Conference Report: Cognitive Semiotics (IACS2, June 2016)

By Jamin Pelkey.

Jamin Pelkey
Goran Sonesson (Lund University) is one of the prime movers of the Cognitive Semiotics agenda.

Can Semiotics progress? Anyone too eager to answer “yes” to this question might do well to pause for a moment of reflection: What conditions would be necessary to warrant this response? Presumably these conditions would be no different than those required for progress in any domain of inquiry—i.e., the willingness and ability of pracitioners to frame authentic questions and to find suitable methods for better answering those questions. This mandate is being taken seriously by the community of inquirers known as “cognitive semiotics”. In gestation for more than a decade prior to 2013, the movement is now developing with momentum—an evaluation that is demonstrated by the successful completion of the 2nd Conference of the International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS2), hosted by Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland from June 20–22, 2016. 

Cognitive semiotics is the transdisciplinary study of “meaning, mind and communication” (Zlatev et al. 2016). Cognitive semioticians belong to a community of inquirers who recognize the necessity of a radical, ongoing interdependence between the conceptual and the empirical (2016: 2). In addition to practicing mixed-methodologies, using critically-reflexive modalities, and affirming the role of phenomenology, the movement also recognizes the processual—or evolutionary—nature of meaning (2016: 3). Practically speaking, the society is intent on contributing to the ongoing reconciliation of the natural and human sciences, while being careful to avoid the skewing of biases toward cherished ideologies or agendas held by either camp. In the words of Jordan Zlatev, Göran Sonesson and Piotr Konderak (three of the community’s most active members), “this is to be done through mutual respect and methodological understanding, rather than either a reductionist takeover from the side of natural science, or a postmodernist relativism from the side of the liberal arts” (2016: 1). At the level of interdisciplinary scholarship, the IACS intends to nurture a new generation within cognitive science—one in which meaning is placed center-stage (Sonesson 2009).

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Image 1. Conference participants pose with Maria Curie-Sklodowska prior to a group excursion (photo by Andrzej Łukasik)

The first IACS conference was not an easy act to follow. Hosted in September 2014 in the heart of the association’s Scandanavian birthplace, Lund University, Sweden, IACS1 ensured that the movement was launched with much energy, rigor and diversity. Whether or not these levels would be sustained two years later, outside of the Nordic sphere, remained to be seen. Now, in the wake of IACS2, we can safely conclude that positive predictions on both counts (the temporal and the spatial) would have been good wagers. The association continues to excite lively research questions, connections, conversations and debate—even at a two-year remove—between scholars around the world.

IACS2 featured a total of 90 scholarly research contributions (plenaries, papers and posters), with the Book of Abstracts listing 135 authors from 24 countries and four continents. This included six plenary lecturers, 125 authors of paper presentations and four authors of poster presentations. While 19% of this total were Nordic scholars (Denmark=12, Sweden=11, Finland=2), scholars from Poland carried the day with 29% (n=39) of the total contributors at the conference. Other countries with four contributors or more include the United States (n=9), Germany (n=7), Brazil (n=6), the United Kingdom (n=6), Estonia (n=5) and Italy (n=4). Belgium, Canada, Columbia, Lithuania, and Russia fielded three each. China, France and Ukraine each sponsored a pair; and single-scholar countries included Austria, Croatia, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands and Serbia.

Hosted by a team of faculty members led by Piotr Konderak (including Piotr Giza, Marcin Krawczyk, Monika Malmon and Krzysztof Rojek) from Maria Curie-Sklodowska University (UMCS), IACS2 was held on the UMCS campus in a nicely organized block of two closely connected buildings. Lectures and presentations flowed seamlessly between rooms on three contiguous floors in a single wing of the Building of the Faculty of Philosophy and Sociology. The Faculty of Humanities building next door hosted conference participants daily with what I can only describe as “gourmet” lunches (simply delicious as my table mates each day agreed); and while some wished that coffee breaks could have been held in an area with more elbow room, even this was no obstacle to good conversation between sessions. The conference committee organizers and host organization are to be applauded once again (with a standing ovation) for their careful attention to detail and thoughtful planning for the event.

