World and Mind

May 4, 2007

How does culture interact with minds

Filed under: Uncategorized — by theuth @ 2:03 pm

How does culture interact with minds. Do cultures literally evolve? I have recently been involved in some discussion of this question on the interdisciplines website. My introductory article is reproduced below and there is some more discussion and response to this over on the interdisciplines website:

The means of the organisation of the human mind: social, biological and technological.

What sort of science should a science of human representation be? Will the main principles and regularities turn out to be continuous with the biological sciences or will we need to look to additional principles in our understanding? This is rather too large a question and so my primary purpose here is to draw attention to some of the specifics of the development of human minds and the laws and regularities governing their construction, across various time scales, in human social systems. I will contrast this approach with two competitors, the first which sees our minds primarily as grounds for pseudo-biological replication and the other which sees our mental powers as being embedded in (perhaps even composed of) a mesh of technological devices.

I will attempt an alternative path that seeks to understand the systems of representation that govern human minds as being social in origin, formed around our tendency toward sign-mediated interpretation (and, indeed, over-interpretation). By examining some of the principles underlying this form of interpretation I assess the claim that human representation is structured by, and pivots around, material symbol systems (Clark 2006). While I think there is something basically correct about this claim I shall argue that the principles by which these systems are structured and maintained are semiotic and can only partially be characterised in a narrowly technological way. Our minds are born embedded in a web of social interpretation and this allows us to develop unique cognitive abilities. The distinctive character of human cognitive processes may indeed pivot around material symbol systems but what material symbol systems are is not exhausted by a technological description.

The nature of this embedding is, however, controversial and, I’ll argue, often misconceived. Human minds are not merely embedded in a world of technological systems and processes – even when broadly conceived – but are embedded in systems of interpretation. These systems of interpretation are organised in a variety of time-scales and it is through the co-ordination of interpretational means that our minds come to embody some of their unique powers. In what follows, I will discuss how semiotic systems co-ordinate and construct minds across the organismic boundary; at least as classically-understood. Semiotic systems structure minds through many different processes, but we can broadly categorise them through their organisation at three different time-scales. These are, the timescale of semiotic sedimentation: the cultural time-scale over which sign systems are produced and structured and maintained as an emergent property of all of the interpretational activity in a system of communicating beings. Next, is the timescale of semiotic induction, when a child is taken-up by a process that I call constructive semiosis and through this induced into normative social practices, especially auto-interpretation? Finally, there is the time-scale of self-regulation via signs which encompasses the processes through which we regulate ourselves with semiotically produced means, striving to make ourselves coherent and predictable.

Selectionist theories of culture: An ecology of memes, or semiotic sedimentation.

Memetics proposes a quasi-biological theory of culture, i.e., that there are units of cultural selection that are literally propagated between minds. The propagation of these units is held to be in some sense analogous with the way genes are propagated by the copying of DNA. Tightly defining what precisely is being replicated under the memetic approach is not an easy task as habits, trends and fads all seem to be equally well captured. However, central to the idea is that beliefs and desires, those old targets of folk psychology, can be copied. Memetics, then, is controversially an ‘epidemiology of beliefs’(Sperber 1996). It proposes a selectionist perspective on how beliefs and desires are propagated through minds. In order to better understand this perspective we are enjoined by Dennett, among others, to take the ‘memes-eye-view’ (Dennett 1998). Such a view demands that we see minds not as active agents whose motivational structure can be understood by beliefs and desires, i.e., via the folk-psychological or intentional stance, but rather as receptacles for colonisation by these ‘ideas with attitude’.

Space does not allow a detailed critique of memetics, so I’ll limit myself to a couple of comments and then contrast it with an alternative account of the dynamics of cultural systems. Perhaps the central problem with the memetic theory is that it does not give us any mechanisms to understand the processes by which memes are replicated. Indeed, the mechanisms by which memes appropriate minds seem quite mysterious. Having cast mind as the medium through which memes are selectively propagated, the memes theorist should surely attempt to identify some of the principles by which this propagation takes place. A review of some of the things that have at one time or another been claimed to be memetically reproduced, e.g. the wearing of baseball caps, belief in god, the first couple of bars of Beethoven’s fifth; might make us suspicious as to whether there are any strong principles to be found in this area.

These memetic principles should also ex hypothesis be at least similar to those we find in natural selection. But what are the phenotypes of memes, what are their genotypes and what are their units and mechanisms of selection? Moreover, there is no great indication that much progress has been made in identifying these entities since the original development of the idea (Dawkins 1976). While the possibility of finding respectable analogues for such entities in a memetic science cannot be ruled out at this time, there is a suspicion that the lack of much progress hereabouts points toward fundamental difficulties with the idea.

