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Originally published in Journal of Social and Biological
Structures 13(4): 297-320, 1990
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1990 JAI Press, Inc. All Rights
The Evolution of Cognition
William L. Benzon and David G. Hays
Abstract: With cultural evolution new processes of thought appear.
Abstraction is universal, but rationalization first appeared in ancient
Greece, theorization in Renaissance Italy, and model building in twentieth-century
Europe. These processes employ the methods of metaphor, metalingual definition,
algorithm, and control, respectively. The intellectual and practical achievements
of populations guided by the several processes and exploiting the different
mechanisms differ so greatly as to warrant separation into cultural ranks.
The fourth rank is not completely formed, while regions of the world and
parts of every population continue to operate by the processes of earlier
Evolution is a comparative discipline. In biology one compares species,
their anatomy, physiology, behavior, and ecology. In culture one compares
social structure, economy, technology, and modes of thinking and feeling.
The capacity for comparative analysis requires ways of describing the objects
and phenomena being compared. The descriptive repertoire of biology is
better suited to its subject matter than the descriptive repertoire of
cultural studies. The purpose of this essay is to introduce a descriptive
tool for cultural studies, the concept of cognitive rank.
The material and organizational achievements of cultures of different cognitive
rank are apparent to any observer. The increase in knowledge can be measured
in crude ways: more facts in books and other media. What is not obvious
is that not only the contents but also the processes of thought changed
repeatedly. We call the change in process cognitive evolution.
The concept of cognitive rank tells us nothing about why culture evolves,
nor about why one society evolves and another doesn't, but it does allow
us to conceptualize the difference between a more and a less evolved culture.
It allows us to see how the difference is constructed, without telling
us why that difference was constructed. That "why," important
as it is, is beyond the scope of this essay--though we note our sympathy
with Csikszentmihalyi's (1990) argument that much of the "why"
is rooted in the mind's pleasure in and craving for complexity: culture
evolves because people enjoy performing ever more complex tasks.
Cognitive rank is about the conceptual tools a culture has for the elaboration
of abstract thought. People in all cultures reason abstractly, for that
capacity inheres in language (see Benzon and Hays, 1988). But cultures
differ in their capacity to order and generate abstract concepts. There
are abstract ideas that cannot occur in the thinking of an Eskimo, or even
a literate Florentine, or, for that matter, Darwin, Freud or Einstein.
And, since there is no reason to believe that cognitive evolution has,
or is about to, run its course, abstract ideas will be created which cannot
occur in the most sophisticated systems of thought in current use.
The question of cognitive evolution is motivated by the observation that,
of the many ways in which cultures differ from one another, complexity
is one of the most obvious. An extensive body of research (Levinson &
Malone, 1980) shows that when cultures are compared with respect to such
things as number of levels of political organization, population of the
largest community or of the whole polity, division of labor (number of
crafts, technological diversity), external commerce, means of enforcing
justice and equity, social stratification (caste and class), character
of religion, legitimation of government, use of machinery, sources of power,
kinds and amount of transportation, extent and quantity of communication,
kind and amount of capital investment, some cultures have more than others.
Further, the cultures which are more complex in one arena tend to be more
complex in the others as well. The most obvious route to such differences
is evolution: the more complex cultures emerged from the less complex by
some evolutionary process.
Cognitive evolution, however, is not only about complexity; it is about
sophistication as well. The arithmetic procedures we have been using since
the Renaissance aren't more complex than those used by the Greeks and the
Romans. They are, in fact, simpler. They are also more sophisticated and
thereby much more effective. The cognitive processes of a culture of a
high rank are more sophisticated than those of a culture of lower rank.
In dealing with this complexity and sophistication we need to avoid the
racism which characterized nineteenth century thought on cultural evolution.
Racism was intellectually respectable then and nineteenth-century thinkers
really had no intellectual alternative. They thought that cultural evolution
required better thinking, as indeed it does, and could ascribe improved
thinking only to better brains. They had no theory of information, of learning,
and were nowhere near the essential theory of learning to learn, which
is the crucial link between cognition and cultural evolution.
The Nineteenth-century racists could not distinguish between culture and
biology and assumed that cultural differences had to be explained by biological
differences. But culture is a realm of being unto itself. Its phenomena
cannot be reduced to biological phenomena. Hence a theory of cultural evolution
need not imply anything about the relative merits of one gene pool over
another. Cultural evolution isn't about biology; it is about culture. Cognitive
evolution, as we see it, is a component of cultural evolution.
Yet there must be a biological substrate for culture. The possibility of
culture, perhaps even its necessity (see Geertz, p. 1973), is inherent
in human biology. The brain is the most obvious locus for our capacity
for culture. The brain makes language possible and, by implication, culture.
It is through language that humans elaborate their perceptual, motivational,
navigational, and manipulative abilities into the complex mechanisms of
culture. Language makes us capable of abstract thought, of conceiving,
caring about, and inculcating such things as mana, gravity, justice, electromagnetism,
and so forth. All cultures deal with abstractions but, as a culture evolves,
the diversity and depth of its abstractions increases.
We are here concerned with characterizing this growth in abstractive power.
This growth does not require any biological change. It requires only language.
Any language which is a human language contains within itself the mechanisms
necessary for evolutionary growth. In fact, it is probably more subtle
than this. Whatever it is about the brain which makes language possible,
that is the engine behind culture (see Benzon & Hays, 1988). That is
a subtlety, however, which does not affect the main thrust of our argument.
2 Ontology, Abstraction, and Behavioral Mode
The first order of business is to set forth some of the conceptual machinery
we need. We do that in this section, leaving a discussion of cognitive
evolution to the next section. We begin with a discussion of ontology.
Ontology is a branch of philosophy, but our interest is not philosophical.
It is cognitive; we are interested in ontological thinking. For the basic
nature of ontological categorization changes from cognitive rank to cognitive
rank. From ontology we move to abstraction, thought about matters which
cannot be seen, touched, smelled, etc., and the manipulation of abstraction
by metaphor and rationalization. (Later we introduce some other methods
of manipulation.) We conclude this section with a discussion of neural
Ontology enumerates the primitive categories of existence and the relationships
between them; it is about what philosophers call natural kinds (Quine,
1977). "Animal," "vegetable," and "mineral"
are ontological categories. "Salt" and "sodium chloride"
are terms which designate, more or less, the same substance. But they exist
in different ontologies.
"Salt" is a very simple concept, one adequately defined by its
sensory characteristics, its color, texture, and, above all, its taste.
"Sodium chloride" is not so simple. Despite the fact that it
is the same physical substance as "salt' (minus impurities), it is
conceptually abstract while salt is conceptually concrete. "Sodium
chloride" is defined in terms of other abstractions, such as "atom,"
"crystal," "bond." Sodium chloride is defined in terms
of the ontology of chemistry; in this ontology salt's taste, its most salient
characteristic in the common sense world, doesn't even exist.
A basic ontology is implicit in the structure of the human nervous system
and brain (Benzon & Hays 1988, Jerison 1976). However, it is only gradually
that this implicit ontology becomes explicitly recognized in a culture's
system of thought. That concrete objects, for example, are recognized in
coherent coordinated patterns of visual, tactile, and kinesthetic schemas
seems basic to the nervous system, but the explicit and conscious analysis
of objects into form (primarily visual) and substance (primarily tactile)
requires a relatively sophisticated system of thought.
