Generally, the peers are of the "more equal than the rest" type, and form an "inner circle" of the respective academic department. This leads to the most important power mechanism: Who gets on what faculty position. Here, an even "more equal than the rest" type of "inner circle" is at work. It may be a matter of debate whether one wants to call the academic power mechanism quasi-feudalistic, or some other name, which would have to be coined. It is understandeable that official academia would not like to be compared too much with priesthood structures, since their aim 300 years ago was exactly to get away from that model. But for this we can only repeat the old wisdom: "le plus ça change, le plus ça reste le même." Societal power structures have their own laws, and it is a sure bet that the kinds of official explanations and justifications that are proclaimed most loudly, are exactly not those that are really at work. The old military rulership game of overt use of force and brute domination (which was at least sufficiently transparent) has in all the successful societies been long exchanged for more subtle models of domination. And instead of the official versions of "pacified, civilized, democratic society" one can also call such societies a perpetual cold civil war of smokescreen battles, the victories depending on whose coalition group is most successful hiding its machinations in the general power mongering. At the 1998 Ars Electronica Infowar symposion (AEC), this subject was almost touched. But it needs to be emphasized: almost. Academic sciences are in no way exempt from these power games, which is quite alright, because the university system is a self-reproducing social body as much as the Rotary Club is, and thus follows the general laws that have been formulated by Darwinism. The main problem lies in the self-proclaimed aim of the academics as the guardian of "enlightenment" (Kant 1784).
A particularly fitting example of a quasi-feudalistic structure is the German university system of W.v.Humboldt heritage, especially in the Geisteswissenschaften. The Prof. Ordinarius, the department head, reigns over his little chiefdom with absolute sovereignity, and in matters of his aceademic research, he has no-one between him and God (er, the goddess of pure knowledge). The old limerick: "I am the head of this college, and what I don't know, isn't knowledge" describes his position accurately. The situation is a little different in the anglo-american university system, but not much (Gold). Here the societal elite character of the university system is even more pronounced, and the "old boy networks" thus maintained are proverbial. The social dynamics-at-large of the university system are quite the same in all the societies styled after the western industrialized model: Universities form self-electing, and self-reproducing social bodies, which are quite free to set their self-reproduction standards, as long as they supply the necessary manpower to feed the industry and the state with the right quality personnel. Ivan Illich has amply described the symptoms of the social entrenchment of the expert elites thus created, and the university system is part of that elite structure. He calls it the "educational mega-machine" (Illich -1976: 12).
We will now get still a little closer to our core subject: the business of "Terminology and Knowledge Engineering", and we will examine the role of scientific jargon in the feudal game of expert elites. Scientific jargon is the academic equivalent of medieval castle walls, and this is one main reason why it is so useful, albeit for other reasons than what its users and inventors proclaim. (For obvious reasons, there will hardly ever be a scientific PhD thesis or Habilitiation to be delivered on this subject). The analysis given by Dieter Straub (1990) provides a striking example of how theoretical physics had erected an unassailable power bastion in modern societies that is in any measure comparable to the closed initiatory priesthood circles of earlier theocratic societies. And Straub is not an outsider whose voice can be brushed off easily, he is Professor Ordinarius for Thermodynamics at a German university (and because he has tenure for life, he can dare to publish this work, which would have cost him his job in an industrial setting). The argument goes as follows: Theoretical physics has mathematically formalized its material to such an extreme, that it is in no way distinguishable from the esoteric jargon of all the priesthoods of all theocracies of the last 5000 years of civilization. The societal model of a totally closed, totally self-electing, self-reproducing societal body is the same in either case, as are its power relations with the elites of the supporting society. This model serves equally well to fortify the academic "special interest" zones in all departments. Erdheim (1984) gives an analysis of this situation from the very different viewpoint of ethno-psychoanalysis, and with respect to the Aztec society, but the two patterns merge easily. Indeed, the method of ethno-psychoanalysis seems to be the only way to scrutinize societal processes within the western industrialized societies that fall under the blanket of establishment Taboos, ie. what Erdhein calls the deliberate "creation of unconsciousness" by power elites to facilitate the business of rulership. Against these, only a few mavericks like Ivan Illich dare to strike out, but their struggle is utterly Quixotean. Those that profit most from the prevailing system, are also those who hold all the power functions, and this perpetuates an existing trend to become more pronounced. As the "creation of unconsciousness" is part of the societal power processes, in which the academic sciences are themselves embroiled, the problem of babylonic scientific terminology confusion is not likely to be solved, neither soon, nor efficiently.
