> > > LIBREAS. Library Ideas # 4

The foundation of LIS in information science and semiotics

Søren Brier, "The foundation of LIS in information science and semiotics. ". LIBREAS. Library Ideas, 4 ().


part 1

part 2

part 3

  • Various types and definitions of information
  • The usefulness of Peirce's approach in LIS
  • References
  • Figure 1 . Figure 2 . Figure 3 . Figure 4

    Introducing the conflict between informational and semiotic paradigms

    Two major strategies for gaining a systematic understanding of the “laws” of information, cognition and signification and communication are the informational and the semiotic. They are both transdisciplinary and universal in scope, but they study the basic ideas of information, cognition and communication from disparate angles. Nöth writes about the relationship between these paradigms:

    Information in its everyday sense is a qualitative concept associated with meaning and news. However, in the theory of information, it is a technical term, which describes only quantifiable aspects of messages. Information theory and semiotics have goals of similar analytic universality: Both study messages of any kind, but because of its strictly quantitative approach, information theory is much more restrictive in its scope. (Nöth 1995: 34)

    This article states the conflict between informational and semiotic approaches to cognition and communication and points to crucial differences in the metaphysical framework behind the pan-informational and the pan-semiotic paradigms as one of the obstacles for making a transdisciplinary framework integrating them in search of a theoretical framework that can encompass truth and meaning, science and humanities. We will then take this problem deep into some basic practical problems of subject searching in library and information science (LIS) to show the practical limits and problems of the universal theory of objective information as the foundation of cognition and communication science.

    This universal theory is often called the “information-processing paradigm”. It is built on an objective information concept combined with a general idea of computation that is usually algorithmic. The mechanistic and rationalistic information-processing paradigm prevailing in cognitive science is the predominate approach in this trans-disciplinary area, which is dominated by computer science and informatics. In the analysis below, I demonstrate that the logical and mechanistic approach alone cannot offer an understanding of human signification and its basis in biological, psychological and social relationships. I then discuss the ontological and epistemological problems of the idea of “information science” by discussing information concepts and paradigms based upon other basic epistemological and ontological theories.

    In discussing the possibility of a universal information science (which must include a universal science of communication and cognition) it is important to analyze the nature of subject areas that a universal information science has to combine, such as physics, biology, social science, humanities, library and information science, computer science, cybernetics, communication and linguistics. The strategies for developing an information science is to extract the areas of information, knowledge, perception and intelligence from the old philosophical tradition and its pondering about phenomenology, qualia, consciousness, meaning and signification, epistemology and ontology, and instead develop an efficient objective science called cognitive science. Such a move attempts to release us from more than two thousand years of philosophical discussions on cognition, signification and meaning, by turning the subject into an empirical science.

    Many information “scientists” would claim that it is exactly this restriction that makes it possible to construct a universal theory of information and cognition. Thus the qualitative phenomenological and pragmatic approach of semiotics seems to make it unsuitable for the sciences, which are presently grounded in either mechanistic atomistic determinism or in some type of Gibbs probabilistic complexity theory (Hayles 1999 p. 88-90 analysis of Wiener’s theoretical foundation and Prigogine and Stengers 1984) also influenced by the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics.

    I want to consider these differences as general philosophical and methodological problems for the study of information, cognition, signification and communication as a transdisciplinary field. The problem is basic to the entire field of information, cognitive science, signification and meaning. A basic inquiry is whether the functionalistic and cybernetic research program of information and cognitive sciences must be seen as complementary to a phenomenological-semiotic line of theorizing on signification and meaning that ignores ontological questions outside culture, or if they might be united into one paradigmatic framework by carrying through a revision of the ontological and epistemological foundation of both classical and modern science as Peirce attempts.

