The Faculties of Humanities and Theology | Lund University

Plenary lectures

What kind of ontology for cognitive semiotics? The quest for a science of first-person experience

Søren Brier

Copenhagen Business School

Cognitive semiotics is devoted to establishing a paradigmatic background for research on the evolution of cognition and communication. My talk will focus on philosophy of science problems connected to this endeavor, inspired by Kuhn’s paradigm theory in a critical realist ontology and epistemology combined with the fallibilism of Peirce and Popper as well as a general phenomenological stance. This contrasts with the paradigm of info-computationalism, which is a modern version of positivism that is even more physicalist than the Consilience of biologist E. O. Wilson.

How can we integrate a first-person view with the type of knowledge on cognition produced in the natural, life and social sciences? In particular how is it possible to produce a scientific description of how language interacts with experience, social and biological behavior? Living systems seem to be the minimal requirement for having experiential cognition without a language-imbued consciousness. We have a generally accepted scientific molecular description of the dynamics of life in traditional biology, but nothing that can explain experiential cognition. Konrad Lorenz - inspired by Jacob von Uexküll’s cybernetic Umwelt Lehrer - attempted to develop ethology as a transdisciplinary paradigm between life, social and human sciences by finding a way to integrate a causal concept of the first-person experience of animals into a biological framework of cognition. But after 30 years, he failed to integrate a causal concept of first person experience in biology.

Maturana and Varela can be seen as making a new attempt of a transdisciplinary description of the dynamics of living systems and their cognition with the concept of autopoiesis. It was (again) based on the transdisciplinary framework of cybernetics in its modern form of second-order cybernetics (Heinz von Foerster and Gregory Bateson). But neither autopoiesis theory nor second-order cybernetics has been able to provide adequate concepts of experience, signification and social communication within their functionalistic and constructivist approaches, estranged to semiotics and phenomenology. The theory of autopoiesis was further developed by Luhmann (1984), combining biological, psychological and socio-communicative autopoietic systems into a transdisciplinary theory of social communication. What Lorenz calls the reflex level is from the biological level called “languaging” (Maturana) or the coordination of the coordination of behavior. But above this level are Lorenz’ motivated instinctual interactions of experiential bodies through which sign stimuli operate. But, in spite of Luhmann’s flirt with Husserl’s phenomenology we are still in cybernetic and system theory’s lack of phenomenological and hermeneutical aspects.

My major claim is that combining Luhmann’s system theory with cognitive semiotics gives a new transdisciplinary framework, which is an alternative to “the unity science” of positivism on one hand, and post-modernism on the other. I advocate Cybersemiotics (Brier 2013) as a multidimensional semiotic constructive realism, the point of which is that “signs as concepts and classifications arise in our embodied biological and social ‘life forms’” (2006: 283). For our understanding of meaning production a concept has to have a phenomenological and emotional constitution, there is therefore no good reason “why the inner world of cognition, emotions, and volition should not be accepted as just as real as the physical world as well as our cultural world of signs and meaning (2006: 283).” It is the cultural and linguistic pertubated experiential body that matters in the production of a personal as well as an interpersonal cultural significations sphere permeated with signs. It is only theoretically possible to model signification, if we recognize the experiential body-mind as a complex, phenomenologically dynamic system (Brier, 2006, 2013).

But this view is beyond “science”. We therefore need to engage in the construction of a transdisciplinary framework that serves as an alternative to the idea of science stemming from positivism and physicalism. To argue this I analyze and discuss the advances and limitations of Barbieri’s non-Peircean based Code biology, which is promoted as being scientific, with the consequence that it lacks a concept of first-person experiential qualia and meaning production and free will.



Søren Brier is full professor for the Semiotics of Information, Cognitive and Communication Science at Copenhagen Business School. He holds a Masters in biology from the University of Copenhagen and a Ph.D. in philosophy of (information) science. In 2006 he defended a doctor habil thesis in philosophy, Cybersemiotics: Why Information Is Not Enough at CBS. Brier is the founder and editor-in-chief of Cybernetics & Human Knowing, published since 1992, co-founder of “The International Association for Biosemiotic Studies” in 2005, a former trustee for the American Society for Cybernetics, member of the board of the “Sociocybernetics Group” (ISA) and member of the International Institute for Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics. His work has consisted in bringing together biosemiotics, cybernetics, and the sociology of Luhmann.