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Image 2. Göran Sonesson chairs Stjernfelts plenary session in the main conference hall, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland (photo by Jamin Pelkey)

The committee’s plenary lecture selection targeted a wide array of backgrounds—ranging from Evolutionary Biology and Cognitive Linguistics to Anthropology, Neuroscience and the Theatre Arts. This created a virtual smorgasbord of ideas for the conference collective to draw on and interact with. The lecturers themselves included a characteristically high-profile group of scholars, listed here in chronological order of presentation: Eva Jablonka (Tel Aviv University), Bruce McConachie (University of Pittsburgh), Simon Kirby (University of Edinburgh), Frederik Stjernfelt (Aalborg University), Esther Pascual (Zhejiang University) and Terrence Deacon (University of California, Berkeley). The IACS2 organizing committee had originally invited Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, whom I and others were keen to interact with in-person; but unforeseen circumstances made it necessary for her to cancel prior to the conference. Her work is of critical relevance to cognitive semiotics so hopefully she will be available to serve as a plenary speaker at IACS3 in 2018. Though this was unlucky, the plenary speakers who were in attendance did not disappoint.

The first three plenaries formed their own dialogic set—each proposing major theses on the evolution of language in need of further testing, correction, development and synthesis. Jablonka’s address, entitled “Language, imagination, and the evolution of autobiographical memory”, placed imagination center-stage, arguing (via evidence from child language development) that the enhanced narrative skills underlying autobiographical memory develop via natural and social selection toward more sophisticated linguistic practices for purposes of enhancing the avoidance of memory distortion.

Though he also drew implicit attention to the imagination, McConachie’s lecture, more directly highlighted alloparenting and the evolution of empathy as inciting factors in language evolution. These factors required more and more complex improvisations of act and interpretation (between parent and alloparent). This led, in turn, to more and more complex modes of communication. Entitled “Improvising communication in Pleistocene performances”, the talk became a touchstone during the conference—partly due, no doubt, to the masterful storytelling abilities of the lecturer himself.

The Kirby plenary, in turn, was entitled “The evolution of linguistic structure: where learning, culture and biology meet”. Kirby took “iterated learning” as his focus—a process by which the sign user moves from holistic to compositional modes of communication. He and his research team have been able to replicate the emergence of highly structured patterns using iterated learning in baboons and computers. Of the three talks, it is arguable that Kirby’s plenary came closest to conflating language with performance and compositionality.

Stjernfelt, a longtime insider to the cognitive semiotics movement, presented a lecture entitled “Propositions and Cognition”, exploring the concept of dicisigns. According to Peirce (1903: EP2.292) a dicisign is “a sign which is understood to represent its object in respect to actual existence”. Propositions are prominently classified under this rubric. As Stjernfelt emphasized with many rich illustrations, the discussion of propositions is much more fruitfully undertaken in a broader cognitive semiotic framework than within more restrictive frames such as analytic philosophy and symbolic logic. The talk also served as a synopsis of select themes drawn from Stjernfelt’s recent book entitled Natural Propositions (Docent Press, 2014).

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Image 3. Frederik Stjernfelt opens his plenary lecture on “Propositions and Cognition”, June 21, 2016 (photo by Andrzej Łukasik, lighting adjusted)

Pascual’s plenary, “The conversational nature of language: From cognition and grammar to expert communication and language pathology” returned to the fundamental nature and origins of language to highlight “fictive interaction” as a core concept. In this mode, ordinary conversations become means for the structured co-construction and conceptualization of reality. Pascual finds evidence of this principle at work across languages and domains of interaction.

Finally, the Deacon address, entitled “The Semiotic Basis of Universal Grammar”, moved from a lighthearted discussion of “Lawnchair Larry” to a mindbending proposal of “five major semiotic constraints contributing to universal grammar”. The “engineering logic” of the former proved to be out of sync with broader realities, and this nearly resulted in catastrophe. Semiotic constraints, by contrast feature a kind of “organic logic” that is biologically sensitive. Deacon’s plenary was fitly chosen as the closing lecture since he moved beyond the presentation of a complex hypothesis to an explicit invitation, or mandate, for further development.  

In spite of the broad palette of their respective disciplinary backgrounds, then, most plenary speakers managed to weave their talks around the topic of language evolution—broadly conceived. The Stjernfelt and Pascual plenaries were perhaps the most obliquely related to this topic, but even in these talks the theme can be identified. This is a trend worth noting—and not only due to the “hotness” of the topic. The evolution of language is presently a matter of intense interest within the association; and language-oriented researchers are the most prominent demographic. A full session of individual papers identified language evolution as a unifying theme, and other sessions saw similar discussions. During the session that notably included Przemysław Żywiczyński and Sławomir Wacewicz’s “Pantomime in language evolution”, for instance (a paper which became a touchstone for discussion even among several plenary speakers who followed), a groundbreaking study by Anu Vastenius, Jordan Zlatev and Joost Van de Weijer was also being presented in a parallel session. This latter paper, entitled “Constituent order in pictorial representations of events is influenced by language”, explored new evidence for the evolution of word order and the role of linguistic relativity.  

