Semiotic horizons: time, memory and future(s)


The Tartu Semiotics Summer School 2021 will be organised as a local event dedicated to approaches to time, memory and future(s).

What is the link between the past, the present and the future? This ubiquitous question is not new to semiotics, but still has the potential to make us rethink its development as a discipline born ‘ahead’ of its own epoch. What is more, it makes us envision a semiotics-driven anthropocene where sciences and humanities could ethically go hand in hand. In the words of John Deely, “we need to have an awareness of the trajectory of semiotic development […] against the backdrop of philosophical modernity” (2010: 75).

    In this spirit, the Tartu Summer School of Semiotics aims to resume the dialogue between different branches of semiotics, and with other disciplines, as a community that studies change in a diversity of ways. Namely, through James’ specious present; Peirce’s temporal causation; Saussure’s  synchrony and diachrony; Uexküll’s perceptual and developmental times; Wittgenstein’s memory-time and information-time; Bakhtin’s chronotopes; Lotman’s unpredictability; Grusin’s premediation, or Fraser’s biotemporality.

    In tune with the tradition of Kääriku Summer Schools of Semiotics — originally held by the Tartu-Moscow School of Semiotics — we believe it is essential to continue finding inspiration in the above by means of ‘retrospective transformation’ as Juri Lotman would put it: “consciousness appears to be carried backwards to the moment which preceded the moment of explosion, retrospectively interpreting all that has occurred” (2009[1992]: 16). 

    The Summer School inquires into various ways humans and other animals make sense of the passage of time, by organising round-tables and workshops, and welcoming presentations to answer the following suggested questions:

  1. What is the complementarity between different ways of modelling time (e.g. as a linear continuum or as a cycle)?
  2. Where does the relation between individual and collective types of memory and prospection lie? What is the complementarity between remembering and foretelling?
  3. In what ways can semiotics drive the future(s) (e.g. in education, research, culture-nature changes, and public policies)?
  4. To what extent do semiotic theories, models and tools have a predictive capacity?
  5. What might be the possible future directions of semiotics and the humanities?

The aim of the Summer School is to provide a space for bringing together perspectives arising from variety of fields of studies, among them semiotics, linguistics, philosophy, art and media studies, digital humanities.

Read the full CFP here.








Sanna Ahvenharju

Futures Consciousness as a human anticipatory capacity

The concept of future consciousness is central in the field of futures research. However, when often considered as a premise for other interests, like futures education, scientific study and development of the concept has been minimal. Similarly as with future thinking, future awareness and future orientation, the term itself has not gained wide attention. In 2016, together with colleagues, we started to develop conceptually clear and simple definition of futures consciousness that could be used in empirical research. Based on this five-dimensional model, also a psychometric scale was developed to measure the phenomena of futures consciousness. Our studies so far show that futures consciousness supports altruistic and proactive behavior and helps maintain psychological wellbeing under difficult circumstances.

Regarding the definition of Futures Consciousness, we have proposed the following: Futures consciousness is the human capacity to understand, anticipate, prepare for and embrace the future. It can be considered as the multiple processes that influence, firstly, how one projects the self and its social surroundings in potential futures, in order to actively adapt oneself to it when it will become the present; and secondly, how one projects potential futures and adapts their present actions to bring about the ideal future. Furthermore, the five dimensions of futures consciousness describe the individual differences that affect these processes.

Theoretically the definition relies on the concept of feedback loops (Seligman et al., 2013; Carver & Scheier, 1990), where a learning individual continually compares their expectations with real-life observation and adjusts their expectations and behavior accordingly (Locke &Latham, 2006; Carver & Scheier, 1981; Duval &Wicklund, 1972). In terms of Futures Consciousness, the process goes beyond a mere projection of the self as a future or ideal self, accompanied with the goal to become this self. Instead, Futures Consciousness refers to the human capacity to project the future in which the self is expected to exist rather than an expectation of the self, which will exist in the future. These projections are similar to future images (Polak, 1973; Bell &Mau, 1971) or predictive models (Rosen, 1985, p.341) that guide individuals’ behavior and influence choices in the present (see also Poli, 2017, p.270). In the same way that people might want to change the actual self to fit the possible ideal or future self, one might also want to change the present to fit an ideal future. Hence the process is also a projection of a future – not only a projection (of self) in the future – that can guide our actions in the present.

However, we do not all see the future the same way. The way how our future projections turn out to be depend on the psychological processes of individuals. The five dimensions of Futures Consciousness describe these main processes:

  • Time perspective: How far in the future an individual projects potential futures or possible future selves, and how well the relationship between past, present and future actions is understood?
  • Agency beliefs: How much an individual trusts in their own ability to influence events and achieve results they wish for?
  • Openness to alternatives: How open an individual thinks the future is and how capable they are in seeing alternative developments?
  • Systems perception: How well an individual understands relationships between different systems and their own role in relation to them?
  • Concern for others: How much an individual thinks of and cares about the future of other people beyond themselves?


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Sanna Ahvenharju is a researcher at the Finland Futures Research Centre and her research interests cover sustainable development, sustainable consumption policy, future thinking, and futures consciousness. Her PhD focuses on the conceptual definition of futures consciousness and how it manifests in individual behavior. She has developed a psychometric tool to measure futures consciousness in collaboration with psychologists.