While we are convinced that a deep understanding of ontological conceptualization
requires a deep understanding of the nervous system, we also know that
providing such an understanding is beyond our current capacity. For further
insight we must proceed from the assumption that the verbal formulas of
a culture reconstruct that culture's experience with its environment. Hence
we turn to language analysis.
Fred Sommer (1963) argued that ontological categories are based on the
types of predicates which can sensibly be asserted of objects. He contrasts
assertions such as:
- (1) The table was made of wood.
- (2) The table was made of linguini.
- (3) The table was made of gossamer thought and airy whimsy.
The first two propositions are perfectly sensible, though the existence
of a table of which (2) is true is very unlikely. But (3) doesn't make
sense. "Thought" and "whimsy" aren't things from which
one can build tables. A table is an inanimate concrete object. Thought
and whimsy are mental events. Concrete objects cannot subsist in mental
Note, however, that what "makes sense" is relative to a culture.
In one culture "The gods told me to act" is ordinary--everyone
says it at one time or another; in another, it is a mark of sanctity; and
in a third, a sign of insanity. The problem of the iron horse was that
it was capable of autonomous motion, a predicate which did not "sensibly"
apply to machines. Once that strange conjunction of machine and motion
had become comfortable terms such as "locomotive" and "automobile"
appeared to "naturalize" the new conception.
It is easy to think about these conceptual structures in terms of the roles
objects are permitted to take in events and actions (see Benzon, 1986).
"Robin," "nasturtium," and "sea cucumber"
can all be the subject to verbs such as "grow," "breed,"
and "die." Things which can play this role with respect to these
events are ontologically different from things which cannot, such as "rock,"
"cloud," and "creek." This pattern of participation
distinguishes living things from inanimate things. Things capable of sensation
(see, hear, touch, etc.) and autonomous locomotion (walk, swim, fly, etc.)
are ontologically different froms things which cannot. By this criterion
animals are differentiated from plants. That is to say, animals can play
the agent or subject role with respect to verbs such as "hear,"
"run," "eat," and "look." Things which can
speak and think are, in turn, different from those which cannot. By this
criterion, human beings are differentiated from animals.
It is a mistake, however, to talk about the ontology of a particular system
of thought. Beyond the simplest cultures, we have to talk about the culture's
mechanisms for generating ontologies, which will generate an ontology for
each specialized domain. All these ontologies will be made from the same
model, but they will be different and only the specialist will grasp the
ontology. The auto mechanic's sensorimotor experience of mechanical devices
is richer than the gardener's, whose sensorimotor experience of plants
is richer than the mechanic's. The ontological categories each constructs
in his or her domain will reflect that sensorimotor richness. Each craft
probably generates an ontology, which is part of growing up a craftsworker.
When we consider cognitive rank we will show that the mechanisms for generating
new ontologies change from rank to rank, from implicit and uncontrollable
to explicit and controlled.
2.2 Abstraction and Metaphor
Although the mechanisms are certainly not well understood, many things
can be identified by sensorimotor characteristics. Things such as a red
maple, a horse's gallop, rain, fish, a mountain, the technique for tieing
a knot, and so forth, can be characterized by such things as color, form,
texture, sound, smell, muscular efforts, and so forth. Much in human thought,
however, is not readily characterized by the sensible and the manipulable.
Honor, gravity, mana, esprit, these things are abstract. And they dominate
our cultural life.
Metaphor is our most basic way of manipulating abstractions (Benzon &
Hays, 1987). Consider, for example, the statement that "Achilles is
a lion in battle." In a standard terminology (Richards, 1936), Achilles
is the tenor , lion the vehicle , and the style they share
is the ground , of the metaphor. In one view that metaphor is just
a fancy way of saying: "Achilles is courageous." In this simple
sentence the ground of the metaphor is directly conveyed rather than indirectly
indicated. Consider, however, the situation of someone who doesn't know
the word "courage"--which is, after all, an abstract concept--but
who is familiar with the behavior of lions. Through the use of a metaphor
that person can indicate the nature of Achille's character. Lacking both
the word and the mechanism of metaphor, that person would be tongue-tied.
The metaphor mechanism, however, isn't restricted to cases like that of
Achilles and the lion. Much of the world's wisdom is captured in proverbs--"The
monkey doesn't see the hump on his own forehead" (Sesuto--see Cendrars,
1927), "A stitch in time saves nine," etc. In Kenneth Burke's
formulation (1973, p. 296) proverbs "are strategies for dealing
with situations ." The process by which the proverb is applied
to the situation is a metaphorical one. The situation is the tenor, the
proverb the vehicle, and the unstated ground is the abstraction, which
is thus indicated in the process of applying it to the situation.
There are always going to be situations beyond the reach of a culture's
lexicon. The use of metaphor is one way to advance into that territory.
We are thus calling up the standard distinction between dead metaphor and
robust metaphor. Dead metaphor is that which has been so used that its
ground is now thoroughly familiar. The river's mouth, the road's shoulder,
the foothills of a mountain range, these metaphors are so dead that we
have to think twice simply to recognize the metaphor. Robust metaphor,
however is the product of poets, of those writers who are called "real"
writers by the critics, the ones who justify the special place in which
poets and writers are put by cultures from ancient China to modern France.
Robust metaphor is the only mechanism we have found for bringing new abstractions
2.3 Abstraction and Rationalization
Abstract concepts may also be exemplified by stories (Hays, 1973, 1976,
1981; Benzon, 1976, 1981; Phillips, 1978; White, 1975). These stories can
be told but, of course, we have no direct access to the abstract concepts
defined in these stories--no more so than we have direct access to the
schemas which encode our sensorimotor apprehension of the world. Just as
metaphor provides one way of manipulating abstractions, so rationalization
provides another, more elaborate, way.
For example, consider "charity." One can't see, smell, taste,
touch, or physically manipulate charity, thus charity must be abstract.
We can, however, define charity as when "someone does something nice
for someone else without thought of reward." This definition is the
result of rationalizing the concept of charity. Metaphor can bring the
abstraction "charity" to mind, but rationalization gives the
mind something to work on. Any story which follows the general pattern
of the definition is an instance of charity. In order to be charitable
one need only identify a person in need, imagine a story in which one does
something nice for that person, and then act to make the imagined story
Notice further that the definition of charity contains terms which themselves
are abstract, such as "reward." There are many tangible things
which may serve as rewards--an apple, a diamond pendant, a roller coaster
ride--but there is no compact way to characterize this class of objects
by its physical properties. Further, the class of things which serve as
rewards will vary from individual to individual, and from time to time
for a given individual. Some rewards, such as fame, are abstract. Similarly,
"nice" and "thought" are abstract.
Finally, note the clause "without thought of reward." No exemplifying
story is likely to contain anything directly corresponding to it in the
way that every such story will contain a person who does something nice
for someone else. These stories may well contain indications and statements
of the thoughts of intentions of the charitable agent but "without
thought of reward" is a statement of what those thoughts and intentions
are not , not of what they are . This clause embodies a judgment
passed on the whole class of exemplifying stories; it is a judgment about
something which isn't in any of them, the lack of which suggests that the
agent's motive must be charity. This clause thus embodies a sophisticated
cognitive operation, an abstraction over the collection of exemplifying
Rationalization guides the culture in the use of language and in characterizing
abstract concepts. We call the definitions that it makes and uses "metalingual"
definitions; one chunk of language, by rationalization, is used to define
another, the abstract term. Through the mechanism of metalingual definition
language allows us to pile abstraction upon abstraction. That is one capacity
we need to build a culture.
