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Lund University Centre for Cognitive Semiotics School of Linguistics Chris Sinha Department of Psychology, University of Portsmouth, UK christopher.sinha@semiotik.lu.se. Lecture 6 Meaning and Materiality How language grounds symbolic cognitive artefacts. Part One.

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lecture 6 meaning and materiality how language grounds symbolic cognitive artefacts

Lund UniversityCentre for Cognitive SemioticsSchool of LinguisticsChris SinhaDepartment of Psychology, University of Portsmouth, UKchristopher.sinha@semiotik.lu.se

Lecture 6

Meaning and MaterialityHow language grounds symbolic cognitive artefacts

part one

Part One

Language as a Social Fact and Social institution

social facts durkheim
Social Facts: Durkheim

“a category of facts which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.” (Durkheim, 1982 [1895]).

The objectivity of social facts thus consists in the fact they are independent of any single individual’s thoughts or will.

ontology and methodology of social facts
Ontology and methodology of social facts

social facts are irreducible to psychological facts, structures or processes, though they depend upon these and influence them

Social facts are objects of shared, mutual, intersubjective knowledge

Language is a social fact (institution)

the semiotic ontology of the social a brief formal account
The semiotic ontology of the social:a brief formal account

John Searle on social (institutional) facts:

X counts as Y in C (ontext)

Example: a twenty dollar bill counts as a monetary token with this particular exchange value.

NB: the note does not stand for or represent twenty dollars, it is twenty dollars. It is self-identical; its value is subtended by (though non-reducible to) its material existence. Destroy the note, you destroy the value.

representation and standing for
Representation and standing for

The conditions on representation“To represent something … is to cause something else to stand for it, in such a way that both the relationship of ‘standing for’, and that which is intended to be represented, can be recognized.”(Sinha 1988: 37)

signs and signification
Signs and signification

[X counts as S & S stands for M] in C

X= anything

S = sign

M = meaning (signified)

This simple notation clarifies the “double articulation” of the sign, the conventional unity of substance and signification.

Note:C may now include Css, the sign system, and Cc, the community of users

the subsystems of language
The subsystems of language

1. Grammar (in the wide sense):

X counts as S in Css for Cc or

X counts as S in L

L = This language

2. Semantics

Presupposing 1:

S stands for M in L

3. Pragmatics

Presupposing 1 & 2:

X counts as As in C

As = This speech act (including reference)

some consequences
Some consequences

The semantic theory of meaning is underdetermined by this formulation, and need not be truth-functional, but is conventional and normative (as are all the subsystems)

Semantics is distinguished from pragmatics without necessitating a truth functional semantics

Contextual dependence characterises all subsystems, but does not erase the distinctions between them

Language as a social object has its own proper structure subtended by but irreducible to intentionality

part 2

Part 2

How Language Grounds Symbolic Cognitive Artefacts

extended embodiment
Extended Embodiment

The body is our general medium for having a world … Sometimes the meaning aimed at cannot be achieved by the body’s natural means; it must then build itself an instrument, and it projects thereby around itself a cultural world.Merleau-Ponty 1962: 146.

semiotics semiology and the disputed primacy of language
Semiotics, Semiology, and the (disputed) primacy of language
  • There is a long standing dispute between theories arguing for the methodological primacy of language as a semiotic system (Saussure, Barthes)
  • And theories that situate language within the wider class of signs and sign systems, without according methodological primacy to language (Peirce, Eco)
language grounds symbolic artefacts
Language grounds symbolic artefacts
  • I will argue that
    • The primacy of language consists in its constitutive role as the evolutionarily crucial human biocultural niche
    • There exists a sub-class of artefacts of particular significance in the cultural history of human cognition: symbolic cognitive artefacts
    • Symbolic artefacts are grounded in language
language and cognitive artefacts
Language and cognitive artefacts
  • Language is culturally and materially situated, that is, dynamically embedded within a semiotic network which includes symbolic and non-symbolic artefacts.
  • Language is the symbolic ground for a specific class of artefacts that we can designate as symboliccognitive artefacts
technologies in general
Technologies in general

Amplify human powers (Bruner)

