Victoria Welby's significs meets the semiotic ennead

Pieter Wisse


Inquiry into the concept(s) of information is far from a recent endeavor. Of course, developments in digital information and communication technology now strongly stimulate such inquiry. Conceptual results are often sterile, though, precisely on account of a technological preoccupation or bias. A wider perspective may also be gained from researching work by earlier thinkers, reconstructing their conceptualizations and adopting what is still relevant for present purposes. A practical obstacle is that sources may be difficult to recognize. ‘Information’ hasn't become the key term until recently.

Victoria Welby (1837-1912) spends much of her life in the pursuit of founding significs as a discipline. Today, no discipline exists by that name but this certainly doesn't detract from the relevance of her work. With the advantage of hindsight, in this article I will show how Welby already demonstrates an awareness that was only much later labeled as postmodern. She argues, here summarized in my words, for precision in expression through controlled variety. Below, her own words will frequently appear and appeal through their clarity. As for control of expression, with the range of communication increased to the global scale its relevance has grown correspondingly since Welby's days. Now it can hardly be overstated.

Welby publishes two books on significs (1903, 1911.b). Both have been reissued. One reissue includes an essay by H.W. Schmitz (1985.a), placing her work on significs in the history of ideas. Elsewhere, and more or less as a sequel, Schmitz (1985.b) documents the signific movement in the Netherlands.

I owe much to Schmitz for his conceptual archeology and recommend his publications for any serious study of significs. With this article, however, I aim to cover different ground. So, I don't pretend to make qualified contributions to historical research. Rather, I intend to address historical sources and apply these to corroborate a newly designed framework, the semiotic ennead, for addressing highly practical current and perhaps future concerns in information management.



Biographical sketch

It is from Schmitz (1985.a) that I gladly borrow material for a biographical sketch. Victoria Welby is an English noblewoman, born in 1837. Queen Victoria is her godmother which indicates how well-connected she was. Her father dies when she is still a child. Next, her mother takes her on extensive travels. She is eighteen years old when her mother dies while they were traveling. Victoria returns to England, lives with relatives and her other godmother (the queen-mother at the time), waits the queen at court. In 1863 she marries. Without formal education but financially secure and free to spend time at her own discretion, she engages in theology. Her theological concepts are subsequently influenced by developments in science. After several years of incubation, from about 1890 Welby focuses on the question of meaning. Especially the idea of the meaning of meaning leads her to claim explicit recognition for the quality of expression. She coins the name significs for such a discipline. Until her death in 1912 she energetically attempts to get significs established. Welby corresponds widely, invites scholars to her home for taking part in what would now be called seminars, publishes essays and books, and awards an essay prize. However, attempts at creating concrete elements of an academic infrastructure — a conference, a collection of scientific papers, a magazine, a university chair — ultimately fail.



The dilemma of definition

I find there are many reasons why Welby's efforts don't result in the institutionalization she so desires for significs. This is relevant within the scope of this article, I believe, as some of those obstacles also limit requisite variety in information management today.

Fundamentally, Welby refuses to meet basic expectations as they exist under conditions of scientific competition. What I mean first of all is the issue of defining a discipline. From her own writings it is evident that Welby favors escaping a definition of significs. Underlying her reticence is a general critique of definition. For example, at several points she takes up the metaphor of evolution which of course exerts an especially strong influence on conceptual development during the final decades of the nineteenth century. I'll address Welby's general views on metaphor later on. With respect to evolution in particular she argues that (1896, pp 193-194)

[t]he comparison of meaning to life suggests two questions: (1) whether our inquiry is after all merely a question of Definition, and (2) whether a conception like Meaning can be defined at all. But the very fact of any doubt as to the possibility of defining terms which stand for unique or ultimate (primary) ideas or any significant or sense-ful words at all, at once reduces the appeal to definition to a secondary place among possible solutions of our problem. There is perhaps no greater snare, when we begin to realise the chaos in which word-sense lies and to seek a remedy, than the easy and obvious one of definition. Define, define, we cry, and then all will be easy.
But surely we forget that in the first place, this is often precisely the most impossible thing to do; as a fixed meaning, the same for all, unaffected by context of any kind, applies only, if at all, to a small proportion of ordinary words: and secondly, that to define every word which needs it would at once render all important works simply unreadable. […] Definition [...] would tend [...] to hinder the evolution of the most precious quality of language, —that power of growth and adaptation[.]

In a nutshell, Welby clearly illustrates her dilemma. She tries to set the agenda for dealing with problems of, and opportunities for, expression. Of course, she can only do so applying the means, i.e. expression, that are also the 'object' of inquiry. Her dilemma as seen from a traditional scientific perspective even solidifies by orders of magnitude because Welby wants to proceed beyond inquiry. She ties an emphasis on observation in with an overtly activist involvement. That is, she calls for actually changing — the means of — expression when and where necessary. This way, language's "growth and adaptation" is a first principle of significs. Definition as commonly understood, including definition of significs itself, would only contradict its principle. Against a background of such a dynamic, even reflexive, concept of language and of, more generally speaking, expression it may be recognized that Welby is actually trying to be as precise as she can when, for example, she admonishes that (1896, p 195)

we shall cease to crave or strive for the fatal gift of final and mechanical precision of outline, or to protest against the kind of 'vagueness' which belongs both to life and to the horizons of the world in which we know it. […]We are too apt to over-estimate the value of mere precision in language and even in thought[. … W]e are constantly tempted to [...] suppose that meaning is the same to all,—or ought to be so.

Orienting her action program toward life, Welby establishes the final criterion against which improvement of expression should be measured (1896, p 196):

Incessant variation [...] is indeed as vitally necessary in the world of expression as in the world of life. [...] But that variation may become infinitely more under control than it has ever been yet.

