This editorial appeared in Volume 2 (2) of The Semiotic Review
Editorial: Analogies and Confluence
by John M. Kennedy
Recently, along with fellow psychologists and colleagues from departments
of English, sociology, linguistics and fine arts, I participated
in a symposium on vision and rhetoric. I learned a good deal, particularly
from Pat Vicari (1990) discussing Renaissance emblematica. When
she outlined some examples of metalepsis, in which a metaphor is
built on another metaphor, and defined the relations between text
and pictures in emblems in some periods, the possibilities of a
fruitful contact between the psychology of communication and the
study of significant historical examples and practices became evident.
Psychology has not spent time defining the nature of metaphors within
metaphors, and could do so with profit in examining basic matters
like class-inclusion (Kennedy, 1990; Glucksberg, 1991) as well as
parochial matters such as interpretations of social roles, or attempts
to analyze dreams active in the brain hemisphere that is more given
to metaphors, and why we are led astray by persuasive but erroneous
arguments using ill defined terms.
While I listened with interest at the symposium to talks on the
politics of public art honouring our war dead, and vigourous deconstruction
of the notion of the general dispassionate viewer of odalisques
in Victorian art, I wondered what vision scientists in the audience
were making of the symposium. Did it seem rather idle? Was any discussion
of particular currents of style and thought rooted in a well-defined
period too far from a scientist's preoccupation with universal truths?
Was it persiflage to the perception psychologist to treat vision
as subject to happenstance conventions about colour, texture, and
props such as fans? Most vision researchers -- l count myself one
-- have a strong commitment to Realism. I know I do. The result
is that any attempt by artists, anthropologists and humanists to
work in figurative communication via visual vehicles is, potentially,
grounds to some vision students for dismissal from good polite scientific
company. To some humanists, conversely, vision scientists can seem
rigid, narrow-minded and paradoxically, blind to their subject matter.
These attitudes of mutual dismay between vision scientists and
scholars of art using vision are permeable, I believe, for principled
reasons. I have the impression that, in today's academic landscape,
new alliances are being forged because of matters that have to do
with the nature of knowledge and communication, and genuine advances
in our understanding of symbols, signals and signs. In a phrase,
we live in an era which has seen the burgeoning of cognitive science
and semiotics, and the one is for the sciences what the other is
for the humanities. Let me explain.
Cognitive science spans philosophy, psychology, computer science
and linguistics. There are applications from other disciplines to
join. I am reminded of Turkey's application to Join the European
Economic Community. Brussels sternly insists that the supplicant
puts his economy into order before being granted full membership.
Semiotics spans philosophy, linguistics, literary studies, anthropology
and art history in the main. Regular forays are made into biology
and sociology. Semiotics does not yet have the clout of cognitive
science and Brussels.
If the lists of the chief contributing disciplines were the most
basic characterization of the domains of cognitive science and semiotics,
there would seem to be some overlap between the two, but not much.
A participant in both circuits would feel like a dilettante, no
more, if the common pursuit was only a dram of overlap.
But there is more, assuredly. What has given birth and exciting
life to both cognitive science and semiotics is the set of worthwhile,
technical analyses of the problem of representation that characterize
the post-positivist era in scholarship. The structure of linguistic
units, from parts of speech to sentences and then to discourse and
its social settings is now a clear and carefully-appraised target
for enquiry. The role of optical patterns in defining what can be
seen and what may be inevitably ambiguous in principle is the major
topic for research in vision psychology (Warren, Mestre, Blackwell
and Morris, 1991). That metaphor can be found in domains far from
purely verbal features is now largely established. The discoveries
of the richness of sign language for the deaf, the social and communicative
capacity of the higher primates (Zeller, 1991) and the native picture
comprehension skill of the blind (Kennedy, Gabias and Nicholls,
1991) all lead to the conviction that communication in pictures,
in words, or in whatever mode is inherently more abstract than the
medium being employed at a particular time. It is clear that we
cannot discern the limits of paraphrase when the paraphrase skips
from being a purely verbal transformation to become gestural, or
pictorial. There must be limits, but their definition at present
is beyond our ken.
Within psychology there has been such clear recognition of the
forcefulness of current thinking about the flexibility of modes
of communication and representation that serious doubt is widely
entertained as to the continued existence of psychology as a discipline
in its present form. The major targets of psychology include a proper
understanding of mental representation. Philosophy, rhetoric and
computer science may be better mineshafts into the key issues here
than experimental psychology. Philosophy examines the basis for
representation qua representation. Rhetoric defines the myriad
types of relations between vehicles and referents. Computer science
offers machinery and programs which are attempts to show how material
entities can have the properties philosophy defines as sufficient
and necessary for representation. They embody, it is said, the types
of representation relations rhetoric finds being used today, or
to follow up the talk given by Pat Vicari, that were used in particular
periods such as the Renaissance. If philosophy, rhetoric and computer
science are even modestly successful in their goals, there will
be precious few ontological problems of representation left to be
solved by psychologists. Perhaps only the relation between the conscious
and the unconscious, the explicit and the implicit, will be left
as psychology's own special demesne of enquiry.
