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This editorial appeared in Volume 11(2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Editorial: Semiotic Life of Plants

by Gerard J. van den Broek

The semiotic significance of plants for humankind has not been more poignantly - though implicitly - described than by the French army physician Julien Offray de La Mettrie in his L'homme-plant (1748). A human could almost be replaced by a plant, such was the similarity between the physiology of man and the representations of the vegetative realm, according to La Mettrie. There are, elaborates the encyclopˇdiste, significant similarities between the two.

Fortunately, La Mettrie was only jesting and mocking at the newly defined method of classification developed by Carl von Linnˇ (Linnaeus). His classificatory system, launched in 1735 in his doctoral thesis, was based on the sexual organs of flowers and was winning ground in France at the time. Though the significance of the botanical world cannot be underestimated for scientific and scholarly pursuits during the 18th century, and a new paradigm had been created and in a way still persists, at least with regard to the binominality of the nomenclature (cf. Van den Broek 1986), the question remains: is a semiotics of botany or a semiotics of plants feasible?

A number of other core questions emerge from this principal one. Is there a semiosis of natural signs, for the distinctive features of plants are, after all, selected by humankind; or, are they? Do natural signs actually exist? Is there a difference between natural signs and symptoms, the nature of which has been object of discussion for many years (cf. Eco 1976, Sebeok 1976, Bouissac, Herzfeld, Posner 1986). Much depends on definition and perspective.

For the alchemical botanists in the 16th and even the 17th century, there was absolutely no doubt about the inherent sign value of plants. They were convinced, on the basis of the works of Aristotle and Hermetic philosophy, that God in his creation of the world had hidden signs, perhaps as clues, for humankind so that the beneficial qualities of plants and animals (and, in fact, all natural phenomena) could be discovered. So, while searching for the Philosopher's Stone' the alchemical botanists wove an intricate semiotic system around plants. Perhaps their world was even more meaningful than ours today, despite the progress of the natural sciences. This is not, in fact, surprising, as their conception of the world was based on the Gnostic notions of Hermes Trismegistus, the Pater Philosophorum, who paved the way for a cultural substream that influenced the structure of the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare, and the cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame in Paris. His philosophy even led eventually to homeopathy as we know it (Van den Broek 1986).

In the efforts of the alchemists to discover the predetermined order in this universum, they were certain about the implicit meaning of all natural phenomena. The alchemists were Gnostics in the strictest sense, that is, they were convinced that they were able to know the world. Indeed, the semiotic system they unraveled in the world of plants was actually the semiotics of God Almighty.

So these alchemical botanists had a relatively easy job since they only had to rediscover the meaning and order God had bestowed upon the world. They were looking for an intentional sign system, not a natural, or unintentional one. Although we might presume that the world of plants is a natural one, and that it has no inherent meaning, except as a result of the signs we see and create, it is very much a matter of perspective. As for the alchemists and herbalists of the 16th and 17th century, nature was a universe of Godly signs, intertwining plants, diseases, the characteristics of planets and constellations, future happenings, the weather, and the effects of peripatetic medicine.

Although these proto-scientists - Isaac Newton was a fervent searcher for the transformational process of turning any matter into gold - created a meaningful system based on all kinds of signs, the mere description of this search for meaning is not a semiotic analysis that we would recognize; it is an ethnosemantic analysis at best. Presenting the meaning of plants, flowers and trees merely to show that these have such different meanings and roles in the course of history of so many different cultures (Goody 1993) is much too meagre for proper semiotic analysis; neither is it enough for structural analysis, which aims at demonstrating how subsurface structures order superficial ones, and shape their meaning almost unnoticed. Merely making the meaning of the participants' world visible is not semiotic analysis. The meaning of the meaning of the participants must be clear to the researcher for then and only then may one speak of semiotic analysis. Unfortunately, the meaning of the researcher does not have to be clear to the participants, but that is the result of many a scientific analysis. Just as the average person in the street does not understand the meaning of E = mc2 members of a given culture might not grasp the meaning of a scholarly semiotic analysis. As a result, feedback will be hindered. But then the question arises: is a meaning which is not understood by the participants, whose own system of meaning was the basis of a new system of meaning produced through scholarship, a truly meaningful system? I think it is, or better, might be, as every subculture has its own system of meaning, its own semiosis, its own vocabulary, and sign systems, both verbal and non-verbal. It is the task of semioticians, anthropologists, and sympathetic researchers to investigate the meaning of, for instance, the ethnosystem (botany in a given subculture).

Alhough ethnosemantics was a notion that brought us more than one step further in understanding one another, it should not be the end of cultural analysis, even when we consider that "the work of Conklin, Breedlove and Berlin from the early sixties paved the way for Lévi-Strauss's structuralism" (Van den Broek 1997:113). Just as structuralism gave greater depth to ethnosemantics, semiotics has added new notions to structural analysis, and ethnosemiotics even emerged from it; still, a lot depends on definition and thorough empirical, falsifiable evidence. And the tools semiotics, structuralism and all varieties of the ethno-approach offer, will provide us in the end with a deeper insight into the structuring and signifying capabilities of human beings in the various cultural and historical settings in relation to their environments.

Despite the fact that some scholars ultimately believe there is an "implicate order" (Waddington 1977) or a "mind in nature" (Bateson 1980), a more prudent way to go about understanding the meaning of plants is perhaps called for.


Bateson, Gregory (1980) Mind and Nature. New York: Bantam Books.

Bouissac, Paul, Herzfeld, M., Posner, R. (eds.) (1986) Iconicity: Essays on the Nature of Culture, Festschrift for Thomas A. Sebeok on his 65th birthday. Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag.

Eco, Umberto (1976) A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Goody, Jack (1993) The Culture of Flowers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

La Mettrie, Julien Offray de (1748) L'homme-plante. Potsdam.

Sebeok, Thomas A. (1976) "Iconicity," Modern Language Notes 91: 1427-1456.

Van den Broek, Gerard J. (1986) Baleful Weeds and Precious-Juiced Flowers, A semiotic Approach to Botanical Practice. Leiden Dissertation DSSc.

--- (1997) "Flowers but no Fruit: The Vast Land of Unsemiotized Culture," Semiotica 113-3/4: 385-393.

Waddington, C.H. (1977) Tools for Thought. Frogmore, St Albans: Paladin.

Gerard J. van den Broek is Director of the Provinsjale Biblioteek Fryslân in The Netherlands.

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