Challanges presented by the semiotic revolution

Merlin Donald

Queen's University

One important objective for the study of cognitive evolution is to establish the optimal conditions for human development and thriving. The human mind and brain are uniquely adapted for living in social networks. In traditional society those networks, and their respective semiotic systems, were small enough to be manageable. However, the scale and rate of change of modern semiotic systems confront the human mind with a qualitatively new level of cognitive challenge.

The modern semiotic hierarchy has one overriding characteristic: unprecedented variety, and a deliberate lack of structure. In the 20th century, new cinematic and information technologies created the basic conditions for a semiotic revolution. In the 21th century, the expansion of the Internet into every aspect of daily life has extended that revolution to every corner of the globe. Modern civilization is rapidly distancing itself from its predecessors in its extraordinary semiotic variety, and in its insistence on a completely open and largely ungoverned network.

However, the semiotic systems of social networks have traditionally required governance. Traditional societies offered a set of very limited and closely controlled values, rituals, and customs. This imposed limits on the semiotic challenges of daily life. In contrast, modern multicultural societies tend to encourage significant individual freedom of choice, and tolerate huge differences in the values and beliefs held by its citizens. This situation tends toward semiotic dis-integration and dis-organization, with an exponential increase in richness and variety. However, even (especially) the most liberal cultures need to guarantee their central values and customs. The proliferation of ideas and symbols has proven a serious challenge for modern liberal societies, and there have been strong reactionary movements throughout the developed world.

The irony is that modern society, with far more choices and better information than any past society, is actually regressing rather than progressing in the semiotic domain. The human brain seems unable to handle the tremendous modern house of representational cards presently available to it.

This presents semioticians, and cognitive researchers in general, with at least three major challenges: (1) Strong Externalization: Can the autonomy of the individual mind survive in the context of massive and sophisticated external programming? (2) Anonymity and extreme individuality: How can society construct networks of trust in a semiotic environment that encourages massive manipulation and evasive narcissism? And (3) Defensive conservatism: Should the most basic needs of the social brain be placed at the top of our governance priorities, and can this be achieved without falling back on a lowest-common-denominator strategy for public debate?


Merlin Donald is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Psychology and Faculty of Education, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. A cognitive neuroscientist with a background in philosophy, he is the author of many scientific papers, and two influential books: Origins of the Modern Mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition (Harvard, 1991), and A Mind So Rare: The evolution of human consciousness (Norton, 2001). 
Most of Donald’s early empirical work was in the field of human cognitive and clinical neuroscience, with a specialization in electrophysiology. During the past 15 years he has returned to the topic that drew him to psychology in the first place: human intellectual and cognitive origins. This work bridges several disciplines in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. His central thesis is that human beings have evolved a completely novel cognitive strategy: brain-culture symbiosis. As a consequence, the human brain cannot realize its design potential unless it is immersed in a distributed communication network, that is, a culture, during its development. Donald is currently trying to understand how the slow-moving biology of the brain can deal with the changing cognitive ecology. Humanity is greatly concerned about changes in the physical ecology, but has largely ignored equally massive changes in the cognitive ecology, even though the latter will probably set our future direction as a species. 

Meaning, consciousness, and the onset of language

Lorraine McCune

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Children’s capacity for conscious experience begins with a limitation to perceptual reality. In order to develop the semiotic resources for language, they must become representational. That is they must develop a representational ability that includes true symbols, such that the signifier is differentiated from the signified and the symbols (words) can be combined in a grammar. Piagetian theory regarding symbolic development (Piaget, 1962) emphasizes the role of play in the child’s representational development, while Werner and Kaplan (1963) provided a compatible detailed representational account of the transition from pre-linguistic communication to the expression of meaning in sentences. This dual theoretical background, allows analysis of the child’s path from pre-language to the production of grammatical combinations from the perspective of consciousness and meaning. McCune (2008) integrates these two representational theories as a backdrop for empirical investigation that identified essential representational, communicative, and vocal production resources that, together, interacting in a dynamic system, allow these advanced achievements (Thelen, 1989; Thelen & Smith, 1994). The presentation provides the theoretical background and data demonstrating the prediction of the transition to referential language in individual children.


