What is Cognitive Semiotics?

Jordan Zlatev

Cognitive Semiotics (hence, CS) can be defined as an interdisciplinary matrix of disciplines and methods, focused on the multifaceted phenomenon of meaning or as an emerging field with the ambition of “…integrating methods and theories developed in the disciplines of cognitive science with methods and theories developed in semiotics and the humanities, with the ultimate aim of providing new insights into the realm of human signification and its manifestation in cultural practices” (www.cognitivesemiotics.com). This definition could be further extended since human cognitive-semiotic specificity can only be properly understood in a comparative and evolutionary framework. Thus understood, CS cuts through and stretches across existing disciplinary divisions and configurations. For example, it is not to be seen as a branch of the overall field of semiotics, defined either in terms of “domain” (in the manner of e.g. biosemiotics, semiotics  of culture or social semiotics), or “modality” (e.g. visual semiotics, text semiotics). Not belonging to a single discipline, it is not a particular semiotics “school” (e.g. Peircean, Saussurean, Greimasian), and even less a particular theory (e.g. Existential Semiotics). Unfortunately, these are common misinterpretations of the label “cognitive semiotics”, given its instantiation of the modifier-head construction. But labels, while useful for organizing both concepts and fields of knowledge, are not essential and many de facto CS practitioners do not attach the label “cognitive semiotics” to their research.  Finally, CS is not just a new and fancier name for (traditional) cognitive science. The relationship between the two interdisciplinary matrixes is complex and deserves more attention. But in a nutshell, cognitive science has from its onset in the 1950s adopted an explicitly physicalist (computational and/or neuroscientific) take on mind, connecting to the humanities quite selectively, and above all to philosophy of mind with a distinctly reductionist bent (e.g. Dennett 1991). CS is considerably more pluralist in its ontological and methodological commitments, and thus, with a firmer foot in the humanities.

History and ongoing research

Given that semiotics is usually defined as the study of signs, or more generally meaning, and the polysemy (and current popularity) of the term “cognitive”, just about any semiotic theory – from those of Peirce and Saussure to those of Eco (1999) and Hoffmeyer (1996) – could qualify as a “cognitive semiotics”. However, in the sense outlined above, CS truly appeared only in the mid-1990s. One of the pioneers was Thomas Daddesio. In On Minds and Symbols: The Relevance of Cognitive Science for Semiotics (Daddesio 1995)  he aims to “…demonstrate both the feasibility and utility of a cognitive approach to semiosis by setting forth a cognitive theory of symbols, which I will then apply to a particularly difficult area of inquiry, the development of symbolic communication in children” (ibid: 2). In a useful historical overview, Daddesio shows how persistent attempts to “de-mentalize” notions such as sign, semiosis and meaning in the 20th Century contributed to a separation between semiotics and cognitive science. While “computation” and “information-processing” were the central concepts of the latter, there was not much to draw on for a “cognitive approach to semiosis”. But in the last two decades of the century, researchers from developmental and cognitive psychology (Bates, Bruner, Tomasello) and linguistics (Langacker, Talmy, Lakoff) turned increasingly to “experiential” notions such as schematization, (joint) attention, metaphor, and narrative. The ground was thus set for a rapprochement.

Around the same time and apparently independently, CS emerged at the Center for Semiotics (CfS) in Århus, Denmark (http://www.hum.au.dk/semiotics/). Per Aage Brandt had in a number of publications combined ideas from the “dynamic semiotics” of René Thom and from cognitive linguistics involving notions such as “construal”, “force dynamics”, “image schemas”, and “conceptual blending”. In Spaces, Domains and Meanings: Essays in Cognitive Semiotics (2004) CS is described as “a new discipline dedicated to the analysis of meaning”. The current research director of the CfS, Frederik Stjernfelt, likewise pursues a more purely “qualitative” tradition of conceptual analysis (not in the narrow linguistic sense), including interpretations of Peirce’s ideas on icons and above all diagrams, linking these to Husserl’s phenomenology (Stjernfelt 2007). At the same time, he and Peer Bundgaard apply their semiotic analyses to empirical phenomena such as aesthetics, mental imagery, animal communication, and human gestures. Svend Østergaard, Kristian Tylén and Riccardo Fusaroli are currently pursuing a “dynamical account of linguistic meaning making” combining conceptual models from dynamical systems theory and distributed cognition with corpus linguistics and experimental methodologies. Language is investigated as a coordinative activity, where symbolic patterns are aligned and negotiated to facilitate and constrain social coordination (e.g. Tylén et al. 2010; Fusaroli & Tylén in press). Such work explicitly combines ideas from linguistics, semiotics, experimental psychology and neuroscience, thereby demonstrating that CS is ongoing practice and not just a programmatic enterprise.

