From bodily co-regulation to language and thinking


  • Stephen J. Cowley University of Hertfordshire, UK & University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa



Cognition, Enactivism, Distributed language


Though amenable to formal analysis, unlike a man-made program, language colours experience. Recognising this Michael Tomasello and Derek Melser trace linguistic skills to bodily co-regulation. Applauding this, I contrast their mentalist and antimentalist approaches. While Melser traces language to co-action, Tomasello posits a competence in decoding intentions. While a parsimonious alternative to intention reading, Melser’s actional view fails to explain how children learn to hear words. In Tomasello’s terms, he offers no account of how concrete constructions come to sustain description in terms of (inner) intentions. While Tomasello posits that the problem is solved ‘in the head’, there is a simpler solution. Although conventions matter, children make things up: they learn as they act with expression. Were the problem of concrete constructions resolved, imagination would become crucial to the rise of thinking. Can we fill the gap? Melser separates action from biomechanics and Tomasello reduces language to convention. Both ignore real-time events. By contrast Love (2007) identifies first-order language with on-line sign-making. Using this idea, I link the strengths of Melser and Tomasello’s models. Once co-regulated, semiosis can shape action (including speech) around meanings (and adult goals). Babies orient to what caregivers hear as words. Without intention-reading, neural schema shape acting, speaking and understanding. Concrete constructions arise in the flow of co-action. In becoming a person, a baby makes things up, uses convention and gradually takes responsibility for what she says and thinks.

Author Biography

  • Stephen J. Cowley, University of Hertfordshire, UK & University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

    Stephen Cowley is a Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom and an Honourary Research Fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Having obtained a Cambridge degree in English (1978), he taught in Italy, Sweden and Kosova. In the latter environment, his struggle to learn Albanian spurred him to build on his amaeur interest in languages by taking an MA in Linguistics at the University of Leeds in 1985. Later, this was followed by a PhD in Linguistics from Cambridge (1989-1993). After that, he lectured at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in the Departments of both Linguistics (1996–1999) and Psychology (2000-2003). More recently, he returned to the UK to a post in Social and Developmental Psychology at the University of Bradford. In 2004, he took up a Senior Lectureship at Hertfordshire.


Ainslie, G. (1985) Behavior is what can be reinforced. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8(1): 53–54.

Anderson, M. L. (2003) Embodied cognition. Artificial Intelligence 149(1): 91–130.

Barbieri, M. (2007) Is the cell a semiotic system? In M. Barbieri (ed.) Introduction to Biosemiotics 179–208. Springer: Dordrecht.

Barsalou, L. (1999) Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22: 577– 609.

Belpaeme, T. and Cowley, S. J. (2007) Extending symbol grounding. Interaction Studies 8(1): 2–6.

Brooks, R. (1999) Cambrian Intelligence: The Early History of the New AI. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Campos, J. J. and Sternberg, C. (1981) Perception, appraisal, and emotion: the onset of social referencing. In M. E. Lamb and L. R. Sherrod (eds) Infant Social Cognition: Empirical and Theoretical Considerations 273–314. Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Cangelosi, A. Greco, A. and Harnad, S. (2002) Symbol grounding and the symbolic theft hypothesis. In A. Cangelosi and D. Parisi (eds) Simulating the Evolution of Language 191–210. London: Springer.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Clark, A. (1997) Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cowley, S. J. (2002) Why brains matter: an integrational perspective on ‘The Symbolic Species’. Language Sciences 24: 73–95.

Cowley, S. J. (2003) Distributed cognition at three months: mother-infant dyads in KwaZulu Natal. Alternation 10(2): 229–257.

Cowley, S. J. (2004) Simulating others: the basis of human cognition? Language Sciences 26(3): 273–299.

Cowley, S. J. (2007a) The codes of language: turtles all the way up? In M. Barbieri (ed.) The Codes of Life 319–345. Dordrecht: Springer.

Cowley, S. J. (2007b) The cradle of language: making sense of bodily connexions. In D. Moyal-Sharrock (ed.) Perspicuous Presentations: Essays on Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Psychology 278–298. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Cowley, S. J. (2007c) How human infants deal with symbol grounding. Interaction Studies 8(1): 81–104.

Cowley, S. J., Moodley, S. and Fiori-Cowley, A. (2004) Grounding signs of culture: primary intersubjectivity in social semiosis. Mind, Culture and Activity 11(2): 109–132.

Davis, H. (2001) Words: An Integrational Approach. Richmond: Curzon.

Deacon, T. (1997) The Symbolic Species: Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. London: Norton.

Dennett, D. (1978) Brainstorms. Montgomery, VT: Bradford Books.

Dennett, D. (1988) Evolution, error and intentionality. In Y. Wilks and D. Partridge (eds) Sourcebook on the Foundations of Artificial Intelligence 190–212. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dennett, D. (1991a) Real patterns. Journal of Philosophy 88(1): 27–51.

Dennett, D. (1991b) Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little Brown.

Dennett, D. (2003) Freedom Evolves. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Diessel, H. (2001) The ordering distribution of main and adverbial clauses a typological study. Language 77: 345–365.

Fodor, J. (1975) The Language of Thought. New York: Crowell.

Fogel, A. (1993) Developing through Relationships: Origins of Communication, Self and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,.