I hold that Welby deserves lasting recognition as a pioneer in information management by her insistence, more than anything else, on a method for variety control in expression. However, she probably couldn't appreciate the full 'significance' of her discovery as it is becoming apparent today. Indeed, Welby also works relentlessly on precisely such a method. Below, I'll mention her more specific contributions to significs. She never reaches the stage of an integrated signific method, though. In hindsight, she certainly supplies necessary and sufficient clues but she doesn't manage to link those into a design for a control mechanism. In all fairness to Welby it must be said that agenda setting occupies her to a large extent. Downplaying her own theoretical contributions, sometimes hiding under a false pretense of modesty ("I only want to open rusted locks and throw down self-made barriers," approx. 1886; " Let me begin by repudiating, with all the energy I have, the imputation that I am looking for or think I have found a 'philosophy'," approx. 1890.a), but realistic about her limitations in other respects, she never stops to seek help for the development of significs (1896, p 201):

The subject [of significs, or sensifics as Welby calls it at the time] must however be left here, with one personal word added. For while this Article deals with virtually new and untrodden ground, there are only the old modes of language for expressing it, and moreover, the writer was never trained either to 'mean' intellectually well, or to interpret—or sensify—adequately and accurately. The subject manifestly needs analytic and synthetic powers of the highest order; for while 'sense' is 'common' to the whole mental range, it is so in various ways, and thus is peculiarly difficult to deal with. At best, then, this sketch can but serve as the barest introduction to what seems worthy of ampler treatment by more capable hands.

It should be remembered this is all written long before even the first wave of feminism. Anyway, Welby's seduction doesn't pay off. Do her predominantly male academic friends and other relations not take her seriously, after all? I am sure that the woman stereotype forms part of their rationalization. Of course, she does encounter support. But it never really moves beyond a private sphere. Her own private sphere, in fact. Could it also be that Welby, if not ahead, entertains ideas that are still just too different from those of her friends etc.? Doesn't her interdisciplinary approach fit a growing emphasis on specialization along single disciplines? I feel this is also part, even larger perhaps, of the explanation why she essentially holds an isolated position (which I call, in general, the dilemma of interdisciplinarity). She expresses her difficulty in terms of innovation (1893, p 511):

Nor can we take refuge in lucidity and fancy that the clear must be the true. In the long run and in the cases which signify most, there is no escape through merely lucid style or method. The "luminous" speaker or writer, the "forcible" orator or essayist, the moment he tries to convey to the public mind a thought which is really new, will find himself hampered by his very clearness itself. His ideas are controverted on assumptions not really his; or he himself is misled in subtle ways by what he assumes in others.
Thus, by an instructive paradox, the clearest writer is often the most controversial[.]

Again, I suppose that the nature of her innovation aggravates matters of communication with her contemporaries. Her philosophy of variety, with its already distinct — as we would now call it — postmodern flavor doesn't, and couldn't, match the modernism only emerging as late-nineteenth-century science. From a modernist perspective, a definite conceptual position is in order, but that is exactly what Welby urges to escape. See also an evaluation of her work by Reiss (1990). Of course, today any fixed position continues to project an obstacle to whatever theory starts from variety. It can only be overcome when variety is methodically controlled, just as Welby announces that it should. The next paragraph looks at, taken from her writings, the ingredients of Welby's experience of variety. It is followed by a paragraph summarizing my own design for variety control in expression. This serves to continue the reconstruction of Welby's significs with a view to its relevance for information management.



Ingredients of variety

As a designer, I cannot help interpreting Welby as having posed a challenging design problem. Then, what needs to be designed is, say, an expression variety control mechanism. Of course this sounds much like engineering. In fact, that is exactly how I propose to continue. Considering she would be my client and she has hired me to solve her problem, how do I learn about, organize etc. requirements?

So far, and as the name I've given it already suggests, I mainly understand from Welby's language criticism that the mechanism should support variety of expression. This makes it worthwhile to start by inquiring into the nature of the variety she has in mind, i.e. what in particular should be made, or kept, variable? Where precisely does she experience the need for flexibility? As I said, upon a closer reading of her texts several clues, or ingredients of variety, become apparent. An especially rich source is the following text passage (1893, pp 512-513):

The fact is that we have been postulating an absolute Plain Meaning to be thought of, as it were, in capital letters. We have been virtually assuming that our hearers and readers all share the same mental background and atmosphere. We have practically supposed that they all look through the same interferential eyes, that their attention waxes and wanes at the same points, that their associations, their halos of memory and circumstance, their congenital tendencies to symbolise or picture, are all on one pattern. Verily, we need a "Critique of Plain Meaning"!
Again we quote on the same assumption. Unless the language of our author is obviously archaic; unless his allusions unmistakably betray a different life-context, a different social "milieu," we claim him or repudiate him on the same principle. We take his words, we take his phrases, we fill them out with the same content as our own, we make him mean precisely what we ourselves mean. And be it noted that it is always what we mean now. That this in any way varies from what we meant at some time when, e.g., our attention was differently focussed, rarely enters our heads.

A primary distinction arises right away from Welby's outline of "hearers and readers." In a single stroke she actually accomplishes a dual distinction. First of all, she makes it clear that allowance be made for meaning to differ from person to person. Meaning is therefore essentially individual, or subjective. It follows that the control mechanism is equally individual, that is, it can only exist instantiated as an integrated aspect of each and every person.

Secondly, meaning also connects. A "reader" exists on account of an "author," likewise a "hearer" presupposes a speaker, etc. They participate in a process by involving their subjective meanings. Welby's "critique of plain meaning" installs a communication perspective with all participants individually distinguished. Every participant in communication is a 'self' whose meaning includes an interpretation of (the) 'other.' Very conveniently for my purpose of design, psychoanalysis deals with interpersonal relationships (also read: communication) under the heading of object relations. The objectification of 'other' in self's meaning may therefore assume the formalism of objectification in general.

