AND INSTITUTUIONAL DEVELOPMENT
by Viacheslav Shironin
Contents of the Abstract
Part I. Cognitive space and social order 5
Chapter 1. Defining the object of study 5
Cognitive Space 5
Examples of cognitive spaces 11
Chapter 2. Cognitive science 13
2.1. Sign systems 13
Language as a construction set 13
Where does the language accumulate knowledge? 15
Sign systems 16
Examples of sign systems 17
Stability of a sign system 21
Appendix: how concepts are developed 22
2.2. Informational networks 23
Brain and distributed knowledge 23
‘Classical’ cognitive science and the Turing machine 23
Neural networks and connectionism 25
An example of informational network: NETtalk 27
Where does the network accumulate knowledge? 29
The market: prices as weights 31
Chapter 3. Main characteristics of cognitive spaces 32
A general view of cognitive spaces 32
Holistic vs. localized knowledge 35
Self-reference and metalanguages 40
Ideas and reality 42
Part II. Institutional history: a cognitive science view 48
Contents of Part II 50
Part III. ‘The West’ and ‘Russia’: models of social order 51
Chapter 6. Liberal social order 52
Liberal order as a reflexive sign system 52
Things as ideas, ideas as things 58
Liberal order and networks 61
Chapter 7. Russian social order 63
The Man 63
Sign systems in Russia 72
What is lacking in Russia? 75
This book contains the ideas that I have been accumulating during my professional life - from reading texts, making observations, developing my own theoretical constructions and from discussions with colleagues. I would like to put this knowledge in order and, if possible, to find a unifying all common logic. It is this logic, and not individual results which should be regarded as the main content of the book. As concerns more specific things, it seemed to me useful to gather them together. Although many of the ideas presented here are well known and appear to be obvious, however, every day one can see that they are not only lacking in a wide public consciousness, but are not even introduced into professional circulation.
By the beginning of the 1980s, for many in the Soviet Union, there was a sense of crisis and the need for reform. As always, at first the decisions were looked for at the surface - like improvement of planning or introducing incentives for state enterprises. At the same time there was a feeling that we do not understand the social system in which we live, and it was openly expressed by the country's leader Yuri Andropov. Several young economists from Moscow, St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and Novosibirsk decided to approach this problem more seriously and try to understand how we live. Most of them needed this understanding for the practical purpose, they wanted to be politicians and were going to change the country with their own hands – which they did in due course as the ‘Gaidar's team’. What they needed was not scholastic but practical knowledge oriented at decision-making. A minority, several people, including the author of this book, were not politicians and saw their task as scientific. But the constant contact with the world of practice gave this science a pragmatic stance.
Paradoxically, this does not contradict the fact that the contents of this book may seem very abstract and far from reality. But if we want to deal with our perpetual problems, we have probably to till another layer of intellectual soil and get used to the idea that practical value may be connected with questions which now seem purely academic. I believe that what we need today are analytical instruments from the field of structuralist and cognitive analysis, and that only using such instruments we will be able to understand how people see the world and how they interact with it. The purpose of this book is precisely to gather such a toolkit from several areas of knowledge. However, a mere presentation of abstract constructions, without reference to substantive content, is unlikely to make them understandable. Therefore, the book is written rather in the genre of collage or a textbook, not monograph, and spends much time on summarizing works in which the main focal points are addressed more specifically. Almost all of these sources are well known - but mostly only to experts in their respective fields, and in the aggregate they are unlikely to represent someone's lap reading.
The book consists of three parts. The first two of them complement each other ideologically, but are almost unrelated in terms of logical sequence, or links. Within each of the parts, chapters are also sufficiently independent and each has a subject, still they are logically linked. The third part is built on the foundation of the first two, though, perhaps, it can be read separately.
Very briefly, the main conclusions of this book are as follows:
It is worthwhile to look at the society as an information system or processor. This allows one to apply in the social sciences - and particularly for the analysis of institutional development - the methods and scientific results that are available in the cognitive science and, generally, in the sciences about knowledge.
With this approach, we see that Western Europe during about two thousand years has developed a technique for organization of social entities in the form of sign systems. This allows, as if with children's construction set, to easily build an infinite number of new, complex relationships, behaviors and things out of available cognitive and institutional ‘components’. Also, knowledge, i.e. mental, ideal objects are transformed – or re-coded - into objectively existing, ‘real’ things. This technique is similar to the invention of writing, and is of no less fundamental consequences; it makes possible disposing of, storing and accumulation of knowledge.
In contrast, the social order in Russia is based not on relocation of complex mental objects, but on the prevalence of network structures, where people enter into fundamental relationship based on the most universal characteristics of human nature, and exchange fairly simple impulses. Sign systems in our life are also present, but they are secondary to networks and therefore operate in a specific manner. Information development in our society takes place in holographic form - knowledge gets ‘spread out’ across the social system.
Part I. Cognitive space and social order
Today, when talking about the social development in Russia we all the more often remember this old joke:
Once upon a time there lived an old man and an old woman. The old woman sewed, and the old man worked at a factory of sewing machines. Since wife his did not have such a machine and was tired of sewing by hand, the old man began quietly stealing machine details from his work – one day a cog, another a gear. Finally, when all the different parts that the factory produced were available, the happy couple started assembling the machine. Alas, it turned out not a sewing machine, but machine gun.