Gallagher, S. (2005) How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goodwin (2000) Action and embodiment within situated human interaction. Journal of Pragmatics 32: 1489–1522.

Grice, P. (1957) Meaning. The Philosophical Review 66: 377–88.

Gross, S. (2005) The nature of semantics: on Jackendoff ’s arguments. The Linguistic Review 22: 249–270.

Hacking, I. (1999) The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1983) Learning How to Mean. Edward Arnold: London.

Halliday, M. A. K. and Matthiessen, C. M. I. M. (1999) Construing Experience Through Meaning: A Language Based Approach to Cognition. Cassell: London.

Harnad, S. (1990) The symbol grounding problem. Physica D 42: 335–346.

Harnad, S. (2005) Distributed processes, distributed cognizers and collaborative cognition. Pragmatics and Cognition 13(3): 501–514.

Harris, R. (1998) Introduction to Integrational Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon.

Hauser, M., Chomsky, N. and Fitch, T. (2002) The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science 298: 1569–1579.

Hodges, B. (2007) Good prospects: ecological and social perspectives on conforming, creating, and caring in conversation. Language Sciences 29(5): 584–604.

Hopper, P. J. and Traugott, E. C. (1993) Grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hurley, S. (1998) Consciousness in Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jackendoff, R. (2002) Foundations of Language: How Language Connects to the Brain, the World, Evolution, and Thinking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kravchenko, A. (2007) Essential properties of language: why language is not a digital code. Language Sciences 29(5): 650–621.

Kuhl, P. (1998) Language, culture and intersubjectivity: the creation of shared perception. In S. Bråten (ed.) Intersubjective Communication in Early Ontogeny 297–315. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Legerstee, M. (2005) Infants’ Sense of People: Precursors to a Theory of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Love, N. (2004) Cognition and the language myth. Language Sciences 26: 525–544.

Love, N. (2007) Language and the digital code. Language Sciences 29(5): 690–709.

Lyon, C., Nehaniv, C. L. and Cangelosi, A. (eds) (2007) Emergence of Communication and Language. London: Springer.

MacDorman, K. (2007) Life after the symbol system metaphor. Interaction Studies 18(1): 143–158.

Martin, P. and Bateson, P. (1986) Measuring Behaviour. An Introductory Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martinelli, D. (2007) Language and interspecific communication experiments. In M. Barbieri (ed.) Introduction to Biosemiotics: The New Biological Synthesis 473–518. Dordrecht: Springer.

Matthews, P. (1993) Grammatical Theory in the United States from Bloomfield to Chomsky. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Melser, D. (2004) The Act of Thinking. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Menary, R. (2007) Writing as thinking. Language Sciences 29(5): 621–632.

Nelson, K. (1996) Language in Cognitive Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind. London: Penguin.

Sampson, G. (2005) The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate. London: Continuum.

Selfridge, O. (1959) Pandemonium: A Paradigm for Learning. Symposium of the Mechanization of Thought Processes. London: HM Stationary Office.

Skinner, B. F. (1957) Verbal Behavior. Acton, MA: Copley Publishing Group.

Spurrett, D. and Cowley, S. J. (2004) How to do things without words. Language Sciences 26(5): 443–466.

Sterelny, K. (2003) Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Taddeo, M. and Floridi, L. (2005) Solving the symbol grounding problem: a critical review of fifteen years of research. Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence 17(4) 419–445.

Thibault, P. J. (2000) The dialogical integration of the brain in social semiosis: Edelman and the case for downward causation. Mind, Culture and Activity 7(4): 291–311.

Thibault, P. J. (2004) Brain, Mind and the Signifying Body: An Ecosocial and Semiotic Theory. London: Continuum.

Thompson, E. (2007) Look again: phenomenology and mental imagery. Phenomenology and Cognitive Science 6: 137–170.

Tomasello, M. (1999) The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2005) Beyond formalities: the case of language acquisition. The Linguistic Review 22: 193–197.

Tomasello, M., Kruger, A. C. and Ratner, H. H. (1993) Cultural learning. Behavioural and Brain Sciences 16: 495–552.

Toolan, M. (1996) Total Speech: An Integrational Approach to Language. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Trevarthen, C. (1979) Communication and co-operation in early infancy: a description of primary intersubjectivity. In M. Bullowa (ed.) Before Speech 321–347. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trevarthen, C. (1998) The concept and foundations of infant intersubjectivity. In S. Bråten (ed.) Intersubjective Communication in Early Ontogeny 15–46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trevarthen, C. and Hubley, P. (1978) Secondary intersubjectivity: confidence, confiding and acts of meaning in the first year. In A. Lock (ed.) Action, Gesture, and Symbol 183–229. New York: Academic Press.

Trevarthen, C. and Aitken, K. J. (2001) Infant intersubjectivity: research, theory and clinical applications. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 42(1): 3–48.

Vogt, P. (2002) The physical symbol grounding problem. Cognitive Systems Research 3(3): 429–457.

Vygotsky, L. (1986) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wheeler, M. (2005) Reconstructing the Cognitive World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wittgenstein, L. W. (1980) On Certainty. Oxford: Blackwell.






How to Cite

Cowley, S. J. (2010). From bodily co-regulation to language and thinking. Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 3(2), 137-164.