Can Antropologists and other Cognitive Scientist live together?

How can we go beyond the rhetorical dichotomy between nature and culture and avoid misunderstandings that repeatedly occur when social/cultural anthropologists and natural scientists try to co-operate? It shouldn’t be all that difficult if we think, as I believe we should, of human cognition not as a state but as a single process where history and individual cognitive development interact.

Bronislaw Malinowski among Trobriand Islanders, 1918

One can put the matter over simply by saying that the theoretical starting point of, for example, a cognitive psychologist is "external" while the starting point of a social anthropologist is "internal". The analytical tools of the psychologist, the questions she ask, the categories of analysis she uses – categories such as "concepts" or "mind" – have all been defined in a discourse that is external to the subjects of the enquiry. On the other hand, an anthropologist tries to use as the ground from which to produce her analysis the cognitive tools of the subjects of her enquiry as they are available to them in the particular place and the particular time they are located. The significance of using this "internal" base line has been stressed by anthropologists again and again, perhaps most eloquently by Malinowski with his well known phrase "from the native's point of view".



With such different starting points, putting the two types of work together might appear as quixotic as grafting a human arm onto a cloud. However, although the metaphor may reflect the defeatism that often comes from both sides, it greatly exaggerates the difficulty.



This is, first of all, because the gulf between the "native's" point of view and that of the natural scientist is nowhere as great as much anthropology and cognitive science has pretended it is. Such a stance made anthropology forget that both the scientist and the people studied live in roughly the same world which is governed by the same laws of physics, biology, chemistry and sociology and that both have similar brains moulded by evolution in order to deal with this physical, biological chemical and social world. There is a sense in which both the scientist’s and the people’s points of view are "internal": they are internal not to any particular group or individual but to the human species as a whole. The misleading illusion of absolute distance between natural scientists and ethnographers is the product of the historically created opposition between nature and culture and the anthropological fantasy of a "culture" that could exist outside "nature". My first conclusion is, therefore that anthropologists have, to a alarge extent, no other choice than to be "externalist" (that is, human internalist) when they think they are being internalist from the point of view of a particular group.

The other reason why the gulf is not as great as it might at first seem is the fact that a totally external stance, which the cognitive scientist may believe she is adopting, is impossible. (I am not here talking of the much debated issue of the degree of cultural construction of science.) The joint aim of all cognitive scientists, anthropologists as much as the other members of that coalition, is to understand the behaviour of actual humans as they exist in the world which they inhabit. This world only exists for them within the process of history because they have the distinctive characteristics of our species. As a result, even allowing for the powerful constraints put on it by the general human evolved brain, this world is not identical for all or any people. For example, the nature of the contact between a mother and her child an hour after it is born is not identical in Edinburg, a Japanese city or a Malagasy village. This is what in large part explains the differences in behaviour of people in different places and times as well as the differences in the material and institutional environment within which they live.

Furthermore, the specificities brought about by human history should not be thought as merely creating an environment for people but also, to a significant extent, as creating the very people that the environment surrounds. This is most obvious in the cognitive field but in fact it also applies to all aspects of our selves even to the shape of our bones. There are thus no non-cultural bits of ourselves as there are no non-natural bits. We are made by a single but complex process that creates, inter alia, specificity. Differentiation produced by history, is one of the specific aspects of our species rather like the shape of our femur. Ignoring this crucial aspect of what it is to be a member of our species is as daft as would be studying human locomotion while pretending that we had femurs like those of baboons.

The fact of the continual process of historical construction of human beings has the methodological implication that if we want to explain human action, rather than merely describe it, we have no alternative but to remember that it is brought about by people from the inside. It is from the "inside" that people live their lives, though that does not mean that this inside is free of the implications of the neurological mechanisms of our brain or of the nature of the world (though both the brain and the world are changing). The reality is therefore that a psychologist studying cognition, like an anthropologist, has no alternative but to take also an "internal" inflected point of view if she want to study such things as human cognitive development, or irony. The psychological literature on such topics shows that this is in fact what is done. Similarly the anthropologist cannot for an instant imagine that this "inside" is free floating.

The reason why cooperation between scholars such as anthropologists and cognitive scientists is in fact much easier than it might seem is thus because neither side is quite what they believe they are. The externalism of natural science, as it applies to human cognition, is much more internalist than it makes out. The internalism of interpretative anthropology is much more externalist than it imagines. What has obscured this is the futility of the nature/culture dichotomy. The fact that the disciplines are closer than they believe they are does not, however, completely eliminate the epistemological problem but it greatly diminishes it.