Illuminating is also the way Welby accounts for individual differences. She applies terms such as "background," "atmosphere," "circumstance," "life-context" and "social milieu." Elsewhere she also mentions "reference" and "universe of discourse" (1903, p 5). For reasons that will become clear in the next paragraph I prefer to group all these concepts. My generic label is: situation. Other differential factors Welby mentions are "interferential eyes," "attention," "association," "memory" and "congenital tendency." And "state of mind" (1903, p 5). Rather than situational, these are motivational and/or cognitive and I would therefore like to group them as subjective.

Welby continues to offer insight through her analysis of quotations. What it amounts to is that every participant in communication always puts his own interests first. Yes, I am certainly no exception how I myself apply Welby's writings. I am equally sure, though, she would gladly recognize my essentially egoistic behavior as confirming her own point (while also recognizing the paradox in precisely that altruistic confirmation).

Another, vitally important, requirement Welby highlights concerns variation in time. So, the control mechanism should not only support subjective and situational variety in expression, but also temporal.

I find clues for specific requirements quite easy to discover, and that from analysis of only a single passage. Elsewhere, Welby provides more clues or adds emphasis. For example, I have already inferred she views the process of communication as a match between person(al) interests. Indeed, she writes (1896, p 189),

[i]n 'interests' have we not in fact the key to the nature of 'sensifying' process? The 'feeling of interest' endows our surroundings with, —bestowes upon them, attributes or ascribes to them, —somewhat which may be described as meaning or sense or significance: in other words makes them significant, suggestive, indicative, symbolical, and then prompts the function of interpretation.

In short, interests 'control' meaning. For this 'reason,' the control mechanism must fundamentally include interests, or motives (Welby, 1893, p 513: "[T]he underlying conditions of language must be looked for in the domain of psycho-physics[.]")

At this junction I should point out that Welby comes close to articulating a concept that Schopenhauer (1813-47, 1818-59) radically develops earlier as the will. "I have read Schopenhauer carefully and have learned a great deal," resulting in her more limited concept of "self-will" (Welby, approx. 1885). As a design requirement, self-will is even clearer for its immediate and therefore more specific association with subjectivity and individuality.

Another important point Welby argues for is that the individual, interest-driven control mechanism doesn't merely reflect "our surroundings." Meaning also has a distinct generative quality. It is in this sense that the predicate 'subjective' is especially appropriate. Meaning emerges from self-willed (inter)action with world. In Welby's own words (approx. 1889):

Mine is the ideal realism which absorbs and digests materialism and turns it into life-tissue. Part of the process is the transformation […] from matter into motion, from the static which is secondary, episodial, incidental, contributory, into the dynamic which in every sense of the words is original and originative, directive and structural, evolutionary and executive. Thus my ideal realism becomes the real idealism.

She also remarks that (1903, p 28)

[t]here is [...] in a true sense a teleology, an unconscious working for 'end' throughout the living world.

As already quoted, Welby warns against the danger of quotations: "We make [an author] mean precisely what we ourselves mean." Do I construct from Welby's words an interpretation that she herself doesn't entertain? Such questions must remain fundamentally undecided even with discussion partners all present and engaged. So much Welby herself, too, makes clear. What, then, is my interpretation? I aim to recognize that Welby underwrites meaning's instrumental nature. On the basis of interests, or self-will, meaning helps to direct behavior. As Welby emphatically remarks (approx. 1908):

I am really an aboriginal pragmatist[.]

This is a quotation from a letter to William James, the 'address' of course being significant for her particular choice of words. But even without such explicit terminology to guide a reader, it is difficult to miss the strong behavioral, pragmatist flavor in Welby's significs. For example (1903, p 8),

the man of action must translate thought into deed as fast as ideas come to him; and he may ruin the cause he would serve by missing the significance of things.

I therefore find it all the more remarkable that, of all people, Charles Peirce doesn't respond to it. After all, he must have read Welby's What is Meaning? In his review (Peirce, 1903), however, he puts the emphasis on logic. Also in their correspondence (Welby and Peirce, 1977), pragmatism is virtually ignored. So, in several extensive letters Peirce offers instruction in so-called existential graphs as expressive of the formal system of logic he himself developed.

It is quite understandable for Peirce to attribute a logical point to Welby's inquiry on meaning. Finding a logically sound expression for the meaning of meaning certainly is a challenge. Due to a preoccupation with his own logic, apparently Peirce never realizes that Welby, while flattered being called a logician, is in a way popularizing his own concept of pragmatism.

I announced this article is not a historical inquiry. Peirce, however, appears prominently in the next paragraph. So I couldn't resist introducing Peirce by indicating what an opportunity I feel is missed by Welby and Peirce for aligning their efforts. I suppose the oversight is largely Peirce's as from reviewing he is familiar with What is Meaning? while Welby is probably unaware of his ideas on pragmatism.

Resuming the search for clues in Welby's work, I also find her remarks on context penetrating. They contribute much to an understanding of how her experience of variety is structured. However, for my design purpose her meanings of context require some adjustment. In line with Welby's significs, it is not variety as such that deserves to be labeled a problem. For variety in expression holds positive value. It only becomes a problem when there is on the one hand a requirement for a requirement, i.e. precision, and on the other hand variety that is still insufficiently accounted for. I'll try to establish the necessary and sufficient conceptual order as I proceed to discuss some statements Welby made on the subject of context. An excellent entry for discussion and reorganization is that (1903, p 75)

context itself in its turn needs context to interpret it, and has no better context than the very words or sentences which it is to elucidate. It is like jumping off one's shadow. [... T]he relation of context and word is reciprocal.

