Event Report

The International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS) was founded in Aarhus, Denmark on May 29, 2013 during the VIII Conference of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies (NASS).During September 25-27, 2014, nearly one year and four months later, IACS was able to hold its first biannual international conference (IACS-2014), in Lund, Sweden. Given the short spatial and temporal distance between these two events, there were worries that this could have turned into a “Scandinavian affair”, akin more to a programmatic workshop than to an international conference. Luckily, this was not the case. For three tightly packed days, 140 participants from 28 countries, ranging from Japan and Taiwan in the East, to Columbia and Mexico in the West, endeavored to “Establish Cognitive Semiotics”, which was the theme of the conference. This new field combines theories and methods from cognitive science, semiotics and linguistics, and a few other related disciplines, in the service of a better understanding of animal and human meaning-making and cognition. It deals with the specificities, commonalities and the interactions of different semiotic resources such as gestures, pictures, speech, writing, and mathematics (“What is Cognitive Semiotics?” SemiotiX XN-6). In accordance with such ambitious goals, the theoretical backgrounds of the participants were as broad as their national ones. The two thematic sessions where characteristic: “Semiotics in Science, Technology and Mathematics”, convened by Michael May (University of Copenhagen), bought together researchers concerned with overcoming difficulties in scientific communication that arise from differences in representational forms and modeling systems. The other session, organized by Francesco Ferretti (University of Roma Tre), addressed the classical topic of language evolution by focusing on its rootedness in embodied skill and practical action, and exploring factors that would enable transitions from praxis to representation.

Merlin Donald explains the stages of semiotic evolution
Merlin Donald explains the stages of semiotic evolution

 

The six plenary speakers were strategically chosen to represent the diverse strands of cognitive semiotics. The eminent neuropsychologist Merlin Donald (Queens University) emphasized some key aspects of his influential theory of human cognitive evolution, such as volitional access to our memories, allowing “mimetic imagination to recall and modify very specific action patterns”, which eventually coalesce into cultural structures that govern the behavior of individuals. After two million years of such bio-cultural evolution, we are fully dependent on“hybrid cognitive ecosystems”, which have recently even begun to threaten essential aspects of human individuality and intersubjectivity. Donald concluded that cognitive semiotics is uniquely suited for addressing such challenges. Søren Brier (Copenhagen Business School) was the plenary speaker who represented semiotics proper, an in particular biosemiotics. Brier was concerned with the ontology of first-person experience, and argued on the basis of his synthetic Cybersemiotics theory that the world of consciousness is just as real as the worlds of physics and culture. How exactly to interrelate these “worlds” is less obvious, and Brier spent most of the time showing that classical conceptions of science fail to do so due to their inherent reductionism.

On the second day, Raymond Tallis (University of Manchester), medical doctor, neuroscientist and philosopher – and prominent defender of humanism in the public sphere in the UK – continued the attack on scientism. Tallis’ talk was entitled “Aping mankind: Neuromania and Darwinitis and the misrepresentation of mankind”, following closely the title of his well-known book. Tallis took to task the hypertrophied versions of neuroscience and Darwinism according to which consciousness is an illusion, free-will – a sham, and any argument that there is any important difference between human beings and animals – an expression of passé humanism. Tallis’ rhetorical presentation was for some participants the highlight of the conference. Others grumbled that he may have given a correct diagnosis, but did not offer a cure. Still, by providing an antidote to prominent “neuromaniacs” such as Daniel Dennett, and anti-humanists such as John Gray (who infamously writes is Straw Dogs that “human life has no more meaning than that of a slime mould”) the work Tallis is a superb exemplification of the global relevance of cognitive semiotics.

The successful poster session generated many discussions
The successful poster session generated many discussions

 

The remaining three plenary talks were relatively more focused on particular issues, basing the argumentation on carefully chosen empirical data. Cornelia Müller (European University Viadrina Frankfurt) is well-known in cognitive linguistics and gesture studies. She detailed the transition from practical action and mimesis to co-speech gestures that are at least in part integrated with language – thus tying in nicely with Donald’s presentation, as well as the theme session on the action-language link in evolution. Empirically, Müller focused on the “Away Gesture Family”, showing how Sweeping/Holding/Brushing/Throwing (Away) gestures all “negate manually”, but differ systematically in ways that can be predicted by the meanings of the corresponding practical actions. Lorraine McCune (Rutgers University) is a prominent developmental psychologist who combines Piaget’s and Werner-Kaplan’s classical theories on the emergence of the “symbolic function” in children with more recent Dynamical Systems theory. She summarized her important work on children’s semiotic development by documenting milestones such as representational play, vocal-motor schemas and communicative grunts. In line with a cognitive semiotic approach, McCune argued that language acquisition would be impossible to explain if it were not for such pre-linguistic semiotic capacities. Finally, Mutsumi Imai (Keio University) presented a perfect closing bracket to McCune’s argument from the morning, using experimental (rather than naturalistic, as McCune) evidence, and focusing on a different set of cognitive-semiotic capacities. Well-known for her work on sound symbolism, Imai showed neuroimaging evidence that children as young as 11 months are sensitive to non-arbitrary relations between sounds and meanings, and further studies showing that perceiving such (predominantly) iconic relations may be crucial for “bootstrapping” language acquisition. At the same time, Imai provided evidence that children are simultaneously sensitive to language-specific semantic contrasts, in line with the oppositions of structuralism: “Children learn the elements (individual words) and the system in parallel and both are continuously updated”. Finally, we heard intriguing new evidence that infants (but not chimpanzees) are capable of “symmetry reasoning”, which may be a factor that promotes spontaneous mappings both between signifier to signified (in comprehension) and from signified to signifier (in production).

