The Cognitive Life of Things


Below, Lambros Malafouris answers the second of our three questions.

In recent decades cross-disciplinary work has flourished in many research areas. One scientific field which I believe provides immense opportunities for productive and innovative research is that of the mind and brain sciences. Important changes brought about by the new technological breakthroughs in neuroscience have revolutionized our understanding of the human brain and opened up new avenues for fruitful cooperation with philosophy, anthropology, and archaeology of mind. Old problems can now be seen under new light, and new frameworks of thinking about human embodiment, social cognition, innovative material engagement, and cultural plasticity are beginning to challenge our conventional understanding of human intelligence and its evolution. I believe there is great potential for integration between disciplines in this context. In particular, one specific area that I see as ripe for cross-disciplinary research is that concerned with the interaction between cognition and material culture. Innovative material engagement has been widely recognized as the distinctive feature of our species. The important role of material culture in shaping the way people think and interact with their surrounding environment is now widely recognized by many disciplines, and yet the cognitive life of things remain little understood as an aspect of human intelligence, creativity, and culture. It is becoming of paramount importance to come about with new cross-disciplinary synergies, capable of transforming our understanding of the relation and co-evolution of brains, bodies and things. For instance, how do things shape the mind? What are the long-term implications and causal efficacy of technology, innovation, and material culture in the functional architecture of the human brain and the evolution of human intelligence? I believe that an approach to the above research questions that could bridge perspectives and methods from archaeology, philosophy, anthropology, and neuroscience has much to offer. The objective should be towards a new form of philosophical anthropology capable of investigating key problems in contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive sciences against their broader cultural, historical, and evolutionary foundation.

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An abstract of Turning mind inside out

Mind. That what's left of soul after the philosophers got through with it. Body and mind are opposite sides of the same counterfeit $100 bill.

'Mind' is the last immaterial bolt hole for 'soul'. 'Body' is a misleading abstraction. 'Human being' is a misleading abstraction. Zombies are animated human bodies. Neuroscience deals only with zombies. Persons are not zombies.

A society consists of persons living in nature, sharing a common web of interactions mediated by artifacts, called its culture. Outside of culture there are no persons. Inside of nature there are no machines, no plans, no purposes, no aims. Nature is seamless. Nature knows nothing. Nature is silent.

Culture blabs incessantly. Whatever can be explained by language, including my experience of so-called "private" perceptions, belongs solely to culture, not to nature. Language is our abstract, interactive, collective consciousness. Mind is turned inside out. Conscious âmind' disappears into language, from which each person may draw and to which each person may contribute.

Thus, the refinement of our empirical knowledge takes place in exactly the same abstract space as âthe refinement of our sensibilitiesâ (Samuel Johnson). Our capacity to create fruitful analogies and metaphors can extend both our scientific knowledge and our artistic sensibilities. Or, as Goethe might say to us, âYou see I told you â Dichtung UND Wahrheit!â

'Body' is merely an abstraction from 'person.' Specifically, part of a failed attempt by ancient peoples to account for the difference between a "living" person and a "dead" human body.

One of hellenistic xianity's darkest gifts is its model of the so-called individual soul. Western philosophy gets led into the labyrinth having been theology's fearful ancilla. Basically, we must jettison xianity's model of the 'soul' (philosophyâs âmindâ) of each individual, cut off, alone under the pitiless gaze of the eternal judge. But, we are not alone neither are we opaque to one another. Learning to become a person, to become acculturated as children, guarantees that.

The irreducible locus of investigation must be culture -- a vital, shared, abstract reality which only we humans are able to create and inhabit. Explanations drawn from neuroscience, genetics, and evolutionary biology cannot be expected to provide a full account of culture. They were not designed to do so. They will not do so.

Persons, language, and culture arose simultaneously. In that sense culture is irreducible; it is the neglected quotidian almost âinvisibleâ given. Science itself is derivative, a cultural artifact. A very peculiar one. But that is another matter.

By anti_supernaturalist (not verified) on 27 Sep 2009 #permalink

Your blog posts are thoughtful; I'm glad to have found them; they are an example of technology redirecting peoples thinking and mind. Mind is a nice term as is consciousness, intelligence and refrigerator; but let's not get sidetracked on some philosophical issue. "how do things shape the mind? What are the long-term implications and causal efficacy of technology, innovation," Well, the internet shapes my mind and is a tool of my intelligence. Anything that I want to understand from yoga to sex life of porcupines I can search googele, wiki , utube, blogs and a great many other online resources. Clearly tools allow me to shape (e.g. educate my mind and body (yoga reference)).
I don't know what is meant by "The objective should be towards a new form of philosophical anthropology;" except that clearly an anthropology of the internet age is different than an anthropology of the stone age.