    Essentially the mathematical theory of information defines information as merely the statistical property of a message, irrespective of its meaning. It is seen as a selection among signals. In information theory, a signal has information when it excludes the occurrence of other signals that could have occurred instead. The quantification of information depends on the number of excluded alternatives and the probability with which a signal can be expected to occur. The informational value of a signal is calculated as the probability of occurrence in a message. What counts is the statistical rarity of signs, or rather, codes. Shannon’s information theory, when used in a broader scientific sense, presumes that signals are meaningful codes established in a system of signs, such as the Morse code for the alphabet. In this situation one can relate this information concept to the quantitative side of meaningful communication without addressing the presupposed meaning that makes the calculation worth doing. But Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, made a more general theory of information, saying that ‘information is information, neither energy nor matter’, but something real in nature being everywhere (pan-informational paradigm), and as Schrödinger (1967) showed in his book What is life?, is being especially crucial for living systems.

    The modern versions of the pan-informational paradigm often combine functionalism with the non-equilibrium thermodynamics, non-linear systems dynamics, and deterministic chaos theory and fractal mathematics as descriptive tools. But again there are seldom systematic reflections on how they differ from a mechanistic view or on the nature of a concept of meaning and how signification arises in minds. This is a general philosophical problem in the area of “psychology” and “cognitive science”. At least two of the methodologies in the area of human behavior, thinking and communication, presume that humans are meaning-producing systems. These are the phenomenological and hermeneutical qualitative approaches.

    The large differences between the scientific approaches on the one side and the phenomenological-hermeneutical approaches on the other still fuel the debate as to whether psychology can ever establish itself as one science, though cognitive science and the information-processing paradigm are themselves such attempts that ignore the problems of meaning that phenomenology, hermeneutics and semiotics address.

    Peircean based pan semiotics

    Within the last twenty years a semiotic and communicational paradigm, largely based on Peirce’s “(…) semiotics, that is, the doctrine of the essential nature and fundamental varieties of possible semiosis.” (Peirce, CP: 5.448) has developed. Semiotics develops a general theory of all possible kinds of signs, their modes of signification and information, and whole behavior and properties. It studies the existence of meaningful communication in living and social systems and looks to cultural historical dynamics and evolutionary ecology for explanations of the dynamics of signification and communication. Peirce founded semiotics as a logic and scientific study of dynamic sign action in humans, their language, science and religion and other cultural products as well as sign in non-human nature. In the form of biosemiotics, this view is now penetrating biology as an alternative to both mechanistic and purely systems’ dynamical explanations. Work has been undertaken in genetics, molecular biology and biochemistry (Hoffmeyer and Emmeche, 1991, Barbieri 2001), organic chemistry.

    A pan-semiotic philosophy can be constructed from a few central quotations from Peirce. The first pertains to the ontological question of the basic elements of reality:

    The entire universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs.
    (Peirce, CP: 5.448, fn.)

    In other words, in thinking we never have access to the thing in itself, but only as it appear to us through signs. Since we are living in a “semiosphere” (Hoffmeyer 1997) in our individual and collective “signification spheres”, we never get “behind” the signs to “reality.” So why not admit that signs are the only reality we will ever know? Even humans are only signs.

    For, as the fact that every thought is a sign, taken in conjunction with the fact that life is a train of thought, proves that man is a sign; so, that every thought is an external sign, proves that man is an external sign. That is to say, the man and the external sign are identical, in the same sense in which the words homo and man are identical. Thus my language is the sum total of myself; for the man is the thought. (Peirce, CP: 5.318)

    In this view, semiotics becomes the fundamental doctrine and philosophy to grasp knowing and reality. Still, a prerequisite for signs to work as tools for cognition is a basic pre-coupling between the organism and the environment. One has to know where to look and what to look for in order to obtain further information from a sign. Peirce writes:

    The sign can only represent the object and tell about it. It cannot furnish acquaintance with a recognition of that object. (…) It presupposes an acquaintance in order to convey some further information concerning it. (Peirce, CP: 2.231)

    The problem is whether this acquaintance presupposes certain pre-semiotic experiences as does much of hermeneutic philosophy. Regardless, in semiotics, meaning and signification do not have much to do with informational bits. The phenomenological theory established in Peirce’s semiotics underlines the fact that qualia, interpretation and meaning are at least as important as the quantitative selection and measuring of bits.

