Working knowledge



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WORKING KNOWLEDGE:

HOW HUMAN COGNITION GROWS INTO CULTURE


E. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside
“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:32
“Truth shal thee deliver, it is no drede” Chaucer

Table of Contents

Preface

Chapter 1. Introduction

PART 1

Chapter 2. Darwinian Humans



PART 2

Chapter 3. Individual Cognition in Interpersonal Context

Chapter 4. How We Don’t Know: Cognition Confounded

Chapter 5. The Failure of Rational Choice Theories

PART 3

Chapter 6. Culture



Chapter 7. What Culture Isn’t: A Middle Ground

Chapter 8. How Culture Happens

Chapter 9. Culturally Constructed Knowledge of the Environment

Chapter 10. Some Theories of Complex Cultural Knowledge

Chapter 11. Conclusion as Application

References

Preface
“One might recall…an anecdote of Darius. When he was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians, of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them [as the Greeks did]. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing. One can see by this what custom can do, and Pindar, in my opinion, was right when he called it ‘king of all.’” (Herodotus 1954, orig. ca. 400 BCE)
So far as we know, Herodotus was the first person to realize that cultures were radically different, and to advocate—implicitly—cultural relativism: the idea that each culture’s knowledge and belief must be understood in its own terms, and that if we want to judge other cultures we must understand them first, and evaluate them in their own terms. This lesson has not yet been learned. Worldwide, most people are still with the Greeks and Callatiae, evaluating others as “bad” solely because they are different.

This book is an enquiry into how individual knowledge grows up into culture. “Culture” is learned behavior that is shared in relatively large groups. It is shared through communication by language, gesture, and other means, either symbolic (like language) or direct (like imitating another’s work motions). It is hard enough to understand how individuals learn and know, but more difficult to see how they can share it widely. Some utterly trivial things, like texting abbreviations (“LOL”…) and emoticons (like the use of colons and parenthesis to make a smiley face), have swept the world in recent years, while desperately important knowledge, like the need for folic acid in nutrition, languishes in comparative obscurity. At the very least, we need to understand what is happening.

This book is written partly to critique three particularly widespread and incorrect views of knowledge and culture. First is the idea of the rational individual. In fact people are neither individuals nor rational; they learn almost all their knowledge from other people, and for emotional and social reasons. Second is the idea that individuals within “a culture” are homogeneous and can be thought of as one blob. Third is the idea that “cultures” are wholly separate, such that persons from different cultures or even subcultures live in completely different worlds that are mutually closed and inaccessible. In fact, cultures cross-cut, mix, blend, and overlap, and in any case are all probably derived from a very local and simple ancestral pool not many tens of millennia ago. People communicate with striking ease across cultural barriers.

The viewpoint herein is based largely on experimental psychology and cognitive anthropology. I begin the present book from scratch, with the evolution of the human capacity for knowing. I spend the first half of the book on psychology, before getting to culture. I leave out areas well covered elsewhere, such as sensory environments (Abram 1996), learning and education (Louv 2005), general cognition, and neurophysiology.

Anthropologists are notorious for deconstructing generalizations. The first response of an anthropologist to any general statement is “My people do it differently” (the so-called “anthropological veto”). The second is “It’s all more complicated than that.” These become reflexes after a while. Sociologists and psychologists, whose careers are often made from trying to find general rules of human behavior, grit their teeth.

I can play the anthro-veto game with the best of them, but in this book I am trying to find generalizations about human knowledge. I am thus exposing myself to vetoes, and I am sure I will often deserve it. I apologize to experts in fields I have inadequately treated. But we need to know about knowledge and error, because so much dangerous error is out there, from racism to global-warming denial. I will, then, go where angels fear to tread.


