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3 Lists, Science, and Domains of Knowledge

3 Lists, Science, and Domains of Knowledge

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chapter seven

the toy bear. Superordinate taxonomic classification, such as “animal”

or “toy,” thus overrides common names in children’s inferential reasoning. Like Aristotle, it seems, four-year-olds are essentialists.

The mind, then, naturally sorts objects into categories (3.3). Moreover, it organizes those categories into broader systems with domainspecific, causal explanatory principles. From childhood, human

knowledge is organized in coherent ways that allow us to explain the

world to ourselves. Extensive empirical research in human development over the last couple of decades has amassed support for the

notion of theory-based understanding in children, and it is the dominant view on the nature of early knowledge. It must be emphasized

that the nature of the mature human capacity for science is still as

much debated within cognitive science as it is in other disciplines but

mature scientific theories can be, and currently are, viewed as continuous with these early, naïve theories (Carey & Spelke, 1996; Wellman

& Gelman, 1992). This naturalistic, continuity perspective suggests a

re-consideration of the lists in the cuneiform corpus.


A Cognitive Influence on the Organization of the Lists

The list as a textual form may historically precede other written forms,

such as linear narratives, because the list structure reflects the mind’s

initial reaction to written signs. When confronted with a new ontological domain, the mind categorizes the objects within it, as if asking

itself the questions: what are those things, and what do they do? However,

the cuneiform lists seem to represent not one organizing principle, but

many. Why might this be so?

Written signs were still evolving during the period in which the

cuneiform corpus emerged. The environment was both multi-lingual

and multi-cultural, and underwent many changes of its own during the

same period. Within this dynamic context, the scribes were thrust into

the role of shepherding an entirely new kind of “beast”: the written

sign. They were discovering the causal principles of a new ontological domain. It is not surprising that they would have wanted to bring

some order and stability to the new world of signs, and the many organizational elements evident in Civil’s (1995) taxonomy attest to this.

In the earliest sign lists from the Fara period, the ordering criteria

are not apparent, but the “explanatory nature” of one Ebla sign list

“is shown by the presence (side by side) of easily confused signs cor-

the cognitive function of writing in mul.apin


responding to a single sign in the primary list” (Civil, 1995:2309). In

the list known as “Proto-Ea,” the signs are arranged according to the

stylus strokes needed to write them; one of the Late Babylonian recensions of this list was used as a didactic tool until the end of the period

of active use of cuneiform writing.

The list known as:

Proto-Izi . . . an Early Old Babylonian series, is organized in a sequence

which is basically graphic, but with many thematic and phonological

associations. For instance, one section lists eight terms for “road,” with

no common initial sign. It is followed by a twenty-line section with ŠID,

purely acrographic, and then by phonological association with the reading sid, comes sig4, “brick,” and its various types.

Civil, 1995:2310.

The format of the lists may thus be partially explained by the simultaneous operation of System 1, automatic, or non-reflective responses,

and System 2 reflective-analytic concerns. That is, the cognitively-basic

impulse to categorize objects of all sorts, including the new ontological

domain of written signs, is operating at the same time as the pedagogical and/or archival concerns of System 2 cognition. Different principles of organization are intruding upon each other. The lists don’t

map onto modern scientific taxonomies because the scribes had yet to

sort out the distinction between the sign and the signified, the “word”

and its meaning, along with the properties of the written signs that

were in the process of being adapted to represent diverse languages.

It took millennia to sort this out.

Aristotle still hadn’t sorted it out, but according to Harris (2000:90)

his linguistics allowed him to proceed as if it didn’t matter. Aristotle’s

notion of definitions and essences, that is, that they mutually determined each other, was an attempt to understand things rather than

words (Robinson, 1954; cf. Harris, 2000). But Aristotle, like all literate

scholars, would have been influenced by “scriptist” assumptions, to use

Harris’s term, or in other words, by literate conceptions of language.7

Like four-year-olds, then, Aristotle was an essentialist, but unlike fouryear-olds, he had mature literate sensibilities. These sensibilities would

have included a sense of the word and its properties.

See Watson, 1985, 1995, and Watson & Olson, 1987, for an account that suggests Aristotle was influenced by a literate concept of “word,” even though he did not

explicitly acknowledge this; Harris, 2009, refers to this as “scriptism,” a literate bias

that operates below the level of conscious awareness.



chapter seven


Listwissenschaft: But Is It Science?

