O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z &

Sperber, Dan (1975). Rethinking Symbolism. Cambridge University Press.


  • ... the most interesting cultural knowledge is tacit knowledge -- ... that which is not made explicit. When those who have this knowledge are able to make it explicit, I shall speak of implicit knowledge. When they are incapable of this, I shall speak of unconscious knowledge.
  • Explicit and expressly-imparted knowledge may ... be learned by rote, and it is therefore only direct evidence of the quantitative limits of human learning ability. Conversely, tacit knowledge may in no case be acquired by rote; it must be reconstructed by each individual; it is therefore direct evidence of specific learning abilities, of a qualitatively determined creative competence.
  • Symbolism is paradigmatic ..., for its explicit forms are unintelligible by themselves and their study has always presupposed the existence of an underlying tacit knowledge. But what is the nature of this knowledge and what is its relationship to explicitness? The most generally accepted answer is [that] the explicit forms of symbolism are signifiants (signifiers) associated to tacit signifies (signifieds) as in the model of the relationships between sound and meaning in language.
  • By asserting that symbolism is a cognitive mechanism, I mean that it is an autonomous mechanism that, alongside the perceptual and conceptual mechanisms, participates in the construction of knowledge and in the functioning of memory. On this point I differ from semiological approaches which see symbolism ... as an instrument of social communication. Indeed ... symbolism plays a major role in social communication, but this is not a constitutive function from which the structure of symbolism could be predicted.
Back matter
  • Sperber gives a cognitive account of symbolism by which symbols represent knowledge, but knowledge is knowledge not of things or of words, but of the memory of things and words, of conceptual representations. It depends on processes of displacement of attention, and of evocation; it is an improvisation which rests upon implicit knowledge and obeys unconscious rules. The author's conclusions point the way to discovering the role that innate, cultural and individual factors play in a symbolic knowledge. -- By Edmund Leach


w: Dan Sperber
  • Sperber was an early proponent of structural anthropology, having been introduced to it by Rodney Needham at Oxford, and helped popularise it in British social anthropology. At the CNRS he studied under Claude Lévi-Strauss, credited as the founder of structuralism, who encouraged Sperber's "untypical theoretical musings". In the 1970s, however, Sperber came to be identified with post-structuralism in French anthropology, and criticised the theories of Lévi-Strauss and other structuralists for using interpretive ethnographic data as if it were an objective record, and for its lack of explanatory power. Nevertheless Sperber has persistently defended the legacy of Lévi-Strauss' work as opening the door for naturalistic social science, and as an important precursor to cognitive anthropology.
  • After moving away from structuralism, Sperber sought an alternative naturalistic approach to the study of culture. His 1975 book Rethinking Symbolism, outlined an theory of symbolism using concepts from the burgeoning field of cognitive psychology. It was formulated as a reply to semiological theories which were becoming widespread in anthropology through the works of Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz (which formed the basis of what come to be known as symbolic anthropology).

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  1. Refer to the subtitle of Ogden & Richards (1923).