Cognitive Semiotics: "Layers of agency and enhanced agency: A cognitive-semiotic approach to the human-artefact relationship" (Juan Mendoza Collazos)
This will be the "mock viva" (or "slutseminarium") of Juan for his PhD in cognitive semiotics on the topic of agency and artifacts. Dr. Aaron Stutz, PhD in Anthropology and researcher at Bohuslän Museum, will be the opponent, who will summarize and discuss the work. Welcome to H402, which has good technical facilities from a hybrid seminar, including a large screen and microphones! (There will be a post-seminar at Valvet for opponent, respondent, supervisors and others. So let Jordan know if you plan to attend this by Sept 7!)
In this thesis, I investigate the role of artefacts in relation to human agency. The following general questions are addressed: What is agency, and how can it be explained? Are artefacts endowed with agency, and if so – what kind? What is the role of artefacts in the constitution of human-specific agency? Each paper of the compilation thesis helps to answer one more of these questions at different degrees and levels of analysis. It applies the cognitive-semiotic methods of the conceptual-empirical loop and pheno-methodological triangulation (Pielli & Zlatev, 2020).
The thesis explores the origin and evolution of design, as a uniquely human activity in which agency is present in the volitional adaptations of the material world for the benefit of human purposes (Paper 1). It is argued that the intentional shaping and assembly of materials is a central capacity for discussing the notion of agency and the relationship between human beings and artefacts. Delving into the evolutionary emergence of design helps to understand the relevant cognitive processes underlying this activity and their relationship with other key semiotic resources such as mimesis, pictorial representations and polysemiotic communication. Design is understood as a human-unique feature that integrates an array of cognitive skills associated to artefacts production such as decision-making, planning, innovativeness, and continuous improvement. In addition, design encompasses key cognitive features of human agency including both and the active cognitive processes of an ongoing action (intentions-in-action), and the anticipation of a future actions in imagination or mediated by pictorial representations (prior intentions).
From the notions of prior intentions and intentions-in-action, the thesis addresses the current debate on the role of materiality for human cognition and the status of artefacts as agents, critically reviewing the concept of material agency (Malafouris, 2013). For the sake of a better understanding of the human–artefact relationship, I propose a distinction between agency and meaning, the latter emerging when an agent acts in the world (Paper 2). The interaction between agent and the world establishes the reciprocal relationship of intentionality (world-directed) and semiosis (agent-related), as argued by Zlatev & Konderak (2022). Thus, the active aspect of intentionality corresponds to agency. In turn, this is complemented with subjectivity, which like semiosis in general is agent-directed (Paper 5). This implies that agency is an exclusive property of living beings who are capable of intentionality and subjectivity. Inert matter exists, but it does not act. Artefacts are human creations; they do not simply appear in the world. The creative act of transforming materials implies a purpose.
These arguments establish an asymmetry between human beings and artefacts in terms of intentionality and agency. But still, what is the role of artefacts for human agency? The thesis addresses this question by means of an empirical study consisting of contextually situated observations of the process of design of artefacts in Amazonia (Paper 3). By means of participant observation and interviews, we found evidence for supporting the thesis that the agency of artefacts is derived (Niño, 2015), and a product of remote intentions (Sonesson, 2015). Nevertheless, this does not mean that the role of artefacts is secondary in human meaning-making. On the contrary artefacts are fused into human actions. On this basis, the thesis proposes the notion of enhanced agency for better explaining the effect of artefacts in human agency. Enhanced agency is the prosthetic incorporation of artefacts into the agentive capabilities of human agents. The notion is better understood in opposition to the original agentive capacities of the biological and lived body. Enhanced agency emerges from the human ability to design artefacts to fulfil both individual and shared goals. The planned improvement of artefacts marks the difference between making an object (ability shared by many animals) and designing an artefact (human-unique capacity), as argued in Papers 3 and 5.
Based on a discussion of the notions of extended and distributed cognition, the thesis investigates how materials interact with the cognitive processes of design (Paper 4). The goal was to further understand human agency when it is involved in a creative process of design, focusing on the role of prior intentions and intention-in-action. Can these notions be combined, intertwined, or mixed during a process of design? Which is crucial for design and in which conditions? What are the implications for design theory, teaching, and practice? An experiment was used to help answer these questions, involving second-person (interview) and third-person (inferential statistics) methods. Participants had to perform two simple design tasks and construct a model of the solution using cardboard and basic tools (ruler, cutter, glue, and tape). In one condition, they could also use pen and paper for sketching, thus necessarily engaging prior intentions. In the other condition they could, in principle, have resolved the task only with intentions-in-action. The third-person methods did not show clear advantages of prior intentions, as operationalized by sketching. However, in the interview the majority of the participants claimed that they preferred prior sketching, and indeed when they did not have that option, were sometimes “sketching in their minds”. This gives support for the crucial role of prior intentions.
Finally, the notion of agency itself is addressed, compiling the findings and contributions from the previous papers (Paper 5). An original agency hierarchy is proposed, based on the Semiotic Hierarchy (Zlatev, 2018), but developed theoretically and empirically, with the goal of explaining the relations between different grades of agentive complexity. A further goal was to apply a proper cognitive semiotic approach to third-person, neuroscience studies of agency. As pointed out earlier, agency is argued to be the active, self-generated aspect of intentionality, the reciprocal side of subjectivity, which is the “qualitative feel” of experience, and the more subject-oriented aspect of intentionality. Agency and subjectivity are two complementary and irreducible aspects of intentionality. This implies that a minimal level of consciousness, and a minimal sense of agency is required for agency to exist. These conditions are required to preserve the active role of agency within a living and sensing body, avoiding the inflation of the term and the loss of its meaning. This includes a progression of agency in simple, but still sentient, animals all the way to complex forms of enhanced agency, unique to human beings. Of course, this also implies that artefacts and other forms of inert matter are not genuine agents and the laws of cause and effect at the physical world are distinct from those of agency, subjectivity and intentionality (Tallis 2016).
This agency hierarchy links the previous papers, following the distinctions between original and enhanced agency, and between intention-in-action and prior intentions: the lower levels of the hierarchy correspond to original agency dominated by intention-in-action while the upper levels are those of enhanced agency in which prior intentions have primacy. Further, the gradation of the layered model is useful for refining the constructs in experiments on agency. All the layers are essential for agency, and for its study. Thus, the hierarchy should be understood in terms of increasing levels of complexity but not of importance.
Malafouris, L. (2013). How things shape the mind. MIT Press.
Niño, D. (2015). Elementos de Semiótica Agentiva. Bogotá: Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano
Pielli, L., & Zlatev, J. (2020). The cyborg body: Potentials and limits of a body with prosthetic limbs. Cognitive Semiotics, 13(2), 1–30. https:// doi. org/ 10. 1515/ cogsem- 2020- 2033
Sonesson, G. (2015). From remembering to memory by way of culture. A study in cognitive semiotics. Southern Semiotic Review 5(1): 25-52.
Tallis, R. (2016). Aping mankind. Neuromania, darwinitis and the misrepresentation of humanity. Acumen.
Zlatev, J. (2018). Meaning making from life to language: The semiotic hierarchy and phenomenology. Cognitive Semiotics, 11(1), 50. https:// doi. org/ 10. 1515/ cogsem- 2018- 0001
Zlatev, J., & Konderak, P. (2022). Consciousness & Semiotics. In J. Pelkey (Ed.), Handbook of semiotics. Bloomsbury Press.