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A Model of Language Development Based on Self-Organisation of

Gestalts and Metaphor

David Rail, MD; FRACP


Campbelltown, Sydney, Australia 2560.


Modeling language development has recently seen a shift towards studies of the
interdependence of language and perceptual reality. Cognitive linguistics has revived
the Gestalt approach where things and relations constitute wholes: relations emerge
with the objects through a process of segmentation and transformation. According to
this view the continuous and dynamic form of the external, phenomenal world
motivates sentential semantic structures as an expression of the unity between
perception and language. These structures also represent the progressive self-
organisation of image schemata where meaning emerges through metaphor.
Metaphor involves double scope blending where structures emerge from the
interaction between incongruent conceptual frames. That process is recursive leading
to creative structures. Although language development is based on gestalt metaphor
self-organisation no model has concentrated on this fundamental approach. To
produce such a model we conceive metaphor in its rhetorical structural form, as
coordination of the master tropes, or a tropology. We rationalize the role of the
tropology and show how it functions recursively throughout the forebrain. To
understand the recursive form of the tropology we show how it functions in a gestalt
manner and that perception is a tropological process. The latter stems from
perception and the tropology becoming self similar (isomorphic) as the language
system self organises in ontogeny. To corroborate the isomorphism we show that
the Gestalt principles and the master tropes are homologous. This finding enables us
to determine the structure of perception. We indicate how semantic sentential
structures are generated from self-organisation of the tropology. With self-
organisation tropological function incorporates spatiotemporal scaling (fractal time).
We indicate other important aspects of the model, in particular metalinguistic

Keywords: Brain function; cognitive linguistics; concept formation; double scope

blending; emergence; fractal time; gestalts; gestalt principles; image schemata; irony;
language development; master tropes; metaphor; metastability; microgenesis;
morphogenesis; perception; self organisation; semiotics; topology.


Modeling language development has recently seen a shift towards studies of the
interdependence of language and perceptual reality. Cognitive linguistics proposes
that language is a cognitive phenomenon where conceptual structures stem from
perception and embodiment (Hampe, 2005; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Taylor, 1989;
Skoldberg, 2002). Language is imaginatively embodied where metaphor is central to
the origins of meaning (Danesi, 2004). Modeling the development of language has
focused on meaning rather than syntax. This leads to the important question: how are
events in the physical world transformed into semantic notions? This question
confronts the aporia or discrepancy between the analog world we live in and the
discrete or digital nature of language in terms of categories and symbols. To
overcome this difficulty Thom proposed that we need to preserve ‘a priori forms of
space and time’ by generating dynamic structures or morphologies (Thom, 1972,

These structures are dynamic, morphological and gestalt based. In this approach
early morphodynamic models from René Thom have received wide support, both
from cognitive linguists such as Talmy (2000) and Langacker (1987; 1990), and from
psychology through the study of metaphor by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) and Lakoff
(1993). Morphodynamic theories have proposed that there are syntactico-semantic
infrastructures of a topological and dynamic nature, which form universals (see
Manjali, 1997 (a) and (b)). These underlie a morphological emergent level of reality
where "surface structures" (gestalts) emerge from physical "deep structures".
Petitot calls the extraction of semantic structures or invariants in spatiotemporal
transformations the morphogenesis of meaning (Petitot, 1995 and 2003). Based on
this work cognitive linguistics has revived the Gestalt approach calling into
question the traditional roles assigned to perception as a faculty only dealing with
relations between objects. In the Gestalt or mereological conception things and
relations constitute wholes: relations are not given for granted but emerge together
with the objects through a process of segmentation and transformation (Doursat &
Petitot, 2005 (a) and (b)).

Two major examples of the morphogenesis of meaning are found in our

development of spatial (prepositions) and spatio–temporal meaning (verbs).
Understanding prepositions, e.g. ‘in’, ‘above’, ‘across’ amounts to the brain
forming morphodynamic transforms, where transforms create a morphology that
evolves temporally (Doursat & Petitot, 2005 (a) and (b)). Transformation routines
perform a drastic, yet targeted simplification of the geometric data relating the
relevant items in perception. By erasing details they create virtual structures or
singularities that govern the development of geometric relationships between the
interacting morphologies. For example, what characterises the semantic
development of the concept of ‘in’ is invariance across all the perceived instances.
The relationships that emerge with the transformations represent structural
invariance across an infinite range of real world instances or topologies. What
remains invariant is the Gestalt, the preservation of similar structural relationships
that have developed dynamically.

