Alfred Lang

University of Bern, Switzerland

Manuscript for Journal Article 1997

Thinking Rich as well as Simple - Boesch's Cultural Psychology in Semiotic-Ecological Perspective [1]


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Original manuscript invited for publication by Culture and Psychology and published in vol. 3 (3) 1997 383-394

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© 1998 by Alfred Lang

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Ernst Boesch's symbolic action theory for cultural psychology is presented articulating the psychologist's dilemma between achieving an observationally adequate description of what really happens in and between persons in their culture and keeping to the game of modern science of presenting their reference field by a system of invariable scientific concepts. Boesch is shown to give primacy to what he can observe in the real world with his admirable sensibility for the total pattern of things pertinent. However, this inevitably forces him to extend and even to dissolve the concepts appropriated and developed from action theory. Does a rich field of facts necessitate conceptual dissipation? The author pleads for putting observations from concrete evolutive systems, such as persons developing in culture, into the framework of an explicitly constructive methodology, the key concepts being generators rather than representations of the observable. Semiotic ecology offers a conceptuality capable to ground a culture inclusive psychology that can perhaps evade Boesch's dilemma.


Key Words: cultural psychology, theory construction, semiotic ecology, Boesch, Ernst E.


Like most designs of a culture inclusive psychology, Boesch's is an interpretation of the ecological system or of the relation between humans and their environment. Also it includes the assumption that persons, environments and their relation develop together over time. Boesch's admirable illustrative examples and most of his empirical studies instance concrete and inclusive ecological systems functioning over some stretch of their common development. His major key concepts proposed for understanding the system and the process include action, goal, regulation, action field, polyvalence, action potential, I, self, culture, symbol, myth, fantasm.

While real life is of immense richness and complexity, theory is only helpful in understanding the human condition, if it can be simple by being essential. Good theory is clear and easy to grasp, however intricate the way of getting at it has been. It can be argued that modern psychological theory in general is not only often wanting in validity and assured transferability but also mostly too complicated; witness the large number of competing theories extant and the fact that nearly none is stable enough to withstand wear without generating variants uncountable. To vary a phrase Jerome Bruner has proffered to characterize development: theorizing is the art of staying simple in the face of apparent complexity.

Boesch's cultural psychology is not at all easy to grasp and to disseminate, although I believe it is, in its essence, of the "simple" kind. While it evidently conveys the richness of its reference field, it lacks that immediate lucidity good theory must exact if it is to persuade. One might object that matters psychological are by themselves complex in principle. Yet if this were so, I would rather give up scientific attempts at the human condition [2]. In fact, criteria as to what counts for good science is a matter heavily neglected in all fields. Another reason for the difficulties encountered could lie in the fact that Boesch, as any other modern cultural psychologist, could not help but use a conceptuality and language that is not well suited for describing the dynamics of ecological systems. "Language" in this context hints at the power of words to expose as well as to obscure. In the present brief note I want to point to discrepancies between what Boesch aspires to express and what the conceptual means chosen and developed permit. In a constructive stance and in the hope of furthering insight by a comparative strategy I also shall point out key components of a semiotic conceptuality for dealing with the evolution of ecosystems. Hopefully it allows for theorizing rich as well as simple.


Grasping Symbolic Acting in Culture

Boesch's greatest achievement, in my opinion, are his many mindful descriptions of concrete life situations and events, i.e. of what happens with real people living in real action fields and how this can be understood by the psychologist. Many of them are in the form of case studies or serve the purpose of illustration in his essays on all sorts of themes ranging from the conditions and effects of esthetic objects to trivial or strange everyday scenes and to major social or cultural problems of the times. They range in length from a few lines to several pages and are to be found in all of his publications. A collection of papers from the last few years demonstrating in a masterly manner the workings of his theoretical approach is soon to appear in a volume entitled "Von der Sehnsucht" (Of Longing, in prep.). In fact, the ensemble of these essays presents what amounts to a culture inclusive theory of human motivation that favorably stands out from what psychology has offered so far under this heading. Boesch always takes issue with concrete life situations, his own and those of other people, from his own and from other cultures.

