Ecological meaning, linguistic meaning, and interactivity

Sune Vork Steffensen, Matthew Harvey

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    Abstract

    Human language is extraordinarily meaningful. Well-spoken or well-written passages can evoke our deepest emotions and elicit all manner of conscious and subconscious reactions. This is usually taken to be an insurmountable explanatory challenge for ecological approaches to cognitive science, the primary tools of which concern coordination dynamics in organism-environment systems. Recent work (Pattee, H. H. & J. Rączaszek-Leonardi 2012. Laws, Language, and Life. Dordrecht: Springer) has made headway in describing the meaningfulness of linguistic units — the kind of meaning that we perceive as mediated by specific symbols — within an ecological framework, by building an account based on Howard Pattee’s conceptualization of symbols as physical, replicable, historically-selected constraints on the dynamics of self-organizing systems (Pattee, H. H. 1969. How does a molecule become a message?. Developmental Biology 3(supplemental). 1016; Pattee, H. H. 1972. Laws and constraints, symbols and languages. In C. H. Waddington (ed.), Towards a Theoretical Biology, 248–258. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press). In order to propose an “interactivity-based” approach to linguistic meaning, this paper takes the following steps: first, it rejects the view of linguistic meaning as fully independent from organism-environment interactions, as exemplified by formal approaches in philosophical semantics. Second, it presents a cutting-edge example of an ecological approach to symbols, namely Joanna Rączaszek-Leonardi’s (Rączaszek-Leonardi, J. 2009. Symbols as constraints: The structuring role of dynamics and self-organization in natural language. Pragmatics and Cognition 17(3). 653–676. DOI:10.1075/pandc.17.3.09ras; Rączaszek-Leonardi, J. 2016. How does a word become a message? An illustration on a developmental time-scale. New Ideas in Psychology 42, Supplement C: 46–55. DOI:10.1016/j.newideapsych.2015.08.001) version of Pattee’s symbols-as-constraints model. Third, it reviews and critiques a recent attempt (Rączaszek-Leonardi, J., I. Nomikou, K. J. Rohlfing & T. W. Deacon. 2018. Language development from an ecological perspective: Ecologically valid ways to abstract symbols. Ecological Psychology 30(1). 39–73) to integrate the symbols-as-constraints model with Terrence Deacon, T. W. 1997. The Symbolic Species. New York: W. W. Norton and Company; Deacon, T. W. 2011. The symbol concept. In M. Tallerman & K. R. Gibson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution, 393–405. Oxford: Oxford University Press) semiotic view of symbols, arguing that the properties ascribed to linguistic symbols, both by Deacon and very widely throughout the cognitive sciences, are not properties of individual instances of linguistic action. Rather, they belong to a particular mode of description that draws generalizations across the phenomenological experience of many language users. Finally, it lays out the core components of a novel “interactivity-based” approach to linguistic meaning. On this view, human beings engage in constant, hyper-flexible entrainment and enskillment that produces tremendous perceptual sensitivity to vocal and acoustic patterns. This sensitivity enables us to coordinate our in-the-moment behavior with large-scale behavioral patterns within a larger population, and to compare our own actions to those large-scale patterns. Thus, the most important contribution made by an interactivity-based approach is that it accounts adequately for the role played by population-level behavioral patterns in the control of short-timescale, here-and-now linguistic actions. In so doing, it offers the grounds for an ecological account of rich linguistic meaning.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalCognitive Semiotics
    Volume11
    Issue number1
    Pages (from-to)1-21
    ISSN1662-1425
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - May 2018

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