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Meaning, Mind and Communication

Explorations in Cognitive Semiotics

Edited By Jordan Zlatev, Göran Sonesson and Piotr Konderak

This volume constitutes the first anthology of texts in cognitive semiotics – the new transdisciplinary study of meaning, mind and communication that combines concepts and methods from semiotics, cognitive science and linguistics – from a multitude of established and younger scholars. The chapters deal with the interaction between language and other semiotic resources, the role of consciousness and concepts, the nature of metaphor, the specificity of human evolution and development, the relation between cognitive semiotics and related fields, and other central topics. They are grouped in four sections: (i) Meta-theoretical perspectives, (ii) Semiotic development and evolution, (iii) Meaning across media, modes and modalities, (iv) Language, blends and metaphors.

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Chapter 8. The “Symbol Grounding Problem” Reinterpreted from the Perspective of Language Acquisition (Mutsumi Imai)


Mutsumi Imai

Chapter 8

The “Symbol Grounding Problem” Reinterpreted from the Perspective of Language Acquisition

1. Introduction

In a seminal paper Harnad (1990) defined the so-called symbol grounding problem, referring to the well-known “Chinese Room Argument” posited by Searle (1980).

Suppose you had to learn Chinese as a second language and the only source of information you had was a Chinese/Chinese dictionary. The trip through the dictionary would amount to a merry-go-round, passing endlessly from one meaningless symbol or symbol-string (the definientes) to another (the definienda), never coming to a halt on what anything meant. […] How can you ever get off the symbol/symbol merry-go-round? How is symbol meaning to be grounded in something other than just more meaningless symbols? This is the symbol ground problem. (Harnad 1990: 339–340)

Although Harnad (1990) raised this as a challenge for artificial intelligence employing the “classical” physical symbol systems approach, this problem may also be seen as one faced by young children learning their first language, who have to learn thousands of words to build up their lexicon. At the earliest stages, when their vocabulary is still small, it is not possible for adults to use language to explicitly teach children new words, since they would not be able to understand verbal explanations of word meanings. So children have to find the elementary semantic categories by themselves. Together with Cangelosi, Harnad imagines how language could have evolved on earth from the...

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