Such trends are by no means to be discouraged; but their high prominence (and our all-too-human weakness for the fashionable) could unintentionally overshadow other aspects of “meaning, mind and communication” that cognitive semiotics might also showcase. Whether or not the attraction of what is trending is an inevitability or a dynamic to consider more carefully in planning future conferences—perhaps at least in planning plenaries—is a puzzle I am happy to leave to the IACS leadership. Keeping in mind, on the other hand, that “the study of meaning cannot be restricted to a single semiotic resource” (Zlatev et al. 2016: 13), it is important to note the wide variety of paper topics featured in the individual sessions during the conference, many of which ranged far beyond the origins and nature of both linguistic competence and linguistic performance.

Studies of multimodal meaning construal among individual papers ranged from haptic facial recognition (Devon Schiller) and left-right image orientation (Piero Polidoro) to Shamanic drums in Sami identity (Hee Sook Lee-Niinioja) and crosslinguistic metaphors drawing on sweetness as a source domain (Marco Bagli). Among the many paper sessions I had the pleasure of attending, several were also multimodally complex. Fabian Bross’ paper “The origin of the headshake” explored an elegent series of possibilities rooted in both phylogeny and ontogeny to account for this global phenomenon. Daniella Aguiar, Pedro Ata and Joao Queiroz’s paper “Niche explorers: a situated account of creativity in dance and literature” drew attention to the relevance of external artifacts for the construction of niche environements that produce new affordances and constriants for the emergence of creativity. The paper highlighted ballet theatre construction in different historical periods for a detailed case study. Alin Olteaunu’s paper “Towards a (bio-)semiotics of sexuality” called for further dialogue on the neglected topic of embodied cognition and human sexuality. Peter Coppin’s paper “‘Artifact evolution’ of the axiomatic method from a ‘primordial soup of pictures’” explored the importance of considering the full developmental history and purpose of formal modeling systems prior to assuming pictoral representations would be more useful for complex modeling. Donna West’s paper “Seeing the Unseeable: Abductions as Creative Firstnesses” explored the productive nature of phenomena such as daydreams and children at play, both of which C. S. Peirce identified as “creative hallucinations”.

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Image 4. Conference participants frequented the John Benjamin’s book table between sessions (photo by Andrzej Łukasik)

Two pre-organized theme sessions, entitled “Peircean Cognitive Semiotics” and “Blending Multimodal Inputs”, were scheduled back-to-back on the first day of the conference. The former, organized by Francesco Bellucci, Marta Caravà and Claudia Cristalli, provided a series of papers focused on the argument that Peirce’s approach to signs is the most compatible framework for the study of cognition. The latter, organized by Rafał Augustyn, Agnieszka Mierzwińska-Hajnos, Joanna Jabłońska-Hood, Ewelina Prażmo and Agnieszka Libura showcased recent research on conceptual blending, making the argument that inquiry into multimodality and multimodal cognition would benefit from stronger integration with conceptual blending theory. Both of these sessions echoed topics that were also explored by other thematic sessions as identified post-hoc by the conference planning committee. In other words, both topics spanned multiple sessions, as did papers addressing findings in experimental semiotics and others in embodied phenomenology. The vigorous research activity in these domains—i.e., Peircean modeling, conceptual blending theory, experimental semiotics and embodied meaning—suggest that diverse perspectives are indeed alive and well in the association.

Among the many other important papers presented during the conference, let me briefly point to at least five others as exemplars of cognitive semiotics’ robust potential in another domain: i.e., the reconciliation and integration of diverse strands of inquiry via clarification of relationships that already hold between them. Papers in this vein ranged from treatments of enactivist cognitive science and cognitive linguistics to hermeneutic phenomenology, history and translation theory. Marta Caravà, for instance, in her paper “A Semiotic Turn in Cognitive Science?” admirably bridged what some might presume to be the most prominent conceptual divide between the enactivist tradition and the various cognitivist movements: i.e., the issue of representation. Others studies such as Kseniya Leontyeva (in her paper “Enactivism, Cognitive Semiotics and Translation Studies”) also brought cognitive semiotics into dialogue with the enactivists to fruitful ends.

