Jean Petitot, in collaboration with René Doursat (ed.), Cognitive Morphodynamics.
Dynamical Morphological Models of Constituency in Perception and Syntax. Berlin: Peter Lang, 2011
Review by Stefano Serafini
Jean Petitot (email@example.com), philosopher, mathematician, semiologist, and expert of neurocognitive modeling, is the current director of the Complex Systems Institute, Paris, and teaches at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHEES), Paris.
Disciple of the great and revolutionary mathematician René Thom, he’s instantiating his master’s theories, especially semiophysics, in the fields of linguistics and cognitive sciences areas since several years. This crucial work offers a general overview of his researches, thus stressing the dramatic relevance of the concept of form.
What has this to do with urbanism and architecture? Nothing at all, apparently, especially for those considering design just a matter of aesthetics.
In reality, as city and buildings shapes result in “informing” (in the deeper sense of the word) human life, this book has a high value for all professionals who like to reflect on the real matter of their own activity.
This is not a work aimed at architects, of course, a fact one can acknowledge by simply checking the architect-not-friendly writing style. The wide range of Author’s expertise is reflected in the way he manages linguistics, epistemology, logics, mathematics, computer and cognitive sciences, and related terms and symbols, making non-specialists unease sometimes. Just to have an idea: its declared goal is about giving a mathematical foundation of Cognitive Grammar, by using René Thom’s morphodynamics.
Don’t be scared. Cognitive Grammar is a milestone of cognitive linguistics, founded by Ronald W. Langacker (Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Volume 1, Theoretical Prerequisites, 1987; Volume 2, Descriptive Application, 1991. Stanford: Stanford University Press). It is largely based on findings of Gestalt psychology, especially applied to visual perception. According to this approach, language is eventually built by basic conventional formal “bricks”, related to both semantics and phonology. Grammar combines these “bricks” under strict rules, so generating phrases, that thus have semantic and phonological structure. The semantic aspects are modeled as image schemas rather than propositions, but because of the structural relation with phonology, images and speeches go always together, as different facets of the same basic structure. According to Langacker, linguistic structures are thus rooted into cognitive processes. We speak as we are, and the range of linguistic conventions, at the very end, is constrained to a finite set, by what we could dare to call “reality”. Discussions are open about what this “reality” in fact is. Recent promising advancements in neurolinguistics, for example, are pointing out the study of the bridge between linguistics and europhysiology (see M. Piattelli-Palmarini and J. Uriagereka, «Still a bridge too far? Biolinguistic questions for grounding language on brains», Physics of Life Reviews 5 (2008) 207–224).
Anyway, that’s the path that brought Petitot to investigate morphological structures of perception into Gestalt-like and abstract proto-linguistic schemes, i.e. semi-raw material for producing superior linguistic operations. He shows us how there exist deep, syntactic and semantic structures of language, that are grounded in perception and action.
On the other side, Thom’s morphodynamics is the study of forms (both natural and artificial), whatever their underlying physical substrate may be, and of their mathematical norms, from the point of view of semiophysics (that is, a physics of semantics). As Petitot states: «Syntactic structures can be treated as Gestalts and can be morphodynamically modeled» (p. 203).
At this point we could question if referring to architecture (and urbanism) as “a language”, may be something more than a metaphor. Indeed it is. There exist a semantic of architecture (e.g. its relation to residential function, or environment), and a way of instantiating such a semantics, that is a syntax (style, use and combination of materials and shapes, etc.). The problem is that this natural vision of architecture as language, has been pulled into a conventionalist idea of language – where all that counts is the abstract sign, without any reference but to other signs.
What Petitot’s work has therefore to say to architecture is that: A) syntax cannot be a totally free and dissociated “creation”, apart from its semantic; B) both semantic and syntax have a third meta-level to which both of them refer; C) this meta-level has its own consistency that needs to be known and studied; D) syntax, semantic, and the meta-level, have a structural coherence in the natural word, that makes them coincide in a dynamical way.
«In morphodynamics, the conceptual contents of mental states are no longer identified with symbols. Their meaning is embodied in the cognitive process itself (…) Information processing is therefore thought of not as an implemented symbolic processing but as a dynamical process» (p. 203).
Such a dynamical process has a form. «(…) mathematically, physical models are in general of a geometric-dynamical nature. Every physics is a geometrodynamics. Therefore, if we are able to extract syntactic structures by abstracting invariants from such a geometrodynamics we become able to understand the link between an ideal formal “syntacticity” and the underlying (neuro)physics. It is in that sense that geometry and dynamics are key to formal syntax» (p. 276).
In fact, according to J. Fodor and Z. Pylyshin, the goal is achieving that «geometrical whole, where the geometrical relations are themselves semantically significant”, and which constitute the geometrical basis of constituent-structures» (p. 275).
A sentence, that seems a program for an architecture renaissance.