Anthropology and Cognitive Science: Towards an Interdisciplinary Hermeneutics of the Human Sciences

In an age in which differing fields of scientific inquiry are fragmented and isolated, it is difficult to facilitate any collaborative research within separate practices. Certain epistemic and academic boundaries have to be overcome in order to ground any attempt to integrate, or at least demonstrate the compatibility of given scientific disciplines. However, in conjunction with one another, some branches become malleable as theories begin to overlap and offer supplementary analysis. Two fields in particular, Anthropology and cognitive science suggest such a project. In retrospect, it was a seemingly natural partnership as the emerging field of cognitive science took off. This type of relationship is predicated on their complementary subject matter and research. One of the prominent definitions of culture in anthropology is, ‘‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’’ (Tylor, 1871, p. 1). These dynamics of culture represent much of the subjects that cognitive science confronts. The central thesis of cognitive science is “that thinking can best be understood in terms of representational structures in the mind and computational procedures that operate on those structures” (Thagard, 2008). Much of the work in anthropology focuses on the principles for the organization of meaning and how it is coordinated systematically. In this respect, cognitive science plays a complementary role in research. In fact, their compatibility led to the development of the subfield that is cognitive anthropology. If these fields have such an integral nature, then why is it difficult to articulate a proper synthesis? What is the reason for the present decreased influence on cognition for anthropology? This essay will address these questions and elucidate some of the ways in which these fields are beneficial and where they reach an impasse. It will also argue that the main factor contributing to the declining relevance on cognitive studies and for anthropology in general is the force of post-structuralism, and will assess a response with an emphasis on cognitive linguistics.

One of the main achievements of cognitive anthropology is its reliable account and descriptions of cultural representations. It serves as a bridge for thought processes and the physical and ideational aspects of culture (D’Andrade, 1995). The focus is not on physical phenomena that constitute culture; rather, culture is viewed as the mental organization of the material phenomena. Thus, cognitive anthropology strives to answer what material phenomena are important to a particular culture and how they construct or organize it. This approach emerged as a result of ethnographers becoming aware of their own subjective bias through their mental processing and sought to reveal “the native’s point of view” (Erickson and Murphy, 2003).

Ethnoscience is a branch that came out of this approach and focuses on the categories of description in the language of natives rather than interpreting through structures of their own native language. It became a catalyst for the early development of cognitive anthropology as research was concentrated on folk taxonomies – how people organize classes of objects or notions, providing support for ethnographers in anthropology. By using “interview techniques and analytical processes to bring out native categories of thought instead of imposing the analyst’s own cultural system on the data,” cognitive anthropologists made an effort to increase the validity of ethnography (Colby, 1996, p. 211). Although cognitive anthropology became a recognizable field in the 1950’s, the question of the relation between the mind and the external world can be traced back to the enlightenment era. Sperber (1985, p. 2) would argue that both anthropology and psychology have the same philosophical underpinnings found in Locke’s empiricism; the mind is a tabula rasa, receptive and structured by the experience of the environment and other persons. However, cognitive anthropology is where the humanist and natural science perspectives merge and develop a new way of inquiry.

Once the preliminary works provided the framework for further analysis, the stage was set to explore and co-create theories with the established field of cognitive science. Among some of these are: prototypes, fuzzy categories, schemas, and mental models. Consensus theory (Romney, Weller, & Batchelder, 1986) offered a computational rationale for approaching such questions as how many informants need to be sampled by an ethnographer in order to decide whether a view is representative of a culture (Boster, 1985). Through the advent of computer technologies, there were also attempts at modeling cultural processes as emergent properties of systems of interacting agents (Hutchins & Hazlehurst, 1991). Other cognitive anthropologists were attentive to the notion of the schemata – conceptual abstractions that serve as a mediating locus between external stimuli and behavioral responses; this idea departs from the representational paradigm that stems from the tradition of Locke as Tyler (1978) states, “the structure of knowledge cannot consist of a mere picture of the world or even of a set of concepts which refer to or stand in a one-to-one relation with elements of the external world.” This notion seems contradicts Sperber’s point and takes more of a Kantian approach. Also, the role of language was on the table and would serve as the central focus of the subfield (which will be discussed later). Each of these avenues of research is only some of the achievements that came out of cognitive anthropology. It goes to show the compatible elements and dynamics involved in this small but insightful subfield.

At this point, anthropology and cognitive science have been represented in a holistic manner. However, this was not always the case and not everyone agreed on its status as a discipline. In part this has to do with a very fundamental epistemological difference regarding each fields approach to methodology. On the one hand, anthropology relies on passive engagement with other cultures/environments in a natural unmediated setting. From the other side, research in cognitive science is done in an unnatural laboratory environment where the active participation of the researcher is more prominent (e.g. experimentation, artificial intelligence, etc.). These factors and more helped contribute to the decreased interest and alienation from researchers in each fields.

