Against cognitivism: the discursive construction of cognitive mechanisms

Andrew Lock

Massey University


Psychologists who study human discourse tend to have little in common with those interested in cognitive abilities and their evolution. The polarity of views between these two `camps' - we might call them the `social constructionists' and the `cognitive scientists' - is similar to a split in studies of science itself, where one group characterises science as a `social construction' and the other as the process of empirically discovering how reality works. What follows is not intended as an attempt to bring about a rapprochement between these different views. Rather, I am interested in the evolution of human activities. One thing that us humans do a lot of is to get involved in conversations. That the knowledge we have of these `conversational endpoints' of human evolution is formulated in a very different way from the knowledge we have about human origins is a bit of a problem, then, if, like me, you want to elucidate the process that went on between `beginning' and `end'.

This paper is a first attempt to grapple with this `bit-of-a-problem'. How are humans able to do what they do? That is, have any discourses at all?

Commonalities in Constructive Processes

Fortunately, there are some fundamental compatibilities between the social construction and evolutionary perspectives. The major one of these is that both approaches are concerned to account for processes of construction. Second, they are similar in that they posit ordering principles to the temporal course of construction.

The main point made here is that discourses at one point in time have implications that come to be made explicit and thus found new discourses at a later point in time. This is analogous to the evolutionary situation in which biological processes also act to explicate in the future the implications of existing systems. Again, the same situation holds in the historical elaboration of certain symbol systems. In this conceptualisation, the implications of a system at one point serve to specify the possibilities for its future specification and elaboration (I have unpacked this conceptualisation in earlier publications (e.g., 1985, 1986), but these are not yet available here).

A concrete example will have to suffice at present. The sequence of symbols that denote natural numbers is a human construction. Now, it is possible to do some quite complex tasks without any abstract conception of number: by `tallying', for example, a shepherd can keep track of his or her flock - mark them out in the morning and tick them home in the evening. If, by any chance, one abstracted numbers out of this practice and expressed them on base 10 with Arabic numerals, then one would get the sequence 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9. One could use these numbers in quite a few ways without ever becoming aware of the distinctions between, and the properties of, odd and even, perfect and prime numbers. One might come to apprehend these distinctions, but then be oblivious to such properties as Goldbach's conjecture: that every even number is the sum of two primes (this conjecture fits every known case, but no proof of it has yet been formulated).

Three points should be noted with respect to this example. First, Popper (1972: 18) characterizes that these properties of numerical systems are "unintended and unavoidable properties of our creation ... [there] ... for us to discover". Second, there is a logic to the order in which these unintended properties might be discovered: that is, Goldbach could only formulate his conjecture about the properties of even numbers once even numbers had been elucidated. Third, it follows that we could essay an evolutionary account of mathematics if we could establish the conditions under which such discoveries were made.

These points can inform our understanding of the social creation of discursive resources, self concepts, and the like. As a paradigm example I take Norbert Elias' study (1978) of European etiquette manuals dating back over the last 700 years. His work can be read as revealing that the processes of social interaction have unintended consequences, that they `create' `things' that are only subsequently articulable (or discoverable) as `things'; and that the `things' that result from this `social construction' have an intrinsic ordering to them that constrains the order in which we come to `apprehend' them.

Elias' rationale for interpreting the material he presents rests on two points. First, if a manual explicitly proscribes a form of behaviour, then we may assume that those people to whom the advice is targeted would otherwise do what they are being told not to. Second, if over the course of centuries particular advice drops out of these manuals, this does not reflect a change in fashion, but that people no longer need to be told such niceties of behaviour, for they have been `socialised' not to perform in these ways. [Thus at Massey University, for example, we were recently sent a memo informing us of the correct title of address for the current Minister of Education in New Zealand - whether he is the Honourable Dr. Lockwood-Smith or Dr. the Honourable Lockwood-Smith, a difficult decision - so as not to cause offence if we met him. But we were not told not to spit, fart, pick our noses, belch nor either scratch or expose our `private' parts if we met him. One can assume people would not do these things, even if they come from an originally agricultural institution.]

