This note is about the concept of meaning, especially the meanings that are constructed by all living agents, rather than meanings imposed/perceived/deduced by humans.


  • Biosemiotics
  • Voice
  • denotatum
  • connotatum
  • des​ignatum
  • sense
  • reference
  • signified
  • content
  • object of sign
  • interpretant
  • expression
  • value
  • ​affordance
  • semiotic fitting


All living beings search for and use meanings. They produce meanings too. They impose meanings on abiotic structures.

Meaning is a relation, not an object/thing or a process.

"Life can only be understood when one has acknowledged the importance of meaning."

Uexküll, Jakob von. ‘The Theory of Meaning’. Semiotica 42, no. 1 (1982): 25–82.

There are many ways to conceptualise the construction of meaning in biology. However, most focus on the anthropogenic construction of meaning perceived observed systems. The construction of meaning from the perspective of the meaning-using organism is equivalent to the concepts of internal world, model, umwelt.

Goal directedness, purposefulness, depend on an ability to make a choice and deviate from a deterministic path. For the choice to be possible, options need to be available at the same time and not sequentially (as it happens, by contrast, in replication, or autopoiesis, or the ecological balance where directionality and 'meaning' are not accessible to the participating agents and can only be registered by a third-party (human) observer).

Kull, Kalevi. ‘On the Concept of Meaning in Biology’. In Evolution ‘On Purpose’: Teleonomy in Living Systems, edited by Peter A. Corning, Stuart A. Kauffman, Denis Noble, James Alan Shapiro, Richard Irwin Vane-Wright, and Addy Pross. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2023.

What about non-organismic individuals?

Wagner, Andreas. Paradoxical Life: Meaning, Matter, and the Power of Human Choice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Fields, Chris, and Michael Levin. ‘How Do Living Systems Create Meaning?’ Philosophies 5, no. 4 (2020): 36.

Ogden, Charles K., and Ivor A. Richards. The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. 8th ed. 1923. Reprint, New York: Harvest, 1946.

  1. Translation