Sonesson Plenary

Göran Sonesson, Lund University

The Psammetichus Syndrome and Beyond:
Four (or More) Experimental Approaches to Meaning-making

Thanks to the pioneering work of Bruno Galantucci (& Garrod 2011: 1), “experimental semiotics” is usually nowadays taken to mean the study of “novel forms of communication which people develop when they cannot use pre-established communication systems”. In this sense, experimental semiotics features a very narrow notion of semiosis and a very restricted set of experimental layouts. In spite of Galantucci’s claim to have picked the label because it was free, it has actually been used in different ways at least twice before: by Colin Ware (1993), who takes it to be involved with “the elucidation of symbols that gain their meaning by being structured to take advantage of the human sensory apparatus”, as opposed to conventional meaning-making, and by Kashima & Haslam (2007-08), who apply it to complex social situations. It might perhaps be said that at least one colleague and sometime collaborator of Galantucci, Simon Kirby, goes some way to approaching the latter notion of experimental semiotics in taking on the notion of sociability which seems to be a requirement of core varieties of semiosis. Taking his inspiration from Frederik Bartlett’s (1932) studies in "serial reproduction" (Cf. Wagoner 2017), Kirby (et al. 2014) have recently designed some experiments in "iterated learning". The label could however also conveniently be used to describe the kind of experiment that we have realised at Centre for Cognitive Semiotics (Zlatev et al. 2013; Hribar, Sonesson & Call 2014; Sonesson & Lenninger 2015), which are classical psychological experiments which have been enriched with a focus on the particular semiotic resources involved, while also applying phenomenological analysis to both the experimental situation and its outcome. These are all reductive uses of the terms "experimental" and "semiotics". In fact, although Galantucci himself refers to Psammetichus famous experiment (see Herodotus 1954: 102f) as being roughly analogous to his understanding of experimental semiotics, there are important differences, the Psammetichus experiment, in spite of its intentions, being more unbiased, if it could really be accomplished. While the specific forms taken by the acts of communication in Galantucci’s experiments are indeterminate, the semiotic resources of these forms are given beforehand. Perhaps such a presuppostionless experiment as that imagined by Psammetichus (or Herodotus) can only be realised by means of phenomenological variation. It would amount to something like the act of communication without any further determinations. This question becomes particularly urgent, since it was rather recently that it still seemed that the Galantucci type of study could only be accomplished by means of as variation in the imagination. From the point of view of the Lund brand of cognitive semiotics, we are committed to what I have called the dialects of phenomenology and experiment, and what Jordan Zlatev has termed the conceptual-empirical loop. Pursuing this principle, I will suggest, in the present paper, that these different experimental approaches can be related to different varieties of semiosis, and that such an analysis of semiosis may be of some help in going beyond such fuzzy notions as multimodality and multimediality.

Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Galantucci, B. & and Garrod, S. (2011). Experimental semiotics: a review. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 5, 11, 1-15.

Herodotus (1954) The Histories. Harmonsworth. Penguin.

Hribar, A., Sonesson, G, & Call, J. (2014). From sign to action. Studies in chimpanzee pictorial competence. In Semiotica, 198, 205-240.

Kashima, Y. & Haslam, N. (2007-08). Explanation and Interpretation: An Invitation to Experimental Semiotics. J. of Theoretical and Philosophical Psy. 27(2), 2007 & 28(1), 2008, 234-256.

Kirby, S., Griffiths, T. & Smith, K. (2014) Iterated learning and the evolution of language. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 28:108–114.

Sonesson, G. & Lenninger, S. (2015). The psychological development of semiotic competence: from the window to the movie by way of the mirror. Cognitive Development, 36, 191-201.

Wagoner, B. (2017) What makes memory constructive? A study in the serial reproduction of Bartlett’s experiments. Culture & Psychology, 23(2) 186–207.

Ware, C. (1993). The Foundations of Experimental Semiotics: a Theory of Sensory and Conventional Representation. J. Vis. Lang. Comput. 4(1): 91-100.

Zlatev, J., Madsen, A., Lenninger, S., Persson, T., Sayehli, S., Sonesson, G., & van de Weijer, J. 2013. Understanding communicative intentions and semiotic vehicles by children and chimpanzees. Cognitive Development, 28: 312-329.