Mathematics is a suitable case for deeper ethno-psychoanalytical considerations, since here the tribalization of the vocabulary has taken a specifically interesting turn, deserving the "yellow lemon" award for the most egregious violation of all principles of the "ethics of terminology" (Peirce). As we all know, a key marker of tribal culture is ancestor worship. Mathematics makes a quasi-religious observation of this, since we can observe that any average mathematics text reads like a graveyard register of deceased mathematicians. And in the performance of reading a mathematics text in front of an audience, the prototypical "visiting anthropologist from mars" (Sacks 1995) would have to unfailingly report that a litany for the hallowed memory of tribal heroes is being sung. It may be a good question from what other domain the names of mathematical entities should better be taken, but now, learning mathematics is a mental exercise like memorizing the telephone directory. And unfortunately, this results in a selective advantage for people who like to memorize telephone directories, to become not only mathematicians but also physicists, engineers, quantum chemists, computer scientists, etc., while those who don't have the mnemonic stamina for that (or can't stand the idiocy of it) are locked out from mathematics and all the professions that rely heavily on it.
Harold Innis analysed the relation of elites and symbolism with respect to the writing system, but his observation holds true for knowledge systems in general:
Innis (1991: 4): A complex system of writing becomes the possession of a special class and tends to support aristocracies. A simple flexible system of writing admits of adaptation of the vernacular but slowness of adaptation facilitates monopolies of knowledge and hierarchies... Concentration on learning implies a written tradition and introduces monopolistic elements in culture which are followed by rigidities and involve lack of contact with the oral tradition and the vernacular. "Perhaps in a very real sense, a great institution is the tomb of the founder." "Most organizations appear as bodies founded for the painless extinction of ideas of the founders." "To the founder of a school, everything may be forgiven, except his school".
We can also take note of a little treatise on the eternal academic standards of "Terminology and Knowledge Engineering" that Goethe (1972) wrote in his Faust:
Zwar ist's mit der Gedankenfabrik
Wie mit einem Weber-Meisterstück,
Wo ein Tritt tausend Fäden regt,
Die Schifflein herüber hinüber schießen,
Die Fäden ungesehen fließen,
Ein Schlag tausend Verbindungen schlägt:
Der Philosoph, der tritt herein
Und beweist Euch, es müßt' so sein:
Das Erst' wär so, das Zweite so,
Das preisen die Schüler aller Orten,
Sind aber keine Weber geworden.
Wer will was Lebendigs erkennen und beschreiben,
Sucht erst den Geist heraus zu treiben,
Dann hat er die Teile in seiner Hand,
Fehlt leider! nur das geistige Band.
Da seht, daß ihr tiefsinnig faßt,
Was in des Menschen Hirn nicht paßt;
Für was drein geht und nicht drein geht,
Ein prächtig Wort zu Diensten steht.
Am besten ist's auch hier, wenn Ihr nur Einen hört,
Und auf des Meisters Worte schwört.
Im ganzen - haltet Euch an Worte!
Dann geht ihr durch die sichre Pforte
Zum Tempel der Gewißheit ein.
Schon gut! Nur muß man sich nicht allzu ängstlich quälen;
denn eben wo Begriffe fehlen
Da stellt ein Wort zur rechten Zeit sich ein.
Mit Worten läßt sich trefflich streiten,
Mit Worten ein System bereiten,
An Worte läßt sich trefflich glauben,
Von einem Wort läßt sich kein Jota rauben.
