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Semiotic Symbols and the Missing Theory of Thinking

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This paper compares the nascent theory of the 'semiotic symbol' in cognitive science with its computational relative. It finds that the semiotic symbol as it is understood in recent practical and theoretical work does not have the resources to explain the role of symbols in cognition. In light of this argument, an alternative model of symbol internalisation, based on Vygotsky, is put forward which goes further in showing how symbols can go from playing intersubjective communicative roles to intrasubjective cognitive ones. Such a formalisation restores the symbol's cognitive and communicative dimensions to their proper roles.
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Semiotic Symbols and the Missing Theory of Thinking
Robert Clowes
Centre for Research in Cognitive Science,
University of Sussex
Abstract
This paper compares the nascent theory of the ‘semiotic symbol’ in cognitive science
with its computational relative. It finds that the semiotic symbol as it is understood in
recent practical and theoretical work does not have the resources to explain the role of
symbols in cognition. In light of this argument, an alternative model of symbol
internalisation, based on Vygotsky, is put forward which goes further in showing how
symbols can go from playing intersubjective communicative roles to intrasubjective
cognitive ones. Such a formalisation restores the symbol’s cognitive and
communicative dimensions to their proper roles.
Two Kinds of Symbol Systems
Neuroscientist and author of The Symbolic Species (1997), Terrence Deacon, has
argued that “there is probably no term in cognitive science more troublesome than the
word ‘symbol’ (2003, p. 117).1 The problem, according to Deacon, hinges on two
notions of the symbol that have been appropriated by different branches of the
academy. The first notion is the computational (syntactic) account of symbols known
from the Physical Symbol System Hypothesis (PPSH), and the second is the use of
symbols as a means of understanding signification and referential systems, especially
in language and other forms of communication. This second semiotic appreciation of
the symbol is based on the analysis of systems of signs, and, in its modern forms, was
developed in two different ways by the French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure
and the
American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.
Deacon points out that while the two notions derive from the same intellectual
tradition, their development has been such that there is today a deep rift in the
conceptual schemes built around them. It may even be that the two notions are now,
owing to their separate development, deeply incommensurable. Recent work in
cognitive science has, however, suggested that the two notions may be combined or
fused. This article will assess the present condition and future possibilities of such a
fusion.
The first part of this paper introduces the two theoretical approaches to symbol
systems. It then explores the latter semiotic approach to symbols in order to
investigate what resources it has to explain the sorts of cognitive processes
traditionally addressed by symbolically-minded cognitive science. Finding this
account lacking, it then sketches a theoretical approach to how symbols
developmentally reshape minds. The paper concludes by drawing attention to some
future research directions for this vital but neglected area in cognitive science.
Physical Symbol Systems and Cognition
The traditional cognitive science notion of what a symbol is, which we might call the
computational symbol, is found in similar forms throughout the cognitive sciences2
(especially linguistics, philosophy and psychology) and, as Deacon argues, also in
mathematics. This notion of the symbol has at its heart the idea that it can support
syntactically-based computational operations such as copying, deleting, substituting,
and combining.
All of these operations happen according to formal rules with no regard, at base
level, for semantics. This idea developed more or less simultaneously across several
disciplines
and the development of this symbolic paradigm offered unique resources
to those thinking about cognition and promised to give an account of mind in purely
formal terms. Indeed, it once seemed at least plausible that a complete account of
cognition at the psychological level could be given in terms of a formal treatment of
systems of symbols, their instantiation in physical processes and their manipulation
according to systems of rules.
In the Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence (GOFAI) approach to
cognition, coined by Haugeland (1985), the symbol reigned supreme by promising to
knit together the worlds of reasoning and representation. With a theory of cognitive
architecture organised around the symbol, it was hoped that a fully materialist account
of the mind could be spelt out. Such a theory could make minds non-mysterious parts
of the physical universe, and according to some, make psychology respectable.
The central reference point for the artificial intelligence understanding of a
symbol is Newell and Simon’s (1972) idea of a Physical Symbol System (PSS).