2.4 Neural Implementation
Our last piece of conceptual apparatus is peculiar in that we won't actually
make use of it. All of the cognitive processes we discuss must be embodied
in the human brain. However, that brain is essentially the same for all
people in all cultures. We therefore want to make some general remarks
on how significantly different cognitive processes can be embodied in one
and the same neural structure.
The key concept is that of mode, as formulated by Warren McCulloch (Kilmer
et al., 1969). The basic idea is that different tasks--exploration, feeding,
courting, fighting, etc.--make different demands on the brain. Processing
in a given brain region may be very important for one task, of moderate
value for another, and of little use in a third task. Thus for a given
task some brain areas will be very active, others less so in varying degrees,
and still other regions will be quiescent. Such a global pattern of activity
is a behavioral mode (cf. Thatcher and John 1977. pp. 220-221, 305-307).
Recent observations have brought this concept vividly to light. Studies
of cerebral blood flow (Lassen et al., 1978) and cerebral metabolism (Phelps
and Mazziotta, 1985; see also Posner at al., 1988) show dramatically different
patterns of cerebral activity for different kinds of task. Visual perception
tasks show one pattern of activation while voluntary movement has another;
speaking, reading silently, and reading aloud, all exhibit different patterns.
In our view the neural correlate of cognitive rank is to be found in these
patterns of brain activation. The activities of reading and writing require
patterns of brain activity which don't exist in illiterate peoples. These
new patterns of brain activity support modes of analysis and synthesis
not possible in other modes; hence concepts of a new kind become possible.
Other cultural inventions--we are particularly concerned about algorithmic
calculation and computer programming--have similar effects. The creation
of a new brain thus does not require genetically driven changes in brain
structure; it requires only culturally driven changes in cognitive technology,
what Marshall McLuhan (1962) called "media". McLuhan discussed
the way different media change the "sense ratios" of a culture,
making it more or less auditory or visual or olfactory, etc. To us a culture
with a high auditory sense ratio (for example) is one in which many persons
spend much time in an auditory mode.
The basic idea of cognitive rank was suggested by Walter Wiora's work
(1965) on the history of music. Wiora argued that music history be divided
into four ages. The first age was that of music in preliterate societies
and the second age was that of the ancient high civilizations. The third
age is that which Western music entered during and after the Renaissance.
The fourth age began with this century. (For a similar four stage theory
based on estimates of informatic capacity, see Robertson, 1990.)
This scheme is simple enough. What was so striking to us was that so many
facets of culture and society could be organized into these same historical
strata. It is a commonplace that all aspects of Western culture and society
underwent a profound change during the Renaissance. The modern nation state
was born (Gellner 1983), the scientific revolution happened (Butterfield,
1957; Cohen, 1960), art adopted new forms of realistic depiction (Gombrich,
1960), attitudes toward children underwent a major change (Aries, 1962),
as did the nature of marriage and family (Stone, 1977), new forms of commerce
were adopted (Braudel, 1981-1984), and so forth. If we look at the early
part of our own century we see major changes in all realms of symbolic
activity--mathematics, the sciences, the arts--while many of our social
and political forms remain structured on older models.
The transition between preliterate and literate societies cannot easily
be examined because we know preliterate societies only by the bones and
artifacts they've left behind, and the historical record of the ancient
high civilisations is not a very good one. Instead we have to infer the
nature of these ancient cultures by reference to modern anthropological
investigations of preliterate cultures (just as biologists must often make
inferences about the anatomy, physiology, and behavior of extinct species
by calling on knowledge of related extant species). When we make the relevant
comparisons we see extensive differences in all spheres.
Social order in preliterate societies may involve nothing more than family
relationships, or at most the society extends kinship by positing ancient
common ancestors. With little or no apparatus of government, civil order
is maintained by feud or fear of feud. In literate societies, social order
is kept by etiquette, contract, and courts of equity, and civil order is
maintained by police and courts of justice. In preliterate societies each
community, of 5 to 500 members (and generally less than 200) is autonomous
until (about 6000 years ago) chiefdoms appear in a few places, and groups
of villages forced into submission (Carneiro, 1981). In literate societies
villages grow into towns and cities, which organize the villages of their
hinterlands into kingdoms. Preliterate societies depend on the skills of
hunting and gathering, of slash-and-burn farming, pottery, and a few more
crafts, which are sound and effective where they exist. In literate societies
certain persons trained to think choose to think about farming and write
manuals for the agrarian proprietor--and eventually manuals of other crafts
appear. Finally, Lawrence Kohlberg (1981, pp. 128 ff., 233 ff.) has found
evidence that people in preliterate societies have less sophisticated moral
concepts than people in literate societies.
The appearance of writing was followed by the Mosaic law and the prophets
of Israel, and by the Periclean Age in Athens. The architecture, democratic
political system, and above all the philosophy--both natural and moral--of
the Hebrews and Greeks was so different from all predecessors that we tend
to think of our civilization as beginning with them. In fact, a period
of cultural regression followed the fall of Rome and before the Renaissance
could begin a "little renaissance" beginning about A.D. 1000
and reaching its peak with Aquinas in the 13th Century was necessary to
raise Europe once more to a literate level. Our civilization combines elements
of Greek, Roman, and Hebrew antiquity with Moslem, Indian, Chinese, and
We are suggesting that these four ages, the systematic differences between
cultures at these four levels of cultural evolution, are based on differences
in cognitive mechanism. As cultures evolve they differentiate and become
more complex and sophisticated, the more sophisticated cultures having
cognitive mechanisms unavailable to the less sophisticated. Over the long
term this process is discontinuous. That is, at some point in the evolution
of a culture a new kind of thinking becomes available which permits a dramatic
reworking of culture. This new kind of thinking is engendered by a new
capacity for manipulation of abstractions.
These several kinds of thinking are cumulative; a simpler kind of thinking
does not disappear from a culture upon the introduction of a more complex
kind. A culture is assigned a rank according to the highest kind of thinking
available to a substantial fraction of its population (cf. Kohlberg, 1981,
p. 129). That a culture is said to be of Rank 3 thus doesn't imply that
all adult members have a Rank 3 system of thought. It means only that an
influential group, a managing elite if you will, operates with a Rank 3
cognitive system. The rest of the population will have Rank 1 and Rank
2 conceptual systems.
Each cognitive process is associated with a new conceptual mechanism, which
makes the process possible, and a new conceptual medium which allows the
mechanism and process to become routine in the culture. This is an important
point. The general effectiveness of a culture is not determined by the
achievements of a few of its most gifted members. What matters is what
a significant, though perhaps small, portion of the population can achieve
on a routine basis. The conceptual medium allows for the creation of an
educational regime through which a significant portion of the population
can learn effectively to exploit the cognitive process, can learn to learn
in a new way. Our basic scheme is as follows:
In an earlier paper (Benzon & Hays, 1988) we argued that the human
brain is organized into five layers of perceptual and cognitive processors.
