Life after the symbol system metaphor

Interaction Studies 8 (1):143-158 (2007)
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Abstract

After reviewing the papers in this special issue, I must conclude that brains are not syntactic engines, but control systems that orient to biological, interindividual, and cultural norms. By themselves, syntactic constraints both underdetermine and overdetermine cognitive operations. So, rather than serving as the basis for general cognition, they are just another kind of empirically acquired constraint. In humans, symbols emerge from a particular sensorimotor activity through a process of contextual broadening that depends on the coordination of conscious and nonconscious processing. This process provides the representational freedom and stability that constitute the human brain’s solution to the frame problem and symbol grounding problem. Symbol formation and grounding is an ongoing process of generalising constraints from particular contexts, selectively enlisting their use, and re-automating them. This process is central to the self-creation of a language-using person with beliefs, agency, and identity.

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