The list of acknowledgements for this book should cover everyone I have talked to. In fact, it should even include the dogs at my feet and the crows at my window, who serve as my models of nonhuman mentation and sociability. Suffice it to mention the people most critically involved in the actual enterprise of writing: First, as always, my wife Barbara Anderson; then my colleagues, especially Alan Fix, David Kronenfeld, and John Christian Laursen, with whom I have hashed out these ideas over many decades. Finally, though, this book really owes its existence and survival to many truly exceptional students and former students, including (most recently) Seth Abrutyn, Julie Brugger, Kimberly Hedrick, Sandy Lynch, Aniee Sarkissian, and Katherine Ward. Their interest in these arcane matters motivated the book and kept it going.

I: Introduction


Different Worldviews, Different Worlds
Hilario and his family were devastated. Their dogs had been killed by a jaguar. Yet the dogs had slept peacefully the night before, instead of crying out as they dreamed of their fate. They had not foretold the attack of the jaguar, as they would normally have done. Could they have simply chosen to die? What would the future bring? Would people die unforetold? The family worried and speculated. Hilario’s wife asked: “How can we ever know?”

Hilario and his family are Runa of the Upper Amazon basin, and anthropologist Eduardo Kohn (2007:3) recorded their story. He built it into a brilliant exegesis on knowledge—how the intense relationship of the Runa with animals is fraught with signs and symbols, layers of significance that make it not only plausible but inevitable for them to believe that dogs dream the future.

When I was an undergraduate student, I was taught that continents had been stable on the earth’s crust for all time. There were, to be sure, some wild-eyed geologists in the Old World who thought continents floated around like rafts! The professor paused for laughter, which duly followed.

During my graduate career, the evidence for continental drift became overwhelming, and even the strongest holdouts had to give in. New evidence from sea-floor magnetism and other data was decisive, but everyone had to admit that Alfred Wegener and his followers had had enough evidence, long before my undergrad days, to make a credible case—certainly not a laughingstock. I treasure a battered old copy of Arthur Holmes’ Principles of Physical Geology (2nd edn., 1965), which I read and re-read in my youth. Holmes was probably the greatest geologist in Wegener’s camp, and should surely have convinced any reasonable person. His book—revised just after the victory of the “drifters”—includes a tiny, gentle line celebrating the victory of his lifelong fight.

Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science, later studied the whole “continental drift” question. Why did an idea that was quite old, and in some quarters well-established, seem so truly revolutionary when it burst belatedly on the American scene (Oreskes 1999, 2001)?

So American geologists—top-flight scientists, impeccably trained in rational, objective methods—were as constrained by their cultural belief in stable continents as Hilario by his cultural belief in future-dreaming dogs.

Dreams, delusions, and scientific mistakes are the stuff of humanity. We deceive ourselves and we let ourselves be deceived. We believe in the all-perfecting Invisible Hand of the market; the inevitability of something called “globalization” which nobody can define; and the messianic perfection of this or that political candidate. Witchcraft, astrology, and reincarnation are still very widely believed, and I have talked to dozens of people who had directly and personally experienced what they thought was confirming evidence for these beliefs. Conversely, global warming, evolution, and other facts of life are subject to widespread skepticism.
Why do you believe anything?

You may believe it because it’s true. Most dogs bark. Water is wet. Things fall down, not up. Behind all such truths are complex and subtle realities, but the bare blunt facts are in our faces.

Yet, clearly, humans not only believe much that is false, but even distort their own experience to “remember” it.

Omar Khayyam (in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation) wished:

“Ah, Love, could you and I with Him conspire

To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,

How would we shatter it to bits, and then

Remould it closer to the heart’s desire!”

As I have pointed out elsewhere, this exactly what we do in our minds (Anderson 1996). The very concept of “fact”—a discrete, isolated, totally veridical statement, free from emotion and bias—is a social construct. Harold Cook, historian of science, maintains it developed in legal practice—a factum was a “done deed”—in the European middle ages, and was carried over into science in the 16th century (Cook 2007:16). Before that, people knew truths from falsehoods perfectly well, but did not isolate them or take them out of emotional and social contexts so thoroughly. Cook, however, ignores a solid Aristotelian background to the medieval “innovation.”