Experiencing "Heimweh" (longing home, to render only partially adequate in English) is here singled out as an example useful for sketching the overall functioning of Boesch's thinking (Boesch, 1991/1997). Unfortunately, it is impossible in a few lines to impart the level of concrete events and states Boesch's treatment requires and attains; I can only hint at them. Heimweh may often seize somebody gone abroad. Indeed, being forced to places abroad is a common cause, be it as a fugitive, on a mission, or by the rules of a career. Yet is it not that many have been drawn from home by a "Fernweh" (longing abroad)? Or have been driven out from too familiar confines by insupportable repetitions of ever the same? Being in this state acutely is not at all of the nature of a depression; rather it resembles the state of having fallen deeply in love unhappily. How can things develop? Does the person in Heimweh have to return or shall she find a new dwelling or situation abroad, one capable of becoming really her proper new home? Can the process stabilize in this or that more or less acceptable balance? Will the feeling become chronic, perhaps suppressed and periodically trenchant, or perhaps accepted and mildened by the cultivation of this or that substitutive? Will it sooner or later push the person further or draw her back, for some time or for life? Is it just a feeling, or does the state of mind extend into the larger person and affect her life beyond the psychic range?

Boesch points out that we miss something essential, when we attempt to conceive of the inner conditions of such developments apart from the outer ones. By means of postulations such as the subjectivation of the objective and the objectivation of the subjective he tries to bridge that opposition between the I and the Non-I which is so thorougly pervading Western thought. We humans are comporting, he contends, determined by and in an action field which is composed as much of contributions of ourselves, of our longings, our fears, our beliefs, our knowledges etc. as of the characters of the settings out there, the people, the things, the houses and streets, the sounds and pictures, etc. And essential portions of this field are the mutual profferences within a community of people living together of which we are a part, their norms, the habits of their traditions, the expectations implicit in what they offer to and desire from each other, in short, our cultural field. Even when we tend to see our actions in the service of certain goals, we cannot help but recognize that such are only the top of an iceberg of extended complex ensembles or fields of drawing and pushing forces. Boesch speaks of the polyvalence of all of our orientations and consumptions. For another concise overall example of Boesch's thinking, see Boesch, 1993.


Boesch's Dissipation of Familiar Concepts

While most of the key concepts mentioned above are used by many cultural psychologists, it is instructive to see how Boesch makes use of them in his decided attempt to do justice to the observable facts of cultural life. And here exactly might reside the main difficulty of a reader who is time and again delighted by Boesch's sensibility for the concrete human-environment-process but does not reach a desired understanding beyond metaphor when he wants to make constructive use of Boesch's conceptual apparatus in his own work. For Boesch radically dissolves or dissipates these concepts in his operating with them. I should liken him to an artisan starting his work with the tools of his trade; but, instead of the invariant tools bringing to life ever new incorporations of his prototypical design, it is as if the tools had to be constantly adjusted for being adequate to and capable of treating the material and achieving the purpose, so that in the very process of using them tools and working piece sort of changed each other. Retaining the familiar terms in order to grasp what happens among people in culture, Boesch's consequential use of these largely common concepts coerces him to give up nearly all of their accepted meaning and to radically widen their scope and use. With the one exception of the I or Self. Let me illustrate my point with examples.

The term Handlung (conduct or comportment are, in fact, nearer equivalents than action) is generally used to refer to behavior serving a purpose; often, the characters "aware" (bewusst) and "willed" (intended) by the acting subject are included. The notion has its roots in Aristotelian anthropology and is basic to the Western law system. In German idealism its meaning was biased towards its inner aspects. Kurt Lewin as well as Lev Vygotsky and their followers reintroduced it into modern psychology; but some of their seminal ideas were only taken up in the latter third of this century. Thus in German-language psychology "Handlungstheorie" has become the common denominator of a group of more or less related renewal movements. Much of the present-day psychological use of "action" terms, unfortunately, is to compensate for some behaviorists' ill attempts to strip the notion of behavior from its inherent relatedness into the environment such as in instinct. Boesch, while starting his proper line of conceptual development before that renewal movement gained attention, welcomed that more realistic notion of action as a new foundation for understanding humans actionally engaging with their environment.

