The biosemiotic imagination in the Victorian frames of mind : Newman, Eliot and Welby

Neubauer, Deana (2016) The biosemiotic imagination in the Victorian frames of mind : Newman, Eliot and Welby. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


This thesis traces the development of thought in the philosophical and other writings of three nineteenth-century thinkers, whose work exemplifies that century’s attempts to think beyond the divisions of culture from nature and to reconcile empirical science with metaphysical truth. Drawing on nineteenth-century debates on the origin of language and evolutionary theory, the thesis argues that the ideas of John Henry Newman, George Eliot and Lady Victoria Welby were cultural precursors to the biosemiotic thought of the second half of the twentieth century and beyond, specifically in the way in which these three thinkers sought to find a ‘common grammar’ between natural and human practices.

While only Lady Welby communicated with the scientist, logician and father of modern semiotics, Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914), all three contributed to the cultural sensibility that informed subsequent work in biology/ethology (Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), zoosemiotics (Thomas A. Sebeok (1920-2001), and the development of biosemiotics (Thomas A. Sebeok and Jesper Hoffmeyer (1943-present), Kalevi Kull (1952-present) among others. Each of these nineteenth-century writer’s intellectual development show strong parallels with the interdisciplinary endeavour of biosemiotics. The latter’s observation that biology is semiotics, its postulation of the continuity between the natural and cultural world through semiosis and evolutionary semiotic scaffolding its emphasis on the coordination of organic life processes on all levels, from simple cells to human beings, via semiotic interactions that depend on interpretation, communication and learning, and its consequent refusal of Cartesian divide, all find distinct resonances with these earlier thinkers.

The thesis thus argues that Newman, Eliot and Welby all gave articulation to what the thesis identifies as the growth of a ‘biosemiotic imagination.’ It argues that Newman, Eliot and Lady Welby envisaged a unity, or a holistic understanding, of life based on a European developmental tradition of biology, philosophy and language which was familiar to Charles Darwin himself. This evolutionary ontology called forth a new epistemology grounded in a mode of unconscious creative inference (biosemiotic imagination) akin to Charles S. Peirce’s concept of abduction. Abduction is the logical operation which introduces a new idea and, as such, is the only source of adaptive and creative growth. For Peirce, it is closely tied to the growth of knowledge via the evolutionary action of sign relations. The thesis shows how these thinkers conceptualised their own version of what I suggest can be understood as this biosemiotic imagination and the implications this has for understanding creativity in nature and culture. For John Henry Newman, it was a common source of inspiration in religion and science. For George Eliot, it lay at the basis of any creative process, natural and cultural, between which it forged a link. Similarly to Eliot, Lady Victoria Welby saw abduction as a signifying process that subtends creativity both in nature and culture.

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