Dealing with Difference: From cognition to semiotic cognition
Barend van Heusden. Department of Arts, Culture, and Media Studies,
of Groningen, The . Netherlands
BIOSEMIOTICS vs. ANTHROPOSEMIOTICS
Cognitive Semiotics, Issue 4 (Spring 2009), pp. 116–132
I have clipped what I consider to be some interesting parts of a very powerful article on the nature of thought:
In this paper, it will be argued that semiotic cognition can be conceived as a distinctive form of cognition, which evolved out of earlier forms of non-semiotic cognition. Semiotic cognition depends on the use of signs and it will be shown that a sign is not a ‘thing’, but rather the name given to a specific organization, or structure, of the cognitive process. Once semiotic cognition was available to humans, its structure may have provided the ground for an evolutionary development that was no longer strictly Darwinian, but followed its own semiotic logic. Semiotic cognition confronts humans with a difference that cannot be eliminated, and it is in the ways in which this difference is dealt with that we may discover a logic of cultural evolution that determines the course of long term cultural change. (p116)
If we want to explain this absence of meaning and with it the emergence of a specifically human sense of reality, of time, space, and self, we have to assume that human cognition is based upon a very peculiar system of representation (or ‘pattern matching’) which allows us to process what is seen and heard at the same time, both in terms of stable patterns and of global, concrete and necessarily ‘fuzzy’ patterns. This double processing generates a difference between the stable pattern, which corresponds to what we have called memory, on the one hand, and an instable, always changing pattern corresponding to what one could name the ‘here and now’ or the ‘present’, on the other hand. In a conscious human mind the two patterns never merge completely. (p122)
[Difference] may have freed humans from immediacy, from the continuous ‘now’ in which most, if not all, other organisms live and it probably enabled us to deal with our environment independently of what is simply ‘the case’ in fantasy, myths, religion, technology, the arts and sciences, philosophy. These worlds that we construct in our imagination allow us to cope with change in a more sophisticated way than other organisms do. It does not take long to figure out the profit. What distinguishes human cognition and culture from that of other organisms is not meaning, but the absence of meaning. (p123)
If the assumption put forward here is correct we may investigate further in two directions. ‘Backward’, in order to try to find out and explain how such a double processing could have come about in the evolution of hominids, which is the subject of evolutionary psychology. And ‘forward,’ to find out if and how the peculiar structure of human cognition may have influenced the evolution of human culture. Let us first try to go ‘backward’, finding out about the possible evolutionary development of the human capacity for double processing. It is highly probable that this development made use of the strong lateralization of the human brain. I do not want to suggest that lateralization caused human culture, but what I do suspect is that a lateralization, which was already present (and which is related in primates to handedness*), allowed for the double processing, in terms of stable and changing patterns, of visual and acoustic information in animals with full stereoscopic vision, resulting in a 100% identity of the visual input in the two hemispheres. The coordinating process required a substantial enlargement of the equally present ‘comparator’ or ‘cockpit’, according to the term coined by Elkhonon Goldberg. (p123)
The double processing of the stream of incoming information results in a combination of two types of patterns: stable structures, on the one hand (which we can now identify as ‘schemata’, ‘scripts’, ‘concepts’, ‘structures’, or ‘signs’) and a changing situation, on the other hand (identified as ‘reality’, ‘substance’, ‘object’, ‘the thing itself’, etc.). Memories can now be stored and worked upon independently of the actual situation. Evidently, the most could be made of this development if the set of available memories were considerable. Both factors (a large set of memories and a strong comparator) required brain space. This could be that ‘compelling reason’ why the human brain got so large between 2 and 1.5 million years ago and why the costs of such a large brain were worth paying. (p124)
The stable pattern (memory) is related to a changing pattern (an occurrence). It is this activity of relating that turns the stable patterns into signs, which are used to recognize (to give form to, to interpret, to signify) that other more floating set of patterns constituting actuality. The here and now of the situation, in turn, is what is not a sign. It is ‘reality’, ‘the world’, ‘the object’. Although we immediately admit that this too is a construction based on memories. But the difference between the two is not a construction of our memory, and that is crucial. Thus cognition becomes intentional or semiotic. (p124-5)
The first step in the evolution of culture, as we have seen, must have been that of the doubling of the information processing system: basically the doubling of the representation of perception. (p126)
Semiotic mimetic actions are fundamentally different from imitations, as imitation involves the copying of behaviour, whereas mimesis comes with a new way of representing behaviour, namely without actually performing it (cf. Donald 1991, 2006). Through mimesis, the stable memories, or signs, are acted out and become audible and visible.*
*This corresponds to Piaget’s (1962) notion of “representative imitation”, which according to him emerges out of sensory-motor imitation, via deferred imitation (cf. Zlatev 2007).
Human culture is the process in which more or less stable memories are used to deal with the difference that the world forces upon us. (p127)
recursionsemiotic recursionreflexivity, meta-representation or meta-cognition
the process as such is again remembered
cognition that became free, at least to a certain extent, of the laws of biology by addingthe semiotic
* Lassègue (2007) develops a related ‘alternative’ view (to neo-Darwinism, that is), strongly oriented towards the work of Ernst Cassirer. See also Wolfgang Wildgen’s (2003) work on the evolution of human language.
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