And the ultimate reason why interpretative anthropologists and cognitive scientists are closer than they make out is not far to seek. The difficulty in working together is often attributed to the chasm between nature and culture, to different intellectual traditions or even to different criteria of truth, but it is above all due to the complex nature of the animal we are. It is because humans are within a single process where different types of driving forces produce a unified movement. It is very very difficult for anthropologists and others to study our species, whatever the academic department we are affiliated to, but this is less because of epistemological incompatibilities and more because of the complex nature of the phenomena we are dealing with.


  • comment-avatar
    Espen Malling 14 September 2010 (22:58)

    First of all: Really nice to see a concise post on an extremely broad, but relevant issue – an issue that, importantly, describes one of the general premises for the C&C, as I see it. The point you are making cannot be repeated too often, and seems useful in this straightforward incarnation not least because the problem it describes mainly builds on relatively shallow misconceptions (or maybe even stubbornness); even though the separation of fields – as described – primarily exists on the surface, the [i]belief[/i] that the separation is indeed there, actually embodies much of what the problem is all about. ‘The need to meet’ interdisciplinarily is unquestionable. The areas of interest are so intertwined that it would be positively harmful to even pretend that definite separations of the subject matter should persist. Of course, specialist knowledge on various areas is probably for the better, but the researcher’s constant realization that what is indeed being uncovered is only one of several layers constantly interacting with each other (and his inclusion of this realization in his research), is immensely important. However, as it is implicitly hinted at, even though cooperation is “much easier than it might seem” between the scholars in question, this “easiness” is something that lies in exactly the factual compatibilities reaching across disciplinary boundaries and not something that is necessarily close to a full implementation as a pragmatic, or even thought, reality. Even though relatively small and easily solvable ‘false beliefs’ might be at the core of the separation, this is not equal to saying that the problem becomes any smaller or easily solvable for that reason. Indeed, as is no secret, interdisciplinary (and often also intradisciplinary) disputes are struggles between fully compatible ideas, and they do not soon die out for that reason. This said, interdisciplinary research (not least in the interesting cross-field of the social and cognitive sciences) IS rising in frequency, and hopefully statements like the one put forward by the above post might indeed contribute to reaching across a largely meaningless divide.

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    Dan Sperber 22 September 2010 (09:16)

    Relevant to Maurice’s post is the recent book of Evelyn Fox Keller, [i]The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture[/i] (Duke UP, 2010). From the blurb: “Keller is interested in both how an oppositional “versus” came to be inserted between nature and nurture, and how the distinction on which that opposition depends, the idea that nature and nurture are separable, came to be taken for granted. How, she asks, did the illusion of a space between nature and nurture become entrenched in our thinking, and why is it so tenacious?” More generally much recent work (e.g. Wimsatt’s, Jablonka’s, Sterelny’s, and the evo-devo literature) shows how entangled the two are, and, in the human case, since development is largely cultural, how entangled nature and culture are. This work is often hailed by social scientists as if its relevance was just to biologists in showing the importance of development and culture in studying life. But entanglement goes both ways. This work should be just as relevant to social scientists in showing them that they cannot make sense of their subject-matter when ignoring biology and development.

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    Benson Saler 22 September 2010 (23:33)

    One might also take a look at two “oldies but goodies” — books, that is, — by the classicist G.E.R. Lloyd: (1) “Polarity and Analogy: Two Types of Argumentation in Early Greek Thought” (1966); and (2) “Demystifying Mentalities,” (1990). Lloyd draws our attention to what he regards as polemical conventions in ancient Greek argumentation and what those conventions presage for the heirs of the ancient Greeks. Assuming that he is correct, one wonders to what extent we are the heirs of the Greeks or to what extent the ancient Greeks and we are heirs to a universal human proclivity. Aristotle, for example, while giving somewhat different characterizations or definitions of nature (physis), seems to favor that which has a source of movement in itself, either in actuality or in potentiality. Nature in that sense is said to contrast with art (techne), that which lacks a source of movement in itself. And it contrasts with nomos, human law or convention. While I don’t recommend that we adhere to those distinctions, the distinctions themselves may seem almost obvious once we think about them. If you agree, then we might go on to ask why they should seem that. And if you don’t agree, why not?