Human Lifeworlds

The Cognitive Semiotics of Cultural Evolution

by David Dunér (Volume editor) Göran Sonesson (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 402 Pages


This book, which presents a cognitive-semiotic theory of cultural evolution, including that taking place in historical time, analyses various cognitive-semiotic artefacts and abilities. It claims that what makes human beings human is fundamentally the semiotic and cultural skills by means of which they endow their Lifeworld with meaning. The properties that have made human beings special among animals living in the terrestrial biosphere do not derive entirely from their biological-genetic evolution, but also stem from their interaction with the environment, in its culturally interpreted form, the Lifeworld. This, in turn, becomes possible thanks to the human ability to learn from other thinking beings, and to transfer experiences, knowledge, meaning, and perspectives to new generations.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Göran Sonesson & David Dunér - Introduction : The Cognitive Semiotics of Cultural Evolution
  • Göran Sonesson - Chapter One : Lifeworlds: The Cognitive Semiotics of Culture
  • Jordan Zlatev - Chapter Two : Mimesis: The Role of Bodily Mimesis for the Evolution of Human Culture and Language
  • Gerd Carling - Chapter Three : Language: The Role of Culture and Environment in Proto-Vocabularies
  • Sara Lenninger - Chapter Four : Pictures: Perceptions of Realism in the Service of Communication
  • Michael Ranta - Chapter Five : Art: On the Evolutionary Foundations of Art and Aesthetics
  • Anna Cabak Rédei & Michael Ranta - Chapter Six : Narrativity: Individual and Collective Aspects of Storytelling
  • Andreas Nordlander - Chapter Seven : Religion: The Semiotics of the Axial Age
  • Göran Sonesson & Gunnar Sandin - Chapter Eight : Urbanity: The City as the Specifically Human Niche
  • David Dunér - Chapter Nine : Science: The Structure of Scientific Evolutions
  • David Dunér & Göran Sonesson - Chapter Ten : Encounters: The Discovery of the Unknown
  • Göran Sonesson - Epilogue : Cultural Evolution: Human History as the Continuation of Evolution by (Partially) Other Means
  • References
  • Index of Subjects
  • Index of Names
  • Authors

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Göran Sonesson & David Dunér


The Cognitive Semiotics of Cultural Evolution

Until only a few centuries ago, most people, scientists and scholars alike, took it for granted that human beings were special, and in no way to be compared to (other) animals, and if they were asked about why they had this conviction, they most probably would have pointed to the Bible or some other holy script. Early Enlightenment (dated by Jonathan Israel (2001) to the middle of the seventeenth century) sustained, and Charles Darwin finally brought home, the idea that the culture and history of human beings are very much connected to the evolution of all animal species on earth. This certitude, once recognised, has prompted a series of endeavours, the most recent of which is Mainstream Evolutionary Psychology (also known as Socio-biology), to reduce the history of humanity to just another ethogram of an animal species staking out its life in its more or less unvarying niche. Nevertheless, such undertakings do not obviate the necessity of finding out why human beings alone have created a culture that is inherited over numerous generations, and thus a history. Viewed from an extra-terrestrial position, the observation that human history has occasioned numerous, and far-reaching, changes of habitat may not appear too remarkable. However, already the fact that human beings have been able to write down the history of all these changes (and, before that was possible, no doubt reflected on it and, by oral means, gave these reflections in heritage to later generations) should be sufficient to make us special, even from such an otherworldly perspective.

Perhaps nobody has been more acutely aware of the contradiction between the evolutionary point of view, and that of the common sense world, than Darwin, but, unlike his contemporary Herbert Spencer, and unlike latter-day evolutionary psychology, he never found an easy way out. If, as we have suggested above, human behaviour, including human cultural production, is different from that of other animals (which is not to deny that there are intermediary cases, notably in case of the apes) in being a kind of ← 7 | 8 → behaviour always already offered to the interpretation of others, semiotics, as the general study of how meaning is conveyed, and in particular cultural semiotics, which focuses on the meaning of cultures in their relationship to other cultures, may help us bridge the space between evolution and history. But, unlike classical semiotics, cognitive science has, on one hand, accepted the relevance of empirical findings, and, on the other hand, allowed for philosophical reflections on those results. Much of the time, however, these reflections have been too much tainted by the original chock, sustained two centuries ago, that human beings were, after all, just another kind of animal. To take into account the mutual interdependence of evolution and culture, the continuity between evolution and history, and the way in which the latter is special, all of which helps in defining human beings, we need to have recourse to cognitive semiotics, which is a synthesis of theories of meaning production and approaches to the embodied mind.

