A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning, by Claudia Strauss & Naomi Quinn, 1997. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; ISBN 0-521-59409-X hardback, £50 & US$64.95; ISBN 0-521-59541-X paperback £16.95 & US$24.95, 323 pp.
How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker, 1997. London: Penguin; ISBN 0-713-99130-5 hardback, £25, 660 pp.
Archaeologists study outcomes of past cognitive strategies. We might better reconstruct these if we fathomed how human cognition works, when and how it evolved – and the nature of its relationship with technology, language and culture. If there exists some novel, elegant and parsimonious theory which addresses such issues, then that is good news. So I looked forward to reading these books.
Together with Roy D’Andrade (1981; 1995), Bradd Shore (1996) and other ‘cultural models’ thinkers, Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn have risen to prominence within a movement straddling the divide between anthropology and psychology. In seeking to unify these disciplines, such scholars repudiate what they see as outmoded doctrines about ‘the psychic unity of mankind’. Cognition, they assert, is ethnographic (Shore 1996). ‘Neural network theory’ – alternatively known as ‘connectionism’ (Rumelhart et al. 1986) – forces abandonment of naïve ideas about innate cognitive architecture. The brain self-organizes during maturation and development, acquiring structure by internalizing local cultural models (Laughlin et al. 1992). Imagine, for example, relying only on Roman numerals in attempting complex arithmetical calculations. As strategies were devised, the mind would settle into a pattern quite unlike that based on arabic numeracy. There is clearly a sense in which ‘mind’ is internalized culture.
The ‘culture in mind’ (Shore 1996) approach stands diametrically opposed to the school of thought known as ‘evolutionary psychology’ (Tooby 1985; Pinker 1997). As if Alan Turing (1950) had teamed up with William Hamilton (1964) and Robert Trivers (1971), Pinker belongs to a movement seeking to link the artificial intelligence revolution of the 1950s-1960s with the more recent ‘selfish gene’ (Dawkins 1976) revolution in the life-sciences. Following the success of The Language Instinct (1994), Pinker’s How the Mind Works is an engrossing, enjoyable and openly partisan account of the mind as a product of evolutionary design.
Pinker’s point of departure is a thoroughgoing materialism. Philosophers have long debated an apparent conundrum. If ‘mind’ is irreducible to the materiality of ‘brain’, how can it nonetheless engage with and influence the physical world? Telecommunications and artificial intelligence metaphors have enabled us to set aside that problem. Mind is not spirit, yet neither is it matter. It is information. A message in morse code remains unaffected by whether the medium is light or sound. Each sequence of dots and dashes, while autonomous with respect to the physical medium, is nonetheless bound up with it and capable of producing physical effects. To grasp this is to understand how ‘mind’, while not reducible to ‘matter’, is nonetheless materially active and effective. There is really no mystery any more (Fodor 1968; Dennett 1978; Pinker 1997).
Evolutionary psychology extends the computer metaphor to explain why learning is necessary but insufficient in explaining the workings of mind. Imagine a personal computer which initially ‘knows’ nothing at all – not even what a floppy disc is. The instructions specify that you must first ‘teach’ the machine by inserting a disc. We can see at once that this is a logical paradox. Only a machine set up with prior information about discs – that is, one equipped with specialized adaptations for reading them – could possibly learn anything from such a device. By the same token, no-one disputes that the human brain develops and functions through learning. It achieves this by combining inputs from alternative sources, such as visual perception, intuitive mind-reading and language. But in each case, sense can be made of the input only thanks to equipment previously installed. If a child spontaneously mind-reads from cues provided by the eyes (Baron-Cohen 1995), or computes the basic grammar of a language after hearing only fragmentary utterances (Pinker 1994), it is because there is a sense in which it ‘knows’ in advance what kinds of inputs to expect.
