By Alexander V. Kravchenko


The problem with language as a symbolic system

In mainstream linguistics and cognitive science language is viewed as a symbolic system a set of abstract forms that somehow relate to aspects of the world which exists independently as ‘external reality’. On such an approach, the problem of meaning as the core problem in cognitive science becomes insoluble because of the so-called ‘symbol-grounding’ problem (Harnad 1990), when abstract symbols (particularly, graphic artifacts) are identified with signs of natural language, which are acoustic-auditory phenomena integrated in dynamically complex behavior and which, just for this reason, are never abstract. The belief that languages resemble a fixed code sustains the language myth (Harris 1981) – the doctrine that languages consist in sets of determinate forms used to ʻsendʼ messages from sender to receiver. This claim is institutionalized both in orthodox linguistics and education systems. It gives rise to the publicly shared illusion that language is a tool for the transfer of thought. Thus, counter to Vygotsky’s (1987) profound insights, language and thought become manipulable things ontologically independent of each other. However, we cannot coherently identify a realm of non-linguistic thoughts or ideas that language, according to the orthodox view, encodes (cf. Love 2004) for the obvious reason succinctly formulated by Heidegger (1978: 217): “Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells”. 

The dualistic picture of language drawn by orthodox linguistics impedes progress in the study of human linguistic behavior (languaging) as something that makes homo sapiens so uniquely special. It overlooks the obvious: language is inseparable from our biology and the praxis of living; it is what makes us what we are – humans. By contrast with the orthodox view which separates identification of form from identification of meaning and posits that forms enact (denotative) functions, emphasis should be laid on the necessity to view signs, meaning, and knowledge as intrinsically interdependent and codetermined (Kravchenko 2003a): science depends on knowledge which is the product of humans as a biological species and can be traced to its biosocial functions that lie in relational dynamics. And the human relational dynamics pivot on languaging (cf. Kravchenko 2012): as long as these dynamics have not been identified, one cannot fulfill the purpose of scientific enquiry.


Despite the scale and scope of ongoing linguistic research, the nature of our ability to language together and its role in the evolution of our species (cf. Deacon 1997) have not been adequately understood or explained by linguists. Linguistics continues to live by the myths it created (Kravchenko 2003a), and common-sense reasoning about language, done in the very same language, is often taken for scientific explanation. From the very start linguistics has been fatally attracted to structuralism, supplanting explanation by description or its formalization and failing to see “the true mother discipline of the study of mind, behavior and diversity – biology” (Givón 2009: xviii). By adopting the structuralist maxim of synchronicity and viewing language as an autonomous system of signs devoid of any previous history, orthodox linguistics overlooks the fact that, evolutionarily, language as a functional behavioral feature of humans has an emergent architecture which cannot be understood outside the domain of biological organization: “This requires conceiving of basic linguistic units as differentiated end-products of a cognitive process rather than as fundamental atoms of analysis” (Deacon 2005: 274). Traditional ‘linguistic analysis’ is not an analysis of language as the product of spontaneous self-organizing interactions; the term is just a misnomer (Kravchenko 2015).

The biology of language (Maturana 1978) offers a renewed epistemology needed to get rid of the ‘dark specter’ of structuralism and come closer to understanding the nature of language as biologically grounded and socially constrained behavior in a consensual domain.


From symbolic system to languaging

Following the semiotic tradition of Peirce enhanced by Deacon’s research on the nature of symbolic meaning, and building on Maturana’s biology of cognition (Kravchenko 2011), it may be claimed that natural linguistic signs (verbal patterns) are intrinsically indexical; they are grounded in the flux of experiential phenomena constitutive of the first-order consensual domain.

Peirce’s famous triad of icon, index, and symbol has been somewhat misinterpreted in linguistic semiotics as a rigid hierarchical system of sign vehicles, when linguistic signs, such as words, are defined as symbolic, indexical, or iconic. However, Peirce’s approach was based on how a sign vehicle was to be interpreted in a particular instance of its use. As pointed out by Deacon (2011), the symbolic function of linguistic signs is made possible by their groundedness in indexical reference.