According to Newel and Simon, the PSS hypothesis not only gave an account of how
computational systems can solve well specified problems according to the purely
syntactic manipulations of tokens, but it laid out the necessary and sufficient
conditions for being an intelligent agent in terms of computational architecture. A
PSS can be specified, according to Harnad, in terms of eight conditions. It must have
(quoting Harnad):
1. a set of arbitrary “physical tokens” scratches on paper, holes on a tape, events
in a digital computer, etc. that are
2. manipulated on the basis of “explicit rules” that are
3. likewise physical tokens and strings of tokens. The rule-governed symbol-
token manipulation is based
4.
purely on the shape of the symbol tokens (not their “meaning”), i.e., it is
purely syntactic, and consists of
5. “rulefully combining” and recombining symbol tokens. There are
6. primitive atomic symbol tokens and
7. composite symbol-token strings. The entire system and all its parts -- the
atomic tokens, the composite tokens, the syntactic manipulations both actual
and possible and the rules -- are all
8. “semantically interpretable”: The syntax can be systematically assigned a
meaning, e.g., as standing for objects, as describing states of affairs (Harnad,
1990, p. 336).3
Fodor (1975; 1987) championed the theoretical justification of a symbol processing
system as a theory of thinking principally to specify his computational
Representational Theory of Mind (RTM). According to Fodor, a properly constituted
theory of the role of symbols in cognition, or in his terminology, Language of
Thought (or mentalese), is the foundation of a theory of thinking. He argued that
tokens in the language of thought were processed in a syntactic matter that is mindful
only of their ‘shape’ or formal properties. A further role of the symbol in the RTM
was to bind together two apparently very different types of property: the truth-
preserving powers of reasoning and the intentional world referring nature of thought.
Mental states were understood as relations to these physical symbols, and
mental symbols were thought to have intrinsic representational powers, at least when
embedded in the right sort of architecture. They also explained what we really mean
when attributing propositional attitudes to other agents, such as in “Jones hopes that
X,” or “Mary believes that Y.” Such propositional attitudes were essentially relations
to mental symbols. So Jones was related by however his hope mechanisms are
instantiated to the sy
mbols encoding the Proposition X, and Mary by however her
hope mechanisms are instantiated to symbols encoding Proposition Y. Symbols
allowed us to explain both how reasoning happened and what mental states are.
An important implication was that mental states could thus be attributed to
content, and play out inferential episodes of thought in a rational way that – according
to Fodor saved the central assumptions of folk psychology. Their representational
powers accrued because of the powers of these internal symbols. As Fodor (1975)
argued, “there is no internal representation without an internal language” (p. 55). 4 As
Fodor makes clear, one of the chief benefits of this approach is that it reduces the
problem of semantics to formal operations (Fodor, 2003).
Yet Fodor’s notion of what it meant to have an internal language has proved
profoundly unsatisfactory. As Fodor has himself admitted, there is little hope that the
standard computational theory of symbols or anything much like it is going to explain
the sorts of domain general cognition which the human mind seems to support so
comprehensively (Fodor, 2000). And if it cannot give a good account of why human
beings are rational, it becomes difficult to see the advantages of such a view.5
Moreover, recent theories of cognition have made much of how the manipulation of
symbols seems to be neither necessary nor sufficient for many properly cognitive
episodes (Clark, 1997; Rowlands, 1999) and that much cognition is better conceived
of as an entirely non-representational and situated engagement with the world
(Brooks, 1991; Dreyfus, 2002). Such embodiment-based or enactivist approaches are
the major challenger to cognitivism and have promised to give an account of
cognition that makes no reference to symbols. Some cognitive scientists who would
see themselves within a broadly embodimentalist tradition have, however, now started
to question whether cognitive science could really do without the concept of the
symbol.
Semiotic Symbol Systems
A series of theorists (Cangelosi, 2001; Deacon, 1997; Steels, 1999; Vogt, 2003) have
recently adopted an alternative approach for understanding symbols. This has arisen
in part as a way of dealing with some of the problems faced by the traditional
computational symbol.6 Its primary focus is to treat the representational abilities, first
and foremost, of natural language and other derived and related semiotic systems and,
in doing so, it is hoped, to show how a revived notion of symbol can once again play
a central role in cognitive science. The theoretical background for the semiotic symbol
which is most often invoked is taken from the work of the pragmatist philosopher
Charles Sanders Peirce.
Peirce (1897) developed a formal theory of the sign in respect to its
representational capacities, thus “a sign, or representamen, is something which stands
to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” (Peirce, 1955, p. 99). He
typologised the different kinds of reference that could be established in
communication systems, which can be boiled down to the following:
Iconic – A relation of similarity or resemblance, so in the standard example a
photograph represents something by virtue of looking like it. According to
Deacon’s gloss these simple relations can be understood as an over-
generalisation of a learning mechanism.