Elias' Account

Elias establishes the historical course of elaborating western practices for dealing with the assorted accumulations of material that periodically inhabit the human nasal passages. At the root of the changes Elias documents in what is considered polite is a hierarchy of actions: blowing the nose; hiding the blowing of it by using a handkerchief; hiding the blowing of it into a handkerchief. But, most importantly, embarrassment is being invented. Embarrassment is a (metacognitive) emotional state created by the explication into discourse of this hierarchy: for it to be realized, a self-censorious ability has to be established. People have to become able to reflect on their own behaviour - that is, on how they act in company - where previously they had not done so.

Over all the activities he considers, there emerges from Elias's study the strong implication that this ability was not just lacking in the area of nose-blowing, but that it was unavailable for any activity: people generally did not reflect on what they were doing. Hence, they did not provide the necessary conditions that would enable them to feel embarrassed. In Elias's view, the kind of change in interpersonal behaviour that such advice reflects is not one of fashion; further,

it does not involve solely changes of `knowledge' transformations of `ideologies', in short, alterations of the content of consciousness, but changes in the whole human make-up, within which ideas and habits of thought are only a single sector (Elias, 1982: 284, underlying added for emphasis).

These changes reflect a reorganization and transformation of

the whole personality throughout all its zones, from the steering of the individual by himself at the more flexible level of consciousness and reflection to that at the more automatic and rigid level of drives and affects. (Elias, 1982: 284)

Elias predicates these changes in personality structure on structural changes in society brought about by the expansion of trade, the diffusion of money, the monopolization of power and physical force by a central `state', and the growing stabilization of the central organs of society. In sum, `as the social fabric grows more intricate, the sociogenic apparatus of individual self-control also becomes more differentiated, more allround and more stable' (Elias, 1982: 234). He offers the following explanation as to why there is this relationship:

From the earliest period of the history of the Occident to the present, social functions have become more and more differentiated under the pressure of competition. The more differentiated they become, the larger grows the number of functions and thus of people on whom the individual constantly depends in all his actions, from the simplest and most commonplace to the more complex and uncommon. As more and more people must attune their conduct to that of others, the web of actions must be organized more and more strictly and accurately, if each individual action is to fulfil its social function. The individual is compelled to regulate his conduct in an increasingly differentiated, more even and more stable manner. (Elias, 1982: 232)

Elias considers that it is the relationship between the psychological functions controlling an individual's actions that changes during historical time; that it is

these relationships within man between the drives and affects controlled and the built-in controlling agencies, whose structure changes in the course of a civilizing process, in accordance with the changing structure of the relationships between individual human beings, in society at large (Elias, 1982: 286).

[Note that this formulation is very `Russian', and could be put in Vygotskian terminology with minimal difficulty: cf Vygotsky's distinction between the inter- and intra- psychological planes, and his claim that every element in the child's development appears twice, first between people and second within the child.]

Interaction, Discourse and Cognition

How do we relate these changes in the basic structuring of Western psychological structure to discourse? Elias's argument is subtle. His essential point is that our personalities, our conceptions of ourselves and others, our emotional experiences and our views of the world are explicated from phenomena whose existence is created beyond us in our social worlds. Human beings and their conceptual systems are explicated renderings into mental form of their social discourses. This is the social constructionist's credo.

This process of explication is contributed to by the potentialities of the various symbol systems that humans use, as well as the nature and structure of the human practices within which these are sustained. It is becoming clearer that (1) the properties of particular symbol systems and (2) the conditions under which they are employed affect the ease with which humans can use them for particular purposes.

The first point has been clear to mathematicians, for example, for quite a long time: it is easier to add 21 to 38 to get 59 than XXI to XXXVIII to get LIX. [It is even easier to do it on an abacus, but here we are at a further remove in that a technology for manipulating symbols has been introduced. In addition the device - the abacus - can be 'internalised' and used as fast and accurately, and often faster, than using it physically. In addition, such skilled users show very specific enhancements to their mathematical skills: digit memory - forward and backward - increases to 15 digit strings, while for other item lists it remains around the magic number 7 +/- 2 (Hatano, 1982; Stigler et al., 1982)].

The second point is well documented in a number of contexts of study. For example:

1. Discourse-type studies: `ideologies' and what has been termed `power' clearly influence our habitual lines of thought; and rhetoric influences the effects and affects we can accomplish with a particular stock of words.

