Origins of the Modern Mind
Harvard University Press. 1991
Keywords: Mythic culture - Episodic, mimetic, and mythic culture are all broad, unifying concepts that express the dominant cognitive quality of the individual mind in relation to society. The two previous transitions represented major qualitative breaks with the cognitive past. A third cognitive transition likewise is signaled by a major break with the previous cultural pattern - that is, a break with the dominance of spoken language and narrative styles of thought - Theoretic culture - Three crucial cognitive phenomena appear to have been underdeveloped, or virtually absent, in oral-mythic culture. These phenomena are graphic invention, external memory, and theory construction - The first step in any new area of theory development is always antimythic: things and events must be stripped of their previous mythic significances before they can be subjected to what we call "objective" theoretic analysis. In fact, the meaning of "objectivity" is precisely this: a process of demythologization
Mythic Culture and the Uses of Language
Mythic culture tended rapidly toward the integration of knowledge. The scattered, concrete repertoire of mimetic culture came under the governance of integrative myth. The importance of myth is that it signaled the first attempts at symbolic models of the human universe, and the first attempts at coherent historical reconstruction of the past.
By definition, history, and most narrative, is a reconstructive act; it is an attempt to piece together a large number of episodes so as to give a place and a meaning to the smaller-scale events the myth encompasses. The intellectual gulf between an episodic culture a mythic culture is huge and obvious; but the intellectual leap from mimetic representations to an integrative system of myth, however primitive, was also formidable.
Mythic integration was contingent on symbolic invention and on the deployment of a more efficient symbol-making apparatus. The phonological adaptation, with its articulatory buffer memory, provided this. Once the mechanism was in place for developing and rehearsing narrative commentaries on events, an expansion of semantic and propositional memory was inevitable and would have formed an integral part of the same iterative process of evolutionary change. At the same time, a major role in human attentional control was assumed by the language system. The rehearsal loops of the verbal system allowed rapid access and self-cueing of memory. Language thus provided a much improved means of conscious, volitional manipulation of the mental modeling process.
The social consequences of mythic integration were evident at the cultural level: narratives gave events contextual meaning for individuals. In Paleolithic cultures, and in aboriginal cultures in general, the entire scenario of human life gains its perceived importance from myth; decisions are influenced by myth; and the place of every object, animal, plant, and social custom is set in myth. Myth governs the collective mind. This remains essentially true today, even in modern postindustrial cultures, at least in the realm of social values.
Symbolic invention on a grand scale allowed the inherent structure of episodic events to be articulated. Symbolic devices, particularly the lexicon, enabled and triggered mythic invention, by which events could be mentally restructured, interrelated, and reshaped in the mind's eye. The human mind had come full circle, starting as the concrete, environmentally bound representational apparatus of episodic culture and eventually becoming a device capable of imposing an interpretation of the world from above, that is, from its collective, shared, mythic creations.
FROM MYTHIC TO THEORETIC CULTURE
Episodic, mimetic, and mythic culture are all broad, unifying concepts that express the dominant cognitive quality of the individual mind in relation to society. The two previous transitions represented major qualitative breaks with the cognitive past. A third cognitive transition, which will be developed in this chapter, likewise is signaled by a major break with the previous cultural pattern - that is, a break with the dominance of spoken language and narrative styles of thought.
From the start, I have made the simplifying assumption that each cognitive adaptation in human evolutionary history has been retained as a fully functional vestige. The simplest working hypothesis, by far, is that, when we acquired the apparatus required for mime and speech, in that order, we retained the knowledge structures, and the cultural consequences, of previous adaptations.
A corollary is that evidence of fundamental change would not be found within expansions of existing representational systems; evidence should rather be sought innew systems and new classes of cognitive output.I have also used a structural criterion for establishing previous cognitive transitions: they were accompanied by basic architectural change, meaning that a different superordinate organization was imposed on cognition. Thus, we might be justified in postulating a new were truly new representational systems in the human brain and if there was a new overall architecture to human cognition.
But before attempting that documentation, it might be useful to review, diagrammatically, the changes in the architecture of cognition that occurred during the first two transitions.
