ENSO Seminar Series

The Symbol Ungrounding Problem

Joanna Rączaszek-Leonardi

University of Warsaw
Oct. 3, 2019, 9 a.m. UTC // Oct. 3, 2019, 9 a.m. in UTC

I will use the opportunity provided by this ENSO talk to connect in a more explicit way 1) the rationale for the necessity of symbolic entities in (a description of and) functioning of living systems (Pattee, 1969; Polanyi, 1968; Rączaszek-Leonardi, 2012) with 2) our later work, which strives to know how symbols may come about and what meaning-creating infrastructure they need to emerge in the case of language (Rączaszek-Leonardi et al., 2018). I will thus try to show when and why it is difficult to talk “dynamics only”, when explaining how function is ratcheted in living systems and how relations are stabilized in interpersonal coordination.

I will also count on the ENSO community to discuss an important terminological issue. We are using the term „ungrounding” to show the complementarity, not the opposition, to Steven Harnad’s project of studying the nature of symbols. Yet it is read as the latter by many. By „ungrounding” we do not mean a complete disconnecting from ongoing, multi-scale dynamics, but rather that symbols as constraints are enriched by relations among them. This partially liberates them from the dynamics and allows to accrue complex controlling powers. Thus terms such as „enriching”, „supplementing” are perhaps more suitable to describe this liberation towards abstraction, but maybe there are better terms?

Pattee, H. H. (1969). How does a molecule become a message? In: “Communication in Development” (Vol. 3, pp. 1–16). New York and London: Academic Press.
Polanyi, M. (1968). Life’s irreducible structure. Science, 160, 1308–1312.
Rączaszek-Leonardi, J. (2012). Language as a system of replicable constraints In: Howard H. Pattee & Joanna Rączaszek-Leonardi, “Laws, Language and Life: Howard Pattee’s classic papers on the physics of symbols.” Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 295-332
Rączaszek-Leonardi, J., Nomikou, I., Rohlfing, K. J. & Deacon, T. W. (2018). Language Development From an Ecological Perspective: Ecologically Valid Ways to Abstract Symbols. Ecological Psychology, 30:1, 39-73, DOI: 10.1080/10407413.2017.1410387

Link to join/watch the seminar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nh4zY-ixIUo

Recommended Reading

Language Development From an Ecological Perspective: Ecologically Valid Ways to Abstract Symbols (Joanna Rączaszek-Leonardi, Iris Nomikou, Katharina J. Rohlfing, Terrence W. Deacon)
In the embodied, situated, enacted and distributed approaches to cognition, the coordinative role of language comes to the fore. Language, with its symbolic properties, arises from a multimodal stream of interactive events and gradually gains power to constrain them in a functional and adaptive way. In this article, we attempt to integrate three approaches to information in cognitive systems to provide a theoretical background to the process of development of language as such a coordinator. Ecological psychology provides an explanation for how any behaviors or events become informative through the process of “tuning” to affordances that control individual and collective behavior. The dynamical approach helps to operationalize this control as a functional reduction of degrees of freedom of individual and collective systems. Cognitive semiotics provides a typology of constraints showing their interrelations: it proposes conditions under which informational controls that function as indices and icons may become symbolic, providing a qualitatively different form of constraint, which can be partially ungrounded from the ongoing stream of multimodal events. The article illustrates the proposed processes with examples from actual parent-infant interaction and points to ways of verifying them in a more quantitative way.