Six of the members of the old board of IACS, four of who were reelected. From left to right: Sonesson, Brandt, Tamariz, Tylén, Oakely, Lenninger
Six of the members of the old board of IACS, four of who were reelected. From left to right: Sonesson, Brandt, Tamariz, Tylén, Oakely, Lenninger

 

The general session talks were not as systematically grouped, though the organizers had tried to arrange these in topics (and regroup again in the last days due to last minute cancellations). Four full parallel sessions had the usual drawback of any participant missing many relevant presentations. With these reservations, I can point out a few memorable talks that I was able to attend. Alyson Eggleston (“Spatial strategy preference and language variety”) showed that linguistic influences on thought along the neo-Whorfian tradition can differ across regional varieties of Spanish. Katherine O’Doherty Jensen (“Gradient meaning constructions in everyday social interaction”) documented value-based clines in food practices (e.g. meat on the high end and cereals on the low end) which display both context and culture-specific variation and a degree of universality. Todd Oakley (“The “deonstemic” modality in legal and political discourse”) showed how certain documented uses of modal verbs do not fall clearly into either deontic modality (You must wash your hands!) or epistemic modality (This must be true!), but constitute a sort of blend of the two as when a judge states Such a tax must be unconstitutional. In suggesting an explanation in terms of interaction between lexical meanings and “the impositional powers afforded by judges” Oakley offered the phenomenon as an example of how cognitive semiotics goes beyond linguistic semantics. Aleksei Semenenko (“Homo polyglottus”) linked the current debate between “gesture-first” and “multimodal” theories of language origins to Yuri Lotman’s semiotic theory, and suggested that central concepts from the latter such as polyglottism and semiosphere could contribute to the study of human cognitive evolution.  In a session on “comparative cognition” during the last day, Tomas Persson showed that it is far from clear how to interpret chimpanzee “indicating” gestures; Joel Parthemore summed up his interpretation of cognitive semiotics, and how it can offer a novel “perspective on concepts”; Lauri Linask applied Uexküll’s Umwelt concept to human development, and following the psychologist Martha Muchow showed that the way the city is experienced differs for children and adults. Finally, Mårten Tønnessen summarized a meta-conceptual study of how the terms agent and agency are defined and used in biosemiotics, sparking a discussion on how these overlap and differ from cognitive semiotic usage.  To repeat, this summary has been highly contingent and subjective, but I believe gives an idea of the variety of topic and perspectives that were represented at the conference.

A performance of “sound painting” conducted by Bruno Faria at the conference dinner
A performance of “sound painting” conducted by Bruno Faria at the conference dinner

 

The conference also featured a rather successful poster session, in which over 20 presenters first gave one-minute oral summaries of their work in the main auditorium, which made it easier to match authors and interested participants in the two hours that followed. As with the general session, I will only mention some of the more memorable posters, to give an indication of the breadth of the topics: Pedro Atã and João Queiroz on abduction and role-playing games; Hsin-Yen Chen and I-wen Su on “grammatical metaphor” in painting; Peter Coppin on an embodied cognition approach to design, attempting to assess the differential effectiveness of pictures, diagrams and sentences; Stefano Lanzini and Jens Allwood on the interpretation of “affective epistemic states” on the basis of information from different sensory modalities; Keith Nelson on evidence that the first pictorial signs could have been “found symbols” such as rocks with shapes and patterns that were interpreted as representing iconically; Teri-Schamp-Bjerede on the use of emoticons as intensifiers and “downtoners” in on-line communication.

Apart from the purely academic side, an important aspect of establishing a field is to provide it with a stable institutional basis. In this way too the conference was a success, with a General Assembly electing a new board and new president: Todd Oakely, Professor of Cognitive Science from Case Western Reserve University, USA, as well as the venue for the Second IACS conference: Lublin, Poland, to take place in 2016, and to be chaired by Piotr Konderak, Department of Philosophy, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University. Another important non-academic aspect is that people are given the chance to interact in informal environments, and to pronounce a few toasts… The free Reception on the first evening, which gathered nearly everyone, and the Conference Dinner on the second evening, which attracted somewhat over half of the participants, fulfilled this function to a considerable extent.

Participants in a post-conference guided tour of Lund. Plenary speakers Raymond Tallis and Mutsumi Imai on the right
Participants in a post-conference guided tour of Lund. Plenary speakers Raymond Tallis and Mutsumi Imai on the right

 

Intense events such as IACS-2014 can be exhilarating, but they tend to leave a sense of anti-climax if they are not followed up with something to take stock of all the energy generated. In this case, much of this energy will hopefully be canalized in the production of a 500-page volume with the preliminary title Establishing Cognitive Semiotics, to be published by Peter Lang. All presenters at the conference, from plenary speakers to poster presenters have been invited to submit medium size papers, and after peer-review, at least 30 will be featured in this volume, for which a publishing schedule has already been established.

Let me conclude with a quote from the introduction to the Book of Abstracts:

http://konferens.ht.lu.se/fileadmin/user_upload/project/ccs/IACS_Book_of_Abstracts-6.pdf

It was written before the conference, but that may as well be used to sum up its major achievement:

In establishing this field, we have been guided by the conviction that the social, environmental, and even existential challenges that we face today require an approach that “mends the gap between science and the humanities”, and thus contributes to a unified worldview. We do not need to fool ourselves that the present conference, or the near future, will provide any definite answers to such global issues. But we can feel satisfied that we have contributed to the creation of a community where we can combine our strengths and interests in the service of a deeper and more humane understanding of our world and of ourselves, with fewer “misrepresentations”.

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