The Cognitive Spiral: Semiotic Freedom & Space

[Slides from the presentation]

Space has history and has taken different forms in different societies and at different times depending on the experiences accounted for and the available means to externalise and represent these (Jammer 2013). The representation is conditional on the technique used, delineating a cognitive loop between representation and comprehension that narrows the conception of space to a direct reference to that which is perceived. In other words, the method of representation determines the perception of that represented, and vice versa. A self-reinforcing cycle between inner “mental” space and outer world, whereby cognition is a form of niche by which we adapt to and mould the world according to our purposes and desires.

Geometry is one way experience is replicated and through which problems are solved. ”[A] certain schematization of experience, which we may call space […] in the sense that it is formed from experience by the application of some principle (Wiener and Masani 1976:99). Peirce does not say much about space but what he does say correlates with Uexküll presentation of space because their thinking is based in sign-action. In The Order of Nature Peirce emphasises there are “general truths” that are so extraordinary that “even if we are to suppose that they are not strictly universal truths, we cannot possibly think that they have been reached by pure accident.” And that the “most remarkable laws of this kind are those of time and space” (EP1:180). He implies space is not just an idea, but a fundamental feature of life, tied to causal relations between things and their effect in the process of perception-action. Peirce presents, albeit in nascent form, space to be a product of excitation produced through sign-relations, which correlates with Uexküll’s definition. For, like the idea of ‘force’, “in its rudiments, is another conception so early arrived at, and found in animals so low in the scale of intelligence, that it must be supposed innate” (EP1:180-181). A scaffold, or natural law which is an essential component of living things. From the simplest to the most intricate. “The great utility and indispensableness of the conceptions of time, space, and force, even to the lowest intelligence, are such to suggest that they are the results of natural selection. Without something like geometrical, kinetical and mechanical conceptions, no animal could seize his food or do anything which might be necessary” (EP1:181). We might infer from this (on the premise that an organism’s world is constituted of a plethora of signs available to it) the first principle of Umwelt theory; that the synthesis between an organism’s and its environment expands relative to the complexity of the organism. Hence space is defined by an organism’s semiotic freedom. In Uexküll we find the biological roots of space, and in Peirce we find the semiotic supposition for the forming of space (understood to be a network of relations), to be a process of sign-action.

I aim to illustrate how the above Peircean-Uexkullian notion of space infers a cognitive spiral whereby space (or a cell-centric model of) extends from a fundamental model (i.e., that of a cell) to more developed, nuanced and complex forms of space (such as our own); and that this corresponds to the idea of a developmental process, or stages, of spatial intelligence, which transfers through human cultural representation and the built environment.



Houser, N., & Kloesel, C. J. (1992). The Essential Peirce, Volume 1: Selected Philosophical Writings (1867–1893). Indiana University Press.

Jammer, Max (2013). Concepts of space: the history of theories of space in physics: third. Courier Corporation.

Wiener, Norbert and Pesi Rustom Masani (1976). Norbert Wiener Collected Works with Commentaries. MIT Press.