ENSO seminar: The Symbol Ungrounding Problem

Joanna Rączaszek-Leonardi gave an invited talk for ENactive Seminars Online (ENSO), a virtual seminar series.

The Symbol Ungrounding Problem

I will use the opportunity provided by this ENSO talk to connect in a more explicit way 1) the rationale for the necessity of symbolic entities in (a description of and) functioning of living systems (Pattee, 1969; Polanyi, 1968; Rączaszek-Leonardi, 2012) with 2) our later work, which strives to know how symbols may come about and what meaning-creating infrastructure they need to emerge in the case of language (Rączaszek-Leonardi et al., 2018). I will thus try to show when and why it is difficult to talk “dynamics only”, when explaining how function is ratcheted in living systems and how relations are stabilized in interpersonal coordination.

I will also count on the ENSO community to discuss an important terminological issue. We are using the term „ungrounding” to show the complementarity, not the opposition, to Steven Harnad’s project of studying the nature of symbols. Yet it is read as the latter by many. By „ungrounding” we do not mean a complete disconnecting from ongoing, multi-scale dynamics, but rather that symbols as constraints are enriched by relations among them. This partially liberates them from the dynamics and allows to accrue complex controlling powers. Thus terms such as „enriching”, „supplementing” are perhaps more suitable to describe this liberation towards abstraction, but maybe there are better terms?