At level I, the starting point, representational structure is very simple; the mind had only one way of representing reality - as event perceptions. Therefore, the whole range of complex event representations held by chimpanzees, and by extension australopithecines, is enclosed within a circle, labeled "episodic" (E). The transition from level I (episodic) to level II (mimetic) is also simple to conceive in this way; the entire range of mimetic knowledge, from games and tool making skills to group ritual and standardized gesture, is enclosed within another circle (M).
Mimetic representations are metaphoric, rehearsable self-representations built upon episodic knowledge; therefore, by definition, episodic outputs are available to the mimetic representational process. An arrow indicates this access route. This relationship is asymmetrical: episodic systems cannot model the outputs of the mimetic representational system; hence, the arrow is unidirectional.
Note that the new representations emerge at the top of the system; cognitive structures that formerly served as the "central processor of mind are superseded, and encapsulated, by other structures. This is clearly the case after the first transition; episodic representations could not have been informationally encapsulated in the primate. In apes, episodic event representations are at the cognitive pinnacle; they are supramodal, and it is reasonable to assume that they can access outputs from all sensory modules and thus define the forms of their conscious experience. But, after becoming embedded in a matrix of higher representations at level II, the episodic mind would have be come encapsulated, gradually surrounded by more powerful methods of representing reality, while it continued to produce its traditional outputs. Fodor would have little choice but to place episodic experience in his "central processor" category in apes. But in humans the central processorthat is, the highest, unencapsulated structureseems to have moved elsewhere. The integrative machinery of episodic experience was superseded by higher mimetic structures: sic transit gloria mundi.
Mimetic skill was at the core of the cognitive style of erectus, and it could access all that went before. Therefore, in its time, it must have been unencapsulated; but it too was bypassed and relegated to the cognitive provinces, when the linguistic system emerged at level III, after the second transition.
Although mimetic representations continued to access episodic experience, they could not model linguistic content. Thus, they suffered the same fate as episodic mind and were encircled by a more powerful representational apparatus. Nevertheless, mimesis continues to exist as an independent representational system: for someone lacking language, mimesis remains the highest, or governing, way of representing reality and presumably dominates the forms of conscious experience. But a linguistically able mind will relegate mimesis to a secondary role.
The architectonic configuration of level III, where speech is introduced into the structure, is more complex, since speechthat is, narrative skillcan encompass both lower levels but not vice versa: thus two more asymmetrical relationships appear.
Speakers can assign descriptions to episodic materialevents and thingsand they can construct commentaries built on mimetic representations, for instance, on a rehearsed skill sequence, or an event re-enactment, or a group ritual, or a pattern of gestural communication; but speech is not transparent to the mimetic or episodic mind. In the diagram speech and narrative skill are enclosed within a circle labeled "linguistic" (L), which encompasses all of the oral-narrative knowledge held by an individual. It includes a collection of stored commentaries on episodic and mimetic material, which amounts to a superordinate class of models held by the linguistic system.
The speech system thus has a special status at the top of the hierarchy; it can access, independently, both episodic and mimetic outputs and formulate linguistic descriptions and encapsulations of these; and this relationship is unidirectional. Neither episodic nor mimetic mind can, by definition, comprehend speech outputs per se; it follows that, when skilled mimetic acts are synchronized with speech, semantic control of this synchronization must rest with the language system ; the governing system is oral-linguistic.
This was the situation in oral-mythic culture. The main source of evidence in favor of a further evolutionary transition in human cognition would lie in evidence of a fundamental change in this overall architecture, and therefore architectural change will be reviewed repeatedly in this chapter as a history of modern symbolic representational systems is developed.
The evidence for this change might be found in the anthropological and historical record, as in the case of previous transitions; but there is a great deal more evidence to consider, almost too much. The third transition must have been recent; the key question is whether there are aspects of modern cognition that were absent from oral-mythic culture, that is, from simple hunting-gathering cultures.
Three crucial cognitive phenomena appear to have been underdeveloped, or virtually absent, in oral-mythic culture. These phenomena are graphic invention, external memory, and theory construction.
Graphic invention is the first clue to what has happened in recent cultural transformations; accordingly, the next section will examine the emergence of new methods of graphic representation over the past few thousand years and the parallel development of thought skills. On a simple level, the invention of graphic representations signaled a shift in the relative importance of the two major distal-perceptual modalities, from auditory to visual representation.
