Cultural Symbolism

At about 50,000 B.P., the archaeological record shows a sudden change in the nature and variety of artifacts produced by modern humans, with the massive production of cave paintings, elaborate artifacts of no practical utility, the use of ocher, the introduction of burial practices, and so on. Here we have the first traces of the emergence of cultural symbolism (although the phenomenon itself may have appeared earlier). The term has a wider extension for anthropologists who are not limited to preserved artifacts and can observe such cultural products as public utterances, ritual, clothing, music, etiquette, dance, and prohibitions. All these productions have three main characteristics: (1) their particular features are to a large extent unmotivated by immediate survival needs and are often devoid of any practical purpose; (2) they seemingly involve a capacity to "reify" mental representations, so that certain communicative or memory effects can be achieved by producing material objects and observable events; (3) their features vary from one human group to another.

In the social sciences, the loose term symbolism was applied to all such productions for a simple reason: although they often seemed to convey some overt "meaning," this meaning did not seem sufficient to explain their occurrence or transmission. A common strategy, then, was to explain symbolism as a symptom of social relations. Durkheim, for instance, treats religion as a symbol of social order and superhuman agency as a symbol of society itself. For Marx, an ideology symbolizes (and distorts) social relations. Alternatively, hermeneutic approaches to culture emphasize common concerns of mankind that find their expression in cultural symbolism. Religion, for instance, is described as expressing universal metaphysical questions or anxieties. The common thread in these very different frameworks is that cultural productions stand for something else, which may or may not be accessible to people's consciousness and which is encoded in public representations.

From a cognitive perspective, the main question is to account for the capacities that make symbolism possible, and for the causes of acquisition and transmission of particular patterns (see CULTURAL EVOLUTION). An important attempt in this direction can be found in D. Sperber's cognitive account of symbolism (Sperber 1975, 1996). For Sperber, certain cultural phenomena are "symbolic" to particular actors inasmuch as their rational interpretation does not lead to a limited and predictable set of inferences. This triggers a search for conjectural representations that, if true, would make a rational interpretation possible. The production and use of public representations is then described in terms of communicative intentions. What people do with public representations, just as they do with verbal utterances, is to engage in a goal-directed, relevance-optimizing search for possible descriptions of the communicator's intentions (see RELEVANCE).

This conception has two interesting consequences. First, it suggests that there are no such things as "symbols" as a particular class of cultural products. Any conceptual or perceptual item can become symbolic, if there is some index that a rational interpretation is unavailable or insufficient. This conception of cultural symbolism also implies that we cannot assume that material and other public symbols "contain" meanings in the form of a code, in much the same way as the letters of a writing system contain phonological information. Symbolism does not work in that way in our species. Bees or vervet monkeys do produce signals that are reliable indicators of the states of affairs that caused their production. Cultural symbols, much like human communication in general, trigger inferential processes that are not constrained by the features of the public representation itself, but by what these features reveal of the communicator's communicative intentions. In other words, you cannot achieve communication (and this extends to cultural "meanings") unless you activate a rich intuitive psychology (see THEORY OF MIND). This argument finds some support from studies showing that even artifact production among humans requires such perspective-taking and inferences about the other's intentions (see, e.g., Tomasello, Kruger, and Ratner 1993).

Cultural symbolism often combines universal, intuitive concepts (e.g., a theory of physical objects as cohesive, a theory of living things as internally propelled) in counterintuitive ways (e.g., a theory of superhuman agents as nonmaterial and nonbiological; Boyer 1994). This, too, requires an ability to rearrange representations that derive from basic cognitive dispositions. This is why the appearance of cultural symbolism has been linked to the emergence of a "metarepresentational" capacity riding piggyback on more specialized "modular" cognitive systems (Mithen 1996).

All this may explain why, as soon as it appears in the archaeological record and wherever it is found in the anthropological evidence, cultural symbolism is "cultural" in the sense of varying between human groups. Humans tend to talk about the same topics the world over and make use of a similar evolved cognitive architecture (see EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY). However, inferences produced on the basis of a public representation depend on cues revealing intentions, which themselves may largely depend on the group's history, in particular on the fact that certain public representations, or elements thereof, have been used in the same group before. Such historical variations may result in different implicit schemata and therefore in differences of cultural "style" between groups (see CULTURAL PSYCHOLOGY).

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-- Pascal Boyer


Boyer, P. (1994). Cognitive constraints on cultural representations: Natural ontologies and religious ideas. In L. A. Hirschfeld and S. Gelman, Eds., Mapping the Mind: Domain-specificity in Culture and Cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mithen, S. (1996). The Prehistory of the Mind. London: Thames and Hudson.

Sperber, D. (1975). Rethinking Symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sperber, D. (1996). Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell.

Tomasello, M., A. C. Kruger, and H. H. Ratner. (1993). Cultural Learning. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16:495-510.