Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssuesXIII-2Book Reviews & Critical NoticesReview of Claudio Paolucci, Cogni...

Book Reviews & Critical Notices

Review of Claudio Paolucci, Cognitive Semiotics. Integrating Signs, Minds, Meaning and Cognition

Cham Switzerland, Springer, 2021
Guido Baggio
Bibliographical reference

Claudio Paolucci, Cognitive Semiotics. Integrating Signs, Minds, Meaning and Cognition, Cham Switzerland, Springer, 2021, pp. vii, 157

Full text

1In Cognitive Semiotics. Integrating Signs, Minds, Meaning and Cognition, Claudio Paolucci proposes cognitive semiotics as a fundamental component of a theory of human cognition that considers the “semiotic system” as co-constitutive of cognitive processes in action. His work takes its cue from the classical linguists and semioticians interpreted within the broader theoretical framework of cognition in action that links radical enactivism and classical pragmatism. He aims to bridge the gap between biosemiotics and the semiotics of culture, which widened over the last forty years of language studies and relegated zoosemiotics to the borderline of semiotics. To do so, Paolucci takes the fundamental elements for the construction of his neuro-pragmatist cognitive semiotics from Charles S. Peirce’s cognitive semiotic, though filtered, at least partially, through Umberto Eco’s reading of Peirce. Peirce’s notion of “sign” is, in fact, too extensive and therefore susceptible to misinterpretation. Thus, Paolucci prefers Eco’s concept of “semiotic system” (Eco 1976), which allows him to bring sign science closer to the enactivist approach to cognition. However, unlike Eco’s idea of a sign system as a “logic of culture,” based on the distinction between nature and culture, Paolucci accepts the pragmatist and enactivist antidualism, rejecting any dichotomy between mind and world, brain and thought, knowledge and action. As he writes: “My aim is to eschew the very idea of the threshold between nature and culture, and the corresponding identification of semiotics with ‘what is cultural’” (3). In other words, the semiotic system does not denote an opposition between the natural and the semiotic environment, but rather “a strong continuity between mind and matter, between organism and environment” (10). He would then propose his definition of a semiotic system based on another definition of semiotics by Eco, namely, a “theory of lie” (Eco 1976): “A system is semiotic if it allows for the construction of significant surfaces capable of lying, if it allows for the deceiving of the other, by hiding the object for effective action” (4).

2As we find in the first chapter, that can be considered Paolucci’s manifesto, cognitive semiotics is based on three main principles. The first principle is Radical Enactivism and, in particular, Hutto and Myin’s critique of the notion of meaning as something that represents/mirrors a state of the world (Hutto & Myin 2013; 2017). However, Paolucci wants to differentiate himself from Hutto and Myin’s anti-representationalist enactivism by pointing to different ways of understanding representation. Representation as the content of reality derives from the analytical tradition, according to which representations are thought of in terms of truth conditions. Cognitive semiotics, in contrast, connects content to “morphologies that arise out of the attunement between organisms and environment and out of processes of categorization” (13). It does not define meaning in terms of true representations of reality but rather in terms of habits of action. Regarding the second principle of Paolucci’s cognitive semiotics, namely pragmatism, it is particularly worth noting his focus on Peirce’s notion of “representation.” Specifically, Peirce’s theory of meaning runs through all of Paolucci’s work and allows him to alternately connect with and distance himself from, radical enactivism. As he writes, according to Peirce, cognition does not serve to represent the world, but to effectively act in it: “In order to act in the world in an effective way, it is necessary to bring forth worlds through meaning, and meanings are not representations of the world, but ‘tendencies actually to behave in a similar way under similar circumstances in the future’ (CP: 5.487), that is, habits” (4). In other words, meaning is related to habits of action and sense-making through an organism’s selection of stimuli for its own viability through carving out significant micro-universes from the various possibilities opened by schemas, norms and uses. Sense-making activity is a filtering of the various possible meanings, that is of possible habits of action, which permits the construction of what Paolucci calls “semiotic niches,” namely various forms of regulation of interactions as the result of a sum of subtractions. On this point an organisms’ sense-making processes are equivalent to semio-linguistic acts of enunciation. This does not mean that “representation” is totally abandoned, instead that the notion of representation that Paolucci intends to embrace refers to the semiotic dimension of representation. In other words, representation is identified with sign but sign cannot be identified with representation (89). The only properties that sign has in common with internal representation are the fact that it “stands for something else” and the “interpretability” through other external signs. Thence, the notion of representation has to be rethought, as claimed also by Material Engagement Theory (MET), the third principle on which Paolucci bases his cognitive semiotics. According to MET, there is, in fact, a semiotic basis of the relationship between cognition and material culture expressed in “a process that is distributed, enacted and situated, as well as assembled, from a variety of non-localizable mental resources spanning the boundaries of the individual brain and body” (Malafouris 2019: 196).