For verbs (Thom, 1972 and 1990) geometrico-topological analysis associates

combinatorial invariants with spatio-temporal process in the physical world. This
primordial schematism governs the linguistic organisation of our Gestaltic vision of
the world, where these invariants form the basis for verbal process. Actantial graphs
encompass Tesniere’s concepts of ‘little dramas’ (Manjali, 1997 (a) and (b)) where
the verb organises or structures sentential meaning, binding objects and situations to
form dynamic gestalts. These gestalts are organic and binding principles of brain

Based on these ideas understanding language development centers on how

topological and dynamic information (morphodynamics) provided by perception
can be iconically encoded in image schemata and processed by the semantics of
natural language (Nuessel, 1996; Petitot, 1995, 2003). Schemata capture the
structural contours of sensorimotor experience integrating information from
multiple modalities (Grady, 2005; Hampe, 2005; Rohrer, 2005). Image schemata
organise knowledge and reasoning about the world. They function somewhat like
the abstract structure of an image, and thereby connect up a vast range of different
experiences that manifest this same recurring structure (Johnson, 1987). By
repeatedly activating a set of properties in a particular way individuals form top-
down frames for organising different aspects of perception via metaphor.
Metaphor preserves the topological contours of perceptual experience (Invariance
principle) (Lakoff, 1993), where perception is structured by the Gestalt principles:
emergence, reification, invariance and multistability (Lehar, 2003).

Image schemata are condensed redescriptions of perceptual experience for the

purpose of mapping spatial structure on to conceptual structure. Therefore
modeling language development in terms of image schemata function must respect
the view that has emerged in cognitive linguistics that the continuous and dynamic
form of the external, phenomenal world motivates sentential semantic structures
(Manjali, 1997 (a) and (b)). The continuous plane of content has its source in
perception, as it is through perception that the human organism establishes contact
with the world. The elements of the perceptually rooted linguistic schemas produce
a 'dynamic gestalt' by means of which semantic comprehension of sentences can
take place.

Modeling language development

Based on the above we propose that modeling language development can be based
on the idea that the continuous and dynamic form of the external, phenomenal
world motivates dynamic Gestalts. These sentential semantic structures are an
expression of the unity between perception and language. These structures are a
product of the self-organisation of image schemata in ontogeny, where gestalts
acquire meaning via metaphor.

Metaphor needs to be considered in terms of the many space conceptual integration

model that is based on double-scope blending (Fauconnier & Turner, 1998, 2003,
2008). Blending is dynamic where we construct meaning by actively reinterpreting
the unknown (percepts, ideas) in terms of the known or idealised concepts. It
involves the complex interaction between the contingencies of the source (unknown)
considered in terms of the preconceived ideals of the known (target). The dynamics
give rise to emergent properties representing reality from a certain perspective.
Double-scope blending creates vast conceptual networks with elaborate relations
running across the network—relations of time, space, cause-effect, representation,
analogy and disanalogy, change, identity, uniqueness, and so on. Despite the vast
scales involved nonetheless concepts are anchored in scenes that are at human scale.
Integration networks consisting of conventional parts, conventionally structured
parts, and novel mappings and compressions represent reality from a certain

Blending is recursive: packed, human-scale blends become inputs to new networks

(Fauconnier & Turner, 1998, 2003, 2008). Emergent structures can be incorporated
into more complex ones. Human scale blends contained in the network provide a
platform, a scaffold, a cognitively congenial basis from which to reach out, manage,
manipulate, transform, develop, and handle the network. Human thought anchoring
vast network scales in “human scale” enables us to bring the distant past and future
together in the here-and-now. The individual can become aware of identity and
existence in subjective time that extends from the past through the present to the
future. Blending involves a major personal and emotional input so that the semantic
product is highly personal and unpredictable. It also accommodates the central role
of the ego as being both the agent and also changed in the blending process. It
countenances paradox and anomalies.

Despite the importance of self-organisation between gestalt and metaphor in language

development no model has concentrated on this fundamental approach. We contend
that such a model needs to incorporate a number of aspects or constraints on its form.
These are as follows: rhetorical, where language stems from a continual questioning
of the nature of perception and thought; microgenetic (Brown, 1988, 1998), where
language is an actualisation (Aktualgenese) of a cognition over "layers" in mind and
brain that retrace growth patterns in phyloontogeny. In this way of thinking, the
momentary actualisation of the organism, its becoming, is the fundamental note from
which the melody of development is composed; ontological, where the conceptual
units underlying the dynamics can interpret reality; ontogenic, in that the units should
recognise the maturational sequence that characterises ontogeny; structural, where the
units self organise into a structure that transforms dynamic gestalt structures into
sentential semantic structures; recursivity, where the same dynamic should be evident
at all levels of the neuraxis, from perception to frontal planning; gestaltic, the
dynamics should reflect the gestalt basis of language development; incorporate
double scope blending concepts of emergence, metaphor as anchoring,
spatiotemporal scaling, compression, completion, paradox resolution and ego
formation; and finally self-organisation, which incorporates notions of metastability,
metalinguistic development, fractal time and contextual dissociation.

Metaphor as coordination of the master tropes

In order to incorporate all these constraints into our model we propose that we need
to consider metaphor in terms of its constituent structure, coordination of the master
tropes (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony). To trope means to change
meaning. Of what? Of words? Yes, but more specifically they are the source of
changing what or how we mean. Each trope represents the stages consciousness must
pass on the way to abstract thought (D'Angelo, 1987). Metaphor presents perceptual
equivalence, representing an intuitive grasp of the whole, a primordial functional
unity of sensory, affective, imagistic and linguistic elements. Metonymy
differentiates into parts, transductively leading over the mind from one thing to
another. Synecdoche is an inductive movement where a part is put for the whole, and
vice versa. Irony is a self-conscious process that interprets the whole process.

The coordinated function of the four tropes as a system is considered essential for our
conceptual adaptation. From the 17th Century when Vico (Danesi, 2003; Vico, 1944)
first recognised the master tropes until the early 1980’s the tropology was
championed as a primitive semiotic unit (Burke, 1969; D’Angelo, 1992; Kellner,
1981; Oswick et al, 2004). Since then the tropology has been relatively neglected as
interest has focused on metaphor and conceptual blending theory (Fauconnier &
Turner, 1998, 2003, 2008; Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff, (1993); Lakoff & Johnson, 1980;
Taylor, 1989).

We propose that a tropological approach offers fresh insights into language

development. We will now rationalize use of the tropology in terms of the
constraints we iterated above.

Considering the rhetorical constraint, metaphor is a cybernetic, homeostatic

process that continually questions the nature of perceived events and
simultaneously our attempt to represent these events through language. Metaphor
formation involves a top-down approach organising perception, synthesising
information into a suitably conceptualisable form. The tropology constitutes the
rhetorical basis for concept formation.

Concerning the next three constraints, microgenetic, ontological and ontogenic we

note that the master tropes were originally considered to be merely figures of
speech, but we now realise that their function is more fundamental (Burke, 1969;
D’Angelo, 1987 and 1992; Kellner, 1981; Oswick et al, 2004). The development
of language stems from images and tropes. The tropes represent the capacity of
man for direct sensation and imaginative perception (D'Angelo, 1987; Danesi,
2004). They underlie creative process based on the use of analogical reasoning.
They are considered the basis for much of our understanding in everyday life
(Culler, 1981). Tropes constitute a system by which the mind comes to grasp the
world conceptually in language. They reflect our fundamentally relational
understanding of reality, a reality framed within systems of analogy (Chandler,
2002). Analogy is a reflection of our sensitivity to ontological form, which is
rooted in the perception of patterned resonance in the world (Zwicky, 2003).
Tropes shape thought so enabling our minds to echo our world.

Tropes are ontological concepts essential for our interpretation of reality. They
symbolise relationships within phenomena, where each trope represents a specific
strategy for presenting the perceived experience (White, 1985). They are models
of the different directions thought might take to offer meaning to areas of
experience not cognitively secured. Functioning together the tropological approach
reflects ontogeny. The order of the master tropes is not ad hoc but reflects
cognitive and semantic development (Kellner, 1981; D’Angelo, 1992). The order
is strictly and logically entailed. The tropology represents a form of knowing, of
grasping a concept. The tropology accords, whether loosely or strictly, with many
theoretical systems of knowing or coming to be known, as in Vico, Kant, Hegel,
Marx and Goethe (Kellner, 1981; also see Burke, 1969). The tropology also
represents the stages of cognitive development which encompass both the
phylogeny and ontogeny of cognitive systems (D’Angelo, 1992; Kellner, 1981;
Werner, 1944; Piaget, 1969; Vygotsky, 1962). Foucoult (1970) and Vico (1944)
have shown that the logic of the tropology (poetic logic) underlies the general
stages of development of Western thought.

The next constraint is structural. We have previously raised the question underlying
the cognitive linguistic approach to language formation: how is the physical world
transformed into semantic notions? The answer was a structuralist approach, where
structures are dynamic, morphological and gestalt based. The major tropes provide a
dynamic, structural basis for concept formation.

The next section will develop the recursive form of the tropology that is also central
to the microgenic approach (Brown, 1988) where language formation consists of a
cascade of whole/part shifts over evolutionary growth planes in the brain leading
from a core in upper brainstem through limbic formations to the neocortical rim.
Then in the following two sections we indicate the gestalt form of the tropology that
is the foundation of the model. We show first how the tropology functions in a
gestalt manner and then how perception functions tropologically. We propose that
the latter is based on self-organisation in ontogeny where perception and the
tropology become self similar (isomorphic). To corroborate the isomorphism we
demonstrate homologies between the Gestalt principles and the master tropes. These
findings reveal our recursive model of language development as inherently
tropological and gestaltic. In the next stage we discuss metalinguistic development
as the tropology self organises in ontogeny to function in fractal time. The
synchronic form of the tropology ‘collapses’ past present and future into one
expression. These findings reflect on the nature of double scope blending in terms
outlined above.

The extension of the tropology through the forebrain

The recursive pattern of the tropology is expressed in different ways through various
levels of the forebrain. We will first briefly outline the extent in neurological terms
(Brown, 1988) and then develop the tropological core. In neurological terms
language can be conceived as levels in a "vertical" structure, not as centers in a two-
dimensional network. These levels constitute a stratified system of phyletic growth
planes. Language maps onto this structure. Language is the outcome of a multitiered
system distributed over levels in the evolution of brain and behavior. The structure as
a whole develops out of medial and paraventricular formations through several
growth planes of limbic and paralimbic (transitional) cortex to a stage of generalized
("association," "integration") cortex.

Perceptual semantic transformation originates from linking polymodal sensorimotor

circuits. At the most primitive level of language perceptual data is organised by the
Gestalt principles. These dynamics involve the coordination of the sensorimotor
activity with the right temporoparietal lobes. These early stages of language
formulation integrate incoming topological information as Gestaltic primitives, e.g.
as preverbal and ‘prepositional’ structures. They define the morphemes, the most
primitive semantic units. The right and left temporoparietal regions combine to
reinterpret the morphemes and formulate speech production. Finally at the highest
level of integration frontal lobe planning continually modulates the lower levels.

In tropological terms language development stems from the slow maturation and
eventually full coordination of the tropes. The tropes mature in the fixed order:
metaphor; metonymy; synecdoche and finally, irony. The expression of the tropology
differs from perception through to frontal planning (also see Kellner, 1981 for the
following). Metalinguistic function ensues when ironic self-awareness develops
leading to narrativity and the development of fluent speech.

As the tropes gradually mature in function they unfold upon themselves. In their
most primitive form, perception is interpreted in terms of a simple double binary
system of categories, defining same - other (metaphor / metonymy) and part – whole
(synecdoche). This matrix forms bisociations that are the most thorough way of
encompassing the diversity among the things that make up reality (States, 1998).

With the development of ironic awareness the tropology becomes complete and
functions in a cyclical manner. Maturation beyond the categorical level leads to
projection upon a syntagmatic axis that represents self-explanation through speech.
This is the second level of tropological explication, leading the tropes conceptually
through the stages of linguistic cooperation above the morpheme. The lexical process
of creating whole-whole correspondences to the concepts and words that are thus
joined is a metaphoric transfer. The reductive categorisation of these words governed
by grammatical rules of combination creates cause-effect entailments, which is
metonymic. Synecdochal organisation at this level refers to the organic status of
sentences, where the rules of syntax are the cohesive force. Finally, irony provides
meaning from above the level of the sentence.
The highest level of tropological expansion is the level of thought and language
planning in the frontal regions. The intentional state establishes an obligatory,
recurrent and unidirectional configuration on the percept / thought interpretation
process. Intentionality involves the selection of broad semantic units from the
meaning potential, the equivalent of the paradigmatic or metaphoric axis of language.
These selections invoke specific structural relationships depending on the contextual
demands needed for expression. The necessary entailments broadly select for the
specificities of syntactic structure that will be realised in syntagms. These expressions
underlie metonymy at this level. Synecdoche concerns the formulation of symbolic
relationships needed to match the coevolving paradigmatic / syntagmatic aspect of
expression. Symbols are selected relative to idealised relations and contexts in
‘worlds’ of the same type, or possibly any imaginable type.

