Charles Hirschkind has given us an insightful and entertaining take on the anthropologist/cognitivist polemics we have experienced in some of our discussions, while asking the serious question of whether the study of prayer allows us “to say anything interesting about universal human attributes or faculties.” Contributors to the conversation have pointed to the ways this question begs at least a couple of others: what counts as interesting? And what do we mean by “universal human attributes or faculties?” On the latter point, respondents have drawn attention to the ways the argument reveals new features of the universalism/particularism dilemma. The former pertains, among other things, to the role of disciplinary divisions in the dispute, a discussion taken up in different ways by various contributors: clearly, what counts as “interesting” depends on what your discipline is interested in.
Cognition and Culture, at it Again!
In this essay series, New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer and share their own thoughts. Charles Hirschkind’s inaugural essay poses the question, “Does the study of prayer allow us to say anything interesting about universal human attributes or faculties?”
For me the most telling point in the exchange about interdisciplinary dialogue is Charles Hirschkind’s reference to Thomas Kuhn, who by forever smashing our innocent faith in the impartiality of scientific findings, restored other kinds of inquiry to a somewhat more equal footing. Journalistically speaking (which is the only platform I have): Hip hip hooray for Kuhn, he’s a jolly good fellow! He gave us back a thousand colors.
One difference between my prayer research and other lines of research I do is the audience I have for the work, even as it is being completed. Because the prayer work is funded through the Social Science Research Council's New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, I share it with my NDSP working group which includes people from many disciplines, with the strongest representation being anthropologists. Because I am collaborating with my former mentor on the work, I discuss all the findings with him. Finally, because the things that I am finding are so intriguing and out of my comfort zone, I am also seeking the council of my religious leader.
You would think that talking to my Rabbi about my research would be the most stressful and odd conversation, but it is not. Hands down, the most stressful and odd conversations are within the SSRC working group.
Imagine you feel that something is seriously wrong with your heart. Do you seek the help of a cardiovascular specialist or a general practitioner? In this situation nearly everyone chooses the specialist. When our lives are at stake, we don’t much care whether our physician knows a little bit about everything. We care mostly that they know a lot about what threatens our survival. If they can quote Shakespeare, we might invite them to our holiday parties. But we pay for their specialized knowledge.
Charles Hirschkind asks, “Does the study of prayer allow us to say anything interesting about universal attributes or faculties?” Like a good academic, I won’t directly answer this but will instead start by questioning the question itself. We might first question the intellectualist stance that compels us to want to find universalisms or, on the contrary, to view all phenomena as results of particular historical traditions or “life-worlds.”
Academic disciplines are not only about ways of thinking but are also about habits of the heart and mind. It is this existential dimension of our respective intellectual formations that seems to me to be most at stake in discussions between cognitive scientists, on the one hand, and humanists and social scientists on the other, at least in my brief experience of such discussions in the context of the New Dimensions in the Study of Prayer (NDSP) project. Having been trained in one way of knowing it is nearly impossible to think otherwise. There is an analogy to prayer practice here. Many Southern Baptists, for instance, probably find it nearly impossible to think of the recitation of the Hail Mary as an authentic way of praying, just as older Catholics may say that addressing God conversationally in everyday speech is not praying. These are deeply embodied habits of heart and mind. Maybe the place to go for conceptual assistance in working through the seemingly intractable epistemological and methodological divide between cognitive scientists and humanists/social scientists is ecumenical theology.
The dialogue composed by Charles Hirschkind captures a key challenge for our New Directions in the Study of Prayer meetings and virtually all Social Science Research Council-type projects. In order to land a typical job in the academy, you need to have some sort of disciplinary home. But as any reader of Stephen King’s Misery can attest, a home can become a prison.
Sometimes the metaphor is shifted slightly and the challenge is referred to as a matter of “intellectual silos,” highlighting the tendency to gather and guard one’s disciplinary fodder in what is perceived to be a safely personal, private environment. While there are different kinds of silos with distinct purposes in the life of a farm (that’s for a different blog!), a commonality is that what is put into silos is generally meant to be taken out in a relatively short span of time. If you don’t follow this guideline you can end up with an amazingly pungent aroma that permeates clothing and skin more deeply than soap can cleanse. The situation is not so very different in the academy.
The representatives of Culture and Cognition worry about relativism: Does the study of prayer in a particular time and place allow us to say anything interesting about religion as a universal phenomenon? The actors in Hirschkind’s play fret over cultural differences. But just how far apart are the differences?
Not far enough, perhaps.
And we pick up where the conversation about cognition and culture has seemingly reached an impasse . . .
Mr. Romantic Poet: This is madness, I say! Apples and oranges! Science is not a singular thing. A science of life should be neither instrumental nor disembodied. Whatever prayer is it is much more than cognitive mechanics. And it is much more than a cultural conceit. And science worth its name accounts for what lies between the observer and the prayers under observation.
We were intrigued to learn about your quarrel, and it reminded us of arguments we’ve had since we got involved in a new pursuit called the “History of Emotions.” We have both become quite passionate about studying the fine art of blushing in Victorian Britain or the question whether or not Native Americans on their vision quests felt as abject as the texts of their songs suggest, or if the songs were just to make the spirits pity them. We love finding texts and images in archives and libraries and inferring structures of feeling from them.
In Charles Hirschkind’s clever and disarming piece, he gives most of the good lines to Mr. Cognitivist, who could well be one of my colleagues—or me. But oddly enough, I find myself siding with Ms. Social-Cultural.
Mr. C is right to insist on the reality of polio; my own favorite example in these sorts of realist vs. relativist debates (which often occur in my seminars, as they usually include several smart undergraduates from the humanities) is dinosaurs. Who would deny that dinosaurs once existed, and that their existence is a real discovery—not an invention!—by paleontologists? Of course, these paleontologists were influenced by cognitive and motivational biases—some innate, some cultural, some idiosyncratic. Of course, our understanding of the world is never direct; there are “normative interpretive grids,” paradigms, cognitive shortcuts, and so on. Maybe it’s even true that one’s science is affected by being a man or a woman (a popular view these days) or by being a Gentile or a Jew (less fashionable, for obvious reasons). But despite all of this, scientists do discover things; the methods of science can capture objective reality, and, outside the seminar room, every rational person accepts this. As Richard Dawkins famously put it, “Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite.”
Thanks, Charles Hirschkind, for your clever approach to the complicated conversational thread running through the New Directions in the Study of Prayer group meetings. As a developmental psychologist who takes a socio-cultural approach to studying cognitive development, I’m not sure whether I should take the position of Ms. Socio-Cultural or Ms. Cognitive in your hypothetical conversation. But from my perspective there is common ground to be found if we start from the perspective of building and creating knowledge together from the strengths of different disciplinary methods. How boring if we all took the same approach. So I’ve added an additional scholar to your conversation.
Does the study of prayer allow us to say anything interesting about universal human attributes or faculties? Some of the disagreements that have emerged among New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees in our group discussions would seem to pivot on how we answer this question. The dialogue, as I have heard it so far, goes something like this (I leave it to the grantees and other discussants to extend and/or correct it).