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Cognitive Dynamics and the Language Sciences.



Language and the Dynamics of Signaling.
Don Ross - University of Alabama at Birmingham and University of Cape Town

In this paper I will survey current work in the behavioral sciences that aims at integrating our understanding of linguistic behavior into more general models of evolution, cognition and social dynamics.

The survey will be structured around the game-theoretic concepts of signaling and coordination. I will open the paper by motivating the primacy of this conceptual framework. Dynamic and evolutionary game theory enables us to formally model intentional behavior in a way that collapses artificial dichotomies between cognition and behavior, and between social coordination and individual planning and optimization. Rather than presupposing that there are clear distinctions between linguistic and non-linguistic communication and between syntax and semantics, the game-theoretic perspective allows us to investigate processes by which these phenomena might emerge endogenously, and along continua in phase-spaces as with most biological and social kinds. Game theory unifies the various sciences that study language, allowing us to avoid the limitations in perspective that come from giving explanatory priority to any one of traditional linguistics, psychology, anthropology, economics or neuroscience.

Following these methodological reflections, I will then apply the framework I have motivated to survey two broad areas of empirical study.

The first of these is the distribution and evolution of different modes of signaling behavior in animals (including people). I will argue that both theoretical modeling and ethological data support the hypothesis of two-phase shifts in the complexity of signaling behavior, one induced by the evolution of sexual reproduction, and a second induced by the evolution of sociality. I will then ask whether a third phase-shift is implicated in the evolution of culture, and motivate an affirmative answer to this question. This will provide the basis for a naturalistic and ethological – as opposed to logical and a priori – distinction between syntactic and semantic phenomena (again, along a continuum rather than in binary opposition).

The second empirical phenomenon to which I will apply game-theoretic modeling is ontogenetic development of signaling capacities in social and enculturated animals. To what extent must such animals be pre-adapted for signaling, and to what extent do social and cultural dynamics that extend beyond the individual organism give rise to and maintain complex signaling capacities endogenously? This, of course, is the naturalistic way of addressing the question of `innateness’ that has provoked so much attention and controversy in modern linguistics. I will thus close the paper by returning to philosophical themes, asking which of the `grand’ questions of linguistics look like pseudo-problems in the game-theoretic and ethological framework, and which are recovered and reconceptualized by it.

Language and the digital code
Nigel Love - Department of Linguistics, University of Cape Town, 7701 Rondebosch, South Africa

In this paper I shall consider the implications for the game-theoretic project outlined by Ross of its reliance on the fundamental idea that natural languages are, or are partly, or are at any rate to be likened to, digital codes (see e.g. Ross 2004).

This will involve attempting to specify what exactly is being claimed here, and how far the claim is tenable, either empirically or logically. Not only is the claim itself hard to pin down, in so far as it can be precisely characterised it falls foul both of a wide range of readily observable phenomena pertaining to language use and to our common experience as language users, and of logically necessary conditions on any viable conceptualisation of natural language. While the heart may for certain purposes be meaningfully and usefully conceived of as a pump, nothing analogous applies to language, which cannot ultimately be understood in terms of an artefact (in this case the concept of a digital code) for which language itself is a prerequisite. Or so it will be argued.

The next step is to examine the provenance of the digital code notion. The main argument here is that it could only be entertained against the background of a culture whose metalinguistic engagement with language has led it to entertain two key ideas: (i) that the world of language (langage) is articulated in terms of discrete languages (langues); and (ii) that discrete languages may be understood as systems of recurrently instantiated abstracta susceptible to being inventoried and analysed in respect of their role as devices, precisely, for the encoding and decoding of information. These ideas will be deconstructed.

There remains the question what affect these considerations, if valid, may have on the enterprise of giving a game-theoretic account of the phylo- and ontogenetic evolution and development of linguistic capacities and behaviour. The conclusion is that the enterprise has nothing to lose, and a great deal to gain, by a demythologisation of its fundamental thinking about linguistic phenomena.


