Constructing Religion without The Social: Durkheim, Latour, and Extended Cognition

Here is the intro to Matthew’s article:

Where does thinking happen? The obvious and most common answer is “somewhere inside the head.” After all, this is where the brain is safely housed behind seven millimeters of protective armor. However, despite the instinctive appeal of this response, some theoretical camps have been willing to flirt with absurdity and suggest that it is at best deceptive and at worst wrong. For example, throughout the twentieth century behaviorists of various stripes contested the fruitfulness of this internalist hunch about thinking. B. F. Skinner summarized his methodological hostility to psychological internalism this way: “The objection to inner states is not that they do not exist, but that they are not relevant in a functional analysis. We cannot account for the behavior of any system while staying wholly inside it; eventually we must turn to forces operating on the organism from without” (1963, 35). For the Skinnerians, appealing to inner cognitive processes to explain behavior was akin to summoning Wittgensteinian wheels that spin in hopeless and impotent isolation.

The cognitive revolution may be read as the return of the conceptually repressed, because early cognitive theorists insisted that the behaviorists’ principled disregard for interior springs of thought was shortsighted. Noam Chomsky modestly voiced the concern this way in his well-known review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957): “One would naturally expect that prediction of the behavior of a complex organism (or machine) would require, in addition to information about external stimulation, knowledge of the internal structure of the organism, the ways in which it processes input information and organizes its own behavior” (Chomsky 1967, 144). Whatever else might be happening, these early voices were claiming, the stuff going on inside the head is just too important to ignore. As John Haugeland puts it, to be a cognitivist traditionally has meant endorsing the principle that “intelligent behavior can be explained (only) by appeal to internal ‘cognitive processes’—that is, rational thought in a broad sense” (1998, 9). When viewed through these corrective lenses, the modern cognitive sciences begin to look like a welcome and utterly reasonable antidote to what was an unreasonable theoretical agenda.

Nevertheless, a growing number of contemporary theorists contend that the cognitivist’s traditional focus on internal processes has outlived whatever usefulness it once possessed. “The early researches in cognitive science placed a bet that the modularity of human cognition was such that culture, context and history could be safely ignored at the outset, and then integrated later,” Edward Hutchins judges. “The bet did not pay off” (1995, 354). The reason for this perceived failure is that by assuming that cognition is an internal phenomenon—notice, for example, how casually Haugeland associates rationality with internal cognitive states—one obscures the ways in which thinking actively structures and draws upon the surrounding, external environment. According to the advocates of extended or socially distributed cognition, in thinking of cognition as something that happens inside the head we overestimate the biological brain’s natural prowess and underestimate the consequences of thought’s external ecology. Bo Dahlbom and Lars-Erik Janlert helpfully summarize the theoretical intuition behind models of extended cognition when they observe, “Just as you cannot do very much carpentry with your bare hands, there is not much thinking you can do with your bare brain” (quoted in Dennett 1996, 134). In this limited sense, I suppose one might say that the extended cognition movement represents a dose of Skinnerian revenge; although it does not add up to a full-bodied vindication of his studied indifference toward the interior environment of thought, the portrait of an extended mind nevertheless justifies Skinner’s conviction that at the end of the day “the skin is not that important as a boundary” (1963, 955). Considered in this light, the cognitive sciences begin to look like an allergic overreaction to the trumped-up threat of behaviorist externalism. The end result of this panic was that cognitivists could not avoid mistaking the computational abilities of the socially and environmentally extended mind for the naked biological brain.

In previous work I have made the case that the emerging cognitive science of religion is guilty of committing the same attribution error (Day 2004; 2005a, b; 2007). The research program thus far has tended to treat the broad spectrum of rituals, music, relics, scriptures, ceremonies, and physical representations typically associated with religious traditions as features that are more or less irrelevant for a biologically fixed human cognitive system. Yet, if the perspective of extended mind highlights a real pattern, and some features of the external world “may be so integral to our cognitive routines as to count as part of the cognitive machinery itself,” it seems that many forms of religious thought and behavior may be unthinkable without elaborately structured sociocognitive scaffolding in place (Clark 1998, 274). As a result, the attempt to explain religion without addressing the greater ecology of religious thought and behavior could be “as misguided as seeking to investigate the true nature of an ant by removing the distorting influence of the nest” (Griffiths and Stolz 2000, 44–45). Yet, despite my best intentions, I have been tongue-tied when it comes to translating this theoretical hunch into serviceable advice for scholars of religion. Looking back on this earlier work, I think that an unsavory mix of conceptual confusion, empirical naivete, and intellectual cowardice was responsible for this reticence. It is high time for me to either put up or shut up when it comes to religion and extended cognition.

So, in what follows, I am prepared to sin boldly and specify how an appreciation for the cognitive phenomenon of extended mind could transform the academic study of religion. In the first section I examine what is perhaps the first and most influential externalist account of religion: Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life ([1912] 1995). I draw attention to his strategy for anchoring the categories of human cognition in the material practices of a given society. In the next section I turn to another French sociologist, Bruno Latour, in the hopes of finding a theoretical conversation partner who can help me out of my predicament. I review Latour’s ongoing attempt to displace the metaphysical assumptions that have been an essential and worrying feature of the social category since Durkheim. In the third section I emphasize how Latour explicitly invokes models of situated and extended cognition to make sense of how collectives and agents are constructed without appeals to the social. In the final section I propose two ways in which the portrait of distributed, embodied, and embedded cognition—aided by a generous amount of prodding from Latour’s project—may reorient the study of religion in fruitful ways.