Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning.
Bradd Shore. Oxford University Press 1996.428 pp ISBN 0-19-509597-9 (cl.)
It seems there is renewed interest in the question of rationality within the field of anthropology. From time to time anthropogists have attempted to formulate in a general way the issue of cognition as it may or may not vary across cultures. in the nineteenth century the byword was "psychic unity", which meant that all members of the human species had roughly comparable mental faculties, if their accomplishments varied considerably. This was a warrant for colonialism, and provided the intellectual underpinning for unilinear cultural evolution. After all, how could evolution be "unilinear," that is pass through the same stages everywhere up to a certain point, unless all humans were possessed of roughly the same mental equipment? Phrased differently, why would peoples at the same evolutionary level behave more or less the same (as at the time they were believed to do)? What varied was opportunities for advancement, not only of material culture but of habits of mind. This made colonialism, with its educating and civilizing mandate, not only justifiable but necessary, as "the White Man's burden," his duty to his less fortunate fellow men and women.
Although the advent of American anthropology with the arrival of Franz Boas from Germany changed the intellectual landscape of anthropology, Bradd Shore (1996) argues that the basic position - that humans have the same mental abilities, although their characteristic patterns of thought varied with culture - was retained. This was not so much necessary from the standpoint of anthropological theory - there was no longer any unilinear evolution to be explained - but politically. Boas and his students, most famously Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, maintained a liberal version of "psychic unity," which allowed them to combat racism and ethnocentrism. However, it was always a difficult balancing act, since the burden of their ethnographic work was to demonstrate the very otherness of the mental lives of tribal peoples. A reader often is faced with awkward moments in, for instance, Benedict's Patterns of Culture, when the author argues for universalist positions that appear to contradict the evidence she has compiled (Benedict 1988:239-240; Geertz 1988:115).
This uneasy truce between pronouncements of psychic unity and evidence of radical alterity has remained the status quo in most of social and cultural anthropology, especially in America. Given the limitations of this way of framing the problem, two other approaches, however, are possible and have been tried. One is simply to deny the otherness of tribal thought. The main practitioner of this position was E.E. Evans-Pritchard. His studies of the Nuer and, especially, the Azande, Nilotic tribal peoples, emphasized their practical reason, demonstrating the thorough logicality of their beliefs and practices, which seem on the surface exotic and irrational. It is simply a question of getting to know them, of understanding from what premises they begin. Indeed, at times, Evans-Pritchard shows these people to be little more than "black Englishmen" (Evans-Pritchard 1976; Geertz 1988). Of course, there is a fair amount of question-begging going on here, since it is precisely a question of the premises, the possibility of believing that close acquaintances can be witches without knowing it, or that twins can be both humans and birds. As Ernest Gellner and other anthropologists have pointed out, the people Evans-Pritchard describes can hardly be said to practice a mentality that is "logical" in the Aristotelian sense. Virtually all the rules of logical argumentation are at one time or another violated, including the paramount, the law of non-contradiction. Evans-Pritchard's genial, clearly-written, and popular ethnographies have no doubt done some good politically, but finally they fail to provide an adequate account of these people, paying them the backhandedcompliment of saying that they look like Englishmen, while taking away that which is truly distinctive about them.
A second alternative developed in France, beginning with Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss. Although maintaining a weak form of the "psychic unity" hypothesis, Durkheim and Mauss took seriously the question of cognitive difference, which they framed in terms of classification (of space, time, natural species, etc.). Differences in classification were for them simply products of social organization: the family, clan, tribal, and/or national structure of various ethnic groups (Durkheim and Mauss 1963).
The main figure in this movement away from uniformitarianism was Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, whose notion of "primitive mentality" created great waves of dissent in the anthropological community (Lévy-Bruhl 1926). Reviled as racist, his ideas clearly placed tribal peoples on a different footing. Their thought was characterized by "participation," a radical violation of the non-contradiction principle, in which humans and non-humans actually partake of one another's essence. The key institution here is totemism, which suggests the possibility that one may be at the same time both human and animal (or geological formation, natural phenomenon, etc.). Clearly, people who believe this are not in some sense capable of practicing rational thought, at least not without extensive training. (Of course, this does not address the issue of innate human capabilities; an Azande infant raised by American parents would be cognitively American, and Lévy-Bruhl says nothing that would contradict that).
