Dialogue across the divide of anthropology and cognitive science

Last week, my interview with Grace East (my former MA advisee) went up on the CaMP Anthropology blog. Check it out if you want to read some of my thoughts about my book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History and how it relates to broader issues. For reasons of space, the final question and answer of the interview was omitted, so with Grace’s permission, here it is:

GE: As you mention throughout the book, there’s a widespread misconception that numbers are simply tools used for computation, but you craft a larger argument that numbers actually carry immense representational potential. From your discussion of conspicuous computation (“intentional use of large numbers for their visual or psychological effect on the reader”) (42) to your later assertion that inventing number systems among colonized peoples often serves to assert “the right to be considered fully civilized” (139), numbers function as emblems of persuasion, status, identity, and more. What do you see as the possible future(s) of this disciplinary intervention and what kinds of work do you hope to see emerge from this view of numbers?

SC: Frankly, the intervention here is to insist that we see numbers as representations, as signs. A lot of cognitive scientists analyze numbers as part of the narrower subfield of numerical cognition, which is legitimate but incomplete. I’d rather encourage them to see numbers more generally, in terms of attention, perception, and memory.  Those broader topics are a place where anthropologists and cognitive scientists can have much better conversations than have been possible to date.  I think the topics you’ve raised, about numbers as emblems of civilization, as identity markers, and as tools of persuasion, are already well-understood among many humanists and social scientists.  I’m certainly not the first to mention it. So of course there are conversations to have there as well, but they’re ones that lots of folks are already having.   

What’s different in Reckonings, I think, is that at the same time, and using the same kinds of evidence, I insist that this is also a question about human cognition. To be able to go to my colleagues who are non-anthropological cognitive scientists and have a different kind of productive conversation, one that raises these issues, is an important intervention.  And I don’t think it’s at all impossible, or even that difficult!  Once we stop viewing cognitive science as some sort of bogeyman in some sort of turf war, we will actually find a lot of committed, humane scientists “over there” who want to have exactly the sort of conversation I’m hoping that Reckonings will encourage.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: http://phrontistery.info. Blog: http://glossographia.com.

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