Cultural representations and individual understandings: Comparing the historical and the inferential models of thinking.*

Paolo Sorzio

Dept. Scienze dell'Educazione

University of Padova

3, Piazza Capitaniato

35139, Padova


fax: int. code +49/8284546

* I thank Giovanni Levi who has made me aware of the connection between truth in history and social criticism.

Vygotsky taught us to take a more encompassing perspective on human mental life. It means for me to recover my own personal history in the light of my commitment to the perspective some social critics are working out in the place I live in, Italy. This is what it is exciting in this Conference: how Vygotsky thinking intertwins with other perspectives, and all are converging towards the very core of Vygotsky questions. The red line in my paper is how inferential constraints affect the construction and propagation of prejudice, and how humans need social criticism.

In this paper, I present a perspective on one of the critical points Vygotsky was concerned with: the impact of history on the human mind; according to him, social history and the development of higher mental functions are intertwined. Although humans share the same basic mental functions, natural history cannot explain the higher mental processes, because humans act on the world in terms of ideas, which have some consequences on human action. Therefore, there is no point in imagining human thinking and acting outside cultural mediation. Social history has an impact on individual comprehension through the mediation of cultural representations and has different consequences in regulating human behavior (Levi 1981). In the paper, it is supposed that an approach based on the inferential model of understanding cultural representations can deal with the issue of the actual connections between social history and individual history. I present a point of view on human thinking based on mental models. Major determinants in the inferential processes by mental models are the availability of relevant knowledge, and the particular ways of framing the representations.

These mechanisms can explain the construction of conflicting understandings in a social group, and have consequences on two divergent social facts, such as prejudice and social criticism.

The idea that reasoning processes are sensible to the limitations and the characteristics of the beliefs, and biased by ways of framing the problems, (Johnson-Laird 1983; Rogoff, 1984; Scribner 1977) leads to the replacement of the mental rule approach with the perspective that "Thinking is the manipulation of models" (Johnson-Laird & Byrne 1993, p. 332).

Mental models: The theory of mental models is intended to explain the higher processes of cognition and, in particular, comprehension and inference. Humans can understand the problematic situations, and mediate between events and actions by building up flexible, local, sensitive mental models as devices for generating productive inferences to regulate their behavior.

Mental models (Johnson-Laird 1983) are prototypical scenarios which represent environmental events (Tversky, & Kahneman 1973); they are partly visual, partly analytical, partly welded to a series of procedures, they do not contain variables, only examples (Bloch 1991).

"A model makes explicit those objects, properties, and relations that are relevant to potential actions." (Legrenzi, Girotto, & Johnson- Laird 1993, p. 42).

Inferences are based on the mental manipulation of the conceptual entities in the models to represent alternative states of affairs, in a way that simulates the effects of similar operations on the objects in the environment.

Productive reasoning by mental model is based on the assigned properties of the entities the model contains, and on the spatial and temporal constraints that govern the behavior of the entities. The plausibility of the scenarios that come to mind serves as a clue to inferences and figuring out alternative states of affairs.

3 steps in reasoning by mental models:

a. mental model construction, from perception, comprehension and imagination. A mental model makes explicit those entities or aspects that are considered relevant in understanding a discourse or an event. Background knowledge enables the opportunity of further assumptions.

b. mental models are manipulated in order to come up with a conclusion. The major constraints on mental models derive from the perceived and conceived structure of the world, from the individual's beliefs about ontology, and from the need to mantain a system free from contradictions.

c. Humans are inferential satisficers: if they come up with a conclusion that fits the available facts, they will not tend to examine other possibilities. Erroneous conclusions are usually the result of constructing only one of the possible models of the premises. Therefore, people can be satisfied by an incomplete reasoning process.

Focussing is a phenomenon in reasoning and decision making that has important consequences in making wrong inferences: an individual is likely to restrict her/his thinking process on the elements made explicit in the mental model, and s/he constructs as few explicit models as possible about the possible outcomes of an ongoing situation, and s/he undergoes the risk of failing to consider other alternatives.

Major determinants of the focussing effect are:

1. particular ways of framing the problem: if the representation does not make explicit any element needed to come up with an alternative conclusion, that conclusion is unlikely to be drawn.

2. The availability of relevant knowledge, which enables persons to set up integrate and flexible models. Information introduced in cultural representations provides the background against which individuals set up their models and draw their own inferences (Wertsch 1991).

Semiotic mediation: Mental models are particular interpretations of given problematic situations, about which the available information may be insufficient. However, even referential indeterminacies, and incomplete intensions can be represented in a mental model. The model which can be costructed is rather impoverished, but it will rule out some possibilities and it does not obstacle further communication.