Claude Lévi-Strauss, while explicitly rejecting Lévy-Bruhl, developed a more sophisticated account of pensée sauvage (Lévi-Strauss 1966). While admitting that these people think much differently from Europeans, he sees in their habits of thought a much closer attention to empirical reality than in ours, which are, precisely, rational rather than empirical. Thus, we will allow ourselves to be guided in our understanding of the biosphere by Linnaean classification: an a priori schema, which does not take into account habits, habitat, smell, and other plain facts that tribal peoples know so well. Theirs is a "logic of the concrete," in which a vast amount of information about the material world and its uses is available. It differs from our science in that it is not systematic, rigorous, and abstract. Not only do these people know more about their environments than we do of our own, they organize the information much differently. Empirical facts may be combined with myth, considerations of utility, ideas about the group and its relation to the outside world, and affect, creating a knowledge that is both empirical and subjective. Pensée sauvage has been a very influential formulation of the problem, one that preserves the otherness of non-Western cultures without disparaging their intellectual abilities.
The latest author to play the game of pensée sauvage is Marshall Sahlins. In fact, he still uses this term although by now even in French it sounds dated and pejorative. His most recent book is a "reply" to Gananath Obeyesekere's attack of Sahlins' theories about the deification and death of Captain Cook (Sahlins 1989, 1995; Obeyesekere 1992). Obeyesekere disbelieves the well-established thesis that Cook was taken for the god Lono, and indeed the many instances of deification of Europeans by tribal people in the Americas and the Pacific. He goes far beyond this skepticism, to attack Sahlins as an intellectual imperialist and to offer his own theories about Cook's fatal encounter with the Hawaiians. Obeyesekere, who is Sri Lankan, wishes to ally himself with the exploited "third world" peoples, to speak for them and arm them with scholarly ammunition in their struggles. From this starting point, Obeyesekere attacks Sahlins repeatedly and personally. Usually, he is wide of the mark, but occasionally he makes reasonable criticisms, such as Sahlins' ignoring of the Hawaiian political-military situation. Sahlins has taken an entire book to refute Obeyesekere, indeed to make him look small. At the outset, Sahlins states that a book devoted merely to disproving Obeyesekere would be "picayune," and then proceeds largely to illustrate the truth of that proposition (Sahlins1995:14).
One or two points make this book worth discussing, if only as an artifact of anthropological theory. For Sahlins, the entire debate turns on the question of rationality. Obeyesekere, in his "defense" of the Hawaiians, transforms them into rational natives, while emphasizing the "mytho-praxis" of the Europeans, who cannot help but think of themselves as gods in the eyes of the natives. Sahlins rightly attacks Obeyesekere for this profoundly ethnocentric reading. Indeed, such well-intentioned and "politically correct" revisionism is a serious threat to the integrity of historical and living tribal groups. Like Evans-Pritchard, such writers only wish to think the best of the natives, which is a type of bourgeois practical reason, thus completing the subjugation of these people with an intellectual coup d'etat.
Invoking Herder and Lévi-Strauss, Sahlins rushes to the defense of the distinctive Hawaiian mode of mythical thought. While agreeing that they possessed sufficient pragmatic understanding of their world to manage their affairs, Sahlins suggests that the appearance of something radically new upon the scene, in the person of Captain Cook would, for the Hawaiians, leave them no recourse but to mythical thought. Upon reflection, this is certainly true. Lacking a comparative anthropology or any non-mythical means for comprehending such a novel appearance of non-Polynesians on their shores, it strains credulity to think that such an event would be understood in everyday terms. By way of analogy, consider in our own society the mysticism surrounding the idea of visitation by extra-terrestrial creatures. If there are more things on heaven and earth than we have dreamt of in our philosophy, then surely when we encounter one of them we fashion ad hoc explanations built from available bits and pieces. That is to say we think mythologically, we make bricolage, as do Lévi-Strauss' Indians.
Sahlins does not frame the matter precisely in this way. Indeed, one of the great disappointments of this book is his failure to take any of these ideas further than he has in the past. He ends up defending a questionable vision of cultures as wholly self-contained lifeworlds, taken from Johann Gottfried von Herder, the nineteenth-century German philosopher. Indeed, when Sahlins early in the book framed the issue as one of the French Enlightenment versus the German Counter-Enlightenment, my heart sank. Must we relive intellectual history as farce? Have we learned nothing about cultural diversity and human nature in two centuries? Would it not be possible to construct a reading of the events at Kealakekua Bay that avoided the exaggerations and reifications of a radical historical particularism? Sahlins (1976) has himself presented a much richer vision of rationality and culture in Western bourgeois societies. It is a pity that this re-examination of the Hawaiian material resulted merely in a defending of the trenches, rather than a new synthesis.
A student of Marshall Sahlins and the University of Chicago, Bradd Shore, has written a book that may well provide the beginnings of such a synthesis. He begins with a history of the rationality problem in anthropology, similar to the one briefly adumbrated above. As the past is ever the handmaiden of the present, one can always quibble with disciplinary histories. Shore, in my judgement, overemphasizes a certain line of thought coming out of Harvard's Social Relations Department and the University of Chicago's Anthropology Department - very much the usual suspects. Several major figures, such Gregory Bateson and A. Irving Hallowell in the USA, along with Evans-Pritchard, are not discussed, at least not in the historical chapter. This is strange, especially, as the chapter's title "The Psychic Unity Muddle" is reminiscent of Bateson. Hallowell, whose phenomenological approach to cultural psychology was groundbreaking, is left out of the book altogether.