Most knowledge is social and cultural. You believe it because you have learned it from people you trust—family, friends, media. Some you learned on your own, but social and cultural contexts framed even that. The human animal is born to learn from other human animals. Humans survive, and have survived and multiplied for many millennia, through cultural learning.

Anthropologist Peter Worsley wrote a wonderful book, Knowledges (1997), pointing out that different cultures, and even different occupational or residential groups, have very different repertoires. They not only know different things; they structure knowledge differently and transmit it differently. We know what we know, we know how we know, we know what we should know. Such “meta-knowledge,” as well as everyday working knowledge, differs profoundly between a computer expert, an assembly-line worker, and a fisherman, even if they are in the same town.

Cultural knowledge is an amazing mix of brilliantly discovered pragmatic truths and wildly wrong speculations. Every culture has to incorporate a great deal of accurate, useful information to get along in the world. The tiny, isolated Inuit bands of arctic Canada filled many huge volumes with specialized knowledge (the Reports of the Fifth Thule Expedition), and even those volumes only scratched the surface of their knowledge of winds, seas, seals, bears, whales, seasons, stars, and sicknesses. The same people believed in a vast range of spirits. Modern civilization has expanded science inconceivably far beyond Inuit knowledge, but, unfortunately, has expanded error to match. Astrology columns, conspiracy theories, and urban legends confront us on every newsstand, frequently swamping accurate news.


Knowledges and Knowledge

Naïve empiricism teaches that we have, or can have, direct access to truth about the world. This is most tenable for ordinary direct experience: I am cold, I am petting a dog, I am hungry. The other extreme is total skepticism, like David Hume’s (Hume 1969): There is not even evidence of my own existence; “I” may be merely a set of unrelated sense-impressions. There is no cold or hunger, merely a sensation which may or may not have anything to do with reality.

Immanuel Kant (2007 [1781, 1787]; 1978 [1798]) provided one answer: we can be sure only of our experiences—the hunger and cold, the sensation of petting the dog. Some ancient Greek philosophers, notably the Skeptics, had made the point, but it was left to Kant to develop it and ground it in psychology. Maybe “I” do not exist and there is only a transient detached experience. Maybe the dog is illusory. But the sensations must be real in some sense. They are undeniably there. These he called aesthetic intuitions: aesthetic in the sense of “feeling,” not of “artistic.” I can also be sure that I am elaborating these feelings into concepts—actual thoughts. So there is an “I,” at least to the extent of something that knows it is feeling and sensing. This sounds like Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” but with the key difference that Kant’s prime is not thought but bodily sensation. Descartes’ person could be a disembodied soul (and, basically, was, for that devout if unconventional Christian). Kant’s is a living, breathing body.

I personally cannot refute the total-skeptic position; I have to agree with Hume and Kant that all I can really say is that there is a sensation of cold and a conceptualization of it as “coldness.” (Maybe Hume would not even allow me to know that.) I think there is an “I” that is conceptualizing this, but maybe I came into existence one second ago, complete with illusory memories. Perhaps I will disappear in another second. Perhaps there is nothing in the universe except my sensation of cold.

However, this seems unlikely, because the memories have to come from somewhere. How could they have appeared as a transient isolate in a vacant universe? Kant’s answer to total skepticism was to argue that we define ourselves through interaction with other entities, and cannot have come to have sensations and experiences any other way (Kant 2007:138-141). Thus, there must be other entities. He knew he was on shaky ground philosophically, and the skeptics have gone right on being skeptical. However, he appears to have been right. I could not possibly think up all the crazy stuff I experience, especially if I came into existence only a second ago. I can’t possibly be imagining Kant’s book—it must be a real book by a real person other than myself—because I just don’t have the brains to write anything like this. My wife, my children, my friends keep surprising me; I would never think of the ideas they create. Solipsists certainly have a high opinion of their imagining skills. I will, henceforth, simply follow a tagline floating around the Internet: “Reality is the stuff that refuses to go away when I stop believing in it.”