Threats similar to the one felt by psychology to the well-being
of the discipline are also being sensed acutely in English departments,
and other disciplines dealing with literature and art. This is the
reason, I suspect, why an occasional wild essayist imagines semiotics
is one more threat to Western, liberal education and freedom of
speech (D'Souza 1991). In the Humanities, some of the central problems
are taken to be best tackled outside of traditional disciplines,
some voices say. I recall an explanation I was given for a welcome
but rather unusual invitation. I was asked to address the Art History
Association of Great Britain -- the first psychologist to be asked.
I was told that the reason the invitation was extended was that
some of the historians recognized the art history conference was
no longer talking about pictures as pictures. The raison d'être
of the association is a deep love for pictures, so that the absence
of discussion of picturing is an anomaly. Curiosity about pictures
should lead to their study. But art historians talk most of the
time about everything else except what makes the picture a picture.
The art history association has left a niche which psychology could
help to fill! Of course, art history is not all one needs
to have a theory of art or pictures. Something more is needed. If
they are, like Matus (1988/9), in search of a general theory, literary
scholars too often feel that the study of a select library of texts
is missing something. A general theory of communication by texts
is a gap any single discipline leaves unexplored. The only way the
exploration could succeed is by a treatment of literature and texts
that eschews becoming a purchase by a single discipline concerned
with a particular literary tradition. Scholars in each of the disciplines
need to join in the abstract sky above the study of single traditions
of whatever era or country.
The promising sky above psychology that may be full of brighter
enterprises than psychology can muster is cognitive science. The
sky, of whatever proleptic hue, above the humanities is semiotics.
Both cognitive science and semiotics are concerned with representation,
how representation is possible, and its many forms. The fact that
they have a common purpose does not mean cognitive science and semiotics
will prove to be boon companions, or even in the long run one and
the same. Cognitive science is especially (though not exclusively)
concerned with how an object can be known via a natural medium such
as light (or an artificial medium such as an X-ray photograph),
and how an entity can apprehend and remember the object. Semiotics
is especially concerned (though, again, not exclusively) with human
agency in the making of representations. Historical periods, and
contexts of peculiarly human kinds, matter a great deal more to
semioticians today than to cognitive scientists. Most semioticians
are not interested in what makes a number a number, and most cognitive
scientists are not interested in typefonts or the development of
Arabic numerals. In my experience, semioticians are more open to
studies from cognitive scientists than the reverse. But I think
the time must come when the flow between the two kinds of scholarship
must be fairly equal. It is impossible to theorize adequately on
the nature of communication without a reasonable acquaintance with
the two kinds. We know now that it is nonsense to think of language
as verbal. It is nonsense to think of metaphor as inherently linguistic.
It is nonsense to think of metaphor without bearing context in mind.
Similarly, it is impossible to conceive of vision without thought,
and classification, and it is a distortion of vision to examine
it in a world without communication, in many guises.
Both cognitive science and semiotics, it seems to me, operate like
a kind of pure theory of representation. Then it is up to individual
disciplines to root the distinctions being devised in particular
Far from being an attack on humane civilization, semiotics and
cognitive science are clarifying the basis for symbolling and conveying
the distinctions that make thinking and telling possible.
D'Souza, D. (1991) "Illiberal Education." The Atlantic Monthly,
267, No. 3(March), 51-79
Glucksberg, G. (1991) "Beyond Literal Meanings: The Psychology
of allusion." Psychological Science, 2, 146-152.
Kennedy, J.M. (1990) "Metaphor--its intellectual basis." Metaphor
and Symbolic Activity, 5, 115-123.
Kennedy, J.M., Gabias, P. and Nicholls, A. (1991) "Tactile pictures"
(p. 26-99). In M. Heller & W. Schiff, Touch Perception, Hillsdale,
N.J.: L. Eribaum.
Matus, J. (1988/9) "Proxy and proximity: Metonymic signing." University
of Toronto Quarterly, 58 (Winter), 305-326.
Vicarl, P. (1991) "Renaissance emblematica." Paper presented at
the Symposium on Visual Rhetoric, Scarborough College, University
of Toronto, Scarborough, Ontario, (April 26)
Warren, W.H., Mestre, D.R., Blackwell, A.W. and Morris, M..W. (1991)
"Perception of circular heading from optical flow." Journal of
Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 17,
Zeller, A. (1991) "Chimpanzee's lives." The Semiotic Review
of Books, 2 (1), 3-5.
John M. Kennedy is Professor of Psychology at the University of
Toronto President of the Toronto Semiotic Circle and a member of
the senior editorial board of SRB He is the author of "Tactile pictures"
in M. Heller and W. Schiff (Eds.) Touch perception, in press. His
numerous publications in this domain include Haptic pictures
(1982), What can we learn about pictures from the blind?
(1983) and Vision and Metaphors: Empirical Investigations