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  • Cognitive Innovation and the Cognitive Turn
  • Michael Punt

FOR NEARLY HALF A CENTURY Leonardo has surveyed, reflected and shaped the intellectual project of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology (ISAST). As part of this mission it has, in the best possible sense, been alert to “the next big thing”; what in the sciences is called a “breakthrough,” a “movement” in the arts and in technology an “opportunity.” In recent years in the humanities the “next big thing” has been relentlessly labeled a “turn” to the extent that the term itself now resonates with self-irony. Nonetheless, by tracking the bibliographies of various “breakthroughs,” “movements,” “opportunities” and “turns,” it is possible to see the recurring pattern of secessionist impulses as they strive for recognition, build their own communities, launch conferences, sponsor journals and anthologies, and appear in encyclopedias to become an established presence that amounts to respectable middle age. A skeptical follower of Leonardo’s own passage from an engineering avant-garde to glossy middle age can be excused for voicing a certain ennui as yet another “next big thing” stakes its claim in a call for papers for a conference, a special issue or a special section. Yet without these calls, conferences and the generous energies of their advocates, the gravitational pull of disciplinary orthodoxy would have stifled the radical drive of the ISAST project long ago. Its salvation has been the platform it offers for risky discussions that are not bound by the routine rehearsals of questions and topics that are considered essential for training researchers to have disciplinary focus (and careers). This is how Leonardo began in Paris in 1968 and, in this sense, it was at the outset a transdisciplinary project ahead of its time; attempting to bring a different order to the open challenges to the conflicting paradigms of the arts, sciences and technology. Through all the “breakthroughs,” “movements,” “opportunities” and “turns,” it has borne witness to the inexorable struggles with competing versions of what idea of the “world” and the “real” we are sharing. In recent times this has, more often than not, returned us to familiar discussions of the bifurcations and paradigm conflicts between (and in) the arts and the sciences, technology and culture and theory and practice.

The current media vogue for cognitive science may have generated its own problems and popular misunderstandings, but the intellectual mobility of many of the researchers it attracts opens up a new and unexplored space for creativity in the theoretical, experimental and philosophical in the idea of cognitive innovation in which the processes that we understand as creative are not exclusively concerned with human thought and action. Cognitive innovation may appear to be a “turn” within a “turn;” however, to throw creativity into the practical and theoretical mix of a fashionable science may be more than the apparent colonization of the Leonardo project by yet another intellectual fashion from “elsewhere.” Cognitive innovation provides a theoretical and practical platform in which some of the more challenging critiques of the humanities can find themselves at one with similar critiques of the sciences.

In 2003 Bruno Latour reflected on this battle of the paradigms with a military analogy (for which he was much criticized). He pointed out a tendency that new battles were fought with the assumptions and technologies of the previous wars, and once this was recognized the military took remedial action. Alas, he laments, not so in academia, where we are still wedded to a version of reality that he claims we have long outgrown. His plea in “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” is that before it is too late we might turn our attention to developing a more sophisticated and inclusive model of what might be understood as “real.” To short-circuit his elegant argument here, he critiques his own constructivist contributions of the past and suggests that rather than resigning ourselves to paradigm conflict we use our collective efforts in all disciplines to develop a notion of the real as both a matter of fact and a matter of concern.

Latour returned to this theme in two lectures delivered at the University of Amsterdam in 2005 that are now available in...


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pp. 554-555
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