Poland’s Copernicus University to foster experimental semiotics research

Interview with Dr. Tomasz Komendzinski

Translated & edited by Mikolaj Sobocinski

Tomasz Komendzinski

I understand that you are creating an innovative pluridisciplinary centre at the Copernicus University in Torun (Poland). What is the purpose of this centre and which disciplines will it involve?

At first, it could be useful to point out some similarities between universities and hospitals. In those institutions there are numerous spheres of human activities, both theoretical and practical, that converge. In medicine it is impossible to have a doctor successfully treat a particular organ as an independent entity without a broader understanding of the whole organism and its complex dynamics. The innovativeness of our Interdisciplinary Centre for Modern Technologies (ICMT) is characterized by its open approach which will make it possible to perceive both the parts and the whole. In other words, I believe that we will be able to go beyond the narrow interdisciplinarity commonly associated with some studies to develop a broader interdisciplinarity as a means of reaching true transdisciplinarity.

The narrow interdisciplinary approach has functioned quite well within the natural sciences and within the humanities. What academics do within these modes of interdisciplinarity remains in  conformity with the model of the two cultures which was described by Charles P. Snow half a century ago (The Two Cultures 1959 and The Two Cultures and a Second Look 1963). Although such an approach seemed to benefit the empirical sciences and the humanities, this kind of interdisciplinarity has made it extremely complicated to relate in a single explanatory framework both the facts described in empirical studies and those belonging to the sphere of culture. Just as the introduction of the third culture was supposed to bridge the gap between by two cultures, our Centre will endeavour to enrich the narrow interdisciplinary approach by developing its broader equivalent to encompass both the empirical sciences and the humanities. Unfortunately, there is a natural tendency to favour quick results in the narrow approach over long-term studies conducted in the broader approach. Only when one thinks in terms of innovative projects is it possible to see advantages in the long run. I hope that ICMT is going to prove the latter approach more beneficial. Our Centre involves four major clusters: (1) academic (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and the Fine Arts); (2) medical; (3) clinical (due to the interdisciplinary nature of hospital care); and finally (4) the cognitive sciences (already in the process of building bridges between various narrow interdisciplinary studies).

Why are you creating neuro-cognitive laboratories at your Centre in Toruń?

Interdisciplinary Centre of Modern Technologies

If I were to mention particular people responsible for the shape of things to come, I would have to say a few words about Prof. Włodzisław Duch and a large group of researchers who pressed for the creation of cognitive laboratories and a proper research centre for years. Describing their efforts, however, would take me hours so let me start by saying that thanks to them we may skip the period of narrow interdisciplinarity, which was unavoidable in America (e.g., traditional computationism), when developing Polish cognitive studies. We can achieve this great leap thanks to conferences we have been organising since 2006 such as Cognitive Autumn in Torun (CAT), and to our new annual event Torun NeuroCulture Meeting (TNCM). But this preparatory stage goes even further back to 1991 when Wieslaw Mincer and I edited the international interdisciplinary journal Theoria et Historia Scientiarum which was also known as An International Journal for Interdisciplinary Studies. In 2003 we were impressed by the papers collected in Embodiment and Awareness: Perspectives from Phenomenology and Cognitive Science edited by Shaun Gallagher and Natalie Depraz  in memory of Francisco Varela. The origin of our interests should be found in the notions of embodied mind, embodied cognition, and embodiment in general, which later led to studying cognitive linguistics, and cognitive theories of metaphors. As a result we organised cognitive conferences and published Cognitive Science, Metaphor and Conceptual Blending (2001), special issues of Theoria et Historia Scientiarum like Metaphor. A multidisciplinary Approach (2002), or later Metaphor and Cogniton (2008) prepared with the help of Prof. Zdzisław Wąsik. The cornerstone for our development was marked by Embodied Mind published by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch in 1991. Eventually, such a background influenced our choice and decision to open the BIA Lab (Body Inter-Action Laboratory), which I am especially fond of. And this is only one of a few laboratories we plan for our Centre within its 4th Research Project Neuroimaging, Neuropsychology and Neurobiology of Cognitive Functions. Obviously there will be much more happening within all the other projects as well. Also if you want to learn something about our students, you will see similar cognitive interests in their journal Avant.

So,can you tell us something more about the BIA Lab (Body Inter-Action Laboratory)?