1. History and Definition of Cognitive Semiotics

According to one current definition (see Sonesson 2007a, b, 2009; Zlatev 2012, 2015), cognitive semiotics is the attempt to bring together the theories, methods, and findings of the cognitive sciences and of semiotics, as well of more traditional human and social sciences, into one integrative framework. As applied to history, cognitive semiotics rests on the supposition that people in history, as well as at present, use abilities which have evolved through millions of years of cognitive-semiotic evolution. However, it must also be supposed (following Donald 1991) that there are other abilities, other cognitive means, which are the product of history itself. A cognitive-semiotic analysis of the historical records is needed in order to fill in the gap between the Palaeolithic and the “(post)modern” human being, which can give us an understanding of the evolution of the human cognition, particularly of the impact of cultural change on cognition. The semiotics of culture, which is devoted to the study of transactions between cultures, taking its origin from the Moscow-Tartu school of semiotics particularly associated with the work of Yuri Lotman, although it also has deeper roots in phenomenology, as we shall see (in Chapter 1: Lifeworlds), can serve as an instrument for taking a cognitive-semiotic approach to history and evolution. ← 8 | 9 →

Cognitive semiotics can be conceived as an extension of classical semiotics, which differ from the latter methodologically, in making use of experiments and other empirical approaches more commonly associated with the social sciences, as well as theoretically, at least in the double sense of taking not only structures into account, but also the modes of access of the subject to these structures, and in considering semiotic properties in relation to other mental properties as they emerge in evolution and development. It can also be considered as an extension of cognitive science, in that it takes issues of meaning to occupy centre stage in cognitive processes, and that it indulges in the study of differences and similarities between the diverse cognitive resources by means of which cognition is manifested. Finally, it can be seen as an extension of linguistics to other semiotic resources, as classical semiotics was meant to be, but was unable to bring to fruition, because it was often conceived on the model of the kind of autonomous language study preconised by the followers of Noam Chomsky as well as those of Ferdinand de Saussure. From the contemporary point of view, it could perhaps more precisely be considered an extension of cognitive linguistics, which, in its references to Gestalt psychology and (implicitly) to phenomenology, is already on the way to cognitive semiotics. In this latter sense, the extension should not only be understood as an inclusion of other semiotic resources than language, but also as the integration of language and other semiotic resources into the complete socio-cultural Lifeworld in which human beings stake out their life.

Customarily, the cognitive sciences are said to comprise linguistics, computer science, cognitive anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy. The field was strongly influenced at its inception in the mid-twentieth century by formalist theories in linguistics and Artificial Intelligence. Indeed, in its early phase, it was heavily dependent on the computer metaphor of the human mind. It has since then gone through several distinct phases, of which the most recent one, joining trends in the philosophy of mind, have meant an influx of approaches derived from Husserlean phenomenology, as in the work of Shaun Gallagher (2005a), Evan Thompson (2007), and Dan Zahavi (2014), and from Gibsonean ecological psychology, as is most evident in the work of Anthony Chemero (2009). This latter approach clearly overlaps in many ways with what we here call cognitive semiotics. Additionally, we have inherited a number of constructs from more mainstream cognitive sciences, such as folk psychology, embodiment, ← 9 | 10 → situated cognition, distributed cognition, and so on. Although we are going to suggest that these constructs have a prehistory in phenomenology and Neo-Kantianism (see Section 1.1.3), their return to the scholarly scene, and the ensuing debate, has no doubt been useful.

Semiotics, by contrast, has commonly sought to unify the classical disciplines of the humanities under the umbrella of theories building on a tradition dating back to the reflections on signs and meanings in Greek Antiquity, which were pursued within the numerous treatises of signs popular with Scholastic philosophers, then being taken up again in Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment theories of signs and other meanings, as well as in the Neo-Kantian and phenomenological movements of the early twentieth century, finally to find its current most well-known manifestations in the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, as well as in the Saussurean structuralist tradition originally only present within linguistics, which then spread, through French structuralism, to all of the humanities as well as some other disciplines.

The merit of the semiotic approach is the emphasis it places on the artefacts that are the result, as well as the objects forming the basis of, human meaning-making, or semiosis. Cognitive science offers the advantages of a basis in experimental methods, as well as a perspective in which the artefacts of interest to semiotics are situated within a wider context of human (and non-human) cognition. The goal of cognitive semiotics is to bring these distinct, but complementary, assets to bear on each other.