Similarly, in her paper “The role of the imagination in semiosis”, Barbara Fultner provided a helpful overview and synthesis of specific themes shared between cognitive semiotics and ideas from multiple hermeneutic philosophers and phenomenologists. Göran Sonesson’s paper “Semiosis in history. The emergence of Alter-Culture”, in turn, developed ideas from Merlin Donald  to shed new light on the cognitive semiotics of social and cultural dynamics that mark the evolution of human understanding in history, with reference to the enlightenment era as a case study. Finally, let me mention Jordan Zlatev’s paper “Embodied intersubjectivity and cognitive linguistics”, which provided a compressed demonstration of ways in which cognitive linguistics needs cognitive semiotics in order to progress. The paper highlighted five structures of embodied intersubjectivity and expanded on the nature of metaphor as the sedimentation of intercorporeal constructions, in which implicit dimensions of the meaningful experiences these afford necessarily involve a distinct awareness of the perspectives of others. In my view, papers like these point to the potency and relevance of the movement for showing the way not only in semiotics but also in established academic disciplines in the 21st century and beyond.

Since the cognitive semiotics movement has no pretenses toward utopian ideals and is by definition open to self-criticism, a few potentially heavy concerns are also worth noting (and re-noting) lest they work against the association’s best intentions in years to come. Without nitpicking or becoming too specific, let me call into question the drive apparently shared by many to find single-answer solutions to vastly complex problems of cognitive and cultural evolution across time and space. This itself is a culturally inherited trait that works against basic principles of cognitive semiotics. I like to call it the “one-ring” fallacy—with reference to the ill-begotten quest for the “one ring to rule them all” in Tolkien’s mythic trilogy. Similarly, we may also point to other entrenched, venerable ideologies, that have a tendency to go critically unexamined, whether they be appeals to “Platonic Forms” or “Peircean Doctrines” (both of which were seriously touted by high profile speakers during the conference).

Next let me note a question that continued to surface during the conference—primarily in dialogue with invited plenary presentations and in conversation with Peter Coppin, my colleague from Toronto. Simply put, the question is “why human beings?” While this is not a new question within cognitive semiotics proper; it is remarkable how often the question is neglected by those who are working at the movement’s margins. What is it about the human person, for instance that enables us to discover “semiotic constraints” in infancy? (following a proposal put forward by Deacon). If Kirby’s iterative learning hypothesis can be replicated by baboons and computers, and if alloparenting (favored by McConachie) is also found in non-human species, what is it about human beings and their specific, embodied evolutionary situation that makes the difference between what a generally signifying animal and a specifically semiotic animal (cf. Deely 2010) is able to do with these resources? Naturally, the question is more conveniently defered than entertained. As Kirby explains, for example, humans have an endogenous reward mechanism—a desire to copy—that other species lack. And yet the question remains: why human beings? If this is so, what then is the evolutionary source of this desire that humanity uniquely inherits (and/or inhabits)? The fact that this question is already a stubborn focal point within cognitive semiotics proper is further evidence of the movement’s critical awareness.

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Image 5. A group of conference participants gather in the town square of Kazimierz Dolny on a tour stop prior to the conference banquet (photo by Andrzej Łukasik)

Whatever the case, as long as critical-reflexive dialogue is the norm and ongoing inqury is the priority in this group, moving beyond limiting perspectives will be collegial and can even be enjoyable. Indeed, an attitude of open exchange, friendly debate and fallible realism marked group dynamics throughout both IACS1 and IACS2. On no occasion during the 2016 event was this better exemplified than in the conference banquet and excursion mid-week. The conference organizing team planned this event in ways that would make the evening both vividly memorable and thoroughly meaningful for all who opted in.

We boarded a bus as a group late Tuesday afternoon (June 21) to travel to the medieval town of Kazimierz Dolny, founded in the 11th century. There we were met by a double-decker river boat for a leisurely, conversational cruise along the Vistula River. Afterwards, as hunger set in, we took a tour of the village along cobblestone pathways before wending our way together up the hillside to rest in the ruins of a castle courtyard that had been inhabited from the 14–16th  centuries. There in the light of the setting sun we enjoyed a spread of traditional Polish cuisine and drink fit for kings. After dark, a troupe of fire jugglers appeared to make the spell complete. The event was aptly titled: “Midsummer at the Castle”.

During the business meeting on the final day of the conference, Todd Oakley was re-elected IACS president for a second term. Other officers-elect include Hannah Little, Piotr Konderak, Esther Pascual, Monica Tamariz, Kristian Tylén and Jordan Zlatev. The next IACS Conference is currently scheduled for 2018, to be hosted in the United States by IACS President, Todd Oakley, at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.

