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Anthropology and cognitive science: a two-way street?

Maurice Bloch is a fluent and prolific author, and little in this book will be new to those who are familiar with his many influential papers on the importance for anthropology of insights from cognitive science. But taken as a whole it is an important new work, as it provides a synoptic statement of the position he has been developing progressively over many years, and which has appeared so far only piece by piece and in essay form.

Having made his name in the 1970s and early 80s as a major exponent of Anglo-French anthropological Marxism, Bloch underwent what appeared to be something of a conversion to the – as it seemed to many – antithetical doctrines of cognitivism. Bloch himself, however, has always asserted their compatibility. Indeed, in his first explorations of cognitivist ideas, they were presented as being useful tools in the exploration of Marxist theses. So in ‘From Cognition to Ideology’ (1985), cyclical conceptions of time were explained as ideological mystifications serving hierarchical social orders, and therefore absent from egalitarian societies. The everyday understanding of time gained through interactions humans have with the material world, most especially through labour, are countered by mystical representations, dramatized in ritual, of static or cyclically repeating unchanging order. Cognitive science could help anthropologists to describe accurately the cognition of time that is rooted in and guides everyday practice, and is therefore universal, and to avoid mistaking ideology for reality. But from the time of Bloch’s first really systematic espousal of cognitive science, in ‘Language, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science’ (1991), the Marxist framing rapidly disappears from the exposition. In this book, the earlier critique of anthropological relativism about conceptions of time is still recognisable, but considerably developed, and without its Marxist sub-text (the debt to Leach is still apparent). Now, the shared imagination of permanent roles and unchanging structures ‘may just be an aspect of what is necessary for all societies to function’ (p. 114). In recent remarks (, asserting the continuity in his theoretical interests and commitments over time, Bloch locates the compatibility between Marxism and cognitive science on the rather general level of the kind of knowledge claims they make, both being premised on achieving a point of view external to particular historical and ethnographic contexts, rather than, as earlier, cognitivism being claimed to give support to specific historical-materialist doctrines. And I do not think that on the basis of this book only, any commitment to Marxism would be detectable, so the grounds for Bloch’s declared commitment to both are not illuminated by it. I have heard it suggested that cognitive science satisfies certain intellectual tempers for some of the same reasons as did Marxism, by promising at once a theory of everything and a bandwagon certainty of historical triumph, but neither of these delusions is at all evident in this book. In any case both seem likely to appeal to the intellectually lazy and insecure, and Bloch of course is neither. He takes a good deal of care, moreover, to avoid the messianic tone adopted by some other proponents of cognitive anthropology. Cognitive science is not a new revealed truth, and nor is anthropology as a whole in a benighted fallen condition, requiring to be saved. The ‘challenge’ of the book’s title is not to anthropology as such, but only to some especially muddled (though admittedly widespread and influential) versions of it, which Bloch refers to as ‘Boasian’. And responding to the challenge, he wants to assure us all, will be fun.

Bloch insists furthermore that it is not only anthropologists who will have to change if the co-operation he envisages is to flourish. It will require rethinking and revision of their current practice by cognitive scientists too. And although he is sweeping in his denunciations of what he sees as the abandonment of serious explanatory ambitions by Boasian anthropology, he is equally eloquent about the indispensability of ethnographic research based on participant-observation for any serious study of human social life, and about the richness of the ethnographic record anthropologists have progressively compiled. He is proud of what anthropology has accomplished, and confident that exciting advances in human understanding depend on its active participation. The criticisms of what he regards as bad anthropology are the heart-felt pleas of the dedicated professional to colleagues to return to their proper vocation. And the rhetorical thrust of the book lies not just in its attacks on their follies – although Bloch is a spirited controversialist and some his best lines come out in these passages – but equally in his attempt to present the ‘cognitive challenge’ as an exciting and appealing invitation.

