More constraints, more freedom: Revisiting semiotic scaffolding, semiotic freedom, and semiotic emergence

[Slides from the presentation]

Technically, constraint is defined as the reduction of degree of freedom. However, novelties emerge in dynamic systems with constraints. Constraints make once almost impossible states become possible. That is, constraint may raise the probability of the actual realization of possible states once being only possible but having rare chance to actually realize. When a dynamic system stabilizes to a state with certain constraints, it provides a scaffolding for new possibilities at higher level. Therefore, Emergence of novelties at a higher level is possible. We may say, more constraints create more freedom.

This way of understanding dynamic emergence may also help us further understand Jesper Hoffmeyer’s seminal works on semiotic scaffolding, semiotic freedom, and semiotic emergence. Semiotic scaffolding makes semiotic freedom of living systems possible. As Hoffmeyer (2015) argues,


Yet, this particular strategy potentially ignites a self-perpetuating evolutionary dynamics, since each step taken by a species along this route potentially opens new agendas for further change: the more capable some species are of anticipating and interpreting complex and fast changing situations or events, the more will evolution favor the development in other species of a well-adjusted set of semiotic tools.


In the presentation, I will take Terrence Deacon‘s work on the origin of life and therefore of semiosis as an example to show how semiotic scaffolding and semiotic emergence can be understood in terms of the dialectics of constraint and freedom. This understanding indicates that semiotics emergence is a dynamic emergence which is a kind of weak emergence rather than strong ones. It also brings new insight to reconsider the epistemic cut.



Bruni, L. E. (2008). Semiotic freedom: Emergence and teleology in biological and cognitive Interfaces. The American Journal of Semiotics, 24(1/3), 57-73.

Deacon, T. (2021). How molecules become signs. Biosemiotics, 14, 537-559.

Hoffmeyer, J. (2007). Semiotic scaffolding of living systems. In Babieri, M. (ed). Introduction to Biosemiotics: The New Biological Synthesis. Dordrecht: Springer, 149-166.