A few conceptual musings in cognitive science and anthropology

I’m reading Gregory L. Murphy and Douglas L. Medin’s 1985 article,The Role of Theories in Conceptual Coherence, from Psychological Review Vol. 92 No. 3. In this paper, they aim to outline the link that exists between theoretical and conceptual knowledge, which, so far, has been rather nicely accomplished through a bevy of valid examples. However, about midway through the paper, around page 296, they use an analogy of the silver dollar versus the soda can.

“Suppose further that you are told that some entity has a diameter of 5 cm and you are asked whether it is more likely to be a soda can or a silver dollar. To our minds, it is more likely to be the can. One reason for this guess is that we know that silver dollars are mandated by law to be a particular size, whereas soda cans just happen to be of a uniform size…Our knowledge about transformations and operations associated with concepts, and this, in turn, relies heavily on our general world knowledge.”

I have a few problems with this conclusion. First of all, I would say that such concepts as measurements are in a unique category separate from some of our other theories about the world. When posed the problem above, I would derive my reasoning from mathematical judgments rather than ‘world knowledge.’ Not only does the term ‘world knowledge,’ seem intentionally obscure and vague, but it also relies on a specific type of elite knowledge that may not be universally shared.

So the issue here lies in the fact that maybe only certain classes of people who are privileged to knowledge about silver dollar regulations may be aware of this subtle difference. The silver dollar and the soda can are cultural referents that are molded in the mind of the interlocutor according to culturally transmitted reasoning. Theories are reliant upon materials in one’s immediate environment as well as cultural schemas and artifacts, so this process is culturally conditioned.

Later in the paper, Murphy and Medin offer some sort of resolution to the conceptual categories through linking them to the idea of theoretical explanation. They state,

“However, features that are correlated in people’s mental representations may not always reflect empirical relations in the world, but may derive instead from people’s theories about the relations between features. Although these theory-driven relationships may actually exist, people may never have empirical data to confirm or disconfirm their expectancies. Examples of these feature pairs are amount of education and income, zodiac sign and personality, rate of speech and intelligence, and amount of rehearsal and strength in long-term memory.”

Once again, aren’t these heavily influenced by what is culturally prescribed? Is the zodiac link to personality more salient in the culture from which it originated? Interestingly enough, the idea of the ‘zodiac’ is somewhat culturally transcendent, as a version of it exists in Roman, Chinese, and Hindu histories. But why is such a concept so widespread in such disparate areas?

The one thing that I think is particularly interesting in terms of anthropology’s link to cognitive science is that much of the knowledge of the ‘West’ must be discarded in fieldwork situations, where the researcher must parse the informant’s understandings of the world, and yet this is still framed within ‘Western’ cognitive/psychological traditions. It has been argued that this process could be modified in some ways, but how does the ethnographer go about doing this? Could this be valuable for the anthropological project?

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Comment by John McCreery on March 21, 2012 at 6:52am

much of the knowledge of the ‘West’ must be discarded in fieldwork situations, where the researcher must parse the informant’s understandings of the world, and yet this is still framed within ‘Western’ cognitive/psychological traditions.

This is one of those arguments that, in my experience, is vastly overdrawn. Both while doing fieldwork in Taiwan and living and working as an advertising copywriter and translator in Japan, I have found that, while cultural differences are real, so are the enormous overlaps created by the fact that both the natives and I are human. We are all featherless bipeds who walk upright, have opposable thumbs on our hands, see the world through binocular eyes, and eat, excrete, and have sex via the same orifices. We all have our aches and pains, experience fevers when our body temperature rises, chills when the weather is cold. We worry about aging and, if we have children, are concerned about what they become. Nowadays, too, we are all involved in the global economy. If we live in an OECD or BRICS country or a city in one of the poorest countries, we cannot avoid exposure to TV, film, fashion and other types of popular culture that now circulate worldwide. In short, we have a lot in common, a shared foundation on which to build mutual understanding of where our differences lie. We may shock or baffle each other with things we take for granted that the other sees as weird, nonsensical or blasphemous — but a little nonjudgmental active listening usually goes a long way toward comprehension, if not forgiveness, or even enthusiasm. 

Comment by Diego Ballestero on March 20, 2012 at 12:31pm

This ist a good book! I have reading in my University time and pass a great time. 

Comment by John McCreery on March 20, 2012 at 4:47am

Chelsea, I don't know if this will help, but back in 1979, when I spent a year working as a research assistant in Schank and Abelson's AI project at Yale, "world knowledge" referred to what the  computer would need to know to parse ambiguities in natural language. One lesson I learned while working on a program called FRUMP (Fast Reading Understanding and Memory Program) was just how ambiguous and, incidentally, militaristic, much of the language used in sports, business, and political as well as military reporting is. A bit of dark humor illustrates the problem.

A satellite loaded with hydrogen-bomb tipped missiles is circling the globe ready to destroy any country that takes military action against another. 

On earth a programmer is frantically typing, "No, FRUMP, no. 'Russia crushes Israel' refers to a football game."

The problem was not one of elite knowledge, which in at least some cases — chess, mathematics, symbolic logic, even medical diagnosis — may be relatively well defined. The problem is one of everyday common sense where, as the title of a paper by Dwight McDermott brilliantly puts it, "Artificial Intelligence Meets Natural Stupidity."


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