Positing the indexical nature of linguistic signs is tantamount to questioning their inherent symbolism as the one and only decisive factor in understanding how language works and how it is related to mind which has been the trademark of mainstream cognitive science in general, and generative linguistics in particular, where intelligent performance is viewed as certain symbolic processes involving representations (Fodor 1975; Pylyshyn 1999). The signifying function of linguistic signs does not arise from their direct relation to the external world; it arises from human experience as the basis of knowledge. Language cannot be context-free, and every contextualization is unique. For a child learning language, linguistic structures (vocalizations) function, first and foremost, as icons and indices ensuring perceptual groundedness of language as orientational activity in a consensual domain of interlocked conducts. This groundedness allows us to use verbal patterns as elements of the first-order consensual domain without the consensual domain, whereby a domain of language is established as a manner of operating in consensual coordinations of consensual coordinations of behavior, or languaging: “Linguistic behavior is behavior in a consensual domain” (Maturana 1978).

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In more familiar terms, a ʻconsensual domainʼ may be described as an experientially shared physical and social context in which interactions occur. The concept of consensual domain is important in understanding the biology of cognition and the cognitive nature of linguistic behavior grounded in interactional behavioral patterns (interactions with other observers). As a key concept, consensual domain is very close to the ecological perspective on language, when linguistic interactions that define and sustain the cognitive niche of human society as a living system are viewed as a crucial ecological factor affecting human evolution (Ross 2007; Hodges 2007; Steffensen 2011; Kravchenko 2016a, inter alia).

Languaging is behavior in a second-order consensual domain because utterances, being grounded in first-person experience, orient each of the linguistically interacting individuals with respect to their first-order consensual domains. In this, they help establish common ground for understanding by referring to similar individual experiences. As a kind of biological (adaptive) behavior predetermined by an organism’s history of fine structural coupling with its niche, languaging cannot be interpreted other than within the context of the organism-environment system (Järvilehto 1998). Meaning is not an autonomous thing; it is the relationship between an organism and its environment, determined by the value which particular aspects of the environment hold for that organism (Zlatev 2003); as such, meaning is an ecological phenomenon

All nervous systems support iconic and indexical reference as a meaning-making process of interaction with the environment. However, organisms with a nervous system cannot go beyond their limited realm of first-order consensual domain; to do so requires language as interactional behavior in a second-order consensual domain not limited by the here-and-now of the physical context of communicative interactions. This freedom – as it appears to an observer – from the here-and-now of the cognitive niche is a distinctive property of symbols as coordinations of coordinations of behavior. The symbolic function of linguistic signs, viewed as arbitrary couplings of form and meaning in orthodox linguistics, is an emergent property. It arises with the establishment of language as behavior in a second-order consensual domain in which elements of the first-order consensual domain (linguistic signs perceptually grounded in the physical context – icons and indices) are used without the consensual domain. Since indexicality is a consensual property by definition, the concept of sign approached from this perspective leaves no room for the idea of coded equivalence as unmediated correspondence, making the ʻfixed codeʼ doctrine void (Kravchenko 2007a). This has important didactic implications for foreign/second language ‘acquisition’ theories based on the code model of language: ignoring the experiential nature of linguistic meaning which emerges in orientational interactions between organism-environment systems in a consensual domain, these theories overlook the role of mother tongue as embodied interactional behavior that grounds ‘acquisition’ of another language at a later time, making the didactic practices informed by these theories largely inefficient (Kravchenko 2017; Kravchenko, Payunena 2018).

Building on the approach that emphasizes interactional dynamics, the biology of language assumes its connotational, rather than denotational, nature. The concept of consensual domain, in which languaging takes place, allows us to view the function of language as that of modifying an organism’s environment by modifying other organisms’ behavior via consensual coordinations of consensual coordinations of behavior. Since representation, meaning, description and other similar concepts apply only and exclusively to the operation of living systems in the consensual domain of observers living in language, the entire problem of meaning takes on a new perspective, calling for a revised dialectics of knowledge. Meaning is not something ʻout thereʼ waiting to be discovered, identified, and ʻharvestedʼ – an undertaking that semantic theories developed within analytic philosophy have notably failed to do. Instead, “living beings and their worlds of meaning stand in relation to each other through mutual specification or co-determination” (Varela 1992: 14).

