Habitus and Learning to Learn: Part III15 min read

Language, Habitus, and Cultural Cognition

The recasting of habitus as a neuro-cognitive structure conducive to learning opens up promising avenues otherwise foreclosed in traditional cultural theory (see here and here for previous discussion). However, it also opens up some analytical difficulties, especially when it comes to the role of language and linguistic symbols in cultural cognition. Two observations deserve to be made in this respect.

First, language (and linguistic symbols) are the products of habitus; yet, the underlying procedural capacities productive of language (as practice) and linguistic symbols (as objectified products) cannot themselves be linguistic. This is actually a good thing. If external linguistic symbols were the product of a set of internal structures that also had the status of language-like symbols, we would get ourselves into an infinite regress, as we would have to ask what establishes the meaning of those symbols. This is a version of Harnad’s (1990) “symbol grounding” problem, as this is known in cognitive science and artificial intelligence.

As both Wittgenstein and Searle have proposed in different ways, the only way to forestall this regress is to posit a non-representational, non-symbolic “background” where the buck stops. This backgground is then generative of structures that end up having representational and symbolic properties (such as linguistic symbols). I propose that the neuro-cognitive habitus is such a “background” (Hutto 2012), as it was precisely to deal with this problem in the sociology of knowledge that led Bourdieu to resort to this (ironically scholastic) construct (Lizardo 2013).

Do We Think “With” Language?

Second, it appears to us (phenomenologically) that we think using (or via the medium) of language. That is, thought presents itself as a sort of “internal conversation” happening using internal linguistic symbols which may even have the same dialogical structure of dyadic or interactive conversations we have with others (Archer 2003). In fact, in the symbolic interactionist/pragmatist tradition of Mead and in the “activity theory” of Vygotsky, interactive or dialogic conversation comes first, and internal conversations with ourselves later. From this perspective, the origins of the self (conceived as a symbolic representation the agent constructs of themselves) are both dialogic, linguistic, and even “semiotic” (Wiley 1994).

Insofar as the habitus makes possible our direct, embodied engagement with the world, then it is the locus of thinking or at least a type of thinking that allows for practice, action, and problem-solving. The problem is that the kind of thinking that happens via language does not seem to have the properties required for the “online” control of action and practical engagement with the world (Jeannerod 2001). If habitus engages a particular type of thinking, and even if there is a type of “cultural-cognition” happenning via habitus, then it has tobe a sort of non-linguistic cultural cognition.

This means we need to make conceptual space for a type of cognition that still deserves the label of thinking, that is affected by culture and experience, but that is not linguistic in its essence or mode of functioning. The basic proposal is that this is the base-level non-linguistic cultural cognition is made possible by habitus, and that the most substantial cultural effects on the way we think happen because culture affects this non-declarative procedural type of thinking (Cohen and Leung 2009).

From the perspective of traditional lines of cultural theory having long roots in sociology and anthropology, suggesting the existence of a type of thinking that does not rely on language, and much less making this type of thinking more basic than the linguistic one, is an odd proposal (Bloch 1986). In the standard approach, culture is equated with language, thinking is equated with language use, and cultural effects on cognition are reduced to the impact of cultural patterns in the way we use language to make sense of the world and to talk to ourselves, and others (Biernacki 2000).

A neural recasting of habitus reminds us that, while culture also affects the way that we use language to think (Boroditsky 2001), insofar linguistic cognition is grounded on non-linguistic cognition, equating the entirety of culture’s effects on thinking to its impact on the way we use language to think “offline” when decoupled from action in the world would be an analytic mistake.

Two Ways of Engaging the World

As now well-established by work in the dual-process framework in social and cognitive psychology (Lizardo et al. 2016), we can distinguish between two ways in which culture-driven cognition (or “culture in thinking”) operates. One relies on the use and manipulation of explicit symbolic tokens that can be combined in a linear order into higher-order structures, such as the sentences of a natural language. These linguistic symbols have the potential to stand in arbitrary relations to the things that they represent. This type of cognition is serial, slow, and in many ways, “cognitively costly” (Whitehouse 2004:55).

The habitus does not typically rely on this type of linguistic, sentential processing to “get action” in the world (Glenberg 1997). Insofar as the habitus shapes and produces culture, the role of linguistic symbols in cultural analysis has to be rethought (Lizardo et al. 2019). One premise that is undoubtedly on the wrong track is that personal culture embodied in habitus is, in its essence, linguistic or is primarily symbolic in a quasi-linguistic sense (Lizardo 2012).

In its place, I propose that habitus operates at a non-linguistic level. But what exactly does this entail? In contrast to the linguistic theory of internalized personal culture, the habitus relies on cognitive resources that aer imagistic, perceptual and “analog.” The neural structures constitutive of habitus learn (and thus “internalize” culture) by extracting higher-order patterns from the world that are meaningful at a direct experiential level. The linkages between these patterns are not arbitrary but are constrained to be directly tied to previous experience, so that they can be used to deal successfully with subsequent experiences sharing similar structure (Bar 2007).