But bringing that notion of action or comporting oneself into living situations as he understands them, Boesch proceeds to point out the composite character of that process and, wheras most contemporary action theorists strain to confine "action" as a basic unit, he emphasizes its being part of chains or systems of actions and situations (see 1991:43ff.). He goes on to remark that action in all its pointable segments leads to results that are evaluated and either accepted or negated by the actor or by events and people from the environment, upon which the course of action may change. So what after the fact looks like a chain of actions or subactions is in reality more like a way through a maze. Many of the parts of an action might not at all need to bear additions to its purpose. Indeed, action is at its best, when it remains an internal process for large stretches; for why should one try something in fact that is quicker and more efficiently done in the mental realm? Also, many purposes cannot be attained single-handedly; so modes of acting through others recruited by means of communication are in order. Action thus becomes symbolic in several respects and it would mislead to restrict that notion to actual executions of motor behavior patterns between the incitement of a plan and the consumption of its goal. An action is thus only meaningfully conceivable as an actualization of one of the immense numbers of possibilities realized in an action field by the concretization of a given action potential; actions made feasible or required by any given environmental situation materialize only in combination within the potential and constraints of the action potential of the person in question.

A key notion in action theory is the goal. A goal is what organizes a set of operations to serve a purpose; attaining a goal is the crucial element for segmenting the stream of behavior in actional terms. Again, Boesch, in his realistic stance, observes that many actions are not terminated after reaching their goal; on the contrary, he says, they reach beyond, and there are even actions "with, so to speak, permanent goals" (1991:45ff.). And rather than letting himself be drawn into the action theorists' controversies about the genuine or attributive character of the goal, Boesch goes on to claim that actions have practically always many goals. He thus proposes one of the few terms of his own creation: the polyvalence of all goals and action processes. Yet this obviates or deconstructs the accepted sense of both notions: an action can no longer be delimited and united by its goal and a goal can no longer organize a set of related actions. In addition, building upon William James' insights, Boesch bursts the notion of goal as an internal state or intention and embraces the principle that goals are certain states of the world as well as desired states of one self. Taking the relational character of the action theory terms serious prevents giving them the fixed meaning required to make them functional.

The demonstrated dissipation of common concepts by the very attempt to render them pertinent is perhaps most obvious in Boesch's use of the terms symbol and symbolic (1991:73ff.). Boesch introduces his notion of symbolism by way of the distinction between the denotative and the connotative meaning of some object. So he appears to be well within the modes of thought of the Western essentialist tradition enabling the methodological certitudes of extensional logic. The moderate psychoanalytic touch conveyed to the connotative appears to confirm that supposition since it has the material object and its essential attribute be part of the objective world and the connotations be the accidental and contingent accretions brought into the relation by the subject in his personal way. But a second look beyond the definitorial at how Boesch actually treats of the symbolic teaches another vista. By introducing situational, functional, analogical, ideational symbolism and finally invoking Otherness-symbolism (das Andere) as part and dialectical parcel of a comprehensive understanding of any action, goal, object, circumstance, process, experience, or fact Boesch invokes what he calls the "pervasiveness of symbolism". Like the goal concept's distributed character, the symbolic impregnates whatever participates in the factual pattern of exchanges and influences that make a psychological life. Being involved of anything in essence means bringing symbolic dimensions and viewpoints of all varieties into the process and so articulating that immense connectedness of things psychological that leaves the selective relational bonds typical for physical entities widely behind.

