Whence Perceptual Meaning? A Cartography of Current Ideas

  • Francisco J. Varela
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS, volume 130)


This essay was written for the purpose of providing a minimal common ground for discussion. It is, of necessity, an ambitious attempt to give a concise account of the various current ideas on the origin of meaning in living and artificial systems in such a way that it is accessible to an interdisciplinary audience, and yet substantive enough to produce debate among the specialists. I apologize at the outset to both groups for passages that will seem irritatingly simple or too abstruse.


Common Sense Cognitive Science Cognitive System Symbolic Description Connectionist Strategy 
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  1. 1.
    This Section owes much to our recent collective work on the neglected history of early cybernetics, self-organization, and cognition, published as Cahiers du CREA N°s 7–9. The only other useful source is S. Heims, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener, MIT Press, 1980.Google Scholar
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    The recent book by H. Gardner, The Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution, Basic Books, 1985, discusses this period only in a superficial way.Google Scholar
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    See H. Gardner, Alan Turing: The Enigma of Intelligence, Touchstone, New York, 1984 @@@op. cit., Chapter 5 for this period.Google Scholar
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    This designation is justified in J. Haugland (Ed.), Mind Design, MIT Press, 1981. Other designations used are: computationalism (Fodor) or symbolic processing. For this section I have profited much from D. Andler’ s article in Cahier du CREA N° 9.Google Scholar
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    T. Sejnowski and C. Rosenbaum, ‘NetTalk: A parallel network that learns to read aloud’, TR JHU/EECS-86/01, John Hopkins Univ.Google Scholar
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    For the distinction between symbolic and emergent description and explanation in biological systems see F. Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy, North Holland, New York, 1979, Ch. 7,Google Scholar
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    and more recently S. Oyama, The Ontogeny of Information, Cambridge U. Press, 1985.Google Scholar
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    See D. Hillis, ‘Intelligence as emergent behavior’, Daedalus, Winter 1989, and P. Smolesnky, ‘On the proper treatment of connectionism’, Beh. Brain Sci. 11: 1, 1989.Google Scholar
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    In a very different vein J. Feldman, ‘Neural representation of conceptual knowledge’, U. Rochester TR189 (1986) proposes a middle ground between ‘punctuate’ and distributed systems.Google Scholar
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    P. Smolesnky in: Rumelhart and McClelland, op. cit., Ch. 6.Google Scholar
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    This is extensively argued by two noted spokesmen of cognitivism: J. Fodor and S. Pylyshyn, ‘Connectionism and cognitive architecture: A critical review’, Cognition, 1989. For the opposite philosophical position in favor of connectionism see: H. Dreyfus, ‘Making a mind vs. modeling the brain: AI again at the cross-riads’. Daedalus, Winter, 1989.Google Scholar
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    Most influential in this respect is the work of H. G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, Seabury Press, 1975. For a clear introduction to hermeneutics see Palmer, Hermeneutics, Northwestern Univ. Press, 1979.Google Scholar
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    The formulation of this section owes a great deal to the influence of F. Flores, see: T. Winnograd and F. Flores Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, Ablex, New Jersey, 1986.Google Scholar
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    The name is far from being an established one. I suggest it here for pedagogical reasons, until a better one is proposed.Google Scholar
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    H. Dreyfus and S. Dreyfus, Mind over Machine, Free Press/Macmillan, New York, 1986.Google Scholar
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    For an interesting sample of discussion in AI about these themes see the multiple review of Winnograd and Flores’ s book, in Artif. Intell. (1987).Google Scholar
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    The main reference points we have in mind here are (in their English versions): M. Heidegger, Being and Time, Harper and Row, 1977;Google Scholar
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    M. Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962;Google Scholar
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    Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison, Vintage/Random House, 1979.Google Scholar
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    This is discussed in my contribution to the previous Stanford Symposium, ‘Living ways of sense making: A middle way approach to neuroscience’, in P. Livingston (Ed.), Order and Disorder, Anma Libris, Stanford, 1984.Google Scholar
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    See for instance P. Watzlawick (Ed.), The Invented Reality: Essays on Constructivism, Norton, New York, 1985.Google Scholar
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    Most clearly seen in the Vienna school of Konrad Lorenz, as expressed, for example, in Behind the Mirror, Harper and Row, 1979.Google Scholar
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    W. Freeman, Mass Action in the Nervous System, Academic Press, 1975.Google Scholar
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    W. Freeman and C. Skarda, Brain Res. Reviews, 10, 145–175 (1985). Significantly, a section of this article is entitled: ‘A retraction on “representation”’ (p. 169).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    This biologically inspired re-interpretation of cognition was presented in H. Maturana and F. Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The realization of the Living, D. Reidel, Boston, 1980, and F. Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy, op. cit. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. 48a.
    For an introductory exposition to this point of view and more recent developments see H. Maturana and F. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: the Biological Roots of Human Understanding, New Science Library, Boston 1987. The links with language and AI are discussed in Winnograd and Flores, op. cit. Google Scholar
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    See J. H. Holland, ‘Escaping brittleness’, in: Machine Intelligence, Vol. 2 (1986).Google Scholar
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    An interesting recent collections of diverse papers in this direction can be found in: Evolution, Games and Learning: Models for Adaptation in Machines and Nature, Physica 22D (1986). Surely, many of the contributors would not agree with our readings of their work. For an explicit example see: F. Varela, ‘Structural coupling and the origin of meaning in a simple cellular automata’, in E. Secarz, (Ed.), The Semiotics of Cellular Communications, Springer-Verlag, New York, 1987.Google Scholar
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    P. Smolesnky, op. cit., p. 260.Google Scholar
  62. 52.
    It is worth noting that similar arguments can be applied to evolutionary thinking today. For the parallels between cognitive representationism and evolutionary adaptationism, see F. Varela, in: P. Livingston (Ed.), op. cit. and the Introduction in this volume.Google Scholar
  63. 53.
    See also the remarks by Roger Schank in AI Magazine, pp. 122–135 (Fall 1985).Google Scholar
  64. 54.
    This is the trend within the new field of ‘Artificial Life’; see e.g. Ch. Langton (Ed.), Artificial Life, Addison-Wesley, New Jersey, 1990.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Francisco J. Varela
    • 1
  1. 1.Ecole PolytechniqueCREAParisFrance

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