The Material Process of Being in–and through–the Symbolic Matrix
This post is the next-to-last in my five-part series on Anthropology and Philosophy. Of course, the general theme of how these two disciplines have and may interconnect is rather open-ended. I’ve chosen to focus on particular issues that really strike me as highlighting:
parallel trends between disciplinary specializations and between the disciplines that could productively be drawn together–e.g., insights into the open-endedness and consequent, inevitable logical inconsistencies of both formal and everyday logical representation systems;
issues and insights from anthropological research that can benefit philosophical inquiry–e.g., Rappaport’s (1979) argument that in complex self-regulating systems, the most relevant Aristotelian level of causality is that of formal cause, underscoring the relationships among the system components; and
how the theme of biocultural connections can further contribute to a broader, interdisciplinary understanding of human existence and experience.
This post deals partly with the second theme. This is really a post about how the late British anthropologist Alfred Gell (1998) elegantly clarified and expanded the applicability of philosopher C.S. Peirce’s ideas to understanding human interaction with and agency in the world. Yet, this is more than just a summary of Gell’s own ideas, as they also inspire a more profound biocultural synthesis. Thus, this post also covers the more general–and admittedly ambitious–third theme, which is also the focus of a manuscript that I’m preparing for submission to a special issue of the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology, dealing with “the future of embodied cognition.”
The main point of this post is that human linguistic communication is not only richer in embodied experience than we usually acknowledge, but it is also more thoroughly shaped and constrained by symbols and their indexical interconnections than scientific accounts of human social interaction usually assume.
What to make of our ancestors and distant relatives, separated from us in time and space? Do we emphasize our connections, symbolically tying us to something bigger–and even potentially boundariless, conceptually defying the impossibility of the close contact from which we build our daily relationships with loved ones and friends? Or do we see those only distantly related to us as an unambiguous–and unambiguously negative–counterpoint to our selves and our locations? … As in, “Thank heavens we’re us and not them, here and not there!” Or, “At least we’re not freaks like them.”
Logic, Reason, and Emotion in Biocultural Perspective
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 …
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→
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.