Finally, the ironic stance overviews the planning processes. Irony represents a self-
conscious process of interpretation of the process so that it foregrounds the
inadequacy of words to things, of appearance to essence. Irony signals dissatisfaction
with representation as such and motivates recourse to the tropological lexicon from
which a new and more responsive formulation may be sought. Full tropological
process leads to restructuring, an explication of the implicate order, momentary
adaptation via a Darwinian based exploration of the fabric of embodiment.

Tropology function in gestalt terms

The gestalt function of the tropology is as follows. Metaphor is an emergent process

where the individual creates a new perspective or meaning. To do that intentional
needs highlight specific relationships within the emerging whole, the metaphoric
representation of the real world or perceptual scene. Metonymy determines the
contingent aspects of that specific intentional state. The representation of figural
relationships emerges from the whole in context. Metonymy differentiates or reduces
the overall situation in a figure ground manner (see Koch, 1999; Talmy, 1988), where
contiguity is the salient relation that exists between the sub frame elements of a
conceptual frame or between the frame as a whole and its elements. That is, the
salient links between elements of a given frame – as constituting a prototypical
conceptual gestalt – are contiguity relations. From a Gestalt perspective perceptual
saliency of stimuli critically depends on the surrounding context. Metonymy
preserves the perceived relationships in contextual form as a contingent structure.

Simultaneously, synecdoche compares and contrasts the developing contingencies

with previously determined idealised structural relationships, representations of a
general kind. For example, see Doursat & Petitot, 2005 (a) and (b) model and
discussion of the development of simple spatial concepts such as ‘in’. In other words
intelligence constructs a world first by turning outwards to objectise itself through
metonymy only to turn inside, to come to know self in the image via synecdoche.
Here the part-whole relationship is inverted; the part is broadly reinterpreted in terms
of what remains invariant despite the contingencies of the real world. Synecdoche
evolves to represent a higher level of interpretation, of the actual within the many
possible worlds available to the imagination. Synecdoche recontextualises the
specific within the personal.

The tropology reconciles or blends the contrasting ‘worlds’ so that the contingency of
metonymy forms a best fit with the ideal or invariant one developed through
synecdoche. With synecdoche the specificities of the moment may be placed in a
broader context. Irony feeds back on both the actual and the ideal demands for
expression. Irony questions the reality value of metonymy and of representation in
general i.e. using words to express the essence of things. The metastable system
continually cycles through the tropes as it adapts to the moment. With each turn of
the cycle the emergent metaphoric level of resolution leads to a novel perspective.
Metaphor represents the ‘now’ as an attempt to resolve the dynamics concerning:
present contingencies (metonymy); past idealised contentions (synecdoche); and the
future via irony.

The tropological function of perception

We have proposed that our language development model is based on the progressive
self-organisation of the percept / metaphor interaction in ontogeny. Image schemata
form top-down frames for organising perception via tropological function. We
conclude that in ontogeny when the language system self-organises to criticality the
function of both the tropology and perception becomes self similar, 1/f or isomorphic
(Anderson & Mandell, (1996); Kello &.Van Orden (2009). We postulate that with
self-organisation the perceptual system functions in a tropological manner where the
components of the tropology and perception are homologous.

We now propose and substantiate these homologies between each major trope and
Gestalt principal: emergence, reification, invariance and multistability (Lehar, 2003).
Metaphor is the analog of emergence. The unifying function of metaphoric
resemblance accounts for the emergence of new meaning in language. It involves an
act of perceptual and semantic restructuring where a sense of imagination operates to
draw meaning from the comparison made (Ricoeur, 1975; 1991). The process
includes an iconic moment or image that acts as a gathering of emergent meanings
that underlies our ability to see reality other than that received. This is rooted in the
imagination to construct an image from many diverse semantic fields.
In Gestalt theory, emergence refers to the formation of the macro structure, the
Gestalt or meaningful form. The whole is greater than the parts. Emergence is
unpredictable as the total structure remains beyond the sum of the instances. The
dynamic aspect of emergence is reflected in the fact that the final global state is not
computed in a single pass, but continuously, like a relaxation to equilibrium in a
dynamic system model.

Secondly, metonymy is analogous to reification. As indicated above metonymy is a

figure–ground effect (see Koch, 1999; Talmy, 1988) where from a Gestalt
perspective perceptual saliency of stimuli critically depends on the surrounding
context. Metonymy conveys some incorporeal or intangible state in terms of the
corporeal or tangible. It conserves perception of the worlds of objects, reflects their
quiddity, their particular precisions (Hejinian, 1996). Metonymy underlies the
gappy nature of thought, where ‘looking’ through the gaps between the disparate
contiguous parts imagines meaning. The gaps (relationships) ‘point’ to a missing
whole, a structure that unites the parts.