Well, the BIA Lab is becoming an integral part of the ICMT thanks to which we can meet the challenge of the third culture. We will be able to create research teams answering the needs of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary studies, where we will be able to address social issues, everyday problems, and not only some lofty academic theories. So, the ICMT, especially from the perspective of the BIA Lab as a part of the 4th Research Project, is becoming a place to merge studies by representatives coming from the two different cultures, the humanities and the natural sciences. In this manner we aim not only at being innovative in terms of our findings and discoveries but also with respect to cooperation and applied methodology. For me personally, it is going to be a testing ground for my belief in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary studies as I describe them in my latest book Enactivism: The Research Platform for Interdisciplinary Investigations and Unity of Science and Philosophy (2011) where I expound my personal understanding of the research agenda. Enactivism is represented by five investigative programs: (1) biosemiotics; (2) radical constructivism; (3) social and evolutionary robotics; (4) distributed cognition; (5) and neuro-phenomenology; at its core, enactivism holds 3Es and MC, which stand for Embodied, Extended, Embedded, and Motor Cognition. That is the basis for our future projects at the BIA Lab.

What will be the relevance of this centre for the advancement of semiotics?

That is more of a question about what we understand by semiotics and how we expect to conduct our research within semiotics. It is not only a discussion about the full-fledged methodology dealing with signs in a variety of theoretical contexts. If semiotics is to be perceived as a proper scientific domain, it must be present wherever new trends arise. Today’s semiotics handles narrow interdisciplinarity quite well, and it has managed to do so since its origins in the writings of Charles S. Peirce. I saw that clearly when preparing my doctoral dissertation The Sign and its Continuity: C. S. Peirce’s Semiotics between Perception and Reception (1996). It was already at that time that I started comparing some research tools for the semiotic study of reception. Peirce’s semiotics especially seems to be rewarding here, maybe because Ch. S. Peirce was engrossed in many distinct fields and favoured experimental studies. After all, his influence on experimental psychology makes him its founding father together with William James. It is precisely that experimental approach to semiotics and to communication as well which will enable us to realize many of Peirce’s dreams right here in our Centre, where representatives of the two cultures, the natural sciences and the humanities, will be able to meet and work together. The principle of the third culture inspires our theory and methodology with respect to embodiment, embodied mind, cognition, and enactivism as it stresses the importance of our efforts, both intellectual and institutional. As a consequence, we are confident that our Centre with its BIA Lab and other neuro-cognitive laboratories will enable us to achieve new results. Setting biosemiotics as one of the key programs within the research platform makes it possible to develop semiotics as an experimental field. You can find a similar approach to semiotics in Bruno Galantucci’s Experimental Semiotics: A New Approach for Studying Communication as a Form of Joint Action (2009). It is in this context that we endeavour to treat semiotics and communication research experimentally, using all the resources of interdisciplinarity in the broad sense. This is what we want to do in the BIA Lab – to attract researchers from many backgrounds who want to cooperate with our Centre.

Does your initiative create political problems with the other departments and with the university administration?

When talking about interdisciplinary research, transdisciplinary in particular, there are two major tendencies. The first one is to maintain the status quo concerning narrow interdisciplinarity; the second relates to the drive towards maximising profits, towards the highest possible impact factor. The basic problem in universities is the need to uphold the traditional division of the two cultures because one guarantees high impact factor while the other is seen as incapable of fulfilling such a warrant. In general, administrations do not support such innovations as they are risky and do not promise recurrence of profits. For this reason we are more than happy that our university authorities supported us from the start, which was a prerequisite for finalising such a big project like the creation of the ICMT.

How do you solve these problems? What advice could you give to others who would like to imitate your initiative at their own universities?

The golden mean seems to rest in establishing foundations for education and research simultaneously. It is necessary to bind projects with researchers, who at the same time teach students about their own work and accepted paradigms. In other words, from the very beginning, it is imperative to plan education with respect to desired research projects, and allow one’s research to influence education. In our case, these two goals relied on the positive reception of past conferences, the support of the Polish Society for Cognitive Science, and the success of the journal Cognitive Science and Media in Education, as well as the willingness to apply new knowledge (research) and employ interdisciplinary researchers (education). So on the one hand, re-shaping education, and, on the other hand, creating the environment for interdisciplinary research, seem to do the trick. These two elements may insure the success of innovative approaches; they may balance the mono-cultural nature of narrow interdisciplinary studies. Of course academic administrations always follow their own rules and needs, but it seems that integration and cooperation will eventually play a major role in securing their support.

A question about Polish education – can it answer any important needs?

