Sebeok’s Razor and the Sign of Three: Hoffmeyer, Chomsky and Mandelbrot

Paul Deshusses


This presentation will be based on historical archival research conducted at the Thomas Sebeok Archive in Bloomington Indiana, and will review four emblematic and revealing correspondence the researcher held. Sebeok’s three chosen interlocutors for this presentation are Jesper Hoffmeyer, Benoît Mandelbrot, and Noam Chomsky. The ‘decisive’ correspondence the scholar had with Jesper Hoffmeyer in the 1990s will be reviewed, as well as the forgotten exchange of letters he had with Benoît Mandelbrot in 1961, 20 years before the mathematician developed the field of fractal theory and, finally, the correspondence he held with Noam Chomsky in the seventies where the principle of the Occam Razor and ironies were very present. Each correspondence will enable me to argue something larger about the history of biosemiotics, namely the role of political and economic context, serendipity, and the role of forgotten actors or ‘little hands’ of science.
First, the content of the correspondence will be analysed, and more importantly, the form and the tone, as theorised by the meta-historian Hayden White. Moreover, this presentation seeks to illuminate not just the intellectual context and debates in which the actors were swimming (and sometimes against the current) but also will devote time and attention to excavating the political and economic contexts, which no doubt played their part in the successes and challenges the actors met. On the context side, I will, for instance, mention the evident role of cold war politics but also stress the role Sebeok’s academic secretaries played in his career (their assigned tasks far-exceeding their academic roles when requested to buy him a razor or deal with after-sales service for Christmas gifts for his children, to mention two examples). For the style analysis part, I will highlight the role of apologies in Thomas Sebeok’s prose, irony, and ‘awe’ vocabulary. Therefore, following a similar method, I strive to uncover the particular aesthetics and creative aspirations encoded in the various speakers’ self-imagination and expression, most notably Jesper Hoffmeyer.
Finally, this presentation will ponder if Thomas Sebeok theory and Jesper Hoffmeyer theory of semiosis can be applied to their own method of working as revealed by the archive. Drawing on their own insights, the correspondence analysis may serve as a compelling example of how semiotic theory can shed light on its ‘birth’ as a field of interest. Furthermore, Sebeok, Hoffmeyer, Chomsky, and Mandelbrot’s letters reveal a rich interplay between language, posture, and broader political and economic context, illustrating the complexity of the semiotic process they were subjected to, while theorising it in their own way. By applying their own insights to their exchange, after having preliminary reviewed their posts following a method developed by Hayden White, this paper seeks to contribute to the ongoing project of building a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the epistemology of early biosemiotics inquiries.

[Slides from the presentation]