They symbol as a mediation device between mind and culture

Adrián Medina Liberty* Department of Psychology, UNAM /National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH for its abbreviation in Spanish). English translation by Denisse Piñera Palacios.

Colloquially, the use of terms such as mind and culture does not imply any difficulty and, in fact, various synonyms are normally used for both concepts. The mind, for instance, may be compared to thinking, intelligence, consciousness or cognition, among others, whereas culture may usually refer to a society considered in its totality or to complex social structures, groups or communities. However, when we enter the territory of academic definitions or of the definitions of the discipline, our problems become vast and complex.

In anthropology, the term culture is far from evoking a homogeneous horizon, on the contrary, the different views, from Morgan and Tylor to postmodern anthropology, have made the definitions of culture change in a dramatic way and, frequently, what is connoted appears in fields that are frankly antagonistic and irreconcilable. No doubt the lack of a consensual characterization of culture has generated efforts in order to reduce its semantic field so that, sometimes, the noun becomes the adjective in an attempt to singularize its meaning: Ruth Benedict, for instance, defended the concept of “cultural patterns”, Geertz, that of “cultural templates”, and D’Andrade and Strauss talk about “cultural models”, to mention only three cases.

Psychology, on the other hand, has also struggled to establish a generalized understanding of the mind, however, this term has been spread to numerous schools and traditions that have transformed the mind into an empty concept or into one of domestic use; all this without considering that many authors, in fact, do not agree with the idea of the mind as an object of study, preferring other thematic domains such as that of intelligence (in Piaget) or that of cognitive processes (in the human processing of information).

Thus, when we enter the subject of mind and culture, one of the first problems that comes into view has to do with the equivocal definitions characteristic of the disciplines that have proclaimed one or the other to be their main object of study. In this sense, the task of analyzing the vicissitudes of mind and culture presents itself, from the beginning, as a considerably difficult one because any affirmation would lead to an immediate retort: when we talk about mind and culture, what are we talking about?, what is being understood by mind and by culture? No doubt it would be a legitimate retort; as it would be unquestionable that beginning an analytical work, through this path, would abort any investigative effort from the start. In this essay, we try a different path: first, we analyze the mind-culture problem in relation to two general views we have called universalism and cultural relativism-mental diversity; as a result of this inquiry, we have sketched an intelligibility frame we will denominate symbolic constructionism which intends to set the foundations for an articulation, specifically between symbolic anthropology, sociocultural psychology and other social views regarding the mind-culture predicament. We believe that one way to accomplish this interdisciplinary purpose rests on treating the symbol as an articulating element.

The use of the word “sketched” is not fortuitous and does not intend to be an anticipated justification, since all that is contained in this article constitutes nothing but a work proposal, an attempt to promisingly sort out the discussion of two notions that are central to anthropology and to psychology.

The mind as a universal phenomenon

During the XIX century, the emergence of capitalism, together with Darwin’s evolutionist ideas, led to an idea of social progress that became rapidly popular. There were discussions about a lineal technological development and about social and cultural changes that went from simple to complex. The Spencerian idea1 of a society that progressed endlessly, could not be dissociated from a development of the very mentalities of its members, since it would have been a major contradiction to proclaim social and cultural progress in a place where mentalities were stuck or in frank delay. The formal beginning of anthropology, precisely, is linked to this social evolutionism. Tylor, considered by many to be one of the founders of anthropology, for instance, had among his purposes the formulation of a general scheme of social evolution that would include from “savagery” to “civilization”, to then place the different cultures on their corresponding stage.2 He proposed that cultures should be analyzed in their different constitutive parts (kinship, religion and technology, among others) to try to reach a classification that could clarify the progressive phases of development. In the case of Morgan, the other founder of anthropology, this idea of development is also present; he proposes a progressive scheme of social evolution by stages or phases of development that begin with savagery, pass through barbarism and conclude with civilization. According to his idea, societies “ascend” in an order of increasing complexity and this could be determined in a logical way.3

Although a causal relationship between culture and mind was not discussed, both domains were related in such a way that the advance of a society was necessarily correlative to an advance in the mentality of its members; from this was inferred an idea of mental homogeneity, since a modern or advanced society could only be constituted by intellectually equivalent members. In other words, a modern or civilized society could not generate a primitive society and, in the same logic, from a rational, modern and lucid mind, another one with inferior attributes could not emerge. To the members of a primitive society corresponds a “pre-logic” or irrational mind, in the same way that to an advanced society corresponds a rational and developed mentality; naturally, development goes from the former to the latter.4

Talking about processes and phenomena that were so global as those relative to social progress conferred to the term culture a very general character, and it became a mega-concept that intended to describe the “whole” -“evices”, customs and beliefs, artistic manifestations, forms of life, religion, place to live, etc.- constituted by the members of a group, ethnic group or society, whereas mind was the term that condensed the intellectual capacities of said members.5 In the same way there was a homogeneous whole called culture, there also was another whole denominated mind and, in fact, a German geographer and ethnographer, Adolf Bastian, was the first to formulate, in the past century, a doctrine that proclaimed “psychic unity”.