Both psychological anthropology and evolutionary psychology proclaim the unification of knowledge. In place of ancient and outmoded dualisms – ‘mind’ versus ‘matter’, ‘culture’ versus ‘nature’ – they promise a coherent, intelligible scientific picture. Unfortunately, by tugging in opposite directions, they tear the canvas apart. Psychological anthropology strives for unity by collapsing ‘mind’ into ‘culture’. Mind, for this school, is internalized cultural patterning – ethnographic and hence variable (Shore 1996). Evolutionary psychology seeks unity on precisely the reverse terms – by collapsing ‘mind’ into ‘nature’. Defiantly essentialist, it construes both body and mind as coded in the genes. Where learned structure is acquired, this can only be within limits set by innate cognitive design. Mind, for evolutionary psychology, is those natural, species-specific computations which Homo sapiens is designed by evolution to perform (Pinker 1997).
Rather than debate with the enemy, each contestant in this dispute disdains to acknowledge the other’s existence. In the case of Strauss and Quinn, the nearest they get is a reference to Chomskyan linguistics, in connection with which they caution against going ‘too far in assuming hardwiring’ (p. 81). Not one of Noam Chomsky’s specific publications is mentioned, and it is clear that his name functions as a surrogate to license an attack on their real target. Connectionist models ‘as they stand now’ are too soft on the unmentionable proponents of innate cognitive architecture:
It may be that we are born with propensities to attend to and represent certain features of the world, but these initial propensities are only neural first guesses that can be modified with experience. If that is the case, one problem with connectionist models as they stand now would not be that they are underconstrained but that they are over-constrained because their inputs have fixed representations (Strauss & Quinn 1997, 81-2).
Over in the opposite camp, meanwhile, Pinker engages in mirror-image acrobatics in his bid to avoid acknowledging ‘cultural models’ theorists. The nearest he gets (pp. 311-12) is to touch on linguist George Lakoff’s Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Lakoff (1987) points out, reasonably enough, that the Australian Aboriginal linguistic category from which his title is derived cannot be natural. The lumping together of ‘women, fire and dangerous things’ is a cultural artifice. Extending his argument, Lakoff goes on to suggest that linguistic categories in general are socially constructed.
For Pinker, any such idea is anathema. ‘Many anthropologists and philosophers’, he acknowledges (p. 308), ‘believe that categories are arbitrary conventions that we learn along with other cultural accidents standardized in our language’. His counter-attack is that this cannot be so since ‘categories would be useful only if they meshed with the way the world works’. What might appear to be cultural fictions, he insists, are in fact nothing of the sort – they are just abstract outcomes of rule-systems for processing information about the real world:
Systems of rules are idealizations that abstract away from complicating aspects of reality. They are never visible in pure form, but are no less real for all that (p. 312).
For Pinker, then, linguistic categories are a natural consequence of ‘the way the world works’, explicable therefore in straightforward adaptationist terms.
One might reasonably have expected Pinker to acknowledge that for any socialized human, cultural schemas including social fictions are precisely an aspect of ‘the way the world works’. But no. In Pinker’s universe, social constructs have no place. The lens of evolutionary psychology simply screens them out. What remain are individuals with their innate competences and their thoughts. Such persons inhabit an external environment made up of other thinking, speaking individuals, together with non-human animate and inanimate entities. And that is all. The distinctively human world of intangibles (such as promises, oaths, curses, totems and gods) falls outside the purview of this kind of Darwinism. Evolutionary psychology and psychological anthropology in this way mirror one another. On each side, the territory across the boundary is declared not to exist, a stance which may explain a seeming paradox. While fighting on behalf of nature and culture respectively, each camp vehemently repudiates this very dichotomy. For evolutionary psychologists, the dichotomy is false since cultural models – even supposing such fictions are entertained – are basically irrelevant to cognitive function. For cultural theory, the distinctions and oppositions central to Darwinism are at best superficial, at worst divisive and pernicious. On a deeper level, as eastern mystics have long understood, all is one and one is all.
