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This editorial appeared in Volume 3 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
Over the last twenty years the Toronto Semiotic Circle -- this journal the monograph series, the ISISS sessions and monthly colloquia -- have allotted regular time and space to reports from cognitive sciences -- neurology, experimental psychology, animal learning, AI -- assuming their relevance to semiotics to be self evident. But it is a superficial indulgence to suppose that "we are all talking about the same thing" (as I have heard colleagues say, when our markedly dissimilar discourses are constructing obviously different objects. The proof is the scarcity of real dialogue evidenced by substantial cross referencing of concepts and sources. There are exceptions. With the writings of Francisco Varela, alone and with co-authors, a dialogue is fully engaged. These deeply humane books, anchored in biology, reflect on a broad range of philosophical, ethical and cultural issues, inspiring a most diverse conversation with their references to experimental work in AI, theories of psychoanalysis, HusserN Merleau-Ponty, Minsky, Derfida, and much else.
The books I consider here are Varela's recent work with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind (1991) -- hereafter EM -- his earlier work with Maturana as first author Autopoiesis and Cognition -- "AC" -- a republication, in 1980 of papers going back to 1971, and his solo elaboration of the latter, Principles of Bilogy Autonomy -- PBA -- (1979). Part of this may be old to some readers, but I know that there are others who have missed it.
The most recent volume (EM) induces a "circulation between the sciences of mind (cognitive science) and human experience," the latter particularly as witnessed in Madhyamika Buddhism (p.xv). It argues that our belief that we could represent nature as detached observers fails before the evidence of contemporary neuropsychology and artificial intelligence and cannot withstand philosophical analysis; that our science, unable to secure foundations for our sense of self or our sense of nature, has lost touch with direct experience and human moral concerns and provokes despair. In Madhyamika Buddhism the authors find a tradition of disciplined study which achieved equivalent insights about our lack of epistemic support and, because of its technical practice, accepts them as a source of moral and emotional sustenance.
That quick summary omits, along with much else, the link to semiotics and the grounding of the argument in biological research. The title, Embodied Mind, is clearly intended as a tribute to McCulloch but turns the phrase in a new direction (McCulloch, 1965). The book recalls McCulloch's pioneering formulations of computational models in neurology. Maturana had participated in McCulloch's seminal investigations of the frog retina which supported these. Maturana and Varela extended the investigations to pigeons. They were surprised to find that avian vision does not always distinguish, as ours does, between spatial and colour relations. This suggested, in a more fundamental sense that we can readily imagine, that the birds were not looking at the world we see. At any rate, there was no objective (i.e., species independent) way to describe the target of their vision. This -- and much else -- lead Maturana and Varela to propose an axiomatics for biology, particularly the biology of cognition.
For them, living organisms are autopoietic systems, i.e. organizations which produce their own components and maintain their constituent relationships. An external observer can characterize life in terms of his goals and functions in relation to As species and environment, but this characterization of fife, which is "symbolic" rather than "operational," depends on the situation of the observer and fails to specify the necessary and inherent coherence of the organism, whereas the criterion of autopoiesis does. Every organism maintains its specificity across a domain of interactions or modifications. This is the cognitive domain of the organism; cognition is entailed in living. Cognition is not fundamentally symbolic calculation and does not imply "representation". "Representation" does not occur because all cognitive domains are closed and self referenial even those which encompass languages.
Accounting for language as an elaborated facet of autopoiesis, the authors attitude to, but do not fully explore, the deep analogy which their scheme suggests between biological organism and cultural structure as in Saussurian langage; the one a self producing system of chemicals, the latter a self defining system of terms.
There's more to it: as observers we may understand the system of terms as representing an environment and understand the system of chemicals as responding to an environment. Those observations do not necessarily specify factors constituent of the coherence of the language or of the maintenance of the organism, but they are essential to our appropriation of the phenomena into our own cognitive domains. Articulating the role of the observer allows us to integrate two distinct planes of description, dual descriptions for biology as self-preservation or as adaptation; dual descriptions for semiotics as structure (syntax) or as interpretation (reference). Considering our general failure until now to evoke a unified framework for Saussurian and Peircean streams in semiotics, this analogy is tempting.