It was Chaadaev who wrote in the beginning of XIX century that life in Russia goes around a circle, the time stands still and nothing changes. Whatever reform is introduced, in the end it turns out again the same. And after Chaadaev we have cut a few more laps. If a new legal system in the middle of the XIX century and the State Duma in 1905 could be a source of public optimism, now it is just the opposite. Why is this happening?
It seems that in order to answer this question we need to understand of what ‘components’ the human behavior consists. What are the minimal elements of our behavior? How they are integrated into an overall order? The same questions can be asked in a different way: what are the terms in which a person sees the world and society? How does the system of knowledge and communication operate?
We see the outside world in a certain way, and therefore our actions are structured in a certain way, too. The opposite is also true: our behavior affects our perception of the world. Therefore, the organization of our behavior has a cognitive nature, i.e., it is determined by how, in what form knowledge and information exists and evolves (is produced, transmitted, stored, etc.).
Cognitive space in which a person is located is the whole system of his interaction with the surrounding world and his picture of the world:
It is the images and concepts that the person is capable of receiving and transmitting
It is the pattern of connections among the people with whom he interacts, and the specifics of their reactions
Finally, these are things that he can produce and make use of
We can say that cognitive space is knowledge, if we mean not only the individual knowledge but the system of knowledge and communication which is created by some social entity and is somehow available to this person. One can also say that cognitive space is order, i.e. the way of organizing a person’s relations with the world.
The concept of cognitive space is very wide, so its definition can present some difficulty. It seems to me that the issue will be getting clearer as long as will become more understandable the purpose of this analysis. And this purpose is, in essence, to ‘cover with one glance’ some specific aspect of life. Accordingly, we come across the same challenges as were mentioned by Ferdinand de Saussure who was the first to put forward a similar task1:
What is both the integral and concrete object of linguistics? The question is especially difficult… Other sciences work with objects that are given in advance and that can then be considered from different viewpoints; but not linguistics… Far from it being the object that antedates the viewpoint, it would seem that it is the viewpoint that creates the object; besides, nothing tells us in advance that one way of considering the fact in question takes precedence over the others or is in any way superior to them.
Constructing the concept of cognitive space, we want to combine those observations that have been made before, in particular by philosophers and economists. In addition, we will form an intuitive understanding of the cognitive space by moving inductively and considering specific cases of cognitive systems: the language, the market, Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm, Michel Foucault’s episteme.
Language and speech
As we know, Saussure called language (la langue) the set of tools which is common to all speakers and is used in the construction of sentences in that language; the word speech (la parole) left to refer to specific expressions of individual speakers. Here are the words from the Course in General Linguistics:
But what is language (langue)? It is not to be confused with human speech (langage), of which it is only a definite part, though certainly an essential one. It is both a social product of the faculty of speech and a collection of necessary conventions that have been adopted by a social body to permit individuals to exercise that faculty. Taken as a whole, speech is many-sided and heterogeneous; straddling several areas simultaneously — physical, physiological, and psychological — it belongs both to the individual and to society; we cannot put it into any category of human facts, for we cannot discover its unity. Language, on the contrary, is a self-contained whole and a principle of classification. As soon as we give language first place among the facts of speech, we introduce a natural order into a mass that lends itself to no other classification.
This idea of Saussure has been later reformulated and commented by numerous followers. Here is, for example, what wrote about it Roland Barthes:
Language is an institution, an abstract set of rules; speech being momentary part of this institution, which the individual takes out of it and updates for the needs of communication; language stands out from the mass of spoken words, but at the same time every word of the speech itself is drawn from the language; in history it is dialectics of structure and event, and in communication theory - dialectics of code and message.
Thus, the language exists only as a potential behavior, but it has the property of integrity and therefore can be studied ‘synchronically’, i.e. as a ‘crosscut’ at any given time. The flow of speech is actually deployed ‘diachronically’ and can be directly observed and recorded.
Let us go back to the story about components for sewing machines from which a machine gun was assembled. Using this metaphor, we claimed that the task of this book is to identify the elementary units, or components of a ‘construction set’, from which human behavior is constructed. Does it mean that we are engaged in analysis of the language of human behavior, the language of interactions?
Indeed, suppose that a person goes on the car. He turns the steering wheel to the right or to the left, slows or accelerates, reads a road sign. All these actions can be seen as statements in a generalized language, as a kind of ‘text’. But the fact is that this is not always the case. Many facts of human behavior it is inconvenient to describe in terms of ‘a language of interactions’. Here is an example. From time to time my childhood friends with whom I went to kindergarten come to my home to visit me. Over the unbelievable number of years we have been having these tea meetings, and now everybody precisely knows where he or she sits at the table. But no one has ever discussed it, nor perhaps even realized. It has been defined by a multitude of small gestures and movements.
