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Nathan Lyons

Subject area and speciality

Philosophy of Religion specialists:

PhD thesis title: Signs in the dust: a theory of natural culture and cultural nature, with special reference to Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa, John Poinsot (John of St. Thomas), Félix Ravaisson, and contemporary evolutionary theory.

Research Interests

PhD thesis abstract: This thesis develops a novel philosophical and theological account of the relation between nature and culture. I use the late medieval semiotics of John Poinsot (1589-1644, also known as John of St. Thomas) to argue that the whole of human culture can be understood as the work of signs and look to Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) to show how Trinitarian theology can locate the ultimate origin of semiosis in God, in whom the Son is the sign of the Father. I then use the notion of culture as participation in Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64) to coordinate Poinsot’s creaturely semiotics with Aquinas’ semiotic Trinity. This concludes Part One, which as a whole constitutes a theory of human culture in its two dimensions: its horizontal ‘breadth’ as a project of creaturely signification (Poinsot) and its vertical ‘height’ as a participation in the divine Sign and Art (Aquinas, Cusa). In Part Two I take this picture of human culture and extend it backwards into evolutionary time to reveal culture’s third dimension of biological and physical ‘depth’. I use the philosophy of habit proposed by Félix Ravaisson (1813-1900) in dialogue with biosemiotics and contemporary evolutionary theory (particularly recent theories of phenotypic plasticity, genetic accommodation, and niche construction) to show that culture and semiosis are not the unique possession of humans but are at work across the whole biological order. I then press this backwards extension of culture all the way down to include even inorganic matter, using Aquinas’ doctrine of intentions in the medium to develop a novel theory of physiosemiosis. Lastly, I argue that matter contributes certain distinctive perfections to material culture. I conclude that culture is natural and nature is cultural and that this claim finds a peculiarly fitting home in Trinitarian theology, for if dust is made by the signing God then it is no surprise that there are signs in the dust.

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