At the beginning of the millennium, Per Aage Brandt relocated to Case Western Reserve, where the Department of Cognitive Science was headed by Mark Turner, one of the authors of the cognitive semantic “blending theory” (Fauconnier & Turner 2002) and collaborated actively with Todd Oakley, who in From Attention to Meaning: Explorations in Semiotics, Linguistics, and Rhetoric (Oakely 2008) analyzes a wider range of phenomena than the usual “blending” analyses of standard examples such as “my surgeon is a butcher”. Perhaps the most notable fruit for CS of this collaboration was the establishment of the journal Cognitive Semiotics, which began in 2007. The volumes published so far have been devoted to topics such as agency, consciousness, and cognitive poetics, and have featured prominent authors from both the cognitive sciences and the humanities.

Another interdisciplinary group was established in 2007 at the Copenhagen Business School, with Per-Durst Andersen as research director. Søren Brier joined the group, coming from a background in ethology and cybernetics and bringing in an evolutionary and system-theoretic perspective. Brier’s Cybersemiotics: Why Information is Not Enough (2008) presents an ambitious attempt to achieve a synthesis of Peircian semiotics and second-order cybernetics, with the aspiration of unifying all domains of human knowing: from those of the physical and biological to the subjective/personal and the intersubjective/cultural. Per Durst-Andersen’s Linguistic Supertypes: A Cognitive-Semiotic Theory of Human Communication (2011) is inspired by the trichotomies of Peirce and Bühler and proposes that the grammatical meanings of any particular language tend to orient towards one of the three semiotic poles: Reality, Speaker and Hearer and thus that all languages can be characterized as belonging to one of three “linguistic supertypes”. The research of Viktor Smith, a third prominent member of the group, is considerably more “bottom up”, with studies on the semantics and pragmatics of compound expressions, interpreted under different contextual conditions and experimental settings.

The Centre for Cognitive Semiotics (CCS) at Lund University brings together researchers from semiotics, linguistics, cognitive science, and related disciplines on a common meta-theoretical platform of concepts, methods, and shared empirical data (http://project.ht.lu.se/en/ccs/). A staff of 10-15 senior and post-doctoral researchers and a larger number of affiliates coordinate their research under five interrelated themes – evolution, ontogeny, history, typology, and experimental psychology. The research director of CCS, Göran Sonesson, states: “I have been involved with phenomenological cognitive semiotics from the very start of my career without knowing it – or rather, without using the term” (Sonesson 2009: 26). Sonesson’s Pictorial Concepts (1989) can indeed be seen as a forerunner of CS in several respects. Still, CS is not based only on a meta-analysis of the results of the cognitive sciences; for it to come into its own, it should go hand in hand with them to motivate specific empirical studies. In this sense, CS research at Lund University got underway during the first years of the millennium, thanks to collaboration between Sonesson and researchers from linguistics such as the present author and cognitive scientists, such as Tomas Persson, a primatologist who applies CS concepts to the study visual perception and pictorial competence in non-human primates (Persson 2008). Mats Andrén’s (2010) PhD Thesis Children’s Gestures Between 18 and 30 Months is perhaps CCS’ most synthetic fruit so far.

While the researchers mentioned above use the term “cognitive semiotics” explicitly, the following areas of research and scholars can be seen as belong to the CS-family as well, according to the definition given earlier, as well as the characteristics in the next section.

Gesture studies

The study of gestures – involving various degrees and kinds of iconicity, indexicality, and conventionality – has from the start called for a more or less explicit semiotic analysis (cf. Kendon 2004). Efron (1941) and later Bouissac (1973) provided some early proposals for how such analyses could be made more systematic, in part through the availability of new technology for recording and analysis. During the 1980s, thanks to the concerted work of Adam Kendon (1980, 2004) and David McNeill (1992, 2005), gesture studies has emerged as a more or less independent interdisciplinary field, but as shown by Andrén (2010) is has much to gain by closer integration with CS, and vice versa.