Indexical a relation of one-to-one reference or mapping, without similarity
between indicator and referent. Sinha (1988) emphasizes how such indexical
relations typically rely on causal connections, such as smoke indicating fire.
The vervet monkey call-system can be regarded as a paradigmatic “natural”
in
stance of an indexical communication system. (See Cheney & Seyfarth,
1992 for a detailed discussion of the vervet call system.)
Symbolic A perceived relation between a sign, a referent and a concept or
meaning mediated by conventionality (as explicated below). Because symbols
do not generally stand in a one-to-one relationship with objects, an element of
interpretation is always required.
The interpretational element of symbolic is a complex issue. Sinha (2004, pp. 223-
224) argues:
The conventionality of a true symbol rests on the shared understanding by the
communicating participants that the symbol is a token representing some
referential class, and that the particular token represents a particular (aspect of)
a shared situational context, and, ultimately, a shared universe of discourse.
Conventional symbol systems are therefore grounded in an intersubjective
meaning field in which speakers represent, through symbolic action, some
segment or aspect of reality for hearers. This representational function is unique
to symbolization, and is precisely what distinguishes a symbol from a signal. A
signal can be regarded as a (possibly coded) instruction to behave in a certain
way. A symbol, on the other hand directs and guides, not the behaviour of the
organism(s) receiving the signal, but their understanding (construal) or
(minimally) their attention, with respect to a shared referential situation.
Sinha emphasises these complex interpretative aspects of the symbol to a much
greater extent than Deacon and many other current cognitive-semiotic theorists who
emphasise merely the proper instantiation of the internal triadic relationship of a
symbol (also derived from Peirce’s theory of signs). These allow us to decompose a
symbol
into its component relationships which can be most simply explained in terms
of (Ogden & Richards, 1923) often reproduced semiotic triangle (Figure 1).
According to this view, the symbol can be schematically reduced to a set of triadic
relationships among three elements: the representamen (or sign-vehicle), the object
and the interpretant.7
Sign -Vehicle
(Representamen)
Meaning
(Interpretant)
Referent
(Object)
Implied
Relationship
Figure 1. A semiotic triangle after (Ogden & Richards, 1923, p. 11).
Deacon’s theoretical innovation was to give meaning to the semiotic symbol in terms
of the implicit cognitive architecture that would be necessary to interpret the abstract
relationships embedded in systems of properly symbolic signs. Whether a particular
communication system is to be accorded the designation of symbolic is, however, a
controversial matter. For the purposes of this discussion, I will define minimal symbol
users as those who meet Deacon’s criterion of having a cognitive architecture that can
support the interpretation of conventional signs. Such minimal-symbol-users might be
capable of only very impoverished symbol interpretation, according to Sinha’s
criterion. Nevertheless, minimal symbol users interpret signs which are embedded in a
system of relationally-defined symbols. Such minimal symbol users can be found in
simulation work such as the artificial agents found in Steels and Kaplan
(1999) and
Cangelosi, Greco and Harnad (2000).
It remains controversial, however, whether such minimal symbolic capabilities
should be linked to the cognitive powers that traditional physical symbol systems are
supposed to support. While the mechanics of semiotics might be of value in analysing
communicative relationships, why should they be of any use in analysing cognition?
In fact, attempts to work out the material basis to the formal relationships specified in
Peirce’s triad have formed the theoretical underpinning of some important recent
projects which have attempted to explain symbol grounding and in doing so have
gestured toward explaining some of the novel powers of human thought. While there
are many such recent accounts, here I will focus on one project, The Adaptive
Language Games (or ALG) project developed by Steels and his collaborators (Steels,
1999).
Can Semiotic Symbols Play Cognitive Roles?
Paul Vogt’s (2002) The Physical Symbol Grounding Problem is the most sustained
attempt to show that the ALG framework can show not only how symbols are
grounded but also why they should still be regarded as a central concept in cognitive
science. In this article Vogt implies that the semiotic symbol approach can solve the
problems of symbolist cognitive science, or at least reduce them to “technical”
problems by showing how symbols are grounded in communication.
Vogt’s approach rests on solving the symbol grounding problem by proposing a
rapprochement between embodied cognitive science and some elements of traditional
cognitivism. He argues that symbolic structures can be used within the paradigm of
embodied cognitive science by adopting an alternative definition of a symbol. In this
alternative definiti
on, the symbol may be viewed as a structural coupling between an
agent's sensorimotor activations and its environment.