2. Cross-cultural psychology is providing compelling evidence that human abilities are not solely the properties of individuals, but are embedded within socio-cultural practices, and that those practices are integral to the construction and maintenance of the abilities found. For example, the classic study of literacy by Scribner and Cole (1981) clearly showed how the all-transforming and liberating effects claimed for being literate do not follow from literacy by magic, but incrementally in relation to the social practices they are used in support or conduct of (see Lock and Symes, in press, for a full review).

3. There is evidence from comparative psychology that animals lacking human brains can make a degree of progress in the communicative use of symbols: individuals of all the species of the Great Apes, some dolphins and a few parrots demonstrate this claim (see Ristau, in press, for details). The point that is seldom drawn from this work is that it establishes a prime facie case for the constructive powers of human social practices: that is, when even an animal is included within those processes they can accomplish psychological alchemy.

How are these lines of evidence to be brought to bear on human evolutionary issues?

The general line I am going to follow from here is that the structure of relations between people and the properties of the discourses and practices they engaged in constituted the conditions that enabled their discovery of the unintended properties of the systems of symbols, social relations and discourse practices their modes of life constituted. These `discoveries' then constitute the phenomena that have been subsumed under the term: the `evolution' of human abilities.

Human Evolution

I turn now to a brief review (a more detailed overview is available) of the evolutionary history of modern humans. There are two issues on which tangible, material evidence can be brought to bear

1. When did anatomically-modern humans become established?

The earliest dates for anatomically-modern human fossil remains are around 100 000 years bp. (eg., Klasies River Mouth; South Africa: Skhul, Qafzeh, Near East: see both Campbell, in press, and Waddell and Penny, in press, for details). It can be assumed, on anatomical grounds, that these earliest anatomically-modern humans would be able to speak. Whether they did cannot be established directly.

2. When did `typically' modern human activity begin?

Contemporary human activities rely on the social and cultural maintenance of symbolic resources. The means of maintenance and transmission of symbols are conservative; the symbols themselves are volatile. The physical instantiations of contemporary human symbolic activities show temporal volatility, differential spatial distribution, and spatial relocation.

Temporal volatility is not necessarily associated with functional utility. Clothing, for example, is functional, but fashion is volatile for other reasons; hem lines on dresses go up and down for reasons unrelated to the function of wearing a dress, just as accepted male and female garb differs according to custom rather than function.

By differential spatial distribution I mean that the cultural products of human activities that you would find within 5 kilometres of where you are reading this will be of a different constitution to those that would be within 5 kilometres of another person in Tibet, New Guinea or elsewhere. If an inventory were available for your location 5 years ago, then the temporal volatility of those products would again be apparent. At a more micro-level there exist some particulary unique spatial distributions of cultural products; for example, people near you wear different, clothes, jewellery, etc..

Spatial relocation would be demonstrable in the same way: the natural availability of the constituent products of cultural materials within 5 kilometres of this point is vastly different from the proportions in which they culturally occur and have been assembled. The resources available to us move over large distances; even the food on your plate can be a geography lesson.

Taking these properties as criteria for characterising modern human cultural practices, we can ask when, in the archaeological record, is there evidence that humans acted in characteristically modern ways? That is, when did the material artifacts associated with humans show patterns of temporal volatility, differential spatial distribution, and spatial relocation?

The evidence is negative before 40 000 years bp. Prior to 40 000bp there is abundant evidence of cultural activities, in the form of artifacts, being a characteristic of human life, way back to non-modern Homo species c.2 000 000 bp, but very little unequivocal evidence, if any, of symbolic mediation, as indexed by the above characteristics. Early anatomically-modern human remains are associated with industries of greater antiquity and non-modern characteristics, leading Stringer (1989; 7) to conclude that

if the postulated dispersal of anatomically modern humans from Africa was associated with new forms of cultural or behavioural expression, this was not reflected in any simple or direct way in the character of the associated lithic industries.