D. Ross, ‘Metalinguistic signalling for coordination amongst social agents’, Language Sciences 26, pp. 621-642, 2004.

Essential properties of language, or why language is not a (digital) code
Alexander V. Kravchenko - Language Center, Baikal National University of Economics and Law, 11 Lenin Street, Irkutsk 664003, Russia

The rationalist (Cartesian) heritage in linguistics with its methodological inadequacies continues to obscure the essential properties of natural language as an empirical phenomenon (Kravchenko 2002). There is a strong tradition to treat language as the product of an activity subject to rational analysis in terms of (formal) logic, crucial to which is the notion of coded equivalence as the underlying principle of linguistic semiotics.

Although the basic theoretical tenets of the bio-cognitive philosophy of language, or autopoiesis (Maturana 1978; Maturana and Varela 1980; Varela, Thompson and Rosch 1991; Kravchenko 2003) have not yet gained noticeable recognition in linguistics, the new framework possesses a greater explanatory power as it assumes the connotational rather than denotational, i.e., based on the notion of coded equivalence, nature of language. A short discussion of the key notions of representation, sign and signification, interpretation, intentionality, communication, and reciprocal causality is offered. As an example, the bio-cognitive approach allows to view intentionality as the capacity of a living system to modify its state of reciprocal causality with the world on the basis of experience acquired with time for the purpose of sustaining the ecological system which enables reciprocal causality between the organism and the world. Representations as mental structures borne of experience are sign entities whose biological function is that an organism, by interacting with them, adapts to the medium by managing information. Such understanding of natural language calls for a revision of currently shared beliefs, particularly the belief that language is a kind of (digital) code, for if natural language is treated as cognitive/adaptive behavior (a description of an organism’s interactions with representations which are in a causal relation with the changes in the environment), then linguistic signs appear to be not signs of components of the medium (which is the central claim of traditional 'reificatory' semantics) but of representations which themselves are signs by definition. Consequently, an analysis of language from the autopoietic angle allows deeper insights into the essence of language as a kind of biologically based, cognitively motivated, circularly organized semiotic activity in a consensual domain of interactions aimed at adapting to, and, ultimately, gaining control of, the environment.


Kravchenko, A. V. (2002) ”Toward a bio-cognitive philosophy of language”. Perspectives: Journal for Interdisciplinary Work in the Humanities, 1:5 (http://www.brookes.ac.uk/~ /perspectives).

Kravchenko, A. V. (2003). Sign, Meaning, Knowledge. An Essay in the Cognitive Philosophy of Language. Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang GmbH, 2003.

Maturana, H. R. (1978). “Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality”. In G. Miller and E. Lenneberg (eds.). Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought. NY: Academic Press. 28-62.

Maturana, H. & F. Varela (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: D. Reidel.

Varela, F. J., E. Thompson & E. Rosch (1991). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Byond egocentric utility: On the origins of protoconversation and (pre)verbal learning by altercentric participation
Stein Braten - University of Oslo

Human newborns demonstrate a readiness to mirror facial expressions and gestures, and young infants’ impressive speech perception attests to highly efficient mechanisms at play during nonverbal and verbal interaction. In contrast to the Piagetian attribution of an egocentric point of departure for children’s development of language, requiring decentration as the child matures, we believe we have now found evidence of infant capacity for altercentric mirroring and self-with-other resonance soon after birth (Braten 1998; Braten & Trevarthen 2004; Stern 2000, 2004ab; Trevarthen 1998). It is probably supported by a mirror neurons system adapted in hominin phylogeny to subserve mother-centred participation (Braten 2002), facilitating the ontogenetic path to speech in the culture into which the infant is born. This path comprises inter alia these steps: Mutually attuned protoconversation in the first months of life, and speech perception entailing that already by six months the infant has begun to “turn a deaf ear” to sound distinctions that make no sense in the ambient language (Kuhl 1998). This is soon followed up by the babbling onset of well-formed syllables and production of vowels approaching those of the native language, co-inciding with joint attention and acknowledgment of self-other agency at about nine month. Early reading of intention and (pre)verbal learning are likely to be supported by mirror neurons revealed in macaque experiments (Fogassi et al. 2005), decentred in phylogeny to compensate for the hominin infant loss of the instructive and protective advantage enjoyed by other back-riding primate infants (cf. Falk 2004). Subserving verbal learning by (m)other-centred participation, this altercentric capacity is supportive of verbal conversation to come with its reciprocal and participant characteristics. Not only may the speaker co-process his own production from the listener’s stance. The listener may co-articulate the speaker’s production as if she or he were a coauthor. Such virtual co-articulation from the other’s stance, as manifested when a listener completes the speaker’s aborted sentence or answers a half-spoken question, is supported by the capacity for other-centred mirroring and resonance that we see at play in protoconversation and response to motherese (Braten 1988; 2002, 2003; Trevarthen 1998; Stern 2000, 2004a)

