Wonder and Embodiment: On Hoffmeyer’s biosemiotic aesthetics

Jamin Pelkey

Among the many ideas earmarked for ongoing development in Jesper Hoffmeyer’s oeuvre, his sketches of a biosemiotic aesthetics are among the most promising for dispelling pernicious illusions of alienation between human consciousness and the natural world and for healing the untold trauma these illusions have caused. Building on ideas from C. S. Peirce, John Deely, Mary Douglas, Kalevi Kull, Mark Johnson, and others (esp., Weber 2016), I focus on three themes in Hoffmeyer’s writings related to biosemiotic aesthetics (esp., 1997, 2008): (1) his discussions of the interrelationships between aesthetics and ethics, (2) his treatment of consciousness as narrative and spatial interpretation, and (3) his embrace of fallibility and ambiguity as necessary for the emergence of signs of meaning in the universe. In doing so, I suggest that wonder and embodiment are key unifying relations between these three themes, with a special emphasis on the lived feelings of bodily movement and memory schemas in relation to the earth. To better illustrate the pragmatic power of these ideas, I then shift to cognitive poetic analyses of four brief passages of literary art concerned with the ethics and aesthetics of human relationships to the biological world. These four passages (by Cameron Awkward-Rich, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Herman Melville, and Cormac McCarthy, respectively) illustrate ways in which movement schemas of the human Umwelt oriented to the bodily midlines of upright posture are well-suited for rehabilitating attention to an ethical aesthetics of empathic wonder capable of retrieving a vital sense of continuity with life itself, including a spontaneous sense of concern for its irreplaceability. Revitalizing attention to these layers of being is a necessary but neglected component of the regimen required for healing the trauma of induced alienation between modern modes of human consciousness and the natural world.



Hoffmeyer, J. (1997). Signs of Meaning in the Universe. Indiana University Press.

Hoffmeyer, J. (2008). Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. University of Scranton Press.

Weber, A. (2016). The Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling and the Metamorphosis of Science. New Society Publishers.

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