These are minor quibbles. The bulk of the book is devoted to a rapprochement between anthropology and psychology on the common ground of cognitive science. Shore makes a convincing argument that such a union is to be desired. The typical anthropological perspective that attributes all human behavior and meaning to "culture" is clearly incomplete, as is theneuropsychological viewpoint that attributes it all to the brain. Indeed, the two disciplines began from entirely opposed and incompatible points. Neuropsychology viewed the brain as an information processor, while anthropologists concerned themselves exclusively with questions of meaning as socially constructed. Only an original genius such as Gregory Bateson could attempt to bring together the two models, and then only incompletely. In recent years, however, psychology has turned increasingly to connectionism, a theory much more compatible with the interests of anthropologists. Connectionism posits a model of mental activity called parallel distributed processing (PDP), in which a series of neurons firing simultaneously can mimic meaningful thought processes such as learning and judgement. The information-processing models, by contrast, view the basic unit of cognition as the digital on/off status of individual neurons. While this may still be true in some sense, PDPs allow for analog processing, at least in a virtual sense. With enough parallel processors operating, quantitative (i.e., more or less) as well as qualitative (yes or no) differences may be encoded.
In anthropology and related fields increasing attention has been paid to what is actually a rather old idea, schema theory, which originated with Kant and was developed by Piaget. It has been applied to culture by the linguist George Lakoff, the philosopher Mark Johnson, and the anthropologist Roy D'Andrade among others (d'Andrade 1992; Lakoff 1987; Lakoff and Johnson 1980). This theoretical framework allows for the study of cultural features, which are now partly a question of individual thought, not only collective culture-as-constituted.
In what sense are connectionism and schema theory compatible? Shore devotes one chapter to a detailed point-by-point comparison. He suggests the possibility for an overarching theory of cognition centered on the notions of analogic reasoning and analogy formation. That is, human thought is fundamentally analogic in character, able to recognize patterns in sensory input. Moreover, humans are able to impose meaning upon the world by constructing new patterns. Indeed, cognition is essentially ecological, meaning that the mind is engaged in a constant dialectic with the environment, in which patterns appear in the world, patterns are imposed on new data, and patterns are altered to fit new situations. Moving from this basic and middle-level cognitive architecture, the sort of thing studied by psychologists, Shore reaches the complex level of culture proper, where many useful cognitive patterns are stored. These are the schemas that cognitive anthropologists study. Actually, Shore proposes a typology of schemas, including the most basic and generative level, what he calls foundational schemas, and a variety of cultural models.
An example of a foundational schema is modularity in American culture. The idea that any structure is composed of basic, interchangeable blocks or modules is at the heart of many American cultural products, including architecture, time management, furniture, computer design, and educational policies. This schema is at once very basic and encompassing, and yet is not universal, not an attribute of "human nature." It generates individual cultural models such as the important concept of "lifestyle" as a modular configuration of personal "choices," which include not only consumer choices (cars, recreation equipment) but aspects of personality that can be chosen, through modern "self-help" and pharmaceutical therapies.
Shore's most interesting analyses are of cultural models. He takes as a key example American baseball, making a more extended analysis of the article that appeared in these pages (Shore 1995). Although it is declining in popularity in comparison to other sports and entertainment options, baseball still provides a basic framework for understanding social space. A tightly controlled "home plate" contrasts with an indeterminate and uncontrollable "outfield," which fades out indistinctly into the world outside. Private and public, socially close and socially distant, individual and collective are all contrasted in this sport. It is thus not surprising that baseball provides metaphors for business and non-marital sexual relations, which are similar arenas of activity. Baseball is an enterprise, part play and part ritual (Shore wisely refuses toestablish an absolute contrast between the two) that models stereotypical conflicts that arise in American culture.
Another important American cultural model Shore considers is what he calls "techno-totemism." This refers to the blending of elements of human and machine. Of course, this notion dates back in some form to Frankenstein, and would embrace such diverse cultural products as Chaplin's Modern Times, The Six Million Dollar Man, Robocop, and Virtual Reality technology. These works express and sometimes critique the ambiguous and paradoxical relation between human and machine in industrial society. Human autonomy is compromised even as human power is extended by technology. Shore is correct in comparing this to the famous "totemism" of tribal cultures, as something similar is going on. Each form of totemism reflects the problematic relations between humans and others, doing so by representing "participation" in Lévy-Bruhl's sense.
