Category Archives: Anthropology and Philosophy

Anthropology and Philosophy III

Logic, Reason, and Emotion in Biocultural Perspective

Frontispiece from the massive 18th Century Enlightenment compendium Encyclopedie, chiefly edited by Diderot. Astoundingly, this depiction--so richly suggestive of movement and sensual human contact--shows a crowned male figure representing "Reason" pulling a thin veil off the naked female figure representing "Truth." It is difficult to avoid considering this print as an ideological depiction, claiming to reveal what had been the hidden--but true--cosmological order, in which deliberative male Reason asserts the right to decide or rule, by pulling the veil off of sacred female Truth, sensual yet passive, satisfied to playfully toy with nature and the technical instruments for its inspection (science) and representation (art). Although this may have been intended as sly satire, one thing is for sure: reason and truth are ideas that evoke intense emotions, and thus, they are logically metonymically linked to desire. The Enlightenment was--and to an extent, still is--at least as much about (male) desire as it was about rationality.

Where do we derive our reasons, rationalizations, and explanations from? How do we discover, define, and decide to adopt new concepts? Logical reasoning is part and parcel of our actions and thoughts, in everyday practice, throughout our lives. The problem with human logic is that the very symbolic systems we use to represent our logical arguments inevitably allow us to represent absurd or contradictory arguments, too. Even from the beginning, in learning to use a logical system of representation, we have to get over the fact we’re also learning arbitrary choices of symbols that are set by convention, to refer to certain concepts. So we all too easily forget that when we were young, there was a time–as late as six or seven for many of us (and we still turned out ok)–that “2 + 2 = 4” was gobbledigook nonsense. Logic can lead us into confusion, even before our more complex thoughts really get going.

When we think about logic, we tend to focus on how one can rationally draw conclusions from premises. So we make deductive arguments. In our minds. Orally. Through various literate media: writing, print, electronic. We do so in order to explain our environment, justify courses of action, establish reassurances that the world has some predictable order in it. We tell ourselves and others that certain conditions have necessary implications that we need to expect and be prepared for.

We use inductive logic, too. Perhaps even more often. We have an experience, make an observation about how two phenomena relate … or perhaps how something has changed over time, and we generalize our understanding of why the change occurred. Why phenomenon A implied phenomenon B. We build the relationship between A and B into a general concept.

Hopefully, it’s needless to say that logical thought and communication can aid effective behavior. We have to navigate intricately interrelated social, material, and ecological environments. Some logic is usually better than none. Other things being equal, an animal that can use logic to organize information and guide its course of action will have greater chances for survival and reproductive success than another population member who is only capable of random, unpredictable irrationality.

From a biocultural perspective, then, logical arguments are not just interesting for philosophers, mathematicians, and computer programmers. The capacity to make logical arguments has long been evolving in nature–in the form of embodied cognitive representations. More to the point, the cognitive capacity for logical decision-making has been shaped by natural selection–in a wide range of animals, at least in many birds and mammals–as an adaptation for learning and effective behavioral decision-making in complex, unpredictable environments.

And natural selection has certainly continued to influence the human capacity for constructing and sharing logical arguments. The evolutionary emergence of socially shared logical representations has unfolded over the roughly seven million years since the hominin lineage evolved a reproductive barrier with the chimpanzee-bonobo lineage. Still, there is an important “but” here. Human beings have a greater capacity to focus attention on and construct logical arguments than any other animal species. But …

Continue reading Anthropology and Philosophy III

Getting Back Into the Swing of Things

"Regular Division of The Plane IV" Illustration by M.C. Escher (1957). The black-and-white tesselated dog motif is built on an iconic representation of a dog. It is iconic in the technical sense of philosopher C.S. Peirce: it is a simplified but quite unambiguous resemblance of a dog. And it looks more like a dog than anything else, although it is clear to the observer that it is not a detailed--let alone realistic--representation. But the overall illustration has a rich, hierarchical indexical structure, built on the patterned mirrored, positive-negative arrangement of the dogs. The dogs, their shadows, their spatial and positive-negative relationships contribute together to an overall sense of patterned, endless movement and interconnection, within and beyond the frame. But the pattern within the frame is finite and simple, built on mirroring, stacking, and sometimes producing a negative (black becomes white and vice versa) for rows of dog icon sequences. This yields a multi-aspect index of symmetry around the horizontal and vertical midlines ... without the overall representation being symmetrical around axis. Here, a logical pattern confuses us, and in doing so, elicits emotionally laden response.

