Capturing Imagination: A Cognitive Approach to Cultural Complexity

Article excerpt

From a logical point of view, a theory can be either powerful (accounting for a limited number of features valid for a great number of cases) or expressive (accounting for a great number of features belonging to a limited number of cases). In other words, theories can be extensionally or intensionally orientated. Any case-centred inquiry (for instance, a clinical study) is in some measure intensional, while any comparative or statistical analysis tends to be extensional. With few exceptions, attempts to produce generalizing theories of human cognition have thus far been carried out primarily in extensional terms. Researchers have been looking for ever more ethnographic cases which may confirm the assumptions of the theory, and make it more powerful. It is generally admitted, in this perspective, that, in order to use an ethnographic case in this framework, a reduction of the ethnographic complexity is necessary.

The objection of many anthropologists to this approach is that complexity is precisely what characterizes ethnography. Those holding this view regard any attempt to reduce this complexity as something that must fundamentally alter the object of the analysis, creating such a reductionist outcome as to rule out the possibility of either confirmation or negation of the point at issue. In this article, I wish to show that a different cognitive perspective, developed in intensional terms, can enrich our ways of dealing with ethnographic complexity and help us to rethink a number of traditional anthropological concepts. In order to do so, I will discuss the example of a messianistic religious movement that came into being among the Western Apache of San Carlos and White Mountain Reservations around the year 1916.

Before I move on to the analysis of this case, let me state briefly the general hypotheses I have been developing in my recent work (Boyer & Severi 1997-9; Severi 2002) on the role of memory and pragmatics in cultural transmission.

On salience, counterintuitivity and tradition

Dan Sperber and Pascal Boyer have assumed that the success of an idea or a representation in a culture is essentially a consequence of its counterintuitivity (Boyer 1994; Sperber 1985; 1996). In their view, counterintuitivity--which Boyer has defined as the transgression of a number of ontological features rooted in human cognition--is what gives a representation its psychological salience. More precisely, Boyer has argued that the cognitive optimum resulting from a certain combination of counterintuitive and intuitive assumptions generates a specific kind of cultural salience. This type of salience, in turn, is supposed to account for the persistency in time and/or for the rapid propagation in a community of a given representation. There is no doubt that this new approach has given a strong impulse to research in this field, and it has also generated a new understanding of the relationship between cognition and culture. From the logical point of view, however, this approach is a paradigmatic case of a powerful theory that significantly lacks logical expressiveness. In many situations, to achieve a successful representation one needs more than simple salience (even when it appears, as Boyer has remarked, against a background of intuitive representations).

Actually, counterintuitive mental representations can be very fragile. Since the time of Freud (1991 [1899]), it has been widely recognized that the experience of dreaming is full of counterintuitive representations that do not last. While individual dreams can constitute the psychological basis of culturally successful narratives (see, for instance, Fausto 2002 or Stephen 1982), dreams are usually rapidly forgotten. Their content is consequently very difficult to propagate in a community. Conversely, culturally successful notions can be fully intuitive, in both religious and non-religious contexts. In fact, such notions can be neither intuitive nor counterintuitive, but simply meaningless. …