There's still more to it: Varela and Maturana work out a notion of "structural coupling" which strongly evokes "intertextuality," but to go further on this tack is complicated. Let's look at the previous tack to the East.
EM warrants its turn towards Buddhist phenomenology as a constructive alternative to crises in Western thought: our loss of foundations in philosophy as witnessed in both the analytical and continental traditions, the fragmentation of the self in philosophy and cognitive modelling (e.g., as in Minsky's Societies of Mind and the failure of the only Western discipline which might have promised consensual results through introspection, Husserl's phenomenology and its sequels in existential philosophy and laboratory psychology. In the schools of Buddhist meditation and analysis they report (the Madhyamika traditions after Nagarjuna) they find a positive and compassionate response to a "world without ground" and a practice of introspection which has and does support a sophisticated reflective analysis of direct experience. To project so vividly and so succinctly as they do some sense of the universe from the perspective of Madhyamika is a forceful literary achievement. It seems a bit shameful, even with the scam-genre of editorial as an excuse, to venture a snapshot, but I can't think of an alternative. At the heart of the stance they elicit, then, is a sense of all being as a discontinuous string of momentary mind-body-world relationships. Neither mind nor world alone has sense or unity outside these mutual encounters, but in their continual meeting, they embody a coherent path, the "middle way".
The authors hold this stance to be utterly different from anything in Western tradition. Despite their evident depth of reflection on French post-structuralism (e.g. Derrida), I must still ask whether that might possibly be because they have not looked more deeply into semiotic.
Much of their philosophical argument makes reference to and broadly concurs with Richard Rorty's, identifying in the empiricist's notion of mind as a "Mirror of Nature" the essential fallacy of philosophy since the Renaissance, and appreciating, as a tiny step in the right direction, Rorty's pragmatism. Interestingly, Rorty's defence of pragmatism tends to bypass Peirce.
Of course, we can say all sorts of things about Pierce. In the absence of any summa, what Peirce really thought about this and that often becomes merely a biographical question: he vacillated on major issues. In his writings we have substantial incentives to explore ideas that he may not have worked out thoroughly or convinced himself about. It's slippery turf, but I suggest that Peirce sought -- perhaps achieved -- in his semeiotic a pivot between ontology and epistemology, which would not posit a "mirror of nature", construing a real universe impregnated with signs or quasi-signs that give rise to mind. I sense it would be very worth revising Peirce's "phaneroscopy" and studying how much, in structure, texture and motivation, the enacted path of moments of consciousness revealed in Madhyamika meditation is like the chain of interpretants construed by Peirce for a universe in which the most fundamental laws may be in a state of evolution. If all continuity, all regularity, all habit is a third and all thirds, signs and every sign a little mind, have we not a "middle way"?
Deely's recent Basics of Semiotics, which, by the way, is a basic book of theory not pedagogy, explicates many of these implications in Peirce's doctrine and -- its pre-positivist antecedents. Deely's findings in semiotic philosophy and its history foreground an alternate Western tradition to the anti-semiotic philosophy that grew from Locke. It is only in that anti-semiotic tradition, albeit dominant, that the "mirror of nature" is sustained as the rug to sweep dirt under. Some aberrant backsliding not withstanding, we can argue that semiotics has been mirror busting all along.
Take it or leave it, I shall not, myself -- certainly not in this limited format -- attempt yet another retuning of the strains of idealism, realism and nominalism in Peirce or assess his success in transcending the dichotomies. However, the authors of EM are appealing less for a system than for a mode of enquiry, and it is in this spirit that I would invoke a bit more of Peirce and still more of semiotics to reflect on their central theme of embodiment.
