Brentari, C. (2018). From the Hiatus Model to the Diffuse Discontinuities: A Turning Point in Human-Animal Studies. Biosemiotics, 1-15.
In twentieth-century continental philosophy, German philosophical anthropology (Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, and Arnold Gehlen) can be seen as a sort of conceptual laboratory devoted to human/animal research, and, in particular, to the discontinuity between human and non-human animals. Its main notion—the idea of the special position of humans in nature—is one of the first philosophical attempts to think of the specificity of humans as a natural and qualitative difference from non-human animals. This school of thought correctly rejects both the metaphysical and/or religious characterisations of humans, and the positivistic gradualism, that sees the human being as an animal endowed with a greater degree of certain faculties (intelligence, etc.). At the same time, German philosophical anthropology still takes it for granted that such natural-qualitative novelty is unique in the realm of the living, that in correspondence with humans there is the hiatus, the discontinuity par excellence. The semiotic side of this view is the distinction between signs and symbols developed by Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Langer: animal signs would be mere proxies for perceptive elements or stimuli, whereas only human symbols could convey complex representation of objects and situations. The goal of this contribution is to criticise the alleged uniqueness of the hiatus and its semiotic implications through the opposite approach of the diffuse discontinuities. This approach that focuses on the semiotic traits of different species-specific environments (Umwelten) can be traced back to Jakob von Uexküll’s biosemiotical phenomenology, which thinks of discontinuities as a normal phenomenon of animal life.