The main questions to be addressed, then, concern the possible phylogenetic background and neurosocial support of the efficient ontogenetic role played by altercentricity in verbal learning and conversation.

In an appendix, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is shown to be resolvable when altersentric feelings, rather than egocentric motivation, are assumed to be at play.

Selected references:

Braten, S. (1998) Infant learning by altercentric participation: the reverse of egocentric observation in autism, in: S. Braten (ed.) Intersubjective Communication and Emotion in Early Ontogeny. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 105-24.

Braten, S. (2002) Altercentric perception by infants and adults in dialogue. In: M. Stamenov & V. Gallese (eds.) Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Brain and Language, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamin Publ. Co. 2002, pp. 273-294.

Braten, S. (2003) Participant perception. Virtual otherness in infants and adults. Culture & Psychology 9 (3) 2003:261-276,

Braten, S. & C. Trevarthen (1994/2000) Beginnings of cultural learning, in this bilingual collection of essays in Infant and Adult: S. Bråten: Modellmakt og altersentriske spedbarn. Bergen 2000:213-218.

Braten, S. & C. Trevarthen (2004) From infant intersubjectivity and other-centred participation to cultivated narratives of meaning in common sense. Prologue to Theory Forum Symposium in The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters Oct.3-5 2004, in: Foundations of (pre)verbal intersubjectivity in light of new findings. Pre-proceedings ed. S. Bråten, Oslo 2004:7.

Falk, D. (2004) Prelinguistic evolution in early hominins: Whence motherese? Behavioral and Brain Science vol.27 (4) August 2004:291-541.

Fogassi, L. et al. (2005) Partietal Lobe: From Action Understanding to Intention Understanding. Science vol. 308 29 April 2005: 662-667.

Kuhl, P.K. (1998) Language, culture and intersubjectivity, in: S. Braten (ed.) Intersubjective Communication and Emotion in Early Ontogeny. pp. 307-315. Cambridge University Press.

Stern, D. N. (2000) Introduction to paperback edition of The Interpersonal World of the Infant. Basic Books.

Stern, D. N. (2004a) The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: Norton.

Stern, D. N. (2004a) Applying developmental and neuroscience findings on other-centred participation to the process of change in psyhotherapy. Theory Forum Symposium in The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters Oct.3-5 2004, in: Foundations of (pre)verbal intersubjectivity in light of new findings. Pre-proceedings ed. S. Bråten, Oslo 2004:8.

Trevarthen, C. (1998) The concept and foundations of infant intersubjectivity. in S. Braten (ed.) Intersubjective Communication and Emotion in Early Ontogeny. Pp.15-46. Cambridge U Press.