We called the top layer the gnomonic system and thought of it as organizing
the interaction between the lower four layers (see also Hays, 1981). All
abstractions form in the gnomonic system and the cognitive processes we
are concerned about here are all regulated by this gnomonic system. Hence
for the purposes of this paper it is convenient to collapse this system
into a two-level structure, with the gnomonic layer on top in an abstraction
system and the other four layers on the bottom, collectively, the concrete
With a Rank 2 structure, Aristotle was able to write his philosophy. He
presented it as an analysis of nature but we take it to be a reconstruction
of the prior cognitive structure. In the Renaissance, some thinkers developed
cognitive structures of Rank 3. Exploitation of such structures produced
all of science up through the late nineteenth century. Beginning, perhaps,
with Darwin and going on to Freud, Einstein, and many others, a new kind
of cognitive process appears. To account for it, we call on Rank 4 process.
We understand earlier science to be a search for the one true theory of
nature, whereas we understand the advanced part of contemporary science
to be capable of considering a dozen alternative theories of nature before
breakfast (with apologies to Lewis Carroll). The new thinker can think
about what the old thinker thought with. And indeed we use that sentence
to summarize the advance of each cognitive rank over its predecessor.
3.1 Rank 1: What's In a Name?
Rank 1 cultures run the gamut from simple roving bands of hunter-gatherers
to quasi-states living in large permanent settlements. The peoples living
in the Americas when the Europeans first arrived are all Rank 1 cultures,
from roving bands which followed the buffalo in the central plains of North
America to the Aztec, Maya, and Inca empires. The range of complexity across
these societies is great, but all are within the compass of Rank 1 cognitive
The emergence of language catalyzed the emergence of Rank 1 culture. What
is critical about language is that it enabled people willfully to manipulate
their mental processes, to gain control of consciousness (see Jerison,
1976, Vygotsky, 1962; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, discusses the manipulation
of consciousness in a way which is relevant here). With language people
can call up thoughts of events long past and far away, thoughts of events
which haven't happened yet, even stories about purely imaginary beings
and deeds. Through language it is possible for an individual to summon
a multiplicity of concepts and images to mind in a relatively short time
and to bring the mind's synthesizing and analytic capacities to bear on
this multiplicity. In ten minutes, a half-hour, an hour, more or less,
a story can cover a much greater range of experience than would be accessible
in the same period of time if one had to go there to see, hear, taste,
and do it, whatever the "it" might be. In a short time one can
tell a story which ranges across the entire geography inhabited by one's
culture. But to travel that territory might take days, or weeks, or more.
Much of the abstract knowledge of Rank 1 cultures is carried in myth. Levi-Strauss
(1969) has shown that, however bizarre the events of a myth may seem to
us, myth is governed by a rigorous and relentless logic in which schemes
of kinship, geography, the satisfaction of biological needs, and cosmography
are subject to the same ordering principles. In his analysis of a Tsimshian
myth about the culture hero Asdiwal, Levi-Strauss (1976) shows that the
story is based on the need to resolve these underlying oppositions:
These four sets of concepts are in metaphorical correspondence. Low, earth,
man, and endogamy are metaphorically equivalent through their opposition
to high, heaven, woman, exogamy. Myth serves to bring these concepts into
abstract relationship with one another thereby bringing order to the conceptual
world. Such symbolic constructions constitute the norms by which individuals
in Rank 1 cultures live.
A Rank 1 ontology consists simply of a listing of the types recognized
by the culture, with some subcategorization. General categories such as
"plant" and "animal" are very rare at this level and
even categories such as "bird," "beast," and "fish,"
are not routinely used (Berlin et al., 1973). The commonest categories
are at the level of "oak," "eagle," and "trout,"
with some subcategories, "white oak," "bald eagle,"
and "rainbow trout." Rank 1 peoples certainly have a practical
knowledge of differences between plants and animals--they don't set snares
for plants or expect animals to stay in the same place, but the conceptual
basis of that practical knowledge is not made explicit in their systems
To illustrate this, let's consider an example recorded by the Russian psychologist
A. R. Luria. In 1931-32 Luria made observations on the effect which literacy
training had on the thought processes of Uzbekistani peasants. The following
exchange took place with an illiterate thirty-eight year old adult (Luria,
1976, pp. 81-82).
What do a chicken and a dog have in common?
"They're not alike. A chicken has two legs, a dog has four. A
chicken has wings but a dog doesn't. A dog has ears and a chicken's are
You've told me what is different about them. How are they alike?
"They're not alike at all."
Is there one word you could use for them both?
"No, of course not."
What word fits both a chicken and a dog?
"I don't know."
Would the word "animal" fit?
Immediately after this exchange the subject was asked about fish and crow.
When the subject denied that they had anything in common he was asked whether
one word could be used for both. He replied, "If you call them animals,
that wouldn't be right. A fish isn't an animal and a crow isn't either.
A crow can eat a fish but a fish can't eat a bird. A person can eat a fish
but not a crow."
While the subject is acquainted with the word "animal," he doesn't
thoroughly knows its meaning. It took a great deal of prompting for him
to agree that chicken and dog were both animals and, having so agreed,
he was unable to apply the term to fish and crow. The concept clearly was
not one he routinely used. The subject's comments about the difference
between chicken and dog suggests that he cannot form a generalization which
covers both. That is, there is no easy way to eliminate extraneous detail
from his concepts of dog and chicken so that the same conceptual core remains
in each case. The similarity between wings and forelimbs is not at all
compelling to this peasant, nor would it be to any but a biologist or those
whose view of the world has been informed by the biologist's thought.
Notice further that in justifying his account of fish and crow the subject
talked about the roles which "fish," "crow," and "person"
can take with the verb "eat." This is the sort of consideration
which generates ontological categories, but this subject clearly couldn't
get to a meta level from which he could explicitly grasp this categorization.
The Rank 1 thinker can form metaphors and proverbs, and thus get abstract
ideas into his or her higher level of cognition. These abstractions influence
perception and behavior, giving an organization to sense-data that no animal
can have. But the Rank 1 thinker lacks a structure that permits comparative
judgment between alternative abstractions, or any other intellective assessment.
(See Le Pan's, 1989, critique of African religion for illustrations.)
3.2 Rank 2: The Letter of the Law
Writing is critical not only because it allows the stable representation
of thoughts but also because it forces thinking about thought. In contemplating
the written word, scribes and sages begin systematically to think about
words, the sequencing of words, and, inevitably, about the mental processes
behind words, about thought. They were able to do this because they could
see a text as a whole, they could get outside the flow of discourse as
no illiterate speaker or hearer could do. They had to do this in order
to create and refine the conventions of written discourse. For writing
imposes much stricter requirements of completeness and grammaticality to
make up for the lack of paralinguistic and contextual clues available in
face-to-face conversation, not to mention the ability to question the speaker
about anything one doesn't understand. The writer is inherently more self-conscious
than the speaker and such self-consciousness is likely to engender thought
about writing, language, and ultimately, about thought itself.
While the capacity to formulate discourse about language is intrinsic to
language--Roman Jakobson (1961) called this the metalingual function--the
use of writing facilitates such metalinguality. With writing the text becomes
a sense-data entity of a much more palpable sort than the airy nothings
which carry speech from tongue to ear. Metalinguality thus can first be
about the text, and then by abstraction about the language and the thought
that the text represents. The problem of creating and using a writing system
thus moved metalinguality to the point of engendering a new process of
thought, rationalization, through the form of metalingual definition.
