The Language for Cross-Cultural Understanding

                Ever since I attended Bible College I have been bothered by several questions which have arisen again and again in a variety of contexts, not the least of which is social media.  But I realize that at their core, they plague our intellectual culture, and have served to stop conversations between educated people and between representatives of differing cultures.  I should like to explore these overlapping and related issues that also seem to recur in interdisciplinary discussions between philosophers, cultural theorists, translators, anthropologists, historians, the occasional sociologist and students of a religion.  It shows up readily in the expat communities I have been involved with for more than fifteen years.  One might speak of them as “unmapped regions of inquiry,” within which we tend to lose our bearings and talk past each other.  I’ll start with a list, and not necessarily in a straightforward order.

1. The boundary between myth and science is a troublesome one for anthropologists and students of religion.  I tried to explore this myth in a conference where I thought it would be interesting if freedom could be a principle found in physics.  I was laughed out of the conference.  But the basic problem is this: is myth only what “they” (the people studied) do, and not what “we” (scholars) are engaged in?  Or is this an outrageously presumptuous and ethnocentric assumption?

2. Another recurring problem concerns whether or how any understanding we propose of a religion or society at a given moment of time needs to be embedded in a view of history.  The extreme cases of this kind of embedding occur in Marx and Hegel: the very intelligibility of any society or culture is bound up with the place it occupies in a certain line of development, itself defined by “stages.” Seemingly unrelated remarks of ex-pats in contemporary Saudi Arabia are almost comical in their attempt to understand Saudi culture as some Frankensteinian combination of the industrial revolution, the Dark Ages, and Muslim dogma.  In full flight from this (and with good reason), some of us might want to deny that any embedding in a broader historical picture is necessary for understanding.  But the issue is whether something of the kind always and necessarily haunts us, even when we want to repudiate it.

3. There is a set of problems about comparative understanding.  These inevitably arise for any group of people engaged in understanding a culture or religion which is not theirs.  How does the home culture get in the way?  Can we neutralize it altogether, and should we even try?  Or are we always engaged in some implicit, if not explicit, comparison when we try to understand another culture?  If so, where do we get the language in which this can be non-distortedly carried out?  If it is just our home language then the enterprise looks plagued with ethnocentrism from the start.  But whose language is suitable, if not ours?  And isn’t the language of science “our language”?  We get back here to issue 1: maybe science is our “myth,” so that all we’re doing is encoding others’ myths in ours, and so on.

4. Does understanding another culture essentially raise issues of truth?  To understand another culture, don’t we have to be making or relying on truth statements or the validity of claims made by people in that culture?  Or can we duck the issue, as most of us who consider the Hegelian syntheses presumptuous would dearly love to do?

To be continued…….



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