In this last respect, the habitus recognizes connections between practical symbolic structures when these are compatible with its experiential history. Habitus uses the structural features of previous experience, directly linked to our status as embodied, spatial and temporal creatures, to bring order, predictability, and regularity to the most diverse action domains (Bourdieu 1990a).

The (Emergence of) the Scholastic Point of View

In a neural reconceptualization of habitus, language, linguistic structures and linguaform modes of expression are put in their place as supported by analog structures derived from experience. In fact, as shown in modern cognitive linguistics, most of the features of spoken language usually thought of as being endowed with some sort of mysterious, autonomous and ineffable “linguistic” or “semiologic” quality are grounded in the type of embodied, directly perceptual encoding and processing of meanings that is characteristic of habitus (Langacker 1991).

The status of modes of cognitive processing highly reliant on language in the cognitive economy of the social agent and the cultural economy of the social world has been overblown in social and cultural theory (using the misleading imprimatur of Ferdinand De Saussure). A neural recasting of habitus as a learning to learn structure reminds us that the foundations of meaning and culture are non-linguistic, non-propositional, non-sentential, and in a strong sense not symbolic, since they retain an intuitive, easily recoverable perceptual logic grounded in non-discursive forms of thinking, perception, and activity (Bloch 1991).

How Habitus Keeps Track of Experience

Following a connectionist rethinking of the notion of mental representation proposed in the previous post, I propose that the habitus “stores” experiential traces in terms of what has been referred to as what the philosopher Andy Clark has referred to as “super-positional storage; “[t]he basic idea of superposition is straightforward. Two representations are superposed if the resources used to represent item 1 are [at least partially] coextensive with those used to represent item 2” (Clark 1993: 17).

This observation carries an important analytical consequence, insofar as the dominant theory of culture today—the linguistic or semiotic theory—tacitly presupposes that the way in which cultural information is stored by persons resembles and is constrained to match those modes of storage and representation that are characteristic of linguistic symbols. This includes, amodality (the non-analogic nature of representational vehicles) and partial separability of the conceptual resources that are devoted to represent different slices of experience. For instance, under the standard model there is little (if no) overlap between the underlying conceptual resources used to represent the (more abstract) notion of “agency” and the (more concrete) notion of “movement.”

But if habitus uses overlapping resources to capture the structure of experience, then it must encode similarities in experiential content directly and thus arbitrariness is ruled out as a plausible encoding strategy: “[t]he semantic…similarity between representational contents is echoed as a similarity between representational vehicles. Within such a scheme, the representations of individual items is nonarbitrary” (Clark 1993: 19). This means that the habitus will attempt to deal with more abstract categories removed from experience and linked to seemingly arbitrary non-linguistic symbols by mapping them to less arbitrary categories linked to experience. In this respect, there will be substantial overlap between the conceptualization of freedom and movement, with the latter serving as the ground providing semantic support for our thinking about the former (Glenberg 1997).

This means that whatever strategic (from a cognitive viewpoint) structural signatures are found in the relevant experiential domain, will have an analogue in the structural representation of that domain that comes to be encoded in the neural structure of habitus. Here, the structure of the underlying neural representation is determined by experience. In the traditional account, the experience is “neutral” and some exogenous cultural grid, with no necessary relation to experience is imposed on this sensory “flux.” This is what Martin (2011) has referred as “the grid of perception” theory of culture.

The neural recasting of habitus offered here provides an alternative to this approach, which highlights the primary role experience without subordinating it to a “higher” order set of cultural categories, standing above (and apart) from experience.

Natural Born Categories

As noted, the habitus stores traces of long-term procedural knowledge in the synaptic weights coding for the correlated features of the objects, events and persons repeatedly encountered in our everyday dealings. The ability of habitus to extract the relevant structural and statistical features from experience (and only these), along with the super-positional encoding of experiential information, leads naturally to the notion of habitus as a categorizing engine, in which categories take prototype structure, with central (exemplar) members (sharing most of the relevant features) toward the center and less prototypical members in the periphery. The extraction of prototype-based categories via habitus allows us to understand and act upon experiential domains sharing similar structural features using overlapping cognitive resources.

In addition, whenever a given slice of experience comes to recurrently present the agent with the same set of underlying regularities, a general “category” will be extracted by the habitus. This category, comprising both entity (object) and event (process) prototypes, will be composed of contextually embodied features corresponding to those given by experience. At the same time they are capable of being transferred (“transposed”) to domains of experience that share similar structural features. “Schematic transposition” is thus a natural consequence of the way habitus is transformed by, and subsequently organizes, experience.


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