Initially, context seems recursive for "context itself in its turn needs context to interpret it." This agrees with Welby's repeated criticism of metaphors of foundation, for example (1903, p 33):

[M]any things for which we use the metaphor 'world' ought really to be expressed instead by such metaphors as 'structure' or 'edifice,' the originals of which do require foundations. Then we should recognise they were secondary; that whatever is built up requires a world to stand on. Only, [...] such a world has itself no base.

And (1903, pp 105-106)

we must remember that all such foundation is in turn unfounded. This is an idea absolutely vital to clear thought. [...  I]f an ultimate base were either needed or possible, the question would concern us; as it is, the appeal is simply unmeaning.

Welby detracts, however, from a hierarchical order of contexts. She tries to jump, I would say, not so much "off one's shadow" but rather into it. For she maintains that a "context […] has no better context than the very words or sentences which it is to elucidate." As I read it applying traditional logic, Welby might be taken to propose that the — original — text be taken as its context's context. An infinite regress results. I gather Welby rather intuited such a problem, bringing out her metaphor of the shadow. Indeed, she shows an acute awareness that (1896, p 34):

logic takes no cognizance of context[. … W]hen we get to the meaning-terms [...] we are left to gather as best we may their valid use and application, not merely in Formal Logic technically so called, but also in the discussion of those wider generalizations of the nature and conditions of valid thinking[. … W]e are often left to gauge their value and their scope by a context [.]

Welby therefore requires a different logic, a point that is lost on Peirce, I venture once more to argue. Her own attempt at signific logic includes that "the relation of context and word is reciprocal." This involves mixing categories, however, and constitutes problem which whatever metaphor of "shadow" should not be allowed to obscure. Her concept of context belongs to both the word and the not-word category. Still, Welby already shows a strong inclination for limiting context to the word category. I take this as another important clue. Also see (1903, p 40):

[W]e must postulate an analogy between Context and Environment: the adaptation of the word, as of the organism, to its surroundings, and conversely its effect upon these.

She continues to display categorical confusion, though. A non-word concept of context prevails in (1903, p 75):

[T]he real difficulty often depends not on the ambiguity of word or even of phrase, but on the ambiguity of context.

Resolving "the ambiguity of context" turns out the major requirement for the control mechanism for expression variety. Welby is not successful at design but she already clearly recognizes constraints. On the nature of expression at its most general she inquires (1896, pp 187-188):

What is the first moment when a sensation or a thing stands not for itself but for something else, draws attention not to itself but beyond itself?

But, then (1903, p 150),

[L]anguage must itself be recognised as the means of discovering contrasts together with the links which constitute them elements of unity, or at least completely exclude the idea of final disparateness.

With a foundation in an absolute sense lacking, corresponding structures must be assumed in reality, expression and interpretation, respectively. As a structural requirement, therefore, I also interpret Welby's call for reconciliation (1911.b, p 13):

The most important elements of experience are distinction and unification, comparison and combination—analysis and synthesis. [... W]e should take care not to muddle up the constituents.

And (1903, p 251)

this appeal embraces the utmost conceivable variety and difference always on the basis, not of separation [...], but of distinction, which, however sharp, is always compatible with unity.

As I see it, ambiguity can only be resolved formally at an additional, that is, at a structural level, ending (1911.b, p 86)

the false contrast between the invariable as mechanical and the chaotic as voluntary.

On this promising note I end assembling clues for requirements and subsequent design. It almost seems a waste not quoting Welby even more extensively because throughout her work she exhibits valuable insight into variety. I can only recommend that the reader studies her work for himself, preferably taking Schmitz (1985.a) for a guide to get properly started.



Design for variety

Assembling clues is far from value-free, or even objective. I have already commented on the inevitability of, from the perspective of the original author, reader-centered quotation. In general (Welby, 1903, p101),

man must always interpret [...] in terms of his own sense-experience. No other is available. He has no choice but to 'project' his own sense-scheme on to his surroundings. And he cannot directly know, he can only infer what transcends that sense-experience; beginning with perception he conceives, constructs, concludes, 'creates' his world in rational order, which implies his analysis. [...] The sense-scheme itself is presumably derived like the world on which it is found.

In the spirit of Welby's significs, its logic in particular, I plead 'guilty.' I really didn't collect clues and requirements expecting that through induction a design for variety 'appears.' On the contrary, some time ago I produced a design for precisely such purposes (Wisse, 2001, 2002). It has subsequently been a straightforward process of deduction to recognize my design's properties in Welby's work. Of course I've kept an eye open for anything that might falsify it (Popper, 1959, 1963). At the same time, and for reasons that Welby mentions, too, what I here label self-falsification is often problematic. Ultimately, the question of self-will and its interests arises. So, next I will present my own design. I'll limit myself to an outline, with the purpose of highlighting the actual value of Welby's significs for information management. A detailed treatment is beyond the scope of this article (see references for extensive documentation on my semiotic foundation).

I start with — again, my interpretation of — Peirce's work on semiotics. It is not all original to point out discrepancies in Peirce. Goudge (1950), for example, reconstructs at least two conflicting frames of reference, i.e. transcendentalism versus naturalism. What in this article has so far been alluded to as Peircean logic falls within his naturalism, or realism. Peirce does, however, also develop a transcendental logic which he designates as semiotic. I believe the concept of semiosis (Peirce, 1897-1910) lies at the core of his transcendentalism. For Peirce (1906, p 282) assumes that semiosis

is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs.

Taking Welby's (1903, p 44) advice that "[i]t would be well [...] to test our imagery by diagram more systematically than we do," figure 1 illustrates Peirce's semiotic triad.

Figure 1: Semiotic triad.



What ought to stand out is the triad's irreducible nature. All three subjects, or elements, are constituents of semiosis. And as I've already quoted Welby, "we should take care not to muddle up the constituents." Another striking characteristic is that sign is the mediating element. It is impossible to directly obtain an interpretant from an object, vice versa. Hence, in figure 1 a mere broken line 'connects' interpretant and object. As a system, semiosis fulfills Welby's demand for "unification." Yet, the system's elements also supply "distinction."