Reification refers to the perceptual state where specific virtual structures or

singularities emerge in context. The gestalt is created through a constructive or
generative process so that the part reified is defined by its contingent context. With
reification more explicit information develops than is immediately obvious or present
in the specific scene. As with metonymy meaning arises by ‘looking’ through the
gaps between the disparate contiguous parts.

Synecdoche is equivalent to invariance. Synecdoche creates an explicit hierarchy by

situating one thing as part of another. It is holistic and imagistic, presupposing some
constitutive quality that can unify its relation to the world and symbolise this unity.
Synecdoche underlies the categorical tendency that is the psychological (but not
strictly formal) sense of invariance.

Invariance is of great importance in Gestalt perception (Hochberg & McAllister,

1953; Hoffman, 1992). The preferred interpretation of a stimulus is the one with the
simplest code. That is a code that enables a reconstruction of the stimulus using a
minimum number of descriptive parameters. Such a code is obtained by capturing a
maximum amount of regularity and yields a hierarchical organization of the stimulus
in terms of wholes and parts. Simplicity is often based on symmetry criteria. The
gestalt is of great importance for the semantic development of the concept. The
gestalt, is what remains invariant across all percepts, the preservation of similar
structural relationships that have developed dynamically.

Irony is analogous to multistability. Irony foregrounds the inadequacy of words to

things, of appearance to essence. Irony underlines the discontinuity between what is
said and what is meant, what is planned and what occurs. It takes the dialectic
between external reality and language to a new level that is essential for resolution of
the paradox.
Multistability indicates the tendency of ambiguous experiences to oscillate unstably
between alternative interpretations. Interpretation of scenes can vary form moment to
moment merely depending on what constitutes figure and context. Multistability
underlies symmetry breaking and phase transformation in self-organisation. For
example, with embedded figures metastability and phase transitions arise in the self-
organising decisional process (Kelso and Tognoli, 2007). In general, symmetry
breaking in cognition requires a creative answer to overcome the paradox.

Language development based on dynamics within the tropology

We have sought to establish the recursive nature of the tropology underlying

language development through all levels of the forebrain. To do that we first showed
that the tropology functions in a gestalt manner. Then we proposed that when the
tropology and perception self-organise perception is governed by a tropological
sequence: emergence, reification, invariance and multistability.

Based on these findings we will now look at the model from two perspectives. In
general terms we see language development as a progressive increase in the ability to
extract, consolidate and manipulate gestalts within the extended forebrain system.
Gestalts are the invariant structures determined by realising the universality aspects
of each specific percept; that is, despite the differences between the infinite number
of scenes the child meets (see Doursat & Petitot, 2005(a); Breidbach, & Jost, 2006).
The dialectical tension between the specific and universal governs the development.
Gestalts are formed through reification and then given initial significance through
invariance, where they are correlated with preconceived transformations of a similar
type. In ontogeny gestalts become more and more integrated as they are consolidated
within the micro (perceptual level) and macro (extending to the forebrain) systems.
The tropology stabilises and reinterprets the Gestalt through the interaction between
metonymy and synecdoche. The process becomes one of progressive embedding
through transformations. Objects and situations embed in ‘verbs’ or morphogenic
transformations. These are in turn further embedded through metonymy and
synecdochal blending. From recursive tropological extension the gestalts become
sentential semantic structures. They gain an increasing sense of meaning and
permanence as they become consolidated (embedded) in the process. We see the
primary function of the language system is to consolidate meaning potential through
gestalt metaphor self organisation. The development and further use or the semantic
sentential structures enables in to adapt from moment to moment. Within each
moment as it updates it restructures self to best represent what we mean. This
becomes and is the essence of Pragnanz, our meaning as self-realisation.
In more specific terms language development is based on the gradual development of
the ability to recognise objects and realise their meaning through contextual
relationships. In the earliest development of perception the child differentiates
aspects of the whole, experiencing objects apart from self. The semantic task is to
stabilise perception. That is performed by transforming percepts into gestalts of
increasing stability by increasing the state space of synecdochal or invariant forms.
Stability is also conferred by more widely distributing the gestalt, making it a
function of widespread coordinated forebrain activity.

