Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet


The Cognitive Semiotics of Artefacts and their Significance for Human Evolution

Chris Sinha


The analogy between sign and tool is an old one, and the general notion of cognitive technologies now has widespread application throughout the cognitive sciences. Karl Bühler (1990), influenced by the functionalism of Prague School linguistics, proposed the Organon (Greek=tool or instrument) Model of language. Lev Vygotsky (1978) also viewed signs as instruments, not only enabling communication between individuals, but also transforming intra-individual cognition. Vygotsky regarded the analogy as resting on the fact that both sign and tool support mediated activity; but he also distinguished between their modes of mediation in that, while tools are “outer directed”, transforming the material world, signs are “inner directed”, transforming and governing mind, self and behaviour (Vygotsky,1978: 54-55). There has been little attempt, however, to create a more fine-tuned categorization of different kinds of cognitive technology, or to analyze its specific semiotic character. Although we have the early categorization by Bruner of technologies into those that amplify motor actions, those that amplify perception and those that amplify thought, this only yields the third, undifferentiated category of cognitive technologies, without fully explaining it.

All human artefacts are in a broad sense cognitive, inasmuch as they embody human intentionality. However, there is a special subclass of what we can call symbolic cognitive artefacts: this subclass can loosely be defined as comprising those artefacts that support symbolic and conceptual processes in abstract conceptual domains. Examples of symbolic cognitive artefacts are notational systems (including writing and number), dials, calendars and compasses. Cultural and cognitive schemas organizing at least some relevant conceptual domains may be considered, I shall argue, as dependent upon, and not merely expressed by, the employment ofsymbolic cognitive artefacts.

I propose, then, to view cognitive technologies as being instantiated in symbolic cognitive artefacts. To count as part of a cognitive (or, indeed, any) technology, an item must be part of the made, artefactual rather than the found, natural world. Not all tools are artefacts. While some tools are based only on the appropriation of material affordances, artefacts, I argue, also have a signifying status, inasmuch as they functionally “count as” (instances of the artefact class of which they are a member; and their material form signifies that status function. Thus, first-order tools (such as sticks used in termite-fishing) are excluded from the category of artefacts, but artefacts that are made by the spatial placement of found elements (eg stones marking direction) may qualify as symbolic cognitive artefacts. I will refer here to some experimental work I and my colleagues carried out many years ago on the development of infants’ and young children’s understanding of the canonical functions of objects (Sinha, 1988; Sinha and Rodríguez, 2008).

I propose, too, that to qualify as a symbolic cognitive artefact, the artefact must have a representational function: that is, it must embody an intentionally produced sign (or sign complex), or incorporate such a sign complex in its structure. However, to be a cognitive artefact, the artefact must also represent something outside itself, through a sign function materially embedded in the artefact. By applying this criterion, we may stipulate that a telephone or telegraph is not a cognitive artefact (so not a cognitive technology); but a Morse code beeper, or a teletype, or an alphanumeric screen display connected to the wire are all cognitive artefacts, because they inherit the cognitive artefactuality of the writing system.

In general, all cognitive artefacts involve some kind of notational system. The status of cognitive artefact may be simply inherited, as we saw in the examples above, from the notational system itself. However, new modes of organization of the notational system, and of the processes operating on and through the notational system, may also be characteristic of cognitive artefacts. The abacus is therefore a cognitive artefact, and so is the spreadsheet. On my current definition, however, a desktop computer is not itself a cognitive artefact; rather, it permits the development and use of functionally specialised cognitive artefacts.

We might also ask whether Searle’s distinction between regulative and constitutive rules or norms also has a parallel in the typology of cognitive artefacts. I think that it does. Some cognitive artefacts are best thought of as augmentative. Books, for example, are clearly cognitive artefacts, but they support and augment the possibilities of reading and authoring that are afforded by writing systems. Similarly, compasses enable us better to navigate in a system of co-ordinates projected onto the world that predated the compass itself. In contrast with the class of augmentative cognitive artefacts there is another class of constitutive cognitive artefacts, that literally bring into being the domain with respect to which they facilitate cognitive operations. Examples, I suggest, are number systems, clocks and calendars. Such constitutive cognitive artefacts can have radically transformative effects on cognition, as I shall illustrate in relation to some of our field work in an indigenous Amazonian community (the Amondawa).

Finally, I shall consider whether or not human natural language can be viewed as a cognitive technology. On the one hand natural languages can be considered as artefactual vehicles with cognition-transforming properties; on the other hand human evolutionary adaptation to language, and cognitively motivated language evolution, have yielded a symbiotic relationship between the human species and its biocultural niche that is analogous with non-human species/niche relationships (Laland et al., 2000; Sinha, 2009). This relationship has been epigenetically stabilized and forms part of the human genome: it is the species-niche relationship, NOT the niche itself (grammar) that is (contra to e.g. Pinker, 1994) innate. The human biocultural niche of language is neither just biology nor just invention; it is part of our human species being, and it is crucial to what makes us human, and the same can be said of our species-specific capacity for artefact invention and the cultural transmission of artefact use. Language and artefacts are constitutive of the human biocultural niche, both being “social facts” (Durkheim, 1895). The intersection of the socio-semiotic lines of development of language and artefacts, in symbolic cognitive artefacts, is foundational to the emergence and cultural evolution of complex social institutions.


Bühler, K. (1990 [1934]) Theory of Language: The Representational Function of Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Durkheim, E. (1895) Les Règles de la méthode sociologique. Paris: Alcan.

Laland, K.N., Odling-Smee J. and Feldman M.W. (2000) "Niche construction, biological evolution, and cultural change", Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23: 131-175.

Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct. London, Penguin.

Searle, J. (1995) The Construction of Social Reality. London, Penguin.