Even a Buddhist sincere in the belief that “all is illusion” has to admit that some illusions are stable and predictable while others are not. If I go into my garden expecting to find grass, I will never be disappointed. If I go expecting to find a herd of unicorns, I will always be disappointed. Astronomy gradually diverged from astrology, between the 17th and 21st centuries, because astronomy’s predictions got more and more routinely validated and astrology’s more and more routinely proved wrong. A millennium ago, both looked equally reasonable. Naming the stars and plotting their courses was barely scientific, and of course astrophysics was not even a dream. Conversely, nothing seemed more reasonable than the belief that, since the sun and moon had obvious effects on this world (light, heating, tides), the other celestial bodies must have their effects too, especially since their slow progression in times of rising did correlate with the progression of the seasons. It was not until the Renaissance that astronomy became truly scientific (via the work of Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, and their followers), and that astrology began to suffer from serious attempts to verify it. Thus one half of a single science forked off from the other; one went from success to success, the other wound up on the “ash-heap of history.”

Astrology survives today because it gives people the illusion of being able to predict and control their lives; as we shall see, such control is a basic human need. Even the lame, feeble predictions in the daily column would be useful if only they were true. My wife still sometimes consults the daily astrology column, not because she believes it but because there is some satisfaction even in imagining that she could believe it. This morning, it provided her with the stunning information that she would be able to use a coupon today.

However, we must sometimes believe on faith, and must sometimes disbelieve our own senses. I believe there are black holes in space, but I can’t observe them. Conversely, I saw lots of amazing things last night, but woke to find them mere products of my sleeping mind. Most cultures, over time, have taken such dream encounters as real, and people from those cultures would tell me that the things I dreamed must really exist somewhere (Tylor 1871), or, with the Runa, that these things will exist in the future.

So I take it that there is a reality out there, consisting of what Kant called things-in-themselves. It is infinitely complex and always surprising. It does include black holes but does not include unicorns. It includes my waking perceptions but not my dreams, except in the trivial sense that my dreams were physically represented as some kind of brain action.

However, I can never know all that reality, or even much of it. We know from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that we cannot fix both the position and the trajectory of the atoms, let alone the mass and velocity. They won’t hold still. We also know from Kurt Gödel’s famous proof that we can’t deduce everything from a few axioms.

Kant also pointed out that we generalize indefensibly. I have a concept of “dog” that is very accurate and predictive, but I do not know much about dogs’ internal anatomy, and I am not clear about just where dogs end and wolves begin. My concept of “cold” is very clear and sharp, but does not let me say exactly when cold turns to warm, or how the temperature of the room affects my body, or how my body’s sensations affect my brain. Kant showed that even such apparent real-world primes as space and time are not real out there, at least not in the way we experience them. Philosophers and scientists since have had a field day with this insight. Kant partly anticipated and partly inspired modern thinking about time, from Einstein to Hawking.

Time is a properly confusing thing: we must deal with both subjective and objective time. We all know that an hour in the dentist’s waiting room is much longer than an hour at a lively party. Yet, somehow, our internal clocks are ticking right along at the same rate in both places; all animals have built-in circadian clocks that regulate sleep, wakefulness, and so on, and these are gloriously indifferent to subjective time. We also know, rationally, that we have only 24 hours in the day, and cannot change this; hence, as the Chinese say, “an inch of time is worth more than a foot of jade.”

Thinking produces schemata (or schemas, if you prefer): concrete but generalized ideas about the world (Kant 2007:177-178). These would include the general idea of cold, the general idea of hunger, the concept of dog. People mentally connect the dots—the sensations—into lived experiences, and connects the experiences into more general and abstract concepts.

The term schema has passed into general use in the social sciences, with quite a few different meanings assigned to it by various scholars. Also general today is the term representation in Kant’s sense: our internal representations of things as we see and understand them. Social scientists have generalized this term to apply to cultural “representations.” These are really cultural constructions of reality, based on (individual) representations.

Kant argued that we keep interacting with whatever is out there, and refining our concepts accordingly. Kant completed the task, set underway by John Locke (1979 [1697]; cf. Jay 2005:55) and continued by David Hume, of focusing attention not so much on “the real world” as on how humans think about the world. Empiricists like Locke were interested in how we can improve our knowing about the world. Kant saw the problem as one of knowing more about knowing.

