This editorial appeared in Volume 3 (1) of The Semiotic Review
Editorial: Natural Semiotic
by Colwyn Trevarthen
The infinitely ambitious programme of semiotics, given contemporary
enunciation by Sebeok (1990) and Eco(1979), for example, would unite
all forms of communication, from physical communion among atoms
and molecules, to the most fundamental and most profound of human
symbolism, in one hierarchy of "information transfers". This physicalist
theory wants to classify a stuff called "information" in a diverse
machinery of emissive and receptive communicative processes. It
presumes that top levels in the hierarchy of signs are built out
of the physical necessities of the unthinking bottom, pre-life levels.
If one is a physicalist, this is a tautological enterprise, however
intellectually demanding it may be in even partial fulfilment.
In a sense such a science of "semiotics" is fundamentally at odds
with a natural ethology, which should begin its analysis of how
animals behave and communicate without preconceptions about the
organisations that make animal intelligence and motivation possible.
At the same time semiotic theory, though it claims to be Darwinian,
is dualistic, because it views human symbolic communications as
radically different from animal communication. Yet symbols are needed
by, and generated in, communication games, for which there are motives
that are not symbolic. In the beginning there was no word, and in
infancy there is still none.
The socio-linguistics have long insisted that structural theories
of grammar do not explain how meaning is generated and conveyed
in the languages of the real human world. Habermas (1978, 1979)
identifies the foundations of social contracts in "dialogue constituent
universals", which also motivate grammars of speech and text. When
people make deals, give orders or proclaim or withhold information,
and when they ask for information or help they are not just making
up intentional formats. They are performing transfers of purpose
with feeling and awareness. They are negotiating states of doing
and knowing to create a common meaning.
Halliday (1975) identifies the fundamental functions of sociosemiotics
in the protolanguage of one-year-olds moving to the threshold of
speech. The fundamental intersubjectivity of language resides in
a consciousness of the minds of other persons as these are revealed
through the movements of their whole bodies. McNeill (1987) has
used television recordings to analyze 'deep speech' that all people
give out unconsciously through body movements, especially gestures
of the hands. Their partners in conversation instantly and unconsciously
assimilate these movements as carriers of images and messages about
the acts of protagonists in the story. Such encoded, or subconsciously
coded and unrecorded expressive behaviours bridge language gaps.
making it possible for friendly persons of totally alien cultures
to share ideas. and even to do work together if they have overlapping
expertise and the right pragmatic context. That human speakers of
a story conceptualize and interpret the narrative in its interpersonal
and metaphorical aspects is shown by the ways unconscious gestures
of the hands and face are combined with the conventional symbols
in the language of spoken words.
We conclude that human symbolic communication is grounded, not
on deep cognitive structures specially for language alone, as conceived
by Chomsky, but on a more general deep structure of an empathy for
the dynamics and interactive values of all forms of human expression
for sharing experiences. A language is entirely learned, arbitrary
and codified, and usefully so. But the abstract functions of the
language, built into the syntax and semantics, have a strong innate
base in the patterns and processes of human intersubjectivity. These
include motives for identifying "objects-of-common interest", and
for making up common evaluations of such objects.
Furthermore, language is not just a means by which subjects, as
cognitive units, exchange information. It is a product of a natural
and essential interaction between the motives of minds that have
evolved to grow through communication and that learn through "guided
participation" in knowledge and joint tasks. The codification of
human experiences, actions and artifacts is a cognitive overlay,
carrying infinite detail of reference and the ordering classificatory
schemes that assist learning and remembering. It rests on a system
of transferred feelings that are shared directly, and that develop
through semiotic mediation.
The whole semiotic system of a human community- its language, beliefs,
customs, its image of itself in nationhood or as a "people", and
in relation to the land it inhabits and the stories of how it came
to be there - is taught. It is acquired through having the story
told by someone who knows it already and who values its significance.
This process of instruction, and every occasion in which this cultural
system is communicated about, depends on the links between minds,
and these are regulated by expressions of feeling and motivation
that are not learned. The minds of the children and adults have
evolved complementary motives to make this linking work. The living
feelings of the teacher give the reinforcement for the learning
of the pupil, and they guide its organization.
The expressions of feeling are universally recognisable whenever
there is fresh negotiation of meanings between humans of any age.
They hold the social system together and organize its consciousness
and work, emotionally. They are celebrated, strengthened and made
durable in art ritual. They are weakened if examined solely by the
materialistic, realistic and rational discourse through which they
have to find practical effect.
If ethology and semiotics are to be related in one theory of human
communication based on Darwinian principles, they will need to concentrate
more on the core regulations of human social cooperation and the
construction of meaning, as these have been conceptualized, for
example, by Malinowsky (1923), Halliday (1978), Habeermas (1979),
and Rommetveit (1987). Both disciplines have their origins in a
rational tradition in which perceptions and thoughts of the individual
have been chosen to be axiomatic.
