Journal for Interdisciplinary Work in the Humanities

General Editors: Kristine Nøklestad (Oslo) and Peter Gutmann (Saarbrücken)

Issue 1
Number 4
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March 2002

Toward a Bio-Cognitive Philosophy of Language
by Alex V. Kravchenko

Breaking Away from the Old Tangle

     It will not be an exaggeration to say that modern linguistic science is in a profound theoretical and conceptual tangle. It is especially obvious in semantics as ``the theory of meaning'', where the chaos is striking (Devitt & Sterelny). It is because so far linguistics as a science has not succeeded in bringing together in an uncontradictory fashion the two concepts of language, language as a sign system for representing knowledge and language as a communicative activity. This is largely due to the methodological shortcomings of the traditional philosophy of mind based on cartesian logic with its ontological distinction between mind and body (Priest; Schlechtman; Kim).

     The mainstream cognitive science approach to intelligence is largely computational: intelligent performance is viewed as certain symbolic processes involving representations (Fodor 1975, 1998; Newell; Pylyshyn; Fuchs & Robert inter alia). These processes account for such cognitive capacities as perception, language acquisition and processing, planning, problem solving, reasoning, learning, and the acquisition, representation, and use of knowledge (Lepore & Pylyshyn). However, the concept of mental representation as used in contemporary literature is so fuzzy and elusive that its more or less consistent use unavoidably invokes one question that has to be answered prior to any productive discussion of the nature of cognition and cognitive capacities: What is a mental representation?

     In contemporary philosophical theory of knowledge by representations are understood certain mental structures including intentional categories (believe that p, wish that q) which constitute the content of linguistic (semantic) structures at the deep level. In psychology, representations are typically described as conceptual structures individuated by their contents (Margolis & Laurence) and defined in accordance with traditional methods of analytical philosophy, that is, by positing sets of necessary and sufficient conditions that have to be met.

     However, there is enough empirical evidence that refutes the very existence of rigid categories in a classical sense (Rosch 1973, 1977; Taylor; Margolis). Moreover, concepts, or knowledge structures rooted in intentional categorization, are much more complicated than what the traditional philosophical/semantic analysis claims them to be. Experimental data highlight the role experience plays in perception, categorization, and conceptualization. It has been shown that background knowledge affects categorial decisions (Palmeri & Blalock; Gelman & Bloom) and acquisition of new concepts (Nelson et al.; Matan & Carey), that meaning is specifically related to perception (Allwood & Gaerdenfors) which itself is influenced by categorization processes (Schyns; Albertazzi), and that object recognition and categorization is largely an on-going process, affected by experience of our environment (Wallis & Bülthoff).

     It has become obvious that, despite a long history of discussion (Watson), there is no way out of the philosophical dead-end within the framework of the old rationalist paradigm, since traditional analytical philosophy is incapable of providing a reasonably consistent and empirically sound unified theory of mental representations (Stich; Croft; Sandra). Attempts to re-evaluate the notion of representation without departing from the mainstream approach -- for example, by introducing the ``off-line'' computational metaphor to describe representation as opposed to presentation which is accessed in the ``on-line'' mode as it is causally or informatively, unlike representation, linked to the target (Grush) -- have not been particularly fruitful or illuminating.

     However, it is my firm belief that linguistics need not stay in this unhappy state of continuous frustration. It is not so much the methodology itself that should be held at fault, but the starting point of cartesian logic on which all modern theories of the mind are built (with one exception that will be discussed later): the mind is an independent non-physical entity reified in language which belongs to the material (physical) world. This is, essentially, where the root of all trouble lies inasmuch as ``idealization'' of the mind creates an insoluble contradiction: how can the mental (the thought) relate to the physical (the world) if they possess different ontologies and are independent of each other?

