Monday, April 16, 2012

Cultural origins of human cognition

In the last page (9) of the IPS "real and false reason" thread I've taken a turn toward more cultural-historical interpretations of image schemas and basic categories. Following are some of those posts:

In my research I came upon another free e-book at Scribd (I love that place) called From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics (Mouton de Gruyter, 2005). Therein Kimmel says: “The classical account has overlooked that image schemas are not only generalized entities, but also ones that are instantiated in socio-cultural contexts” (287). He contends that some of the biases of classical image schemas (i.e. Lakoff & Johnson) are that they are, for example, universal, shape culture but not vice-versa and act as the foundational building block of higher, abstract levels. While acknowledging basic schemas like container and link cannot be broken down into constituent parts, there are also compound schemas that can be so divided. The latter type seems to be more prevalent in actual experience. One consequence of the classical view is that by analytically defining a simple schema, instead of compounding it with other schemas in gestalt situations, leads to the notion that the simple schema is more ontologically primary. Thus we see a hidden metaphysical postulate that OOO also questions with its strange mereology.

Another alternative to the classical view noted above is that cultural factors can and do shape image schemas, more in line with Mead's and Vygotsky's notions of self-development. (He doesn't mention either by name but I see the connection.) For example we learn basic bodily spatial orientation via often unconscious cultural (family) practices of posture, movement and manipulation of artifacts, language being one of the most profound of the latter. Granted we are limited by universal features of human embodiment but these features themselves can and do change over time depending on specific cultural and environmental influences. I would venture that language has caused considerable changes in brain structure over time, most prominently in the expansion of the pre-frontal cortex.

This article explicitly connects L&J's image schemas to Piaget's work to the neglect of Vygotsky. It is like the former in that it is a universalistic and individualistic model of cognition.

"Our suggestion, then, is that a nonlinguistic sociocultural difference regarding canonical artifact use, embodied in the material cultures and exemplifed in nonlinguistic cultural practices, gives rise to slightly but significantly different conceptualizations of 'containment' in the different cultures" (35-6).

And this from Mark Turner (2011). “The Embodied Mind and the Origins of Human Culture.” In Cognition and Culture: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue, edited by Ana Margarida Abrantes & Peter Hanenberg. Frankfurt & Berlin: Peter Lang. 13-27.

“In linguistics, in mathematical and logical models, in models of neuronal systems....the great hope underlying these attempts is that the small-scale autonomous models will, with much more work, scale up appropriately to models of human behavior. The justification for creating them is that—so goes the logic—we must start small to do science. We must build up from the simple to the complex....[but] there isn’t any evidence that human thought and action are the result of scaling little things up” (6).

Also see this informative link.

This book appears to be a classic in the field, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Harvard UP, 1999). In discussing the human adaptation of developing the ability to put oneself in another's shoes, this combined with "existing individually based cognitive skills — such as those possessed by most primates for dealing with space, objects, tools, quantities, categories, social relationships, communication, and social learning — and transformed them into new, culturally based cognitive skills with a social-collective dimension" (7). The humanly embodied image schemas and basic categories not only combined with cultural productions but the latter then transformed the former, and in many ways created new image schemas that are inherited via culture. This seems to be a major point in the last several posts by critics of the strictly uinversalistic notion of schemas in individual development.

The following I find interesting for those who favor (alleged) non-linguistic or non-conceptual awareness as some kind of higher ability or saving grace:

"As the child masters the linguistic symbols of her culture she thereby acquires the ability to adopt multiple perspectives simultaneously on one and the same perceptual situation. As perspectivally based cognitive representations, then, linguistic symbols are based not on the recording of direct sensory or motor experiences.... Linguistic symbols thus free human cognition from the immediate perceptual situation... by enabling multiple simultaneous representations of each and every, indeed all possible, perceptual situations" (9).

Not to mention that the alleged non-linguistic direct perception is in fact a cultural production-interpretation. And that we can never return to such a "pure" state. Unless we are wolf babies perhaps.


  1. "Not to mention that the alleged non-linguistic direct perception is in fact a cultural production-interpretation."

    ??? Perception is prior to conception. How do we know? Two ways: direct sensations (e.g. pain) and the fact that animals without the capacity for conceptualization/symbolic mediation seem to perceive. I'm with Husserl and Merleau-Ponty on this...

  2. Lakoff & Johnson make clear (as well as Tomasello and others) that while we share basic perception with animals, nevertheless once humans become acculturated we never return to such a pristine perception. Such a pristine return to an "Origin" is inherent to the mystical traditions.


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