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This editorial appeared in Volume 2 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

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 scholarly domains.

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, 28-43.

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 (1984)

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