In Vogt’s (2002) paper a robotic experiment is presented in which mobile robots
develop a ‘symbolic’ structure from scratch by engaging in a series of language
games. Through the language games, robots construct the means to refer to objects
with a remarkable degree of success. Although the underlying meanings
(interpretants) of a symbol may vary in different particular language games, agents
eventually converge on a system of expressive forms (sign-vehicles) that allows them
to pick out referents. That is, the community of agents converge on the same
expressive means through communicational episodes, and these episodes in turn
structure the agent’s internal categorisation of the objects they encounter. The
dynamics of the game allows a coherent system of semiotic symbols, in the minimal
sense described above, to be developed. This is the basic (yet impressive) result that
has been explored from the ALG perspective in a series of papers (Steels &
Belpaeme, 2005; Steels & Kaplan, 1999). However, what is interesting for us here is
whether these results bear on the question of the role of symbols in thinking.
Vogt develops the basic approach in a discussion of Brooks’ earlier work on
intelligence without representation (Brooks, 1991). Questioning Brooks’ anti-
symbolic stance, he asks rhetorically:
But is it true? Are symbols no longer necessary? Indeed much can be
explained without using symbolic descriptions, but most of these
explanations only dealt with low-level reactive behaviours such as obstacle
avoidance, phototaxis, simple forms of categorization and the like (Vogt,
2002, p. 430).
S
everal theorists (Clark & Grush, 1999; Clark & Toribio, 1994) have raised similar
questions. Vogt’s preferred solution to the problem comes from a re-interpretation of
the symbol along embodimentalist lines. He argues that to overcome the symbol
grounding problem, the symbol system has to be embodied and situated. Brooks’
physical ground hypothesis states “that intelligence should be grounded in the
interaction between a physical agent and its environment. Furthermore, according to
this hypothesis, symbolic representations are no longer necessary. Intelligent
behaviour can be established by parallel operating sensorimotor couplings” (2002, p.
432). Moreover, the way to accommodate symbols in the new situated-embodied
perspective is to view them as structural couplings, using Maturana and Varela’s
(1970) concept. Such an approach is perhaps a reasonable theoretical direction from
which one might attempt to subsume symbols into the embodied systems perspective,
but is does beg the question of exactly what type of structural coupling they are.
Vogt argues that “when symbols should be necessary to describe cognition, they
should be defined as structural couplings connecting objects to their categories based
on their sensorimotor projections” (2002, p. 432). This definition, Vogt notes, echoes
Peirce’s view. Vogt goes on to present something like a standard theory of internal
representation with an embodimentalist twist:
Each interaction between an agent and a referent can activate its past
experiences bringing forth a new experience. The way these bodily
experiences are represented and memorized form the internal
representation of the meaning. The actual interaction between an agent and
a ‘referent’ defines the functional relation (2002, p. 434).
But it seems the “symbols” so established are just associations between internal sense
and external reference and are constituted simply by establishing the right sort of
association
. Such an associationist refiguring of the symbol, however, gives us no
way of understanding the difference between the symbolic mode of structural
coupling and any other type of structural coupling, and raises the suspicion that what
is going on is the formal re-defining of an association as a symbol.8
The Missing Theory of Thinking
The ALG approach promises a unification of several dimensions of cognitive science
theory. It holds the possibility of providing a mechanistic account of a series of
seemingly mysterious processes: how languages are born, how they are maintained,
how agents can coordinate categories, and how cultural categories can come into
being and be shared across generations.
At first sight it would seem that proposing answers to these questions should
open doors to understanding the cognitive role of language. Nevertheless, in
examining the ALG approach, it is clear that “symbols” generated in this way cannot
be shown, in a straightforward way, to generate traditional cognitive properties. The
ALG approach is typically constituted to insulate language from forms of cognitive
activity other than categorisation. Despite its argument that language is central to our
cognitive adaptivity, the ALG approach actually fixes everything other than the
content of the categories in the agent’s architecture.
What is lacking is any sense of how such semiotic symbols play a role in
cognitive episodes beyond the picking out of referents in scenes; this is the main task
for the agents in all ALG-type experiments. What appears to be missing is the sense
that symbols play any role in inferencing or organising non-linguistic behaviour. The
worry is that semiotic symbols have come unmoored from cognitive symbols and that
therefore our theorising about communicative capacities has come unmoored from
our theorising about cognition.