The Evolution and Grounding of Language in Multi-Agent and Robotic Systems
Angelo Cangelosi - Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition Research Group, School of Computing, Communication & Electronics, University of Plymouth

Computational approaches to modeling adaptive behavior and cognition, such as artificial life and multi-agent systems, are advantageous when studying the evolution of language and communication (Cangelosi & Parisi 2002). In these models, the level of description of the communicating agents and their environment varies significantly. This constitutes a continuum from ungrounded, abstract agent models to grounded multi-agent and robotic approaches. This work focuses on the use of adaptive grounded agents where (i) symbols are directly grounded in the agents’ own sensorimotor and cognitive abilities and (ii) the communicative/linguistic behavior evolves through the interaction of agents in their physical and social environment. In such grounded adaptive agent models, the perceptual, motor, cognitive and linguistic capabilities of the agents are controlled by evolving neural networks. Various models and simulations on the evolution and emergence of linguistic communication will be discussed. For example, a simulation studies the evolutionary origins of linguistic categories, such as nouns and verbs, and their grounded in sensorimotor abilities (Cangelosi, 2004). The techniques of categorical perception and synthetic brain imaging are used to analyze the sensorimotor bases of linguistic structure. Analyses on the agents’ neural network controllers show that the neural processing of verbs is consistently localized in the regions of the networks that perform sensorimotor integration. Nouns, instead, are associated with sensory processing areas. The general implications of such modeling and analysis techniques for multi-agent research on language evolution will be discussed. In a related multi-agent model on the emergence of syntax, the role of Baldwin effects in the interaction of language learning and evolution is studied (Munroe & Cangelosi, 2003). Simulation results indicate that when there is a high cost associated with language learning, agents gradually assimilate (in their genome) some explicit features of the language they are exposed to (e.g. lexical properties). When the structure of the language is allowed to vary using a process of cultural transmission, Baldwinian processes cause the assimilation of a predisposition to learn, rather than any structural properties associated with a specific language. Finally, a critical appraisal of the grounded modeling approach to language evolution will be presented. It will also discuss recent extensions of such grounded agent approaches to evolutionary and epigenetic robotic simulations of language evolution (Marocco et al, 2003).

References and links to papers:

Cangelosi A., Parisi D. (2002). Simulating the Evolution of Language. London: Springer.

Cangelosi A. (2004). The sensorimotor bases of linguistic structure: Experiments with grounded adaptive agents. In S. Schaal et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on the Simulation of Adaptive Behaviour: From Animals to Animats 8, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, pp. 487-496

Marocco D., Cangelosi A., Nolfi S. (2003), The emergence of communication is evolutionary robots. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London – A, 361: 2397-2421

Munroe S., Cangelosi A. (2003). Learning and the evolution of language: the role of cultural variation and learning cost in the Baldwin Effect. Artificial Life 8, 311-339

Dialogical Language and Dialogical Minds
Per Linell (Linköping University, Sweden)

The paper will discuss a dialogical theory of action, cognition and communication (Linell, 2005b), and particularly its implications for a theory of language. The background is that most mainstream theories within the language sciences have been based on "monologism", and often been strongly influenced by a "written language bias" (Linell, 2005a). However, if human beings are strongly predisposed to engage in social interaction, we can assume that language is made, at all levels, to serve interactional purposes. Accordingly, the brain is arguably designed to be "dialogical", e.g. to manage and monitor interaction with the environment, including other human beings, rather than to be primarily engaged in modelling and representing the outside reality.


Linell, P. 2005a. The Written Language Bias in Linguistics: Its nature, origins and transformations. London: Routledge.

Linell, P. 2005b. Essentials of Dialogism: Aspects and elements of a dialogical approach to language, communication and cognition.

Continuity in Question: Linguistic Competence and the Extended Mind
Michael Wheeler (Department of Philosophy University of Stirling)