Professor Lorraine D. McCune, is Chairperson, Department of Educational Psychology; Director of the Infant/Early Childhood Specialist Interdisciplinary Studies program (ISIS). She has developed an approach to representational play assessment based on Piaget’s theoretical analysis in the early stage of her career. She was invited to Piaget’s research institute in 1987 to present that work. Subsequently she has developed a dynamic systems approach that allows integration of the critical cognitive, phonetic, and communicative skills required for the transition to referential language. This work is documented in her book entitled, How Children Learn to Learn Language (2008). New measure of vocal development: communicative grunts and vocal motor schemes are essential contributors to the transition to reference. McCune’s theoretical contributions include integration of Piaget’s (1962) views of the transition to mental representation with those of Werner & Kaplan (1963). McCune’s integration allows a more complete understanding of the cognitive and social processes underlying this transition. More recently, in collaboration with Jordan Zlatev she has begun development of a six-stage model of semiotic development extending from birth to three years of age (Zlatev & McCune, in press).

From mimesis to meaning: Gestures of negative assessment, refusal, and negation

Cornelia Müller

European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder)

The talk addresses the emergence of meaning from manual action and the evolution of a gesture family based on a semanticization of a shared effect of the motivating actions of the hand(s): The Away Gesture Family. The work presented here, builds upon a range of linguistic, semiotic, and anthropological studies of recurrent forms and functions in co-speech gestures, all of which point out that variations in gesture forms go along with differences in meaning (Calbris 2003, 2011; Harrison 2010; Kendon 2004; Ladewig 2011, Müller 2004; Müller & Speckmann 2002; Payrató & Teßendorf in press). Discussing, in particular, Kendon’s analysis of the Open Hand Prone (OHP) family and further work on “gestures of negation” (Calbris 2003, 2011; Harrison 2010; Kendon 2004), a linguistic and form-based account of a gesture family will be offered, which is not only based on shared formational features and common semantic themes, but which is additionally motivated by a shared effect of an underlying action-scheme. 

I will argue that the family of Away Gestures is semantically motivated by the effect of actions of removing or keeping away of annoying or unwanted things from the body. The family has in common that something has been moved away, or something is being kept away from intrusion. Sweeping Away gestures are used to reject and exclude topics of talk, they negate manually. Holding Away gestures refuse and stop unwanted topics of talk. Brushing Away gestures remove and dismiss annoying topics of talk, by rapidly brushing them away from the speaker’s body. They assess topics of talk negatively. Throwing Away gestures remove and dismiss topics of talk, by metaphorically throwing them away from the speaker’s body. The clearing of the body space goes along with a qualification of the rejected objects as annoying, that is, a topic of talk is being negatively assessed.

The processes that motivate the transition from miming practical action to the emergence of meaningful (conventionalized) gestures are metonymy and metaphor –they are both based on schematizations of bodily actions. We will strongly argue for a refined understanding of ‘embodiment’ and relate that to mimesis as a root for the evolution of gestures as “visible utterances” (Kendon 2004). It will be concluded that a form based linguistic approach to the analysis opens up a path to systematically reconstruct the embodied roots of gestural meaning.


Cornelia Müller, Professor of Langage Use and Multimodal Communication at European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. She focuses on pragmatic dimensions of semantics (more specifically cognitive and linguistic theories of metaphor) as well as on semantic, grammatical and interactional aspects of pragmatics. The interface of semantics, pragmatics and grammar was a running thread through her first book (Redebegleitende Gesten. Kulturgeschichte – Theorie – Sprachvergleich). In her second book she concentrated on metaphor theory focusing on the interface of semantics, pragmatics and cognition (Metaphors – Dead and Alive, Sleeping and Waking. A cognitive approach to metaphors in language use).