Boesch specifies the symbolic to play a crucial role in the dialogical process between the individual and the cultural, in that he conceives of cultural change and individual development by the myth--fantasm distinction and interaction. Much of what a member of a group encounters in the social process is of the general character of a myth; yet acquiring it means to generate one's own version of it, often in personal fantasy; some of the latter will find at times, in addition, a public form which then becomes part of and can contribute to the change of the myth which in turn becomes a new source of individual fantasms. By this happy metaphorical conception, Boesch does even enhance that pervasive force of all things psychical. For everything symbolic needs a material form to be real but at the same time belies that form and flies to new frontiers. A rose is a rose is a rose ... Really! Or perhaps not?

I have noted above one exception to this pattern of dissipation of common conceptual fixations which are so dear to sciences that in dearth of observationals and well founded inferentials nurture definitorials and build their card houses on a priori grounds and by operational conventions. In fact, Boesch exempts one component of that fluid and multifaceted system of people in culture he paints in his theorizing and keeps it the single invariant of all that mutual making and moving. It is the "I" (1995, ch. 8). Boesch construes, it is true, of identity formation as "consisting essentially in the construction of an inner 'self'" (1991:296) which, as all other concepts mentioned above, also refers to and involves "factual parameters" from both within the body and from the physical, social and cultural environment. Self and self development or identity formation thus are entities underlying that pervasive process and spread or dispersed existence that characterizes the action field and action potential as shown above. Yet the developing self presupposes in Boesch's contention an origin that totally precedes the process and is claimed its internal prerequisite. This is probably not only, as Boesch introduces the "I", a repercussion of the circumstance that he largely construes his theory on the base of immediate experience; it also reflects in some sense the key element of Western notions of the person, namely an immutable kernel on which everything else is attached: the I-experiencing, the I-acting, the I-world-opposition or -relationship which has as well a Platonic origin as Augustinian, Cartesian, and Kantian overformings up to the present day in our societies, whether they manifest themselves in an epistemological or in an ethical context. Yet the I, whatever Boesch thinks of its crucial role in starting the formation process of person and culture, is of little factual sequel in the actual proceedings of forming a self or an identity. It is no more than a virtual point or navel of the wheel, wheras all what emerges from its interaction with the environment will again be of the same pervasive and dispersed nature as is everything building the person-culture-system.

I am, of course, aware of the provisional character of the demonstrations given in the present context of my interpretation of Boesch's dissipation of the familiar concepts. All these Boeschian concepts and their relations, in fact, have gone a path of intricate development in the course of more than four decades that needs to be reconstructed. So a more detailed analysis with reference to specific examples and citations is required in view of enhancing our understanding of this particular cultural psychologist. In addition such an endeavor is desirable in view of its potential to bring the insufficiency of our traditional concepts into the open.

In the present more limited context, the point of my demonstration of conceptual dissipation may perhaps better be appreciated in its importance when I propose to do a similar quick analysis in imagination with the concept of culture as used by many cultural psychologists or culture oriented scientists from other fields. Every reasonable thinker, I believe, must sooner or later gain the insight that attempts at defining culture in a definite way are futile. For, if conveyed by a "culture" concept of that kind of immutable persistence everybody wants scientific terms to possess, culture ceases to be real culture, that is, the action incited flux and its tempory fixations among people and their world. If "culture" is to refer to a large set of structures and processes -- specifically the set generated by transactions in a social system of symbolizing animals -- that constitute more and similar structures and processes of the same and similar kind over time, then"culture" is by its very nature a pervasive concept, a concept that is only useful if it can remain vague. Boesch's definitional attempts (1991:29-39) confirm rather than deny that insight. Indeed, in his theorizing "culture" is a mark to point to that complex in general or in any of the particular manifestations in the world rather than a technical term in a particular functional role of the theory.