The extended mind hypothesis states that cognitive processes are often distributed over brain, body, and world. With this hypothesis on board, Andy Clark (e.g. in 'Being There' 1997) has developed an account of linguistic competence. On Clark's account, the human brain is essentially a pattern-completing device, while language, in its primary manifestation, is an external resource which is adaptively fitted to the human brain in such a way that it enables that brain to exceed its unaided (i.e., pattern-completing) cognitive capacities, in much the same way as a pair of scissors enables us to exploit our basic manipulative capacities to fulfil new ends. Two continuities are pivotal to Clark's account: (i) that linguistic competence requires no fundamental reorganization of the biological brain's pre-linguistic processing architecture; and (ii) that decoupled language use (roughly, thinking by running through sentences in one's head) is subserved by fundamentally the same inner processing strategies that subserve coupled language-use (i.e., where intelligent behaviour is scaffolded by real-time interaction with environmentally located and materially realised linguistic entities). But where Clark finds continuity I find discontinuity. Clark's key example is Elman's dynamical systems model of linguistic processing. I argue, contra Clark, that Elman's model in fact indicates that linguistic competence does require a fundamental transformation in the brain's pre-linguistic mode of representation. Then I argue that Clark's second continuity looks compelling only because his favoured model of coupled language use is not an extended mind account. On an Elman-like model of coupled language-use, the functional contribution of the external factors in play is not of the right kind to support an extended mind conclusion. All this suggests that we still don't know how a genuinely extended mind account of linguistic competence might go.

Good prospects: Ecological and social perspectives on talking together
Bert H. Hodges (Gordon College Wenham, MA 01984 USA)

Is social learning (e.g., acquiring language) a matter of conformity (Tomasello, in press), creativity (Chomsky, 1965), or something else? Although the ecological approach to psychology (Gibson, 1979) has not focused on language, it provides interesting perspectives on social learning and other issues related to language. While it offers an externalist account of linguistic activity, the focus of ecological accounts is on values (Hodges & Baron, 1992) and “efforts after meaning and value” (Reed, 1996). First, aspects of Reed’s account of cognition and “entering the linguistic environment” are reviewed, including the collective appropriation of affordances, the precocious perception and enactment of “unfilled meanings,” and children’s becoming persons through the active structuring of their environment (e.g., gestural games, story-telling). Second, Hodges and Baron’s ecological approach to values is introduced (e.g., values are multiple, heterarchical, dynamical, and legitimating constraints on action) and applied to cases of pragmatic rule violations. These examples suggest that conversations are about seeking good prospects, caring for others and self, and inviting responsible action. Third, Asch’s (1956) famous experiments on social influence and perception are reinterpreted, using an ecological, values-pragmatics approach (Hodges & Geyer, in press). Although usually understood in terms of conformity, we suggest the experiments are better understood in terms of conversation, creativity, coordination, and cooperation. Evidence suggests that participants may have engaged in local errors to communicate larger truths, and more generally acted in ways that were nuanced and complex in a dilemma psychologists have considered only in digital terms. Finally, the relation of our account to Ross’s (2005) discussion of self, narrative coherence, and game-theoretic analyses is briefly considered.


Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and submission to group pressure: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs, 70, no. 9 (Whole No. 417).

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Hodges, B. H., & Baron, R. M. (1992). Values as constraints on affordances: Perceiving and acting properly. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 22, 263-294.

Hodges, B. H., & Geyer, A. L. (in press). A nonconformist account of the Asch experiments: Values, pragmatics, and moral dilemmas. Personality & Social Psychology Review.

Reed, E. S. (1996). Encountering the world: Toward an ecological psychology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Ross, D. (2005). H. Sapiens as ecologically special: What does language contribute? Conference paper.

Tomasello, M. (in press). Acquiring linguistic communication. In R. Siegler & D. Kuhn (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Cognitive development.

Internalism, externalism and coding
Phil Carr, Centre d’Etudes de Linguistique Anglaise (CELA), Université Montpellier III

I begin by distinguishing radical (strong) internalism, of the sort advocated (inconsistently) by Chomsky (2000), from weak internalism. Under the former, which I reject, linguistic knowledge is not internalised from the mind-external world (despite the unfortunate use by Chomsky of the term ‘internalised’). Under the latter, mental representations of at least some linguistic objects are internalised. I suggest that weak internalism is consistent with at least some varieties of externalism. I argue that any version of externalism requires appeal to mutual linguistic knowledge. It appears that some attempts at conceptualising mutual linguistic knowledge rest on a notion of ‘encoding’ and ‘decoding’. Following Burton-Roberts & Carr (1999) and Carr (2000), I suggest that the idea that concepts are somehow encoded in phonic substance, transmitted, and then decoded back into conceptual content is deeply mystical, appealing as it does to the mystical notion of transmogrification (as explictly claimed by Bromberger & Halle 2000), or to the equivalent notion of transduction (as in Hale & Reiss 2000). I follow Burton-Roberts (2000) in replacing this encoding notion with a relation of physical representation, via phonic substance, of conceptual content.