The idea of a mental unity, which essentially indicated that all human beings had a similar mind, was spread in anthropology by the use of terms such as “pre-logic mind”, “primitive thought”, or “rational mind”, among others.

The idea of unity –in our case, that of mind or culture -, actually reflects a more general epistemological posture, which supposes that the dynamic of the entire universe follow a certain order; since human phenomena are a part of this ordered universe, they develop, in the same way, according to an order that is to be discovered and explained.

Precisely, the founder of structural anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss, developed a posture that presupposes an ordered universe and included the mind as a part of it, with the corresponding universal statute of the mind. To Lévi-Strauss, this fact is as evident as the “human need” to find order in the universe.6 This author is as explicit as he is conclusive: “regardless of the cultural differences between the various zones of humanity, the human mind is only one everywhere and has the same capabilities. I think this is accepted anywhere”.7 Lévi-Strauss points out that the various cultural institutions, such as myths and the kinship system, are expressions of binary structures of an opposite character, common to the whole human gender, and the human mind organizes reality from them. From structural linguistics, this author adopted the idea that the human mind contains a subconscious structure that orders the world from opposite pairs.8

This idea of mental universality also was – and still is in some views – common currency in psychology since its formal starts with Wundt.9 We only need to say that within two of the hegemonic currents of this century, Piaget’s genetic psychology and the human processing of information, the search for invariants or regularities whose validity does not depend on or is affected by social or cultural factors is maintained as a major basis. In fact, for the Anglo-American cognitivism, which uses the computer as a basic metaphor, the principles that regulate mental functioning have a statute that is not only universal but also “natural”; Lachman R. and Lachman J., for instance, point out that:

The object of study of cognitive psychology may be defined, in a wide sense, as the analysis of ‘how the mind works’. (…) the aspects that seem to be particularly important for most cognitive psychologists include memory, perception, learning, thinking, reasoning, language and understanding. Therefore, the typical cognitive scientist is motivated to understand the natural system constituted by the superior mental processes of humans.10

The previous quotation eloquently shows the invariant character attributed to mental processes, conceived as equivalent to the laws and principles of physics or chemistry. In fact, the methodology displayed in this view is the same –or the intention is for it to be the same- to the one used in natural sciences, that is, the experimental method, and the intention is that its use contains all the rigor and precision that characterizes it. In this way, the typical studies of Anglo-American cognitivism are performed under laboratory conditions that are extremely restricted, thus maintaining “extraneous variables” under control and trying to establish a functional relationship that will be enunciated as a “general principle” of thought. In this scheme, the role of culture is limited, not to say null, and it only plays an accessory role.

Piaget constitutes a separate case. Although he even polemicized with the empiricist and neopositivist views, his epistemological posture – his main interest was the construction of knowledge and his subsidiary concern was the development of intelligence -, combined with biology as an organizing model. This same author affirms that “intelligence is a particular instance of biological adaptation”.11 By contrast, culture is marginalized and it becomes an unimportant factor in intellectual development. No doubt he included an active and constructivist element in development –knowledge only takes place when the subject acts on the object and extracts from it, in a reflexive way, notions, schemes and assorted information, but the role of other people is irrelevant -. The social environment and also the experience of the subjects are irrelevant for the development sequence that is accomplished in a constant way:

In the field of intelligence, we talk about stages when the following conditions are met: 1) that the succession of conducts is constant, regardless of the accelerations or delays that may modify the average chronological ages according to the acquired experience and to the social environment (as well as to individual aptitudes) […]12

The object of knowledge is not social or cultural, it is a physical object, and the subject is acculturated, it is an epistemological subject, solipsist or solitary, which interacts with the environment with the sole purpose of knowing or consolidating what he/she already knows.

In a symptomatic way, we might say that Piaget never analyzed the construction of a notion, a number or space, as the result of the interactions of the child with other children or with other people; in his work, which is incredibly vast, we will always find a solitary subject and a physical object. This omission of the cultural element in Piaget’s portentous conceptual building, which includes hundreds of articles and almost 70 books, allowed him to enunciate invariants (for example: assimilation and accommodation as “functional invariants”, the “increasing complexity” that characterizes each intellectual stage or the very sequence of development) which, presumably, should not be affected by culture. In Piaget’s genetic psychology, people appear at the end of development, not at the beginning, and they are not structuring agents during it. Piaget’s contribution to developmental psychology is eminent and undeniable, since he enlightened like no other many of the processes involved in the construction of knowledge; however, it lacked a more serious and dedicated attention to the cultural dimension,13 consequently, some authors, such as Shweder (1984),14 affirm it is necessary to “make Piaget stand on his head”.