Child development

The pioneering figures in developmental psychology clearly adopted a cognitive-semiotic approach by investigating interrelations between sensorimotor skills, imitation, imagination, and communicative signs (Piaget); or between thought, “inner speech”, and the semiotic mediation of cognition and development by socio-culturally transmitted sign systems (Vygotsky). Subsequently, however, the child’s mind was “modularized” and “nativized” and it became unfashionable to look for “domain general” capacities, stages, and transitions. Communication – language in particular – and cognition were to be kept apart and studied separately. Fortunately, the picture looks quite different today, with body, affect, and socio-cultural environment all seen as indispensible for growing minds. Colwyn Trevarthen’s long-term research and theorizing on infant and child intersubjectivity (Trevarthen 1979; Bråten and Trevarthen 2007) has been one of the key inspirations for this turn. Somewhat less concerned with empathy and more with sharing cultural meanings are developmentalists such as Jerome Bruner – whose Acts of Meaning (1990) marked a turning point for some practitioners of cognitive science – and Chris Sinha, whose Language and Representation: A Socio-Naturalistic Approach to Human Development (1988) builds on Piagetian and Vygotskyan ideas to develop an experimentally supported “pragma-semiotic” account of language development and evolution within a general theoretical approach named “epigenetic socionaturalism”.

Bio-cultural evolution

Modern concepts of evolution have moved beyond the (ex-) “modern synthesis” focused on gene selection, to consider that evolution can take place on many levels (such as groups): relaxing, if not erasing, the differences between biological and cultural evolution. Several theoreticians with a background in neuropsychology and developmental psychology have addressed the perennial question of the “descent of man” within an extended, bio-cultural perspective on evolution, often explicitly involving concepts from semiotics. An important publication in the area is Merlin Donald’s (1991) Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Human Culture, presenting an integrated bio-cultural theory of human evolution. A key idea is that a domain-general capacity for skill learning, imitation, and gestural communication lies at the roots of uniquely human cognition and semiosis: “Mimetic skills or mimesis rests on the ability to produce conscious, self-initiated, representational acts that are intentional but not linguistic” (Donald 1991: 168). Terry Deacon’s work in evolutionary anthropology relates explicitly to semiotic theory. His widely influential The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain (1997) draws on ideas from Peirce to propose that interpretative processes follow a progression of iconism (i.e. recognition), indexicality (space-time contiguity, as in the pairing of stimulus and response in classical conditioning), and most complexly – indeed, unique to our species – symbols. What Deacon exactly means by “symbols” has been a matter of much discussion.

Enactive cognitive science

In parallel with – and similar to – the rapprochement between the cognitive sciences on the one hand and “semiotics and the humanities” on the other, as outlined above, there has been a movement of integrating ideas and methods from cybernetics, theoretical biology, and phenomenology since the publication of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1991) by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. According to the broad definition involving “integrating methods and theories” offered in the introductory passage, this tradition could even be seen as falling under CS. Unfortunately there has been little interaction between these scholars and those more overtly involved in CS. Rejecting the excessive (unconscious) representationalism of standard cognitive science (i.e., cognitivism), enactivists were suspicious of any concept that sounded similar to representation, such as that of sign. Their empirical focus was on the direct experience of perception and action and on resolving the “hard problem” of consciousness – not on sign-mediated meaning. More recently, however, with the addressing of topics such as mental imagery and enculturation (Thompson 2007) as well as gesture (Gallagher 2005), it has become obvious that the classical phenomenological distinction between presentation and representation needs to be respected and theoretically addressed. From the CS side, phenomenologically oriented semioticians such as Sonesson (2011) have been making similar arguments, while focusing on the representational (e.g., pictorial) aspects of meaning. Given the mutually consistent, complementary and anti-reductionist orientations of the CS and enactive approaches, one should expect to see more interaction between them in the near future.

Characteristics of Cognitive Semiotics

On the basis of the brief review the previous section, we can discern a number of characteristics of CS research, which can serve to narrow down the broad definition of CS presented in the initial lines.

