The Cultural Diffusion of Sophisticated Ideas: How Laypeople Understand Expert Knowledge and How This Affects the Spread of Ideas
Why do certain theories or sophisticated ideas become culturally shared, while others remain indefinitely closed within specific circles? How does the way in which laypeople treat expert knowledge affect cultural evolution? I argue that the cultural transmission and retention of a sophisticated idea is contingent upon a special combination of environmental and cognitive factors which triggers a naive comprehension of that idea on the part of laypeople. Naive comprehension is defined as a kind of understanding whereby an idea is considered merely for its immediate relevance to a certain context, without further delving into other aspects or implications. A theory of naive comprehension is proposed which describes the cultural diffusion of sophisticated ideas as a consequence of their naive comprehension on the part of laypeople. This means that, contrary to traditional accounts of cultural diffusion, and to conventional wisdom, under certain circumstances variation of an idea’s conceptual content motivates the transmission of that idea and is, therefore, a cause of its spread, not an effect of it. A summary of the empirical work that supports the theory is reported.
Keywords: Cultural Evolution, Cognition and Culture, Relevance Theory, Analysis of Beliefs, History of Ideas, Rationality
Associate Professor (Sept. 2008), Department of Italian, Banja Luka University