     Ryle (1949) suggested a materialist approach to the problem as a tangible solution. According to Ryle, anything that exists is material, and the mind is nothing but a totality of bodily dispositions for certain types of behaviour; in other words, the mind is described as a complex property of the body and it should be studied as such. In contemporary science this approach is known as reductionism. Thus, one could say that Ryle had anticipated the emergence of a new paradigm in the study of the mind, cognition, and language when cognitive capacities are viewed as empirical objects of study.

     The contemporary program for materialistic study of language has been outlined in (Devitt & Sterelny). The basic tenets of this philosophy are as follows:

(i) philosophical knowledge is not a priori, it is broadly empirical in character;

(ii) physical objects and physical processes are all that exists;

(iii) people are part of the natural world, so our theory of language must be physicalist.

     As the core issue in linguistic science is the problem of meaning, it follows that a realistic theory of meaning must be naturalist both empirically and metaphysically.

The Metaphysical Approach

     As far as language ontology is concerned, the situation in contemporary linguistic science is rather curious. On the one hand, the term ``natural'' as applied to human language is a commonplace label routinely used in linguistic and philosophical literature. On the other hand, it is hardly possible to cite an example of a single work where language has been consistently treated as a natural (empirical) object. Understandably, there is a good reason for that as such an approach would imply taking a metaphysical stand, that is, it would demand that we look at language as a whole rather than as an assortment of different functional (in the narrow linguistic sense of the term) features treated in the domains of syntax, semantics, or pragmatics.

     A holistic approach to language is impossible without a coherent philosophical conception of language as an empirical phenomenon. However, the empirical essence of language eludes a clear-cut definition because of its twofold nature mentioned above. As a result, the ideal project of linguistics as a science remains, basically, unspecified: what is the ultimate goal linguistic science sets out to achieve that, in fact, makes linguistics a science?

     If one emphasizes the symbolic aspect of language as a system of signs used to process knowledge, then the focus of attention shifts to the study of intrasystemic relationships between different types of signs and structures for representing knowledge (whatever they may be), with inevitable controversies about the nature and character of categories, concepts, representations, etc. Meaning in this case is understood as information (cf. Fodor 1998; Levine & Bickhard), with linguistic structures as its vehicle. Hence, the theory of meaning developed within this framework is heavily burdened with logical formalizations aimed at providing an explicit well-defined theoretical (as opposed to empirical) model of semantics governed by sets of rules which, according to Chomsky (1965), ultimately consitute the so-called I-language as a biologically based feature of the brain (Jenkins).

     If, to the contrary, one emphasizes the interactional features of language as a joint activity (Clark) which consist of the continuous making of linguistic choices from a wide and unstable range of variable possibilities in a manner which is not rule-governed, but driven by highly flexible principles and strategies, it is only natural to ask how communication in this case can still be possible (Verschueren), particularly, if one subscribes to the claim that meaning of a linguistic sign in this case is nothing but its use (Keller). It is, therefore, only appropriate to point out, as Dirven & Verspoor (1998, 14) do, that ``a more comprehensive view of language as a system of signs must also include the human ``conceptualizer'' and the world as it is experienced by him''.

     When we say that natural language is used to generate, store, process, and transfer information, we implicitly refer to the two existential properties of language: (i) language as an activity (exchange of information by operations on linguistic signs), and (ii) language as a product (a sign system empirically acquired and expanded in the course of this activity). Yet, one important aspect of such characterization has not been given the attention it deserves, mainly, the mutually causal relationship between the two. Hence, the first metaphysical tenet I propose:

     (1) Language is a sign system used to generate linguistic entities which constitute a sign system.

     It does look like the very vicious circle from which traditional linguistic (and philosophical, for that matter) thought has been unable to break. But if we approach the issue holistically, accepting the two realities of language as an empirically unanalyzable unity, a different picture of language emerges when it is seen as a circularly organized system.

     If we now remember that language as a system does not exist autonomously in some kind of virtual reality independent of its users, but is a kind of human organisms' behavioural activity that makes humans so radically different from all other living organisms as far as intelligence goes, then the next step a conscientious linguist must take is to admit that language has a biological function. When we understand what biological function language serves, we will find ourselves very close to understanding what language actually is. Here I propose the second metaphysical tenet:

     (2) The function of language as a sign system is to accumulate and store humans' categorized experience (knowledge) of the world. The meaning of linguistic signs is experiential in nature since it emerges from an organism's interactions with the environment.

     Language is a product of our interaction with the world around us (Heine 1997), but at the same time it is also a part of this world, just as humans are a part of it. The experiential nature of language (and, by the same token, of linguistic signs) as an empirically verified and experientially proved fact casts serious doubts on some dominating theoretical paradigms in linguistics, especially that of generativism as an organizing principle in what has been known in the Chomskyan and post-Chomskyan era as ``linguistic competence''. As empirically oriented research data show, human language comprehension and production works with representations of concrete past language experiences, rather than with abstract grammatical rules. It means that the knowledge of a speaker/hearer cannot be understood as a grammar, but as a statistical ensemble of language experiences that changes slightly every time a new utterance is processed (Bod). It has been shown experimentally that at least some grammatical and lexical meanings, as well as functional properties of certain structures at the corresponding levels, are acquired experientially (Tomasello & Brooks; Tomasello).

     An experiential approach to language raises the issue of linguistic experience and its constitutive parts, as well as the issue of relationship between the linguistic experience of an individual and the linguistic experience of a society. It is worthy of note that at least some contemporary philosophers admit that experience is of paramount importance for the understanding of the mind and consciousness, which is nothing apart from experience (Priest). This leads us to the next tenet:

     (3) As all our experiences, ultimately, are derived from perception, a scientific study of language is impossible without the study of perceptual processes.

     Actually, this maxim has long since become a triviality in cognitively oriented linguistic research. Such concepts as ``observer'', ``perceiver'', ``experiencer'', ``perceptual space'', ``personal space'', etc. are routinely used in the analyses of many grammatical phenomena. The observer has become an indispensable analytical tool in modern linguistics, acquiring the status of a systemic factor (Kravchenko).

     One remarkable coincidence should be noted here. Just as linguistics is witnessing the emergence and development of a new approach to language which takes as its starting premise the experiential nature of language, cognitive science, especially its branch concerned with the study of perception and organisms' perceptive capacities, is also approaching a turning point marked by Leyton's (1999) proposals for new foundations for perception. Arguing that current approaches to defining and investigating perception are founded on ideas that necessarily prevent these approaches from discovering the basic regularities governing the perceptual system, he develops a substantially different approach based on an assumption that perception, fundamentally, is a form of memory which is defined as ``a physical object that is in the present of some observer and that has features that the observer causally explains''. Thus, the foundation of the new theory of perception turns out to be empirically grounded in experience as the one and only reliable criterion in determining causal relations between entities.

     The idea itself that causality and perception have a common ontology is not new and has long been an object of discussion in philosophy (Grice; Strawson; Goldman; Pendlebury inter alia). However, it plays an important role in conceiving of language as a specific cognitive domain.

     To assume that the aforementioned coincidence, when two seemingly different branches of science converge on a generally shared basic principle relevant for the formulation of their respective theoretical foundations, is merely chance play, would be to ignore the obvious -- that scientific thought has come to a point when any further productive theorizing forces the researcher into a metaphysical stance in his attempt to grasp the very essence of being. With regard to humans, language and perception as two overlapping cognitive domains form the essential core of being which can be defined as a cognitive activity whose ultimate goal is adaptation to the environment. As Maturana (1988) puts it, ``we human beings happen in language, and we happen in language as the kind of living systems we are''. So, the fourth metaphysical tenet is:

     (4) The function of language as an activity is to adapt to the environment to ensure optimal conditions for humans' survival and reproduction.

     The proposed four tenets characterize, in a most general way, the direction taken by the turn-of-the-century linguistics as a cognitively oriented science. Within the linguistic community, a feeling is steadily growing that working out a new philosophy of language should become the primary issue on today's cognitive science agenda. This new philosophy should be called upon to resolve the entangled problem of the mind, language, and cognition, and their relation to one another.

