Cognitive Ecologies – April 14 2014


The meeting was success! A recording of the session will be forthcoming.

Please click the links below to access the readings for the April 14th meeting on “Cognitive Ecologies”

Primary Readings:

Tribble and Keene – Cognitive Ecologies – 2014

Tribble and Keene – Notes on Chapter 1

White – Transmissive Frequency – 2001

Whitehouse – Arguments and Icons – 2000

Supplementary Readings:

Clark – Theorizing Religions Past – 2004

Clark – The Cognitive Life of Things – 2010

Pyysiainen – Religious Conversion and Modes of Religiosity – 2005

PowerPoint Files:

Cognitive Ecology Workshop August 2013

Sutton & Keene on Conversion, December 2011




This ‘cognitive ecologies’ reading group has two aims. First, we build on our fruitful shared discussions about whether and how historians and others interested in the unique features of early modern culture and religion can fruitfully draw on cognitive theory. Continuing to explore the specific idea of distributed cognitive ecologies, we discuss the overview by project member Lyn Tribble and Nick Keene in chapter 1 of their book *Cognitive Ecologies and the History of Remembering*. Why do Tribble and Keene see the Reformation as a test case for their approach to cognitive ecologies? (We also include copies of the previous presentations by Sutton and Tribble introducing the cognitive ecologies framework).

Secondly and much more specifically, we discuss the ‘modes of religiosity’ hypothesis developed by anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse. This approach does not quite fit the ‘cognitive ecologies’ label, but it is the best developed historically-sensitive approach to the cognitive science of religion. Originally built on Whitehouse’s fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, the modes of religiosity thesis is now being tested across a wide range of cultural and historical settings. We read Whitehouse’s 2001 paper ‘Transmissive Frequency, Ritual, and Exegesis’, which motivates the search for cognitive constraints on religious ritual and religious meaning which can account for contextual differences, and then specifies the core ideal types of ‘doctrinal mode’ and ‘imagistic mode’ ritual practice, each based on distinctive features of human memory. How plausible is the sharp distinction Whitehouse makes between official exegesis of religious doctrine, and spontaneous personal reflection? How might this apply to cases of conversion? Does it help us think about why only some forms of conversion are easily narrated?

Finally, Whitehouse’s preliminary historical application of the modes of religiosity thesis in his book Arguments and Icons postulates a dramatic new spread of doctrinal religiosity in the Reformation. This short reading is full of controversy for both historians and cognitive ecologists. For example, Whitehouse argues in relation to printing in early modern Europe that ‘ideas are never contained in patterns of ink but only in the minds of those who read them’: does the cognitive ecologies framework outlined by Tribble and Keene suggest ways to break down the dichotomy here between material culture and the mind?

Supplementary readings include a short summary paper on distributed cognitive ecologies and the material culture of religion by philosopher Andy Clark, and two commentaries on Whitehouse’s theory: Anne Clark critically tests the modes of religiosity thesis against the diversity of medieval religious practice, while Ilkka Pyysiainen lays out its core features and applies them specifically to understanding conversion.