Much of this latter effort is pursued through a sustained deconstruction of the opposition, taken for granted by many cognitive scientists as well as by anthropologists, between nature and culture. Bloch seeks to entice both out of the comfortable intellectual standoff that would reserve for each a subject matter adequately knowable by their own concepts and methods. There can be no such division of labour, Bloch insists, because everything that humans think and do is part of a complex set of processes that are equally expressions of our biological nature and of the fact that unlike all other species we are the subjects of history (p. 20). As Bloch sees it, the unique aspects of human life that Boasian anthropologists seek to capture with the label ‘culture’ do not constitute an extra layer added to our biological nature, and nor do they mean, as some seem to suggest, that our biology has somehow been transcended and may be safely ignored, but rather they mean that our biology expresses itself only but also pervasively through our being as historical agents. There is not some range of things we think or do because of ‘nature’ and a separate set that is shaped by ‘culture’, and therefore there is no possible separation between what varies between societies and what is universal: all of human thought and action is shaped by history just as it is by the substance and functioning of our bodies, including our brains. As Bloch summarizes pithily: ‘There are no non-cultural bits of us as there are no non-natural bits’ (p. 76).

Bloch tries to show that this vision of integrated nature-culture does not pose the danger of ethnocentric, racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable politics that many anthropologists assume follows inevitably from any compromise or communication with biologists or psychologists, or from any admission that the mind is not a blank slate on which ‘cultures’ may write anything with equal ease. It was an historical accident, thinks Bloch, that the particular circumstances of early American anthropology led Boas and his followers to believe that in order to battle successfully against racism, they needed not only to reject the anyway muddled evolutionism of their anthropological predecessors, but also to insist that culture floats entirely free of human biology, and therefore that nothing whatever apart from dogmatic assertions of its infinite plasticity could legitimately be said about human psychology. In this they were mistaken, according to Bloch, even on their own well-intentioned terms. Sound scientific psychology provides no support for racist or sexist prejudices, indeed the reverse, so anthropologists have nothing to fear from it. And the extreme anti-naturalism into which the Boasian tradition has led much mainstream American anthropology has done much to lower the intellectual standing of the subject. The problem has been much less acute, but not of course absent, in Britain and France (p. 174), where the formative dynamics of racial and academic politics were different, and where the study of social processes and the thoughts and interactions of humans as embodied beings has not been so overwhelmed by the polarizing abstraction of ‘culture’. The cognitive challenge therefore presents itself more sharply to the inheritors of the Boasian tradition than it does to ‘social’ anthropologists.

The history of anthropology Bloch provides in support of all this has several interesting features, in addition to its obviously playful provocativeness. Structuralism appears as a road not quite taken. The theories of Lévi-Strauss and Piaget could have been combined into a promising research programme, but their successors were diverted from pursuing it by anti-scientific prejudice. Bourdieu’s theory of practice cleared a definite space for cognitive research, in his insistence on the need to understand individual motivation, but he was content for that space to be occupied by vague metaphorical invocations of ‘embodiment’ and a Latin fog around the concept of ‘habitus’. Nevertheless, like Malinowski before him (somewhat the hero of this book), Bourdieu’s essentially pragmatic understanding of the creation of meaning in situated practice puts him on the correct side of what Bloch sees as the big theoretical divide in anthropology, in contrast to the ‘semiotic’ tradition of the Boasians in which culture is divorced from practice so that meaning may be imagined as a realm separate from biological life, a self-referential filter standing between a people and the world they inhabit that determines how they think and act and which may therefore be ‘read’ without further reference to that world. Intriguingly and controversially, Bloch recruits the later Wittgenstein, with his theory of meaning as use, firmly into his own camp. Geertz, by contrast and in spite of himself, remained according to Bloch wedded to the picture theory of meaning which Malinowski’s influence helped the later Wittgenstein to reject (p. 160). In an implicit critique of a good deal of ‘experimental’ research by cognitive anthropologists as well as of the textualism of the Boasians, Bloch claims that only Malinowskian methods of participant-observation can help us to develop cognitive accounts of the various ways in which concepts – not to be equated with words – are actually represented in practice. Once again, his message is that anthropology’s better self has nothing to fear and much to offer and to gain in a well-conceived partnership with cognitive science.