Human limitations allow all manner of error to creep in. We have nothing remotely close to the visual abilities of the eagle, the scenting abilities of the hound, the ultraviolet vision of the bee, or the electric-field senses of many fish. Even though we know, intellectually, how Amazonian catfish use weak electric fields to read their environments, we have absolutely no clue to what that feels like. In Kantian terms, we have no phenomenological intuition of it. By missing the rich, complex scent-world my dogs know so well, I suspect I am missing a great deal—as much as they miss through inability to appreciate the music of Beethoven.

Repeated interaction with the world can sometimes take us farther and farther from reality. Kant realized that people can take an idea and run with it in the wrong direction, like the conspiracy theorists who take every news item as proof of their wild theories.

Our causal inferences may be wildly wrong. Almost every traditional group of people in the world believes that earthquakes are caused by giant animals moving around under the earth. This is a perfectly reasonable explanation, and an adequate one for most purposes. The real explanation for most earthquakes is continental drift, but, as we have seen, the idea of continents floating around like rafts seemed so wildly unlikely to the human mind that geologists did not accept it for decades.

Humans naturally make mistakes. We can never be sure of our knowledge. From Francis Bacon and his “idols” through John Locke to David Hume and Adam Smith, scholars had become more and more conscious of information processing biases, but it was left to Kant and his followers to foreground them, and their effects on our understanding of the world. Even the incredibly stodgy Kant was moved to a rare burst of lyricism: our limited “country of truth,” he wrote, is “surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the true home of illusion, where many a fogbank and fast-melting ice-floe tempts us to believe in new lands, while constantly deceiving the adventurous mariner with vain hopes, and involving him in adventures which he can never abandon and yet can never bring to an end” (Kant 2007:251).

Most of the research on this ocean was done by later scholars whom he inspired.


Interaction

Kant also focused attention on interactions with other people and with the nonhuman world, and on how such interactions allow us to construct concepts—including our concepts of our selves. This turned out to be a productive way of looking at society and life (Kant 1978/1798). The point was developed especially by the “Neo-Kantian” school of the late 19th century. Wilhelm Dilthey (1985) based his grand theory of society on this, and his student George Herbert Mead developed the whole field of social psychology from it (Mead 1964). The theologian and moralist Emmanuel Levinas (1969) created a whole ethical philosophy based on this idea.

Another branch of Neo-Kantianism came via Franz Boas and J. W. Powell to dominate American anthropology for many years (Patterson 2001). This branch was concerned with the means of interaction: languages and other communicative media such as the arts. Communication is, obviously, the very heart of interaction. Later concerns with interactive practice include the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1978, 1990) and his many followers. Knowledge is debated and negotiated in social arenas to produce the shared or partially-shared knowledge systems that underlie culture and society. On the other hand, people know things; interactions don’t. So in the end we are back to individuals.

The most famous of Kant’s intellectual followers was Karl Marx, who saw that the powerful always construct ideologies that justify power and privilege. They often dupe the less powerful into believing that, for instance, kings are divine or divinely appointed; that nobles are inherently purer and better than others; that the rich deserve their wealth because they work harder; or simply that the god or gods who rule the world decide to favor some people. Of course, these points had been made long before Marx, but he developed them into a whole theory of social ideologies.

Marx hoped that people’s interaction with reality would allow them to eliminate such “false consciousness” and come to more accurate assessments. Writing from disillusion with the failed radicalism of the 1960s, Michel Foucault offered less hope. He saw most knowledge as “power/knowledge” (Foucault 1977, 1980). He wrote largely about matters in which there was maximal need to know and minimal hope of knowing accurately. In his time, this included mental illness, as well as some other medical conditions. This sort of situation is tailor-made to call up people’s worst mistakes. We will look at Foucault’s ideas in due course.

On the whole, culture is a storehouse of useful knowledge, but these and many other distortions make it unreliable. Received wisdom is not to be received lightly.


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