In spite of this rather bleak outlook, we might formulate some strategies for improving the infrastructure of scientific terminology. As blueprint might serve Peirce's Chapter on "The Ethics of Terminology", CP 2.219 - CP 2.226. This should be reproduced in full, but for space limitations, only a few lines will be given here. "The Ethics of Terminology" are to a large degree dictated by an as yet unknown and unexplored factor of "menmonic ecology", ie. that the brain has only so much neuronal real-estate with which to fix concepts (Loftus 1980, Norman 1970-1982), and the present monstrous scientific vocabularies overtax that ability greatly. Scientific terminology would become a semiotic engineering effort, and it would give heavy design considerations on the neurological infrastructure of the human mind, in order to alleviate the mnemonic burdens which the million-plus term vocabularies impose on the human mind. It has rarely been considered that the kinds of minds that are best at memorizing such vast encyclopedias, might not the best minds for supporting, let alone spurring scientific progress. Another strategy was outlined by Hermann Hesse (1971), the novelist (whose Glasperlenspiel was so maligned by Dieter Straub). The pace of scientific production would have to be brought in some healthy balance with consolidation of the materials, perhaps in form of a moratorium on new scientific research, and / or allocation of a larger share of the academic funds to knowledge reorganization and systematization, like the efforts of ISKO, UIA, TKE, Veltman, Benking. (Of course not exactly the way Hermann Hesse had imagined, but that doesn't matter, at least, he had the idea).
... the woof and warp of all thought and all research is symbols, and the life of thought and science is the life inherent in symbols; ... a good language is important to good thought, ... it is of the essence of it. Next ... the increasing value of precision of thought as it advances. Thirdly, the progress of science cannot go far except by collaboration; ... no mind can take one step without the aid of other minds. Fourthly, the health of the scientific communion requires the most absolute mental freedom. Yet the scientific and philosophical worlds are infested with pedants and pedagogues who are continually endeavoring to set up a sort of magistrature over thoughts and other symbols. It thus becomes one of the first duties of one who sees what the situation is, energetically to resist everything like arbitrary dictation in scientific affairs, and above all, as to the use of terms and notations. ... a general agreement concerning the use of terms and of notations ... is indispensable.
As to the ideal to be aimed at, it is, in the first place, desirable for any branch of science that it should have a vocabulary furnishing a family of cognate words for each scientific conception, and that each word should have a single exact meaning, unless its different meanings apply to objects of different categories that can never be mistaken for one another. To be sure, this requisite might be understood in a sense which would make it utterly impossible. For every symbol is a living thing, in a very strict sense that is no mere figure of speech. The body of the symbol changes slowly, but its meaning inevitably grows, incorporates new elements and throws off old ones. But the effort of all should be to keep the essence of every scientific term unchanged and exact; although absolute exactitude is not so much as conceivable. Every symbol is, in its origin, either an image of the idea signified, or a reminiscence of some individual occurrence, person or thing, connected with its meaning, or is a metaphor. Terms of the first and third origins will inevitably be applied to different conceptions; but if the conceptions are strictly analogous in their principal suggestions, this is rather helpful than otherwise, provided always that the different meanings are remote from one another, both in themselves and in the occasions of their occurrence. Science is continually gaining new conceptions; and every new scientific conception should receive a new word, or better, a new family of cognate words. ... supplying this word ... [should] be undertaken [with] ... a thorough knowledge of the principles and a large acquaintance with the details and history of the special terminology in which it is to take a place, ... a sufficient comprehension of the principles of word-formation of the national language, ... a proper study of the laws of symbols in general.
AUFKLÄRUNG ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit. Unmündigkeit ist das Unvermögen, sich seines Verstandes ohne Leitung eines anderen zu bedienen. Selbstverschuldet ist diese Unmündigkeit, wenn die Ursache derselben nicht am Mangel des Verstandes, sondern der Entschließung und des Mutes liegt, sich seiner ohne Leitung eines andern zu bedienen. Sapere aude! Habe Mut, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
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