Kalevi Kull

Wednesday, 12 October 2011, 16.00, Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Kalevi Kull, Professor of Biosemiotics, University of Tartu, Estonia

Semiotic theory of living systems


Kalevi Kull is Professor of biosemiotics, University of Tartu, Estonia. He has studied biology, and worked in theoretical and mathematical biology as well as in experimental ecology, and during the last 20 years in semiotics. He is the Head of the Department of Semiotics of Tartu University which is currently one of leading semiotics institutions in the world.

His publications have appeared in Semiotica, Sign Systems Studies, European Journal of Semiotics, Cybernetics and Human Knowing, Journal of Biosemiotics, Biosemiotics, Cognitive Semiotics, Biological Theory, Schola Biotheoretica, etc. Volumes edited include Jakob von Uexküll: A Paradigm for Biology and Semiotics, Reading Hoffmeyer, Rethinking Biology (with Claus Emmeche and Frederik Stjernfelt), Lectures in Theoretical Biology (with Toomas Tiivel), Folia Baeriana (with Erki Tammiksaar), Imagining Nature: Practices of Cosmology and Identity (with Andreas Roepstorff and Nils Bubandt), Towards a Semiotic Biology: Life is an Action of Signs (with Claus Emmeche). Co-editor of international journals Sign Systems Studies and Biosemiotics, of Tartu University Press book series Tartu Semiotics Library and Approaches to Culture Theory, and of De Gruyter Mouton book series Semiotics, Communication and Cognition (with Paul Cobley). He was the 2003 recipient of Thomas A. Sebeok award from the Semiotic Society of America.


This talk is about foundations of biology, with the focus on the mechanism of semiosis - the mechanism of meaning making and sign action in organisms.

We attempt to demonstrate how the theoretical basis for the fields dealing with the importance of informational aspect in living systems (genetics, biocybernetics and bioinformatics) - if asking for the origin and reality of meanings and their ways to organise life - comes from a more general theory - from semiotics. The semiotic approach leads to a possibility to study not only how the organisms are built, but also what the organisms know - their umwelt, the distinctions they can make and what they entend. Living cell is supposedly the simplest semiosic system.

A sketch of the history of biosemiotics will also be given. Semiotic theory of living systems began to be shaped within recent decades, but its important root is situated in Heidelberg.


Emmeche, C.; Kull, K. (eds.) 2011. Towards a Semiotic Biology: Life is the Action of Signs. London: Imperial College Press.

Kull, K. 2009. Biosemiotics: To know, what life knows. Cybernetics and Human Knowing 16(3/4): 81–88.

Kull, K. 2010. Theoretical biology on its way to biosemiotics. In: Favareau, D. (ed.), Essential Readings in Biosemiotics