Culture in Mind: Toward a Sociology of Culture and Cognition

By Karen A. Cerulo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1

Establishing a Sociology of Culture and Cognition

Karen A. Cerulo

What is thought…and how does one come to study and understand it?

Plato was among the first to grapple with the issue. “Thinking,” he argued,“is the talking of the soul with itself.” 1 With such ideas the philosopher established what, for centuries, proved the reigning image of thought—one that stressed the private, the contemplative, the solitary nature of human cognition. In thinking, it was argued, human beings sustain their secrets and bring their fantasies to life. Planning, analysis, self-reflection, and reasoning all begin in the seclusion of the mind. In Plato’s imagery—indeed, in the images forwarded by so many artists and humanists that followed him—thinking embodied one of the most personal activities in which human beings engage. 2

The “personalized model” of human cognition dominated public discourse for centuries. Medieval and Renaissance theologians, Romantic visionaries, psychoanalysts, and modern behaviorists all placed the intersection of personal experience and private reflection at the heart of human thought. The late twentieth century, however, brought the first sustained challenge to such visions of the mind. In the 1950s, cognitive science 3 burst onto the intellectual scene. The field grew rapidly, and as it did, the discipline triggered a revolution in definitions of thinking. 4

With the advent of cognitive science, concerns with “the mind” gave way to the study of “the brain.” Activities such as “thought” and “reflection” were reconceptualized as “information processing.” “Individualistic” elements of thinking became secondary to “universal” cognitive mechanisms. With the dawn of cognitive science, the human mind ceased to be viewed as an amorphous component of the self. Rather, the mind emerged as a mechanical device—one unique to a species. It became

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