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ResearchThe Groningen Research Institute for the Study of Culture (ICOG)ResearchOnderzoeksprojectenSemiotic evolution and cultural dynamics

Semiotic evolution and cultural dynamics

(Supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, NWO)

Semiotics and Cognitive Science

Human culture, encompassing the whole of human actions and products, is dependent on complex semiotic behaviour. This semiotic behaviour, or semiosis, generates signs, which are the building blocks of culture (images and artefacts, texts and concepts, models and theories). As elements of culture, signs have traditionally been the research-object of the humanities – of archaeology, history and art history, as well as comparative literature, film studies, etc. Signs, however, are also mental activities, performed by the human brain. And as activities of the human mind, they are studied in the sciences of cognition: in neurology, evolutionary psychology, linguistics, anthropology and philosophy. In recent years, cognitive research into culture (language, the evolution of culture, art and aesthetics, etc.) has become an increasingly important counterpart to the scholarly research in the humanities.

Thus a three-layered structure emerges: on the historical ‘surface’ we find culture, with its myriad of forms: images and artefacts, texts and concepts, models and theories. This constantly changing historical reality, however, is structured by a relatively small set of semiotic building blocks (icons, symbols, and indices). This second layer ofsemiotic building blocks has, in turn, a cognitive ‘deep structure’: on this third layer we find the activities of the human brain.

As signs and the semiotic process constitutes the coin of which the cultural and the cognitive are the two sides, semiotics occupies a key-position in research, as it bridges the two great realms of research (both scientific and scholarly) dealing with human culture: the cognitive sciences and the humanities.

In our joint research, it is our aim to contribute to a theory of human culture that is firmly based on a theory of human cognition. More particularly, we will focus upon problems of semiotic evolution – from phylogenetic evolution to historical change –, on its cognitive underpinnings, as well as on its impact on processes of cultural change. Studying the semiotic building blocks of culture, we hope to gain insight in the structures underlying cultural dynamics. Questions that guide our research are, for instance: How did semiosis emerge? How did it evolve? In what sense does semiosis change the process of representation? In what sense is human cognition ‘semiotic’? Which phases can be discerned in the evolution of semiosis? What could be the role played by language in semiotic evolution? How do thesemiotic phases influence the cultural ‘surface’?

Language occupies a specific place in the context of this research – on the one hand because of the prominent role it plays in human culture, on the other because of the dominance of the sciences of language in cognitive research. Linguistics must therefore necessarily function as an important ‘sparring partner’ in any interdisciplinary research on culture and cognition.

The philosophy of symbolic forms, as it was developed by Ernst Cassirer (1923-1929), provides our research with a philosophical basis. We consider it a major challenge of this joint research project to provide his theory of the emergence of the symbolic out of the stimulus-response reaction, as well as his theory of cultural evolution from the linguistic and the mythical to the theoretical, with a firm ground in contemporary semiotics and in cognitive science. Cassirer’s work will therefore be critically analysed from the perspective of recent (evolutionary) psychology, linguistics and anthropology, as well as that of contemporary semiotics.

Although each partner has his specific focus of research, the goals of the partnership is to work on the common ground of a general theory of culture as semiosis. The research interests of the three partners are strongly complementary, which may contribute to the success of the joint research project. Whereas research in Groningen focuses primarily on cultural semiotics, researchers in Bremen are oriented toward linguistic semiosis, and the Center of Semiotics in Aarhus is well known for its research in cognitive semiotics.

We propose to organise three interconnected workshops, exploring semiotic evolution and its relation to the dynamics of culture from a cognitive, linguistic and cultural perspective.

  • Workshop 1 Indexicality revisited
  • Workshop 2  Meta-representation and (Self-)Consciousness
  • Workshop 3 Semiotic Evolution and the Dynamics of Culture

© Barend van Heusden, 2005

Last modified:31 May 2017 1.16 p.m.