She addresses these topics based on analyses of spoken language in its multimodal manifestations. Another area of her research is the social and cultural dimensions of language use, specifically the “ordinary reflections of language use“. She have published articles on the gestural communication of human and non-human primates, the relation of metaphor, gesture and thought, the bodily constitution of interaction spaces and their grounding role for communication, the semiotic structures of gesture creation, in-depth analyses of recurrent gesture forms, the cultural variation of gesture space, the cultural history of gesture use in Europe, etc.

Aping mankind: Neuromania and Darwinitis and the misrepresentation of mankind

Raymond Tallis

University of Manchester

Increasingly, it is assumed that human beings are best understood in biological terms; that, notwithstanding the apparent differences between humans and their nearest animal kin, people are, at bottom, organisms; that individual persons are their brains, and that societies are best understood as collections of brains (“Neuromania”); and that we should look to evolutionary theory to understand what we are now (“Darwinitis”); that our biological roots explain our cultural leaves. I will argue that we are not just our brains; rather we belong to a community of minds that has grown up over the hundreds of thousands of years since we parted company from the other primates. The gap between our nearest animal kin and ourselves is too wide to read across from the one to the other. 


Professor Raymond Tallis is a philosopher and cultural critic and was until recently a physician and clinical scientist. He trained as a doctor at Oxford University and at St Thomas' in London before going on to become Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester and a consultant physician in Health Care of the Elderly in Salford. Over the last 20 years Raymond Tallis has published 23 books on the philosophy of mind, philosophical anthropology, literary theory, the nature of art and cultural criticism. Together with over two hundred articles, these books offer a critique of current predominant intellectual trends and an alternative understanding of human consciousness, the nature of language and of what it is to be a human being. His recent publications include: The Enduring Significance of Parmenides: Unthinkable Thought (Continuum, 2007) which examines the nature and origin of the cognitive revolution the inaugurated Western thought; The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Round Your Head (Atlantic, 2008) in which he reflects on the mystery of embodiment; and Hunger (Acumen, 2008) which explores the complex drives that make human life what it is. In recent years, two of his papers have been the subject of leading articles in Lancet.

The Sound-Symbolism Bootstrapping Hypothesis for Language Acquisition and Language Evolution

Mutsumi Imai

Keio Unversity at Shonan-Fujisawa

Sound symbolism is a non-arbitrary relation between speech sounds and meanings. Recently, sound symbolism has attracted researchers’ attention as it seems to be connected to various important issues central to human cognition and language, including cross-modal mappings, synesthesia, language development and evolution. In this talk, I propose the sound symbolism bootstrapping hypothesis, which claims that (1) pre-verbal infants are sensitive to sound symbolism, with a biologically endowed ability to map and integrate multi-modal input; (2) sound symbolism helps infants to gain the referential insight for speech sounds; (3) sound symbolism helps infants and toddlers associate speech sounds and their referents and to establish a lexical representation; and  (4) sound symbolism helps toddlers learn words by helping them to focus on referents embedded in a complex scene, alleviating Quine's problem. I present evidence for each of these claims through a series of behavioural and neurological studies with infants, toddlers and adults conducted in my laboratory.  I further explore the possibility that sound symbolism is deeply related to the origin of language, drawing the parallel between ontogeny and phylogeny of language.


Prof. Imai is leader of a laboratory aiming to elucidate the process of how children acquire language and the mechanisms behind this process. This is investiagted using experimental techniques of cognitive psychology and brain science, with an emphasis on the relation between cognitive development and language acquisition. Language and cognition are related interactively, supporting and boosting each other. Another issue is how unique the developmental process is to each language, such as Japanese, Dutch or English, and how universal it is among all languages. Another important research theme is "learning and education". Using knowledge obtained from basic research of language acquisition, Prof. Imai's lab studies learning in general, with appliations for education.