There are, I think, competitor theories in this area that make much better sense of the sorts of regularities memetic theory hopes to account for, have a selectionist element, but target not ideas and attitudes as the units of selection, but their occasional vehicles and mediators: words and sentences. In addition, we already start to understand some of the selectional mechanisms and principles of organisation that stand behind signs and their role in the organisation of mind. These principles of semiotic organisation have little to do, except by very rough analogy, with the principles of operation of DNA and RNA and the way these are transcribed and used to construct and regulate cells and their assemblies and, ultimately, bodies and brains. The argument for memes proceeds by analogy but I think it is blocked by a much better developed and better targeted theory in this area. I now want to contrast the memes theory with an alternative approach to cultural selection that identifies regularities and mechanisms that take place not on beliefs themselves but on their intermediaries, i.e., signs.

Semiotics is the theory of sign systems: what signs are, how they work, and how they evolve. Semiotics may have seemed once upon a time to be a purely descriptive or hermeneutic science a long way from naturalism, but at least since Millikan’s (1984) work it has at least seemed possible to reconcile theories of signs with a naturalist epistemology[1]. However, making it possible to study the propagation and maintenance of systems of signs on a mechanistic basis has largely been a recent development of the use of multi-agent simulation systems.

Of great interest in this area is the work of Luc Steels and his collaborators who have used multi-agent systems to model the dynamics of language and other sign systems[2]. I take these studies not to address the actual processes by which signs are propagated and maintained among human beings, but rather how a population of agents can construct and maintain a coherent system of signs using some quite simple interpretational mechanisms. This work has shown how a semiotic system can be regarded as an emergent property of the individual acts of interpretation of an ecology of agents co-ordinating their activities through a system of shared communicational means, (cf. Steels and Kaplan 1999; Kaplan 2000; Steels 2000).

At the heart of these language-game experiments are not just a selectionist framework but acts of proto-interpretation. One episode of such an interpretational activity can be characterised as follows:

  1. A speaking agent formulates a prospective utterance based on an association between a word-form and a meaning-form.
  2. The speaker utters its chosen word-form.
  3. The listener attempts to map the chosen word-form onto a referent in the environment
  4. Either all is well and in the event of communicational success both parties strengthen the connection between meaning-form and word-form,
  5. Or else, the communication is unsuccessful and both communication participants weaken the weightings of their previous associations between word-form and meaning-form.

The above description delineates the bare outline of an approach to the emergence of sign-systems garnered from the study of simple multi-agent systems[3]. It allows us the following insights. The dynamics that maintain a semiotic system can arise from the collective activities of interacting agents. They are emergent processes which allow complex systems of sign-organisation to become established from very minimal interpretational activities. They also require no spooky mechanisms by which beliefs can be propagated between minds. Signs and their systems are maintained by the process of agents attempting to ‘guess’ at the referencing acts of other agents[4]. Semiotic sedimentation, as I intend the idea here, is the process by which systems of sign interpretation are not just produced, co-ordinated and maintained between minds, but the way these are accreted into established systems of practice that regulate those minds. Such processes can construct and lay down systems of signs very rapidly[5], but more typically work over longer timescales than the lives of individual agents.

This then is a substantial point of contrast between memetic theory and a theory based on the dynamics of semiotic systems. According to the semiotic approach, it is not beliefs and desires themselves that are refined but, rather, the systems of interpretation of their occasional vehicles: words, sentences and other linguistic devices. These structures are then employed to co-ordinate beliefs and desires.

I claimed above that the memes theory as it stands has not very much by way proprietary mechanisms with which it could be properly explicated. It is merely the claim that culture is organised by mechanisms that have a rough analogy with natural selection. By contrast a theory of semiotic organisation provides potential proprietary mechanisms by which sign systems are organised and through them the representational systems of mind. However, the mechanisms by which such sign-systems are really structured between minds have only been sketched in their barest outline so far. Such a theory needs to be connected with mechanisms that explain the development of individual minds as sign interpreters. To understand these processes we need to look at a different time-scale.

Scaffolding and constructive semiosis.

In the study of the development of the child, we find a plethora of mechanisms dedicated to the propagation of signs[6]. What we find here are systems of complex processes by which the developing child’s activities are regulated, first by interaction with the mother and then by interaction with a much broader society of caregivers and others.

