Let’s think of that elephant: the dead-end of the “cognitive unconscious” in language and (political) communication

Filomena Diodato, Sapienza University of Rome


George Lakoff’s world-renowned works on political communication advocate a neural account of the political mind (Lakoff 2004, 2008). Taken for granted the neural evidence of frames, and the ubiquity of unconscious cognitive processes, this approach ends up being a dead-end, reducing communication to a trivial brain-bound mechanism. Accordingly, individuals once again become Cartesian automata brainwashed by a media system whose main function is framing, and eventually reframing, their brains/minds.

Yet, the political arena is a potent example of the social essence of semiotic activities, which cannot emerge but from “users” in flesh and blood, given their disposition to constantly (re)negotiate sign meanings (De Mauro 1982). Hence, a neural theory of semiotic/semantic processes results both obsolete, evoking an old propaganda’s theory of behaviorist taste, and inconsistent with the current neuroscientific outcomes.

Halfway between psychoanalysis and neuroscience, investigations show that complex cognitive processing may occur at the unconscious level. However, neuroscience itself is only now beginning to understand how this occurs on the neural level, suggesting that (1) a clarification of the controversial notion of “cognitive unconscious” would require an account of the neural mechanisms underlying both conscious and unconscious thought, and their dynamic interaction (Berlin 2011); (2) certain types of information processing, especially those involving symbol manipulation, seem to take place exclusively in conscious thought; specifically, being a normative system which embroils the individual as well as the collective mind, language requires some sort of access to consciousness (Zlatev, 2011); (3) there are different kinds of unconsciousness, and different degrees of consciousness.

Along these lines, my contribution aims at scrutinizing the interplay of unconscious and conscious processes underlying semiotic activities, believing that a clear-headed account of communication should “get out of the brain” to embrace a semiotic-phenomenological perspective (Sonesson 2015; Zlatev & Blomberg 2019). Re-elaborating Saussure’s conception of linguistic sentiment, which already related linguistic activity to both unconscious and conscious procedures (Siouffi 2021), I will discuss the challenging hypothesis of a collective cognitive unconscious in order to give reasons of the intuitive clarity of that semantic core without which no meaningful utterance is possible (Smirnov 2017). Here “unconscious” brings into play a normative system which provides for the meaningfulness of the human Lifeworld. Such a hypothesis, given a preliminary distinction between introspection and intuition, appears consistent with Merleau-Ponty’s sedimented practical schema of subjective being in the world (Kozyreva 2016), opening a fruitful pathway to achieve a matter-of-fact clarification of semiotic practices.



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De Mauro, T. (1982), Minisemantica dei linguaggi non verbali e delle lingue, Roma–Bari: Laterza.

Kozyreva A. (2016) “Non-representational approaches to the unconscious in the phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty”, Phenom Cogn Sci, 199–224.

Lakoff G. (2004) Don’t think of an elephant! Know your values and frame the debate, White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Lakoff G. (2008) The Political Mind. A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics, New York: Penguin Books.

Merleau-Ponty M. (1945/2012), Phenomenology of Perception, London: Routledge.

Siouffi G. (2021) (éd.), Le sentiment linguistique chez Saussure, ENS Éditions.

Smirnov A.V., (2017) “The Collective Cognitive Unconscious and Its Role in Logic, Language, and Culture”, Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 87, No. 5, 409–415.

Sonesson, G. (2015) “Phenomenology meets Semiotics: Two Not So Very Strange Bedfellows at the End of their Cinderella Sleep”, Metodo. International Studies in Phenomenology and Philosophy, Vol. 3, n. 1, 41–62.

Zlatev J. & Blomberg J. (2019) “Norms of language. What kinds and where from? Insights from phenomenology”, in A. Mäkilähde, V. Leppänen & E. Itkonen, Normativity in Language and Linguistics, John Benjamins, 69–101.

Zlatev, J. (2011) “From Cognitive to Integral Linguistics and Back Again”, Intellectica. Revue de l’Association pour la Recherche Cognitive, n. 56/2, Linguistique cognitive: une exploration critique, pp. 125–147.

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