    In Peirce’s triadic philosophy, feelings, qualia, habit formation, and signification are basic ontological constituents of reality. This suggests that the semiotic paradigm should be able to penetrate beyond chemistry and physics to “the bottom of nature”. This seems to clash with basic beliefs in sizable parts of information science that seems to want to construct meaning as a bottom up procedure from a thermodynamically based information science.

    We seem to have two completely distinct points of departure for these theories that both aim to be universal. The difference between the two paradigms is fundamental. The information paradigm is based on an objective, quantitative information concept working with algorithmic models of perception, cognition and communication. Semiotics, based in human language’s meaningful communication, is phenomenological and dependent upon a theory of meaning.

    One way of viewing the problem is to see the pan-informational paradigm as a “bottom-up” explanation and the pan-semiotic paradigm as a “top-down” explanation. One could further combine this with an epistemological viewpoint that suggests that no final scientific explanations can be given to anything in this world, including the behavior of organisms. All we have are complementary explanations that work well in different situations. We can never attain a full view.

    According to this, it might be impossible to unite the two paradigms by manipulating basic definitions into unifying compromises. Instead we should continue to develop each paradigm to its fullest and then combine them as complementary views of a subject matter we can never fully grasp in any kind of unified scientific systems of concepts and laws (see Figure 1).

    Figure 1 - The relevance of the bottom-up informational view and the top-down semiotic view in the area of the foundation of information science. On the left side is a hierarchy of sciences and their objects, from physics to humanities and vice versa. On the right is an illustration of the two most common “scientific” schemes for understanding and predicting communicative and organizational behavior...

    Figure 1:
    The relevance of the bottom-up informational view and the top-down semiotic view in the area of the foundation of information science. On the left side is a hierarchy of sciences and their objects, from physics to humanities and vice versa. On the right is an illustration of the two most common “scientific” schemes for understanding and predicting communicative and organizational behavior:

    1. the semiotic top-down paradigm of signification, cognition and communicative, and

    2. the informational bottom-up functionalistic view of organization, signal transmission and A.I.

    The width of the two paradigms in correlation with the various subject areas shows an estimate of how the relevance of the paradigm is generally considered, although both claim to encompass the entire spectrum. [back]

    One of the consequences of this is that concepts of meaning and the objective statistical information concept are defined within two distinct paradigms, making the informational aspect of communication as an objective and quantifiable entity completely independent of any meaningful interpretation from the recipient and any intent from the sender.

    The opposition between the two paradigms has another important aspect. It is a confrontation between the scientific and objectivistic realistic views of knowledge and science and the phenomenological-hermeneutic-humanistic approach to meaning, signification and communication. This makes it very difficult to make a unifying theory for LIS that encompasses both the algorithmic way of dealing with intelligence, knowledge and communication in the computer, the social understanding of how meaning is created and evolved in natural languages and finally psychologically how the individual user in front of a document retrieval system actually understands concepts, strings of words, what documents are about and the actual content of documents, since our aim is to organize the retrieval process in a natural way to make the enormous number of documents produced internationally widely available.

    The document-mediating system

    The main expertise of librarians, archivists and documentalists has always been the storage, indexing, retrieval and mediation of materials carrying data, knowledge, meaning and experience. As a science, its objective is first and foremost to promote communication. This can include recorded measurements and observations, theoretical knowledge, and meanings and visions or experiences, to such media as documents, books, records, tapes, programs, floppy discs, hypertext, compact discs, pictures, films and videograms, from the producer to the user. These mediating forms and future ones can be summarized under the general LIS-concept of a “document” (see e.g. Vickery & Vickery 1987, Buckland 1991). Following Buckland’s discussion, I will define a document as a human work with communicative intent towards other living beings that is recorded in a material way.

    For librarians and documentalists, information science is primarily concerned with finding the most suitable rules for the design of systems and procedures for collecting, organizing, classifying, indexing, storing, retrieving and mediating those materials which support data, knowledge, meaning and experience. Librarians, documentalists and archivists have done this for thousands of years.