One of the most salient features of this scaffolding arrangement is that mothers do a lot of work – albeit some of it unconscious – to introduce children into the cultural word. A central way in which this is accomplished is by literally interpreting minds into existence, i.e. by applying an interpretational skein of beliefs and desires and their supporting mechanisms. To put this in an alternative way, human minds are produced by applying the intentional stance. While I use Dennett’s terminology I want to put a slant on it which although not entirely absent from Dennett’s work is perhaps not emphasized as much as it should be. Applying the intentional stance to at least a certain class of beings is not merely an interpretational mechanism. Rather it serves to render their minds explainable and open to prediction. Intentional interpretation – or rather over-interpretation – is a mechanism that makes at least a certain class of systems more felicitously encompassed by the intentional stance in the future. Not all systems are, of course, so affected by interpretation. Thermostats, paramecia, geckos and most primates do not seem to be much affected by being subjected to systematic interpretations. Human infants, on the other hand are.

Stephen Cowley makes this apparent in research into the way that children’s minds are interpreted and transformed by embedding in a particular socio-cultural niche. He shows that there are important and measurable effects on the child’s behaviour in even the early weeks of life. In one nice example, Cowley discusses how speakers of isiZulu teach a baby to show ukuhlonipha (glossed as respect). This method of calming babies appears to be quite different from that used by Indian and White populations but is effective from as early as 14 weeks. Moreover as Cowley shows, the way in which babies take up these cultural patterns is controlled by semiotic means and embedded in an intentionally-inflected interpretational framework[7].

Human infants, virtually from the moment they are born, are caught up in this framework of intentional interpretation. Their mothers almost immediately set about capturing their gestures and actions in a range of activities – descriptions, labelling and pointings-out – that are all intentionally structured.

Further, these systems of interpretation are not very tightly constrained across cultures. Although many philosophers once held that folk psychology is largely a cross-cultural and ahistorical beast, empirical evidence has demonstrated the limitations of this thought (Lillard 1998). Folk-psychologies may turn out to be much more variable than was once understood, and they will not likely turn out to be intentional in the precise sense of the Western model. However, interpretation into culturally expected standards of mind is something which we do find across all cultures. We need to understand the mechanisms by which minds like ours move from being systems that are only poorly captured by the standard belief / desire theory to being consummately covered by it. If I am right, this is another reason – apart from the reason that it is a mistake to see folk-psychology as theoretical rather than practical – as to why calling folk psychology a theory is to make a kind of category error, or at least that this is not only what taking the intentional stance consists in. Taking the intentional stance is not just a means of interpretation but a means of transformation[8].

But, are these processed mediated by signs as I have previously claimed they are? To see how I’ll discuss a related theory of how language is involved in cognition which I think closely relates to our discussion, i.e. the theory of material symbols developed by Andy Clark (Clark 2006)[9].

Material Symbols and their semiotic embedding.

According to Andy Clark, language is to be understood not just as a biological adaptation but “a species of external artifact whose current adaptive value is partially constituted by its role in re-shaping the kinds of computational space that our biological brains must negotiate” (Clark 1998). Words compose material symbol systems: structures in which we become embedded and which complement the native representational systems of our brains. Through interacting with these systems, we come to develop and sustain the sorts of cognitive powers that are most characteristic of the human species[10].

For Clark material symbols play a unique role in ongoing human cognition in virtue of their material form. Material symbols function in part by providing pared-down targets for cognition without some of the rich and distracting concreteness of whatever they stand in for. In one of Clark’s illustrative examples the symbol-trained ape Sheba is able to gain a subtler mode of control of her own activities precisely because she only shallowly interprets the symbol. The original task confronting Sheba is to point to one of two piles of treats. Sheba should point to the smaller pile in order for the experimenters to give her the larger. However, she fails to do this in the face of the rich sensual presence of the treats. Sheba can however point to a symbol representing the smaller pile of food however and so get the larger pile. Clark argues this demonstrates a central way that material symbols complement brains, i.e. by providing manipulable but shallowly interpreted stand-ins[11].

Perhaps because Clark is concerned to give an account of the cognitive powers conferred by material symbol systems, he has much less to say about the systems of interpretation on which those symbol systems depend. What could be missed on this account is that it is the social embedding of symbols that not only confer their unique cognitive powers, but also what makes them symbol-systems in the first place. What seems obscured on the material symbol systems view is the way that symbols arise from and are embedded in a system of interpretation, i.e., the way in which symbols are signs.