I’ve taken an entirely unintended break since the end of October from blogging. A combination getting serially infected my younger child’s viruses and bacterial infections and simultaneously getting obsessed with a demographic project that I’ll be blogging about in the Spring.

Also, it’s probably no surprise that devoting a series of coherent blog posts to the theme “Anthropology and Philosophy” is the kind of thing that one does rashly, emotionally. And once you’ve committed, you just have to figure it out.

So I’ve taken my time to try to get things they way I would like them. I hope that the next three posts will be worth the time.

Today, I’m posting Anthropology and Philosophy III, which addresses the limits of logic in human systems of symbolic representation. This leads us to the role of emotion in dealing with symbolic representations.

The post after that (IV in the series) will address Alfred Gell’s (1999) brilliant work on art from an anthropological perspective. More than anything else, Gell’s approach provides a major necessary (albeit insufficient) piece of a coherent biocultural theory of human evolution and identity.

The final post will address the emotional dimensions of agency, which constantly involves taking action and making irrational or non-rational choices in the face of symbolic and social dilemmas. This view helps us to understand how emotional systems may have co-evolved with the capacity for linguistic communication, causing the emergence of more prosocial behaviors in the hominin lineage over time. This view further helps us to understand how it is all too easy for humans to be emotionally swayed by irrational ritualized and mythologized narratives of socially excluding or committing violence against individuals representing identities symbolically framed as dangerous to the social order.

I’m happy to be back to blogging about our biocultural evolution and identity. And I hope to hear from you about your thoughts about these themes.


Gell, A. (1999). The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams. Berg Publishers.

Anthropology and Philosophy II


The School of Athens (fresco by Raphael, 1510-11). Public domain image from

Anyone who’s taken time to ponder why–why are states of affairs the way they are, why did they come to be, why do we wonder about what they will become?–realizes that this is hardly a simple problem.

With characteristic clarity, Aristotle acknowledged that causality is complicated, but he asserted that it is straightforward. In Posterior Analytics (Book II, Chapter XI in Bouchier’s English translation; Aristotle 2008) he classifies causes into four categories:

To know a thing is to know its cause; and the Causes, each of which may be used as a middle term in demonstration, are (1) The substantial or Formal cause; (2) The necessary conditions of a thing, or Material cause; (3) That which gave the first impulse to a thing, or Efficient cause; (4) That for the sake of which a thing is done, or Final cause.

This is one of Aristotle’s best-known passages. It characterizes what causes a thing to be in or part of a particular state of affairs. But what does Aristotle mean by the “middle term in demonstration”? Continue reading Anthropology and Philosophy II

Anthropology and Philosophy I


In the coming couple of weeks, I will be presenting a series of posts on the fundamental, yet very complicated, relationship between Anthropology and Philosophy. The relationship between these two disciplines–one with quite a young intellectual and political history and the other quite ancient–is important. It’s important in part because Anthropology has good reason to depend on Philosophy. It is Philosophy that has established key premises about knowing ourselves and the world. And especially in cultural anthropology and anthropological archaeology, we grapple with major themes of 19th and 20th century philosophical inquiry: meaning, the nature of power and agency in society, and the materiality of being. At the same time, Anthropology’s influence on Philosophy has been fitful but occasionally significant. This is especially the case where the ethnographic documentation of cultural and linguistic diversity has informed arguments about symbolic communication, ethical judgment, and behaviors as embodied practices. The interdisciplinary relationship is complex and sometimes difficult, though. Anthropological observation and analysis has historically needed philosophy more than the other way around. And as the later 20th Century was a period of academic disciplinary specialization–often cascading into fragmentation–much research and writing in these respective disciplines tackled virtually the same phenomena, labeling them with different terms. In short, the later 20th Century intellectual fragmentation that has occurred within Anthropology has also made tenuous and haphazard those connections between Anthropology and Philosophy. And with a deep interest and abiding hope for a “biocultural synthesis” within Anthropology–a consensus-seeking point of departure that views ethnological approaches to symbolic structures, practice, and power as complementary with multi-scalar models of change in biological systems–I suggest that we could benefit from an honest and careful consideration of what each discipline has–and continues–to offer the other. Such a consideration can illuminate new, more effective and relevant ways of inquiring and understanding ourselves and the world.