Motor (hammer)

Perception (telescope, telephone)

Cognition/thinking (abacus)


Made not found (cultural affordance)

Embody intentionality

Signify function or use value

augmentation potentiation constitution
Augmentation, potentiation, constitution

Technologies may augment existing powers (bow and arrow)

They may potentiate new ones (needle and thread)

Constituting new practices (sewing)

And bringing into being new social relations

Eg print capitalism – Benedict Anderson

artefact function signification representation
Artefact function, signification, representation

Artefacts have intentionally designed canonical functions (eg cup / containment)

The function is afforded by the artefact

Artefacts signify their canonical function by “counting as” (Searle) a category member, and being “perceived as” such

Symbolic cognitive artefacts also necessarily have a representational sign function

materiality and semiotic mediation
Materiality and semiotic mediation

Vygotsky emphasized the importance of semiotic mediation in transforming cognition and cognitive development, focusing on the internalization of conventional signs originating in contexts of discursive practice.

He attributed great importance to the formative role of language in the emergence of “inner speech” and “verbal thought”, but his employment of the concept of semiotic mediation also encompassed the use of non-systematic signs, including objects-as-signifers (Vygotsky’s handkerchief)

He paid little attention to systematic, linguistically grounded cognitive artefacts

tool and sign
Tool and Sign
  • Vygosky, Bühler and many others have pointed to the analogy between tool and sign, Vygotsky distinguishing the former as world-directed and the latter as mind-directed
  • But these theories do not address that class of artefacts that unite the sign and tool functions, symbolic cognitive artefacts, which are both world and mind directed


Material culture Symbolic culture



World directed Mind directed


cognitive artefacts and cultural schemas
Cognitive artefacts and cultural schemas

Symbolic cognitive artefacts canonically support conceptual and symbolic processes in specific meaning domains

Examples: notational systems, dials, calendars, compasses

Cultural and cognitive schemas organizing e.g. time and number can be considered as dependent on, and hence constituted, not just expressed by, cognitive artefacts

cognitive artefacts have a material cognitive and social history
Cognitive artefacts have a material, cognitive and social history
  • The invention and perfection of the calendar (going back to Babylon) and the clock is well documented
  • These artefacts made possible thinking about “Time as Such”, and time-based as opposed to event-based time interval systems
  • Which are not universal
  • And the absence of which may be correlated with the absence of linguistic constructional space-time analogical mapping (Sinha et al in press)
representation and the sign function
Representation and the sign function

Cognitive artefacts can now be defined as those artefacts that intentionally, canonically and materially incorporate or embody a representational sign function, often supporting the cognitive organization of a specific meaning domain

A book

A spreadsheet

But not:

Vygotsky’s handkerchief (non-canonical)

A telephone (no sign function)

A computer (no intrinsic representational function)

representation and notation
Representation and notation

Notational systems are by definition cognitive artefacts, grounded in the symbolic function of language

Many cognitive artefacts inherit their sign function from notational systems

In doing so they may constitute new conceptual domains (eg calendars and “Time as Such”)

cognitive artefacts in history
Cognitive artefacts in history

The history of the human mind is the cultural history of the invention and use of symbolic cognitive artefacts, which materially bear and augment Tomasello’s “ratchet effect”

Domain-constituting cognitive artefacts are of particular significance, having dramatic transformativer effects on symbolic cognition

Cognitive artefacts in turn transform wider technologies and forces of production and potentiate new relations of production

what about language
What about language

Are languages cognitive artefacts?

No, because they are (for our species) found not made

But the prehistory of language is cognitive-artefactual as well as biological, and language is transformative of cognition

Language is a biocultural niche and social institution to which we have adapted in evolution, and which symbolically grounds cognitive artefacts that are also transformative of the biocultural niche

future directions
Future directions

The cognitive sciences must move beyond the classical (individualist-mentalist) cognitivist paradigm, and take seriously the normativity constituting social life

Language and language learning are matters of participation and interaction in an intersubjective field constituted by symbolic, as well as non-symbolic, but signifying, artefacts

Embodiment extends beyond the body, meaning is grounded not just in brains, but also in the world