Getting ahead of myself, let me already announce I've broadened Peirce's triadic elements onto conceptual categories. Remember that, above, I launched categorical distinction as a requirement. About Peirce's concept of semiosis, here I finally emphasize that semiosis is dynamic, or (Peirce, 1906) "the action of the sign." Roughly speaking, triadic cycles feed a process where the interpretant-as-result from one cycle 'acts' to form the sign-as-origin for the next cycle. The whole process is pragmatically oriented toward (Peirce, 1905, p 252)

a conception, that is, the rational purport of a word or other expression, l[ying] exclusively in its conceivable bearing upon the conduct of life.

For Peirce, his semiotics and pragmatism — Peirce himself uses slightly different terms to distinguish his concepts — are tightly, I would argue, irreducibly, related, too. It represents his transcendental side. There, Peirce is more outspoken than Welby on the instrumentality of "clear thought." Welby, however, digs deeper for 'reasons' of conduct (also read: behavior) and acknowledges pre-rational interests and self-will. I'll build an argument on context for converging Welbian significs and Peircean semiotics.

The semiotic triad may be applied to establish conceptual order. Then, the particular use of any concept should be unambiguously allocated. Is it used as belonging to the category of sign? Of object? Or of interpretant? Actually, I've already supplied my answer for context. I squarely place it under sign. However, this raises another question. For I've just qualified context as a sign, too. How, then, are both signs related?

My design carries the name of metapattern (Wisse, 2001). As a first step, I relate (1) sign and (2) context as element and system, respectively. See figure 2.a. I depart, however, from Welby in that element and system don't entertain a reciprocal relationship. Instead, I feature a hierarchical progression. The (2) context-as-sign leads to (3) a yet more encompassing context, etcetera (n), as in figure 2.b.

Figure 2: A hierarchy for the category of sign.



In principle, a hierarchy of signs misses "foundations" at both ends. In one direction, it is always possible to 'upgrade' to yet another level of context, that is, of aggregation. And in the other direction, levels may always be added for more detailed signs resulting from continued decomposition. Therefore, boundaries are again pragmatic, i.e. dependent on interests.

It is also possible to start counting levels from what I assume as the most-encompassing context. In figure 3, the diagramming style is also changed to reflect the hierarchy as immediately recognizable. The upper boundary forms the level assigned the number zero. It is drawn as a thick, solid and horizontal line at the top. Now it is easier to determine how sign and context are relative concepts. Take the sign at level n. Its context consists of the ordered collection of signs {n-1, n-2, …., 1, 0}.

Figure 3: Sign and context as relative concepts in a single category.



Applying this diagramming style it is easier to recognize that, given the sign — at level — n, decomposition hasn't yet been included. Then, what shows up from decomposition, as in figure 4, is a concept at the 'opposite' of context. Nowhere in the literature could I discover any antecedent for such a concept strictly within the category of sign. I therefore invented a label myself: intext (Wisse, 2001). And to remove confusion between sign as a category on the one hand and sign as a node constituting the category on the other hand, I renamed the latter: signature (Wisse, 2002). A signature, as signature, serves the vital function of relating a particular context and a particular intext. As I will demonstrate shortly, variety control is especially supported when signatures are as much as possible limited to performing just this relational function.

Figure 4: Sign category constituted by three relative concepts.



It should be clear from figure 4 that signature may shift. A move to an upward node results in both a wider context, requiring a correspondingly smaller number of nodes, and a wider intext, requiring a correspondingly larger number of nodes. And moving the signature downward has of course the opposite effect. This 'system' of relative sign yields infinite variety. For any sign can be signature or part of any other signature's context and/or intext. Actually, again Welby already pronounces a definitely structuralist view of language (also see Saussure, 1916, p 107: "The mechanism of a language turns entirely on identities and differences.") as follows (approx. 1887):

It belongs to the order of words in which whenever the one is used the other is implied: a principle constantly overlooked, to great confusion of thought and language.

I also like her image of how past achievements 'control' future developments (1903, p 16):

[A]dvance is spiral, that is, must sweep back on itself to take up ancient things and set them in new light and on new quests in new directions.

It definitely sounds like Peirce's sketch of semiotic dynamics. The control mechanism that is here subject to design is optimized because the concepts constituting a category are not only relative. In addition, the value for two concepts may each be expressed in terms of values for the third. This makes for compactness of expression, a benefit that Welby acknowledges, too (1911.b, p 77; 1903, p 61):

There can be, of course, no question of the convenience and economy of using one word in many senses. [...] The wealth of variation in language, far from being an evil, is a priceless advantage.

[A] relatively small vocabulary might be made immensely more adequate.

My formal explanation reads that, applying the metapattern at information modeling, a categorical structure may be characterized as a so-called directed graph. For every category, then, nodes (or vertices) correspond to potential signatures. Arcs (or edges) connect these nodes. Every node also identifies, in an unambiguous manner, two different directed subgraphs. When the node is a signature, one subgraph represents the context, the other subgraph the intext.

This image should also emphasize the opportunities for 'traveling' a directed graph, or shifting from node to node as relationships allow. Every node yields a particular configuration of, in case of the sign category, signature, context and intext. With arrows to reflect the opportunities for shifting, the variety within the sign category can be abstractly indicated as in figure 5. In preparation for the next design step, Peirce's original semiotic triad has been added. It hinges at the sign element which Peirce hadn't developed into a category.

Figure 5: Dynamics of signature shifting.



