The mind, the brain, and systemic functional linguistics

Williams, James (2016) The mind, the brain, and systemic functional linguistics. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Modern cognitive science is characterized by a number of different proposals that aim to provide a means of conceptualizing cognitive systems, and stating the kinds of information that are needed to study the phenomenon from a number of different perspectives. Recently, there has been a growing trend to think about cognitive systems in terms of embodiment and embeddedness. These two factors emphasize, respectively, the role the body and the environment in shaping the nature of cognitive processes. However, what these theses currently lack is a well-articulated conceptual framework for guiding their work. Specifically, it lacks an explicit account of the types of levels of analysis that are needed to study cognition from these perspectives. This explicitness is a feature of alternative conceptions of the mind, the classical approaches and connectionist approaches that despite their differences, both draw upon the notions of computation and representation in explaining cognitive life. Where these proposals fall short is their lack of focus of the kinds of factors that motivate the embedded and embodied view.

This thesis aims to fill this gap in the literature by beginning to develop an explicit conceptual framework for embodied and embedded cognition. It is proposed that such a framework can be based upon the principles of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a theory of language that considers communication in its eco-social context. Specifically, it proposes a number of levels of analysis that are useful for such a framework. Motivation for such a proposal is that: (1) both language and general cognition are semiotic systems, (2) they can both be described as dynamic, open systems, and (3) all the types of levels of analysis previously identified in cognitive science are also found in the SFL literature. This thesis, therefore, investigates whether such a cross-disciplinary application has the potential to be successful.

In order to achieve the above goals, this thesis examines the following possible applications of notions from SFL to conceptual frameworks in cognitive science.

Firstly, this thesis examines the theoretical notions of stratification, instantiation, delicacy and rank in SFL and then continues to outline their application to this neighbouring field. These are the levels of analysis indicated above. Stratification allows cognitive systems to be considered simultaneously at a number of different levels of interpretation. Specifically, it considers cognitive systems to consist of a neurophysiological system and a psychological system, i.e. a system of possible neurological states, and a system of possible cognitive acts. Delicacy describes these systems in more or less specific terms. Rank identifies the structural unit at which meaningful behaviour is taking place, and instantiation describes the interplay between observed instances and the underlying system. This last factor enables a dynamic view of cognition to be proposed.

Furthermore, this thesis examines whether ideas from SFL concerning text-context interactions can prove useful for considering organism-environment interactions. The main proposal here is that the environment need not be considered as a vast, heterogeneous entity, but instead is itself a system involved in the creation of meaning. In this way, it can also be described along the dimensions discussed above, although at this stage only the notions of stratification and instantiation can be discussed in any depth. Also, it proposes that the environment can be described according to three environmental parameters: (1) the objective, that describes the objects and relations between them, (2) the relational, which describes relations between the individual and said objects, and (3) the goal, which provides the situation the individual is attempting to bring about. In this way structure can be brought to studies of cognitive embeddedness.

Finally, this work considers the notion of abstraction in SFL as it relates to the dimensions of stratification, delicacy and rank. All of these have been described as operating over this relation, but this thesis argues that its meaning is different in each case. It argues this by considering the links between abstraction and the related notions of omission, generalization and decontextualization. In line with the overall goal of this work, it is proposed that a more explicit understanding of these terms can help the process of beginning to build the framework under discussion, by linking data to the overall framework.

In sum, this thesis begins to develop a novel framework for cognitive science that is based upon the principles of Systemic Functional Linguistics. It is hoped that this work can bring some extra clarity to the notions of embeddedness and embodiment in cognitive science and show how cognitive systems may be studied from this perspective.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Russell, N.
Irwin, D.
Keywords: Cognitive science, Systemic functional linguistics, Levels of interpretation, Conceptual frameworks
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Engineering
Item ID: 32889
Depositing User: Williams, James
Date Deposited: 28 Jul 2016 14:08
Last Modified: 14 Sep 2016 13:24

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