But wasn’t this link precisely what the semiotic
symbol approach was supposed to theorise?
Perhaps there is much greater indebtedness than would first seem to be in the
ALG approach to the GOFAI framework. Although there is no explicit defence of the
idea in Steels’ work, there is still a ghost of GOFAI in the assumption that in
grounding symbols via the components of the ALG we can show that symbols
also support other cognitive properties. While the ALGs provide architecture for
linguistically grounding categories, they make no mention of how such architecture
can help an agent to perform other cognitive work. This work seems to be silent on
the question of how a symbol system, language system, system of external
representations, or system of tools can play a role in reorganising underlying
cognitive activity. (For a recent review of the importance of the consideration of this
relationship, see Clark, 2006a)
Steels does acknowledge this problem in an article in which he states that the
ALGs tell “only the first part of the story. What we still need to show is how these
external representations may lead to the significant bootstrapping effect that we see in
human development, where representations (drawings, language, pretend play) are a
primary motor of cognitive development” (Steels, 2003, p. 14). This is just right but
the central problem remains of how to theorise this process.
The semiotic view of the symbol offers a way in which the symbol grounding
problem can be solved by offering a materialist explanation of how the dimensions of
signifier and signified, or alternatively Peirce’s triad of representamen, interpretant
and object, could come into relation. It does this by spelling out what it is, at least
minimally, for an agent to entertain a symbol and then showing how this can be
cashed out in agent-based simulations. But unless some account of how cognitive
architecture can emerge from
its ability to interpret symbols is given, a theory of
semiotic symbols will never be a serious challenger to GOFAI. The danger of
declaring that the symbol grounding problem has been reduced to a technical problem
is that it blinds us to the question of the role of semiotic symbols in cognition.
For rationalist and computational accounts of symbol systems, the role of the
symbol is to allow inferencing; in essence, an idealisation of thinking shorn of its
roots in the ongoing activity of the agent. But if semiotic symbols are held to play
inferential or any other type of cognitive roles there must be some theory of how this
happens. There appears to be a hidden assumption in Vogt’s work on semiotic
symbols to the effect that if it can be shown that symbols are grounded, then it can be
shown that symbols support truly cognitive properties. But this does not follow. A
theory of reference and signification is not a theory of inferencing.
If semiotic symbols are to factor into our accounts of cognition, they face a
problem which is every bit as grave as the symbol grounding problem. Although this
problem has attracted much less attention than the symbol grounding problem has, it
might be dubbed the new problem of symbols. How do semiotic symbols come to play
a role in thinking?
In what follows I will schematically develop what is needed. This explication
will refer to some cognitive modelling work previously reported in Clowes and Morse
(2005) that allows us to elaborate on the unique role of symbols in cognition, but it
requires attention to how symbols are taken up to do cognitive work. The approach is
based on Vygotsky’s notion of semiotic internalisation.
Restructuring Cognitive Architecture through Symbol Internalisation
Here I present a hypothesis of how developing systems can restructure themselves
through the internalisation of symbols. This hypothesis both helps us make sense of
some previously reported
simulation-based experiments (Clowes & Morse, 2005) and
shows how this work may be linked to Vygotsky’s theory of the establishment of
higher-cognitive functions (Vygotsky, 1997). Our simulation-based experiments
contained agents, embedded in a dynamic environment in which objects could be
moved around. Agents were evolved to move objects to target locations within the
environment in line with signalled instructions. The neural architecture of the agents
was such that they could adapt to re-trigger their own signal reception mechanisms. In
these simulations agents came to re-use this re-triggering mechanism to control their
own ongoing activity and perform self-regulative functions. Below I argue that this
kind of self-regulative function explain the proper cognitive character of the symbol.
According to the following analysis, I argue that we can schematise the three
stages of reorganisation that an agent must go through as it internalises symbols:
1. Completing a symbolically initiated action
2. Stabilising activity with symbols
3. Establishing activity regulation with symbols
Completing a Symbolically Initiated Action
If we assume that children are not born knowing what symbols are or how to use
them,9 we have to assume that they learn about symbols in action. Such a hypothesis
requires an outside-in understanding of the trajectory of symbols and their role in the
regulation and production of behaviour.
However, we certainly should not assume that just because a child can respond
appropriately to the use of a symbol that he or she has a fully developed command of
symbol interpretation. Vygotsky’s colleague Luria (1961) described a mother and
child who were playing a game. The mother asks the child, “Where is Lenin?”, and
the child, having played the game before, points to a painting of Lenin on the wall.