The evidence is conclusively positive after 20 000bp (a point in time often referred to as the `symbolic explosion'); the evidence of the intervening 20 000 years is less clear cut, but strongly supportive of human life being a symbolically-mediated activity, even if the spatial and temporal distribution of cultural artifacts were not fully modern in their characteristics. Note, then, that there is a temporal gap of at least 60 000 years between the appearance of anatomically-modern humans, and their giving evidence of acting in characteristically modern ways (see Conkey, in press; White, in press; Wynn, in press).

3. When did humans use `language'?

The difficulties in answering this question are (1) how to use the actual record as a source of evidence for spoken or other forms of symbolic communication, and then (2) to decide whether the communication system inferred would be recognisable as a modern human language. It is these two questions, and the evidence that can be brought to bear on them, that provide the opportunity for discourse practices to be hypothesised as central to the establishment of modern human activities and abilities.

There are some `triangulation' points:

1. We may hypothesise that all the anatomical foundations for speaking were present 100 000 years ago: that the earliest examples of anatomically-modern humans really were anatomically modern in the soft-tissue neurological and other structures supported by the hard tissue (bone) for which there are remains.

2. The earliest incontrovertible evidence that humans could speak is not much more than 100 years old (e.g., Edison's recordings). However, prior to that, speech is referred to in written records dating back to 3 500 years bp. On the assumption that writing is a derivation of earlier notational systems, then a continuous convincing narrative history of contemporary written symbols can be traced back to c.9 000bp. These notations do not code speech, but very few theorists have argued that language began by writing, and only later became vocal: we may assume speaking was done. `Written' symbolism has an earliest date of c.18 000bp. The practice of inscribing artifacts goes back earlier, and personal ornamentation is evidenced around 35 000 years bp, as is representational art. These dates are for European and Near-Eastern remains. Material from African, East Asian and Australasian sites is less well documented but does not radically alter these dates (see, for example, Barton and Hamilton, in press; Conkey, in press; White, in press).

3. We may assume, extrapolating from the notational record, that a symbolic, spoken communication system was actually used by 10 000 years bp. It is also likely that by this time such systems showed characteristics that modern languages have, such as a phonemic sound system. [The evidence being that now-extinct Tasmanian languages showed modern features, while the speakers of these languages had been isolated from other human contact since Tasmania became separated from the Australian continent c14 000-12 000 years bp by changes in sea level: it would seem unlikely that the modern structural characteristics of Tasmanian languages were an independent re-invention of Tasmanian peoples, but an inheritance from before their isolation. However, this does not mean that `languages' were fully modern at this time (see Foster, in press; Rolfe, in press).]

The question, then, was what was going on in between these two dates? As might be expected, opinion on this question varies across the entire temporal spectrum. Lieberman (1991: 172), for example, is confident that

we can date language as we know it back to at least ... 100 000 years ago at the edge of Africa and Asia.

Others (for example; Jaynes, 1976; Foster, in press) have argued for the more recent extreme, around the beginning of the Neolithic period some 10 000bp. A variety of factors are invoked in the arguments used.

However, practically all arguments put forward invoke an appeal to a rather unspecified `selective advantage conveyed by the increased efficiency' of spoken, grammatical, or other structural features for the `communication of information'. Most come back to individual characteristics of `intelligence', `cognitive abilities' and `biologically-based preadaptions' that are transferred from one modality or domain to another. And there appear to be modules within modules where language is concerned; this is the intellectual achievement of contemporary cognitive neuroscience. But, it would be naive to assert that these modules have a pre-ordained anatomical existence: that prior to being used in support of modern speaking and living great chunks of the human brain were sitting around vacant, just waiting for the systems to operate on.

A different, but none-the-less very successful, tactical response to the problem has been to deny the validity of the question. Thus, following the Chomskyean paradigm in linguistics, the `principles and parameters' constitutive of the hypothesised Universal Grammar that accounts for the organizational properties of contemporary human languages are so interdependent that they must be innately given as an entire package - `some distinguishable faculty ... one `module' of the mind' (Chomsky, 1986: 12). These principles cannot be acquired piecemeal, as could have been the case for earlier transformational grammars where learning or development could be accounted for as just `one damn rule after another': they must all be present to begin with (see Johnson, Davis and Macken, in press, for a fuller account).