A productive combination of (semiotic) theory and empirical research

In a broad (and trivial) sense, all research is both theoretical and empirical. However, semiotic theory is particularly concerned with explicating higher-order concepts such as meaning, sign use, representation, language, intersubjectivity, etc., along with their interrelations. It is anything but trivial to bring in empirical research that both contributes to such an explication and, at the same time, benefits from it in a way that produces new insights.  It is such “mutual enlightenment” – in the words of Evan Thompson – that is the central characteristic of CS. All who have been involved in the study of phenomena such as imagination, gesture, metaphor, etc. will know that it is far from trivial to combine conceptual and empirical analyses of their nature. There is a natural pull, one could say, to treat these as meaningful phenomena and explicate their features, constituent structures, types, etc. by engaging in systematic conceptual/eidetic analysis. On the other hand, psychologists tend to rush to “operationalize” the concepts, formulate hypotheses, perform experiments, and arrive at theoretical conclusions. But the outcome has often been that behind the same terms (e.g. “imagery”, “motion”, “symbol”) very different, and often diffuse, concepts have been lurking, with resultant cross-talk both across and within disciplines. How is CS to avoid this? The answer lies in formulating concrete research programs that not only state programmatically that the “methods and theories” of the humanities and sciences need to be integrated but actually go ahead and do it. This is important enough to be listed as separate feature.

Methodological triangulation

At the heart of my own conception of CS is a kind of methodological “triangulation” (Zlatev 2009). Rather than fight wars on the proper methods for investigating the object of study, as has been done for over a century in linguistics (e.g., whether or not to use native-speaker intuitions), or define fields on the basis of their respective methods (philosophy as first-person, ethnomethodology as second-person, classical sociology and experimental psychology as third-person, etc.), the goals of methodological triangulation are (a) to acknowledge the validity of all methods within their respective domain of inquiry, (b) to acknowledge the epistemological priority of first- and second-person methods in the study of meaning (since what one wishes causally to explain must first be understood as well as possible, in order to avoid the cross-talk mentioned above), and (c) to integrate the three kinds of methods in the same project.

From the perspective of CS, the problem with the “classical” humanities has been a resolute rejection of third-person methods in the study of cultural world as, at best, limited, and at worse as “objectivist” and distorting of the phenomena. While much can be said in favor of such a critique, the steady progress of the sciences, including the study of the “mind/brain”, has given such an attitude a distinctly old-fashioned – if not reactionary – flavor. But on its side, (natural) science has tended to be myopic and dogmatic and has, unsurprisingly, hit a wall in extending the Galilean method to issues of value, meaning, norm and consciousness. It has also performed first-person and second-person methods implicitly, often without knowing it: you will not find sections on the use of intuition and empathy in the “methods” section of experimental psychology textbooks.  The challenges to success in practicing such non-reductive unification of knowledge are many – not the least institutional. CS runs the risk of being caught it the crossfire between the traditionalism of the humanities and the hubris of the sciences. But on the positive side, CS could make a contribution to “mending the gap between science and the humanities”: the subtitle of the last book of the evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould (2003).

Influence of Phenomenology

Another common aspect to most CS research is a greater or lesser degree of indebtedness to the philosophical school of phenomenology, as founded by Edmund Husserl at the beginning of the 20th century. There are multiple schools and types of phenomenology, but the basic idea is to depart from experience itself, and to provide descriptions of the phenomena of the world, including ourselves and others, as true to experience as possible – rather than constructing metaphysical doctrines, following formal procedures, or postulating invisible-to-consciousness causal mechanisms that would somehow “produce” experience.

There is continuity between the epistemological challenges of CS outlined above, and those dealt with by Husserl, leading him to develop phenomenology as a possible resolution to what he called the “crisis of European sciences”, caught between the extremes of positivism and relativism. From the standpoint of phenomenology, all meaning and knowledge is relative to a subject – or an “observer” as Humberto Maturana likes to phrase it (though not as dependent on language as assumed in his theory). However, this does not entail any form of “monadic” subjectivism for at least three reasons. First, we do not live in separate bubbles made up of “representations”, but in a meaningful lifeworld, co-constituted through our perceptions and actions. This is obvious for cultural meanings, such as those of language, but it applies also to the most basic layers of perception (e.g., of color). Second, even the most subjective experience is communicable – on the type if not token level – “to sympathetic others” (Trevarthen). Third, accepting that the structures of experience as elucidated by phenomenology are “prefigured” in the principles of life itself – as argued by Thompson and others – opens the way towards a naturalization of phenomenology without the reductionism that usually goes with that term.