3Paolucci strengthens the links between MET, Peirce’s cognitive semiotics, and cognitive science in the third chapter on “The Semiotic Mind. Beliefs, Habits and Extended Cognition,” where he focuses on the relation between semiotics and cognitive science, arguing in favor of an extended and enactive semiotic mind. There he refers to Peirce’s anti-cartesian notions of mind as an “external sign,” “beliefs,” and “existential graphs,” as well as to MET, according to which the mind is constructed by semiotic operations.

4What is particularly interesting of Paolucci’s proposal is his interpretation of Peirce’s notion of “interpretant” as “illeities” (from the French “il” used as impersonal subject), that is “impersonal points of view on objects circulating in the community space (supra-personal level) and which determine personal points of view in the first person (personal level)” (67), which means that the personal level of cognition necessarily refers to a supra-personal level of interpretants. A cognition is thus a sign determined by the objects as well as by other previous knowledge. And if cognition is a sign determined also by supra-personal level, then also knowing others’ minds is based on a semiotic dimension. In particular, in the fourth chapter on “Social Cognition and Autism Spectrum Disorders: From Mindreading to Narratives,” Paolucci argues that mindreading has to be regarded as a specific skill developed from semiotic and pre-linguistic narrative practices in which language extends beyond embodied interactions. He therefore proposes a radical enactivist account of social cognition, according to which “low-level” interaction, grounded on mirror neurons (“mirroring”), is “non-cognitively mediated” through the experienced “recognition of the others’ goal.” The low level is at the basis of the “high-level” narrative mind that instead of being dependent on language acquisition, develops from basic perceptions, emotions, and embodied interactions between babies and caregivers. Narrativity permeates the interactive competencies of pre-linguistic children and non-human social animals so that mindreading skills in humans and primates come from a narrative logic of inter-action.

5The last chapter focuses on “Perception as Controlled Hallucination.” Despite the title, the notion of hallucination takes on a less extreme relevance, being substituted by “figuration” at the beginning of the chapter. Passing through an examination of Kantian schematism and Peircean diagrammatic thought, Paolucci argues in favor of an idea of cognition as diagrammatic. Diagrammatic thinking is, in fact, an essential element for a theory of knowledge in which “reasoning” and “observation,” “knowledge” and “action,” “perception,” and “inference” are not separated. As Paolucci argues, “as far as perception is concerned, aesthetic elements embody forms of relations in observable and manipulable tokens called diagrams. The diagram displays sensitively the same logical relations in its object, making them directly observable and experimentally manipulable (in the world or through the imagination)” (141).

6Cognitive Semiotics. Integrating Signs, Minds, Meaning and Cognition is a valuable work as it attempts to address some core issues of semio-linguistic and cognitive science to integrate meaning, signs and cognition in a cognitive semiotics. It offers many interesting insights into various aspects of the link between semiotics and cognition, laying the foundations for further studies on the topic. Nevertheless, there are a couple of critical points I would like to highlight.