Language development is characterised by an increasing ability to manipulate gestalts

by recontextualising them through tropal interaction. The gestalt is defined and
structured by its context. Tropal dynamics modify gestalts so that the figure-ground
relationship in perception becomes reinterpreted through the interaction or blending
between metonymy and synecdoche and irony. In this blending manner the primitive
perceptual syntagms become sentential semantic structures, the basic units of

Metalinguistic development through self-organisation of the

language system

The development of the language system is based on increasing coordination of

patterns through all levels of the forebrain. The embodied, situated nature of
cognition is founded on the ability of these patterns spanning multiple time scales to
organize in space and time (Kello & Van Orden, 2009; Kelso & Tognoli, 2007).
Systems self organise to metastability (Bressler & Kelso, 2001; Kelso, 2002) which
produces a range of brain behaviours where numerous patterns of activity co-exist as
latent potentials (Kello et al., 2008). Systems become more flexible and metastable
as their capacity to concurrently hold many distinct latent patterns increases.

Fractal dynamics or 1/f scaling behaviour is pervasive throughout the nervous

system. Fractal time means that the extended tropological processes become
coordinated vertically (Anderson & Mandell, 1996). In systems at criticality
behaviour becomes correlated across levels. In our model we propose that the three
different temporal processes within the tropology become synchronous: irony relates
to future time of planning; metonymy to the contingency of the present; synecdoche
reflects the past, invariance gained through experience. Metaphor is emergent
leading to the formation of new structural relations as each cycle of the tropology
tries to resolve the particular intention. Thought and language stem from recurrent
metaphoric anchoring of vast network scales in the “human scale”. This process
brings the past and future together in the here-and-now (Fauconnier & Turner, 2008).
The synchronic coordination of the tropology is the basis for language. Language is a
diachronic transformation and via self-reference feeds back to the planning and
perceptual centers.

As mentioned semantic growth is characterised by the increasing ‘ability’ to

recontextualise. In the early stages of development the child is governed by
ambience so figure-ground (context or structure) are inseparable. The child cannot
dissociate the figure from its context and language remains literal (mimetic, gestural).
However, through self-organisation and developing ironic awareness the tropology
turns back on itself. Self-awareness leads to major changes in the dynamics of the
gestalt / tropology relationship. The development of self-reference means that
reference to self means self and other, or subject and object. Self now becomes the
structure within which the gestaltic object coevolves through self-reference.
However, the self / object relation where self is context and object is figure are of
different logical types. Now the object is dissociated from the self; figure can also be
separated from its ground. This leads to the increasing autonomy of language and the
development of metalanguage.

The ability to dissociate figure from ground, or context, is essential for conceptual
fluidity, metaphor and language development. The individual realises that figure and
ground can be interchanged, or even changed completely. Recontextualisation occurs
at will. The ability to realise figures in different contexts underlies the growth of
imagination and meaning. All meaning refers back to self-interpretation so that
eventually we can say and even become anything we wish.

Further semantic aspects of the model

We have proposed that self-organisation between gestalts and the tropology can serve
as a basis to model semantic development. We conclude by further justifying the
importance of a tropological approach. The first is what Piaget called significant
implication (Scholnook & Cookson, 1994). Meaning is the understanding of how an
action changes (transforms) the world. Significant implication constructs the action-
result regularities that image schemata represent. In order to understand the logic of
action, the child must first build contingencies based on the inference that certain
actions rather than others produce specific results. The tropology is an analog of
Piaget’s schemata depicting the general stages of cognitive development (D’Angelo,
1992). The tropology provides a basis for the logic inherent in action perception
schemata. This same logic can now be seen to pervade the coordinated activity
necessary for language development.

Second, we have seen that narrativity develops as the tropology matures to form
recursive cyclical activity. Narrativity is of great psychological importance because
it organises the structure of human experience. Narrativity typifies the child after 3
or 4 where they begin to remember their autobiographical experience (Young &
Saver, 2001). Narrativity constructs our notion of reality and asserts that the
experience of life takes on meaning through allegorical inflation.

Thirdly, tropological process leads to development of the sense of continuity of self.

This process is characterised by transitions between stable and unstable phase
synchronisation as seen in metastability. The tropes of transition and closure
underlie the instability (see Grossman, 1998). Metaphor and synecdoche are the
brakes of the tropological machine; metonymy and irony are its engines. Metaphor
and synecdoche represent the identity of versions of self differing over time.
Metaphor affirms the identity between things and their inner meaning. Synecdoche
represents the sublation of difference in the perceived homogeneity of subject and
object. Metonymy and irony on the other hand represent transitions in the search for
identity. Metonymy denies identity. However, with irony there is a simultaneous
negation and preservation of identity that advances the dialectic to a new phase. The
tropology oscillates between cycles of tension and resolution, where the
confrontation of the tropes informs the progress of internal narrative innovation that
underlies identity as continuity within change.