Apart from an affinity in its epistemological foundations, CS has benefited from phenomenology with respect to specific topic areas: the above-mentioned distinction between presentation and representation, analyses of imagination and “picture consciousness” (Stjernfelt 2007; Sonesson 1989; 2011), analyses of the interrelations between the living body (Körper) and the lived body (Leib) (Gallagher 2005), intersubjectivity (Zlatev et al. 2008), etc. What would seem to be a natural next step is to take stock of the more dynamic “genetic” (individual) and “generative” (cultural) developments of phenomenology, including analyses of time consciousness (understood as the fundamentally temporal nature of all experience), passive synthesis (opening the door to analyses of the “unconscious”), sedimentation (i.e., of cultural knowledge), etc. That would be consistent with the otherwise strong emphasis on dynamics, prevalent enough to deserve to be listed as a characteristic of CS.


At the risk of using a notion that has reached almost fetish status during the last decades (“everything changes, nothing is static”), one can make the generalization that CS studies meaning on all levels – from perception to language, along with the various forms of “external”, cultural representations (theatre, music, pictures, film, etc.) – primarily as dynamic processes rather than static products. Though the latter can be a convenient descriptive shorthand (e.g., of the “lexicon” of a language, or the “repertoire” of gestures in a community), nearly all CS scholars have made the point that viewing meaning in purely static, structural terms is insufficient for understanding the essentially relational, subject-relative, and (often) interpretive nature of semiosis. Unsurprisingly, various formulations have been used to capture the dynamic nature of meaning: sense making (Thompson), meaning construction (Oakley), languaging (Maturana), etc. It may also be reminded that the CfS scholars used the term “dynamic semiotics” prior to adopting “cognitive semiotics”. Thompson (2007) refers to the framework that he is developing as “embodied dynamism”.

There are at least five different time scales to the dynamic semiotic processes under study: (a) microseconds in the study of the emergence of the moment-to-moment experience of meaning(-fullness) as in vision or speech; (b) seconds in the study of the production and understanding of meaningful wholes such as scenes and (oral and gestural) utterances; (c) days, months, years in the study of semiotic development in ontogenesis; (d) decades, centuries in the study of cultural-historic processes, as in language change and sociogenesis; and (e) millennia in the study of biological evolution (i.e., phylogenesis). The levels on which these processes apply are also various, from those of “subpersonal” processes in brains to conscious experience in individuals to co-constructions of meaning in dyads and groups to changes in whole populations and environments.

These are fairly standard scales and levels, not specific to CS. Perhaps what could be seen as criterial for a CS approach to any particular phenomenon (e.g., visual perception, gesture interpretation, or identity formation) is not to focus on a single time scale – or ontological level (e.g., neural, experiential, social) – but to consider several scales/levels in relation to one another (cf. Andrén 2010). In line with the point about the relational character of meaning, a basic CS tenet is that meaning is not “inside” brains, minds, groups, or communities but is a result of processes of self/other/world interaction.

Interdisciplinarity and/or transdisciplinarity

Initially, CS was defined as an “interdisciplinary matrix of (sub-parts of) disciplines and methods”. Keeping to this definition, I discussed the combination of methods and levels of analysis. So: what are the “(sub-parts of) disciplines” involved? Judging from the background of CS practitioners, one can single out (1) semiotics (whether or not it should be seen as a single discipline), (2) linguistics (approaches viewing meaning as the essence of language), (3) psychology (mostly developmental, but also cultural, cognitive, and comparative), (4) anthropology (biological and, hopefully, cultural, despite its deeply ingrained resistance to “biologism”), (5) enactive cognitive science (including neuroscientific and dynamic modeling approaches), and (6) philosophy (above all, in the phenomenological tradition).