When we enunciate a closed mental unity, subjected to its own internal dynamic, we establish at the same time a division between mind and culture, since we are admitting – implicitly or explicitly – that the latter does not influence or determine the former; if we did not accept this thesis, we would have to acknowledge that cultural diversity generates a corresponding mental diversity; that is, if we admit that the dynamic and structure of the mind or of intelligence – or, given the case, of culture- are susceptible of study per se, as a self-contained phenomenon, we are accepting, as in cognitivism and in Piaget’s posture, that the mind is free from influences of cultural order – or, on the other hand, that culture is self-sustained without the intervention of cognitive or thinking agents.

The dissociation between mind and culture gave birth to numerous antinomies – for instance: subject- structure, subjective- public, individual – society- which, somehow, are extensions or transformations of the problematic binomial that currently occupies our attention. When the mental domain is dissociated from the cultural domain, it is feasible to perform their study in an independent way and according to their supposed individual dynamic. In this way, the efforts to discover – both for the mind and for culture- invariant principles or laws are justified. “Probably, and this is Lévi-Strauss’ sentence, there is nothing more than that in the structuralist approach; it is the quest for the invariant, or for the invariant elements among superficial differences”.15

As long as mind and culture are maintained as autonomous entities, the scarce relationships that are proposed between them will only reach the quality of mere ‘interactions’, that is, relationships of exteriority in which one does not essentially or importantly alter the other due to these same interactions. The articulation of a mutual alteration between mind and culture does not solve the antinomy that separates them, on the contrary, it only contributes to the enunciation of some points of contact or to the establishment of minimal relationships. Exactly at the opposite pole we find the relativistic approximation which argues that cultural diversity leads to a corresponding mental diversity.

Cultural relativism and mental diversity

To some authors, the idea of making an only mind be compatible with the enormous – and growing – cultural diversity was uncomfortable. Rivers, in Great Britain, was one of the first anthropologists to openly propose the existence of cultural diversity; however, it was the French Lévy-Bruhl (in anthropology) and Durkheim (in sociology), who managed to influence in a definitive way the conception of the social and the cultural in social disciplines.

Lévy–Bruhl16 guided his anthropological project through two seminal purposes: first of all, trying to understand the so called “primitive mind” by means of social and cultural factors, instead of appealing to individual or biological causes and, secondly, trying to undermine Western thought as the privileged and superior model of the human mind.17 For this author, the mind was an emergent phenomenon that resulted from the union of the nervous system and the various collective representations (term he adopts from Durkheim) or the different spaces of cultural values; in this sense, a mental homogeneity is unthinkable. To Lévy-Bruhl, in brief, it was impossible to choose only one way of thought, characteristic of a culture, as a universal form governed by invariant laws.

Franz Boas was a strong defender of cultural relativism; in his work The Mind of Primitive Man he condensates his studies regarding geography, linguistics, ethnography, archaeology and physical anthropology; from all this, he concludes that the differences between cultures may not be determined taking as base the geographical location or racial factors and that, since there is such a great diversity of styles and cultural manifestations, there is no way to establish one specific phase or stage of development for any given society. He affirmed that phenotypic variation within a race made it impossible to talk about inferior and superior races. Therefore, each culture is a unique product, the result of singular conditions. Despite the fact that Boas developed his notion of “situational factors”, by means of which he wanted to account for those environmental and cultural variables that could determine specific characteristics between races, he concluded by admitting all races are equivalent – well-intentioned argument that tried to undermine the racism inherent to the conceptions that maintained essential interracial differences – and that, therefore, the mentalities of the various races were also equivalent, that is, there were no primitive or inferior minds, and there were no superior minds. Boas, in fact, agreed with Bastian’s idea of mental universality and, analyzing his own ethnographic evidence, he affirmed that: “the ethnological phenomena found in different regions are a proof that the human mind follows the same laws everywhere”.18 In spite of his cultural relativism, this author considered that the human mind had a universal nature – equivalent, of course, between races – and culture was some kind of “content” of this human mind; although the content could vary from one culture to the other, the mental recipient –let us call it so- would be the same.19

In their famous work Primitive Classification,, Durkheim and Mauss defended the idea of a mental unity by pointing out that the nature of the mind had remained unalterable from primitive thought until modern mentality; however, they did not admit that said nature was the inexorable product of biology but the result of the “community” of human social processes. The characteristics of the mind, in brief, depended on the characteristics of cultural models. In spite of its emphasis on the social and cultural aspects – or, precisely, because of it -, the Durkheimian posture did not improve the differences between the different social disciplines, and it did not bring culture closer to mind either; in fact, this posture reaffirmed the division between them, mainly because of its strong anti-reductionist and anti-psychological inclination. Along his entire intellectual trajectory, Durkheim20 emphasized the social character of sociology, a “social fact”, he said, can only be explained by another ‘social fact’ – through a clear delimitation of the psychological; in fact, following by analogy William James’ argument that psychology could not be reduced to physiology, Durkheim affirmed that sociology (or the study of collective representations) could not be reduced to psychology or to the study of the individual.

From Lévy-Bruhl, Boas and Durkheim we get a methodological lesson: what is valid and concrete in a culture can be uncertain and diffuse in another one. As to our topic, the lesson is that mind and culture, though keeping a relative autonomy – hence the Durkheimian principle of non reduction-, are not independent and the dynamic of one can affect the movement and constitution of the other. Then the mind does not interact with culture, but it relates to it by means of joints or on certain positions; they affect one another and need from one another but they never get to lose their own profile.

A radical posture of cultural –or environmental, as some would rather call it-relativism, is found in the psychology of behavioral tradition. In this current, the social actors are not concrete entities; they are conceived as “conduct”, which is fragmented in analytical units, the answers, which are observed in physical terms (latency, duration and frequency, among other properties); culture or the social milieu, on the other hand, is translated to the “environment” which is fragmented, analytically, into stimuli. The search and establishment of functional relationships between stimuli and answers are the central objective of this view, which is systematized by Skinner in 1938 and sustained almost unalterable until this day in his philosophical fundaments in logical positivism. In this view, naturally, there is no place for biology, cognition or cultural factors; in fact, in functional terms, animals are considered to be equivalent to humans; in brief, the only thing that matters is the concrete environment that relates to behavior, so that each culture simply implies a specific arrangement of “environmental contingencies”.21

Universalism and relativism did not manage to restrict mind to culture; the former kept a relationship of exteriority when it maintained these instances as independent domains; the latter, with its emphasis on diversity and self-affirmation of the cultural marginalized the mind –without denying it-, and there was only the formulation of statements that intended to establish their mutual dependency but they remained more as a promise than as a fulfilled analysis.

Meaning as common grounds

In psychology and in other social disciplines there is a problem that has helped to narrow perimeters that were distant before: the study of meaning. Let us make the list brief: in archaeology, Hodder, Shanks and Tilley; in anthropology Turner and Geertz; in psychology Vygotsky, Harré and Bruner.22 What do these authors have in common? Precisely, the study –all proportion kept- of the symbolic world of the human being. These authors, in spite of their great or small differences, share some general assumptions.

Both Víctor Turner, in Zambia, and Clifford Geertz in Indonesia, managed to gather a wide ethnographic database, the analysis of which led them to highlight the symbolic dimension –understood as systems of meaning- as the governing center of anthropology. Turner, in his work The Forest of Symbols, indicates the analytical importance of symbols to understand the values and rules of a society, in this case, the Ndembu, and he describes how the systems of meaning, expressed through rituals, allow us to know the characteristics of the social structure and the tensions and conflicts that eventually appear within it. “Each type or ritual, says Turner, can be considered as a configuration of symbols, some sort of pentagram in which symbols would be the notes”23 This is coherent with Geertz’s view, for whom the logic of cultural forms must be searched in the experiences of the individuals: when “guided by symbols, they perceive, feel, reason, judge and act”.24 In both authors, vital order is constituted by meaning networks which are more in need of an interpretation than of an explanation. Turner notices that in this interpretative dynamic it is necessary to distinguish between the meanings that are characteristic of the indigenous world, the use we give to them and the relationships the different symbols keep between themselves:

When we talk about the meaning of a symbol we must carefully distinguish, at least, between three levels or fields of sense. I propose we call them: 1) the level of indigenous interpretation (or more briefly, the exegetic sense); 2) the operational sense, and 3) the positional sense.25

Geertz, when referring to his studies in Java, Bali and Morocco, also pronounced himself prudently as to the dangers of interpretation:

one of my purposes has been that of determining how people who live there define themselves as a person, what is or what can be included in the idea they have of being a (self) in the Javanese, Balinese or Moroccan style. And in this case, I have tried to reach the most intimate part of the notions, not imagining myself as one of them: a rice peasant, a tribal sheikh, etc., but searching and analyzing the symbolic forms -words, images, institutions, behaviors- in terms of which, in each place, people really represent themselves, before themselves and before their fellow men.26

Both Turner and Geertz agree with the fact that the text or the drama may be used as metaphors to place and organize cultural meanings.

Making ethnography –says Geertz- is like trying to read a foreign manuscript, hazy, full of ellipsis, of incoherencies, of suspicious amendments and tendentious comments and also written not in conventional characters which represent sound, but in volatile examples of modeled conduct.27

Agreeing with an interpretative view, Hodder understands archaeology as the interpretation of the cultural material:

Cultural reality is a changing variety of different perspectives, of forms that, seen as a whole, could not provide to us an only “true” version of facts. The analyst must identify these superposed, and often incoherent, versions and understand their interrelations.28

For this British archaeologist, the work of archaeology consists in the understanding of the cultural past through the adequate interpretation of its material remains; an archaeologist is an interpreter and “an interpreter is a translator, an interlocutor, a mediator guide”.29

Turner, Geertz and Hodder point out that an interpretative discipline does not try to establish invariant laws or principles through the methodological resources characteristic of the natural sciences; before explaining –in the sense of a deductive-nomological procedure – the intention is to interpret, understand or make sense of the material under study.

[…] The social practices, -says Hodder-, including archaeology, are related to the creation of meanings, to the “making sense” of things. The interpretative practice that constitutes archaeology is a continuous process: there is not a final or definitive phase for narrating the past. The interpretations of the social have less to do with causal explanations (considerations such as “this is the way it happened” and “it happened that way for this reason”) than with the understanding or making sense of things.30

Studying culture as a text, indicates Geertz, implies the purpose of connecting action with its sense more than behavior with its determinants.31 In his work From ritual to theatre, Turner, who sees benevolently many of Geertz’s statements and shares with him this metaphor, realizes, however, that it is important to consider the context of execution (context performance) to avoid the creation of abstract texts or cognitive systems marginalized from the concrete surroundings.

In fact, this symbolic world is what separates humans from animals and allows the former to overcome a determinism that is purely biological. According to Geertz, culture is one of the conditions of human evolution and not a mere result of it. In order to get oriented in his environment, the human uses countless symbolic sources of meaning due to the fact that the non-symbolic sources, such as those genetically or biologically determined, are not enough. This is why Geertz declares that culture corrects the deficiencies of biology, so that there could not be human nature separated from culture.

From the information above we can extract a series of principles that might allow us to begin an articulation with psychology, specifically with a psychology of sociocultural character((From Vygotsky’s seminal ideas a view has been developed nowadays which has been called “sociohistorical”, “sociocultural” or simply “cultural” psychology, cf. M. Cole, Cultural Psychology. A Once and Future Discipline, 1996; J. Wertsch, P. del Río and A. Álvarez (eds.), Sociocultural Studies of Mind, 1995; L. Martin, K. Nelson and E. Tobach (eds.), Sociocultural Psychology, 1995.))

1) There cannot be a symbol without a thing, a referent, a designated object or, in this case, another symbol. The symbol always evokes something more, never itself, or it would stop being a symbol. The evocative role of the symbol is established by the interpreter.

2) The meaning of a symbol is not an intrinsical property and it is not a product of nature. It emerges as a result of an interpretative act. Nature does not generate meanings, societies do. Therefore, meaning is not discovered: it is culturally built.

3) The meaning of the symbols is not explained through a hypothetical-deductive model and it is not framed into invariant laws or principles, on the contrary, it is interpreted.

4) The cultural practices of a group, community or society –and this includes scientific disciplines-, are formed according to the meaning they have in the minds of the actors of said practices.

5) Therefore, a culture can be understood through an interpretation of the symbols that constitute it.

6) Neither interpretations nor the meaning of the symbols may be “final” or “definitive” because, by virtue of their historical and cultural character, they have a dynamic nature.

7) Every cultural activity, event or object is polysemous or multivocal, because various interpretations are always feasible. In this sense, unilaterality or the imposition of an exclusive version is not possible –or desirable-; an interpretation is the result of the reading that the researchers themselves perform on their object of study, on the displayed methodology, on the theoretical frames and even on the way power is distributed in a society or culture at a given moment.

The aforementioned assumptions, though expressed at a general level, allow us to articulate an order of intelligibility regarding the mind-culture problem, same that, later on, we will try to link to psychology. We will call this new comprehensive frame symbolic constructionism,32 by virtue of the historical-cultural character of the symbols and of the active -not natural, not invariant- role of the interpreter in the generation, understanding and transformation of said symbols.

An interpretative proposal towards culture, as we just saw, is an issue known in anthropology and in archaeology; nevertheless, in psychology it is recent although its foundations were laid by Vygotsky during the first decades of the XX century.((L. Vygotsky, Mind in Society, 1978 and “Thought and Language”, in Selected Works, 1996.)) In various occasions, I have talked about Vygotsky’s semiotic ideas,33 so I will not elaborate anymore in this article; however, I am interested in rescuing a vertebral idea that turns out to be coherent with the interpretative frame already described: the one that corresponds to a symbolic constitution of the mind.

Thought and speech are performed by means of signs. Symbols are the essential tertium quid of the communicative and intellectual activity and they are also so for culture. Vygotsky acknowledged, following Marx and Engels, the existence of physical instruments that measured our activity in the environment, but he wondered about the tools of thought that, naturally, could not be physical. The solution to his question constitutes one of his more fertile and lucid contributions: signs are the essential tools of thought and language. A sign or symbol is a thing or entity that represents another thing different to them. “The basic analogy between sign and tool, affirms Vygotsky, rests on the mediator function that characterizes both of them”.34 Then the physical tools are brought between our actions and nature, mediating our conduct over the environment and the objects. Symbols, on the other hand, are essentially psychological instruments that mediate and regulate our own intellectual activity. In other words, symbols are the main tools of the mind. As tools, symbols act as mediators in front of our reality. Our thought is materialized by means of signs, but it is not incorporated to an empty space, a vain thought that was waiting for them; the thought itself is a creation of symbols. There can be no thought or language without them or outside of them.

The idea that the human mind is codified by means of signs seduced Peirce, Bajtín and Vygotsky alike, and the three of them, in an independent but remarkably convergent way, forged a semiotic frame for the study of thought. To Bajtín, the reality of consciousness phenomena is the reality of social signs. Consciousness, however individual or subjective it might be conceived, is constituted by the internalization of said signs, and these:

may only emerge in inter-individual territory, territory that is not “natural” in the direct sense of the word: in the same way, the sign can only emerge between two homo sapiens. It is necessary that both individuals are socially organized, that they represent a collectivity: only then may emerge between them a signical (semiotic) means.35

Further on, Bajtín affirms that: “If we deprive consciousness of its ideological signical content, in consciousness nothing will remain”.36 This idea surprisingly converges with those of Peirce.37 According to this American semiologist:

There is no element whatsoever of man’s consciousness to which something in the word does not correspond; and the reason is evident. It is that the word or sign used by man is the man himself. Because what proves that man is a sign is the fact that all thought is a sign.38

In brief, to Vygotsky, Bajtín and Peirce, symbols are the materiality of the mind. Their reality is the reality of the sign. Without signs, there is no mind and without mind, there is no human being; we would only have the biologically inherited capabilities that, on their own, are not able to generate a human being, perhaps only a protohuman.

One of the first authors to revive Vygotsky’s semiotic ideas –always getting some from Bajtín and Peirce- and to highlight the main role of the study of the order of cultural meaning, was Jerome Bruner. In 1990, this author noted that cognitive psychology was facing a new revolution: the study of meaning. According to this reorientation of psychology –in true opposition to Anglo-American cognitivism-, it is not interesting anymore to study the mind as a formed and intrinsically developed structure, to the side of culture, but in intimate relationship to it. This renewed cognitive revolution39 shows, according to Bruner’s own words:

a more interpretative approach relative to the “creation of meanings”; it is a view that has proliferated during the past years in anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, literary theory, psychology and practically in any other place we see these days.((J. Bruner, Acts of Meaning, 1990, p. 2.))

Bruner’s idea completely converges, as we can see by this quotation, with the principles we had enunciated before and, more specifically, it agrees with Geertz’s posture regarding the role of biology and cultural resources in the development of thought. Bruner, for instance, affirms that:

If we adopt this point of view, according to which human mental activity depends -for its total expression- on being linked to a set of cultural resources -some sort of prosthetic device, to explain it somehow-, then we could be very well prepared if we considered the instruments used in mental activity when studying it.40

These cultural resources do not appear by spontaneous generation, nor are they the result of a mental process; if this was the case, the mind of each individual would have its own nucleus of meaning and communication would be impossible. Bruner explains that:

Meanings are created and negotiated within a community. (…) The symbolic systems used by the individuals in the creation of meanings are systems that were previously established, they were “there” before them, profoundly imbricate with culture and language.41

For his part, Geertz points out, precisely, that thought has a “public nature”, “what is essential, -he says- is the existence of a public system of symbols of some sort”.42 In this sense, the human mind is not a psychophysiological or intracerebral process -or, it is not exclusively so-, on the contrary, it is a capacity derived from the symbolic surroundings, from culture. Therefore,

…it is impossible –reiterates Geertz- to define in a sufficiently specific way the predominant neuronal processes from the point of view of intrinsical parameters; the human brain entirely depends on cultural resources to operate; and these resources, consequently, are not added to mental activity, but they are constitutive elements of it.43

Bruner argues, converging again with Geertz, that:

Culture and the search for meanings within culture are the causes characteristic of human actions. Biological essence, the so-called universal human nature, is not the cause of action but, at most, a limitation or a condition of it.44

If the character of symbols is conventional and if symbols are the primordial tools of thought, the genesis and development of the mind is, therefore, also of a cultural nature. The mind is not a thing, a nervous structure or a physical entity; thinking is an action, an activity or a symbolic act, and it is performed by the use of signs; the sign allows the realization of thought and without it there is no thought whatsoever.

Not only does the mind express itself in symbols but it also realizes itself in them. It is precisely here that we find the concept-bridge, the symbol, which could bring psychology closer to symbolic anthropology and, for that matter, to other social disciplines. Mind and culture may be treated as symbolic systems. Coming back to Geertz, this author conceives culture as a set of networks of meaning in which the human being is inserted and, as a consequence, anthropology must be understood as an interpretative science that tries to understand the various cultural meanings. In his own words, culture:

…denotes a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.45

Let us put it this way: when symbols are used for reflection, in a “personal” way, we refer to them as mind –alleged territory of psychology-, when we use them for communication, in “public”, we identify them as culture –the innate landmark of anthropology- but, in essence, they are not different entities; the symbols are the same and although they may be used with different purposes and in different moments, their meaning is relatively constant and allows both mental and cultural activities. If every member of a society granted to symbols his/her exclusively personal or subjective meanings, not only would communication be impossible, but people would be autistic entities or they would have schizophrenic traits.

Final considerations

There is no doubt that mind and culture are elusive and complex subjects and this fact explains that, both in psychology and anthropology, numerous views and models have been proposed to try to comprehend and understand them; nevertheless, we are still far from an agreement. Some authors, such as D’Andrade (1995),46 have tried to encourage a “cognitive anthropology” but have ignored almost entirely both the sociocultural view and that of psychology -Vygotsky, Bruner, Harré- as the field of symbolic anthropology, focusing almost exclusively on Anglo-Saxon cognitivism. Although these efforts are commendable, their monothematic orientation makes the divorce between anthropology and psychology more evident and, therefore, that between mind and culture.

Nowadays, there still is a very wide spectrum of theoretical proposals on how to understand mind and culture. At first sight, this situation is healthy and desirable because it evidences the peaceful coexistence of opposite views; however, it also manifests the contradictions and incommensurabilities between them. Therefore, it would be beneficial to try to think of basic models or metaphors that allow productive convergences and intercrossings.

There is no clear, physical or definitive separation between mind and culture. Perhaps biology has established, by means of the skin, a conventional perimeter: the one inside and the one outside, the subjective and the objective; in fact, subjectivity is one of the forms of culture and culture is the material expression of the mind. The symbol is an entity that mediates both mental activity and culture and we think its treatment, mainly in anthropology and psychology, would establish a common field that could dissolve the bothersome dichotomies between two domains that, as we have tried to evidence, make up a single space.