"In point of fact, a syllogism in Barbara virtually takes place when we irritate the foot of a decapitated frog. The connection between the afferent and efferent nerve... constitutes a nervous habit, which is the psychological analogue of the major premise. The disturbance of the ganglionic equilibrium... is the occurrence of a case... The explosion through the efferent nerve is the inference of a result" (II.711; my emphasis). Now, this approaches, if I have it right, embodiment of mind in the Varelian sense, but also confronts us with the embodiment of mind in a further sense which EM skimps, signalled by the capacity of such cases to "give a significance to the ancient system of formal logic" (Ibid.) The central argument of these books that cognition-as-process is a function of its embodiment can be extended to cognition as product (knowledge as opposed to knowing.) And that, of course, is what we do in semiotics. One of the questions Maturna poses (in 1971, but I don't see the progress on it in the later books) is "how does the nervous system interact with its own states, and (how is it) modified by them as if they were independent entities?" (42). From our corner, the necessary first hypothesis is: indeed by embodying those states in independent entities, that is by making signs -- not just notations, of course, but any traces -- nests, sounds, rituals sufficiently delimited to orient the addresser as well as any addressee.
Obscuring EM's progress on this front is the rather confused dialectic about symbolism and representation as these notions are disputed in AI. As far as I can figure, the real culprit may be "information" rather than "representation". Having inherited the brilliant insight of cybernetics that information could be treated as a quantitative property, computational modelling seems to generate an unfortunate feedback that makes the property into a substance. Our vertiginous oscillations in semiotics between abstract principles and the oddest instances reflect our finding that there is no abstract information in the world. Verbs, hem lines, postage stamps, ballet positions, ... are embodiments of significance, not "information", ultimately incommensurate and, when most transparent, like windows looking on, not mirrors looking back.
1.SRBwill be going independent next year. We are counting on your continuing loyalty.
Back to where you left off.
2. They frequently cite his Mirror of Nature. I have given more attention here to his Consequences of Pragmatism, which they also cite.
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3.Speaking of embodiment, we have three quite different books here. AC is a collection. It includes Maturana's first paper on autopoiesis, his later elaboration of the concept with Varela, and Maturana's partly autobiographical preface which begins with a poem, ends with social ethics and, in the middle, clarifies a great deal of the theory. PBA is a three-part book which develops a theoretical framework first, then essays a mathematical model and concludes with technical applications to immunology and visual neurology. These are deliciously difficult books written in warm individual voices. The new book is intended for a more general audience. Its plan is hard to convey briefly. Chapters alternate summaries of problems and research in cognitive science with descriptions of parallel perspectives in meditative doctrine. The deepening spiral starts on one side with cognition modelled as symbolic calculation and progresses through connectionism to "embodied cognition." One high spot is the stunning summary and critique of the colour universals problem synthesizing linguistic, anthropological, psychological and neurological findings. l have already mentioned EM's frequent, effective evocation of meditational perspectives. The downside is a tone of committee consensus (surely the tranquility of the word processor, not the Buddha.) If you check your bookstore, you will see it is a bestseller, and for a good reason.
Back to where you left off.
Deely, John, 1990. Basics of Semiotics. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
H. Maturana and F. Varela, 1980. Autopoiesis and Cognition the realization of the living. Boston: New Science Library 141p ISBN 9027710163
---, 1987. The Tree of Knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Boston: New Science Library.
McCulloch, W.S. 1965, Embodiments of Mind. Cambridge, Mass. The MIT Press.
Peirce, C.S., 1965. Collected Papers. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Rorty, R., 1979. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
---, 1982. Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Varela, F., 1979. Principles of Biological Autonomy . New York, Elsevier North Holland. 306pp. ISBN 04444003215
Varela, Francisco, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, 1991. "The Embodied Mind," Cognitive Science and human experience. MIT Press: Cambridge, lSBN 0-262-22042-3 302p
David Lidov is Professor in the Department of Music at York University, and President of the Toronto Semiotic Circle (1992-93).