Bloch covers a lot of ground in this book, and the discussion of some topics must necessarily be superficial. The tone adopted is playful, though with an undercurrent of moral seriousness, and there is much ostentatious plain speaking and spade-calling. At times, the manner is reminiscent of Ernest Gellner, and as with Gellner, sometimes Bloch’s homely extended metaphors take on a life of their own in the rhetorical flow. Not all authors and ideas are treated with equal care and not all distinctions are respected. The complex developments in Evans-Pritchard’s ideas, which included his assimilation of the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein, are dismissed as being ‘best understood as part of a general counter attack on evolutionary ideas in reactionary circles in England in the 1950s’ (p. 41). Here, Bloch is channelling more than Gellner’s manner only, and while the jibe may contain some truth it is hardly adequate. And Geertz is represented still more dismissively as not so much genuinely influenced by but somehow hiding his true purpose behind the ideas of ‘the old nineteenth-century mystico, romantic German philosopher Dilthey and his hermeneutic followers’ (Dilthey cannot surely always have been old, even in mystico nineteenth-century Germany?). And behind the knockabout, a more serious problem lurks, because Bloch does not even acknowledge let alone answer the most far-reaching claim of the hermeneutic tradition, which is that human distinctiveness lies not just in the fact of self-interpretation, but that those self-interpretations are, to some degree at least, constitutive of how things are with us. And if this is true, then an aspect of Bloch’s otherwise admirably simplifying synthesis of contending accounts of the self, agent, subject, person, etc. – what he jestingly refers to as ‘the blob’ – might require serious revision.

Bloch proposes a layered model of this ‘blob’, from an invariant core sense of one’s location in the body and of authorship of one’s actions, through a sense of one’s continuity through time and episodic memory, to the more reflective conscious awareness of what Bloch calls the ‘narrative self’. The next layer up from this occurs when conscious reflection integrates diverse narrative episodes into a more or less coherent narrative whole, typically informed by normative ideals of what an admirable human life consists in. For reasons that are not clearly explained, Bloch distinguishes this layer from the others as ‘meta-representational’, and separates it in his diagrams from those other layers. He borrows from Galen Strawson the point that not all people practise conscious self-narrativizing to the same extent, which is certainly true, and that not all share conventions and practices for doing so. And different religious, moral, and political traditions do indeed provide different technologies of the self, some more elaborate and more salient than others. But the implication of Bloch’s terminology and of his diagrams is that however and to whatever extent they do so, this has no significant feedback effect on the lower levels in his model: that these ‘meta-representations’ are necessarily epiphenomenal and never to any degree constitutive. In other words, without quite saying so, Bloch here appears to be denying that central claim of the hermeneutic tradition, whose existence he does not acknowledge in his dismissive references to it. I can think of no reason why cognitive science need be committed to this implausible position, except of course if it wants to make very strong claims that cognitive mechanisms determine what humans think and do, rather than merely influencing and constraining them, and for the most part in this book Bloch is careful to steer clear of such determinist claims. There is just one point (on p.  11), I think, at which he writes of ‘cognitive mechanisms’ that ‘cause’ people’s practices and actions, but nothing in the rest of the book supports that sort of understanding. It might suit Bloch’s general purpose in this book better, therefore, to acknowledge the depth and far-reaching nature of the question and to consider how a cognitively informed anthropology might go about trying to answer it empirically.

Although pretty well everyone, I’m sure, will find a certain amount to quarrel with in this highly personal and sweepingly ambitious book, equally any open-minded reader should find much that is persuasive and thought provoking. The case is very forcefully made that some much-repeated claims of radical cultural difference – about time, the self, and memory, among other things – do not make any sense except as claims about cognition, whether this is acknowledged by their authors or not, and therefore simply to ignore the evidence from cognitive science on the grounds of intellectual apartheid is not a sustainable position. And in the absence of a defence that deals with that evidence, those claims look ludicrously implausible. The fact that similar arguments have been made before – by Leach, Keesing, Barth, and Bloch himself, among others – does not lessen the value of this spirited restatement. As Bloch notes, the temptation for anthropologists to conjure up exotic ‘other worlds’ out of striking verbal comments by their informants on shamanistic or other specialist practices that are plainly at variance with their own everyday experience has not gone away. But Bloch seems aware (e.g., p. 12) that this ‘negative’ aspect of his argument is more complete and decisive than is his presentation of what a mature and productive co-operation between anthropologists and cognitive scientists might actually look like.