Recall the analysis of charity. "Charity" could be given meaning
by recounting various instances of charity, just as "apple" can
be given meaning by pointing to various instances. The rationalization,
"when someone does something nice for someone else without thought
of a reward," expresses an abstraction over the collection of exemplifying
instances. The use of such rationalizations is what we are asserting is
new to Rank 2 culture. People in Rank 1 cultures have abstractions, but
have only proverbs and myths for expressing them. The mechanism of metalingual
definition allows a Rank 2 culture explicitly to convey its abstract knowlege
through rationalizations. With conveyance comes the possiblity of intellectual
analysis, of philosophy, and of mathematics as well.
With the emergence of philosophy comes the explicit construction of ontology.
In his Categories Aristotle states that all assertions are about
substance, quantity, quality, relation, time, position, action, or passivity.
These categories constitute an ontology, an assertion of the main aspects
of reality. In his treatise On the Soul Aristotle analyzes the soul
as a substance and argues that it has a hierarchy of functions: the nutritive,
the perceptive, the locomotive, and intellective. Living things can be
arranged in a hierarchy according to how many of these faculties each possesses,
thus giving us an account of the varying capacities of plants, animals,
The Rank 2 abstractive system thus has two mechanisms available to it:
metaphor and metalingual definition. Metaphor, the basic mechanism for
managing abstraction, rides at the "top" of the system, as it
did at Rank 1, and brings new abstractions into awareness. The metalingual
mechanism rationalizes the ontology implicit in the relationships between
objects and events in the concrete domain. This yields the categorical
thinking of Rank 2 philosophical thought. The world is distributed into
a set of categories--which, in the West, became the Great Chain of Being--and
explanations are formulated in terms of these categories. Each thing acts
in accordance with the capabilities of its category. The problem is to
determine its category and assimilate its actions to the capacities inherent
in its category.
Consider how much of philosophy is devoted to the definition of terms,
to rationalizing their meaning. To be sure, the discussion quickly moves
beyond the scope that dictionaries allot to definitions, so far beyond
that scope that we generally do not think of philosophical thought as elaborating
definitions. But that is what is happening. Plato writes his Republic to
define "justice" and, in the process, gives us a doctrine of
the state, the just state. The rationalizations of abstract terms are not
generally the simple sorts of statements we used in discussing "charity."
These rationalizations are pages and pages and books and libraries of thought.
Rank 2 thought consists in the explicit and extensive elaboration of metalingual
definitions. In the process of defining one term many other terms must
be used, and the meanings of those terms must be elaborated as well, and
so forth. This whole process is guided, intuitively, by metaphor (cf. Pepper
1942, White 1973, Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). The Great Chain of Being is,
itself, one such master metaphor.
The development of writing took several thousand years, from the first
mnemonic marks to the fixing of an alphabet with distinct marks for all
the consonants and vowels of Greek. The philosophies of the Hebrews (with
a consonantal alphabet) and the Greeks (with a full alphabet) followed
in less than a thousand years after their alphabets.
Alphabetic writing is critical, in part, because it is the only form of
writing which can be readily routinized. As Erik Havelock has argued (1982)
a logographic or ideographic system such as the Chinese used requires the
memorization of thousands of visual symbols. Syllabaries, while having
a much more limited number of symbols, often produced ambiguous texts requiring
skilled experts to determine just what words were intended.
3.3 Rank 3: Subject and Object
The role which speech plays in Rank 1 thought, and writing plays in Rank
2 thought, is taken by calculation in Rank 3 thought (see Havelock, 1982,
pp. 341 ff.). Writing appears in Rank 1 cultures and proves to be a medium
for Rank 2 thinking. Calculation in a strict sense appears in Rank 2 and
proves to be a medium for Rank 3 thinking. Rank 2 thinkers developed a
perspicuous notation and algorithms. It remained for Rank 3 thinkers to
exploit calculational algorithms effectively. An algorithm is a procedure
for computation which is explicit in the sense that all of its steps are
specified and effective in the sense that the procedure will produce the
correct answer. The procedures of arithmetic calculation which we teach
in elementary school are algorithms.
These procedures are so familiar to us, and so obviously elementary, that
we forget that their creation was a major cultural achievement--attempting
long division in Roman numerals, however, should remind us of just how
very difficult computation can be without a good system of notation. Nor
did the ancients have explicit rules of procedure. Marrou, in describing
education in the Hellenistic period, writes (1956, p. 158):
Strange though it may seem at first, it is nevertheless quite clear that
addition, subtraction, multiplication and division ... were, in antiquity,
far beyond the horizon of any primary school. The widespread use of calculating-tables
and counting-machines shows that not many people could add up--and this
goes on being true to a much later date, even in educated circles.
In an additional note (p. 410), Marrou remarks that adults would often
write out multiplication tables for themselves, presumably because they
could not obtain answers out of their heads. Without a good system of notation
the formulation of algorithms is so difficult that a complete set wasn't
created for any number system other than the Indo-Arabic. Before these
procedures were gathered and codified the calculations our children routinely
make required the full attention of educated adults, who solved them on
a case-by-case basis (Childe 1936/1951, pp. 152-153):
The mathematical texts are simply concrete examples of different problems
worked out in full. They illustrate to the reader how to do sums of various
kinds. But by themselves such series of examples could hardly suffice to
enlighten a novice as to new methods nor impart to him fresh knowledge.
They must have been intended as supplements to oral instruction.
But Childe has no evidence about the oral instruction, and Marrou seems
to believe that there was none. In the twentieth century we have taught
psychiatry, business management, and the law by the method of case study.
What has to be accepted as fact--however "Strange though it may seem
at first"--is that up to the Renaissance elementary arithmetic was
taught in just that way, and, we hold, for the same reason: The kind of
thinking that was available in the culture could just manage the substance
of the matter but could not rise above it to abstract and rationalize the
The algorithms of arithmetic were collected by Abu Ja'far Mohammed ibn
Musa al-Khowarizm around 825 AD in his treatise Kitab al jabr w'al-muqabala
(Penrose 1989). They received an effective European exposition in Leonardo
Fibonacci's 1202 work on Algebra et almuchabala (Ball 1908). It
is easy enough to see that algorithms were important in the eventual emergence
of science, with all the calculations so required. But they are important
on another score. Algorithms were the first purely informatic procedures
which had been fully codified. Writing focused attention on language, but
it never fully revealed the processes of language (we are still working
on that). A thinker contemplating an algorithm can see the complete computational
process, fully revealed.
The amazing thing about algorithmic calculation is that it always works.
If two, or three, or four, people make the calculation, they all come up
with the same answer. This is not true of non-algorithmic calculation,
where procedures were developed on a case-by-case basis with no statements
of general principles. In this situation some arithmeticians are going
to get right answers more often than others, but no one can be sure of
hitting on the right answer every time.
This ad hoc intellectual style, moreover, would make it almost impossible
to sense the underlying integrity of the arithmetic system, the display
of its workings independently of the ingenious efforts of the arithmetician.
The ancients were as interested in magical properties of numbers as in
separating the odd from the even (Marrou, pp. 179-181). By interposing
explicit procedures between the arithmetician and his numbers, algorithmic
systems contribute to the intuition of a firm subject-object distinction.
The world of algorithmic calculations is the same for all arithmeticians
and is therefore essentially distinct from them. It is a self-contained
universe of objects (numbers) and processes (the algorithms). The stage
is now set for experimental science. Science presents us with a mechanistic
world and adopts the experimental test as its way of maintaining objectivity.
A theory is true if its conceptual mechanism (its "algorithm")
suggests observations which are subsequently confirmed by different observers.