These are almost the same list of disciplines that combined forces to define cognitive science in the 1960s. The new synthesis of CS is quite different. For one thing, the “sub-parts of disciplines” involved in CS are often viewed as antagonistic to those that participated in the synthesis of cognitive science: so one finds cognitive vs. generative linguistics, epigenesis vs. nativism, enactivism vs. cognitivism, phenomenology vs. physicalism. At the same time, such oppositional thinking – and thus opposing CS to cognitive science – is much too schematic. After all, we are participants in ongoing processes of dynamic transformations of society, technology, and attitudes towards knowledge. While cognitive science may seem much more academically established than CS in terms of societies, journals, academic departments, and educational programs, it has not evolved into a self-sufficient discipline: it remains in essence an interdisciplinary program with various constellations crystalizing as “paradigms” for a limited period of time: Varela et al. (1991) portray its brief history as passing through the stages of cognitivism, connectionism, and enactivism. With a little good will, CS could even be seen as a fourth stage.

More important for the self-definition of CS is whether it should involve a lower or higher degree of interdisciplinarity. A higher degree is often called transdisciplinarity, especially by those who see “interdisciplinarity” as  a temporary coalition between members of different fields when something of considerable complexity is addressed (e.g., the brain as studied by neuroscience or evolution as studied by sociobiology) but without seriously affecting the participant disciplines or the broader field of knowledge.  In contrast, transdisciplinarity “concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond each individual discipline. Its goal is the understanding of the present world, of which one of the imperatives is the overarching unity of knowledge” (Transdisciplinarity, Wikipedia, August 17, 2011). From such a perspective, CS is more of an emerging transdisciplinary field: meaning does not constitute a specific empirical domain but rather cuts “between and across” disciplines. What has so far lain “beyond” is a coherent approach that “mends the gap between science and the humanities”, in the words of Gould. To the extent that CS lives up to the challenge of providing a coherent worldview uniting “biology, phenomenology and the sciences of mind” (in the words of Thompson) and even offering a foundation for the systematic study of fields such as visual art and music, it would deserve the label “transdisciplinary field”.

Furthermore, a feature often seen as crucial for transdisciplinary research is “the inclusion of stakeholders in defining research objectives and strategies in order to better incorporate the diffusion of learning produced by the research. Collaboration between stakeholders is deemed essential – not merely at an academic or disciplinary collaboration level, but through active collaboration with people affected by the research and community-based stakeholders” (Transdisciplinarity, Wikipedia, August 17, 2011). It is fair to say that, so far, CS has not achieved this, though there have been encouraging first attempts: Smith’s work with producers, consumer rights advocates, and legal experts in the Fairspeak project; work in Lund with minorities such as the Roma, on issues of group identity and integration; work in Århus on multiculturalism. Areas of crucial social significance, in which CS – with its participatory approach to knowledge – should be able to involve stakeholders include atypical development (e.g., autism), sex and gender, animal rights, and religion: notably all highly “sensitive” domains characterized by polarized views. Clearly, an approach such as CS, with its promise of mending the gap, could be beneficial.

In Conclusion: Why Cognitive Semiotics?

The fact that similar ideas – and even the term “cognitive semiotics” itself – have emerged in different places over the last decades is hardly a coincidence. At some risk of exaggeration, CS can be seen as called for by historical needs, such as those suggested in this article: the need to unify or at least to “defragment” our world-views, the need to come to terms with increasingly higher levels of dynamism and complexity, the need to understand better – and thus deal with – the dialectical relationship between individual freedom (autonomy) and collective dependence (sociality), etc.

In other words, if Cognitive Semiotics did not exist, we would need to invent it. Its potential as a transdisciplinary field integrating our understanding of life, mind, language and society is considerable. Furthermore, it can help integrate the participating disciplines internally – above all psychology and linguistics, divided as they are in conflicting sub-disciplines that treat their objects of study (i.e., mind and language) in, respectively, biological, mental, and socio-cultural terms. To emphasize again: CS is not a branch, school, or theory of semiotics, the latter understood as a self-contained discipline. It can make equal use of ideas from Peirce, Saussure, Jakobson, Greimas, von Uexküll – or from anywhere else – to the extent that those ideas are productive for empirical research leading to new insights into the nature (and culture) of human beings, as well as other meaning-seeking and meaning-making beings. It could perhaps be better called “semiotic cognitive/mind science”, if the phrase were not so cumbersome and “science” not so often taken to refer solely to natural science.


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