Basic Concepts

While the meanings of complex cultural concepts – their denotations and connotations alike – are highly dependent on the specific formations that employ them, basic concepts are fairly simple, generic, descriptive, and stable across formations. Rendering the various denotations of CCCs in generic, basic concepts is essential for the development of fine-grained and precise analyses and fair, unbiased comparisons across formations.

For example, one aspect of “religion” is about “belief”. Belief is, like religion itself, a CCC that comes with a bag of theological assumptions concerning “faith” as the road to “salvation”, “orthodoxy” vs. “heresy”, the need of confession, and so forth. However, this does not mean that “belief” as a cultural phenomenon must be off bounds, or that it is impossible to develop a more sophisticated way of studying processes of “belief-formation”, or behaviors related to “believing”. For example, we can render it in terms of a basic concept like “representation”. “Beliefs” can be studied as representational units, bounded by various propositional attitudes, illocutionary functions, and cognitive processing demands. Translated to basic concepts, then, we can analyze the formation, formulation, and transmission of “religious beliefs” as processes within an epidemiology of representations (Sperber 1996; see also he section on transmission in the article on culture).

Metaculture, Embodiment, and Translatability

What makes basic concepts basic? One might protest that any language and any statement or speech-act within a language are already getting their meanings from a broader formation of language users. Strictly speaking, this is entirely correct and trivially true. However, it is also true that pan-human cognitive mechanisms put constraints on the formation of grammatical structure (Chomsky 1957). As a matter of non-trivial, empirical fact, research in ethnoscience and cognitive anthropology has established cross-cultural constraints on linguistic taxonomies, such as color classification, and even on basic ontological categories, such as ANIMAL or TOOL (e.g. Berlin & Kay 1969; Berlin 1978; Spelke & Kinzler 2007). These broadly shared features are part of what evolutionary psychologists call human metaculture (Tooby & Cosmides 1992), which the BBA refers to as building blocks of human experience.

Basic concepts, then, are concepts that are themselves part of this broadly shared, pan-human structure, or which pick out aspects of it that will be immediately recognizable across formations. Representing, taking action, or recognizing, memorizing, and narrating events are capacities that all humans share, hence these are good candidates for basic concepts.

However, we also include embodied metaphors that will make sense to all humans in their capacity as physical bodies that interact with environments (Lakoff & Johnson 1980, 1999). For example, we can reconstruct any cultural practice that involves a sequence of goal directed actions as “paths” – in analogy with the embodied, pan-human experience of walking from one destination to another – and relations between concepts in the most abstract philosophical system can usually be recast in spatial terms of ABOVE-BELOW, FRONT-BACK, or CONTAINMENT.

These tools let us come up with more precise and easily translatable descriptions of concrete practices and cultural representations, which can then serve as basis for a variety of pursuits: from setting up comparisons to setting up experiments. It is important to note that it is not by virtue of being disembodied and disconnected from ordinary language that the terms we seek are “basic”, but rather the opposite: their grounding in the body and common bodily processes.


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By Egil Asprem & Ann Taves (2016). License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Egil AspremBasic Concepts Elaborate