Just as the results of calculation can be checked, so can theories.
In this respect, theory differs from definition. The test of a definition
is that it suffices for the cognitive process of rationalization. The thinker
explores a network of definitions, from charity to reward, from reward
to the abstractions needed in defining it, and so on step by step. If this
expansion leads to a sense of satisfaction, perhaps specifically a sense
of coherence, then the thinker accepts the new definition, and claims to
know what charity is. The thinker may also be able to decide whether a
specific incident is an act of charity. But the process of exploration
is not under the overt control of the thinker--it is meditation, not calculation.
The thinker who has an algorithm does not enact it or meditate on it, but
executes it. From this difference in process follows the fact that theories
can be checked--the observations and calculations of different workers
can be compared--but not definitions.
Galileo's distinction between primary and secondary qualities is an important
one, for it echoes the subject-object distinction (Butterfield, 1957, p.
100). The primary qualities of an object are those which can be measured--shape,
size, quantity, and motion--and can be said to inhere in the object. The
secondary qualities of taste, color, sound, and smell depend on the existence
of tongues, eyes, ears, and noses to detect them. Galileo thus asserted
that these secondary qualities do not inhere in objects themselves; they
are subjective. We may wish to question Galileo's primary-secondary distinction
on various grounds, but the important point is that he made it and saw
it as having to do with the difference between subject and object.
The world of classical antiquity was altogether static. The glories of
Greece were Platonic ideals and Euclidean geometry, Phidias's sculptures
and marble temples. Although Mediterranean antiquity knew the wheel, it
did not know mechanism. Water mills were tried, but not much used. Hero
of Alexandria invented toys large and small with moving parts, but nothing
practical came of them. Historians generally assert that the ancients did
not need mechanism because they had surplus labor, but it seems to us more
credible to say that they did not exploit mechanisms because their culture
did not tolerate the idea. With the little Renaissance, the first machine
with two co-ordinated motions, a sawmill that both pushed the log and turned
the saw blade, turned up (White, 1978, p. 80). Was it something in Germanic
culture, or the effect of bringing together the cultures of Greece and
Rome, of Islam and the East, that brought a sense of mechanism? We hope
to learn more about this question, but for the moment we have to leave
What we can see is that generalizations of the idea of mechanism would
be fruitful for technology (and they were), but that it would take an abstraction
to produce a new view of nature. The algorithm can be understood in just
this way. If its originators in India disregarded mechanism, and the north
European developers of mechanism lacked the abstraction, it would only
be the accidental propinquity of the two that generated a result. Put the
abstract version together in one culture with a host of concrete examples,
and by metaphor lay out the idea of the universe as a great machine. What
is characteristic of machines is their temporality; a static machine is
not a machine at all. And, with that, further add the co-ordination of
motions as in the sawmill. Galileo discovered that force alters acceleration,
not velocity (a discovery about temporality) and during the next few centuries
mechanical clocks were made successfully. The notion of a clockwork universe
spread across Europe (note that the Chinese had clockworks in the 11th
Century, but never developed the notion of a clockwork universe--see Needham,
1981). For any machine, it is possible to make functional diagrams and
describe the relative motions of the parts; and the theories of classical
science can be understood as functional diagrams of nature, with descriptions
of the relative motions of the parts.
Causality came to have a mechanical interpretation in Rank 3 scientific
thought. In a machine, chains of causality are easy to trace: the flow
of water causes the wheel to turn, the wheel (through gears) causes the
camshaft to turn, the cams cause the hammers to rise and permit them to
fall on the hot iron. Le Pan (1989), who argues for new processes of thought
in England around the time of Shakespeare, having to do with time, causation,
and probability (page x), suggests that the diffusion of clocks facilitated
the emergence of psychological expectation (pp. 82-111).
3.4 Rank 4: Modern, Post-Modern, and All that
Two decades ago counter-cultural savants in the West proclaimed the coming
of an Aquarian Age. A decade ago different savants eagerly anticipated
the emergence of an Information Age (Toffler, 1973). Is this just millenial
fever triggered by anticipation of the turn of the next millenium--as years
ago our European ancestors anticipated the second coming of Christ with
approach of the year 1000--or is something really happening?
There is no definitive way of refuting the view that nothing is happening.
But, those who maintain it must at least admit that, in the past, there
have been major changes in culture and so such changes are at least possible.
At the very least, those who argue that we are undergoing some form of
radical change are not arguing for something we know has never happened.
We are of the view that, once again, culture is evolving toward a new rank
and that most of the intellectual and artistic displacement we are seeing
reflects these growing pains. This new cognitive rank, Rank 4, has its
origins in two developments in late nineteenth century thought: the creation
of formal systems of logic and metamathematics and the emergence of non-mechanistic
The metamathematical work of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
was intended to provide rigorous deductive foundations for all branches
of mathematics and to unify these branches into one coherent system. The
work in logic was concerned, on the one hand, with developments in mathematics,
but was also concerned about formulating general mechanisms for the formulation
of any type of proposition so that the propositions of science could be
formulated in a giant deductive system from which truths could be cranked
out on a routine basis. Thus the development of the propositional calculus
and set theory, whatever their importance for metamathematics, also looked
toward the world and got some thinkers into the habit of translating propositions
from ordinary language into logical forms. Thus logic became a set of formal
tools in which other conceptual systems--mathematical and scientific--could
be represented. As the physical sciences moved more abstractly into the
physical world, logic moved more abstractly into the informatic world.
The new scientific style was forced further and further from a mechanistic
universe by hard facts of the most intransigent and nonmechanistic sort.
Thermodynamics provides the prototype, with biology (evolution) right behind
(Prigogine & Stengers, 1984). Perhaps the most deeply unnerving case,
however, is that of quantum mechanics. That light behaved in some experiments
like waves and in other experiments like particles was uncomfortable. To
explain what they could see, physicists had to imagine a quantum world
that they could not see: In principle and not in mere practice, the quantum
world is not observable (Penrose, 1989). Yet it provides a framework for
mathematical derivations that explain, if that is the right word, the observations
that can be made in our world. The fact of the matter is, Rank 4 science
is as different from Rank 3 science as Rank 3 science is from Rank 2 natural
philosophy. Sophisticated logic and mathematics become ever more necessary
to thought. To admit the forces and the intangible particles without logic
and mathematics to regulate explanation would be to readmit magic and superstition.
Time itself comes under new scrutiny. Not until the turn of the 20th century
was motion was studied in enough detail so as to provide descriptions of
complex irregular movement. Motion pictures, photographs showing the paths
taken by hands performing a task, time-motion studies in factories, and
paintings of a single subject at several stages of an action all turned
up more or less together. This conceptual foregrounding of temporality,
when combined with metamathematical and logical reasoning, led to the development
of the abstract theory of computing between the world wars.
The central work is Turing's explication of the algorithm. Rank 3 had concocted
and used algorithms, but Turing explained what an algorithm was. In order
to formulate the algorithm Turing had to think explicitly about the control
of events in time. He described his machines as performing an action at
a certain time; then another action at the next moment; and so on for as
many consecutive moments and actions as necessary. His universal machine,
a purely abstract construction, was an algorithm for the execution of any
algorithm whatsoever. With it, he showed that no interesting formal system
can be complete in the sense of furnishing a proof for every true statement.
(Others reached the same conclusion by other methods, and he missed being
first by a brief interval.)