Ethological theory describes motivation in terms of a subject orienting,
exploring and making consummatory acts. Intersubjective (social)
motives, which, ostensibly, are the principal concerns of the discipline,
are then described mainly in terms of the control of competition
and agonist encounters. The theory of cooperation is less developed,
possibly in a disciplined reaction to romantic anthropomorphizing
in old accounts of the social systems of insects, birds, etc. Ethological
theory, which originated in Germany, has been shaped by a tradition
of philosophy and education that emphasised the disciplining of
the impulses of the individual for the common good.
We need, from the science of behaviour, a clearer representation
of the cooperative mechanism, rather that a hypothetical engagement
of IRM (Innate release mechanisms) systems in the separate individuals.
Von Uexkull's idea of a "sign stimulus" was originally a way of
conceptualising an organism's readiness to respond selectively to
features of the environment that afford information, information
that could be exploited to guide profitable action, i.e. action
that promotes or supplies a life function. This basic ecological
mechanism, fitting an animal's behaviour to the available or findable
environment, can be degraded in the "comparative method" of ethology
into a search for replicable descriptions of responses or forms
of action. Von Uexkull clarified the mutual relationship between
the chemical constitution, physical layout and dynamic processes
in the environment and the patterned and integrated life processes
of the organism, the latter being adapted by evolution to support
that special life form in that environment. Furthermore, he recognised
that the motivation is not just in the individual animal or plant,
that it is in the engagement between information and energy of the
environment and the dynamic vitality and reactivity of the organism.
In a developmental perspective, one has to envisage innate conditions
of readiness to change in a self-constructing direction, along a
regulated and therefore predictable course, but with the necessary
support of dependable environmental information, nutrients, forces,
terrains, events, etc. That are fit to satisfy defined appetites
and are selectively "consumed".
In the social environment, one has to observe the mutual interactions
and relationships between the individuals, not just the signals
of individuals or their intuitive response biases or templates for
perception. In the cultural systems of human beings, the relation
between the innate and the learned is even more distributed. It
is not only necessary to see the individual living and developing
in interaction with the chemical, physical, geographic, biological
and social environments, but, through cooperative exploration and
exploitation of the uses of all these different aspects of the environment,
the growing child comes into relation with the patterns and customs
of a culture extending time and space from the "here and now" to
the limits of his or her people's "tribal narrative" and cosmology.
Eco, Umberto (1979) A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press.
Habermas, Jurgen (1978) Knowledge and Human Interests (2nd.
Edition) London: Heinemann.
Habermas, Jurgen (1979) Communication and the Evolution of Society.
Halliday, Michael A.K. (1975) Learning How to Mean: Explorations
in the Development of Language. London: Edward Arnold.
Halliday, Michael A.K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic.
London: Edward Arnold.
Malinowski, Bronislaw (1923) The problem of meaning in primitive
language. Supplement I to The Meaning of Meaning, C.K. Ogden
and l.A. Richardson (eds.) London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
McNeill, David (1987) Psycholinguistics: A new approach.
New York: Harper and Row.
Rommetveit, Ragnar (1987) "Meaning, context and control: Convergent
trends and controversial issues in current social-scientific research
on human cognition and communication." Inquiry 30, 77-99.
Sebeok, Thomas A. (1990) Essays in Zoosemiotics (Monograph
Series of the Toronto Semiotic Circle, Number 5) Toronto: Toronto
Semiotic Circle, Victoria College in the University of Toronto.
Colwyn Trevarthen is Professor of Child Psychology
and Psychobiology, University of Edinburgh, Scotland. His principal
research interests include: development of communication; principals
of expression and communication in language and music; role of motives
and emotions in psychological growth; growth and education of the
brain; comparative and developmental neuropsychology. He has published
about equally on 'split-brain' research into mechanisms of perception,
learning and motor coordination in monkeys and humans, and on intersubjectivity
and cooperative understanding in infants His recent publication
include (1985) Facial expression of emotion in mother infant interaction
Human Neurobiology, 4, 21-32; (1990b) Growth and education
of the hemispheres. In Brain circuits and functions of the mind:
Essays in honor of Roger W. Sperry, C. Trevarthen (ed.). New
York Cambridge University Press; (1990b) Intutitive emotions; their
changing role in communication between mother and infant (Published
in Italian: Le emoziaoni intuitive L'evoluzione del loro RuolLo
nella communicazione tra madre e bambino. In Affeti Natura e
Sviluppo delle Relazione Interpersonali. M. Ammaniti & N Dazzi
(eds ) Roma-Bari Laterza, 97-139); (1990c) Signs before speech.
In The Semiotic Web, 1989, T.A. Sebeok and J Umiker-Sebeok
(eds) , Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter