Friday, February 19, 2010

The Intersection of Language, Culture and Cognition

While causality turns into a rather chicken/egg discussion, I suspect that the reality of it is much the same as the reality of that metaphor. While the actual mechanisms that drove the earliest development of language, abstract cognition and rudimentary culture is lost in eons of time, there is a lot that we can surmise. There are even aspects of this question we can probably describe with a great deal of accuracy. Unquestionably, this is an incredibly fascinating discussion.

Over the past few years I have become increasingly interested in the relationship between language and culture. At the same time, I have become interested in the relationship between language and cognition. I have also been very intrigued with the evolution of all three of these, for many years - and as I have been afforded the opportunity to explore the relationships I mentioned, I have become increasingly fascinated by the evolution of all three, in relation to each other.

In a turn that really blasted me into dizzying realms of abstract correlations, I have also become increasingly intrigued by the cultural relativity of psychopathology. I rather latched onto this concept, because for many years - since I was a child really, I have been beset by the idea that mental illness/neurological disorders/cognitive maladaptations are really misnamed. What exactly is it that qualifies the way one person's brain happens to work as mental illness, versus the way another person's brain works as merely being a little "odd?"*

Is it their brain that is screwed up? Or is it their socialization/culturalization - the society in which they live that is so screwed up?

As I have explored the manifestations of atypical neurology in different cultural contexts, I am increasingly convinced that the latter is considerably more of a problem. Assuming it is indeed society that is screwed up, the question becomes; "given the megalithic nature of society, does this distinction even matter?" or "is there really any reasonable solution to be found for this problem?" To the first question, I cannot but respond that yes, this distinction is remarkably important. The answer to the second question though, is much more complicated and largely depends on how one might define "reasonable."

I think that the largest barrier we face is the very nature of science research in our modern culture. In many disciplines we are increasingly running into a situation where the existing paradigm of each discipline to it's own, is becoming less and less feasible. My perception may be biased by the context of my focus, but I suspect that there is no other area where this is becoming more apparent, than in the social sciences. This is largely because the more science oriented practitioners of psychology, sociology and anthropology - even to some degree, philosophy are developing vast areas of overlap. In some cases, it is simply not possible to follow lines of research without input from each.

Yet the culture of science tends to shy from interdisciplinary cooperation, something that causes problems across the board, but which is most insidious in the social sciences. Anthropology, sociology and even psychology are seeing a major battle between those who wish to do hard science and postmodern extremists who believe that hard science is a bourgeois affectation and fallacious because we can never truly "know" anything. At the same time, most of the most practical and important work being done in all three disciplines, requires input from multiple subdisciplines of the others.

As our world continues to shrink, as historical barriers between cultures fade away, we are flying blindly into a world beset by misunderstandings and exploitations that all too often explode into violent conflicts. And the vast majority of these conflagrations can be traced directly to the intersect of language, cognition and culture. Our language, the use, the content - even the very structure of our languages predispose us to various cultural paradigms. Likewise, language predisposes us to various cognitive paradigms. But complicating all of this, our cognitive paradigms predispose us to certain language and cultural paradigms, while our cultural paradigms predispose us to certain cognitive and linguistic paradigms.

There is absolutely no doubt that untangling this web of influence is a herculean and possibly impossible task. While many correlations are blatantly obvious, causations are complicated by the very nature of nature of those correlations. But ultimately the exploration of this conjunction has less to do with untangling the web and everything to do with peripheral benefit. Exploring this intersect would teach us a great deal about who "we" are, who "they" are**, how we can all interact with less friction and who all of us might become.

Over the course of this semester, I have the opportunity to explore some aspects of this confluence. It is my sincere hope that as I work my way through my education, I will be able to functionally explore many more facets of this intersect. This nexus is relevant to my educational, research and career goals. Ultimately this nexus is the forge that shapes all of the pieces of who/what "we" are, and who/what "they" are.

As I produce various projects, I will be posting them here - hopefully in a relatively coherent fashion. This will probably mean shuffling things around, sometimes adjusting previously posted writings and sometimes I will be throwing up short posts like this one, just to get my thoughts together in a relatively coherent fashion.

I should admit now, that I will probably rarely be posting anything that is not related to this relatively broad topic. I will occasionally post personal stuff and will probably throw up stuff that really jumps out at me, but for the most part, I am going to be sticking in this particular direction. While I would really like to post about human sexuality and a host of other topics that interest me, I just don't see myself really having the time and energy. We will just have to see how things go...

*There are actually relatively objective methods for determining this, that was intended as a rhetorical question to make you think...

**I quite purposely left that very vague, because by "we" and "they" I mean several different things. I mean "we" as in individuals, a subcultural collective and a macrocultural collective. I mean "they" as in other individuals, other subcultural collectives and other macrocultural collectives.

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