Some of us working within semiotics have long rejected the autonomy postulate taken over from linguistics by classical semiotics, which denies the relevance of anything not “purely” linguistic and semiotic, as the case may be, to the discipline in question. Thus we have taken into account facts and findings of psychology and other empirical sciences in our theories involving semiotic phenomena (see Sonesson 1989). It is only more recently, however, that semioticians have taken to designing their own experiments, in order to construe experimental situations more adequate to the issues defined in semiotic theory. As one pioneer of psychology, Wilhelm Wundt, already recognised, however, experiments are more easily conceived at the individual level than when being involved with groups and cultures. In the present work, the integration of cognitive science and semiotics will thus have a more general sense, in two respects: as first suggested by Thomas ← 10 | 11 → Daddesio (1994), cognitive semiotics should, apart from semiotic structures, take into account the abilities that any subject experiencing such structures requires (and not only at the abstract level of Saussurean langue and Chomskyan competence); and it should relate semiotic abilities to mental and intersubjective abilities in general, which may be a requisite for the attainment of the semiotic kinds, and vice-versa. As the first psychologist to talk about the semiotic function, Jean Piaget (1967 [1945], 1970) was certainly a precursor in this domain, though, in the end, he downplayed the contribution of semiosis to evolution and development.

2. Phenomenology of the Lifeworld

Cognitive semiotics, in a sense approaching the conception sketched above, has been invented numerous times. In his recent grand overview, Jordan Zlatev (2015) lists a number of research centres connected to different varieties of cognitive semiotics: the Centre for Semiotics at Aarhus University, Denmark, associated with the work of Per Aage Brandt, Frederik Stjernfelt, and Peer Bundgaard; the Centre for Cognition and Culture at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, which was later the headquarters for Brandt, as well as for Mark Turner, Todd Oakley, and Merlin Donald; the Centre for Language, Cognition, and Mentality in Copenhagen, Denmark, around Søren Brier and Peer Durst Andersen; and the Centre for Cognitive Semiotics at Lund University, Sweden. Without here entering the discussion about the differences between these approaches, we will still single out one feature, which is not unique to the Lund approach, but which is still very much one of its characteristics: the recourse to the phenomenological method.

The aim of phenomenology is to describe, as exactly as possible, experience as it is directly given to consciousness. Phenomenology is not (primarily) involved with introspection, which is directed to the specific experiences of an individual subject, but with the uncovering of structures that are invariant to the experience of all human beings. The founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, introduced the term Lifeworld for talking about those invariant structures most immediately given to experience. One of his most immediate followers, Alfred Schütz, pertinently paraphrases this as “the world taken for granted.” In the later terms of philosophy of mind and cognitive science, the Lifeworld corresponds both to naïve physics and folk psychology. Another follower of Husserl, Aron Gurwitsch, suggested that, apart from the general ← 11 | 12 → invariants of the common Lifeworld, there could also be specific invariants of different socio-cultural Lifeworlds. It is in this double sense that we will be interested in the notion of Lifeworld in the present volume. Indeed, we will add a third sense, intermediate between that which is taken for granted by all human beings, and that which is only supposed to be self-evident in specific Lifeworlds which are historically and geographically situated: a typology of different kinds of Lifeworlds, which, as it turns out, is foreshadowed in the idea of a semiotics of culture, as suggested by the Tartu school, and developed, notably, in the Lund interpretation of cultural semiotics. Phenomenology will be more fully explained, and the notion of Lifeworld situated within this framework, in the first chapter of this book.

3. On Symbols and Other Signs

In the present volume, we will take semiotics to be the study of meaning, not only signs, which we will suppose to be something which can be divided into a vehicle or expression (the sound, in the case of spoken language), and a content (what the word is listed as signifying in the lexicon). Cultures, like percepts, are clearly meaningful in a much wider sense, because what is expression and content in them cannot be told apart, except in singular circumstances (for instance when a way of speaking, clothing of some special kind, a particular way of wearing a beard or a distinct tattoo is taken to stand for a nation or an ethnic or social group). Although, in the present volume, we will not be especially involved with signs, as against other ways of conveying meaning, something has to be said at this point about how to understand in the following terms referring to different kinds of signs, which, in the literature (that of semiotics, and even more that of psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science), are multiply ambiguous, and thus may easily lead to confusion. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the present volume, quoting and discussing ideas of scholars from many different domains, it has, in the end, turned out to be impossible to use terms having to do with different kinds of signs in an entirely coherent way. While we regret this fact, we are happy to offer, unlike any other book we know of, a guide for the perplexed in the paragraphs to follow.