It is now almost straightforward to fulfill the requirement of, as formulated at the end of the previous paragraph, corresponding structures for reality, expression and interpretation, respectively. With the sign structure already fully equipped for variety in expression, it only remains to apply its equivalent to the categories of both reality and interpretation. The result is shown in figure 6. In recognition of Peirce, I've called it the semiotic ennead (Wisse, 2002). It supports a far more detailed understanding of the dynamics of semiosis.


Figure 6: Semiotic ennead.



Semiotic dynamics entail change. In terms of a directed graph, nodes and/or relationships are established by semiosis. Or relationships disappear or weaken to the extent that nodes are no longer 'connected' properly, i.e. those nodes are effectively removed from the graph. This temporal aspect of structure is treated at length elsewhere (Wisse, 2001). Here, the point is that at a particular time any node may constitute a configuration of particular subgraphs. Then, it might well be that dreaming consists of triggering — establishing? — nodes which during waking are beyond reach as a center for configuration. And creativity, likewise, involves 'use' that doesn't follow the trail of the semiosis originally 'creating' nodes and relationships. Rather, it starts from a node, etcetera. Additional semiosis may of course add nodes and relationships, etcetera. This concept of creativity explains why randomness is a popular method for innovation: try to activate whatever node and see what configuration results.

Since the ennead's original design, I've modified the terminology for some of its elements (Wisse, 2003). I especially wanted it more clearly recognizable how the relative concepts of motive, focus and concept all constitute one and the same interpretation category. Yes, I'm fully aware this assumption runs counter to opinions which still categorically separate cognition from emotion etc. However, it is precisely that distinction in an absolute sense that I find counterproductive. Schopenhauer probably isn't even first to draw them together. And now empirical support grows for an integrated account (for example Damasio, 1999; Wegner, 2002). Welby remarks (approx. 1889):

'Will' thus becomes the translation into the conscious world of that impulsive and propulsive motion in potential and kinetic forms[.]

Anyway, the explicit emphasis on motive supports the requirement, derived from Welby, that variety of interests must be accounted for, too.

Please note that, as a sign, the semiotic ennead provides a context for clearly distinguishing between context and situation. They simply belong to different categories.

Rounding off my design assignment on my own authority, I add that the ennead 'operates' individually, that is, an assumption for variety is semiosis as an integrated aspect of personal existence, contributing to, if not constituting, experience's subjective nature. Another characteristic, also fully explained elsewhere (Wisse, 2001, 2002), is that nodes may be laterally connected. Especially such lateral relationships reflect an increasingly important requirement for information management in its broadest sense. For laterally connected nodes establish and maintain "unification" while every node taken as a separate point of departure allows for unambiguous "distinction." Another crucial design feature of the metapattern (Wisse, 2001), already mentioned above, is that time is treated pervasively. Values for every single node and every single arc are also traced independently through past, present and future occurrence. This amply covers Welby's requirement for control of temporal variety.

In fact, I believe the semiotic ennead meets all consistent requirements Welby has drawn up for significs, and more. A critical assessment of such a claim, however, lies beyond the scope of this article for, as already remarked repeatedly, such self-assessment has limits. I will continue by sketching some results of Welby's own signific work and, where applicable, I will use the ennead for evaluation.



The dilemma of metaphor

Victoria Welby's drive for significs has two main components. She makes great efforts to get significs institutionalized. But she also contributes theoretically to significs. She is especially concerned about the (mis)use of metaphor. Her suggestions for metaphorical hygiene draw heavily from her view of science. My point is that her scientific outlook poses limits to the direction and extent that could take the development of significs. This analysis is currently relevant as a warning against similar constraints on information management.

Why does Welby occupy herself at length with metaphor? She recognizes that (1903, pp 24-5)

analogy [is] the only method we have for most of our mental work[. …] Thus at once we are brought face to face with the question of Expression by Figure. […] No analogy, and therefore no metaphor or figurative form of expression, ought to be allowed to pass current […] unless it has been examined[.]

Now, Welby appoints science as the guardian (1903, p 26):

[I]t is evident that as part of our scientific crusade we must provide a critique of Metaphors[. ...  S]cience is the condition of that philosophy [...] which shall exalt distinction to its highest point in order to enrich the ultimate unity; which can never confound distinction with separation or division.

Science, she argues, has changed our perspective from the planetary to the solar to the cosmic. "We are compelled to speak in cosmological figure" (1903, p 109).Yet, metaphors are usually still cast in a planetary frame, thereby arresting development (1903, p 33):

Unless some trouble had been taken to look into the matter, it would be difficult to credit the extent of the confusions started by such inherited fictions, or the number of cases in which such false premises, used as illustrative, had led thought astray and even created puzzles.

At the same time, metaphor is inevitable (1903. p 35):

We describe the less by the more familiar[. …] It must be repeated that we cannot, even if we would, dispense with metaphor, and abjure or avoid analogy.

So (1903, p 34),

[t]he mischief lies in the strength of the association. [...] We cannot cancel the automatic process of translative thinking. Everything suggests or reminds us of something else.

This is of course precisely what the semiotic ennead models, i.e. opportunities for traversal of categorical structures and integrating information management in behavior on the assumption of correspondence between those structures. An improvement of the ennead that Welby inspires is to differentiate the quality of so-called lateral relationships between nodes. Then, they don't only support unification of distinctions regarding a single entity. In varying degree, they can also "translate" between distinctions for different entities. A particular node could entertain a host of such "translative" relationships, or (Welby, 1903, p 43):

We must test metaphor by applying it experimentally in diverse directions.

Its experimental nature of testing sets limits for science, after all. For (1903, p 116)

[t]he scientific intelligence seeks for the What and the How, but stops short of that Why which is the special human acquisition. [...] From this point of view the scientific type of mental activity is strictly agnostic[.]