Another example: In the mid-1990s, I was engaged in the publication of manuals on how the various institutions of then emerging market economy in Russia operate. Among other things, the idea arose to describe the operation of the state statistical office, which was then called, it seems, the State Statistics Committee or SSC. It turned out however that this was a very difficult job to do. The SSC did not produce information based on some definite rules, instructions or formulas. The impression was that the staff of the SSC just lived inside it as in some kind of ‘village’, and that the statistics published by the Committee were ‘by-products of living’ of this village. ‘Masha! – would some Dasha of the SSC call on the phone to her colleague sitting in the next room - Come, please. The milking data per cow from the Vologda region do not come to reason’. Masha comes, and it turns out that ‘It is Ivan Voldemarovich who does the milk yields, and his son was ill, and besides he is such a person that the figures he gives should always be adjusted by 20 percent’. (…)
All such examples show that the concept of cognitive space is not confined to language and symbolic systems. Therefore, we will also deal with networks. Such informational mechanisms have attracted the interest of researchers in various disciplines. In economics and social sciences it is the managerial hierarchy and horizontal social networks; neuroscience and cognitive science deal with neural network. The results of different studies can be mutually beneficial. One of these most interesting results is the fact that information networks do not accumulate knowledge locally but distribute it throughout the system, i.e. the knowledge there is holographic in nature.
Photograph and hologram
In this book, we will repeatedly mention the holographic way of presenting information in contradistinction to conventional photography. Recall so that the hologram has two key properties. First, each its part contains information about the entire represented object. Therefore, when, for example, a film on which an object is depicted holographically, is cut into several pieces, each of these fragments will yield an image of the whole object, although less clear. The second property of the hologram is that the resulting image is not flat but three-dimensional. Here, for example, are two photographs of the same hologram made from two different points:
Picture 1. Photographs of the same hologram taken from two different points2
Inertia or the logic of behavior?
We mentioned the fact that, despite various attempts to build new institutions, elementary units of behavior remain the same. This problem has long been known and discussed time and again, but usually it is considered in terms of inertia: people speak about conservatism, traditions, habits, etc. Meanwhile, one needs to clearly understand that what really matters is not ‘a heavy legacy of the past’, and that we should speak rather about the stability of the system. A Russian arriving in England is quite capable of driving not on the right hand but on the left hand side of the road. That is, the point is not that we are used to behave in a certain way and that our conservatism-traditionalism does not allow us to readjust. Having moved abroad and embedded into a different behavioral environment we are quite capable to adapt, though, perhaps, sometimes experience psychological tension. The key thing is that, playing checkers, you can not make moves as if you were playing giveaway3. In other words, we behave in a certain way because our behavior is part of some extra personal system that has its own logic.
As already mentioned, this book is written basedon the structuralist position, that is, we will assume that the specific facts of human life can only be understood when considered within the system - the structure - of their mutual relations. Such structures are called a priori (here a noun) to human actions, thoughts, perceptions and feelings, they create a form for them, make them possible4.
Distributed knowledge or cognitive space?
Cognitive space includes knowledge that is contained in the minds of individuals. Dating back to at least Adam Smith, economists have emphasized the importance of specialization, division of labor and distribution of knowledge. One can not say that this topic was close to the center of their research; still its crucial role was noted. Introducing his concept of distributed knowledge, Friedrich Hayek deduced from it the fundamental inefficiency of centralized public systems. Once the total knowledge is so great that only its various particles can be present in the minds of individual people, and since collecting these particles together is unrealistic, a society can normally exist only in the form of a decentralized system.
In fact, the idea of distributed knowledge is one of the key starting points for the whole of this book; still I think that the analysis here has passed only half the way. Usually the reasoning here is based on what Schumpeter called methodological individualism, i.e. on accepting as the fundamental principle the fact that ultimately all knowledge is distributed among individuals. I am not going to argue about this issue but will assume a different principle that the cumulative knowledge can not be reduced to the sum of individual knowledge, and that no less important role plays the structure and the mechanism of interactions of the individuals. (…)
This principle of methodological holism is embodied in this book in the concept of cognitive space. The starting example of cognitive space for us is the language which has much in common with other sign systems. We will try to demonstrate that this class of systems includes many of the institutional mechanisms. At the same time, we will see that there are other types of cognitive spaces not having sign nature.
Cognitive space and social order
The cognitive aspect in the social sciences has not been developed enough. One can find any number of arguments about justice or injustice of property distribution, its efficiency or inefficiency, etc., but hardly about what exactly it means, even in the simplest case, when we say that a thing belongs to somebody. Of course, the content of such concepts is studied by jurisprudence, however this science leaves out all that is usually denoted by the vague term of ‘informal relations’. To add, though studying the law as a knowledge mechanism has been acknowledged as an interesting and important research area, not too much has been actually done.
Extra personal system is inevitably a communication system. Cognitive space sets the foundation on which to build a social order. Such an order can be formulated in terms of laws and rights, or it can exist as a system of personal relationships. Probably it is safe to say that most of the social order is built on the foundation of the cognitive space. But it is hardly appropriate to include all subsystems of social order (for example, the power relations) into the notion of cognitive space. Therefore, the interrelation of these concepts can be roughly represented as follows:
Picture 2. Cognitive space and social order