Next, the painting of Lenin is moved and the mother asks again “where is Lenin?
The child points at the place where the picture had hung.
The message should be clear. It is possible for the developing child to have an
incredibly imperfect grasp of the thoughts and activities that adults can structure
around symbols, and yet no understanding of the deeper interpretative relationships at
work. Yet the child is immersed in a world of symbols and some of the most basic
interactions with which the child will learn about the world are, from the very first
moment, symbolically structured.
In our simulations, agents are confronted with a similar task: to complete an
activity sequence which was initiated symbolically from without. As just discussed,
this does not mean that the agent needs to understand the meaning of the symbol, if by
“understand” we mean some high-level conceptual ability. Our simple simulated
agents have no such capacities. However, within acceptable criteria, the agent can
interpret the symbol in accordance with the expectations of the speech community
from which the symbol has been introduced. The first behavioural regime the agent
must go through is the establishment of a behaviour, or group of behaviours (or
cognitions) with respect to an instruction, or other form of speech act. We call this
the stage of minimal symbol interpretation.
Environment
Stage One Sensorimotor
loop
Agent
!! !
!
Figure 2, Completing a symbolically initiated action (minimal symbol
interpretation).
Figure 2 shows the agent embedded in a series of ongoing interactions (the large
curving arrows). The arrows form a rough circle show that these agents are engaged
in a continual dynamic interaction with their environment.
In the diagram, some of these interactions are singled out for special attention.
These are the externally generated ‘words’ that the agents must interpret, and are
shown as square speech bubbles with arrows at the bottom of the diagram. To operate
as symbols even in the most minimal sense, these words must be interpreted.
Interpretation, at least in this base level language game requires an action. The
diagram depicts the neural aspects of these interpretations as thought bubbles, but this
is somewhat misleading. Interpretations here really consist of activities, for example,
moving objects around in the world. These dynamic interactions with the environment
accomplish much of the information processing, or cognitive work, of an active
perception sy
stem, which need not be interpreted as relying on exhaustive
representational systems (Clark, 1997).
This schematic account of the first stage of symbol internalisation merely
requires that an agent be able to complete, in the required way, a symbolically-
initiated action. One might object that the kind of closely coupled action systems that
Luria observed between child and mother could just as well be described as a loosely
coupled action system with no real initiator. We could simply consider the mother and
child as continually completing, regulating and adapting to each other’s activities as
in an intimate dance (Cowley, 2007). Yet while the developing relationship between
mother and child is built on a whole series of such interactions, the mother initiates
their symbolic character (as Cowley also recognises). The earliest symbolically-
initiated actions are when the child completes the mother’s action and are thus, as
Vygotsky argued, outside-in. It is because symbols first appear for children in such
intimate encounters and are only later taken-up by the developing child to structure its
own activities that we should understand the process of symbolic development as one
of internalisation.
Stabilising Activity with Symbols
Words are generally embedded in a series of affective regulation systems that support
the construction of activities (Cowley, 2007; Trevarthen, 1991) and are often used to
initiate activities from the outside. Typically, these sorts of affective interactions
between mother and child provide a series of tacit supports and scaffolds to the
child’s developing activity system (Bruner, 1983). A whole series of largely
unconscious mechanisms seems to be at work in establishing some very basic social
psychological functions, such as triadic interactions (Leavens, 2006). In addition, of
course, there are some very conscious interactions, as the mother seeks to engage her
child in aspects of the surrounding world.
Yet in the midst of these developing interaction systems, the child also faces a
problem. If symbolic regulation is to play a role in structuring the child’s own
autonomous activities, symbols must be wrested from their public source and
appropriated for self-directed activity. Appropriation of symbols requires
performance without some of those social scaffolds. Accomplishing this task seems to
require the development of internal mechanisms which can take over the role of some
of these supports.
Vygotsky discussed similar problems in his writings on the question of the
differentiation of functions of egocentric speech (Vygotsky, 1986). As egocentric
speech develops towards properly self-regulative internal-speech, there is
developmental evidence that the child has difficulty in wresting this speech from its
social source. Vygotsky writes, “in the process of growth the child’s social speech,
which is multifunctional, develops in accordance with the principle of the
differentiation of separate functions, and at a certain age it is quite sharply
differentiated into egocentric and communicative speech” (cited in Wertsch, 1985, p.
