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21-22 marzo 2017: Workshops: Culture, Cognition, and Action

Logo of the Centre for the Study of Social Action (CSSA)

Centre for the Study of Social Action (CSSA)   in collaboration with Politeia.


Workshops: Culture, Cognition, and Action

Martedì 21 marzo 2017, h. 16 - 18:30

Sala Enzo Paci, Dipartimento di Filosofia 

16:00 – 17:00 - Richard Menary (Sydney): Did social cognition culturally evolve?

17:00 – 17:30 - Break

17:30 – 18:30 - Vivian Bohl (Tartu): Social relationships and shared emotions



If you would like to join the speakers and organizers, please email anika.fiebich@unimi.it (in advance!)


Mercoledì 22 marzo 2017, h. 9:30 - 13:00

Sala Enzo Paci, Dipartimento di Filosofia 

09:30 – 10:30 - Francesco Guala (Milan): Institutions and functions

10:30 – 11:30 - Christine Caldwell (Stirling): Insights on cumulative culture from laboratory studies of cultural evolution

11:30 – 12:00 - Break

12:00 – 13:00 - Olivier Morin (Jena): Culture is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans


La conferenza sarà tenuta in inglese.

La partecipazione all’incontro è fortemente consigliata consigliata agli allievi della Scuola di Dottorato in Filosofia e Scienze dell’Uomo.

Tutti gli interessati sono invitati a partecipare.



Richard Menary (Macquarie University Sydney): Did Social Cognition Culturally Evolve?

For some time now, the dominant theory of social cognition has been mindreading (or mentalizing); the ability to attribute mental states in order to explain and predict behaviour. The current state of the art is implicit mindreading: an inherited capacity for automatic and fast mentalizing. However, implicit mindreading has come under pressure, for example the experiments that are supposed to support infant mindreading are problematic and alternative explanations are available. Cecelia Heyes has been at the forefront of these critiques. She has presented a powerful suite of arguments and analyses that show that infants don’t mind-read. She has also proposed that rather than an innate implicit mindreading mechanism, we inherit domain general mechanisms for statistical learning and sub-mentalizing.

We think that this is on the right track, but extend the analysis to include a broader range of routes to social understanding including: traits, dispositions, stereotypes, situations, norms and mindreading. In the final part of the talk we look at how this broader approach to social cognition could have culturally evolved, by arguing that human social competence is inherited from an evolved and complex social and cultural environment that is subject to innovation and change. The cultural environment includes various practices, norms, heuristics and other patterns of social interpretation that are acquired through scaffolded learning. This provides a gradualist evolutionary explanation of our social cognition without positing a great intellectual leap in our lineage.

Vivian Bohl (University of Tartu): Social relationships and shared emotions

We, humans, are a social species, devoting much of our resources to social activities and interpersonal relationships. Although particular forms of social relationships are culture dependent, it has been argued that some basic structures of social relationships can be found across cultures, such as communal relationships, dominance relationships and exchange relationships (Kaufann & Clément 2014). While we engage in social relationships and social activities, we often have emotional experiences. In many cultures, people sometimes experience what they readily describe as ‘sharing emotions with others’.  But can two or more individuals literally share an emotion and if so, what is the proper way to conceptualize this phenomenon? And how are shared emotions and social relationships related? There is a diversity of conceptions on shared emotions available in literature, but most accounts of shared emotions have not considered shared emotions in relation to social relationships. This is surprising, given that social relationships provide the context in which shared emotions arise. In my talk , I argue that many cases of what we call ‘shared emotions’ fall under a special case of social-relational emotions, typically arising within and/or giving rise to communal relationships.


Francesco Guala (University of Milan): Institutions and Functions

Can institutions change? Or more precisely: can an institution change without becoming an institution of a completely different kind? These question may seem otiose, but in fact have been (and are) at the core of some of the most divisive political debates of our time. In this talk I will focus mostly on the case of gay marriage, and on the argument that allowing same-sex couple to marry may change the nature of this institutions. The argument raises a serious philosophical problem (‘Caligula’s problem’, from the Roman emperor who wanted to appoint his horse a senator) and deserves our attention.

I will argue that Caligula’s problem can be solved using a functionalist approach: types of institutions are identified by their function, or the coordination problems they solve; token institutions are specific solutions to these problems, or equilibria of strategic games. The functionalist approach also provides some insights into the limits of reform, or the extent to which institutions – like marriage, property, or democracy – can be modified without turning them into social entities of a different kind.


Christine Caldwell (University of Stirling): Insights on cumulative culture from laboratory studies of cultural evolution

In humans, cultural traditions often change in ways which increase efficiency and functionality (widely referred to as cumulative cultural evolution). However, directional change of this kind has not been identified in the behavioural traditions of other animals. In this talk, I discuss laboratory studies of cultural evolution in human participants, which have become increasingly prevalent as a means of identifying and understanding the effects of cultural transmission on the form and functionality of transmitted material. These experiments can be broadly divided into two categories based on the way the task is framed. In some, participants are instructed to maximise some consistent measure of task success, guided by the output of preceding participants, e.g. in Caldwell and Millen’s (2008) study of spaghetti tower building. In others, they are instructed to reproduce the output of a previous participant as accurately as possible, e.g. Kirby et al.’s (2008) study of artificial language learning. The different task goals have different effects on the accumulating culture: in the former, the outputs typically become more elaborate as participants attempt to outperform their predecessors; in the latter, the outputs typically simplify under a pressure for learnability. In a recent study, we directly compared the effects of these alternative task goals on the cultural evolution of an otherwise similar behaviour: building structures using spaghetti and modelling clay. Beginning single sequences with the same seed structures, participants were instructed to either build as tall a structure as possible, or to copy the previous structure. We also compared social transmission with repeated individual attempts to assess the effects of population turnover. I will discuss the differences that we identified across the conditions in terms of the structures that evolved. These contrasts help to shed light on the conditions that may be necessary for cumulative culture to occur.


Olivier Morin (MPI for the Science of Human History in Jena): How to say things with things: the evolution of graphic codes

In the last five thousand years, the human capacity to communicate with permanent visual symbols endowed with codified, conventional meanings has improved drastically. Thanks chiefly to writing, the range and quantity of information that we exchange by means of graphic codes has exploded. This cultural change has no parallel in the recent history of spoken language. Why the discrepancy? I propose that the cognitive capacities that enable human ostensive communication to function are specifically adapted to synchronous interactions, that is to say, to interactions that unfold inside the same time frame for all participants. These interactions guarantee three things without which communication cannot thrive:

  • Communicative actions and their authors are immediately made manifest to participants;
  • Participants share a substantial cognitive environment by virtue of being together;
  • Repair (signalling misunderstandings and correcting them on the fly) is possible and likely.
21 marzo 2017
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