The scientific status of the lists has been debated since Von Soden

(1936) first suggested that they represented a Listwissenschaft, or

list science. He also noted, however, that the scientific achievement

represented by the lists was rather poor, although this was at least

partly a consequence of his own culturally-specific understanding.

Von Soden’s analysis is problematic because it describes ancient knowledge in categories that are alien to the society of the time. Our evidence

for the scribal school suggests that knowledge of the natural world did

not count as academic knowledge . . . biological knowledge, therefore,

was certainly available in this society, but biology as a scholarly discipline did not exist.

Looking at the lexical corpus from the perspective of the ancient

school, the classification of lexical compilations according to modern

disciplinary specializations loses much of its plausibility. There is no

awareness that a list of place names belongs to another realm of knowledge than a list of trees; they belong basically to one category, and that

is the category of school exercises. The aim of this scholarship was not

to understand nature or geography, but to understand Sumerian and

Sumerian writing.

Veldhuis, 2004:82

Oppenheim (1978) expressed even greater skepticism about any

attempt to attach a scientific status to the lists.

It cannot and should not be claimed, of course, that the word lists containing the names of plants, animals, or stones constitute the beginnings

of botany, zoology, or mineralogy in Mesopotamia. They are not a scientific (not even a pre-scientific) achievement; rather, they result from

a peculiar interaction of a genuine interest in philology (or, at any rate,

lexicography) and a traditional Near Eastern concern for giving names

to all things surrounding the scribe.

Oppenheim, 1978:636

Von Soden’s (1936) notion of Ordnungswille referred to System 2-like

taxonomic concerns, and along with Oppenheim’s (1978) observation

that the lists were not commensurate with scientific taxonomies, makes

far more sense on a cognitive perspective. Von Soden and Oppenheim

may have been noticing the diverse, often contradictory organizational

features of the lists. Their apparent difference of opinion also rests on

a binary conception of “science” and “non-science,” the boundaries

of which are increasingly difficult to demarcate, and in any case, are

not meaningful on the current cognitive perspectives reviewed in this


the cognitive function of writing in mul.apin


The lists reflect a natural impulse to categorize and explain that

is both cognitively basic and continuous with mature science. They

also reflect the particular context and concerns of the Mesopotamian

scribes (see 1.6; 2.1). The pedagogical concerns of the scribal academy clearly had a massive influence on both the form and content,

and also the survival, of the lists (Civil, 1995, 2000; Veldhuis, 1997,

2004). Administrative and economic concerns influenced the content

of the earliest lists from Uruk which include those very terms needed

for everyday documentation of economic activities (Nissen, Damerow,

& Englund, 1993). Survival and transmission of the lists can also be

attributed to strong cultural traditions, such as reverence for received

knowledge and for writing itself (Black & Tait, 1995; Pearce, 1995;

Veldhuis, 2004). Many of the Archaic Uruk lists, like those in the later

Urra = hubullu tradition, are thematically organized, and thus may be

used either for scribal education or as a reference tool. In other words,

they serve an encyclopedic function.

While categorization is a basic property of mind, then, and a characteristic of System 1 cognition, the impulse to write a list necessarily

engages System 2 reflective-analytic cognition. Whether the content

of the list is stars, constellations, planets or other objects, most of the

lists in the cuneiform corpus are long enough to suggest that they

exceed the capacity of ordinary working memory.8 On capacity considerations alone, then, it seems clear that writing played a constitutive

role in the appearance of lists. In addition to capacity considerations,

the content and organization of the lists also mark them unmistakably

as products of a literate sensibility (Civil, 1995, 2000; Veldhuis, 1997,

2004). A naturalistic perspective suggests that further influences may

be operating, and may shed further light on the nature of the star lists

with which MUL.APIN begins, and the development of categorical

expressions through the text.


Star Lists and the Extended Function of Writing in MUL.APIN

With respect to the astronomical content of MUL.APIN, the star lists

represent the set over which subsequent generalizations are made. That is,

the stars are first named in list entries, then grouped into categories by


See Miller, 1956; and Baddely, 2007, for working memory capacity.

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