Tomasz Komendzinski and his students

Education has always been important especially when introducing something innovative. Cognitive Science is only beginning its journey in Polish education and research. However, it is becoming essential due to the changes within Cognitive Science at present and what can be expected in the near future. We know much more about the human brain, subjectivity, and individuality than ever before. Education must face the rapidly developing Internet civilisation and the omnipresence of virtual reality. Communication has become such an important factor that it would be impossible not to include it in education; it must become a part of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary studies bridging semiotics and communicology. Such a belief directed me towards the International Communicology Institute and that is why I was invited to become one of its Fellows.

What kind of research will be conducted at the  ICMT? What kind of problems would you like to solve?

The ICMT will play an important role as its aim is to conduct various research projects, from theoretical developments to applied experiments. More importantly, we are not going to limit ourselves to the usual selection of sciences, e.g., physics. It seems that the ICMT will be mostly driven towards applied research in order to promote the economic development of our region. We want to repay our benefactors in Poland and the EU. Without any doubt sustainable growth will play a major role in our endeavours. When someone wishes to apply for EU funding, you see how important sustainable growth has become for conducting interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary studies. Let me mention the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development) where you will find the Centre for Educational Research & Innovation (CERI) – Brain & Learning. If you read the documents published around the CERI conference, you will find that the ICMT fits the new mainstream approach to neuro-education and neuro-science, and that its aims meet the current needs for such innovations. So, coming back to your question, it seems that the new focus rests on the flow of information, the media, virtual reality merging with the real world, and on their consequences for our identity. It is just a gist of what we are likely to do at the ICMT and in our BIA Lab. If you want to know more just visit our web page. Naturally, we will welcome proposals for cooperation from scholars and centres which share our commitment to the goals of the ICMT.


Tomasz Komendzinski is Assistant Professor in the Department of Cognitive Science and Epistemology at the Institute of Philosophy  of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun (Poland). He fosters a long-standing interest in interdisciplinary studies, cognitive science, semiotics, communication, and communicology. His research bears upon embodied mind and cognition, enactivism, and neurophenomenology. Contact: tomasz.komendzinski@umk.pl


Meeting Dr. Komendzinski.

Mikolaj Sobocinski

I first met Dr. Tomasz Komendzinski in 2005 when I asked my friends at the English department if there were any interesting discussions or seminars on semiotics in the neighbourhood. It turned out that just next door — our departments were virtually next to each other about 100 metres apart — there was this guy who encouraged reading and discussing rather than memorizing endless facts before exams. For the next two years I  spent more time at various seminars taught in the departments of philosophy and sociology than at my home Faculty of Languages. A highly qualified and dedicated staff had somehow managed to find themselves in the right place at the right time and created something magical, a real think-tank where it was possible to learn through discussions and where there was never enough homework. Every week we read publications in English, well before anyone could envisage translating them into Polish. As Tomasz and his friends stressed it: if you want to find links between philosophy and science, you and your students must be able to read and discuss the most current publications.  Knowing foreign languages was one of the key factors enabling them to pursue the dream of a vibrant and important academic centre. Besides Dr. Tomasz Komendzinski I must mention Prof. Urszula Zeglen, Dr. Krzysztof Abriszewski, Dr Aleksandra Derra, Dr Ewa Binczyk, Dr Tomasz Jarmuzek and many other PhD and MA students who attended those seminars. Every month, and sometimes even every week, there was a conference, a guest lecture, an additional seminar, etc. conducted by Polish and foreign academics. This was the heart of heated debates between biologists, neurolinguists, cognitive linguists, sociologists, philosophers and what-not. Therefore it comes to me as no surprise that in such a milieu, after many years of hard work and preparations, a new Centre for Modern Technologies is created with their support and cooperation. I applaud my friends for their efforts and achievements and wish them all the best. This time not only for the sake of our debates, but for the sake of the academic and scientific world, Nikolaus Copernicus University inTorun has become a prominent centre for both Astronomy and Modern Technology.

Mikolaj Sobocinski

Mikolaj Sobocinski graduated from Nicolaus Copernicus University writing a thesis on semiotics of film and war posters, and of press photography. He also attended courses taught by dr Tomasz Komendzinski and his friends both at the sociology and philosophy departments. At the moment he works at Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz where he finalises his studies in metropolitan discourse. His doctoral thesis on verbal proxemics will be defended in near future. His interests focus around pragmasemiotics and sociolinguistics with an inclination towards urban semiotics and urban studies conducted by his friends at the geography department. Last year he organised a panel devoted to Pro. Ron Scollon’s heritage at the International Pragmatics Association Conference, and this year he is hosting a study visit on the development and improvement of education systems in EU. Contact: mik.sobocinski<at>gmail.com


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