With this in mind, and in anticipation of a resolution in time for IACS3 in 2018, let me address in closing what I personally perceive to be a “monograph orientation gap”. By this I mean to point out the need for an organizing monograph to better marshal the movement—a namesake volume that can not only be cited and consulted but also interacted with and developed for the advance of cognitive semiotics. The book would not only expand and update the pioneering efforts of Per Aage Brandt (2004) in this regard but would also serve as a touchstone for orientation, a manual for consultation and a cornerstone for further building in the coming decades. Such a volume would provide, in a single resource, a much needed overview of historical relations, a more in-depth summary of the movement’s distinctive values and approach, as well as detailed proposals of research agendas or major questions in need of further inquiry. Of course, this is a tall order; and few would be up to the task. Fortunately, though, it is a project Zlatev (see e.g., 2011, 2015) has already begun—the completion of which I and many others await with much anticipation.

Until then, let me spotlight what Zlatev, Sonesson and Konderak have already produced in this regard. They have done us all the immense favour of editing the first book-length publication of collected inquiry into cognitive semiotics. The volume is being published by Peter Lang in Fall 2016 and is entitled Meaning, Mind and Communication: Explorations in Cognitive Semiotics—a monumental landmark collection that is certain to be more than ample—both for providing ongoing momentum and for holding things together between now and 2018. As editors of the collection, the three have opted to limit their own chapter contributions to the introductory chapter itself, which is subtitled “cognitive semiotics comes of age”. The chapter provides a masterful statement-in-miniature of the movement’s trajectory and commitments, followed by an richly interwoven summary of the 24 collected chapters that remain. All together the collections rings with a resounding “yes”: yes, semiotics can progress.

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Image 6.  Overlooking the Vistula River from the Kazimierz Dolny castle ruins prior to the conference banquet on June 21, 2016 (photo by Andrzej Łukasik)

Bouissac’s (2000) argument for the progress of semiotics, referenced above, holds that semiotic inquiry must maintain an open, speculative approach that refuses to yield to desiccating dogmas of all stripes; but he insists, at the same time, that semiotic inquiry is in need of specified research agendas. This makes for a distinct tension—a tension that could be summed up as “deliberately open yet openly deliberate”. This approach is arguably needed for progress in many fields; but perhaps its full flowering can only happen when questions of meaning are extensively entertained—i.e., only to the degree that the disciplines are willing to integrate seriously with semiotic inquiry. In fact, as Sonesson has pointed out, what we are presently calling “cognitive semiotics” is in effect “semiotic cognitive science” (Sonesson 2009: 38). In other words, the movement affiliated with the IACS is currently intent on nurturing the next generation of cognitive science. If all continues to go well, and this new generation becomes established, semiotic inquiry will move center stage. Then the study of meaning will itself come of age.

References

Bouissac, Paul. 2000. Can Semiotics Progress? The American Journal of Semiotics 15/16.1, 7–26.

Brandt, Per Aage. 2004. Spaces, domains and meanings. Essays in cognitive semiotics. Bern: Peter Lang.

Deely, John. 2010. Semiotic animal: A postmodern definition of “human being” transcending patriarchy and feminism. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press.

Peirce, Charles S. 1903[1998]. Syllabus: Nomenclature and Division of Triadic Relations, as far as they are determined. In Peirce Edition Project (eds.), The Essential Peirce: Vol. 2, 1893 –1913, 289–299. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (cited as EP2)

 

Sonesson, Göran. 2009. Here comes the semiotic species: Reflections on the semiotic turn in the cognitive sciences. In Brady Wagoner (ed.), Symbolic Transformation: The Mind in Movement Through Culture and Society. London: Routledge.

Zlatev, Jordan. 2011. What is cognitive semiotics? SemiotiX 6.1. Online: http://www.semioticon.com/semiotix/2011/10/what-is-cognitive-semiotics/

Zlatev, Jordan. 2015. Cognitive semiotics. In Peter Pericles Trifonas (ed.), International Handbook of Semiotics, 1043-1067. Berlin: Springer.

Zlatev, Jordan, Göran Sonesson and Piotr Konderak. 2016. Introduction: Cognitive semiotics comes of age. In Jordan Zlatev, Göran Sonesson and Piotr Konderak (eds.), Meaning, Mind and Communication: Explorations in Cognitive Semiotics. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

 

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