On Conceptual Strategies: the Constructive Methodology

My pointing out Boesch's conceptual dissipations can call for two opposite reactions. The more immediate one may be to disallow Boesch's thinking the status of a usable theory for lack of definiteness of its conceptual tools. This cannot be seriously entertained, since it would amount to a dogmatic attitude absolutely contrary to the spirit of scientific inquiry. A more reflected reaction should ask for substantial grounds for the state of affairs Boesch has been lead into by what he felt to be of import. A comprehensive assessment of the whole field of theory and observations and their interrelation is apt to turn Boesch's scientific development into an enlightening experience. Somebody willing to understand scientific strategies as just another piece of cultural evolution rather than an epistemological reserve should also be capable to see an intrinsic contradiction between evolving human situations and a fixed set of concepts for their understanding. Boesch's deviation from the common pattern of fixating concepts with their operational definitions and of requiring the observable to conform, perhaps, makes understandable some of the difficulties many of his readers have in following through. Boesch himself in a short piece of methodological "fiction" (1996) discusses the relationship of established methodological standards to cultural reality which touches upon that sort of "competition" between observables and concepts I am talking about. Predictably, his heart is with the real world in its complexity. In many of his recent papers, while habitually taking the role of a scientist, he so often speaks in a manner more akin to a writer.

Boesch is not the first to attempt a solution in the direction of approaching the literary tradition. Numbers of figures in the history of ideas have fallen victim to a similar dilemma when wanting to convey their understanding of the human condition and many of them aptly recognized that its evolutive and multiply intertwined character forbids a language of the kind used and worshiped in positive science. Space forbids here to give details. Indeed, the most often chosen option is to take recourse to a literary form of discourse. Although this is certainly not Boesch's choice in the strict sense, his tendency towards the literary is obvious. As much as it is regrettable that large parts of the contemporary psychological traditions have renounced to exploit that utterly rich fountain of insight into the human condition, this cannot be the only way out of the dilemma.

Is there an alternative conceptual strategy? How can we avoid, while using rigorous conceptualizations, our well defined concepts dissolving in our hands precisely by applying them rigorously to concrete situations? I think the key to solving the problem lies in accepting that all our traditional concepts are neither genuinly evolutive nor ecological in nature. This is understandable in that they have been shaped in times denying the evolutive and the genuinly systemic character of the world. Person and environment, action and perception, self and culture, etc.: all are concepts defined separately and then put together to form a synthetic system. Similarly, these concepts are not genuinly temporal; though meant to refer to processes they are in fact pointers to isolated states or episodes that are then arbitrarily chained to sequences. Yet evolutions are more than sequences. In addition, those concepts do not reckon upon the intrinsic identity of the ecological and the evolutive: truly evolutive systems are always ecological systems; only ecological systems truly evolve, that is, systems whose more flexible parts generatively dialogue with the more fixed parts, thus constituting each other and more over time. We desperately need genuinely evolutive-ecological concepts.

The task is immense. Any proposal made must run against centuries of investment and habit. The crucial question is: how can we take serious what is taking place in the real human condition? And how can we give priority to the observational while remaining conceptually rigorous? In my belief, the answer lies in using a constructive methodology. Constructive methodology has been invented by Descartes and others in early modernity and used since in many sciences. In psychology it has been adduced, without success, early in this century, foremostly by Kurt Lewin. If it is the case that the human condition is something continuously and open-endedly constructed in and by itself, then the only reasonable possibility to understand the human condition is to explicate the constructive principles that bring it to the fore.