The importance of semiotic embedding over too extreme a focus on the materiality of symbols does, I think, become clear when we consider some of the variety of the instantiation of human languages. Sign or gesture based languages seem to be every bit as cognitively felicitous as vocally instantiated ones, yet although there may be some relevant differences between the sorts of sign systems which could be built in either media, the same underlying mind producing regularities arise. Minds which are able to manipulate and interpret systems of signs seem to have remarkably similar powers whether the symbols are instantiated in fluttering vocal chords or in gesticulating fingers. In part Clark has accounted for this by arguing that it is because symbols are abstract that they have the cognitive properties they do. Yet this seems to cast doubt on the very materiality claim. It seems that the powers of ‘material symbols’ are actually multiply realizable and their cognitive effects can be found broadly whenever held in the right sort of interpretational framework.

Clark makes a strong case that our minds have the character they have because of their embedding in a world of linguistic technology. However, it is the interpretational nexus in which this ‘technology’ is framed that is the real source of some of our most subtle and complex cognitive powers. While the so-called ‘material’ dimension of symbols is undoubtedly important, it is only by paying attention to their semiotic, interpretational embedding that we can understand their central cognitive properties.

From semiotic coordination to self-interpretation.

We are inveterate self-interpreters using a complex scheme of hermeneutic means to examine and motivate our mental lives. While some of us are more reflexive in our thinking than others, it seems likely that it is also definitive of being human that we at least some of the time reflect upon our own motivations and desires. Does this reflexive capability rely on semiotic means? I think there is good evidence it does.

One place to look for clarification of the role of auto-interpretation is in developmental psychology which pays close attention to micro-genesis, i.e., the transitory episodes by which mind is interpreted into life. What we find in microdevelopmental episodes is the autonomous, creative and second-by-second adoption of semiotic props to structure activities. In a recent paper Sinha (2005) discusses the way in which Brazilian children appropriate a television character Beto Carrero into an episode of play. The television character has a characteristic cowboy hat. In a play episode Sinha analyses how this cowboy hat is taken up and re-interpreted in a blend which incorporates both some of the characteristics of the TV character but is also feminised and transformed in a way that is appropriate to the gendered characteristics of the children playing the game. This re-interpretation itself pivots around an actual cowboy hat with which the girls are playing. Here we find not a shallow interpretation but a deep and subtle re-interpretation of the material signs available[12].

The use here of semiotic systems and their moment-by-moment incorporation into structured activities is not an exception but the norm of everyday child development and of course of adult life. It is a process of self-construction, of bringing a complex agent to life through self-interpretation according to social norms and regularities.

Through folk practices, children are inducted into a world of intentional ascriptions by which they come to practice interpreting both the minds of others and themselves. But achieving such a feat is not just a matter of conforming to outside pressures to play language games, but rather to consider oneself as the proper place where intentional ascriptions find their focus. Not merely as a confluence of beliefs and desires but as an agent governed by reasons and socially prescribed norms. Such a view of norm-governed auto-interpretation gives us the key to why beings like us are the proper province of the intentional stance and not other animals or artefacts that may be derivatively captured with more or less accuracy or under a wider or narrower range of circumstances. We, unlike any other actually existing system, internalise the interpretative systems of folk psychology and use them to govern our actions. Self is the outcome of auto-interpretation mediated by the interpretative system provided by folk-psychology.

I have tried to outline the role of semiotic interpretation in the human mind and the part it plays in determining our unique cognitive skills. I have emphasized how this process is organised over different time-scales and how the semiotic approach is at least consistent with the move toward a science of embedded cognitive systems and mind. Semiotic systems are shaped over cultural time, are drawn upon in developmental time, when we are literally interpreted into mindfulness, and are then used by human beings to organise their moment-by-moment ongoing activities. Understanding the nature of representation in human minds will require paying attention to the multiple time-scales over which the means of representation are organised.


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Clark, A. (1998). Magic Words: How Language Augments Human Computation. Language and Thought. Interdisciplary Themes. P. Carruthers and J. Boucher. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 162 – 183.

Clark, A. (2006). Material Symbols. Philosophical Psychology 19(3): 291-307.

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Sinha, C. (1988). Language and Representation: a socio-naturalistic approach to human development, Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Sinha, C. (2005). Blending out of the background: Play, props and staging in the material world. Journal of Pragmatics 37(2): 1537-1554.

Sperber, D. (1996). Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Steels, L. (1999). The Talking Heads Experiment: Volume I. Words and Meanings. Antwerpen, Laboratorium.

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Steels, L. and F. Kaplan (1999). Collective learning and semiotic dynamics. Advances in Artificial Life (ECAL 99), Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence. D. Floreano, J. D. Nicoud and F. Mondada. Berlin, Springer-Verlag: 679-688.

Steels, L., F. Kaplan, et al. (2002). Crucial factors in the origins of word-meaning. The Transition to Language. A. Wray. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.


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