It took the work of von Neumann, and others, however, to embody Turing's
account of the algorithm in a physical device: the computer (Bernstein,
1964, pp. 60 ff.). Of particular importance is von Neumann's use of the
conditional jump as a control structure. In a computer all of the data
and instructions are kept in a long list. The computer operates on this
list by taking an item, operating on it, and then moving to the next item,
operating on it, and so forth, item after item. For purely mathematical
purposes such an arrangement is fine--it is how Turing thought of his abstract
machines. For practical computing, however, this is not a good arrangement.
For practical purposes you want to be able to access any piece of data,
and any instruction, whenever you need it, regardless of whether it is
next in line. There is no practical way of arranging things so that the
next item needed is always the next one in line; you need to jump around.
Von Neumann's conditional jump allows this. The basic idea is that one
applies a test to the current state of the computation. Where the computation
moves next depends on the outcome of the test. In principle the computation
could move to any instruction and any piece of data regardless of where
that item is; it need not be the next one in the list. Much of the art
of programming consists in the ordering and manipulation of such control
structures. From a purely mathematical point of view they are unnecessary.
But without them there would be no practical programs, no art of programming.
For this reason we think of control structure, starting with von Neumann's
conditional jump, as the Rank 4 conceptual mechanism, corresponding to
the Rank 3 algorithm and the Rank 2 metalingual definition.
Yet the thinker of Rank 4 is not a Turing machine but a user of both objective
models and algorithmic theories of them. The way out of the impasse found
by Goedel, Turing, and others is to remember always that it is possible
to construct a new Turing machine to prove what the former could not prove.
The loss of sense data as a faithful representation of reality on acceptance
of quantum mechanics and the loss of total deducibility in metamathematics
led to a crisis in Rank 3 thought. But Rank 4 can accept the situation
and exploit it to obtain both the transistors and the programs of digital
computers--pragmatic justification for Rank 4's extraordinarily sophisticated
conceptual processes. Its models of nonobservable phenomena are useful.
Freud, also, was driven to imagine a world that cannot be observed. From
the unconscious come dreams, tics, and all the psychopathology of everyday
life; but the unconscious mind cannot actually be made conscious by any
method. The mathematical derivations of the physicists make possible precise
tests, and the results are too good to admit of argument. The hermeneutic
derivations of the psychoanalyst are not algorithmic, and make possible
only rather vague tests. Freudian theory remains a topic of much contention.
And now we join the long parade, with a component of cognitive structure
that, we say, lies in principle beyond direct observation, the gnomonic
component that forms abstractions. It may have correlates that can be observed
with electronic instruments, but they are not the thing itself. For the
present our theory cannot escape contention, but we are convinced, first,
that our apparatus is as simple as any that can account for thought, and
second, that the possibility of close experimental verification waits only
on development of the theory and of psychological methodology.
3.5 Cognitive Rank and Cultural Diversity
The vast majority of the world's cultures have Rank 1 cognitive systems.
All of the cultures indigenous to North and South America, sub-Saharan
Africa, Australia, Polynesia and Micronesia, Siberia, and the hill country
of Southeast Asia are Rank 1 cultures. Rank 1 cultures are very diverse
because the evolutionary criterion--effectiveness--is relatively lax in
the demands it makes on culture patterns. The range of things a people
must do to ensure their physical survival is relatively narrow in comparison
to the mind's need and capacity to bring conceptual order to the world.
The collective cultural inventiveness of Rank 1 cultures far exceeds the
requirements of physical survival. The number of distinct and independent
Rank 1 cultures thus numbers in the thousands.
There have been only 3 or 4 independently arising Rank 2 cultures, the
rest all arising through diffusion or conquest. Around the eastern Mediterranean,
from Egypt and Mesopotamia up through the Hebrews and Greeks to Rome: that
is one. Harappan civilization in the Indus basin: that is two, but with
possible linkage to the eastern Mediterranean. China: that is three, and
the possibility of remote linkage exists there as well. Islam is perhaps
regressive, and altogether derivative. Muscovite and Byzantine are derivative
as well. By our standards the American cultures (Aztec, Mayan, Inca) did
not quite reach rank 2.
The range of diversity among Rank 2 cultures is high, but perhaps not so
high as that among Rank 1 cultures. Rank 2 polities, however, are more
internally diverse than Rank 1 polities, in part because many Rank 2 polities
have incorporated a variety of Rank 1 polities through conquest.
Rank 3 cognition happened, independently, only once, in Western Europe
during the period called the Renaissance. It remains to be seen whether
or not, or in what sense, Rank 3 culture admits of variety. Certainly in
one respect, science and technology, there is only one Rank 3 culture.
But, is democracy of one sort or another the only viable rank 3 political
system? Possibly the Rank 3 contents of culture are so constrained under
the force of three mechanisms of abstraction that there is no variety possible--or
perhaps possible, but not obvious.
Edwin O. Reischauer's (1977, p. 288) remark that we should think of Japan
as becoming modernized, as opposed to becoming Westernized, suggests that
Japan is evolving a Rank 3 culture which is, in many respects, different
from the Rank 3 culture of the West. Perhaps, for example, we should think
of the much-studied Japanese corporation (Ouchi, 1981; or Halberstam, 1986)
as a non-Western way of organizing Rank 3 business and manufacturing tasks.
Within the United States, the emergence of jazz provides a different example.
Jazz is quite different from classical, or European (and European-derived)
music, and some authorities maintain it has a sophistication and expressive
power which is equivalent to classical music (Collier, 1978; Williams,
1983). If so, then jazz is a Rank 3 music which is quite different from
the Rank 3 music of Europe, suggesting that Rank 3 culture isn't restricted
to the lines of development implicit in Western Europe of the Renaissance.
As far as we can tell Rank 4 culture exists only in various intellectual
and artistic realms. The earliest teaching of rank 4 was presumably in
a few graduate departments of physics and mathematics. After World War
II, a few other disciplines reached that level, but only in certain universities.
In the proliferation of new "interdisciplinary" ventures one
can readily distinguish between those that combine elements of two recognized
disciplines without generating much that is new, and those that lay out
two disciplines side by side only to transcend them; the latter are likely
to be teaching Rank 4 ideas. In the 1980s, several graduate schools of
management adopted curricula incorporating such things as operations research,
decision theory, and game theory in a way that rises above Rank 3. The
remarkable suggestion, made by the government of the USSR in 1989, that
a world-wide referendum determine whether East and West Germany could reunite,
gives some hint of what might be expected in a Rank 4 political system.
Twenty years ago, most countries claimed that human rights were a matter
of national sovereignty; more recently, many countries have agreed that
suppression of rights anywhere is a matter of universal concern.
As we have noted, it is our view that Rank 4 cognition exists in only a
few arenas. Beyond that, we think that computing has not advanced to the
point where it can serve as a means of routinizing Rank 4 thought in the
way that algorithmic calculation served Rank 3, writing served Rank 2,
and speech, Rank 1. The evolution of Rank 4 cognition is thus very much
in progress. The purpose of this section is to examine this situation and
outline the cultural process which will resolve the situation.
4.1 The Thinking Machine or
One of the problems we have with the computer is deciding what kind
of thing it is, and therefore what sorts of tasks are suitable to it. The
computer is ontologically ambiguous. Can it think, or only calculate? Is
it a brain or only a machine?