Thus far, I concur with Love’s (2004) critique of the notion ‘code’ in language study. But I then seek to reply to Love’s objections to the idea that we possess linguistic items which remain more or less the same despite differences in their physical representation (though this is not Love’s formulation, exactly). Love raises a series of simple, but perplexing, cases which appear to undermine the idea that there are definable units out of which complex linguistic expressions are built. Externalism, whether of the sort proposed by Ross (2004), or any other sort, cannot proceed unless Love’s sceptical objections to the idea of shared systems can be countered. Love’s objections are not, I believe, entirely adequately countered by Clark (2004). I hope to go some way to countering them in this paper.

In repyling to Love, I appeal to recent work on exemplar theory (as appealed to by Docherty & Foulkes 2000), which, I believe, allows us to respond to Love’s point about phonetic variability in the pronunciation of words. I then reply to Love’s point about the ambiguity of utterances such as ‘I didn’t leave because I was angry’. Here, I appeal to the claim made by Burton-Roberts (2005), that there are no ambiguous thoughts, only ambiguous physical representations of thoughts. Finally, I reply to Love’s sceptical comments on child mispronunciations of adult physical representations of words. In doing so, I consider some simple data from work by Brulard & Carr (2003) on child bilingual acquisition of French and English which supports, I argue, the idea that the bilingual child has internalised two distinct systems. Finally, I offer some reflections on ‘code-switching’ (which I refer to as system-switching) in the bilingual child. I argue that these allow us to go some way in responding to Love’s scepticism about the notion ‘word’.


Bromberger, S. & Halle, M. (2000). The ontology of phonology (revised). In Burton-Roberts et al : 19-38.

Brulard, I. & Carr, P. (2003). French-English bilingual acquisition of phonology : one production system or two ? International Journal of Bilingualism 7.2 : 177-202.

Burton-Roberts, N. (2000). Where and what is phonology ? A representational perspective. In Burton-Roberts et al : 39-66.

Burton-Roberts, N. (2005). Robyn Carston on semantics, pragmatics and ‘encoding’. Journal of Linguistics 41.2 : 389-408

Burton-Roberts, N. & Carr, P. (1999). On speech and natural language. Language Sciences.

Burton-Roberts, N., Carr, P. & Docherty, G.J. (Eds.) (2000). Phonological knowledge : conceptual and empirical issues. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Carr, P. (2000). Scientific realism, sociophonetic variation and innate endowments in phonology. In Burton-Roberts et al : 67-104.

Chomsky, N. (2000). New horizons in the study of language and mind. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Clark, A. (2004). Is language special ? Some remarks on control, coding and co-ordination. Language Sciences 26.6 : 717-726.

Docherty, G.J. & Foulkes, P. Speaker, speech and knowledge of sounds. In Burton-Roberts et al : 105-130.

Hale, M. & Reiss, C. (2000). Phonology as cognition. In Burton-Roberts et al : 161-184.
Love, N. (2004). Cognition and the language myth. Language Sciences 26.6 : 525-544.

Ross, D. (2004). Metalinguistic signalling for co-ordination amongst social agents. Language Sciences 26.6 : 621-642

Language, Anticipatory Dynamics, and the Distributed Nature of Activity and Meaning Making
Paul J. Thibault, Faculty of Humanities, Agder University College, Kristiansand, Norway