     And here is the intriguing part: such philosophy already exists. It has been in the making for a good 30 years, but is hardly mentioned at all in the broad philosophical and linguistic literature dealing with the problem. It is known as autopoiesis, or a new epistemology (ostensibly non-cartesian and non-computational).

Linguistics and Autopoiesis

     The new epistemology is founded on a biological concept of cognition and language (Maturana 1970, 1978; Maturana & Varela) which differs essentially from the conventional representational paradigms (whether cognitivist or connectionist or both). Whereas for the majority of students of the mind the notion of cognition is tied to the idea of knowledge as processed information stored in mental structures accessible for identification and analysis via language as a representational (denotational) sign system (Bickerton; Dennett), in Maturana's theory cognition is not a means to acquire knowledge of an objective reality but serves the active organism in its adaptation to its experiential world. Information in this framework is understood as being constructed and co-dependent rather than instructional and referential (Murphy), it is viewed as the capacity of certain physical entities of presenting alternative configurations and consequently of exerting different actions in regard to other components or the whole system (Moreno, Merelo & Etxeberria).

     The clear and indisputable advantage of the biological approach to cognition and language is that it offers an escape from the vicious circle by proposing a vitalistic (and hence, intrinsically reductionist) explanation of an organism as a living system with a circular organization. Circularity is viewed as a specifying property of living systems which are described as autopoietic systems. Accordingly, language is defined as a domain of cognitive communicative activity (operations on signs) in the course of which signs are created that sustain this activity.

     It is, therefore, not surprising that circular organization as a specifying feature of a living system finds manifestation in language. It becomes strikingly obvious in semantics as the study of meaning of linguistic signs: all attempts to provide a hierarchically organized linear system of relationships among signs that would explicitly and sufficiently demarcate their meanings have invariably turned futile, incapable of resolving the so-called Frege's puzzle (Salmon; Taschek). The distinction between the sense and the meaning of a sign (which, in turn, stems from the distinction between language as a sign system and language as an activity), though useful for specific analytical purposes, cannot help understand the way language works.

     The crucial difference between the traditional and autopoietic views of language is that the latter assumes its connotational rather than denotational nature. As Maturana (1978) points out,

denotation is not a primitive operation, it requires agreement consensus for the specification of the denotant and the denoted. If denotation is not a primitive operation, it cannot be a primitive linguistic operation, either. Language must arise as a result of something else that does not require denotation for its establishment, but that gives rise to language with all its implications as a trivial necessary result. This fundamental process is ontogenetic structural coupling which results in the establishment of a consensual domain. [...] Linguistic behavior is behavior in a consensual domain.
     Correspondingly, the key notion of representation proposed by Maturana is also radically different from the traditional one. Representations are relative neuronal activities characterizing the state of an organism's nervous system as a structure-determined system; because of this, the sequence of changing relations of relative neuronal activity (description) that appears to the observer as determining a given behaviour, is not determined by any functional or semantic value that the observer may ascribe to such a behaviour but is necessarily determined by the structure of the nervous system at the moment at which the behaviour is enacted. It follows that adequate behaviour is necessarily only the result of a structural matching between organism (dynamic system) and medium. This conclusion gives the entire philosophical discussion about the nature of mental representations a genuinely scientific (naturalist) angle and is a giant step toward understanding consciousness and cognitive (mental) processes.

     The notion of consensual domain in which linguistic behaviour (languaging) takes place, is a pivoting point in understanding the ontological origins of language as it allows to see its basic biological function: languaging is aimed at controlling an organism's environment by modifying other organisms' behaviour. Since representation, meaning, and description are notions that apply only and exclusively to the operation of living systems in a consensual domain, the entire problem of meaning takes a new perspective, calling for a revised dialectics of knowledge.