The steam locomotive, the so-called iron horse, posed a similar problem
for people at Rank 3. It is obviously a mechanism and it is inherently
inanimate. Yet it is capable of autonomous motion, something heretofore
only within the capacity of animals and humans. So, is it animate or not?
Perhaps the key to acceptance of the iron horse was the adoption of a system
of thought that permits separation of autonomous motion from autonomous
decision. The iron horse is fearsome only if it may, at any time, choose
to leave the tracks and come after you like a charging rhinoceros. Once
the system of thought had shaken down in such a way that autonomous motion
did not imply the capacity for decision, people made peace with the locomotive.
The computer is similarly ambiguous. It is clearly an inanimate machine.
Yet we interact with it through language; a medium heretofore restricted
to communication with other people. To be sure, computer languages are
very restricted, but they are languages. They have words, punctuation marks,
and syntactic rules. To learn to program computers we must extend our mechanisms
for natural language.
As a consequence it is easy for many people to think of computers as people.
Thus Joseph Weizenbaum (1976), with considerable dis-ease and guilt, tells
of discovering that his secretary "consults" Eliza--a simple
program which mimics the responses of a psychotherapist--as though she
were interacting with a real person. Beyond this, there are researchers
who think it inevitable that computers will surpass human intelligence
and some who think that, at some time, it will be possible for people to
achieve a peculiar kind of immortality by "downloading" their
minds to a computer. As far as we can tell such speculation has no ground
in either current practice or theory. It is projective fantasy, projection
made easy, perhaps inevitable, by the ontological ambiguity of the computer.
We still do, and forever will, put souls into things we cannot understand,
and project onto them our own hostility and sexuality, and so forth.
A game of chess between a computer program and a human master is just as
profoundly silly as a race between a horse-drawn stagecoach and a train.
But the silliness is hard to see at the time. At the time it seems necessary
to establish a purpose for humankind by asserting that we have capacities
that it does not. To give up the notion that one has to add "because
. . . " to the assertion "I'm important" is truly difficult.
But the evolution of technology will eventually invalidate any claim that
follows "because." Sooner or later we will create a technology
capable of doing what, heretofore, only we could.
Perhaps adults who, as children, grow up with computers might not find
these issues so troublesome. Sherry Turkle (1984) reports conversations
of young children who routinely play with toys which "speak"
to them--toys which teach spelling, dolls with a repertoire of phrases.
The speaking is implemented by relatively simple computers. For these children
the question about the difference between living things and inanimate things--the
first ontological distinction which children learn (Keil 1979)--includes
whether or not they can "talk," or "think," which these
computer toys can do.
These criteria do not show up in earlier studies of children's thought
(cf. Piaget, 1929). For children who have not had exposure to such toys
it is perfectly sensible to make the capacity for autonomous motion the
crucial criterion. To be sure it will lead to a misjudgment about cars
and trains, but the point is that there is no reason for the child to make
thinking and talking a criterion. The only creatures who think and talk
are people, and people also move. Thus thinking and talking will not add
anything to the basic distinction between living and inanimate things which
isn't covered by movement.
The child who must deal with computer toys has a different environment
to deal with. However, if the child gets used to machines which "think"
and "talk," that child might develop an ontology in which the
"thinking machine" had a natural and comfortable place--as we
have developed an ontology which is comfortable with locomotives, cars,
and airplanes. By what criterion will that child differentiate computers
and people? We can't answer this question yet, but we trust that the child
will find a way. When that child has become an adult, that adult may not
be so puzzled about the essential nature and potential of computers.
4.2 The Software Problem
Ontological ambiguity aside, computing technology clearly is still in
its early stages. Most of the advance in computing has been in hardware,
not software. We know how to build the machines; but we do not know how
to program them. For the last four decades hardware has gotten faster,
more compact, more reliable, and cheaper. That is what has allowed computers
to spread thoughout the industrialized world.
The development of software has not fared so well (Bacon, 1982; Branscomb,
1982; Hays, 1982). The very best programmers are very good indeed. But
their expertise does not travel well to the legions of programmers who
write most of the world's software. The concepts involved in routinizing
a high standard of software seem much more arcane than those involved in
hardware. Part of the problem is certainly that software structures are
much more complex than hardware. Computers contain millions and millions
of circuits, but they are all of a relatively few types, assembled in a
relatively few ways. The control structure of an intricate program is an
intricate structure, and each of its elements is inherently sophisticated.
We have no deep and powerful insights into how to manage control structures.
We note, however, that the vast majority of those with a deep intellectual
involvement in software, whether as programmers or as theoreticians, arrive
at this interest from a childhood and early adolescence which has been
free of any significant contact with computing. We suggest that, when computing
moves so deep into the culture that significant numbers of children are
programming, then the culture will be able to produce a cohort of adults
capable of solving the software problem, and many others as well. Then
Rank 4 thought will have arrived.
4.3 The child is
father to the man
In general we assume that the growth of thinking and knowledge in individuals
is epigenetic, that later mechanisms of thought are constructed from the
materials made available by earlier mechanisms (Benzon & Hays 1988,
pp. 314-319). In particular we remain partial to the concept of stages
pioneered by Jean Piaget (Piaget & Inhelder, p. 1969). The abstractions
one begins learning in adolescence are based on the more concrete structures
of thought acquired earlier. The preadolescent matrix will vary from rank
Let us begin by considering Rank 2. The child of Rank 2 parents will be
exposed to the Rank 2 cultural environment of those parents. Much of that
world will be as mysterious to the Rank 2 child as the world of Rank 1
adults is mysterious to the Rank 1 child. But, for example, the Rank 2
child can see his parents read and write, while the Rank 1 child cannot,
for that is a mystery which doesn't exist in the Rank 1 world.
Consider, specifically, the language to which a Rank 2 child is exposed.
It will have a more deeply developed system of superordinate and subordinate
categories, including categories such as plant and animal. The child may
not have an immediate grasp of the conceptual structure underlying these
categories--such ontological knowledge develops gradually (Keil, 1979)--but
he or she can learn to use those words correctly in many contexts and that
knowledge will be a good foundation on which to construct the appropriate
abstract justification for the categories. The conceptual environment of
the Rank 2 child is thus significantly different from that of the Rank
1 child, and the difference is of the sort which will make it easier for
the Rank 2 child to acquire the abstractions necessary for a Rank 2 adult.
We expect childhood exposure to computing to have a similar effect. But
we do not as yet see anything significant happening on a large scale. Computers
may be in every primary school in the nation, and in a small percentage
of homes, but children do not spend much time on these computers. And most,
if not all, of the time they do spend is devoted to using the computer
in the most superficial way, not in learning to program it. And that, programming,
is where the major benefit lies. It is in programming that the child has
to deal with control structure, the element which is new to Rank 4 thought.
We know that children can learn to program, that they enjoy doing so, and
that a suitable programming environment helps them to learn (Kay, 1977;
Pappert, 1980). Seymour Pappert argues that programming allows children
to master abstract concepts at an earlier age. In general it seems obvious
to us that a generation of 20-year-olds who have been programming computers
since they were 4 or 5 years old are going to think differently than we
do. Most of what they have learned they will have learned from us. But
they will have learned it in a different way. Their ontology will be different
from ours. Concepts which tax our abilities may be routine for them, just
as the calculus, which taxed the abilities of Leibniz and Newton, is routine
for us. These children will have learned to learn Rank 4 concepts.
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