An especially liberal interpretation of Welby is that she calls upon science to open up new "directions," where testing of metaphor is always applying "translation." She likely feels the solar and the cosmic perspectives for science have hardly been pursued yet. Science could therefore increase the testing ground by orders of magnitude, turning metaphor testing into a positive-sounding program (1903, pp 126-9):

[T]here is a method both of discovering, testing, and using analogy (or in some cases homology), the value of which does not yet seem to be recognised; and this may be called in an extended sense Translation. [...] Significs claims to extend and develop the application of that idea [of translation] in practical directions. We already find that it is not by endeavouring to kill deep-seated tendencies of human nature but by translating them into a higher form, that we achieve the regeneration of man. [...] The mere attempt to state one subject in the terms of another, to express one set of ideas in those words which seem to belong properly to another, changing only the leading terms, could not fail, if done systematically and critically, both to enlighten us on points of connection or correspondence which have not been suspected, and also, perhaps, to reveal ignorance in some cases where we have taken knowledge for granted. [... T]ranslation in this new sense becomes a means both of testing knowledge and of widening its range[.]

Welby even goes into some structural detail to explain her concept of translation (1903, pp 149-50):

Translation [...] applies wherever there is a presumable unity implied in differences which can be distinguished. What we want is neither an artificial mode of uniting the apparently diverse, discrepant, separate, nor an equally artificial postulate of primary identity which either ignores, minimises, or excludes distinction.

The semiotic ennead helps to see that unification and distinction 'work' both within and from structural correspondence between categories.

The earlier quotation contains a vital clue to understanding Welby's drive for significs. It is the goal of "the regeneration of man." This also explains her interest in educational reform (1903, p 11: "[T]he next generation should be trained from the first to put the subject in the forefront of all intellectual work as well as in that of all education."). Once again, regretfully, I might add, her ideas haven't lost relevance (1903, pp 209-10):

Hitherto the difficulty has been, that what we assume to be a child's natural ideas are often really his attempts to adapt himself to those of his elders. [… T]he most natural and spontaneous tendency in man is the tendency to search out, to explore, to master the unknown; and the unknown in this case is the very reason and value of his being. The systematic training of this tendency will alone reveal the answer to such ultimate questions as why man asks Why.

But is it really possible, in a positive way, to guarantee the desired outcome through significs? Despite her religious fervor, translated to the cosmic plane, Welby herself realizes only too well that (1893, p 517)

the essence of sanity from the first lies in corrective power.



Inductive attitude

Reconstructing Welby's concept of science might appear problematic. For she was certainly aware that interests etc. influence, if not direct, observation. Still, it seems she nevertheless awarded objective status to scientific results. This is understandable as her standard is natural science with breakthrough, seemingly incontestable, discoveries also made during her life-time. As I commented in the previous paragraph, she strongly adheres to the cosmic scope in inquiry. It is an extension she fully credits science for (approx. 1888):

[S]cience is emphatically THE ground of the man of the day[.]

I believe that for Welby science proceeds by induction. Observations are made value-free. With sufficient results, 'nature' suggests a pattern. Such a theory, or even a Law of Nature, could be verified through — additional — experiments.

Or? Actually, I have no idea whether such is the view Welby holds. However, she does pronounce herself in strong support of induction (approx. 1889):

[M]y ideal realism becomes the real idealism. [... ] It touches the heart of that scientific idealism which consecrates induction as the mental link with reality, as the sacrament of knowledge: induction, whose sacramental rite is observation, hypothesis and experimental verification.

Welby even attributes to her inductive turn the progress she makes with her signific program (approx. 1890.a):

I discovered that I had begun (so far as explanation went) at the wrong—the deductive—end of things. So I forced my way back and down step by step; nowhere satisfied till I had got to what I saw must be admitted as primary by all.

I admit it's not clear to me what is so especially inductive about the back- and downward steps of her new approach. I'd rather call it an inquiry into essence in Spinoza's sense (1662). However, sure enough Welby arrives at what she identifies as "primary" questions. And in her subsequent attempts at answering it she seems, indeed, guided by inductive procedure. In the next paragraph I'll show how labeling Welby's scientific attitude as inductive contributes to an evaluation of the conceptual framework she designs for significs.



In search of human meaning

Welby's new approach leads her to recognize that (approx. 1890.a)

everywhere arose the prior question: What do we mean by time and space, motion and mass, body and consciousness, and so on? What do we mean by 'mind' and 'self'—by 'reason' or 'moral sense'?

Indeed, how she formulates such questions suggests a pattern, an even more general concern (approx. 1890.b):

What really is meaning, and what do we really mean by our symbolic acts and statements or our equally symbolic protests against given acts or statements?

And, in what must have been fashionable metaphor (1893, p 514),

the paramount need of the moment is the "torpedo-shock" of the question, What do we really mean?

I suppose it brought her to rephrase the issue reflexively as the meaning of meaning. But how does the meaning of anything become clear? Science equates meaning with being. As — the being of, or the existence of — meaning should be no exception to scientific procedure, Welby proceeds by observing the 'nature' of meaning. It immediately turns out, however, how varied meaning can be. The issue therefore widens into that of the meaning of meanings.

In Welby's own terms I would say that, through observation, she makes an inventory of concepts that bear adequate translation to and from — her prefatory concept of — meaning. I don't really believe she is aware of this translative nature of her procedure. But she does observe with a concept in mind, for she undoubtedly attributes value to the meaning of meaning, too (1893, p 524):

In any case, meaning—in the widest sense of the word—is the only value of whatever "fact" presents itself to us. Without this, to observe and to record appearances or occurrences would become a worse than wasteful task.