Finally, in addition to our comments on irony we further highlight the important role
of irony in modeling language development (Colbrook, 2003; White, 1985). Irony is
essential for developing meaning; how knowledge or gnosis arises from language.
Gnosis is not an algorithmic process but rather a pragmatic need to understand the
world. This process is better understood as ‘diagnosis’, literally ‘knowing through’, a
knowledge gained through ironic self-awareness, the self-reflective process of the
tropology (Kellner, 1981). Here knowledge comes from non-understanding. That is,
not by man extending his mind and taking the world in. Rather he makes things out
of himself and becomes them by transforming himself into them.


We have developed a dynamic model of language development based on a unifying

concept: tropes shape thought so enabling our minds to mould our world. In the
language model the forebrain functions as a complex adaptive system subserved by
the metastable tropology dynamically reconstructing self from moment to moment.
This is a gestalt notion, where the tropes coordinate to generate semantic sentential
structures that can serve as the primary currency of semantic exchange at all levels of
the neuraxis. These enable us to conceive inputs or ideas in contextual terms and
then recontextualise them so that we can ‘become’ them. In becoming we are
restructured through self-explication and ultimately self-explanation.

The thesis provides a systematic link between gestalt and metaphor. We have
asserted many reasons for the continuing relevance of the tropology in language
development. In particular the model reflects the way in which four-dimensional
space-time becomes internalised as fractal space-time. That transformation is the key
to semantics. We see the tropology as central to that conversion because it functions
in a gestalt manner and perception is tropological. We contend that these
groundbreaking ideas are pivotal to understanding the unity of forebrain function.

The model has several other important aspects. It introduces a novel basis for
studying language development in terms of seven self-organising parameters. Four
of these relate to transformations in ontogeny between the gestalt principles and the
tropes: reification and metonymy; invariance and synecdoche; multistability and
irony; and emergence of perception and metaphor. The fifth axis concerns the
relationship between local multistability and the global coordinative concept,
metastability. The sixth axis is the development of metalinguistic capability through
to self-organisation. Finally, we provide a fresh way to understand Pragnanz as the
semantic goal of the tropological gestalt system. In ontogeny we come to perceive
objects as a function of the extended tropology. As we perceive with intention we
project downwards (from our ‘past’) so that objects are discovered anew. That fresh
outlook stems from each language act where we reinvent objects through the
emergent process based on the recursive process of blending, irony and metaphor.
The object becomes meaningful as we relate to it by extending fractal time into
reflexic fractal space-time. Gestalt production restructures self through Pragnanz.

The model enables us to consider the importance of time constraints in language

development. Communication is governed by conflicting constraints. It must
maximise meaning in minimal time. Gestalts, iconic or imagistic forms have rich
relational semantics but they are ambiguous (Wilden, 1980). On the other hand,
although discursive language has a powerful syntax that makes it unambiguous, it
takes time. The model proposes that the optimal resolution of the conflict between
these two forms of communication lead to development of a gestalt system that
generates semantic structures with a sentential form. These semantic sentential
structures are produced from and represent brain function at points of instability, at
criticality and metastability, where brain adaptation is optimised. We propose that
his type of max / min optimizing process leads to Zipf’s law where there is a 1/f
relationship between word length and usage. It also helps to understand the
importance of implication in metonymy and gestalt formation through synecdoche
and metaphor.

Furthermore, the brain functions at metastability in order to compress its infinite

options to completion (in a semantic sense) in the least time. This mechanism
requires a strong constraining force, limiting language and maximising semantics.
We propose that irony evolved to subserve that function. Irony resolves the conflict
between the actual and the ideal frames. It also enables us to adopt a metalinguistic
stance. Irony questioning both actualisation (metonymy) and representation
(synecdoche). Irony may acts as an optimiser in the max / min dynamic mentioned

We propose that the model also provides fresh insights into the mechanisms
underlying microgenesis (Brown, 1988, 1998). We will detail the close relationship
between the two models more comprehensively in a later paper. At this stage we
note that microgenesis is couched in terms of neurological process and process
metaphysics. It is concerned with the concept of time, change and the actualisation
(becoming) over phases in the brain in the momentary development of a cognition.
Becoming creates the novelty as well as the duration through which the entity
momentarily exists. Each novel moment is a constituent of an imaginative series over
which the entity endures. Our model is also based on the creation of time (time
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