In the end, however, both these tactics are unsatisfactory. Whatever the `biological' starting point, language systems, and the discursive practices that they both constitute and are sustained by, have to be constructed. A more satisfactory answer may be begun by marshalling the points made in this paper thus far.

Pulling the Threads Together

First, recall findings in the field of comparative psychology. We turn out to share a remarkable number of basic cognitive processes with other species, particularly apes (see Lock and Colombo, in press). Despite these similarities, however, we are the only species that uses language habitually, sings and dances, does maths, plays chess, etc.. Attempts to get other animals, particularly both species of chimpanzee, to do these things indicates, in my view, little about the nature of these animals as animals, but a great deal about the power of our modern, discourse-based and scaffolded, speaking practices. In `domestication', chimps, while remaining chimps, appear capable of most things a human 3 year old is capable of. In `the wild', they give little evidence of these potential abilities.

Second, consider the findings from the human archaeological record. There is the transition point about 40,000 B.P. noted above (referred to as the `Mid/Upper Palaeolithic Transition'). Prior to that time, there is nothing in the archaeological record that is comparable to typically modern human practices: no art; no spatial or temporal volatility of style in the tool-kit record; conservative foraging patterns apparently based more on scavenging than hunter-gathering; little geographical movement of tool materials (where after the transition tools, if still made of stone, rather than `new' materials such as ivory or bone, a stone tool might be found 900 or more kilometres from the nearest known natural occurrence of such stone); etc.. After the transition, the archaeological record contains evidence of typically modern human practices.

Third, the Mid/Upper Palaeolithic Transition boundary does not coincide with the known temporal origins of the modern human morphology (or species). Modern humans existed well before this point in time, but their material remains are indicative of a non-modern way of life. The biological appearance of modern human forms is thus independent of the cultural appearance of modern human behaviours. We also know, as I mentioned earlier, something of the power of modern social practices in reconfiguring the cognitive abilities of modern apes. We see in the current world the analogous reconfiguration, through their transformation and amplification of the cognitive technologies constituted by symbols, of the cognitive abilities of am humans.

Finally, recall the interplay of social relations with language in the constitution of the modern western emotion of embarrassment. Interaction constructs contexts that language can come to symbolise, thereby providing a cognitive technology that bootstraps the increasing discovery of those `things' that are implied by what has already been symbolised (and see Lock, 1980, for a fuller discussion of this approach to the developmental elaboration of a language system).

Now, evolutionary scenario building is a notorious pastime, but I suggest that something concerned with the social practices of morphologically modern humans changed at the 40 000bp Mid/Upper Palaeolithic transition point, and that these changes provided the ground for the sustained elaboration of pre-modern language communication systems towards modern ones. Second, I suggest that as these language systems became a regular feature of everyday human life, they provided a culturally-conserved environmental feature that influenced the ontogenetic elaboration of cognitive systems, such that those features we tend to regard as biological - natural science province - parts of `human nature' are, in fact, originally constituted, and subsequently maintained, by what we today label as `discourse' processes. (This hypothesis seems more parsimonious to me than the alternative, that around the time of this transition there occurred a shift in the cognitive architecture of humans from a collection of domain-specific, encapsulated and modular intelligences to a generalised, pan-domain form of intelligence (or even vice versa), for there is no evidence of any biological change in the human lineage at this time that would likely accompany such a profound change in basic functioning.)

Working through the implications of these hypotheses to arrive at testable formulations of them will take time. But accepting them for a moment, two points then follow. First, the study of human discourse practices is moved from the fringe of psychological science to its centre, for the processes fundamental to the project of the cognitive revolution are no longer encapsulated within the head of an individual, but distributed in the symbolically-mediated practices that comprise human cultures; distributed between the individual and the social (see also Bruner, 1990).

Second, these hypotheses credit discourse with tremendous powers: discourse practices are being credited with a central role in the creation of the psychological abilities that underpin discursive practices themselves. `Cognitive mechanisms', if they exist, are constructed out of an interaction between developmental, maturational and socio-cultural processes, a constructive process in which the driving engine is a consequence of the changing structure of discourse and social relation. That is, it is no longer sensible to assume a biologically-given individual with a set of pre- given cognitive abilities that allow information `to be moved about and processed', nor to use this assumption to legitimate the currently dominant psychological paradigms.


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