Kourken Michaelian

Remembering the past and imagining the future: Consequences of their continuity

There are a number of apparent similarities between episodic memory and episodic future thought: both remembering the past and imagining the future appear to involve the same kind of mental imagery, to depend on the same brain systems, and to involve similar phenomenologies. The recent simulation theory of memory (Michaelian 2016), which treats remembering as a form of imagining, suggests that episodic memory and episodic future thought are indeed continuous. The older (and still dominant) causal theory of memory (Martin and Deutscher 1966), in contrast, which takes remembering to presuppose an appropriate causal connection with what is remembered, suggests that they are fundamentally discontinuous. This talk will briefly review the simulationist-causalist debate and the associate continuist-discontinuist debate. It will then explore the consequences of adopting simulationism, focussing on McCarroll's recent attack on the simulation theory. McCarroll (2020) argues that the theory is unable to account for forgetting and for childhood amnesia. The talk will show that simulationism is in fact able to account for both phenomena.

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Kourken Michaelian is professor of philosophy at the Université Grenoble Alpes. He is the author of Mental Time Travel: Episodic Memory and our Knowledge of the Personal Past (MIT 2016), which, in opposition to the causal theory of memory, according to which remembering an event requires an appropriate causal connection with an earlier experience of it, defends a simulation theory of memory, according to which remembering an event does not require such a causal connection and is, instead, simply a matter of imagining it. A co-editor of volumes including Seeing the Future: Theoretical Perspectives on Future-Oriented Mental Time Travel (Oxford 2016), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Memory (2017), New Directions in the Philosophy of Memory (Routledge 2018), and special issues of the Review of Philosophy and Psychology on memory as mental time travel and on distributed cognition and memory research, he founded and directs the Centre for Philosophy of Memory at Grenoble.






Morten Tønnessen

Semiotic futures: Transformative semiotics and its role in facilitating change in human self-comprehension

The human being is far from the only being that relates to the passage of time. All organisms that are endowed with an Umwelt (subjective lifeworld) live through what Jakob von Uexküll called an Umwelt-tunnel. Moreover, we can safely state that organisms with an Umwelt also go through Umwelt transitionsand partake in Umwelt trajectories. But the human species is, however, unique in some of the ways in which it relates to time. We collectively negotiate our memory of the past and our assumptions about the future, and are furthermore consciously aware that we are mortal, and constantly strive to make our lives meaningful in light of this fact.

Quite a bit can be known about future Umwelten. In some contexts, Umwelt predictions can be made about future lifeworlds, in others, we can develop a number of plausible Umwelt scenarios. Such predictions and scenarios can help us make more informed choices whenever we discuss actions, lifestyles or policies that have an impact on future lifeworlds. While Umwelt futurology, the study of future Umwelten, can help us understand aspects of the future, transformative semioticsallows semioticians to engage in discussions about value issues. By ‘transformative semiotics’, I mean a normatively conscious form of semiotics that explicitly relates to value issues and aims to frame a perceived need for normative transformation (i.e., normative change) in semiotic terms.

To be of any use for contemporary society, Umwelt futurology as well as transformative semiotics should be empirically informed. I will briefly summarize and review major changes in common understandings of the environmental crisis, starting with the emerging awareness of a global environmental crisis and ending with the growing acknowledgement of the Anthropocene notion in recent years. While the current predominant understanding of the global environmental crisis is an improvement over earlier understandings on some points, it lacks direction with regard to necessary courses of action.

In 1984, Thomas Sebeok wrote a technical report for the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation (USA), titled “Communication measures to bridge ten millennia”. This is an interesting example of applied semiotics in the context of long-term future environmental and societal change. I will review Sebeok´s message in the report, and discuss its relevance for contemporary discussions about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as a climate mitigation measure, which has a similar time perspective.

The question about how humans´ relation to nature has to change over the next century or so, is intimately related to the question about how the self-comprehension of human beings must or should change in the same process. This was a central premise for Deep Ecologist Arne Næss. In light of philosophical anthropology, just as much as it is concerned with environmental or societal change, transformative semiotics is concerned with human self-comprehension. This brings us back to the issue of what role semiotics can play in addressing the urgent issues of the Anthropocene.

As John Deely stressed, human beings´ knowledge and awareness about our semiotic capabilities, and about the real-world consequences of our actions, makes us ethically responsible in ways that animals are not. It also opens up fundamental philosophical questions for renewed reflection. Before we can start acting in sustainable ways, we need to develop a sustainable notion of what it means to be human. This requires a thoughtful revision of our human self-comprehension. Increased sensitivity to our own semiotic capabilities, and to the ways in which our actions have an impact on the semiotic lifeworlds of humans and non-humans alike, is key to managing the sustainability transition.


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Morten Tønnessen (born 1976) is a Norwegian philosopher and semiotician with a long-time research interest in environmental change as seen in light of Umwelt theory. He defended his Ph.D. thesis "Umwelt transition and Uexküllian phenomenology: An ecosemiotic analysis of Norwegian wolf management" in Tartu in 2011 (Kalevi Kull
was main supervisor, Winfried Nöth consultant supervisor). Tønnessen is now Professor of philosophy and Head of department at Department of social studies at University of Stavanger, Norway. He is also President of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies, and a member of Norway´s Council for animal ethics. In the period 2013-2019 he
served as an Editor-in-Chief of Biosemiotics. Tønnessen has co-edited Semiotics in the wild: Essays in honour of Kalevi Kull on the occasion of his 60th birthday (Tartu University Press 2012), The Semiotics of Animal Representations (Rodopi 2014), Thinking about animals in the age of the Anthropocene (Lexington Books 2016) and Animal Umwelten in a changing world – Zoosemiotic perspectives (Tartu University Press 2016), and co-authored Ulvetider – Rovdyret som splitter Norge (Vega forlag 2017) and Semiotic agency: Science beyond mechanism (forthcoming, Springer Nature).


The event is financed by the European Regional Development Fund (University of Tartu ASTRA Project PER ASPERA) and Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics at University of Tartu.