The next post will deal with general problems and approaches to causality: why do things exist, happen, change … why do we care … and assuming there’s a compelling case for caring about “why questions,” how do we go about defining and answering interesting ones? This post is important, in part because it draws Classical philosophical concepts and arguments from the beginning. How should we consider Aristotle’s discussions of cause, form, chance, necessity, and system? I will compare Aristotle’s quite static or equilibrium paradigm for why things and events are and occur with the more dynamic, fluid view of modern systems approaches, informed as they are not only by mathematics, but also by interdisciplinary inquiry, from biology to economics and physics. This approach underscores key modern scientific insights into complex systems that often show unpredictable, often stochastically behaving patterns over time. In turn, the dynamic systems conceptual foundation allows us to look very critically at approaches to causality in biological anthropology as well as cultural anthropology and archaeology. The non-nested hierarchical dynamic system constitutes a profoundly powerful conceptual tool for analysis, comparison, and explanation of what seem to be incommensurate observational frameworks and phenomena that have hindered biocultural synthesis in Anthropology for decades.

Please do not hesitate to e-mail me with thoughts or questions about this broad but important topic.

Excursions from the Everyday

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

Ritual is not the only domain of social practice that is defined by its symbolic markedness in connection to unmarked, everyday routine. Indeed, mundane patterns of social interaction, socially influenced routine behaviors, and daily intentional strategic social actions and decisions may be considered the equilibrium zone of human activity. This equilibrium zone is continuously, dynamically set and reset through symbolically structured and structuring practices that may occur across multiple social, geographic, and temporal scales. The equilibrium “routine” zone is symbolically set and reset, sometimes even over short time scales and through small social networks (or subnetworks). The symbolic boundaries of the unmarked routine at the present time would be set for the network participants by earlier structured, intentional excursions from the socially interconnected, everyday routines. The earlier instances of “excursive practices” would consist of intentional departures from the routine that produced an awareness–for individuals or through social interaction networks–that the excursion had evoked a sense of boundary between routine and the non-routine. It should be clear that ritualization is a social process that symbolically sets or resets the boundaries of routine. But play–including genuine free, creative childhood play, highly structured competitve games, improvisational performance following loosely structured rules, and even arguably musical performance and much artistic production–constitutes a complex domain of social practice that structures our awareness and the symbolic setting of homeostatic normative routine zones.

Ritual, myth, play, and associated material environments and artifacts dynamically shape paths for intentional departures from everyday routine--the mundane and profane. Interaction among ritual, myth, play, and the material environment further define the sacred as the ultimate departure from the everyday. Return to the profane will tend to be accompanied by a sense of renewal, cleansing, or perhaps social change and agency.
Ritual, myth, play, and associated material environments and artifacts dynamically shape paths for intentional departures from everyday routine–the mundane and profane. Interaction among ritual, myth, play, and the material environment further define the sacred as the ultimate departure from the everyday. Return to the profane will tend to be accompanied by a sense of renewal, cleansing, or perhaps social change and agency.

Emma Nilsson’s (2010) thought-provoking doctoral dissertation in architecture explores how play can thoroughly structure not only a sense of the normal or routine, but also a sense of social identity in contrast to the normal. As she argues, this is the case when ubigaming transforms–and its participants then are transformed by–the “city as a field of play.” Nilsson points out that “[p]lay has a double-relationship to rules. On the one hand, freedom to choose is a condition for the game to occur and continue; as soon as conditions are placed on it, it is no longer a game. On the other hand, the game is dependent on rule-making: the game must be irrational but not occur in the absence of logic” (2010:36; my translation). Play first and foremost makes us aware of the excursion from routine by confronting us with the continuous challenge of its ambiguity: it may be markedly orderly and disorderly, predictable and unpredictable, unsurprising and thoroughly surprising at the same time. If we want to play, we have to fully embrace this ambiguity.

Continue reading Excursions from the Everyday