The limits of cognitive theory in anthropology

Philosophical Explorations 7 (3):281 – 297 (2004)
The cognitive revolution in psychology was a significant advance in our thinking about the mind. Philosophers and social scientists have looked to the cognitive sciences with the hope that the social world will yield to similar explanatory strategies. Dan Sperber has argued for a programme that would conceptualize the entire domain of anthropological theory in cognitive terms. Sperber's 'epidemiology' specifically excludes interpretive, structuralist and functionalist theories. This essay evaluates Sperber's epidemiological approach to anthropological theory. It argues that as a programme for anthropological theorizing, Sperber's epidemiology could not be empirically grounded. Cognitive explanations depend on prior interpretations. While interpretation is a kind of theorizing, it cannot be assimilated to cognitive explanation. The essay concludes by sketching an explanatory coherence framework in which ethnographic interpretation and cognitive explanation are seen as parts of a unified body of anthropological theorizing.
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