    As an offshoot of both indexing and communication to users with different requirements, one must study the origins of the various document types, how they are produced, for which users, and under what economic knowledge domain constraints. It is recognized that producers of documents generally have specific consumers in mind, and these consumers can often be manufacturers themselves. In this way the system closes in upon itself, as Luhmann (1995) underlines for communication systems in general, and then cannot see its surrounding society and culture directly.

    But it does react to the perturbation and change in the production and use of document types through internal adjustment. This is shown in Figure 2 where the broken arrows represent a structure or result-changing feedback that is vital for the system's self-organizing ability and its ability to survive through self-adjustment.

    Figure 2:
    The document-mediating information system as a self-organizing cybersemiotic system with semantic feedback. The unbroken arrows are document transport. The broken arrows are feedback in the form of approval or critique of the contents of documents or of system performance.
    1. The direct circulation of documents between producer and user is often seen in the sciences with preprints. 2. The direct access of librarians to a collection. 3. End-user’s access directly through on-line systems. 4. The librarian as mediator of the collection through mechanical (electronic) intermediaries. 5. An information broker’s mediation of documents to a user.

    This is one of the developments – along with the development of cognitive science – that promoted the idea of a unified information science for humans, machines and animals (see for instance Vickery & Vickery 1988). As mentioned previously, the hope of cognitive science is that information-processing will follow certain “universal syntactic, logical and mathematical laws” (Fodor 1987).

    One should reflect on the fact that nearly everything, aside from computer programs found on the Internet and in all management information systems, is a document.

    Therefore this problem is very general and has massive proportions. The first goal is to make intelligent user interfaces. The second is to reorganize databases. The latter does not seem practical or economically feasible for most of the huge international scientific bibliographic databases, since each is built with a rigid scientific classification or thesaurus that controls its indexing practices. Further, they house millions of documents that are already indexed.

    - move on to part 2 -


    [Fn 1]
    The present article is based on material from the following articles: Brier, S. (1992): “A philosophy of science perspective - on the idea of a unifying information science”. In P. Vakkari and B. Cronin (eds.) (1992): Conceptions of Library and Information Science: Historical, empirical and theoretical perspectives, Taylor Graham, London, pp.97-108. Brier, S. (1996): ”Cybersemiotics: A new interdisciplinary development applied to the problems of knowledge organization and document retrieval in information sci-ence”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 52, no. 3, September 1996, pp. 296-344.Brier, S. (1996):”The Usefulness of Cybersemiotics in dealing with Problems of Knowledge Organization and Document Mediating Systems”, Cybernetics: Quarterly Review of the International Association for Cybernetics, Vol. XXXIX, no. 4. pp. 273-299. Brier, S. (2000): ”Trans-Scientific Frameworks of Knowing: Complementarity Views of the Different Types of Human Knowledge”, Yearbook Edition of Systems Research & Behavioral Science. System Research, 17, pp. 433-458.Brier, S. (2000b). Brier, S. (2001): “Cybersemiotics: A Reconceptualization of the Foundation for Information Science “, Systems Research and Behavioral Science, Yearbook. Systems Research 18, pp.421-427. Thellefsen, T.L., Brier, S. and Thellefsen, M.L. (2003): “Problems concerning the process of subject analysis and the practice of indexing: A Peircian semiotic and semantic approach toward user oriented needs in document searching,” Semiotica, 144-1/4 (2003), pp.177-218. Brier, S.: (2004): “Cybersemiotics and the Problem of the Information-Processing Paradigm as a Candidate for a Unified Science of Information Behind Library and Information Science”, pp.629-657 in Library Trends, Vol. 52, No. 3, Winter 2004. (

    Søren Brier ist Associate Professor im Bereich philosophy of information, cognition and communication sciences an der CBS (Copenhagen Business School).

    Unter anderem ist er Herausgeber der Zeitschrift Cybernetic & Human Knowing: A Journal of Second Order Cybernetics, Autopoiesis and Cybersemiotics.


    Homepage: http://uk.cbs.dk/content/view/full/9710