The constructive method may be characterized thus: it is better for a science, after having taken a broad inventory and achieved provisional typification or classification of phenomena, not to attempt further progress by refinement of these nominal categories into concepts. For, firstly, too much in the descriptions of the phenomena and their perceived or assumed relations mirrors the conceptual organization of the refiner himself or herself and of the tradition they are in rather than what the concepts are supposed to refer to. And, secondly, this procedure almost inevitably leads to unconnected conceptual insulae, and, as a sequel, to the latter's quantitative proliferation without other than extrinsic constraints such as eventual lack of more money for research. In the physical sciences the substitution of fire-water-earth-and-air-combinatorics by the constructive method has been the decisive starting point for understanding the functioning of the world of matter and energy. Think, for example, of constructs like inertia, field or valence. In my opinion, psychology and social sciences mostly still linger in that brackwater of premodern science. The constructive method in turn would construct or invent systems of real instances which, while themselves mostly latent, can bring about in combined operation what can be observed. Observables thus are at the end rather than at the beginning of the main phase of inquiry. This allows for systems of observables to be accounted for by systems of conditions. The key concepts should be generators rather than representations of the observable. Evidently, the method stands or falls with the fitness of the constructs invented and with the capability of their ensemble to guide empirical research towards descriptions that stand the tests of real life.


Semiotic Ecology, a Case in Point

In our context, the constructive method easily allows to explicitly reconstruct that idea (mostly implicit in Boesch; but note his generatively dialogical conception of fantasms and myths mentioned above) of the biological function circle or helix connecting and mutually constituting organisms and their environment in exchanges over time. In view of the human condition it can be safely assumed that this ecological system and its continuing generative exchanges are intensified into the mutual constitution and developmental regulation of both the person and culture as the two distinct but connected and interdependent parts of the ecological unit for any particular individual. Any one person undergoes a lifelong developmental change and stabilization within one or several given cultural settings. The cultural or subcultural patterns themselves have lifetimes in traditions that may span over many generations, yet include shorter term innovations and declines. In fact, many of the discernible items making those cultural patterns outlive all individuals of one or many generations; yet some other items or patterns take short "lifes" in passing, while the involved persons endure beyond. As a consequence, we have to introduce real time into the conception and into the observations of the ecological unit. We have to do this on both sides of the dialogues, because in some respect the environment is stable compared to the changing individual, in others the asymmetry of the relation is reversed.

Semiotic ecology is proposed as a conceptuality for dealing with evolutive systems in general. It can be used in particular to build a culture inclusive psychology that explicitly focusses on the ongoing mutual constitution and development of the parts of ecological systems such as persons in culture. In the following brief and selective sketch I focus on the evolving human condition while placing it in the context of bioevolution.

The key concept in semiotic ecology is structure formation. The world including the human condition consists of structures formed and transformed and un-forming in the process of these structures' selective interactions at any one point in time and space. These interactions are dynamic and of essentially triadic nature: A together with a relatively independent B results in C as an outcome. Two structures encounter more or less randomly with the result of a transformation of one of them or of the formation of a new structure. The chemical metaphor is preferred over the physical one which is traditionaly used in psychology and which is of a dyadic nature.

But triadic structure formation as the basic notion of conditions-and-effect reaches beyond the metaphorical. This is attained by introducing a generative semiotic. In evolutive systems all structures are formed, of course, within the range of what is physically and chemically possible. Yet a space of free play exists in that the forms actually attained are, in addition, determined by the structures formed earlier in the system and semi-randomly present in actuality. For example protein synthesis depends on particular DNA-structures formed before in the presence of suitable raw material; cell structures depend on the presence of suitable molecules "interpreted" and composed by the DNA-patterns in turn; organisms again are formed the way they are, because they take their particular place in bioevolution under suitable circumstances. The whole of this development, naturally, is also dependent on the "right" conditions in the framing environment and, in turn, contributes to the attained formation of that environment in the course of the same open development.

The point is that all structures within an evolutive system carry in some way much of their history in them. They bring some of it to new bearings in that they are capable of selectively interacting with structures emerged in the same evolutionary stream in a much more specific way than with any less affine structures they may encounter. They need not "care" for the larger part of all the structures around as long as such do not enter their life with brute force. In other words, co-evolved structures are characterized by a relatively higher degree of affinity which, on the one hand, provides for selectivity in interaction, and, on the other hand, allows for the realization of a potential of interactive consequences that could not happen without. As primal example for this potential and selectivity of affine structures sexual procreation may be mentioned. But similar innovation also pertains to any kind of encounters between organisms and parts of their environment: they are, often reciprocally, selective about what and how they interact with; also they are rather specific yet not fully predetermined about what can emerge from those encounters. For example, they devour other structures and they provide conditions for different structures to thrive. In fact, most of our planet's surface including its atmosphere should be thought of as emergents of triadic structure formation and thus are of historic nature. It would have been impossible to predict the planet's surface from before its evolution.