Shore spends a large part of the book considering totemism, long a central problem of anthropology. He takes Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) totemism as a case study. Arguing against the detached view of Lévi-Strauss, who thought of it simply as an arbitrary system of classification, Shore sees totemic relations as "motivated," involving participation, especially in the form of consumption (Lévi-Strauss 1963). Kwakiutl totemism provides a model for relations between human and animal, and among social groups, seen as relations of orality. Everything that would be modeled as sexual or technological in our culture is there modeled as biting, eating, and vomiting. This somewhat "marginal" case of totemism, by an earlier way of thinking, provides the perfect example of totemism as a cultural model. It is easy to see how such a model would provide an ongoing psychological motivation, blending as it does various types of identification between human and animal; by contrast, Lévi-Strauss' account of totemism as an exercise in social classification fails to take into account the individual human actor.
Shore addresses the question of the reproduction of cultural models, their re-presentation in the individual mind, in his discussion of the Australian aboriginal "walkabout" schema. He sees this model expressed most perfectly in the Murgnin myth of the Wawilak Sisters. In this myth, which involves the creation of society in the Dreamtime, Shore argues that different epistemologies are modeled. Inside and outside perspectives, with respect to sacred knowledge, are presented, thus providing a template for the initiation, in several stages, of boys and young men. Because it is thus pragmatically tied to and provides a metacommentary upon enculturation, it also constitutes a model for the complex relation between culture as constituted and culture as created within the individual mind. Shore sees this process as a kind of hermeneutic circle, of which the walkabout is its material manifestation, in which culture is "twice born," once on the outside, once on the inside. What had been a major theoretical paradox in Western social philosophy is shown to be largely a question of perspective. The walkabout itself - a long, circular journey of discovery - is a powerful cultural model for the Murgnin, and useful to us as well, as it allows us to overcome epistemological paradoxes, such as that of Meno. If, as Plato says, we can only learn that which we remember, the idea of dreamtime and the walkabout as its means of access is a useful way to model this particular problem (Shore 1996:327). In terms more suited to our own culture, we might say that learning involves the application of cognitive models, a "recognition" that is a form of memory.
Bradd Shore has produced an important book whose only real fault may be its ambitiousness. It seems convincing to me, as an anthropologist who has already embraced schema theory, but who knows little about neuropsychology. How this book will appear to psychologists, or to anthropologists less sympathetic to psychology is an open question. Is a "new synthesis" of social theory even possible in our postmodern era?
A minor complaint, but one that should be taken into account in the event of a second printingof the book, is the large number of textual errors. Most of these are simply "typos," but several involve the misspelling of important authors' names. That such a prestigious press would allow such errors to go out with its imprimatur attests to the reality of a world that is less post-modern than "post-literate."
William Blake, in his prophetic poems, speaks of the ascendence of Urizen, the false god of rationality. Like Blake's benighted congregants, anthropologists, philosophers, and psychologists have long worshipped at the feet of this idol, always assuming it to be a reflection of ourselves. Captain Cook, in one of his mythic incarnations, is the avatar of Urizen, spreading the flame of the Enlightenment to far-flung peoples. We framed our questions about others in purely negative terms. Why are the Bongo Bongo not as rational as us? The problem with these formulations, however they may play themselves out politically and ethically, is that in the first place we are not as rational as all that, and secondly the "Natives", whose irrationalities are generally different from our own, possess their own habits of mind which we have no right to disparage. Understanding how "they" think, as well as being more honest about our own cognition, may in time produce a broader and more accurate understanding of human mentality.
Benedict, Ruth (1959) Patterns of Culture. New York: Mentor Books.
D'Andrade, Roy (1992) Schemas and Motivation In Human Motives and Cultural Models. D'Andrade, Roy and Claudia Strauss (eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.pp. 23-44.
Durkheim, Emile and Marcel Mauss (1963) Primitive Classification. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1976) Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon.
Geertz, Clifford (1988) Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Gellner, Ernest (1988) Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, George (1987) Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Tell Us About the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1963) Totemism. Boston: Beacon.
--- (1966) The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien (1926) How Natives Think. New York: Knopf.
Obeyesekere, Gananath (1992) The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Sahlins, Marshall (1976) Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
--- (1989) Captain Cook at Hawaii. Journal of the Polynesian Society 98:371-425.
--- (1995) How "Natives" Think: About Captain Cook, For Example. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Shore, Bradd (1995) Editorial: Odd Ball. Semiotic Review of Books 6(2):1-2.
--- (1996) Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning. New York: Oxford University Press.
Michael Harkin is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming. Among his recent publications are: The Heiltsuk: Dialogues of Culture and History on the Northwest Coast (University of Nebraska Press, Studies in the Anthropology of North American Indians), and "Carnival and Authority: Heiltsuk Schemata of Power in Ritual Discourse" Ethos 24(2):281-313.
He can be reached at: email@example.com