117). In the first stages of the development of using self-directed speech for control,
as Wertsch notes, Vygotsky “reasoned that one should find a lack of differentiation or
even thorough confusion between social and egocentric speech in young children’s
verbal behaviour” ( Wertsch, 1985, p. 118).
Vygotsky empirically tested this hypothesis of progressive differentiation with
three experiments, each of which was designed to test the child’s ability to
differentiate social from egocentric speech in action. Egocentric speech, according to
Vygotsky, is by definition involved in self-control functions. Yet social contact was
found to regulate the
production of egocentric speech in a variety of experimental
conditions. Children use much less egocentric speech in situations where they have
less chance of being understood by others. Vygotsky explained this as an initial
difficulty with differentiating social from self-organisational functions.
Vygotsky frames the problem in terms of how a child has to learn to use self-
directed speech in the absence of adults or other children. This is difficult because
speech must be turned from its social function. The problem of gaining control of
these minimally-symbolic interpretation systems is also a problem for the agents in
our simulations (Clowes & Morse, 2005). This problem confronts the agents in a
number of forms.
First, there is simply the problem of developing and using a self-directed loop.
In our simulations, agents have the capacity to trigger themselves because of their re-
entrant architecture. However they initially switch this off because self-triggering
interferes with their capacity to interpret signals generated from outside. Self-
generated signals may be mistaken for external ones and upset the developing activity
pattern. To take advantage of self-generated signals, agents must learn to differentiate
those that are self-generated from those that emanate from outside. The problem of
appropriating symbols to self-control manifests itself in the agent simulations. As
reported in Clowes and Morse, early generation agents tend to turn off their internal
loops until initial control regimes are stabilised. When they turn the loop back on at a
more advanced stage, there is some initial drop in performance.
This is essentially a problem of self-organisation. The agent has developed
interpretations, responses and structural couplings that are cued by “good”
information, that is, information that the agent needs to achieve its goals. The advent
of self-directed signals requires the restructuring of an agent’s interpretation
mechanisms
as these can destabilise behaviour. Such potential for destabilisation
predicts a U-shaped curve in developmental episodes when self-signalling becomes
involved in self-regulation activity. However, regimes of self-stimulation begin to
make new modes of self-regulating activity possible. At this point, the agent’s self-
stimulating use of its own interpretation mechanisms reflects more of a potential for
activity than an actual new organisational regime of activity.
Environment
Stage Two Sensorimotor
loop
Agent
Figure 3. Learning to produce a symbol as a cue to action.
Figure 3 represents this transitional stage of development by showing a series of
internally-generated speech bubbles that can trigger interpretation processes, and
which can in turn trigger the production of internally-generated “speech,” (hence the
internal partial loops shown by the small curved arrows). This stage of development
implies a second type of cognitive architecture that develops as the agent starts to use
symbols to stabilise its activities. This phase of activity re-ordering can begin once
some symbol interpretation systems are in place. The establishment of action-based
interpretation systems form a new
platform on which the agent constructs new modes
of action and self-regulation.
This stage of development is an unstable and transitional point as most of the
agent’s self-directed signals can be regarded as noise, but noise that has the potential
to become a new kind of self-directed activity. In this phase the agent is faced with
both problems and opportunities. As self-generated auto-stimulation loops become
stabilised, the agent has the possibility of organising its activities according to new
means of control that are established at a higher, semiotically generated, order of
abstraction.
Establishing Activity Regulation with Symbols
In this third stage, agent organisation has gone beyond the simple need to establish
when an “utterance” comes from outside and when it is produced internally. It has
therefore differentiated for itself in practice inside and outside. This differentiation
allows new types of functional differentiation to take place. Now the agent is in a
position to capitalise on these newly developed internally-directed speech circuit
loops and to develop entirely new modes of activity. To do this, it needs to establish
when auto-stimulation with words is useful and when it is unnecessary. In a sense, it
needs to establish mastery of the sensorimotor contingencies of its own activity
system.10 As Vygotsky pointed out, this sort of development requires the progressive
differentiation of functional systems that respond to externally-generated activity
from those that respond to internally-generated activity.
Environment
Stage Three Sensorimotor
loop
Agent
Figure 4 . Establishing activity regulation with symbols.
