“Culture therefore shapes the mind as well as the mind shapes culture”, Peter Hanenberg

Peter Hanenberg

Peter Hanenberg foi um dos oradores de dia 9 de Fevereiro no encontro ‘Matters of Culture’, onde apresentou o ‘statement’ sob o título “Culture and Cognition”

Beck’s risk. In his laudation on Zygmunt Bauman – one of his last public statements – Ulrich Beck said (I translate from the German text): “It would be nice if that what Max Weber announced gloomily as the bureaucratic rationality of control would still control; it would be nice if – as Adorno and Foucault predicted – only the terror of consumption and humanism would terrorize us; it would be nice if the functioning of systems could be restored by appealing to ‘autopoiesis’. It would be nice if it were just a question of a crisis of modernity which could be mitigated with liturgical formula: more market, more technology, more functional differentiation, more rational choice, more growth, more weapons, more drones, more computers, more Internet and so on. It’s not a big deal to admit, that even we social scientists are reduced to silence in view of a reality which overruns us.” The conditions of liquid modernity, continuous change, constant mobility and recent threats of violence and terrorism make it impossible to transform experiences into attitudes, models of behavior, convictions and moral concepts which could work as common characteristics of a whole generation, time or culture – as Bauman explains in many of his studies. The silence, to which social sciences and the humanities feel reduced, is a consequence of their findings as much as of the conditions which led to them. However, science and humanities must not be reduced to silence. On the contrary, the conditions of an overwhelming reality ask for new forms of dialogue: research on liquid modernity needs liquid disciplines. It should be possible to read Beck and Bauman side by side with Semir Zeki, Bruce Wexler or Ernst Pöppel: on the way to Cognitive Culture Studies.

The concept concept. When Bauman points to the impossibility to transform experiences into attitudes, models of behavior, convictions and moral concepts he addresses one of the key issues in the research of social cognition. What Leonard Talmy has termed the Cognitive Culture System is all about the acquisition, exercise and the imparting of concepts, patterns and norms. Culture seen from the perspective of the brain is a set of concepts which allows to share meanings, predict, expect and condition behavior and to develop all kinds of moral and ideological standpoints. Culture therefore shapes the mind as well as the mind shapes culture. Cultural activities even transform the brain as the famous comparison of the cerebral structures of a piano player and a string player has shown. Other well-known examples refer to cultural difference as e.g. between collectivism and individualism in Eastern and Western societies which even lead (or base on) certain genetic differences, evidenced by statistical findings. There are two main challenges for future research: First, it has to be clarified “whether the embodiment theory of conceptual representations can serve as an integrated framework for both concrete and abstract concepts” (Kiefer/Pulvermüller, 2012). And second, the constitution in form and content of those concepts has to be studied under the conditions of the embodiment theory. Embodied concepts ask for a permanent effort to guarantee a correspondence between conception and experience which is simultaneously the motor for change and for resistance to change – causing under certain circumstances the risk of no-response and silence, of distress and a notion of inconvenience in liquidity.

The metaphor metaphor. Conceptual integration is one of those “travelling concepts” which have found their way from Cognitive Sciences to Culture Studies (e.g. A. Nünning, 2011). The challenges of liquid modernity can be addressed by the theory of blending though in a metaphorical way. Where metaphor theory helps to understand the conceptual integration of a reference space on the one hand and a presentation space on the other, it explains how new meanings emerge from the blending of different mental spaces. Change and innovation are the distinctive qualities of metaphor as long as it does not crystalize into a regular form of representation. However, future research on conceptual integration might like to ask less for the conditions of change and innovation (as they are given), but for a better understanding of the forms of presentation which offer a certain kind of stability, indispensable to blending. We would need the metaphor of the metaphor to understand the common bases of representation without which no metaphor could ever make sense. Sense is not a matter of language, but of concepts (otherwise translation would not be possible) – and culture their accommodation. L. and P.A. Brandt have brilliantly shown how the sentence “This surgeon is a butcher” makes sense as a metaphor. They insist on the reflection of a “third space”, in which the force-dynamics of “agent”, “harm” and “patient” give relevance to the virtual space of blending from which meaning emerges. Cognitive Culture Studies could be the discipline to describe both relevance and presentation spaces as different examples of embodied cultural concepts interacting even in the construction of surprisingly new meanings. The metaphor is liquid; relevance and presentation are its solid and stable ground.

Critique critique. Going back to solid and stables grounds (or better: to the concept concept) is a challenge to Culture Studies. It is a matter of operation fields. Culture Studies claim to deal with those phenomena which are bigger than the individual (which would be dealt with by Psychology) and smaller than the universal (which would be dealt with by Biology). Culture Studies stand to Biology and Psychology like history to evolution and ontogenesis. Culture Studies deal with the institutional, textual and mental phenomena which constitute a defined operation field being simultaneously out of Biology and towards Psychology: making sense of the Human. Culture covers the distance between the solid and stable ground and the arbitrariness of a fluid singularity. That is why Culture Studies are central for a better understanding of society as much as of the individual. However, its central position has either led to a cut with all kinds of solid and stable grounds (namely in the rejection of certain methods) or – on the contrary – to a new submission to science and its empirical promises of exactness. The third way we suggest could transform such exclusiveness in a new form of dialog in which sciences learn as much from Culture Studies as Culture Studies from its solid and stable ground. Cognitive Culture Studies would claim a new critique critique asking if and how one can be critical without being normative. Could the concept concept be a way to turn visible and explicit the norms we are critical upon?

Do do. The surprising thing is that under such conditions Culture Studies would continue to do what they have always done. Cognitive Culture Studies would look at artefacts, texts and institutions as means to a better understanding of the mental construction of culture. They would allow for identifying concepts and metaphors and for analyzing how they negotiate meaning and relevance. They would help to reconstruct the narrative and performative construction of reality and bind it back to its neural formation. They would reject any kind of oversimplification in which culture is reduced to the movement of arms and fingers (like in the example of string and piano players) or to general distinctions (like between individualistic and collectivistic cultures) which either appear as mere statistical findings or never existed or tend to vanish in fluid modernity. They would find a permanent challenge in the question, how abstraction and embodiment can come together. Only then we may understand how the human as a cultural being is simultaneously able and resistant to change. Cognition as the embodied mind is the battlefield in which culture drives meaning to life. In this simple sense, Cognitive Culture Studies is a Life Science.


Brandt, Line and Per Aage Brandt. 2005. “Making Sense of a Blend. A cognitive-semiotic approach to metaphor.” Annual Review of Cognitive Linguistics 3:  216-249.

Kiefer, Markus, and Friedemann Pulvermüller. 2012. “Conceptual Representations in Mind and Brain: Theoretical Developments, Current Evidence and Future Directions.” Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior 48 (7) (July): 805–25.

Nünning, Ansgar. 2011. “Towards a metaphorology of crises, or: The uses of cognitive metaphor theory for the study of culture.” Cognition and Culture. An Interdisciplinary Dialogue. Ed. Ana Margarida Abrantes and Peter Hanenberg. Frankfurt/M: Lang, 71-98.


Peter Hanenberg, February 2016


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