7The first critical aspect concerns the order of chapters. Assuming that the chapters can be read independently of each other since each one is complete in tackling the issue in question, the order given by Paolucci should make it possible to follow the thread of an investigation that unfolds as one proceeds with the reading. However, although there are some hints of a connection with cognitive theories of personal identity construction, I have to admit that I perceived the second chapter on “For a Cognitive Semiotics of Subjectivity” as more of a chapter on semio-linguistics tout court than a semio-linguistic contribution to a pragmatically inspired cognitive science. Paolucci presents a semio-linguistic theory of the person (see also Paolucci 2020), according to which the ability to be a subject, that is to make ourselves the object of our thoughts, is connected to “the semiotic capacity to lie and to the benefits which this capacity brings for the purposes of building strategic thought linked to effective action” (27). The author plunges into a close comparison with Émile Benveniste’s linguistic theory of the subject. Unlike Benveniste, according to whom the subject is based on the first person “I,” Paolucci focuses on the third person of enunciation “he” and to the (non) person expressing subjectivity in language as “illeity.” He proposes an idea of self-consciousness as the product of a “strategic capacity” dependent on semiotics as related to the interpretative process of the environment “to construct actions based on the image of the other and his potential responses to the action of the ego.” Such capacity is therefore pre-logical and pre-linguistic. Language “inherits this semiotic ability, constructing a formal apparatus capable of expressing it (formal apparatus of enunciation)” (36). Referring, therefore, to Bruno Latour’s idea of enunciation, Paolucci identifies the person with the figure of the “actants,” which in semiotics is not related to the opposition between “human” and “non-human” and pertains exclusively to actors. These concrete entities occupy the places and positions specific to semio-linguistic entities.

8Since the second chapter is almost exclusively dedicated to a linguistic reflection on subjectivity that would deserve a more in-depth discussion of its potential impacts on semiotic and enactivist cognitivism, in my opinion, it should be read either after the chapter on social cognition or even last. The impression that it gave me is that it takes for granted the elements of continuity between the natural and cultural dimensions, between ontogeny and phylogeny of action, meaning, and cognition, which the other chapters help to outline and which is at the basis of the construction of semio-linguistic subjectivity. The shift of the second chapter to the end of the book would have made it possible to enhance such a central theme as subjectivity within Paolucci’s very interesting cognitive semiotics.

9The second critical aspect concerns the lack of an adequate in-depth examination of the conceptual tool of “gesture.” Such a concept is, in fact, crucial to the construction of an anti-dualistic cognitive semiotics such as the one Paolucci proposes. The gesture mediates between the “low” and “high” levels of interaction and the construction of the narrative mind. Furthermore, it highlights the in fieri reasoning involving human and non-human organisms in their dynamic interaction with the natural and social environment. On this point, a comparison with the most recent theories of gesture, like Giovanni Maddalena’s Philosophy of Gesture (2015), would have allowed Paolucci to further deepen his reading of Peirce and further strengthen the close interdependence between the cognitive-semiotic dimension and the phenomenological dimension of experience in the process of mediation and interpretation between organism and environment.

10Moreover, if adequately deepened, the notion of gesture would set the stage for a reflection on the same construction of the sign in the sense-making process. In this regard, some authors would deserve to be taken up and explored in possible future works on cognitive semiotics, whether these will be elaborated by Paolucci or by other scholars interested in the subject (among whom I include myself). The authors are George H. Mead and Charles Morris. While the former is known for his behavioral theory of meaning and gestural conversation, the latter assumes, in my opinion, particular relevance precisely for his attempt to mediate between an externalist perspective of the mind and the process of construction of semiotic niches.

Top of page


Eco Umberto, (1976), A Theory of Semiotics, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Hutto Daniel D. & Erik Myin, (2013), Radicalizing Enactivism. Basic Minds without Content, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press.

Hutto Daniel D. & Erik Myin, (2017), Evolving Enactivism. Basic Minds Meet Content, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press.

Maddalena Giovanni, (2015), The Philosophy of Gesture, Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Malafouris Lambros, (2019), “Understanding the Effects of Materiality on Mental Health,” BJPsych Bulletin, 43 (5), 195-200.

Paolucci Claudio, (2020), Persona, Milano, Bompiani.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Guido Baggio, Review of Claudio Paolucci, Cognitive Semiotics. Integrating Signs, Minds, Meaning and CognitionEuropean Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], XIII-2 | 2021, Online since 20 December 2021, connection on 20 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Guido Baggio

Roma Tre University

By this author

Top of page



Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search