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in distributed models of activity and meaning-making. The term ‘distributed’ refers to the ways in which both semiosis and cognition make use of resources beyond the body-brain of the individual (see Clark 1997). These resources include those afforded by one’s own and other’s bodies and other resources in the external environment such as artifacts, tools, objects, maps, machines, visual images, voices, gestures, texts, and so on. The environmental affordances in Gibson’s (1986) ecological theory of perception are an important precursor of and an inspiration for this line of thinking, as is activity theory in the tradition inspired by Vygotsky (Thibault 2004a). Many current accounts of language and discourse still focus on disembodied notions of text per se. Focusing on the distributed nature of meaning-making activity can help us to see more clearly how environmental and bodily factors act as semiotic scaffolding in, for example, contexts of teaching and learning. Language and other semiotic resources – both somatic and extra-somatic – constitute a network of external resources whereby semiosis and social agency is distributed in across diverse space-time scales (Cowley 1998; Lemke 2000, Thibault 2000). Texts themselves are resources which, when integrated to our activity, can help us to solve various kinds of problems. In the theory of distributed meaning-making activity, social agents make use of external resources of various kinds in order to solve social and computational problems and tasks. In the examples that I shall consider, these external resources will be subdivided into two kinds: (1) environmental affordances that agents can use and appropriate to their projects and (2) the regularities of the events in which they participate or which they observe. Semiosis in all its manifestations is a resource which both constrains and enables particular ways of acting and understanding by reshaping and extending cognitive tasks. I shall look at some examples of children’s interactions in informal learning contexts to shed light on these issues.

Following Rosen (1985), I also take up and further develop in this connection a point that I first discussed in Thibault (2004a: 187) on language as an anticipatory system, rather than a reactively ‘representational one (see also Bickhard 2005; Thibault In press). The dialogic-interpersonal aspect of natural languages provides a normative basis for the agent’s evaluations of what is ‘appropriate’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, or ‘truthful’ ‘interesting’, ‘important’, and so on. This normative basis is functional in the ongoing maintenance of the agent as a system that learns and through learning changes itself. The normative aspect of the agent’s meanings is seen as a high-level contribution to the maintenance of the agent-system qua cognitive system. These meanings are therefore functional in the learning and in the self-transformation of the system qua individuating agent (see also Thibault 2004b, 2005, In press). Some instances of bonobo-human exchanges will also be considered in this light.


Bickard, Mark H. 2005. ‘Function, anticipation, representation’. http://www.lehigh.edu/~mhb0/mhb0.html; downloaded March 2005.

Clark, Andy 1997. Being There: Putting brain, body and world together again. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Cowley, Stephen J. 1998. ‘Of timing, turn-taking, and conversations’. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 27(5): 541-571.

Gibson, James J. 1986 [1979]. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ and London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lemke, Jay L. 2000. Across the scales of time: artefacts, activities, and meanings in ecosocial systems’. Mind, Culture, and Activity 7(4): 273-290.

Rosen, R. 1985. Anticipatory Systems: Philosophical, mathematical and methodological foundations. Oxford: Pergamon.

Thibault, Paul J. 2000. 'The dialogical integration of the brain in social semiosis: Edelman and the case for downward causation.' Mind, Culture, and Activity 7(4): 291-311.

Thibault, Paul J. 2004a. Agency and Consciousness in Discourse: Self-other dynamics as a complex system. London and New York: Continuum.

Thibault, Paul J. 2004b. 'Agency, individuation, and meaning-making: reflections on an episode of bonobo-human interaction'. In Geoffrey Williams and Annabelle Lukin (eds.), Language Development: Functional Perspectives on Evolution and Ontogenesis, 108-132. London and New York: Continuum.

Thibault, Paul J. 2005. ‘Forgiveness in bonobo-human exchanges’. Scientific report as contribution towards Project #2 -- Savage-Rumbaugh, Fields, Segerdahl, Thibault, Benson, and Greaves, Experimental investigations: The effect of the intentional introduction of forgiveness into a Pan/Homo culture. Funded by the Campaign for Forgiveness Research, Templeton Foundation (USA). Des Moines, Iowa: Great Ape Trust Iowa (GATI): Unpublished Mimeo.

Thibault, Paul J. In press. ‘What kind of minded being has language: Anticipatory dynamics, arguability, and agency in a normatively and recursively self-transforming learning system, Part 1’. Linguistics and the Human Sciences 1, 2.

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