As a cognitive phenomenon, the meaning of linguistic sign cannot be defined other than a certain associative potential which is, basically, a person’s memory of the previous uses of a particular sign. The meaning of a sign is specified and co-determined in the course of interactions in a consensual domain. An entity becomes a sign by acquiring value which emerges as the result of such cognitive interactions. Consequently, just as a word (linguistic sign), which itself is a physical entity, can be a sign of another entity, any physical entity can be a (nonlinguistic) sign of a word. Circularity and reciprocal causality as specifying properties of a human organism result in the semiotic multiplication of the world (Kravchenko 2003b). The reality of these multiple worlds is something that modern theories of knowledge should take into account.


Linguistic interactions as relational phenomena

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The intrinsically dualistic assumption that there is, in fact, a phenomenon called ʻlanguageʼ which is ontologically independent of the phenomenon called ʻmindʼ, marks cognitivism as the mainstream science of mind. However, mind cannot be understood without and outside of language as a manner of operating in consensual coordinations of consensual coordinations of behavior. The concept of mind, along with the concepts of consciousness, thinking, and intentionality “correspond to distinctions that we make of different aspects of our relational dynamics in our operation as human beings, and as such they do not take place in our bodies, nor are they functions localizable in our brains” (Maturana, Mpodozis & Letellier 1995: 24).

As separable entities, living systems are distinguished by an observer in his observational domain, which is not the physical space of molecules, but the space of entities perceived as unities of interactions. Depending on how these entities maintain their identity, their boundaries may be definable – not in terms of the physical space (the here-and-now of the observer) – but in terms of the evolving relational domain. Linguistic interactions are relational phenomena; because a human organism is a structure determined system, what happens in language also becomes, as part of the relational domain, part of the domain of transformation of the human nervous system, giving rise to what appears as mind/body mutual modulations. Thus, language is neither in the individual heads, nor ʻout thereʼ, in external reality; it is radically distributed in space-time (Cowley 2011a), enabling the human society to sustain its unity as a living system.

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When it comes to humans as a biological species, the evolutionary function of language may be seen in supporting the epigenetic mechanism responsible for the evolution of hominids into homo sapiens (Deacon 2009), while ontogenetically its biological function may be seen in constraining the cognitive development of an organism in the organism-environment system. For humans, such a system is constituted by individuals and the relational domain of language; in the biology of cognition, it is a third-order living system (community/society), as compared to first- and second-order systems with lower levels of organization (e.g., single cell organisms and higher organisms with a nervous system). Taking an ecological perspective, we may speak of linguistic changes as changes in the environment induced by individual organisms which, by return, begin to be influenced by these changes. This takes us to the challenging issue of relationship between language and mind, if ‘minded cognition’ is what distinguishes human mental capacities from mindless cognition of non-human organisms (cf. Kravchenko 2007b; 2009).

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The distributed language view focuses on language as a key aspect of dialogical activity distributed over different time scales. In the non-objectivist paradigm, the ‘object’ of communication is not a referential state of things in external reality, but the co-ordination of actions between interacting cognitive agents; hence, other-orientation, contexts, interaction, and semiotic mediation become key concepts (Linell 2009). Language activity is tightly constrained by both our sensitivity to circumstances and our skills in using many second-order cultural constructs (Cowley 2007). Since communities as third-order living systems increasingly depend on texts in their organization, the rise of writing leads to the emergence of a new ecology (cf. Bang et al. 2007; Kravchenko 2015b).

A third-order living system is sustained as a unity of interactions through the relational domain of linguistic behavior. In such a system, human individuals, each in their specific physical environment, establish their consensual domains of interactions with others. Since these include linguistic interactions, interactional events create a relational domain which surpasses the physical boundaries of any given individual’s environmental niche. The linguistic

behavior of a third-order living system exploits a relational domain that depends on uninterrupted space-time continuity. Conversely, when links between individuals in the domains of communicative interactions are severed for an extended period of time, the community ceases to exist as a unity: one living system disintegrates into two or more smaller systems. Human history provides many examples of such disintegration. In standard terms, this leads to the emergence of dialects which may later become new languages with associated communities/cultures/nations.