“Although cognitive anthropology strove for objectivity, its questions, theories, and methods had little in common with the other scientific subfields of anthropology. While cognitive anthropology insisted on its dedication to understanding human experience, it was much too positivist for the tastes of the humanist subfields, where postmodernism was carrying the day (Bender, Hutchins, & Mendin, 2009).”

Whatever the circumstances, the two began to drift apart. The implications of postmodernism for anthropology have perhaps had the most damaging impact for any attempt at a rapprochement and it is appropriate here to address the dynamics of its relationship.

The relationship between anthropology and postmodernism can be traced back to the linguistic theory known as structuralism. At the time this theory was a radically different way of analyzing language and it was first developed by Ferdinand de Saussure. It approaches language as a system of differentiating elements that can only have meaning in relation to its system of differences. In other words, the meaning of a word has its meaning by being different from another word and so on. From this structural perspective of language, three basic premises are laid out: There is no one-to-one correspondence between the word and its referent – the meaning attributed to a word (sign) is completely arbitrary and does not possess and inherent quality that would suggest its meaning, every word has a meaning because it is different from other words in a system, words constitute our language which in turn give our culture a system or structure (Saussure, 1983). These concepts initiated an entirely new perspective on the role of language as Harris (1988) expresses:

“Language is no longer regarded as peripheral to our grasp of the world we live in, but as central to it. Words are not mere vocal labels or communicational adjuncts superimposed upon an already given order of things. They are collective products of social interaction, essential instruments through which human beings constitute and articulate their world. This typically twentieth-century view of language has profoundly influenced developments throughout the whole range of human sciences. It is particularly marked in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology.”

Structuralism had a tremendous impact on theorists in subsequent generations. One of those thinkers was Claude Levi-Strauss and he would develop what would come to be known as structural anthropology.

Levi-Strauss applied the linguistic analysis of structuralism to anthropology. Through this perspective he studied family structures, not in the traditional sense as there being a stable self-contained unit consisting of father, mother, and children, but rather that the identity of the family is constituted through its relations to the peripheral of the extended family. Also, he developed the notion of the mytheme which serves as a locus for the basic units of the structure of myths. In a sense, there is not one authentic myth but rather all myths share the same language. Through analyzing these structures, Levi-Strauss argues that culture consists of binary oppositions – akin to the philosophy of Hegel (Levi-Strauss, 1958). As further analysis continued to develop, structural anthropology took stride with cognitive anthropology. It looked as if there would be a way to integrate all fields that comprised the human sciences and that these were the methodologies for engaging that project. However, almost as soon as it got off the ground it was met by a stream of criticism from within its own tradition. These thinkers are affiliated in what is known as post-structuralism (or deconstruction) and would later result in the movement called postmodernism.

The JohnHopkinsUniversity conference held in 1966 was a gathering of structuralist thinkers who would for the first time introduce these ideas to the United States. Among some that attended included Levi-Strauss, Lacan, and Jaques Derrida. It was there when Derrida presented his essay, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences”, and it marks one of the first major criticisms against structuralism. This event became viewed by many as a de-throning of Levi-Strauss as some critics would describe it as a “hermeneutical mafia.” Whatever the case, this began the rebellious volley of criticism that would generate the postmodern movement.

It is not necessary here to outline a complete account of post-structuralism but to explain some of its basic premises and its impact on anthropology in general. One its major themes are radical skepticism. Derrida (1967) would emphasize the function and the “primacy of the signifier” in the signifier/signified distinction arguing that language is an endless chain of signifiers without a transcendental “signified”. The notion of structure itself is also a signifier and cannot be used objectively as a harmless blanket term. Michel Focault (1970) developed the notion of episteme. In this epistemological concept, history is viewed as an a priori foundation for knowledge and is a condition for its possibility within a given epoch (a diachronic analysis rather than a structuralist synchronic). There was a general skepticism to such a degree that some philosophers entertained the illusory nature of reality or hyperreality (Baudrillard, 1980). Also, there was a lot of attention towards the notion of the self. Post-structuralists sought to destabilize the notion of a fixed self identity. This included analyzing (deconstructing) authors whose intending meaning of a work becomes secondary to the meaning from the reader’s perspective (Derrida, 1967). Other theorists attempt to extract individuality in its most authentic expression through the cultural matrix (Deleuze, 1972).

