Modernity sets up a dichotomy between nature and culture. There’s a realm of natural fact, and a distinct realm of value. There’s the body, and the mind. The state of nature is set over-against the artifice of political order. There’s a realm of deterministic natural law, and there’s a realm of freedom. There’s the natural life of creatures, and the supernatural life of communion with God.
Nathan Lyons doesn’t buy it. In his 2019 Signs in the Dust, Lyons, a lecturer in philosophy at Australia's University of Notre Dame, argues there is no such dichotomy. He proposes to bridge the putative abyss with a theory of signs (semiotics). Drawing on Thomas Aquinas, the late medieval theologian and churchman Nicholas of Cusa, and the seventeenth-century Portuguese Dominican John Poinsot, Lyons sketches a Trinitarian, semiotic theology of culture. Then, taking cues from recent work in biosemiotics, he argues that nature too is infused with semiosis. Thus, “if culture is constituted by signs, and signs are in play throughout all of nature, then we can say that culture is natural and nature is cultural.”
Augustine initiated reflection on signs in Book 2 of On Christian Teaching. He defined a sign as something bodily that, in addition to making an impression on the senses, also brings something else to mind. Thomas broadened the idea of sign to include incorporeal “intellectual forms” that aren’t available to the senses. He recognized semiotic patterns in the life of the Trinity, the way the human mind’s generation of “interior words” is a sign of the Father’s generation of the Word. For Thomas, Lyons argues, “the sign is not a mark of the Fall, nor even a mark of creatureliness; it is constitutive of the divine life.” More explicitly than Thomas, Nicholas of Cusa used cultural terms to elaborate Trinitarian theology. “In Christ—who is the Word and who is the Omnipotent Art through which God made the world—art and nature are seen to coincide.”
Like Thomas, Cusa developed a semiotic account of knowing. Even the most basic level of knowledge—sensation—involves signs. An actual tree doesn’t enter my brain when I see a tree. Instead, “between the perceptible object and the senses there has to be a medium through which the object can replicate a form of itself, or a sign of itself.” He describes this semiotic process of knowing as “conjecture.” Humans have the unique capacity to produce “rational entities . . . in the likeness of real entities.” For this reason, “the human mind is the form of a conjectured rational world just as the Divine Mind is the Form of the real world.” Cusa offers what Lyons calls a “diagonal Platonism,” not a vertical match between eternal ideas and the human mind, but a temporal progress of human knowledge toward the mind of God.
Poinsot insists non-human creatures also respond to signs, since they perceive virtual dimensions of the world that can’t be reduced to physical sensations. I saw a coyote trotting down my driveway a few weeks back, and knocked on the window; startled, he loped off. To the coyote, the knock wasn’t just a noise, but a meaningful sign of danger. By a mysterious “internal sense,” Poinsot says, creatures sense harmony or disharmony in the world.
Uniquely, human semiosis takes the form of language. Since no sign fully designates the thing it signifies, we need a variety of linguistic signs. Cusa argues that the precise and full name of each thing is the Word of God, the “Living Word of all formable words.” Yet, each human name (tree, l’arbre, Baum; oak, willow, larch) is true and useful, expressing an aspect of the thing: “In its own manner this Ineffable Name [of the Word] shines forth in all imposed names.” Cusa sees a similar logic at work in human craftsmanship. A spoon-maker carves wood to make “the form of spoonness shine forth fittingly.” Every spoon shines with the form, but none is the form of the spoon. In the process of making, humans participate in divine production; the precise form of the spoon is present in the Word, the Art of the Father who “shines forth as the most adequate Exemplar of each and every formable thing.”
When he turns to the science of biosemiotics, Lyons depends on Felix Ravaisson’s Of Habit. Ravaisson begins with the Aristotelian insight that habit congeals into “second nature.” Beyond Aristotle, Ravaisson discerns the dynamics of habit-formation in nature as well as culture. Even the simplest living thing is shaped by both outside influences and internal spontaneity. Lyons proposes an “inheritance of habit.” He summarizes the findings of the “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis,” which emphasizes that organisms share in their own development: “organisms and environments are ‘made by each other.’” Habits of organisms have “a nontrivial influence” on their descendants, which means that future organisms will be “in a nontrivial way, formed by the art of creatures.” Over the long run, the life of organisms is a “kind of making, an art that adds new forms and signs to nature.”
Even inanimate entities exhibit semiotic features. Our senses receive information from an object (green grass) by reacting to energy and chemical patterns that serve as “sign-vehicles that refer to signifieds.” Semiosis is thus “in play wherever flows of energy are distributed and rearranged by physical objects,” which is to say, semiosis is evident “in every inch of the physical cosmos.” Wherever chemicals disperse, there are signs; wherever energy radiates, there are signs. We live in a vast forest of signs, a universe “perfused with signs” (Charles Peirce).
While I read Signs in the Dust, there were moments when I wanted Lyons to formulate his conclusions in more overtly theological terms, to bring the theology of the first part of the book to bear more fully on the biosemiotic reflections in the second half. Still, Signs in the Dust is hugely stimulating and makes good on the claim that art, culture, and semiosis are “interior to nature.” This book cuts a tantalizing path that leads toward the reintegration of science, philosophy, and theology.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute, and organizing pastor of Immanuel Reformed Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
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