New agenda for the language sciences

Enacting intersubjective behavior, our contextualizing bodies prompt us to vocalize, engage with others and, eventually, act in line with constraints that are perceived as verbal patterns (Cowley 2004). In this context, becoming human should be viewed as a developmental process in the course of which we learn – not to ʻacquireʼ language as a tool for expressing thoughts about external reality allegedly ʻrepresented to the mindʼ – but to take a language stance when we learn to act in our human world (Cowley 2011b). Language is, at once, collective, individual and constitutive of the feeling of thinking.

As a relational domain of interactions, language is where we happen as humans. Human cognitive abilities that set them apart from all other species emerge in the process of development of the system components (infants) into fully functional agents capable of purposefulness and free will. While the whole systemic behavior of human society depends on the cognitive properties of the components themselves, these cognitive properties emerge in the domain of languaging (the dynamic relations between components) as systemic behavior of human society.

Maturana’s concept of languaging as a domain of consensual coordinations of consensually coordinated interactions allows the language sciences to depart from the outdated, unproductive view of language as a code. Instead, emphasis should be laid on how the relational dynamics of linguistic interactions trigger changes in the dynamics of the nervous system and the organism as a whole, and how their reciprocal causality is distinguished and described by the languaging observer in terms of mind, intelligence, reason, and self-consciousness. This calls for a radical revision of the agenda for the language sciences; because the human mind is a linguistic mind in that it emerges and develops in language as a manner of living it creates, the instrumental view of language should be abandoned as inadequate, and a new framework for the cognitive study of language worked out. Such a framework should be able to provide an account of language as biologically, ecologically, and socially constrained interactional behavior in the course of which intelligence emerges.



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Alexander Kravchenko

Prof. Alexander Kravchenko is currently affiliated with Irkutsk State University (ISU). He received his Ph.D. in English Linguistics from St-Petersburg State University in 1987 and his Ph.D. Habilitat from the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1995. He has authored 7 monographs, including Sign, Meaning, Knowledge (Peter Lang, 2003) and Biology of Cognition and Linguistic Analysis (Peter Lang, 2008), and edited 6 volumes, including Cognitive Dynamics in Linguistic Interactions (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012). In 1993-94, as a participant in the Regional Scholars Exchange Program, he did research at the University of Oregon, and in 2010-11, as a Fulbright Fellow, at the University of California, Berkeley. 

His research interests include biology of cognition, biology and ecology of language, cognitive semiotics, non-Cartesian cognitive grammar, and applied cognitive linguistics with an emphasis on TEFL. Over the past decade he has been trying to draw the attention of linguists in Russia to the harmful effects of the ideology of  structuralism on the well-being of society, arguing for a necessity to radically transform language sciences, bringing them closer to real life and the human praxis of living in language. 

Links to some of Alexander Kravchenko’s works

On the implicit observer in grammar: Aspect. In L. M. Liashchova (ed.). The Explicit and the Implicit in Language and Speech. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018. P. 12–34. 

Making sense of languaging as a consensual domain of interactions: Didactic implications. Intellectica, 2(68), 2017. P. 175-191. 

Education: a value lost? (with M. Payunena). In A. Dudziak, J. Orzechowska (red.), Język i tekst w ujęciu strukturalnym i funkcjonalnym. Olsztyn: Centrum Badań Europy Wschodniej Uniwersytetu Warmińsko-Mazurskiego w Olsztynie, 2017.  P. 239—246.

Constructivism and the epistemological trap of language. Constructivist Foundations, 12(1), 2016. 110—112.  

Language as human ecology: a new agenda for linguistic education. New Ideas in Psychology, 42, 2016. 14—20. DOI: 10.1016/j.newideapsych.2015.05.02.  

Two views on language ecology and ecolinguistics. Language Sciences, 54, 2016. 102—113.    

What is happening to Russian? Linguistic change as an ecological process (with S. Boiko). Russian Journal of Communication, 6(3), 2014. P. 232—245. 

What’s in a presidential address from the point of view of the biology of cognition? Russian Journal of Communication, 5(3), 2013. 286—288.

The semantics vs. pragmatics debate in the context of the orientational function of language. In A. Kiklewicz (red.), Język poza granicami języka II. Semantyka a pragmatyka: spór o pierwszeństwo. Uniwersytet Warminsko-Mazurski w Olsztyne,  2011. 11-23. 

How Humberto Maturana’s biology of cognition can revive the language sciences. Constructivist Foundations 6(3), 2011. 352-362.


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