In The patterning instinct, Jeremy Lent takes an approach to history called ‘cognitive history’. This approach holds that instead of history being determined exclusively by material causes like geography, economy, technology etc. the ‘will to meaning’ plays a significant role. This means that different cultures construct core metaphors to make meaning out of the world. These metaphors create the values that ultimately drive human actions.

Lent uses cognitive science as the lens through which to view history. The Santiago theory of cognition sees cognition (the process of knowing) as identical with the process of life. The self-organising activity of living systems is ‘mental’ or cognitive activity. Cognition is embedded in matter. The theory claims that cognition is not a representation of an independently existing world ‘out there’, but rather a ‘bringing forth’ or ‘enacting’ of a world, through the process of living.

Iain McGilchrist argues that reality is co-created or co-constructed – the world is not waiting independently out there to be discovered, nor do we wholly create the world through our perception but in the act of perception we bring forth a world; and the type of world we bring forth depends very much upon the lens we look through. The human mind is a co-constructor of reality and the cognitive frames through which cultures see the world has had a profound impact on the course of history.

We can engage in an ‘archaeology of mind’ by exploring the different epochs and the cognitive frames which underpinned their meaning-making. What are the fundamental patterns of meaning present in each cultural mindset?

“Everything is connected”

“The hierarchy of the gods”

“The harmonious web of life”

“Nature as machine”

All of these metaphors, held in mind, will offer very different outcomes in the real world.