Where selfish gene Darwinism celebrates conflict, politically correct cultural theorists insist on a vocabulary which precludes all binary opposition. Hence, according to social anthropologist Tim Ingold (1993, 470), culture and biology are not opposites but should be used interchangeably. Cello players, having internalized their distinct skills, are now biologically different from sitar players; similarly, English speakers are biologically different from Japanese. A broader conception of Darwinism, continues Ingold, would speak not of ‘animal’ versus ‘human’, instead treating all creatures alike. The subject of the life-sciences would then be ‘the organism-person as an intentional and creative agent’ (p. 470). Advanced cultural theorists in a similar way argue for abandonment of essentialist, divisive categories such as ‘woman’ and ‘man’ (Butler 1990). Strauss and Quinn (p. 28) endorse such ‘de-essentializing’ work, yet, as psychologists, differ in wishing to be allowed their own foundational distinction – that between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, or between ‘the individual’ and ‘the surrounding social world’ (p. 28). Butler (1990) would deny any such distinction, thereby precluding the possibility of doing psychology at all. At this point, Strauss and Quinn (p. 28) call a halt. ‘This denial of the difference between the inner world of subjects and the outer world of objects’, they declare, ‘is going too far…’
If all this looks like madness, there is nonetheless method in it. As in any conflict between nation states or rival tribes, each camp reinforces its own solidarity by exaggerating the external threat, preventing reconciliation by periodically confirming the enemy’s worst fears. Through their political correctness, cultural theorists provide an endless source of bitter amusement to their Darwinian opponents, licensing the latter to dismiss the entirety of social science as mere propaganda. Evolutionary psychologists, while presenting themselves as cautious scholars on their home ground, respond by parodying politically backward stereotypes when on the rampage outside their specialist domains. This is true not only of the self-professed racists and reactionaries. Not even Darwinism’s liberals can resist the knockabout fun and games. Take, for example, Pinker (p. 305) on ‘shamanism’ – a topic properly considered within social anthropology. Ignoring the vast scholarly literature on this fascinating theme, he explains the phenomenon as follows: ‘Tribal shamans are flim-flam artists who supplement their considerable practical knowledge with stage magic, drug-induced trances, and other cheap tricks’.
The belief systems of preliterate peoples – their view, for example, that certain anthropomorphized principles are ‘sacred’ – are demoted to the status of hoaxes. Where constructs diverge from ‘the real world’, they must be quackery. On this issue as most others, Pinker is joined by Dawkins (1993), for whom religion of any kind is a computer bug – a cultural virus malevolently introduced to parasitize gullible minds. To social anthropology as a profession – I need hardly stress – such doctrinaire verdicts on the subject of other peoples’ beliefs are interesting only as an example of western folk-prejudice, not scholarship or science.
When Pinker (pp. 528-38) comes to discuss music, he is for some reason less dismissive. An orchestral symphony may be emotionally hallucinatory, but that does not make it a cheap trick. One might be forgiven for invoking Pinker’s own cultural experience in accounting for his change of heart at this point. His social background fosters an appreciation of music, whereas shamanic trance-dance (leaving aside the contemporary rave scene) is surely a world apart. Interestingly, however, Pinker remains convinced that music is adaptively useless. Since he rejects a priori any kind of sexual selection or social explanation, he is left to philosophize about its evolution in a vacuum. If it is not an adaptation, what kind of thing might music be? The following are Pinker’s concluding suggestions – the best ideas he can come up with so far (p. 538):
Perhaps a resonance in the brain between neurons firing in synchrony with a soundwave and a natural oscillation in the emotion circuits? An unused counterpart in the right hemisphere of the speech areas in the left? Some kind of spandrel or crawl or short-circuit or coupling that came along as an accident of the way that auditory, emotional, language, and motor circuits are packed together in the brain?
It is ironic to recall that when opponents of adaptationism invoked oscillations, spandrels and comparable lucky accidents in attempting to explain the evolution of language, Pinker (1994) was among the loudest in pouring scorn on all such ideas. Yet when turning to music – by his own admission linked intimately with language and song – he warmly rehabilitates his former intellectual enemies.
The inconsistency indicates the depth of Pinker’s problem. Genuine evolutionary scientists, faced with the fact that humans have traditionally invested immense energy in their trance-dance and other mythico-ritual domains, would be expected to seek some kind of adaptive explanation (Knight et al. 1999). But for Pinker and his colleagues, all cultural schemas and corresponding competences are simply beyond the pale. Unable to explain the evolutionary emergence of symbolic culture as such, the proponents of evolutionary psychology are left with little option but to portray music, rhythm, song, dance, trance, art, mythic narrative and just about everything else distinctive of human consciousness as non-adaptive if not positively harmful! These Darwinians throw out Darwinism precisely when it encounters its most exciting challenge.
It would be inaccurate to say that Strauss and Quinn ignore biology altogether: their need as psychologists to retain the notion of the biological individual prompts a certain caution on this. Adjusting themselves with respect to the paradoxes and inconsistencies of their cultural theory colleagues, they opt for a position mid-way between what they see as various extremes. One of these is the notion that everything and anything is ‘culture’. Sensibly, they reject such blanket use of the term, commenting, ‘we do not think it is useful to use “culture” to refer to shared experiences of the natural world’; or again, ‘we do not want to label as cultural those schemas that are the product of experiences arising from innately programmed behaviors’ (p. 7).
But to avoid conflating culture with nature is the least we might expect, given that these authors’ stated aim is to rescue the term ‘culture’ from oblivion. To speak of meaning as ‘cultural’ specifies nothing unless non-cultural – presumably ‘natural’ – meaning can be envisaged. As a Darwinian, I find no problem in envisaging this. Are not humans designed to see meaning in involuntary facial expressions, in the cries of babies or in symmetry or other indices of fitness in potential mates? Do not apes in a similar way see significance in the world around them (Byrne 1995)? How can one discuss ‘meaningfulness’ as a characteristic of human experience without taking account of our species’ evolved repertoire of drives and emotions? Can distinctively human modes of cognition be truly understood or theorized without asking what non-cultural cognition might involve?
But while acknowledging that the natural world exists, Strauss and Quinn do not pursue such lines of reasoning. Once the authors have nodded in nature’s direction, they immediately move on. Like all cultural theorists, Strauss and Quinn take ‘cultural models’ for granted. Their book therefore gets nowhere in explaining their existence, distribution or significance. The authors are unconcerned with evolutionary issues, make no attempt to engage with biological models of cognition, ignore the most exciting recent developments in palaeoanthropology, cognitive archaeology, cultural transmission theory, evolutionary linguistics and symbolic (including linguistic) anthropology and instead hark back to… Freud.
The authors describe themselves as ‘psychological anthropologists’. I fail to see in what sense that is an accurate self-identification. In the definition with which I am familiar, an anthropologist is someone who studies human face-to-face interactions, relationships, cognitive and social strategies. By contrast, Strauss and Quinn compile interview transcripts conducted in private homes. Here, informants reminisce and otherwise cogitate in isolation. The rationale, as I understand it, is the authors’ insistence that ‘cultural meanings’ are neither institutional nor relational but exist as representations or ‘schemas’ which for some reason have got inside individuals’ skulls. The researchers’ task is to make tape-recordings of verbally expressed ‘schemas’ and then perform what is termed ‘discourse analysis’ on the transcripts.
The selected informants are questioned about (a) love and marriage and (b) economic individualism. The interviewees, like the authors, are United States Americans. At an early stage, we are introduced to ‘Paula’, who – while ‘entirely a product of our imaginations’ – is ‘a composite constructed in large part from the lives of women friends, acquaintances and ourselves’ (p. 87). Paula was born shortly after World War II, grew up in a white suburban middle-class family, went to college, has a husband, two children and a professional job – and thinks of herself as some kind of feminist. Paula’s run-of-the-mill opinions on ethnicity, motherhood, gender and other matters are detailed, but it is not easy to discern the scientific interest or relevance of any of this. Where non-fictional individuals are studied, we might have expected to be on firmer ground. Perhaps the case studies reported do indeed contribute genuine (albeit exclusively verbal) data, but a problem here is that the taped transcripts are so mind numbingly predictable as to be barely readable. This applies also to the analyses which follow.
Question: ‘What do you mean by love?’ Answer: ‘Essentially the – well I think the sharing, the togetherness, the giving. Ah – and emotional attachment, caring, that kind of thing’ (p. 200). Or again:
I just feel like when you’re ready to marry somebody then you’re ready to give up everybody else as far as ever going out with anybody else – any other men. I mean you’re ready to just dedicate your life to loving one man, you know. I mean I can love somebody else as a friend but not romantically, you know, physically, romantically (p. 196).
And so on.
Throughout the volume, all data takes the form of utterances of this kind. Why is it that they appear so superficial – so strikingly lacking in meaning? Surely the problem is the authors’ methodology. They concede that ‘linguistic conventions’ cannot be a sure guide to deeper meanings (p. 208), yet it is on the basis of exclusively verbal interview data that the ‘analysis’ proceeds. Since, even at the best of times, language inevitably abstracts away from the emotions, it is scarcely surprising that an artificially elicited, fragmentary interview declaration will be calamitously inadequate to express what the speaker may really have in mind. In Strauss and Quinn’s treatment, the utterances even lack obvious scientific meaning. They are not related to findings or research which might explain how or why such utterances might compare with others culled from elsewhere in the world. There is no discussion of human species-specific mating strategies (Buss 1994) or strategic emotions theory (Frank 1988). In place of an anthropologically- or historically-informed explanation for diversity and change in marital strategies, kinship systems and corresponding meanings, Quinn argues that historical differences in linguistic idiom are mere masks beneath which lies an unchanging, universal core of ‘psychodynamic’ meaning (p. 207). This leaves us with no way of explaining how or why contemporary western ideas about ‘love and marriage’ might differ from notions concerning comparable topics among, say, traditionally organized Navaho Indians, whose kinship structures are matrilineal (Witherspoon 1975). In short, there is no anthropological treatment of the psychology of marriage or love.
So what, finally, is the author’s analysis? Quinn’s major theoretical point is that her ‘love-and-marriage’ clichés make sense in Freudian terms. The infant, we are told, wishes its mother to meet its needs; it is in a state of extreme helplessness and dependency. If contemporary Americans share a cultural understanding of marriage in terms of love, it is because they feel similarly dependent (p. 190). The experience of ‘falling in love’, as Quinn explains, ‘can be understood psychodynamically as a reentry into the dependent infant’s felt state of extreme helplessness’ (p. 191).
By way of scientific explanation, as opposed to mere description, this is all we get. It is as if the facts of human biology could not be entirely expunged, so a static, timeless version of the infantile experience courtesy of the venerable ancestor was offered in place of anything more dynamic and up-to-date. The advantage of citing Freud is that it distracts attention from more recent research into the biology of love and other human emotions (e.g. Buss 1994; Frank 1988), research whose evaluation would entail acknowledging the enemy’s existence.
Turning from marital to industrial matters, Strauss interviews employees of a Rhode Island chemical factory owned by the Swiss multinational, Ciba-Geigy. The plant is producing dangerous emissions, risking the health of its employees and the entire neighbourhood. Here, we sense the presence of class solidarity; there is even a whiff of resistance to dominant values. ‘Corporations do not care about people’, says one worker. ‘They – all they care about is satisfying their stockholders, making money … Or again: ‘Politicians. They get away with murder. And they, you – everybody could be up in arms about it, but until you can get a group, no one’s listening’ (p. 216).
But thanks to her interview technique, Strauss ensures that any such countervailing voice is stifled. When proletarian resistance rumbles, the interviewer pays scant attention. Violating what is perhaps the most elementary rule of anthropological fieldwork, Strauss screens out the collective by taking transcripts only from decontextualized, isolated informants expressing opinions for the sake of the interview in the privacy of their own homes. She is then able to make her main point: these people are ultimately incoherent. Their ‘internalized schemas’ contradict one another and so add up to nothing. ‘For the most part’, as she observes (p. 230), ‘we are only as consistent as we need to be to get things done’. Insofar as the imperative is personal survival, then each contestant will pick-and-mix fragmentary ‘schemas’ according to the task in hand. But as I was reading Strauss’ chapter, a question occurred to me. Suppose collective resistance became widespread and organized. Would not strands of cognitive and political consistency then begin to emerge? If we had to rely on Strauss’ interview techniques, we would never know. Within the privatized context of each interview, Strauss’ perceived middle-class status is intrusive and politically inhibitory. Having repeated criticisms of ‘the rich’ throughout six interviews, one Ciba-Geigy worker – having met with scant sympathy from his interlocutor – is finally moved to apologize. ‘You probably got big money, I shouldn’t talk like that’ (p. 242). One more inconsistency for the record.
Both books under review see anthropology as individualistic psychology. Unfortunately, this ensures in advance that cultural meaning must remain incomprehensible. The passage from nature to culture – from primate sociality to human cultural symbolism – entailed assertion of a distinctively collective level of intentionality. Let me quote philosopher John Searle (1996, 41):
The central span on the bridge from physics to society is collective intentionality, and the decisive movement on that bridge in the creation of social reality is the collective intentional imposition of function on entities that cannot perform those functions without that imposition.
What does Searle mean? He is reminding us that neither a banknote nor a sentence can serve its function thanks to any intrinsic property or form. It has no use or value except that which is collectively conferred. Faith in public symbols, like magic, creates illusions which Searle terms ‘institutional facts’. If everyone believes them, then – for social purposes – they are true.
For Searle, cultural meanings are recalcitrant to a perspective focused upon personal cognition or experience. For Strauss and Quinn, by contrast, meanings are precisely internal – they have a spatial location, which is ‘in people’s minds’. ‘There is’, they write (1997, 19-20), ‘no other place for meanings to be concretely, and they have to be concrete if they make a difference in the world’. In this context, the authors reserve special scorn for Clifford Geertz’s version of cognitive collectivism. Geertz (1973, 10) writes:
Culture, this acted document, thus is public, like a burlesqued wink or a mock sheep raid. Though ideational, it does not exist in someone’s head; though unphysical, it is not an occult entity… The thing to ask about a burlesqued wink or a mock sheep raid is not what their ontological status is. It is the same as that of rocks on the one hand and dreams on the other – they are things of this world.
If culture – a pattern of meaning – is ‘unphysical’, ask Strauss and Quinn (p. 19), ‘how can it have the same ontological status as a rock or a mock sheep raid?’
But Geertz’s point – although taken to extremes by subsequent postmodernism – is in itself incontrovertible. Insofar as we humans have entered ‘the cognitive niche’ (Tooby & DeVore 1987), constructed facts are a part of our world no less than rocks or other peoples’ actions. As Searle writes, it is not just a fiction but a fact that London is the capital of Britain, that he is a United States citizen – and that the paper in his pocket is a ten dollar bill. It may appear paradoxical that each such fact is dependent upon collective belief, counting therefore as a social fiction. But that is the world we humans live in. Treating collective constructs as if they were external, solid facts is precisely the peculiarly human – symbolic cultural – stance.
One might think it self-evident that the value of a banknote resides in collective rather than individual intentionality. It is therefore instructive to note how Strauss and Quinn manage to promote their psychological individualism even with respect to monetary value. Dismissing the idea that the ‘cultural meanings’ of coins or banknotes can be their socially imposed functions, they reason as follows (p. 20):
Certainly an outside observer… can only ascertain those meanings by observing people’s uses of money, but for the people whose uses are being observed, each monetary transaction provokes meanings in them, and it is on the basis of these meanings that they act. For example, someone deciding to buy a lottery ticket does so because of what a sudden windfall of money would mean to them. These meanings are a combination of ideas (e.g. about the ‘good life’), feelings (e.g. of relief at being free from debt), and motivations (e.g. to win admiration through generous charitable donations) in them.
Having conceded that notions of monetary value ‘are probably held in common with many other people’, Strauss and Quinn hasten to add:
But the point remains that these meanings are the actors’ meanings: They are the actors’ thoughts, feelings, and motivations, including out-of-awareness psychological states. As others have insisted before us, meanings can only be evoked in a person.
From a truism – namely, that any fact can mean different things to different individuals – these authors conclude that cultural meanings are rooted in personal psychology. They have conveniently lost sight of the main point. A ten pound note is just that – a ten pound note – regardless of what individuals may think or feel. It might be earned, kept or spent according to personal whim, just as one might utter a word in different combinatorial or social contexts. But what conclusion is to be drawn? Banknote values – like semantic meanings – are independent of personal psychology. An institutional fact remains a fact – founded in collective intentionality – no matter how this or that individual might experience it. Only in Alice in Wonderland do words mean whatever the speaker wishes them to mean. Only in such a world might personal psychology metamorphose a five pound note into ten. Outside such imaginative contexts, cultural meanings rest upon structures transcending the psychology or cognition of individuals.
Both evolutionary psychology and psychological anthropology repudiate the one piece of the jigsaw puzzle which might make sense of the picture and unite their disciplines in the process. Each repudiates what is genuinely unique to our species – the collective dimension of human social and cognitive life. For both schools, ‘mind’ is not social or relational – it can exist only inside the head. Admittedly, Strauss and Quinn concede that certain schemas may be shared; indeed, the authors follow Sperber (1985) in accepting that the more widely they are shared, the more properly we may describe them as ‘cultural’ (p. 7). But the notion of ‘shared schemas’ has little in common with ‘collective intentionality’, which is defined by Searle as a distinctively human level of social and cognitive life. Neither do the authors do justice to Sperber. In an analysis more subtle than that of Strauss and Quinn, Sperber & Wilson (1986) see linguistic communication as combining collective code with personal inference, the ‘code’ dimension being of more recent – distinctively human – evolutionary origin. Wild-living monkeys and apes doubtless internalize shared schemas, but it would be surprising if they exhibited collective intentionality – a stance in which arbitrarily agreed functions are imposed on aspects of the world.
Strauss and Quinn cite Hannerz (1992, 4) to the effect that ‘culture resides in a set of public meaningful forms’, whereas on the other hand ‘these overt forms are only rendered meaningful because human minds contain the instruments for their interpretation’. Strauss and Quinn (p. 10) say they were ‘much heartened’ to read Hannerz’ evenly balanced formulation, stressing that this is ‘exactly what we are saying’. Unfortunately, the authors immediately lose balance by describing their own field of investigation as ‘intrapersonal culture’, setting this up in opposition to what they characterize as Hannerz’ focus on ‘extrapersonal forms’. For Strauss and Quinn (pp. 5-6), institutionally stabilized, shared mental states merely affect how cultural meanings may be interpreted by individuals. They are not to be confused with such meanings themselves. A meaning as such is always an ‘interpretation evoked in a person by an object or event at a given time’ (p. 6). In short, whereas for most of us, words have collectively defined semantic meanings which individuals may employ and interpret in different ways, for Strauss and Quinn this relationship is precisely reversed. Word meanings reside in personal experience, although interpretation of this varies with public schemas and standardized cultural forms.
Pinker, as we have seen, conceptualizes music not as an adaptation for emotional bonding or alliance formation, but as non-adaptive oscillations or other events internal to the individual brain. Strauss and Quinn converge with Pinker in that they, too, lose sight of the big picture, reducing what is special about human consciousness to internal personal psychology. It is because each camp insists on such individualism that neither can communicate with the other: as they focus on the individual, each is trapped in a different sector of the psychological split screen. Inside the skull, after all, is brain and its natural (including learned) activity. But also installed is software developed in the public domain. The problem is that no sense can be made of the relation between the two without stepping outside the skull – into the space where circuits are closed and meaningful connections made.
If humans are computers, they are not stand-alone machines. They are peculiar in that they build and provision one another, programme one another, invent and develop evolving codes – and communicate on the basis of these. If humans are computers, then earliest society was a conspiracy of such machines networking in pursuit of collective goals. For a community of intelligent machines signalling and co-operating with one another, the surrounding physical world may be relevant and directly apprehensible, but no single device is in a position to access the whole picture. The significance of each personalized fragment is accessible only via sensory and data-processing systems involving the network as a whole. Central in this respect are those codes and conventions which the machines have jointly settled upon, the programmes they have installed, the complex simulations they are cooperatively running and their current and recent states of play. If there is ‘mind’ at work here, it is not internal to any one device. Meanings are relational, not spatially confined. Virtual reality – distributed across many machines – eclipses and restructures reality as instantiated in any one machine.
Searle’s (1996) point is that we humans inhabit such a world. Cognition in the human case must embrace more than physical or biological facts. Of equal significance are institutional facts such as that this piece of paper is a ten pound note, that cow is sacred – or the person over there is a cabinet minister. Facts of this kind are fictions – in a sense, ‘deceptions’ – rendered authoritative by communal resistance to their denial (cf. Knight et al. 1995). Of course, there are constraints acting upon such free- floating social construction – not just any fictions will do. Where science is concerned, at least certain of the constraints must stem from engagement with the external world. But as representational forms, the meanings of symbols – whether religious or scientific – transcend personal psychology. Distributed between us, they make up the big picture, integrating our otherwise meaning-starved, fragmentary minds.
Pinker’s How the Mind Works introduces a wide readership to a new and seemingly promising science. For Pinker, there is no internal crisis – the Darwinian paradigm has established itself as a thriving discipline capable of generating widespread theoretical agreement, its scope now broad enough to embrace language, consciousness and the entire human condition. For Strauss and Quinn, matters are much more problematic. Cultural theory is in crisis, and their volume is a somewhat cheerless response. Whereas Pinker is assured and engaging on every page, Strauss and Quinn’s less confident prose lacks sparkle. The authors too often appear mannered and insecure as they jointly announce verdicts on their own and colleagues’ internecine disputes. I suspect a reader lacking committment to the detail of cultural theorists’ numerous internal differences might quickly lose interest.
‘Once upon a time’, Strauss and Quinn (p. 1) observe, ‘we anthropologists believed in the concept of culture’. Nowadays, they continue, such faith has been abandoned and cultural theory is at an impasse (p. 3). For Strauss and Quinn, the root of the problem is insufficient individualism: people should acknowledge that despite the obvious role played by collective institutions and schemas, ‘meanings can only be evoked in a person’ (p. 20). For Pinker, collective representations and constructs were never of much interest anyway, and neither is he bothered with the subject of ‘cultural meaning’. Pinker extends the methodological individualism of modern Darwinism directly into the study of symbolic cognition, arguing against group-level explanations at any point. Where Pinker converges with Strauss and Quinn is in blaming outmoded collectivist assumptions in mainstream social science for all current theoretical fallacies.
But if Searle (1996) is right, the problem lies elsewhere. To unify anthropology and psychology, it is precisely collective intentionality and its evolutionary emergence that we must acknowledge and understand. The problem with traditional social science was that it took collectivity for granted. The refreshing contribution of the new Darwinism has been to render such complacency untenable. Far from being self-evident or unproblematic, collective intentionality is biologically unprecedented – a human anomaly which cries out to be explained. In this context, to shift focus to the myopic perspective of personal psychology is the worst possible response. To privilege individualism as the source of meaning is to stress precisely what does not distinguish human from primate consciousness. It is also to stress precisely what does not lend meaning to human lives.
Strauss and Quinn position themselves on the sensible wing of postmodernist cultural relativism. But in attempting to find a middle ground, they ensure continued entrapment in the flawed paradigm. It was entirely predictable that cultural theory should arrive at its current impasse. If everything is cultural, then nothing is. To be set back on its feet as a meaningful category, culture has to be restored to the company of nature – its only conceivable foil and counterpart. Beyond the political factionalism, there are in fact good reasons why the natural and social sciences have so far remained separate. Collective intentionality is not found in nature. Yet however legitimate the disciplinary barrier, it must be possible to communicate across it. Our evolutionary ancestors made the critical transition. Only by discovering why and how can we hope for an adequate understanding of the distinctively human mind.
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