Dan Sperber in Paris, December 2012
20 June 1942
|Fields||Cognitive anthropology, cognitive psychology, pragmatics|
University of Oxford
|Known for||Relevance Theory, Epidemiology of Representations|
|Influences||Claude Lévi-Strauss, Noam Chomsky, Paul Grice, Jerry Fodor|
|Influenced||Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran|
|Part of a series on|
|Medical and psychological|
|Social and cultural anthropology|
Dan Sperber (born June 20, 1942, Cagnes-sur-Mer) is a French social and cognitive scientist. His most influential work has been in the fields of cognitive anthropology and linguistic pragmatics: developing, with British psychologist Deirdre Wilson, relevance theory in the latter; and an approach to cultural evolution known as the 'epidemiology of representations' in the former. Sperber currently holds the positions of Directeur de Recherche émérite at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Director of the International Cognition and Culture Institute.
Sperber is the son of Austrian-French novelist Manès Sperber. He was born in France and raised an atheist but his parents, both non-religious Ashkenazi Jews, imparted to the young Sperber a "respect for my Rabbinic ancestors and for religious thinkers of any persuasion more generally". He became interested in anthropology as a means of explaining how rational people come to hold mistaken religious beliefs about the supernatural.
Sperber was trained in anthropology at the Sorbonne and the University of Oxford. In 1965 he joined the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) as a researcher, initially in the Laboratoire d'Études Africaines (French: African studies laboratory). Later he moved to the Laboratoire d'ethnologie et de sociologie comparative (Ethnology and Comparative Sociology), the Centre de Recherche en Epistémelogie Appliquée and finally, from 2001, the Institut Jean Nicod. Sperber's early work was on the anthropology of religion, and he conducted ethnographic fieldwork among the Dorze people of Ethiopia.
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 a 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). Sperber's later work has continued to argue for the importance of cognitive processes understood through psychology in understanding cultural phenomena and, in particular, cultural transmission. His 'epidemiology of representations' is an approach to cultural evolution inspired by the field of epidemiology. It proposes that the distribution of cultural representations (ideas about the world held by multiple individuals) within a population should be explained with reference to biases in transmission (illuminated by cognitive and evolutionary psychology) and the "ecology" of the individual minds they inhabit. Sperber's approach is broadly Darwinist—it explains the macro-distribution of a trait in a population in terms of the cumulative effect micro-processes acting over time—but departs from memetics because he does not see representations as replicators except for in a few special circumstances (such as chain letters). The cognitive and epidemiological approach to cultural evolution has been influential, but as a means of explaining culture more generally it is pursued by only a small minority of scholars.
His most influential work is arguably in linguistics and philosophy: with the British linguist and philosopher Deirdre Wilson he has developed an innovative approach to linguistic interpretation known as relevance theory which as of 2010 has become mainstream in the area of pragmatics, linguistics, artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. He argues that cognitive processes are geared toward the maximisation of relevance, that is, a search for an optimal balance between cognitive efforts and cognitive effects.
As well as his emeritus position at the CNRS, Sperber is currently the Director of the International Cognition and Culture Institute, a cross-disciplinary research institution based at the London School of Economics and Institut Jean Nicod. He is a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy and in 2009 was awarded the inaugural Claude Lévi-Strauss Prize for excellence of French research in the humanities and social sciences. In 2011 he gave a Turku Agora Lecture.
- Le structuralisme en anthropologie (Éditions du Seuil, 1973)
- Rethinking Symbolism (Cambridge University Press, 1975)
- On Anthropological Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 1985)
- (with Deirdre Wilson) Relevance. Communication and Cognition (Blackwell, 1986)
- (with David Premack & Ann James Premack, eds.) Causal cognition: A multidisciplinary debate. (Oxford University Press, 1995)
- Explaining Culture (Blackwell, 1996)
- (Ed.) Metarepresentations: A mutidisciplinary perspective (Oxford University Press, 2000)
- (With Ira Noveck, eds.) Experimental pragmatics (Palgrave, 2004)
- (with Deidre Wilson), Meaning and relevance (Cambridge University Press, 2012)
- Khan, Razib (17 December 2005). "10 questions for Dan Sperber". Gene Expression. Retrieved 3 March 2011.
- "Edge: AN EPIDEMIOLOGY OF REPRESENTATIONS: A Talk with Dan Sperber". Edge. Retrieved 3 March 2011.
- "Dan Sperber — Biography". Retrieved 3 March 2011.
- Sperber, Dan (1975). Rethinking Symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-09967-7.
- Dosse, François (1997). History of Structuralism: The rising sign, 1945-1966 volume 1. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-2241-2.
- Sperber, Dan (2009). "Claude Lévi-Strauss, a precursor?". European Journal of Sociology. 49 (02): 309. doi:10.1017/S0003975608000118.
- Sperber, Dan (1973). Le Structuralisme en Anthropologie. Paris: Editions du Seuil.
- David Berliner (2010). "Lévi-Strauss and Beyond (review)". Anthropological Quarterly. 83 (3): 679–689. doi:10.1353/anq.2010.0012.
- Sperber, Dan (1985). On Anthropological Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-26748-9.
- Sperber, Dan (1998). Explaining culture: a naturalistic approach. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-20045-2.
- Sperber, Dan (28 November 2008). "Claude Lévi-Strauss at 100: echo of the future". openDemocracy.net. Retrieved 3 March 2011.
- Basso, Keith H. (1976). "Review: Rethinking Symbolism". Language in Society. 5 (2). doi:10.1017/s0047404500007077.
- Hurtig, Richard (1977). "Book Reviews: Rethinking Symbolism". Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. 6 (1).
- Sperber, Dan (2011). "A naturalistic ontology for mechanistic explanations in the social sciences". In Pierre Demeulenaere. Analytical sociology and social mechanisms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Sperber, Dan (2000). "An objection to the memetic approach to culture". In Robert Aunger. Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 163–173.
- Richerson, Peter J.; Boyd, Robert (2008). Not by genes alone: how culture transformed human evolution. Chicago, Il.: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-71284-0.
- Kuper, Adam (1996). Anthropology and anthropologists: the modern British school. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-11895-6.
- "ICCI - The Institute". International Cognition and Culture Institute. Retrieved 3 March 2011.
- "British Academy - Fellowship Directory". Retrieved 3 March 2011.
- "Dan Sperber, 1er lauréat du Prix Claude Levi-Strauss". Ministère de l'Enseignement supérieur et de la Recherche (MESR). Retrieved 3 March 2011.