In order to set up an integrated representation of the problematic situation, individuals mediate their own inferential processes through incomplete models by referring to their own understanding of public representations, which provide additional assumptions and new causal implications. Therefore, thinking can be conceived as the connection of distributed models in complex mental configurations.

There is a dialectical process between mental models and public representations: inferences are affected by cultural representations, and conversely, cultural representations are actualized, understood and learned by mental model inspection and inference.

There are two main effects of the semiotic mediation: the construction of prejudice and the social criticism.

Prejudice: humans utilize background knowledge to emphasize relations and properties for tokens that are explicitly introduced in the ongoing discourse, to the neglect of other possible information they could get.

People who hold prejudices set up misleading mental models, since the process of making up mental models from unclear causal relations between the represented subjects and social consequences is grounded only on the acquisition of additional similar discourses. This process becomes self-validating (the more the number of similar representations, the more trustworthy any similar representation is), and does not prevent further inferences: "if it is said the truth about the Xs, then I can attribute to an X the guilt for that uneasy event, which I don't know any other believable reason for". Although it is a logical fallacy, the subsequent expression of the reasoning model as a public representation strenghtens the prejudice. During social crises, old beliefs cannot provide causal explanation for human actions. The increasing amount of uncertainty about what to do triggers fear. In this context, representations that lead people to simplify the causal explanations are likely to be received.

Trustworthy authorities urge for personifing an internal dread, by charging those who could become scapegoat. Usually, new public representations are established, by referring to a particular group of pre-existing beliefs and individual attitudes, by focussing on some intended elements, and by making relevant some characteristics. This intentional process can impact on the individual understanding of social facts.

Constructing a conspiracy theory: The historian Carlo Ginzburg (1989, ch. 1) has analyzed the mechanisms by which the theory of conspiracy was constructed and propagated for the first time. Before 1321, both jews and lepers had been separately marginalized, and had been forced to wear different identification marks. However, until that, any popular representation about the social connection between the two groups had not been stated; only in upper class texts the connection had been conceived. In France, during 1321, testimonies, confessions, representations of a conspiratorial link between the two groups (maybe instigated by a muslim king) to poison the water springs spread out in few months. In almost every village, offenders were discovered and punished.

It can be hypothesized from a historical point of view, that the representations could have been spread out by relying on a pre-existing layer of widespread popular representations and beliefs about liminal groups. The popular representations were coupled with other representations, in order to propagate another set of representations, in which a conspiratorial link between jews and lepers was extablished. Coordinated and intentional operations gave a precise direction and an objective to an already present strain.

A particular way of framing the social discours leads the people to draw further inferences about causal implications for their inner dreads.

False testimonies and compelled confessions could be actions made in good faith for intended goals, to confirm a truth, about which proofs lack, or from the point of view of the holders, are not available yet (maybe -another inference- as the self evident proof of the conspirators'trickery). The amount of testimony increased: in the trial acts it was often reported that individuals stated that they had been told that others knew; a testimony was quoting what people who witnessed lepers poisoning the waters were reported to have said.

That was the first time that the conspiracy theory unfolded its tremendous potential of social purification (since the representation of an imagined conspiracy leads to produce a real one on the opposite direction).

Social criticism: Historians compare the representations with reality: although this relation is not an easy mirroring, nevertheless the complex relation does not allow for inferring the unknowledgeability of reality. False documents and the spreading out of representations about unexistent events are relevant social facts for historians.

Ginzburg proposes a morphological methodology to provide a broader perspective in the historical analysis: At any time, a culture is a multilayered system of representations, some old, others new, some others imported from outside (Ivanov et al. 1980). The historian searches for family resemblances and differences among available texts, groups them by time and space, and looks for the underlying history of their conctact.

New representations can either overlap or conflict with a set of traditional beliefs. Particular beliefs and ways of framing public representations affect the inferential procedures by which individuals understand social phenomena.

Social critics are able to represent a representation as false, provide subjects with new ways of framing the ongoing problems, by introducing alternative models, by overcoming referential indeterminacies, and they offer new understandings. Although mental models are individual mental processes, and cannot be directly shared, an individual's defective model can be expressed and represented in an intermental plane. The process of recursive representation of representations on an intermental plane enables humans to share a higher level perspective and it is essential to human acquisition of knowledge, since it allows humans to doubt and disbelieve. "Doubting and disbelieving involve representing a representation as being improbable or false" (Sperber 1985, p.84).


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