     Meaning in autopoiesis is not something that exists ``out there'' waiting to be discovered, identified, and ``harvested'' -- an undertaking that different semantic theories developed within traditional analytical philosophy have notably failed to do. Instead, to quote Varela (1992, 14),

living beings and their worlds of meaning stand in relation to each other through mutual specification or co-determination. Thus what we describe as significant environmental regularities are not external features that have been internalized as the dominant representationalist tradition in cognitive science [...] assumes. Environmental regularities are the result of a conjoint history, a congruence which unfolds from a long history of co-determination.
     The core tenet of autopoiesis is as follows: ``Everything said is said by an observer to another observer who can be himself or herself''. It means that every utterance, in virtue of being a sign, requires interpretation based on interpreter's (= observer's) experience in general, and on experience of linguistic signs, in particular. Since languaging is a circular interpretative process in the course of which a human organism tries to maximize the effects of its action in the environmental niche it occupies in order to better adapt to the environment, any empirical entity capable of producing enactive effects is viewed as a meaningful entity, and the circle of interpretation includes both linguistic and non-linguistic entities (signs) whose ontologies are different, but which epistemologically stand to one another in a relation of mutual causality. This means that in the course of knowledge acquisition as a life process, cognitive processing (interpretation) of linguistic signs as elements of a communicative description of representations of enactions depends on interpretation of enactions themselves.

     However, any representation presupposes categorization in the sense that, being a closed structurally determined autonomous system characterized by continuous self-production, the nervous system is a network of productions (and disintegrations) of components that: (a) recursively participate through their interactions in the realization of the network of productions (and disintegrations) of components that produce them; and (b) by realizing their boundaries, constitute this network of productions (and disintegrations) of components as a unity in the space they specify and in which they exist (Maturana 1978, 36). Put in plain words, relative neuronal activity is constitutive of categorization (individuation) processes which are largely determined by interpretation as a kind of interaction with communicative (orientational) representations. Therefore, in case of languaging as a cognitive domain, it is appropriate to speak of interpretation of interpretation.

     The notion of consensual domain is also a very powerful analytical tool in working out an empirically sound theory of semiotic whose foundations were laid out by Peirce (1960). The famous Peircean trinity of icon, index, and symbol has been somewhat misinterpreted in semiotic literature as a hierarchical system, which Peirce never claimed it to be: rather, they stand to one another in a relationship of degree to which each of them possesses indexical properties. Since indexicality is, to use autopoietic terminology, a consensual property by definition, it only stands to reason that ``the concept of sign must be disentangled from its trivial identification with the idea of coded equivalence and identity'' (Eco, 1).

     If we focus on meaning as a cognitive phenomenon, the meaning of 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 (Allwood & Gaerdenfors), that is, the meaning of a sign is specified and co-determined in the course of interactions in a consensual domain. In other words, an entity becomes a sign by acquiring significance which emerges as the result of such cognitive interactions. Consequently, just as a word which itself is a physical entity, can be a sign of another entity, any physical entity can be a sign of a word. Circularity and mutual causation as specifying properties of a living human organism result in the semiotic multiplication of the world. The reality of these multiple worlds is something that modern theories of meaning should take into account.


     As I have tried to argue, the direction in which today's cognitive linguistics (and, by extension, cognitive science) is going was set out by the founders of the biological theory of cognition -- autopoiesis. However, this theory has not received the full attention it deserves as it is built on epistemological foundations different from those shared by mainstream cognitive science. Yet trends and developments in the turn-of-the-century empirically oriented research unambiguously indicate that cognitive science is in the process of working out a more comprehensive picture of language and cognition which is essentially metaphysical. A new philosophy of language is emerging, a bio-cognitive philosophy that treats language as adaptive functional activity based on an organism's experience of the environment (the world) to which the organism stands in a relation of mutual causality. This philosophy defies the current approach to cognition as a kind of computation.  


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Prof. Alex V. Kravchenko teaches at the Language Centre of the Economics Academy in Irkutsk, Russia.
This page is maintained by Peter Gutmann.
Last modified: 20. March 2002.