In Figure 4, this is represented by the development of a new, functionally
differentiated and internal activity loop. Unlike in the previous control regime,
internally-generated loops do not simply capitalise on externally-generated and
supported activity systems, but they develop new activity systems. The functional
organisation of the activity of an individual agent has a logic that is not simply a
recapitulation of the logic of the group. Public systems of representation produced
socially are thereby turned to the agent’s own ends. This point of development could
be regarded as the point of completion of symbol internalisation, for the agent has
now built a new mode of symbolically-mediated self-regulation that is essential to its
ongoing activity.
Towards an Understanding of Semiosis in Cognition
The theoretical model presented here and the experimental results presented in
Clowes and Morse (2005) give us the beginnings of an account of how the
internalisation of symbols come to reshape neural-dynamics. In contrast to other
accounts of semiotic symbols systems, these models illuminate the neglected
cognitive side of the semiotic symbol.
At a technical level, these models indicate one manner in which using external
symbols can reorganise the basic mechanics of regulating activity in a minimal
cognitive model. (Work is ongoing to understand this process in more detail.) At a
more abstract level, they give us a sense of how activities and the structural couplings
between agents and their environments can be stabilised around the concrete anchors
made available by semiotic systems. Nevertheless, there is much work to do. This
account represents only the beginnings of an understanding of how symbol
internalisation reorganises cognition in human beings. To deepen this understanding
we need to tackle the following questions:
1. How do words, and the external social representational systems in which they
are embedded make available the contingencies through which agents
restructure themselves?
2. What forces are at play in the internal dynamics of agents such that they can
appropriate these structures?
3. How do the external and internal systems interact in the ongoing restructuring
of agents?
The outside
-in model forces us to treat explicitly how the representational structure of
language allows an agent to shape its own cognitive architecture. I have argued for the
need to understand this process through a sequence of functional changes. The first is
how scaffolding (Bruner, 1983) gives way to semiotically-mediated joint control
(Cowley, 2007) and how this in turn gives way to semiotically-mediated self-control
(as Vygotsky emphasized). This process has profound implications for the attentional
systems of the developing child, its sense of self and its agency; to understand this we
need research on the unfolding functional changes that underpin internalisation.
Acknowledgments
The simulation work described above was carried out in association with Anthony
Morse, and Sean Bell originally produced the diagrams. This paper has also benefited
from the criticism of a panel of anonymous referees and much helpful advice from the
special edition editors to whom I would like to express my thanks.
1 Whereas this is an accurate summary of today’s state of affairs, we should add that the notion of
symbol has become vastly more problematic as traditional GOFAI approaches to cognitive science
have fallen into disfavour. The symbol has become a problem insofar as the more general research
programme has become increasingly problematic.
2 The symbols which we find in AI, the philosophy of cognitive science and the generativist tradition in
linguistics, which sees the formation of sentences as formal manipulations of syntax, share much in
common. They are not, however, identical notions, and there is a nice discussion of some of the subtle
differences between them in Chapter 7 of (Rowlands, 1999).
3 I cited at length from Harnad here because his view seems to be a fairly canonical one about what
symbols are in the cognitive science community, even if there is not wide agreement on whether his
view on how symbols are grounded is correct.
4 A curious upshot of this idea in its classical form is that language is a subsidiary phenomenon only
made meaningful when it is translated into an inner language.
5 This is, of course, to leave aside the attendant problems of the seemingly unavoidable commitment to
conceptual nativism (Fodor, 1998).
6 Actually, proposals for incorporating semiotic theory into the understanding of cognitive organisation
have some longstanding proponents (Sinha, 1988). Perhaps the recent resurgence of interest in this area
can be linked to the development of new techniques for modelling multi-agent systems, some of which
are discussed below.
7 The original terminology used by Peirce in characterising the triadic relationship was representamen,
interpretant and object. Vogt, Steels and his colleagues tend to use the terms form (or word-form),
meaning and referent (Vogt, 2003). I prefer to refer to the representamen as sign-vehicle as this
emphasises its role in conveying meaning.
8 In fact, if the main idea behind the semiotic conception of symbols is correct, properly the
identification of a symbolic relationship would be a difficult task to perform at the level of the
individual structural coupling of an agent and its environment. This is because the right sorts of
structural couplings are not defined by the individual relationships, but by the system of relationships in
which they are embedded. Vogt’s attempted definition is at the very least missing a crucial feature.
9 As a number of theorists have argued, for example, (Clark, 2006b; Cowley, 2005; Sinha, 1988;
Vygotsky, 1986).
10 This use of terminology is a gesture toward the theorisation of active perception developed in
(O'Regan & Noë, 2001).
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