Anyway, she now has a list. She occasionally augments it, but it essentially remains a list of value-laden "appearances or occurrences." So next, Welby develops a hypothesis. It should serve to establish order among her collected concepts. Her design consists of three categories: sense, meaning, and significance. It appears to me she singles out three specific concepts to group — other — concepts that she feels are related most. Why three? Are concepts within classes more systematically related than concepts between classes are? If so, what relationships constitute a class? As it happens, Welby even goes against her own advice on the development of significs (1896, p 200):

If more precise definition of the methods by which we might hope for a really new mental start is demanded, it must be answered that to attempt a premature formulation of these would be to court defeat; would in fact be fatal. Such an explanation or such a programme must be the outcome, not the preliminary, of the inquiry hoped for.

It is especially interesting Welby herself acknowledges that she doesn't succeed in properly (scientifically?) fitting meaning-concepts to meaning-categories, vice versa. Yet, she never abolishes the trichotomy of categories as her main signific hypothesis.

Throughout her signific work, Welby indicates how her framework could help organize — more detailed — concepts of meaning. Her crowning achievement with respect to recognition of significs is the lemma she contributes to the 11th edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica. She writes (1911.a):

The classified use of the terms of expression-value suggests three main levels or classes of that value—those of Sense, Meaning, and Significance.
(a) The first of these at the outset would naturally be associated with Sense in its most primitive reference; that is, with the organic response to environment, and with the essentially expressive element in all experience. We ostracize the senseless in speech, and also ask "in what sense" a word is used or a statement may be justified.
(b) But "Sense" is not in itself purposive; whereas that is the main character of the word "Meaning," which is properly reserved for the specific sense which it is intended to convey.
(c) As including sense and meaning but transcending them in range, and covering the far-reaching consequence, implication, ultimate result or outcome of some event or experience, the term "Significance" is usefully applied.

How she continues illustrates her inductive attitude:

These are not, of course, the only significal terms in common use, though perhaps sense and significance are on the whole the most consistently employed. We have also signification, purport, import, bearing, reference, indication, application, implication, denotation and connotation, the weight, the drift, the tenour, the lie, the trend, the range, the tendency, of given statements.

There are even more 'references,' there and elsewhere in Welby's work, but the idea should be clear. Schmitz (1895.a, pp xcvi-xcvii) provides a recapitulation on the basis of different contexts he also takes from Welby herself. Actually, by explicating context Schmitz takes the decisive step which Welby misses. He occupies a vantage point outside the particular 'field' of observation. Is it a deductive procedure that Welby cannot commit?

The semiotic ennead — please note, with characteristic dynamics for sign producer and sign observer, respectively — subsequently helps to deconstruct Welby's hypothesis annex classification. Every sign is "organic response to environment." Every sign conveys purpose, i.e. the sign producer claims compliance to his interests by the sign observer (Wisse, 2002). With a sign response, and continuing the process of communicating, the original observer turns into a producer, etcetera. Any response, including a sign response, transcends the range of the original sign; every sign is therefore designed for significance. The classes Welby distinguishes should all count as integrated sign aspects.

So, when seen from such an enneadic perspective, contradictions from Welby's categories of sense, meaning and significance become obvious. Her almost life-long dilemma is that she could neither improve upon her own hypothesis nor summon sufficient interest in other persons to pursue a signific program. Only later does Mannoury engage in prolonged studies in significs, developing it in a direction of his own (Schmitz, 1985.b). Like Welby's, Mannoury's work is also relevant for current information management; however, a discussion lies outside the scope of this article.

My criticism of Welby's threefold classification of meaning-related concepts intends to remove an obstacle. For it appears all too dominant until now in the reception of her work. Despite her own reservations, Welby holds on (1903, p 46: "Significs implies in more than one 'sense' a careful distinction between sense, meaning, and significance. This triad is found in many forms[.]"). As such it keeps the 'significance' of her work from clear view. I find it is her search for both explanation and celebration of variety that really constitutes her enduring relevance. Why does Welby obscure her insight — which she, sure enough, repeatedly demonstrates, too — that meaning lies outside itself? Does she confuse contributions to significs as a sanitary program of expression on a more or less scientific footing with her design for, after all, a philosophy of life? I believe she does, which goes a long way to explaining contradictions in her attempts at consolidating significs such as the triad of sense, meaning and significance. And therefore I simply don't agree when Welby, at the end of her life, resignates (approx. 1911):

I want it remembered that I have no theory or speculation to offer about the greatest things.

Of course, I would agree with her in the sense of an ultimate law of everything. For nobody can produce it. She does propose a theory, though. Again, her essentially postmodern theory or philosophy takes the shape of recognition of variety. A viable hypothesis, therefore, is not to be found in a compact statement. On the contrary, it pervades her work. Her real 'system' of significs is in everything, rather than that the separate dogma of a system for everything is allowed to exist (approx. 1886):

What I dread in publishing is the impossibility of conveying at once the manifold aspects of truth, which is not merely whole but living. It seems as if one's writing, to guard against the endless constrictions of meaning it would meet, must consist chiefly of parentheses!

And (1903, pp 9-10)

[e]xpression both may and ought to outstrip rigid Definition: indeed it is probable that what is best worth expressing, best worth being interpreted, and best worth being acted upon, is often least capable of definition in the ordinary sense.

Now that's certainly against the rules set for and by old-fashioned science. Then again, science has limits, as Welby recognizes (see above).

Expression cannot be elevated to serve self-explanation (Wicklund, 1990). It's nowadays called information, of course. But merely the change in terminology doesn't fundamentally change anything. Information is still not self-sufficient. In the details of her work, Welby shows how information, meaning, communication, or whatever, happens. Information only 'lives' inside individual man in his communal situations. So, never information management itself, but ever-changing human life establishes situations for information management.





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———— 2002 Symbiosis & Sign Exchange: design for a subjective situationism, including conceptual grounds for business information modeling Information Dynamics, dissertation, Amsterdam University.
———— 2003 Dia-enneadic framework for information concepts,, see publications/articles &papers.




March, 2003 © Pieter E. Wisse