The Second Cognitive Revolution

Two `prime movers' can be isolated as leading to the essaying of this new 'turn' in the study of human psychology..

First, cognitive psychologists have come to realise some of the limits of their traditional paradigm when it comes to modelling and theorising `meaning'. An `information-processing' paradigm has lead to some spectacular achievements in the field of the automated translation of one (written) language into another, for example, but the internal processes whereby readers of these strings of symbols are able to `understand' them have remained elusive. Cognitive psychologists have begun to look at `meanings' as being constructed in `conversations' rather than merely located in some `mechanism inside someone's head': cognition is coming to be `interpersonal' rather than `intrapersonal'.

Second, in a retreat from its previous shying away from the `subjective' domain, so as to establish itself as an `objective' science, many branches of psychology have come to realise that a major component of human reality is what may be termed a `conversational reality', in which two or more `subject(ivitie)s' interact to negotiate, maintain and change the meanings of the world within which they live, and also to construct, maintain and change their selves.

`Conversation', then, has become a central issue within psychology. In one sense it can become an `object' of study in its own right, and hence legitimately a province of `conventional' science. In another sense, it is the agent whereby meanings and selves are created and sustained. This shift in emphasis is still being explored in the academic or theoretical aspects of psychology, but has begun to be embraced in a number of the traditional applications of psychology: in the study of organizational behaviour; in clinical psychology; in educational psychology. There are also clear links with similar developments in many social science subjects, for example: social anthropology; sociology; media studies; women's studies; communication studies; etc. There are further links and applications shared with other disciplines: history; law; marketing; English; etc.

One source for gaining an introduction to this recent turn in the psychological literature is the September/October 1992 issue of the American Behavioral Scientist (Volume 36, Number 1: pp 3-123), where, as Rom Harre writes in his introduction, the papers 'are all contributions, in various ways, to a recent development in psychology that might be termed 'the second cognitive revolution'' (1992: p5).

One characterization of this emerging perspective has been put forward by Jerome Bruner:

There is no question that cognitive science has made a contribution to our understanding of how information is moved about and processed. Nor can there be much doubt on reflection that it has left largely unexplained and even somewhat obscured the very large issues that inspired the cognitive revolution in the first place. So let us return to the question of how to construct a mental science around the concept of meaning and the processes by which meanings are created and negotiated within a community (Bruner, 1990: p10).

A second attempt is offered by Rom Harre:

What, then, should psychologists do if the second cognitive revolution is on the right track? Why, study cognition where it lives, in discourse, considered in a broad sense to include all sorts of symbolic manipulations according to rules (1992: p7)

To be more explicit about discourse and what it is (dangerous ground, this: definitions always are, but are worse in an area that is concerned with the status of subject, relationship (practice), and object on which all definitions have, perforce, to be built), we draw on Ian Parker's list (1992).

  1. A discourse is anything that humans do in their everyday lives that involves speaking.
  2. Traditionally, speaking has been downgraded to language, which has been taken as a representative system that has reference. However, neither 'representation' nor 'reference' are properly understood in either psychology or philosophy. In a discourse sense, speaking is about the world, but not in a one-to-one relationship with it: some of the objects we talk about are constituted by the ways we speak about (and with) them. We can even take our speaking as an object, and study it.
  3. Similarly, it is speaking that acts to constitute the speaker as a subject. Speaking creates positions from which to speak, somewhat in the sense of the work that has been done in attitude change with regard to the persuasive characteristics of different communicators. All those particular communicators share the same characteristics as biological objects (Homo sapiens sapiens), but as discourse (human) subjects they are all very different.
  4. Speaking is, usually, and remarkably, blessed with coherence. That is, to be taken as 'speaking' rather than using words senselessly, incoherently, as a result of a stroke, as a computer simulation, a speaker conveys some form of connected sense. Film-makers, novelists and politicians usually have this off to a fine art. Elucidating the often implicit coherence of speaking is the art of the discourse researcher.
  5. While coherence is not well understood, a deal of the coherence of speaking comes from other instances of speaking: our speaking is not self-contained, but gains its value in comparison to other things that have been said, not said, or could have been said.
  6. Our speaking tends, very often, to be reflexive, contradictory and to otherwise exhibit, spontaneously, all the varieties of 'tricks' deployed in rhetoric (irony, hyperbole, etc.).

    From these points, it will be clear that the basic phenomena dealt with in a discourse approach are of a different nature from those that are held to be at the basis of empirical psychology. That is, the 'facts', for want of a better word (inverted commas and disclaimer illustrating the rhetorical nature of this discourse just noted), to be 'discovered' in investigation are nowhere near as clear-cut as those experimentalists believe they are uncovering. Determining exactly a psychophysical threshold is theoretically and methodologically possible; discovering exactly what someone meant exactly is theoretically and methodologically impossible. This leads to the next point:

  7. Speaking is historically situated, since many of the things we talk of, and the ways we accept for talking about them, result from practices established in the histories of our particular cultures, traditions, sub-cultures and the like. But in addition, speaking has a wider temporal context than just the history in which it is situated, for speaking itself constitutes the present, and the relations between different discourses patently affect the future course of human possibilities.
  8. Speaking creates and supports social institutions. This web-site is one such, relatively minor example.
  9. Speaking involves the definition, reproduction and transformation of power relations. I have already noted the ways in which boundaries may be policed, for example, with respect to the institutions of our own discipline.
  10. Speaking is an ideological practice. This is too difficult a notion to unpack here, but I mention it so as to make explicit the inherent politicality of discourse research, the fact that it has the character of a moral science rather than a natural science.
  11. Finally, speaking is constitutive of our selves. Almost 40 years ago, the American anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell described basic orientations that a culture, in present terms, a body of speaking, provides to locate and constitute human selves with respect to what was and was not self; what objects were to be valued; where and when one was; etc. His work is central to today's concerns.


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