Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (1994) Paleolithic Cave Art:. Psycoloquy: 5(52) Evolution Thinking (5)

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Psycoloquy 5(52): Paleolithic Cave Art:

Reply to Steele on Evolution-Thinking

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone
Department of Philosophy
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403



This is a Reply to Steele's (1994) reformulation of the problem of the origin of paleolithic cave art as the problem of determining modality dominance. It raises critical questions regarding visual provenience, points out the importance of attending to corporeal matters of fact, and shows how and why a corporeal turn points us rightfully in the direction of understanding developmental intermodalities rather than modality dominance.


analogical thinking, animate form, concepts, evolution, tactile-kinesthetic body.
1. Steele's (1994) review of THE ROOTS OF THINKING (Sheets-Johnstone 1990, 1994, henceforth ROOTS), centers mainly on the question of what this reviewer terms "the visual versus the tactile-kinesthetic modality" (par. 6) with respect to the origin of paleolithic cave art. In this context, Steele cites the ethnographically based theory of Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988), according to which "the conceptual origins of cave art are grounded very firmly in the visual system" (Steele, par. 5). As ROOTS shows, the problem with a visual conceptual origin is that it takes for granted the very thing it wants to explain: the act of drawing. In a strictly visual account, there is no way to get from "trance" visual experiences, for example, or phosphenes, or hallucinogenic images to the idea -- the concept -- of drawing. What would impel an act of drawing, for example, drawing the phosphenes one sees when one closes one's eyes or presses one's eyeballs? The concept of drawing is nowhere adumbrated, much less present, in the visual experience. Moreover a desire to replicate what one sees presupposes the ability to replicate, thus the knowledge that one can draw if one so wishes. It in this sense presupposes certain powers, or "I can's" with respect to one's tactile-kinesthetic body. In short, the visualist theory of the origin of paleolithic cave art takes for granted the concept of drawing in the same way that typical accounts of the origin of counting take for granted the concept of number.

2. The issue is not modality dominance, as Steele believes. It is thus not to be resolved by appeal to behavior, specifically to studies "where behaviour can be directly manipulated and observed" (Steele, par. 6). On the contrary, as ROOTS makes clear, the question of origins is resolved by appeal to experience, and this because it is a question of first-hand corporeal matters of fact. The generative sources of fundamental human (hominid) concepts are data -- that is, corporeal matters of fact -- that are sensuously present in tactile-kinesthetic experience. Hence the issue is not "abstract" concepts (Steele, par. 1, par. 3) or modality dominance; it is a question of concepts concretely grounded in everyday human (hominid) experience.

3. To justify the foregoing pan-cultural/phylogenetic claims one must demonstrate sufficient similarity between earlier hominids and present-day humans. I never use the terms "empathetic" or "projection" (Steele par. 2) to spell out sufficient similarity. Shared somatic morphologies, neurophysiologies, and everyday behaviors (e.g., walking, chewing, standing, pointing, eye-closing, eye-opening) mean precisely shared tactile-kinesthetic experiences, not "'empathetic' projection." Accordingly, as ROOTS emphasizes, one must look for verification in one's own mundane experiences of one's own body. This mode of verification in no way contravenes the cortical studies Steele recommends. It simply puts corporeal matters of fact where they belong: in the forefront of understanding the conceptual origin of fundamental human practices and beliefs.

4. The corporeal turn that corporeal matters of fact call for is not an "alternative" (Steele, par. 1) to the "linguistic turn." The linguistic turn in both anthropology and philosophy directed attention to the many ways language may structure or mediate human life. I noted at the beginning of ROOTS that the linguistic turn produced extraordinary insights and that "a corporeal turn would assuredly do no less" (1990, p. 19). I further noted at the end of the book that the corporeal turn, like the linguistic one, "requires paying attention to something long taken for granted" (1990, p. 382). It is clear from this perspective why "the debate about the dominance of the visual versus the tactile-kinesthetic modality" (Steele, par. 6) cannot even begin before one makes a corporeal turn. It is necessary first to begin fathoming the bodies we are.

5. With respect to infants, for example, we know what comes first. We cannot discount this knowledge and put our visual or linguistic druthers -- whatever they might be and for whatever reasons -- in its place. We must first come to reckoning with tactility and kinesthesia as modes of knowing and making sense of the world. Only then might a debate -- not about dominance, but about developmental intermodalities -- prove useful.


Lewis-Williams, J.D. and Dowson, T.A. (1988) The Signs of All Times. Current Anthropology 29: 201-217.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. (1990) The Roots of Thinking. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. (1994) Precis of The Roots of Thinking. PSYCOLOQUY 5(8) evolution-thinking.1.sheets-johnstone.

Steele, James. (1994) Hominid Sensory Modalities and Palaeolithic Data. PSYCOLOQUY 5(27) evolution-thinking.2.steele.

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