When, in ecologically understood phylogenesis, we approach the human level, more than ever before the range of new structures emerging from encounters between individual human beings and parts of their environment is innovative, multifarious, and yet constrained within the pattern characteristic of any one of the many cultures of the world. Triadic semiosis in the human condition can be specified to generate structures in the course of four phases of the function circle or helix constituting the ecological process in culture. Although not fundamentally different from simpler species that are more definitely embedded by their instinctual endowment into a species' proper type of "Umwelt", the cultural function circle gains much in potential for variation and also requires new forms of selectivity, if the systems are not to run the risk of developing astray. The principal innovation lies in the increased capability of humans to create and proffer enduring and transient structures almost at their discretion. However, these new structures, as much as they incorporate some character of their producers, would serve no effect and would be lost in space and time, if it were not for other affine individuals to become interested in those profferences and to taking up at least some of them and thus creating that specific cultural environment of any smaller or larger community.

It seems to me that there are great advantages in studying the function circle foremostly on the so-called material level. Starting from the beginning on the level of language based exchanges and the respective meaning structures is a bit risky. It may be too far away from the basic organism-environment relation and may thus lead researchers into loosing sight on continuity and the important connections existing between bioevolution and cultural change. Also the pivotal role of the many individual evolutions between the one biotic and the particular cultural levels is better researchable in fields where artistic freedom or other situations of fewer constraints give individual persons higher chances in proffering innovative cultural structures. Such situations, in addition, provide better occasions for the researchers to follow the conditions-and-effect paths running through the function helix. My field of preference is the dwelling activity of small groups within their larger cultural tradition (for more details and a bit more elaborated though still rather limited presentations of semiotic ecology, see Lang, 1992b, 1993, 1994, in prep.).

An important advantage of the present construction lies in the fact that it does not deal differently on the conceptual level with structure formation processes in the function circle, enduring or transitory, whether they occur inside or outside the heads of individual persons. For, speaking of structures in ecological systems, their "memory" function must equally pertain to the inner-organic parts of the circle as to its environmental part. The mutuality and the differences as well as the relatedness between these two domains of "storage" for eventual later effects can be of the mightiest fruit-bearing fields of research, if the two domains are not conceived in entirely different terms as we are used to. Herein lies a great promise of the constructive methodology and of semiotic ecology.

Under guidance of Kurt Lewin I have long been convinced that available causative conceptions in psychology and related fields would and could not yield a functioning model of people in context but I could not see how to accomplish an alternative (see Lang, 1992a). This changed when I found out about the semiotic of Charles Peirce and the potential it offers towards creating a conceptuality that can formally account for what is requisite in evolutive systems. The reader used to understand semiotic as the science of interpretation should be advised that the conception of the sign character used in semiotic ecology is of a much deeper scope than in the semiotic literature at large. For me, of sign character is anything discernible or inferable that has the potential to develop entirely different effects under affine conditions than in any other connection.

I lack the space to point to important further issues and consequences of the constructive approach. In particular, I have conveyed only bare essentials about the phases of the function circle. More should be said about how semiotic ecology can give rise to extricate constructions of the intra-individual (mind/brain) structures or personal memory and dynamics. Also constructions pertaining to the intra-cultural or between-person phase and their importance in founding a social system beyond the instinctual have not been treated with. One of the most promising advantages of semiotic ecology probably lies in its potential to treat various domains of different phenomena within one single set of constructive concepts.



1. This essay is dedicated to Ernst Boesch on the occasion of his 80th birthday and is written to express my deep gratitude for many years of encouraging friendship in the critic spirit. I also thank Jaan Valsiner for helpful comments and the suggestion to use a comparative perspective.