There is one division of signs that can be traced very far back in time, but it is now mostly known by the labels given to its kinds by Peirce, that is, ← 12 | 13 → as icons, indices, and symbols (see Sonesson 1989). Without in the present context getting involved in the intricacies of Peirce’s system, while still trying to avoid too many of the common confusions, we will suppose, in the following, that icons are signs based on the similarity between expression and content, indices take their grounding from a relation of contiguity, and symbols are based on some kind of regularity, which may be a habit or a convention or anything in-between. These definitions, which have imposed themselves in semiotics, also outside the strict Peircean obedience, and also in many other quarters, are no doubt problematic in many ways, but, for the time being, we will only be interested in the ambiguities of the labels as such.

It should be evident that the term icon is multiply ambiguous: iconic codes, as understood in cognitive psychology, are defined by visuality, but iconic signs can exist in any sense modality; computer icons are certainly visual, but they do not have to be similar to what they stand for; icon paintings, as compared to pictures generally, are characterised by being more symbolic and less iconic than others; and cultural icons, in the sense of persons or objects to which fame or recognition is ascribed, can clearly be manifested in any sense modalities, and similarity has nothing to do with their being, but they are certainly something which draws attention, which we more easily conceive as something taking place in the visual mode. The ambiguity of the term index is much less apparent. However, when it comes to the term symbol, the ambiguities are such that there does not seem to be any way to go beyond them. This is not only a historical problem. Quoting the term from a small number of contemporary thinkers, and even from one of them, you are sure to enter into contradiction. Since the contradictions appear not only in the texts of the contributions to this book, but in the texts they cite, there is no way to avoid the problem. All we can offer, at present, is a kind of Vademecum for steering free of the ambiguities in the use of the term in the different chapters (partly inspired in Sonesson 1997).

“Symbol” is a term derived from the Greek word “sy’mbolon” meaning “sign of recognition,” “token,” from the verb “symba’llō” meaning “to put together.” Given this etymology, one would expect it to be a synonym for index, in the sense of being a part of a whole, but that is about the only meaning it has never carried. Instead, what we find is the following quite diverse list of meanings attributed to the label “symbol:” ← 13 | 14 →

1) A synonym for “sign,” in the sense of everything that can be meaningfully divided into expression and content. This is probably how the term is used by Merlin Donald, in the quotations from his work appearing in Chapters 2, 5, 6, 7 and 9, as are most other uses of the term in those chapters, except the quotations from Terrence Deacon in Chapter 7 (see acceptation 7 below). “Conventional symbolic systems,” as used in Table 2.1, should probably also be understood in this sense (or according to acceptation 6, in which case the term is pleonastic). “Symbolic message” as used in Chapter 8 should also be understood in this sense.

2) A synonym for iconic sign, as used, for instance, in opposition to sign (which is arbitrary or conventional), in the work of Saussure, and taken over, in this sense, by Piaget, who, however, would seem to take the notion in the direction of acceptations 4 or 5 below. The traditional term “sound symbolism,” as used in Chapter 2, seems to involve this acceptation. Also the “symbolic, repetitive mood of movement” mentioned in Chapter 10 could be understood in this way.

3) A concrete phenomenon that represents an abstract concept with which it shares a property (e.g. the equilibrium which is a property of scales but also, more abstractly, of justice). In the Peircean schema, this would be a special kind of iconic sign, in which the property held in common is very abstract.

4) A sign in which the expression and content belong particularly close together, in contrast to allegory, where they are felt to be more distantly associated, i.e. a sort of iconic and/or indexical sign. This is the sense given to the term by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as well as by the writers and artists of, particularly, German Romanticism, as well as in German idealist philosophy.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 402 pp., 16 coloured fig., 8 b/w fig., 4 tables

Biographical notes

David Dunér (Volume editor) Göran Sonesson (Volume editor)

David Dunér, Professor of History of Ideas, Lund University, has been concerned with the history of sciences in the 17th–18th century, and more recently with cognitive history. Göran Sonesson, Professor of Cognitive Semiotics, Lund University, has written extensively on pictorial and cultural semiotics, and more recently on semiotic evolution and development.


Title: Human Lifeworlds
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