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Human Lifeworlds

The Cognitive Semiotics of Cultural Evolution

Edited By David Dunér and Göran Sonesson

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.
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Jordan Zlatev - Chapter Two : Mimesis: The Role of Bodily Mimesis for the Evolution of Human Culture and Language


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Jordan Zlatev

Chapter Two

Mimesis: The Role of Bodily Mimesis for the Evolution of Human Culture and Language

An evolutionary adaptation for bodily mimesis – the volitional use of the body as a representational devise – is argued to be the precondition that made the evolution of human culture possible, including uniquely human (and yet pre-linguistic) features such as (over)imitation, pedagogy, intentional communication, and representational capacity. Furthermore, it is mimesis that potentiated the evolution of language itself. Speech evolved atop bodily mimesis, via a transitional stage of multimodal protolanguage. This hypothesis is supported by (a) the extensive presence of sound symbolism in modern languages, (b) its psychological reality for speakers, and (c) its contribution to language acquisition. Evidence for each of these claims is presented and discussed.

2.1. What Makes Us Special?

It is often assumed that it is language that makes human cognition and culture unique (e.g. Christiansen & Kirby 2003). Indeed, the representational and combinatorial powers of language place it on a level of semiotic complexity that is qualitatively distinct from that of the communicative systems of animals (Zlatev 2009). However, this does not imply that it was the evolution of language per se that set our species on a separate trajectory compared to that of all other living creatures on our planet. Rather, the thesis put forth in this chapter1 is that human culture rests on a type of consciousness that is both uniquely intersubjective...

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