2. The "human condition" is a phrase originating with Cicero and used time and again in the anthropological fields. It is used here as an index to the ensemble of entities pertaining to the human existence in its becoming over time and diversification over space, ranging from the biotic to the cultural, and understood as embedded in a larger cosmic, planetary, physical, biotic, mental, symbolic, and cultural world. It is to include humans and their natural and human-made environments (ecosystems) and pertains to the individual persons and their respective social and cultural systems and their mutual relations. The term "condition" is to point to the preconditions that make human existence possible as it evolves as well as to humans themselves and their potential as an abiding condition for their own and other parts of the world's ongoing evolution. I believe we are urgently in need, in addition to the particularized extant disciplines, of an integrative science or group of sciences of the human condition, or, of an empirical anthropology in the comprehensive sense pointed out; neither psychology nor any of the other social or human sciences is capable of filling that void.



Boesch, Ernst E. (1991) Symbolic action theory and cultural psychology. Berlin: Springer.

Boesch, Ernst E. (1993) The sound of the violin. Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 52 (2), 70-81 (Reprinted in: Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (UCSD), 15 (1), 1993, ).

Boesch, Ernst E. (1991/1997) Skizze zur Psychologie des Heimwehs . Pp. 17-36 in: Peter Rück (Ed.) Grenzerfahrungen -- Schweizer Wissenschaftler, Journalisten und Künstler in Deutschland. Marburg a.d.L, Basilisken-Presse. (To be published in 1997 in the revised version "Heimweh und Fernweh" in Ernst E. Boesch (Ed.) Von der Sehnsucht [Of Longing.] (in prep.)

Boesch, Ernst E. (1996) The seven flaws of cross-cultural psychologiy -- the story of a conversion. Mind, Culture, and Acitivity 3 (1) 2-10.

Lang, Alfred (1992a) Die Frage nach den psychologischen Genesereihen -- Kurt Lewins grosse Herausforderung. Pp. 39-68 in: Wolfgang Schönpflug (Ed.) Kurt Lewin -- Person, Werk, Umfeld: historische Rekonstruktion und Interpretation aus Anlass seines hundersten Geburtstages. Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang.

Lang, Alfred (1992b) Kultur als 'externe Seele' -- eine semiotisch-ökologische Perspektive. Pp. 9-30 in: Christian Allesch; Elfriede Billmann-Mahecha & Alfred Lang (Eds.) Psychologische Aspekte des kulturellen Wandels. Wien: Verlag des Verbandes der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaften Oesterreichs.

Lang, Alfred (1993) Non-Cartesian artefacts in dwelling activities -- steps towards a semiotic ecology. Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 52 (2) ,138-147 (Reprinted in: Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (UCSD), 15 (3), 1993, 87-96).

Lang, Alfred (1994) Toward a mutual interplay between psychology and semiotics. Journal of Accelerated Learning and Teaching, 19 (1), 45-66.

Lang, Alfred; Slongo, Daniel & Schaer Moser, Marianne et al. (in prep. 1997) People with their Things in their Rooms -- the Semiotic Ecology Approach. Mind, Culture, Activity (whole issue).


Biographical Note

ALFRED LANG is Professor of psychology at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Born and educated there and at York University in Toronto he got his Ph.D. in Bern 1964. He has been working in various fields of psychology ranging from personality and early development to perception and action. Since the mid 1970s he leads a small group specializing in environmental psychology focussing on the dwelling activity and understanding people together with their things and their private and public places. His theoretical orientation is based in Gestalt theory, in particular in the ecological approach of Kurt Lewin, and he is open into both the biological and the social and cultural domains. After discovering the semiotic pragmaticism of Charles Peirce and the theory of cultural evolution of Johann Gottfried Herder, he gained the potential to contribute in theory and research to a culture inclusive psychology and base it onto semiotic ecology.

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