Fear & Loathing in Emotive Africa

For several richly-deserved reasons, evolutionary psychology has gotten a bad rap. Its sins range from rampant reduction to ridiculous speculation. But not all evolutionary psychology is created equal — there is a softer, subtler, more insightful form that investigates emotions or affects. This form also has the virtue of being grounded in actual neurophysiology rather than imaginary modules. The leading researchers in this field are Jaak Panksepp and Antonio Damasio. I discovered their work just when I was about to write-off evolutionary psychology as a bad blend of mental metaphors, optimal adaptations, and just-so stories. But as Panksepp and Damasio observe, minds are not simply cognitive computing devices flawlessly executing subconscious routines: they are awash in emotions that have evolved over eons for good evolutionary reasons. Cognition, in other words, is comprised not just of thoughts but also of feelings.

In a recent essay (“Animal Spirits”), Stephen Asma describes how his perspective on all this was impacted by a recent trip to ancestral and emotive Africa. Anyone who has spent time in the bush will know — or feel — exactly what he is describing. The realities and atmospherics of life and death in these environments are positively electrifying. But as Asma notes, this is not the kind of electricity that drives computers:

After you spend time with wild animals in the primal [African] ecosystem where our big brains first grew, you have to chuckle a bit at the reigning view of the mind as a computer. Most cognitive scientists, from the logician Alan Turing to the psychologist James Lloyd McClelland, have been narrowly focused on linguistic thought, ignoring the whole embodied organism. They see the mind as a Boolean algebra binary system of 1 or 0, ‘on’ or ‘off’. This has been methodologically useful, and certainly productive for the artifical intelligence we use in our digital technology, but it merely mimics the biological mind. Computer ‘intelligence’ might be impressive, but it is an impersonation of biological intelligence. The ‘wet’ biological mind is embodied in the squishy, organic machinery of our emotional systems — where action-patterns are triggered when chemical cascades cross volumetric tipping points.

Emotions have of course long been used to explain (or partially account for) religious ideas. Freud (and many who uncritically follow him) argued that primal fear generated ideas that eventually came to be characterized as “religious.” But this is too simple. Sensing this, