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Anthropology and Psychology
Christina Toren
Anthropologists who work at the interface of
psychology and anthropology are by and large
committed to anthropology as science. The prob-
lem for us, however, is that the institutional devel-
opment of the human sciences in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries effectively allotted
different aspects of what it is to be human to
different disciplines. Faced with separate episte-
mological domains of anthropology, psychology,
sociology, linguistics, philosophy and biology,
scientists in the latter half of the twentieth century
found themselves having to work hard to put the
pieces back together again – body and mind, for
example. As is often the case, however, new sub-
disciplinary domains intended to overcome con-
ceptual difficulties served rather to entrench them.
The 1970s saw the invention of psychological
anthropology, the 1980s brought us cultural psy-
chology, in the 1990s we rediscovered the body
and phenomenology, and at the same time wit-
nessed the resurgence of cognitive anthropology
which, during the first decade of the twenty-first
century would appear to dominate the field, con-
tributing to the development of what is today
called cognitive science. Whether, over coming
decades, cognitive anthropology will continue to
dominate our understanding of mind will have
everything to do with the extent to which anthro-
pology as an intellectual project is able to realize
and come to grips with the real political implica-
tions of the ahistorical concept of human being
that lies at its heart.
The argument put forward in the present
chapter is explicitly opposed to cognitivist models
because of their inability to come to grips with
human historical actuality in general and their own
historical nature in particular. Thus, for all
the often fascinating work that has been done in the
various sub-fields of anthropology, and despite the
explosion of knowledge in other sub-disciplinary
domains – neurobiology and neuroscience, for
example – the interface between anthropology
and psychology at the end of the first decade of
the twenty-first century continues to throw into
relief a question that remains fundamental to the
human sciences, including anthropology: How
are we to conceive of human beings? The answer
we give to this question is important because it
structures not only what we currently know about
ourselves and others but also what we are capable
of finding out.
As will become apparent, the recognition of
our historical nature provides for a resolution of
debates concerning the relative validity of repre-
sentational, social constructivist and neurophe-
nomenological models of mind. This chapter
proposes a unified model of human being whose
manifold aspects remain entirely open to investi-
gation, even while the model is intended to deal at
once with the uniqueness – that is to say, the his-
torical actuality – of what it is to be human and
with critical issues at the interface of psychology
and anthropology and, in so doing, prove to be
a rigorous, explanatory, robust model of what it is
to be human.
What are the crucial aspects of such a model?
Fundamentally, its object is to be conceived of
at the outset as living and as human, not as an
information-processing device. This model starts
with human physical actuality: the fact that
each one of us is, like other living things, biologi-
cally speaking autopoietic – self-creating, self-
regulating. A newborn baby, infant or young child
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requires other humans to look after its primary
needs, making its ontogeny a social process.
Indeed, as living systems that are human, each and
every one of us needs others if we are to maintain
our autonomy over the course of our own lives and
contribute to the lives of others. There is nothing
paradoxical about this: rather, it is given to us as
human beings that the particular nature of our
autonomy resides precisely in the history of our
relations with one another. Or to put it another
way, our uniqueness in every single case is given
in the fact that each one of us has a personal
history that makes us who we are.
A propensity for making sense of the environ-
ing world is a crucial aspect of a human being. It
follows that ‘making sense’ (or, in other words,
learning) is a dynamic, spatiotemporal process
that at any given point inevitably locates humans
historically in relation to particular others in par-
ticular places at particular times in the peopled
world. Or to put it another way, any given human
is, in every aspect of his or her being, the dynamic
transforming product of the past he or she has
lived and is, at any given time, placed in relation
to all those others (young and old, living and
dead) whose ideas and practices are contributing
to structure the conditions of his or her present
existence. ‘Any given human’ here means any
fetus, neonate, infant, child, adolescent, adult or
old person, because autopoiesis is a process that
begins at conception and ends only with death. We
can think of ourselves, therefore, as living and
manifesting the historical processes that engage us
in literally every aspect of our being. For example,
whether we consider the matter statistically
in population terms, or personally, our physical
make-up is the dynamic product of a particular
biosocial history which, for all its possible com-
plications and convolutions, could in principle be
traced back over many generations; likewise the
language(s) we speak and likewise our ideas of
what is, or could be, in the world and our means
for finding out. This personal history is continu-
ous with our evolutionary species history.
In the unified model, mind is a function not of
the brain, nor of the embodied nervous system, but
of the whole human being in intersubjective rela-
tions with others in the environing world. Implicit
is a view of consciousness as an aspect of human
autopoiesis. Here consciousness cannot be a
‘domain’ or a ‘level of psychological functioning’;
rather, it is that aspect of mind that posits the
existence of the thinker and the conceptual self-
evidentiality of world as lived by the thinker.
Intersubjectivity is shorthand for: I know that you
are another human like me, and so I know that
you know that because I am human, I know that
you are too. It is this capacity for recursive
thought that makes human learning (here intended
in its broadest sense) a microhistorical process.
Our intersubjective relationship to one another is
always bound to be historically prior because,
whenever we encounter one another, we do so as
carriers of our own, always unique, history. I make
sense of what you are doing and saying in terms
of what I already know: any and all experience is
assimilated to my existing structures of knowing.
This goes for everyone – newborn babies and
geriatric patients included. Making sense of the
peopled world is a material, self-organizing proc-
ess that at once transforms new experience in the
course of its assimilation (and to this extent con-
serves what I already know) and transforms my
existing structures of knowing in the course of
their accommodation to new experience (and to
this extent changes what I know).
In this view, the human being whose ideas and
practices we are trying to understand and explain
is social through and through and the world of
people and things that this human inhabits cru-
cially informs his or her entire constitution, spe-
cifically the continuing constitution over time of
those processes we call ‘mind’. It follows that
there is no aspect of anyone’s humanity that is not
historically constituted. At any given time, when
one acts on the world in any way at all, one’s
understanding of the world, oneself and one’s
relations with other humans, are all informed by
one’s previous history – that is to say, one’s his-
tory up to that moment.1
The unified model takes for granted that
intersubjectivity is emotional, that perceiving and
feeling are aspects of one another, and that inten-
tionality is given in an openness towards, and
a felt engagement in, the peopled world.2 Here
learning and teaching are aspects of the selfsame
process.3 Throughout our lives, our active engage-
ment in the world of people and things effects
continuing differentiation of the processes through
which we know what we know. The processes
of mind are subject as much to change as to con-
tinuity, but as we grow older they become progres-
sively less subject to radical change precisely
because they are already highly developed. The
longer they have been functioning to assimilate
information, the more highly differentiated they
already are, and the less radically they can trans-
form as a function of accommodation to new situ-
ations. Thus, the unified model bears on humans
as living.
Understanding our biological substance is cru-
cial to understanding not only our physical but
also our psychological make-up; it makes a differ-
ence whether the phenomena of mind are con-
ceived of as neuorophenomenological processes
or as computational programs. More of this
below; for the moment it is important just to real-
ize that however sophisticated a computer may be,
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it does not bring itself into being by virtue of dif-
ferentiation over time of its own physical sub-
stance. Our present knowledge of course leaves a
great deal to be desired, but even so we understand
enough of autopoiesis as a biological process to
realize that logically it has to be applied not only
to the physiological dimension of human being
but also to those processes we call mind.
The processes through which we know the peo-
pled world, like the neurological processes of
which they are an aspect, are likewise autopoietic,
characterized by continuing differentiation
through functioning. Once we understand this, it
becomes obvious that information-processing (or
representational) models of mind cannot capture
its inherent dynamics. Take, for example, schema
theory as found in various forms in cognitive
anthropology. The idea of the schema-as-mental-
representation took hold in cognitive anthro-
pology in the 1980s and was incorporated in
the 1990s into connectionist ‘neural network’
models of psychological functioning. Connectionist
models of mind attempt to make computational
theory consistent with what we know of the work-
ings of the human brain; they employ an idea
of parallel distributed processing that allows for
a cognitive scheme that is always emergent, never
quite fixed and thus provides for a model of
how cognitive processes respond to their own
environment and are modified by it. Nevertheless,
as representation and as a component of the
more complexly configured ‘cultural model’, the
schema that figures in works by Holland and
Quinn, D’Andrade and Shore (to take several
well-known examples) is peculiarly static.4 Shore’s
attempt to distinguish between ‘conventional
models’ and ‘personal models’ manifests neatly the
problem with the schema-as-representation idea
of mental processes. Because the schemas that
compose cultural models are conceived of as mir-
roring mental representations of the world inside
the human head, Shore’s ‘cultural model’ cannot
intrinsically allow for the fact that in so far as we
understand and embrace what is conventional, we
do so as particular persons with particular histo-
ries. From which it follows that for any one of us
the conventional and the personal are bound to be
aspects of one another (an artefact of the selfsame
process) and that continuity over time is likewise
an aspect of transformation.5
If this idea of continuity-in-transformation
sounds odd, just try thinking about yourself – your
whole person, including your ideas about the
world – as a dynamic system of transformations;
ageing, for example, is one aspect of the workings
of this dynamic system, and so is digestion, and
so is reading a book, or having a conversation.
You remain autonomously yourself even though,
from moment to moment and year to year, your
continuity through time is that of a dynamically
transforming system.
The problem with a representational model of
mind that mirrors objectively given properties of
the world did not go away with the development
in the 1990s of cultural psychology. Shweder,
however, did his best to move anthropologists
away from what he characterized as the ‘Platonic
impulse’ that presumed mind to be a fixed and
universal property of the psyche. He argued for
a cultural psychology that presumes instead
that the life of the psyche is the life of intentional
persons, responding to, and directing their action
at, their own mental objects or representations
and undergoing transformation through participa-
tion in an evolving intentional world that is the
product of the mental representations that make it
up. (Shweder 1991: 97)
He found support both in the idea that ‘the mind is
embodied in concrete representations, in “mediat-
ing schemata,” “scripts,” and well-practiced “tools
for thought”’ (ibid: 98) and, of course, in the idea
of culture, which he characterized as ‘that part
of the scheme that is inherited or received from
the past’ (ibid: 101). The problem is that the
implicit distinction between culture and biology
and the representational information-processing
model of mind on which Shweder’s account
depends render his project incoherent, internally
contradictory and unrealizable.6 Like other theo-
ries of this kind it has recourse to social cons-
truction in an attempt to explain the differences
between intentional worlds: specifically, for exam-
ple, between American and Indian ideas of the
person. But social construction itself depends on a
historically constituted idea of the person as an
individual in society who interacts with other indi-
viduals to negotiate their respective ideas about
an objectively given world.
The “constructive” parts of a social construction
theory are the idea that equally rational, compe-
tent, and informed observers are, in some sense,
free ... to constitute for themselves different reali-
ties; and ... that there are as many realities as the
way “it” can be constituted or described. ... The
“social” parts of a social construction theory are
the idea that categories are vicariously received,
not individually invented; and [are] … transmitted,
communicated and “passed on” through symbolic
action. (Shweder 1991: 156)
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In locating the constructive process in the person
and what is social in an abstract space between
persons (i.e. in language categories for example)
social constructionists reproduce the very theo-
retical impasse they seek to dismantle.7 In the
absence of an understanding that making sense
of the peopled world is an historical process,
Shweder cannot render analytical the categories
he seeks to understand.
‘Cultural construction’ of course fares no better,
theoretically speaking. The idea that much (if not
most) of what humans say and do is the product of
cultural construction is a truism of contemporary
cultural anthropology.8 Culture continues to be
taken for granted as explanatory, even though such
analytical distinctions as culture–biology, society–
individual, mind–body, structure–process, and
emotion – rationality have long posed problems,
especially for psychological anthropologists.9
Ideas of cultural construction rest on the same
problematic Cartesian distinctions as computa-
tional models of cultural meaning.10 The ubiquity
of the terms is such that I can find even in my own
earlier work a number of appearances of ‘cultural’
and ‘construction’ and even ‘cultural constructs’.
But it is not ‘construction’ that bothers me so much,
it is ‘culture’ that is analytically empty.11 As what is
relative and historically specific, culture inevitably
implies its counterpart, biology, as the domain of
the irreducible, the universal. The analytical pov-
erty of this distinction becomes especially appar-
ent when we turn our attention to anthropological
studies where the focus is on children.
Anthropology’s objective is to explain the extraor-
dinary multiplicity that is human being in the
world or, more exactly, how the uniqueness that is
peculiar to every one of us is located in what we
have in common. Does it make sense then to think
of a neonate as an organism that is born biological
only to become cultural as a result of actions per-
formed on it by its caregivers? Surely not, for even
in this perspective the infant’s capacity to become
the carrier of culture is inherent to it; thus, culture
has to be in some sense given if its particular
forms are to be achieved. But if our capacity for
culture is biologically given and if all biological
ideas are just as much historical artefacts as any
other idea, it follows that the biological and the
cultural are aspects of one another. So why retain
the distinction at all?
We cannot yet track the precise co-ontogeny of
neurological processes and conceptual processes,
though there are, for example, studies in
the developing field of neurophenomenology that
are relevant.12 What we can do, with some fair
degree of validity, is theorize the process in which
ideas are constituted over time their ontogeny
from birth onwards. As we shall see below, how
we characterize ontogeny is crucial to our under-
standing of the historical specificity of what it is
to be human at any time, in any place.
From birth, babies are immersed in relations
with caregivers; indeed, newborn babies show
capacities which have the effect of facilitating
social relationships and which, through function-
ing, become ever more highly differentiated or, in
other words, developed. Not all the early capaci-
ties of infants implicate social relations, but even
so, the very high salience of other humans for
babies is apparent. Thus, over the past two decades
or so, we have come to know that newborn babies
prefer face-like stimuli to other attractive visual
stimuli; can discriminate and imitate certain facial
gestures of others; show categorical perception of
speech sounds; discriminate between curved and
straight geometrical shapes; discriminate linguis-
tic input from other auditory inputs; and at four
days have learned enough to differentiate their
native language from others. At three months they
show surprise if two solid objects seem to occupy
the same space; at four months they show surprise
if a solid object seems to have passed through a
solid surface; at this age they also show complex
cross-modal perception – matching speech sounds
to lip movements on the faces that produce them.
At six months they show talker normalization
recognizing as equivalent different speech sounds
from different talkers; they are also able to make
matches in numerosity between sounds and sights
(examples drawn more or less verbatim from
Elman et al. 1996: 107). ‘By six months, infants
follow people’s gaze and attend to objects on
which people have acted. By nine months, infants
reproduce other people’s actions on objects, and
they communicate about objects with gestures
such as pointing’ (Spelke 1999: 402404).13
These demonstrable abilities of neonates and
infants have given rise to the idea, now apparently
taken for granted by cognitivists of various per-
suasions, that mind is innately modular – made up
of a set of cognitive systems that evolved to deal
with separate domains of our environment and
that, consequently, all humans have in common.
Cognitive science is a catch-all that takes
in congruent models from a number of sub-
disciplinary domains – principally evolutionary
psychology, cognitive anthropology, neuroscience,
and cognitive and developmental psychology.
What they have in common is a reliance on ana-
lytical distinctions between biology and culture
and, for many if not most, the idea that mind
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is modular. The modularity idea was first pro-
posed by Fodor, who argued for a limited number
of innate perceptual and linguistic input systems
whose outputs fed into central cognitive systems
which functioned to integrate the information
into more complex, problem-solving, forms of
central cognition.14 The input-system-as-cognitive-
module idea was taken up and elaborated by
evolutionary psychologists Tooby and Cosmides
(1992) whose ‘massive modularity’ model became
foundational for anthropologists Sperber (1994,
1996) and Hirschfeld and Gelman (1994), among
others. In the ‘massively modular’ model, mind is
made up of cognitive systems that are ‘pre-wired’
(that is to say, innate) and domain-specific; only a
subset of them have to do with so-called ‘social
cognition’. Note however that ‘[t]he domain of a
module is … not a property of its internal struc-
ture (whether described in neurological or in
computational terms) ….’ but of the ‘mode of
construal’ for which the internal structure pro-
vides (Sperber 1996: 135136). A given mode of
construal may be brought to bear on entirely novel
conditions of the environment, provided they
are amenable, as it were, to being so-construed.
Sperber finds support from evolutionary psychol-
ogists to argue that ‘a cognitive module is an
evolved mechanism with a distinct phylogenetic
history’ (Sperber 1996: 124).15 Massive modular-
ity underwrites Sperber’s information-processing
model of brain function and provides for his idea
of ‘an epidemiology of representations’ as the
key to understanding culture (Sperber 2006).
This argument has a bearing on the extensive
literature that offers us cognitive explanations
of religious beliefs. The module-as mode-of-
construal idea provides, for example, for the way
that modularity theory may be used to explain
religion as the inevitable projection of human
consciousness into cosmological ideas concerning
an afterlife or the existence of gods.16 Researchers
into cognition of religion by and large have in
common with Sperber the view that the transmis-
sion of ideas itself constitutes a problem, though
they differ as to their commitment to massive
modularity. They all argue, however, that the com-
monalities to be found in ideas about gods, ances-
tors, the supernatural and so on can only be a
function of invariant features of human cognitive
architecture that is to say, those that are hard-
wired. They include a theory of mind module, a
living things module, a module that stipulates
the physical properties of objects, and a module
that looks for and correctly recognizes agency.17
Indeed Sperber’s massive modularity argument
requires that ‘to an important extent, cognition
enables culture through domain-specific construc-
tive mechanisms’ (Sperber 2006: 447). Nothing
else, he argues, can explain ‘cultural stability’.
There is, however, a major problem here and it
has to do with the fact that the models of
evolutionary psychologists and their cognitivist
followers maintain a distinction between matter
and information that does not make biological
sense. Here I am at one with Evan Thompson,
who sums up the problem as follows:
The deepest fault of the metaphor of DNA as
program or information-store is that it implies a
dualist framework of matter and information,
one homologous to the computationalist and
functionalist dualism of the mind as informational
software and the brain as hardware. In both
cases, processes that are intrinsically dynamic (tem-
porally orchestrated), embodied (somatic and
organismic), and embedded (necessarily situated in
an environment or milieu) – whether of ontogeny,
evolution, or cognition – are projected into the
reified abstractions of a genetic program in the cell
nucleus or a computer program in the brain.
(Thompson 2007: 185)
An information-processing model of mind is
bound to retain distinctions between the hardware
and the software, the universal and the relative,
the individual and the social, the natural and the
cultural. These distinctions are important to cog-
nitivists: they provide for the idea that human
biology is the domain of what is universal in
human nature and that culture is the domain of
what is relative. The anthropologist’s job then is to
interpret people’s cultural representations of the
world, their folk theories. This leaves explanation,
science, in possession of the domain of what is
natural and universal. The modularity of mind
theory is a case in point. If only a certain subset of
human knowledge can be properly described as
‘social’ or ‘cultural’, this implicitly isolates from
contamination other knowledge processes – ‘per-
ception’ for example – thus providing for a claim
to an objective science of mind. This model is
unconvincing because it does not allow for the
fact that literally every aspect of human being,
including all perceptual processes, can be shown
to evince a person’s history.18
There is, indeed, no necessity for holding to
an unwieldy theory of innate massive modularity.
We might, however, want to take the neuro-
constructivist approach to child development pro-
posed by the psychologist Karmiloff-Smith and
her biological-connectionist colleagues who hold
that development itself is the key to understanding
how cognitive processes become structured in
specific ways.
… a mechanism starts out as somewhat more
relevant to one kind of input over others, but it
is usable … for other types of processing too.
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This allows for compensatory processing and
makes development channelled but far less prede-
termined than the nativist view. Once a domain-
relevant mechanism is repeatedly used to process
a certain type of input, it becomes domain-specific
as a result of its developmental history. (Karmiloff-
Smith 1998, referencing Elman et al. 1996 and
Karmiloff-Smith 1995)
Insofar as neuroconstructivists accept the idea of
innate modules, these can be nothing more than
minimally specified transformational structures.
Cognitive development is understood ‘in terms of
self-organizing emergent structures arising from
the complex interactions between both organism
and environment’ (Elman et al. 1996: 113). More-
over, the careful experimental work that justifies
the model comes to grips with the dynamism of
organism and environment. Various problems
remain, however: primarily that (like Sperber’s) the
neuroconstructivist model is founded in a represen-
tational theory of the mind/brain and, concomi-
tantly, in an idea of the person in which sociality is
one among numerous emergent developmental
structures, rather than inherent in every aspect of
human being in the world; it follows that there is
no awareness here that development is an histori-
cal process – that is to say, one that is embedded
in historically constituted intersubjectivity.
The experimental procedures used to elicit
neonates’ and infants’ abilities, while wonderfully
convincing, tend – as do all laboratory proce-
dures – to divert attention from the real-world
conditions in which the child acquires his or her
abilities. The neonate and infant is at any given
point immersed in manifold sensations – from
skin surfaces, internal organs, visceral sensations
of hunger and thirst, warmth and cold, the move-
ments of its own limbs, the different sensory
modalities – and so on and so on. Moreover, these
manifold sensations are like as not embedded
in the waking infant’s experience of being held,
fed, dressed and undressed, played with, talked
to, bathed, carried, caressed, etc., by mother and
other caretakers. It seems important to stress here
the infant’s whole-bodied immersion from birth
(or even, it might be argued, before birth) in spe-
cific social relations – the sounds, sights, and
touches of others that produce comfort or discom-
fort, satisfy or withhold, soothe or arouse, that are
lived aspects of a specific environing world. This
very observation makes evident the necessity
for rendering ‘developmental history’ more com-
plete by incorporating into it an analysis of the
specific social relations by which it is informed
and in which it inheres; for all its focus on devel-
opment, the neuroconstructivist model rests on
an historically specific idea of the child that takes
it for granted that what is social in the child’s
make-up can by and large be differentiated from
what is psychobiological. Thus, the neurocon-
structivist model is not an adequate model of
development. Because it does not address how
intersubjectivity informs development, it remains
an artefact of experimental procedures and
connectionist modelling.
Nevertheless, in the neuroconstructivist model
our schemes of thought and action are self-
regulating, transformational, and characterized by
continuing differentiation through functioning.
Conscious phenomena are the artefacts of this
autopoietic, developmental process. And as the
dynamic product of any given human’s intersub-
jective engagement in the environing world of
people and things, cognitive processes that evince
themselves early on in ontogeny are bound to look
like modules – domain-specific, fast, information-
ally encapsulated, and mandatory.19
My concern to come to grips with the historical
actuality of human beings is in part derived from
the nature of anthropology as a discipline. Not
only does it engage the long history of differen-
tiation that has given rise to the contemporary
variety of languages, kinship systems, political
economies, cosmologies and so on but also we
anthropologists are not allowed to forget our past.
There’s no in-built historical amnesia in the disci-
pline because, wherever you do your fieldwork, if
you are to attain any decent understanding of the
people you work with, you have to read all the
work done by those who preceded you in that
geographical region and, if archives exist, those
too. The more fieldwork you do and the more
history and ethnography you read on your region,
the more you become aware that history is a
dynamic process that continues feeding forward
into the transforming present and that this process
must lie at the heart of what it is to be human.
It follows that, in one way or another, we
anthropologists have to come to grips in our eth-
nographies with the fact that everything about
human beings evinces their history. This aware-
ness is still held in check, however, by what
appears to be an unwillingness to subject our-
selves as scientists to the scrutiny we bring to bear
on others. Rather we see the heralding of ‘a new
scientific domain’.
The roots or foundations of human sociality [is
proposed as] a coherent subject for investigation
constituted by intersecting principles of different
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orders (ethological, psychological, sociological and
cultural) that work together to produce an emer-
gent system, a system of human sociality and
social interaction. (Enfield and Levinson 2010: 1)
The emphasis here is on bringing together find-
ings from evolutionary and developmental psy-
chology, linguistics, cognitive science, and
anthropology. The analytical premises underlying
the proposed new synthesis remain, however,
undisturbed – principally, the distinction between
biology and culture, the universal and the relative,
and often enough a concomitant dependence on
modularity that makes it possible to distinguish
social cognition from other forms of cognition.
Sociality is central to an argument that provides
for intersubjectivity, ‘enabling a brand of joint
action that is truly open-ended in goals and struc-
ture [and] … provides the building blocks for
human cultural diversity’ (ibid: 3). A pity then
that for Enfield and Levinson the capacity for
intersubjectivity itself rests on the idea of a (more
or less innate) theory of mind (the so-called ToM).
As currently understood, theory of mind is a
domain-specific cognitive module whose compo-
nent parts are concepts about mental states; it
functions to understand what others have in mind
and to predict what they are going to do. Given
its association with rationalism and hypothesis-
testing, the use of the word ‘theory’ here is
instructive: thus, the theory of mind module is
characterized as open to reorganization in the face
of disconfirming evidence. The idea of a theory of
mind idea module has proved persuasive to anthro-
pologists, who have used it to argue for an idea of
human nature in which people’s apparently tacit
understandings are effectively privileged by the
researcher over their declared ideas (see, for
example, Bloch 2006). Even so, those who make
use of the idea vary in their commitment to its
being innate, ‘hard-wired’ in the sense of its being
well-specified at birth, though they all consider it
to be at least a constraining influence on develop-
ment. Thus, an intermediate theoretical position is
taken by Astuti et al. (2004), who argue for what
they call ‘the constrained conceptual construction
hypothesis’ which,
proposes that each child must construct anew [for
example, concepts of biological inheritance and
natural human kinds] … this construction … is
enabled and constrained by powerful innate
domain-general learning mechanisms, such as
causal analysis … or teleological … and essentialist
modes of construal. (Astuti et al. 2004: 1516)
Likewise, Astuti and Harris (2008) have argued
that children are fundamentally rationalist in
respect of their ideas concerning what happens
after death and that this initial rationalism is
progressively overcome, as they grow up, as a
function of their taking on religious ideas held
by their elders. Rationalist understandings remain
cognitively available to a person, however, and
the apparently paradoxical attributes of spirits
may even be discussed that they consume
food but have no stomachs, for example. As Astuti
and Harris recognize, however, it does not follow
even from an admission that this is difficult to
conceive of, that people will give up an idea
that spirits consume the spirit substance of food-
stuffs. I have no quarrel with Astuti and Harris’s
primary findings, but in my view they show
only that the youngest children have not yet had
experience that would allow them to find out what
spirits are.
The various ‘sociality theorists’, whose work
is brought together by Enfield and Levinson,
have rather different theoretical commitments.
For example, Tomasello, whose earlier ground-
breaking work shows that child language acquisi-
tion is a constitutive process that is demonstrably
not dependent on an innate, domain-specific,
cognitive module providing the primitive structure
of a universal grammar (a language acquisition
device) or even on a theory of mind module.
Rather, Tomasello demonstrates the rapid devel-
opment of joint attention, gestural skills (espe-
cially pointing), and the ability to learn the
intentional acts of others; these abilities, taken
together with early-developing pattern-finding
skills, make it possible for children
to find patterns in the way adults use linguistic
symbols across different utterances, and so to
construct the grammatical (abstract) dimensions of
human linguistic competence. (Tomasello 2003: 4)
Likewise, in the Enfield and Levinson volume,
Susan Goldin-Meadow argues convincingly that
[t]he phenomenon of language creation in deaf
children tells us that an individual child can rein-
vent the linguistic wheel, or at least its rudimentary
aspects – as long as the child can interact with
humans who behave humanely. (Goldin-Meadow
2007: 354)
There is a certain irony here in that Fodor’s initial
idea of modularity had everything to do with the
idea that humans could not possibly acquire
knowledge so complex and highly differentiated
as language in the absence of a dedicated, innate
‘language acquisition device’. The so-called LAD
was among the first modules, central to the devel-
opment of modularity theory throughout the 1980s
and 1990s. Now that it is apparently unnecessary,
we find it replaced by ToM.
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AQ: Please
check date:
2006 in
Sociality theory also takes in developments in
the idea of ‘distributed cognition’, which is influ-
ential especially in the area of education and
which is associated with Lave and Wenger’s
(1991) work on ‘situated learning’ and Michael
Cole’s cultural historical perspective.20 The idea is
more or less congruent with the neuroconstructiv-
ist model described above. Here cognitions ‘are
not content-free tools that are brought to bear on
this or that problem; rather they emerge in a situ-
ation tackled by teams of people and the tools
available to them’ (Salomon 1993: xiii). Salomon
is referring to the work of Cole when he argues for
the view that ‘the proper unit of psychological
analysis should be the joint (often, but not neces-
sarily) socially mediated activity in a cultural
context’ (ibid: xv, emphasis in the original).
Hutchins’ view would appear to be close to this
when he insists that ‘distributed cognition’ ‘is an
approach to the study of all cognition’ (Hutchins
2007: 376).
Distributed cognition sees real-world cognition as
a process that involves the interaction of the con-
sequences of past experience (for individual, group,
and material world) with the affordances of the
present. In this sense, culture is built into the dis-
tributed cognition perspective as at least a context
for cognition. (ibid: 377)
This is all very well, but for all the expressed
concern for real-world processes, the underlying
dualist assumptions remain unaddressed by
either Cole or Hutchins and the model remains,
therefore, computational and ahistorical: oddly
so, given Cole’s long insistence on the necessity
for incorporating an historical perspective into
cognition. The problem lies, I think, in the very
way that his ‘cultural historical activity-based
approach to cognition leads one to think about the
distribution of cognition among people, cultural
artefacts, and time’ (Cole 1993: 22). By contrast,
the unified model of human being that I argued for
above makes it obvious that, by virtue of evolu-
tion, we humans, like other living things, inhere in
the world. From which it follows that inevitably
we make use of its manifold aspects in making
sense of it intersubjectively over time.21 But there
is no mystery here, I think.
Human sociality is all-pervasive, so I have little
sympathy with the idea of sociality as a domain
of investigation; moreover neurobiological, psy-
chological, and sociocultural data give us access
not to different ‘levels’ of integration (and thus
of explanation) but to aspects of one and the same
phenomenon. I argue that we cannot build genu-
inely explanatory psychological or biological
models without reference (at least in principle)
to the fact that our biology and psychology are
embedded in a long history of social relations,
whose analysis is going to be germane to any
biological and psychological model that purports
to be explanatory. Furthermore, our ethnographic
analyses of social relations are essential for under-
standing the historical specificity of intersubjec-
tivity in any given case and thus for showing how
learning processes are themselves structured
according to certain ideas about what humans are
and can be.
Anthropologists may be much encouraged by the
publication of Evan Thompson’s brilliant Mind in
Life in which he argues for a
neurophenomenology … [whose] aim is to incor-
porate phenomenological investigations of experi-
ence into neuroscientific research on consciousness.
Neurophenomenology focuses especially on the
temporal dynamics of conscious experience and
brain activity …. (Thompson 2007: 312)
From my point of view, the great thing about a
neurophenomenological model of mind is that it is
open to coming to grips with human historicity
and, precisely for this reason, wants anthropologi-
cal input.
The idea that phenomenology could stand in an
explanatory relation to biology … will sound odd
to many readers. What could phenomenology
possibly explain in this domain? The answer is
nothing less than how certain biological processes
are also realizations of selfhood and subjectivity….
(Thompson 2007: 358)
Of course, most writers (even Evan Thompson)
continue to think that the problem is to build
culture into their models, but this reintroduces
the biologyculture distinction that has for so
long interfered with our ability to produce a uni-
fied model of human being. As I have suggested,
however, we do better to analyse ontogeny as
an historical process, showing, for example,
how language acquisition engages social relations
that are themselves historically structured. Here
Tomasello’s wonderfully convincing account
of the fundamentals of language acquisition
becomes useful again, because it is easy enough to
show how the process is intrinsically historical
(Tomasello 2003).
I have to insist here that intersubjectivity
should not be confused with ‘social interaction’.
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2006 in Refs
Nor should the process of making sense intersub-
jectively of the world be confused with ‘social
construction’. Where learning is understood as a
microhistorical process, the peopled world for
all it operates according to its own dynamics
cannot ever be understood independently of the
history of the knowing subject. In other words,
the validity of a given scientific study is itself an
historically constituted judgement – which is not
to say that scientific studies may not be arguably
more, or less, valid. The point is that if our cate-
gories are to work analytically, they have to be
rendered such by means of ethnographic analysis.
They are not to be taken for granted, for they
too warrant investigation – ‘society’, ‘individual’,
‘biology’, ‘culture’, ‘self’, ‘mind’, and so on, are
cases in point.
My argument here is, first, that because tempo-
rality inheres in consciousness, learning instanti-
ates the microhistorical processes that over time
give rise to the phenomena of consciousness as
always open to further differentiation. Secondly,
that because transformation and continuity are
aspects of the microhistorical process of human
autopoiesis, ethnographic analyses of ontogeny
can provide a way in to theorizing the mutual con-
nections between human evolution, history (a
regional history, for example), contemporary lives,
consciousness, and the neurobiology of con-
sciousness.22 Moreover, it is important for us as
anthropologists to understand that the peopled
world provides for all our historically constituted
descriptions of it, such that these always and
inevitably partial descriptions are rendered objec-
tive in different ways.23
Ethnographic studies of how children make
sense of the conditions in the world created for
them by adults can contribute to the dynamic
systems perspective on human development over
time as an autopoietic and historical process – one
that grounds the entire spectrum of individual
difference (within and across regions of the world)
in the way that our biology provides for sociality,
specifically for empathy and intersubjectivity,
as the bedrock condition of human being.
Furthermore, the details of ethnographic studies
of ontogeny as an historical process feed directly
into the argument that the development of the
neural processes that characterize human concep-
tual development is an emergent aspect of the
functioning of an embodied nervous system for
which intersubjectivity is a necessary condition.
1 My first formulation of this model (Toren 1999:
121; 2002) was derived from a synthesis of the
works of Maturana and Varela on autopoiesis; Piaget
on genetic epistemology, especially his idea of the
cognitive scheme as a ‘self-regulating transforma-
tional system’ (i.e. as an autopoietic process); Husserl’s
and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology; and certain of
Vygotsky’s insights on language acquisition. My
model has a good deal in common with Thompson
(2007) and finds new support in his ground-breaking
neurophenomenology and in Tomasello’s (2003)
work on the ontogeny of language.
2 Cf. Damasio (1999). who argues that emotion
is fundamental both to the organism’s survival and to
3 Csibra and Gergely (2006: 249) argue that
‘human pedagogy [is] an evolutionary adaptation for
efficient knowledge transfer’, but if, for humans,
living is knowing and vice versa, and if living and
knowing are historical processes, then the idea of
pedagogy as a ‘dedicated cognitive system’ is unnec-
essary, which is not to say that our various ideas of
pedagogy are not important for what we know
about the world and how we know it. See Ingold
(2007) for a related argument from the perspective
of ‘the social child’.
4 See D’Andrade (1995, Chapters 6 and 7) and
Shore (1996, Chapter 2). D’Andrade provides a suc-
cinct account of the difference between a connnec-
tionist model and a serial symbolic processing
5 Cf. Piaget’s biologically founded idea of the
cognitive scheme as a ‘self-regulating transfor-
mational system’ which he explicitly likened to
mathematical and logical structures and also to
‘structures … whose transformations unfold in time’
(1971: 15).
6 Take, for example, the following:
according to the premises of cultural psychol-
ogy, even the transcendent realities portrayed by
scientists are part of intentional worlds and cannot
really take us beyond our mental representations
of things. In the world of cultural psychology tran-
scendence and self-transformation are possible but
only through a dialectical process of moving from
one intentional world into the next, or by chang-
ing one intentional world into another (Shweder
1991: 99).
7 See, for example, Nussbaum (2001) and com-
pare Hacking (1999).
8 I first came across the idea in the domain of
academic psychology in respect of children (see
Kessen 1983). Cultural construction is also central to
the development of the contemporary sociology of
childhood, where it is inflected by an idea that the
child’s agency challenges the discourses that consti-
tute particular ideas concerning what a child is
(James, Jenks and Prout 1998).
9 See, for example, Schwartz et al. (1992).
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10 See, for example, Strauss and Quinn (1997,
Part II). Compare attempts to use the insights of
phenomenology to analyse embodied mind: here
the body is ‘the existential ground of culture’,
which at once manifests and constitutes mind (e.g.
Csordas 1990); culture, however, remains taken for
11 My own attempts to theorize construction
have involved, firstly, using Piaget’s ideas to render
Bourdieu’s notion of habitus psychologically viable
and capable of incorporating history (see Toren
1990). Later I found it more satisfactory to do away
altogether with the over-systematized and paradoxi-
cally static habitus and to put forward the theoretical
synthesis outlined in Toren (1999, 2002).The unified
model presented in this chapter is the most recent
development of this model.
12 See Lewis (2000, 2005) for a dynamic sys-
tems approach that links emotion theory and neuro-
biology and Thompson (2007) for suggestions as
to an experimental neurophenomenology of time-
13 The infant’s ability at four days to recognize
its mother’s face seems to be based on the differen-
tiation of ‘a general pattern processing system,
rather than a face-specific one’ (Karmiloff-Smith
1995: 1298); see Elman et al. (1996: 115118) for
the ontogeny of facial recognition.
.. all the cases of massive neural structuring to
which a content-specific cognitive function can
confidently be assigned appear to be associated
with language or with perception. … the key to
modularity is informational encapsulation … hard-
wired connections indicate privileged paths of
informational access (Fodor 1983: 98, see also
Fodor 1988).
Cole suggests that the origin of modularity came
out of the debate between Chomsky, Piaget and
others concerning what came to be known as the
‘language acquisition device’ or ‘language module’
(Cole 1996: 198).
15 The reader should be aware of the difference
between evolutionary psychology and evolutionary
biology. Mesoudi et al. (2006) propose a ‘unified sci-
ence of cultural evolution’ which relies on an analogy
between genes as carriers of biological characteristics
and memes as carriers of culture. Compare the devel-
opmental systems approach which ‘defines evolution
not as change in gene frequencies but as “change in
the distribution and constitution of developmental
(organism-environment) systems” (Oyama 2000: 77).
The fundamental unit of evolution so conceived is
the life cycle’ (Thompson 2007: 188). This latter per-
spective enables us to make the historical nature of
human beings continuous with evolutionary theory.
See also Robertson (1996).
16 For more or less radical perspectives that
take this approach, see, for example, Boyer (1994,
2001), Astuti (2001, 2007) and Tremlin (2006).
Whitehouse takes a somewhat different, though not
unrelated approach. He hypothesizes that religious
systems function according to two different modes
of religious transmission – an imagistic mode and
a doctrinal mode. The two modes indicate different
forms of codification that correlate with distinct
sets of psychological and sociopolitical features
(see Whitehouse 2000, 2004).
17 Researchers differ as to whether these are all
direct products of evolutionary pressures exerted on
our ancestors in the Pleistocene (see Tooby and
Cosmides 1992); Sperber and Boyer, for example,
argue that beliefs in supernatural moral agents
develop as by-products of innate ‘pro-social cognitive
mechanisms’ (see Pascal Boyer’s and Maurice Bloch’s
contributions to the critical discussion of Bering
2006; also Sperber 2006).
18 For example,
… during the last trimester of pregnancy approxi-
mately 6570 percent of human fetuses are
positioned with the right ear facing out and the
left ear facing in toward the mother’s tissues and
internal organs. As a result of this positioning,
human fetuses receive different types and amounts
of prenatal experience to the right and left ears
and labyrinths during late prenatal development,
probably contributing to cerebral lateralization for
a variety of postnatal traits, including speech per-
ception, language function, and limb dominance
patterns, like handedness and footedness (Lickliter
2007: 14).
“[G]iven the extraordinary complexity of the
human nervous system, the infant’s immersion in
a world of highly differentiated sensation, and the
rapid growth of interneuronal connections, this
is surely ample time for … [the] autopoietic devel-
opment [of infant abilities] out of much more
primitive beginnings as a ‘self-regulating
transformational system’, a Piagetian scheme,
even in its early stages, is going to ‘look like’
what cognitive psychologists call a module” (Toren
20 See, for example, Kirshner and Whitson
21 For intersubjectivity, see Trevarthen (1988)
and compare contributions to Bråten 1998 and
Rumsay (2003).
22 For developments in the anthropology of
consciousness, see Throop and Laughlin (2007).
23 See, for example, Toren (2007, 2009,
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AltaMira Press.
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... We must surely start from Mauss' minimalist definition -'public rules of action and thought' (see also Introduction, in this issue) -by substituting his emphasis on 'rulebound behaviour' by a neurophenomenologically redefined notion of mutuality where thought is conceived of as a form of action (cf. Toren 2011;Pina-Cabral n.d.). Once this is done, we must then acknowledge that birds and bees also have 'institutions' and cast aside all simplistic forms of human exceptionalism (cf. ...
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What is an institution? We successively examine definitions provided by Durkheim, Mauss, Parsons, Goffman and Berger, and Luckman. Whilst anthropologists acknowledge that the stuff of human institutions is ‘the combination of modes of action with modes of thinking’, somehow they have seen the epitome of that embodied in the compulsory organisations of modern, state‐run, Western society. The paper argues for the abandonment of representational solutions, which operate with a Cartesian view of mind; sociocentric solutions, which view groupness as unitary and teleological; and individualist solutions that fail to see people as constituted in ontogeny through intersubjective attunement. Human sociality and human understanding must not be separated from the world, but persons do not pre‐exist intersubjective attunement and this operates through a process of triangulation between self, other and world where all elements are intrinsically involved.
Experiment Findings
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How are samples of lice-tissues, collected from RNAi experiments, endowed with biological meanings through work downstream in the experimental pipeline? This chapter tracks the representational and material cascades initiated in the previous chapter. It examines the making of meaningful measurements of gene expression in lice tissues, focusing on a widely used technology known as real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction. By ethnographically tracing the work and situatedness of one researcher within the cultural-cognitive ecosystem of the laboratory, I show how everyday operations on the benchtop depend on “ecological assemblies”; small-scale cultural practices that orchestrate arrays of resources in the agent’s immediate environment to house and extend cognitive processes that span beyond the boundaries of the individual. An important property of these functional systems is their role as material anchors for conceptual blends. I show how the cultural artifacts, which litter the lab, afford scientists a suite of external resources with remarkable computational properties. Together, these representational cascades shift the experimental system’s epistemic states, as part of an extended cognitive process of thinking through things.
In recent years, far from arguing that evolutionary approaches to our own species permit us to describe the fundamental character of human nature, a prominent group of cultural evolutionary theorists has instead argued that the very idea of 'human nature' is one we should reject. It makes no sense, they argue, to speak of human nature in opposition to human culture. The very same sceptical arguments have also led some thinkers-usually from social anthropology-to dismiss the intimately related idea that we can talk of human culture in opposition to human nature. How, then, are we supposed to understand the cultural evolutionary project itself, whose proponents seem to deny the distinction between human nature and human culture, while simultaneously relying on a closely allied distinction between 'genetic' (or sometimes 'organic') evolution and 'cultural' evolution? This paper defends the cultural evolutionary project against the charge that, in refusing to endorse the concept of human nature, it has inadvertently sabotaged itself.
Ontological dimensions of encounters between Brazilian biomedical Cartesianism and Amerindian perspectivism come into sharp focus in an intensive course in functional anatomy offered to trainee indigenous health agents in Acre state, Brazil. After presenting the biomedics’ rationalization of the course, which centered on the supervised dissection of a cadaver, I look at Cashinahua students’ accounts of their participation in the training and consider the broader implications of this particular engagement between two profoundly different philosophical traditions from the angle of the ontogenesis of meaning. I contextualize the students’ views of the cadaver through discussion of Cashinahua phenomenology of the body and cumulative personhood. Rather than revealing a confrontation between distinct “cultures,” as suggested by the term interculturality, analysis supports a focus on the interplay between ontology and epistemology within historically specific ontogenetic processes.
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As the reincarnation of a specific ancestor, a Beng baby of the Côte d'Ivoire is enticed into staying alive by virtue of the mother's care in looking after it and especially in keeping it clean and fed and beautified with bracelets and skin paint; by these means the infant is persuaded to detach itself from the invisible ancestral realm and recognize its kinship with the living. Infants are understood to desire to return to the ancestral realm, so it is not until a child is walking and speaking that it is known to be surely desirous of remaining with the living – a desire that is only fully accomplished when, at the age of six or seven, the child is able to understand and express in speech its knowledge of the difference between dreaming and waking or of death. This brief and unexamined example suggests the possibility that people's ideas of themselves, of kinship, of bodily substance, of what a child is and can be, may be manifold and varied. As indeed they are. Thus a child of the Amazonian Araweté is solely the product of its father's semen for which the mother is the receptacle, but children of the same mother assert their closeness to one another as successive occupants of the same place © Cambridge University Press 2008 and Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Preface. Introduction. 1. How to be a True Materialist in Anthropology. 2. Interpreting and Explaining Cultural Representations. 3. Anthropology and Psychology: Towards an Epidemiology of Representations. 4. The Epidemiology of Beliefs. 5. Selection and Attraction in Cultural Evolution. 6. Mental Modularity and Cultural Diversity. Conclusion: What is at Stake?. Notes. References. Index.
James is an eleven-year-old boy who is tall for his age, has blond hair and blue eyes, loves to play baseball, and is the best right-handed pitcher on his little league team. James is easy going, popular among his classmates at school, and excels in math and science classes. What is the source of such traits as athletic ability, temperament, and intelligence? Why are some children outgoing and socially skilled, while others appear introverted and avoid unfamiliar social situations? Why do some children find puzzles of logic interesting and challenging, while others don’t seem interested or willing to apply themselves to such mental tasks? In the first half of the twentieth century, many biologists and psychologists thought that major aspects of behavioral development progressed in an orderly and preordained sequence under the direct control of genes. From this view, genes were seen to guide the nervous system to mature in a predetermined fashion, giving rise to so-called “innate” or “instinctive” behavior. Likewise, human characteristics like temperament, intelligence, or athletic ability were thought to be genetically based and to be relatively unaffected by experience or environment. Thanks in large part to more than half a century of comparative and developmental research, most biologists and psychologists now appreciate that behavior does not simply unfold from some predetermined genetic blueprint or template. Assumptions of genetically determined “innate” or “hard-wired” behavior have gradually given way to the realization that genes cannot, in and of themselves, produce behavioral or psychological traits or characteristics © Cambridge University Press 2008 and Cambridge University Press, 2009.
The theory of socialization In every society, in every generation, children grow up to become knowledgeable members of the communities in which they live. Sociologists and anthropologists have classically described this process as one of socialization. The new-born child, they say, comes into the world as an entirely asocial being equipped, to be sure, with certain innate response mechanisms, but without any of the information that enables adults to function as persons in the social world. Socialization, then, is the process whereby this information is taken on board. Among other things, the child acquires rules for categorizing and positioning other people in the social environment, and guidelines for appropriate action towards them. Consider, for example, the way a child learns to behave towards kin. It is taught to recognize the people in its familiar surroundings as belonging to specific categories such as (in our society) mother, father, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, cousin, etc. and that for each category, certain kinds of behavior are appropriate or inappropriate. Furnished with the rudiments of the kinship system, the child can then begin to participate in social life. The originally asocial infant has become a social being, a person, equipped to play his or her part vis-vis other persons on the stage of society. This view of socialization has to be understood in the context of general ideas about humanity and nature that are deeply embedded in our own, so-called western tradition of thought and science. © Cambridge University Press 2008 and Cambridge University Press, 2009.