Mundos de significação: no natural e no artificial

Por Isabel Ferreira, Doutora em Linguística pela FLUL

(a conferência será proferida em português)

Every form of cognition results from the interaction cognitive agent-environment, which is grounded on a relation of mutual dependence and influence where a basic and fundamental semiosis takes place.

In fact, a life form and its environment constitute a unit, a “closed purposive organisation” where the cognitive agent and the environmental bubble he is embedded in, though coupled and mutually influencing each other, tend to preserve their own identities.

It is the organism’s sensitivity to specific features- a consequence of its physical architecture- that allows for their recognition in the surrounding environment. But as Cassirer (1927) points out, this “seeability” is not a predicate attributed to things as such, as absolute things. It is in fact the result of an active process of interpretation led by the cognitive agent.

In this sense we can agree with Merleau-Ponty (1968) in that meaning exists at a pre-reflective level of existence. In fact there seems to be a primary, pre-ontological assignment of meaning, an assignment that is prior to any experience whatsoever and that enables cognitive agents to respond adequately to some environmental cues and to ignore others.

Salience, individuation and consequently meaningfulness depend on acts of interpretation carried out by specific cognitive agents. We aren’t sensible to stimuli that drive, for instance, bats or spiders. Though we share the same planet their world isn’t obviously ours.

Though any form of cognition always involves the construction of a meaningful world where the epistemic actor finds its place and role, it would be a gross error to oversimplify the complexity of human cognition.

Conscious of the complex way meaning is composed and conveyed among human organisms, Cassirer (ibid.) defines man as “animal symbolicum”. He suggests the existence of a symbolic system, which falls between the “receptor” and “effector” systems that it shares with all the other organisms. It is this symbolic system- language- that allows signs to be assigned values enhancing a three-part relationship between the “Sign-Using Self”, “Constructed Reality” and the “Other Self”.

Human cognition comprehends not just the organism’s capacity to cope with specific physical environments, but also its capacity to evolve in dynamic differentiated economic, social, cultural and linguistic contexts. It is this complex semiosis that is responsible for the production of all systems of values that give body to specific economic, social and cultural frameworks, where salience and meaningfulness are defined according to particular historical, cultural and linguistic backgrounds and are consolidated or redefined by recurrent individual and collective interactions.

The changes brought about by digital revolution to human cognition (especially in what concerns western societies) are huge. The boundaries that used to separate the “natural” from the “artificial” have nearly vanished as the two domains frequently overlap. Artificial environments progressively invade daily routine at the most elementary forms of interaction, the natural and the artificial criss-cross defining for the cognitive agent a single view of the world. Space and time become more fluid, enlarging this way significantly the scope of individual and collective interaction.

Simultaneously the projects leading to the creation of semiautonomous or even autonomous artificial entities, i.e. entities capable of interacting in natural and/or artificial environments, have contributed significantly to an enlarged view of the phenomenon of cognition. Biology is no longer just a metaphor that inspires AI. The inquiry into how elemental life forms interact with their environments has led to the identification of the fundamental role played by the physical architecture of the cognitive agent and has shed a light on the semiotic process that is common to all life forms, ultimately highlighting the very nature of meaning.

Publicações da conferencista directamente relacionadas com o tópico da conferência

(in press) Biosemiotics vs Anthroposemiotics: The need for an integrated approach (Journal of Cognitive Semiotics)

(2007) On Meaning: the phenomenon of individuation and the definition of a world view. Dissertação de Faculdade de Letras. Universidade de Lisboa


Doutora Isabel Ferreira proferindo a sua conferência.


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