The first question is, what is cognition? Well, according to dictionary.com and its Wordnet entry, cognition is “the psychological result of perception and learning and reasoning.” According to the American Heritage entry on Dictionary.com, cognition is, “1. The mental process of knowing, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment. 2. That which comes to be known, as through perception, reasoning, or intuition; knowledge.” I could go on and on and collect more and more definitions, but these definitions will all simplify into one denominator. Cognition is what a person holds to be true or false and good and bad about his or her own life in relation to and with other people and/or things.
For example, if a little boy is born and then placed into an empty white room and then grows up in that white room, he will have few needs for his cognition. What he will hold true is that his stomach aches and then somehow that ache gets relieved. If he is physically kept alive, then all he holds to be true are the ways that he is kept alive. The only relationship he will have is that between him and his being kept alive. While this thought experiment sounds horrific and is extreme, it illustrates a point: cognition is “requirements-based” and relational. These two words reflect the need for a definition of culture because culture is the basis through which cognition occurs.
If cognition is as defined above, then culture is the set of external systems that determine the individual’s cognitive requirements. Simply put, a person’s culture will determine both what an individual needs to hold as true and the way the individual gains that truth. In the instance of the isolated little boy, his culture is the system in which his physical needs are met and the way he expresses his physical needs. Now, if the little boy had a wider array of requirements, then the little boy would hold many more truths. Therefore, it becomes clear that cognition and culture are interdependent. Language becomes the link both for the individual to mediate his internal reality and for the culture to receive and transmit relational requirements.
What this linguistic link means is that perception is a matter of perspective. Umberto Eco wrote, “every proposition regarding that which is implies a choice, a perspective, a point of view…Many of our claimed representations would be perhaps incompatible with one another, but they could tell a truth all their own” (Eco, 1997, 43). The claimed representations are a matter of what an individual believes and chooses to express about that belief. Choice is not a simple matter; choosing a representation, or rather, a thing to say (or write), depends upon what a person believes that they can represent. Also, a person may perceive something, however, language is necessarily omitting, “language cannot reflect the neural representation of color because the representation is private, while language reflects conceptualization” (Eco, 1997, 153). This means that language has weaknesses because, “it is the name with which we indicate the object that highlights one pertinency at the expense of others” (Eco, 1997, 162). The difficulty is that, “the intellect plays on fictions that is calls truth, or systems of concepts, based on the legislation of language” (Eco, 1997, 44). The resolution of this apparent conflict is simple: language use removes or gives power as cultural determinations allow and is overvalued by society as a whole and should be thought of as a means, just as valid as music, or art, or any other mode of mediation/expression
This discussion about cognition, culture, and language may give the impression that these things are neutral, that they, in and of themselves, are just things and systems devoid of any type of emotional weight. While in an isolated setting, as in a village in a remote Latin American jungle, there may not be any emotional thought given towards the system in question. It would be a group of fishes unaware and not bothered by the water around them. However, if another group threatened the remote village, then huge amounts of emotion would then be triggered and war could and probably would ensue. If this is the case, then it is clear that any discussion of cognition and culture must include as a necessary component power distribution dynamics. If there were no issues about power, then no conflict would be present in any discussion of culture’s outside of one’s own and everyone would get along quite peacefully. In my opinion, humanity has never known this type of peace.
What is the role of power? To answer, I must first take a look at what power really is. Power, from a sociocultural perspective, is the ability to transfer one group’s value system onto another group of people, usually as an act of conquest, “Whether urbane or harsh, cultural invasion is this always an act of violence against the persons of the invaded culture, who lose their originality or face the threat the of losing it…the invaders mold; those who are invaded are molded” (Freire, 2000, 152). While Freire uses strong words that imply force, supplanting a culture involves removing, or at best, rearranging a person’s entire life-view. Furthermore, not only can there be a value clash between groups of people, there can be value system clashes even among a person’s value system of origin. Rousseau wrote, “…each individual may, as a person, have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen. His particular interest may speak to him quite differently that the common interest” (Crosby, 1978, 12). While Rousseau’s words were in a different time context than today, there is still truth in his words. Therefore, power dynamics influence both group’s culture relationships between distinct and also these dynamics are at work within a single person and any system external to himself. Language is the mediator not only between self and that which is outside of self, but language is also the mediator of power dynamics.
If people could get to a point where they understand the power dynamics of their own respective contexts, and then mediate those contexts, they could see how to overcome that which oppresses them. Cultural cognition will allow that understanding.