On another more important level, it signaled the invention of entirely new classes of symbols from those used in mimetic and oral linguistic communication. Visual symbols have become the dominant form of representation in modern society. The second major clue is likely to be found in the realm of memory. Whereas oral-mythic cultures rely heavily on individual biological memory, modern cultures rely much more on external memory devices, mostly on various classes of graphic symbols, from pictures and graphs to ideograms and writing.
Thus, the shift is from internal to external memory storage devices. As the pattern of memory use shifts toward the external symbolic store, the architecture of the individual mind must change in a fundamental way, just as the architecture of a computer changes if it becomes part of a larger network.
The most important cultural product of human cognition is less obvious, and much more dominant in terms of cognitive governance: it is a relatively new kind of thought product known as theory.
As we have seen, Bruner (1986) pointed out that there are two broadly different modes of thinking evident in modern humans. One is sometimes called narrative thought, and the other is variously called analytic, paradigmatic, or logicoscientific.
In modern culture, narrative thought is dominant in the literary arts, while analytic thought predominates in science, law, and government. The narrative, or mythic,
dimension of modern culture has been expressed in print, but it is well to keep in mind that in its inception, mythic thought did not depend upon print or visual symbolism; it was an extension, in its basic form, of the oral narrative.
The major products of analytic thought, on the other hand, are generally absent from purely mythic cultures. A partial list of features that are absent include: formal arguments, systematic taxonomies, induction, deduction, verification, differentiation, quantification, idealization, and formal methods of measurement.
Argument, discovery, proof, and theoretical synthesis are part of the legacy of this kind of thought. The highest product of analytic thought, and its governing construct, is the formal theory, an integrative device that is much more than a symbolic invention; it is a system of thought and argument that predicts and explains. Successful theories often convey power.
Combining the three variables just mentioned, the governing cognitive structures of the most recent human cultures must be very different from those of simple mythic cultures. They exist mostly outside of the individual mind, in external symbolic memory representations, which are dependent upon visuographic invention, and they culminate in governing theories. The aspects of culture that fall under the governance of theories are here labeled "theoretic."
The third transition, from mythic to theoretic culture, was different from the preceding two, in its hardware: whereas the first two transitions were dependent upon new biological hardware, specifically upon changes in the nervous system, the third transition was dependent onan equivalent change in technological hardware, specifically, on external memory devices.
Theoretic culture was from its inception externally encoded; and its construction involved an entirely new superstructure of cognitive mechanisms external to the individual biological memory.
As in previous transitions, earlier adaptations were retained; thus, theoretic culture gradually encompassed the episodic, mimetic, and mythic dimensions of mind and indeed extended each of them into new realms.
What was truly new in the third transition was not so much the nature of basic visuocognitive operations as the very fact of plugging into, and becoming a part of, an external symbolic system. Reading, for example, is a very distinctive mode of knowing, one that raises disturbing questions about the true locus of human memory. Moreover, theoretic culture broke with the metaphoric style of meaning in oralmythic culture. Where narrative and myth attribute significances, theory is not concerned with significance in the same sense at all. Rather than modeling events by infusing them with meaning and linking them by analogy, theory dissects, analyzes, states laws and formulas, establishes principles and taconomies, and determines procedures for the verification and analysis of information. It depends for its advanced development on specialized memory devices, languages, and grammars.
The first step in any new area of theory development is always antimythic: things and events must be stripped of their previous mythic significances before they can be subjected to what we call "objective" theoretic analysis. In fact, the meaning of "objectivity" is precisely this: a process of demythologization. Before the human body could be dissected and catalogued, it had to be demythologized. Before ritual or religion could be subjected to "objective" scholarly study, they had to be demythologized. Before nature could be classified and placed into a theoretical framework, it too had to be demythologized. Nothing illustrates the transition from mythic to theoretic culture better than this agonizing process of demythologization, which is still going on, thousands of years after it began. The switch from a predominantly narrative mode of thought to a predominantly analytic or theoretic mode apparently requires a wrenching cultural transformation.
Mythic culture, in the purest sense of the word, extended to include all Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic societies. It continues today in many traditions, and its vestiges are still highly visible in some sectors of postindustrial civilization. Its exact outer boundary cannot easily be drawn. Theoretic culture grew from within and has gradually encompassed mythic culture. It has been developing for several millennia, and has become the dominant thought form of postindustrial society.
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