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Cognitive Aspects of Religious Symbolism by Pascal Boyer

By Pascal Boyer

How are non secular rules provided, bought and transmitted? faced with spiritual practices, anthropologists have as a rule been content material with sociological generalizations, proficient through obscure, intuitive versions of cognitive strategies. but the trendy cognitive theories promise a clean knowing of ways spiritual rules are learnt; and if an analogous cognitive tactics will be proven to underlie all non secular ideologies, then the comparative research of religions can be put on a unconditionally new footing. the current publication is a contribution to this bold programme. In heavily centred essays, a bunch of anthropologists debate the actual nature of non secular ideas and different types, and start to specify the cognitive constraints on cultural acquisition and transmission.

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In fact, both theoretical frameworks are themselves based on metaphors. The idea that cultural knowledge can be described in terms of quasi­ theories which people somehow store in their memories is based on an analogy between scientific or other forms of explicit theories, of which we know very little, and mental representations, of which we know even less. Explicit theories are publicly available, externally represented sets of propositions. When we say that some cultural representations constitute a theoretical schema for a certain domain, it is not really clear to what extent we want to pursue the metaphor in describing private represen­ tations: for instance, it is not clear whether we should take for granted that all features of external theories will be relevant for internal represen­ tations.

Bateson, for instance ( 1 972), tried to define ritual 'frames'29 as essentially comparable to animal or human play, that is, as contexts which provide both messages and 'meta-messages' about the interpretation of the message. This, however, does not take into account the obvious intuitive differences between pretence and ritual, notably what Rappaport ( 1 974) calls 'the certainty of meaning' in the latter case. Rituals simply have cognitive effects that do not arise in play situations. 30 What we must account for are the specific properties of the ritual 'frame', that is what distinguishes such situations from human play, on the one hand, and from animal forms of play and ritual, on the other.

What is conveyed by the simile is that ghosts are essentially intangible, elusive, and shadows provide the best example of an intangible or elusive reality, yet tied to personal identity. This interpretation is supported by two series of facts: first, the elusiveness and intangibility of ghosts is a recurrent theme in Fang discourse about these entities; also, while Fang people are typically confident that 'one's shadow becomes a ghost', they are rather uncertain about what happens to a mind, or about such technical details as the problem of having shadows with mental capacities.

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