These types of analyses pose a threat towards anthropology as a whole. Its implications for ethnography are denigrating because it causes hyper-sensitive awareness upon the relativity and subjectivity associated with a field researcher rendering objectivity a dubious endeavor. Isaac Reed (2010) will concede that the postmodern criticism of objectivity in the social sciences is a result of the anthropologist’s inability to synthesize the context of investigation and the context of explanation. At this point, some anthropologists began to have a sense of self doubt toward the validity of their research. The criticism of meaning and language has a devastating impact on anthropology. However, different accounts of language provide a path around the present arbitrariness and cultivate meaningful and fruitful discussions on the status of meaning. The last part of this essay will address some of these different perspectives particularly in cognitive science and semiotics, and will grok for its significance as a rebuttal against postmodernism.

For those people who would describe themselves as postmodernists, they may have either neglected or gone without engaging the semiotic tradition of Charles Peirce. Contrary to the structuralist model, Pierce and company focus on the fact that language occurs on multiple levels of abstraction. Rather than accounting for language as an arbitrary free-floating signifier/signified chain, this semiotic analysis argues that words operate on different levels and thus have a different meaning value. Pierce (1991) argues that the basic levels of language operate with indexicals – words that correspond with the equivalency of grunting and pointing (e.g. “here”, “this”, “there”, etc.) and thus have a direct relationship with the physical world in at least a metaphorical sense (as will be seen in discussing cognitive science). Other scholars focused on the epistemology of semiotics in anthropology, paradoxes and logical distinctions, and further distinguishing features of language (Bateson, 1972; Elson, 2010; Wilden, 1987). In this tradition, is no longer a system of meaningless signs but is assessed on different levels of value and reference. An interdisciplinary mindset through engaging these types of analysis will help provide a clear conscious for examining some of the new developments that cognitive science has to offer.

At this point in the narrative, it has addressed the compatible relationship of cognitive science and anthropology, its general fallout through the ushering in of postmodernism, and has precluded a rapprochement through an interdisciplinary linguistic analysis. The third generation researchers in cognitive science focus on epistemology and the role of schematas whilst developing the notion of the embodied mind. In the book The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1992), Varela and company give an account of the subjective experience without sacrificing the explanatory power of science, cultivating a new interpretation of Buddhism as it applies to consciousness. Through meditative techniques, subjectivity can be grasped in a way that is consistent with empiricism. They also argue that because of the embodied nature of consciousness, the mind does not stand outside and divorced from the physical world whilst passively representing its contents in the environment. Rather, organisms/environments co-create the phenomenal world and co-constitute the conditions of knowledge (Varlea and Maturana, 1992). This embodied approach to epistemology re-integrates insights from phenomenology in a new context. The phenomenological embodiment of linguistics gets further fleshed-out in Lakoff and Johnson’s work Metaphors We Live By (1980). In this analysis, language is viewed as largely metaphorical and they use schematic conceptual mappings to outline the roots of language in the sensorimotor neural capacities of a given subject. For example, in some languages the past is in front of the subjective observer and the future is behind. In the Aymara culture, the metaphor that the past is in front is justified by the fact that the experience of being able to see the results of your actions “in front of you” and in your awareness as already been done (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, p. 141). They outline metaphorical mappings for not only time but other abstract notions as causation, morality, love, mind, self, etc. It is these types of dynamics that provide meaningful insights not only to cognitive studies, but for anthropology in general. This new generation of cognitive science re-contextualizes the locus of language and situates it in the embodied consciousness of the subject rather than the detached cogito notion that has dominated the bulk of western thought and underlies the concept of the arbitrariness of language. With these new insights, cognitive science provides a way of overcoming the criticisms of postmodernism, and with a re-integration into the discussions of anthropology, can supplement an interdisciplinary holistic study for anthropology and the rest of the human sciences.

This essay has addressed a manifold of subjects within the human sciences. Specifically, it has focused on the relationship between anthropology, cognitive science, and post-structuralism. It has argued that the reason for the compartmentalization of the various scientific disciplines has been a result of a destructive influence from the criticisms of postmodern thinkers. Finally, this paper has argued for the rapprochement of cognitive studies within anthropology on the grounds of a semiotic and an embodiment analysis of language. These perspectives have exciting implications for the future research in cognitive studies and anthropology.


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~ by loganinman on April 17, 2013.

2 Responses to “Anthropology and Cognitive Science: Towards an Interdisciplinary Hermeneutics of the Human Sciences”

  1. I’m now not positive where you’re getting your information, however good
    topic. I needs to spend a while finding out much more or working out more.
    Thank you for fantastic info I used to be searching for this information for my mission.

    • thanks. i’m drawing from a lot of the thinkers in the works cited page obviously. but a lot of it also myself trying to synthesize these concepts. what might be your mission? haha

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