This is partly because he forebears from discussing – and, crucially, from giving comparative critical assessment of – the now non-negligible body of work by anthropologists informed in different ways by various concepts and theories from cognitive science. It is easy enough to accept that what has been learned about human cognition might rule out some anthropologists’ wilder exoticisms, but this does not guarantee that the use of concepts or methods borrowed from cognitive science will result in anything illuminating being said by those who do so. Some pretty ambitious claims have been made to ‘explain’ religion, morality, ethnic conflict, and much besides by anthropologists using cognitivist experimental methods, usually bolstered by just-so stories from evolutionary psychology of which Bloch is rightly critical. And others, rather differently, have tried to integrate specific cognitive concepts and hypotheses into historically grounded ethnographic accounts. These are not only different ventures in cognitively informed anthropology, but deeply contrasting versions of what the co-operation Bloch calls for might entail. It cannot be that Bloch thinks they are all equally successful. He says enough to make clear that his sympathies lie more with the latter than the former. There is an appreciative short discussion of the work of Dan Sperber, and supportive references to works by Dorothy Holland, Naomi Quinn, and Charlotte Strauss, but of many other authors offering either sweeping generalizing theories or cognitively-informed ethnographic description, there is no mention at all. To pick just one example, if Bloch had told us what he thinks we can learn from Tanya Luhrmann’s use of experimental findings as part of a participant-observer’s attempt to explain what happens when evangelical Christians talk with God, we would be nearer to an understanding of what, for Bloch, might constitute a positive response to ‘the cognitive challenge’.

A further reason why this book’s prospectus is less than complete is given by Bloch himself on the first page, where he writes, ‘Of course, natural scientists and especially cognitive scientists would also greatly benefit from a deeper understanding of what the social sciences have to say but this would be the subject of another book’ (p. 1). But much of what Bloch says in this book points to this not being so much ‘the subject of another book’ as necessary to complete the purposes of this one. Anthropologists have rightly found much that is deeply unsatisfactory, in terms of basic conceptualisation, in much of the cognitive science that has been offered for their approbation. And the hectoring tone of decisive finality – ‘repeated experiments have conclusively shown’ – in which the work has so often been reported to us has not helped. Bloch discusses just one example (pp. 64-6): Mark Hauser’s attempts to identify the universal, supposedly ‘natural’ aspects of human morality, and so to demonstrate ‘how nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong’. A strikingly large number of similar exercises have been munificently funded in recent years. As Bloch persuasively argues, Hauser’s project was fundamentally malformed, both conceptually (in presuming a separation between the natural and the cultural) and methodologically. It also naïvely insinuates an historically highly parochial meta-ethics as a premise into the research design. No matter how vast the budget or how many times the experiments are repeated in however many geographical locations, these flaws render the results depressingly uninteresting and virtually unusable by an anthropologist afflicted by even a modest degree of intellectual fastidiousness. Co-operation has to be a two-way street, and the co-operation Bloch so eloquently calls for will only be able to advance if the work of cognitive scientists is designed in ways that seem intellectually credible to anthropologists. Bloch makes one general point well when he says (pp. 75-6) that what he calls the ‘external stance’ many cognitive scientists think they are adopting, seeking to filter the cultural to get at what ‘nature’ has designed in us, is an impossibility. If Bloch’s objective is to promote the replacement of distrustful apartheid between anthropology and cognitive science with productive co-operation, then for cognitive science to be given a forceful and cogent presentation of ‘the anthropological challenge’ they face, will be as important to the success of the enterprise as are the arguments addressed in this book to anthropologists. That presentation, which might well be thought of as the complementary other half of this book, is unlikely to find a better author than Maurice Bloch.

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