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  1. The impact of Darwin’s evolution concept was so deep in social disciplines that some authors, such as Spencer, thought the order of the biological could not and should not be ignored when dealing with the phenomena characteristic of society. Spencer (1876 -1967) was the first to include the superorganic term –which means that social phenomena could not be reduced to biology even though they included it – to characterize the object of study of sociology; a different and irreducible concept in relation to the superorganic term is the supraorganic, which implies that the social is beyond or above biology (cf. M. Hawkins, Social Darwinism on European and American Thought, 1860-943. Nature as Model and Nature as Threat, 1997). []
  2. E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, 1967, p. 19. []
  3. L. H. Morgan, Primitive Society, 1993. []
  4. L. Lévy-Bruhl, How Native thinks, 1968. []
  5. We owe to Ty1or one of the first definitions of culture: a “complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, law and customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (E. B. Ty1or, op.cit., l967, p.34). []
  6. “The human mind, says Lévi-Strauss, is only part of the universe, the need probably exists because there is some order in the universe and the universe is not a chaos” (1995, p. 13). []
  7. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning, 1995, p. 19. []
  8. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, 1969 and The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1985. []
  9. Although Wundt, considered to be the father of psychology, worked very hard on the development of a psychology of the peoples – and though he placed these ideas in ten large volumes- , his proposal of the study of consciousness and his use of the introspective method were considered to be his definitive contributions for the formal establishment of psychology. []
  10. R. Lachman, J. Ladunan and E. Butterfield, Cognitive Psychology and Information Processing, 1983, p. 6. Cursives by the author. []
  11. J. Piaget, Biology and Knowledge, 1969, p. 26. []
  12. Idem. []
  13. As a counterpart, the cultural side of development was Vygotsky’s innate reason and some authors have attempted to articulate these two postures; however, said efforts have not been conclusive and their acceptance has not been generalized; (cf. J. A. Castorina et al., Piaget-Vygotsky. Contribuciones para replantear el debate, 1996 and Lacasa, “Internalization and Acquisition of Concepts: Adolescent thinking from the point of view of Vygotsky and Piaget”, in A. Rosa and J. Wertsch (ecís.), Explorations in socio-historical studies. Historical and Theoretical discourse, Madrid, Fundación Infancia y Aprendizaje, 1994. []
  14. R. Schweder and R. LeVine (eds.), Culture Theory, Essays on Mind, Self and Emotions, 1984. []
  15. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, op. cit., l969, p. 8. This central idea, which Lévi-Strauss himself expresses in a synthesized way in this quotation, only reiterates what he has maintained since The Savage Thought (1970), until The Way of the Masks (1982), and even in his aesthetic analysis. []
  16. L. Lévy-Bruhl, op. cit., 1968. []
  17. To Lévy-Bruhl, the main difference between primitive and modern thought resided in the prelogical mysticism of the former and the rational character of the latter. []
  18. Franz Boas, “The Limitations of the Comparative Anthropological Method”, in P. Bohannan and M. Glazer (eds.), High Points in Anthropology, 1993, p. 75. []
  19. Boas’ intellectual legacy spread vigorously to two of his most outstanding students: Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead; as well as to Edward Sapir who developed –together with the efforts of B. L. Whorf –the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which presupposes an intimate relationship between cultural categories and language. In this article we do not undertake this thematic because it does not enter the problematic we develop; later on, at the main section of this article, the reader interested in a contemporary view on this polemic hypothesis may consult D. I Slobin, “The Development from Child Speaker to Native Speaker”, in J. Stigler, R. Shweder and G. Herdt (eds.), Cultural Psychology, 1990; E. Ochs, In dexicality and socialization”, in J. Stiler, R. Shweder and G. Herdt (eds.), Cultural Psychology, 1990 and R. Owens, Language Development, 1997. []
  20. E. Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, 1982. []
  21. B. F. Skinner, “The Phylogeny and Ontogeny of Behavior”, in Science, 1966. []
  22. Due to reasons of space we do not deal with interpretative sociology or Schutz’s hermeneutics and that of his disciples Berger and Luckman, who also deal with the symbolic dimension of everyday life; however, we must say that we are talking about a similar approach to the tradition discussed in this article. []
  23. Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols, 1980, p. 53. []
  24. C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 1991, p. 334. []
  25. Victor Turner op. cit., 1980, p. 56. []
  26. C. Geertz, Local Knowledge, 1983, p. 58. []
  27. C. Geertz, The Interpretation…, op. cit., 1991, p. 24. []
  28. I. Hodder, Interpreting Archaeology, 1997, p. 169. []
  29. Idem. []
  30. Ibidem. p. 5. []
  31. C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, op. cit., 1991, p. 82. []
  32. The development of this frame of intelligibility is the main reason for a work that is still in process. []
  33. Adrián Medina Liberty, “La construcción simbólica de la mente humana”, in Iztapala 7a, 1994, pp. 9 20 and “La naturaleza narrativa de la mente y de la pedagogía”, in Educar, 1999, p. 50-62. []
  34. L. Vygotsky, op. cit., 1978, p. 89. []
  35. M. Bajtín, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, 1992, p. 35. []
  36. Ibidem, p. 36. []
  37. The links between Peirce and Vygotsky are reviewed in more detail in A. Medina Liberty, La dimensión sociocultural…, 1997. []
  38. C. S. Peirce, Man, a sign, 1988, p. 121. []
  39. The first cognitive revolution in the seventies, which erupted in opposition to Skinnerian behaviorism, was originated by George Miller and Bruner himself; curiously and, as many authors have pointed out (Gardner, 1985; Harré and Gillett, 1994; Cole, 1996), the second revolution in the field of cognition, this time during the eighties and nineties, also had Bruner as its initiator and supporter. []
  40. J. Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, 1986, p. 15. []
  41. J. Bruner, Acts of Meaning, 1990, op. cit., p. 11. []
  42. C. Geertz, The Interpretation…, op. cit., 1991, p. 78. []
  43. Ibidem, p. 77. []
  44. Ibidem, p. 21. []
  45. Ibidem. p. 88. []
  46. R. D’Andrade, The Development of Cognitive Anthropology, 1995. []

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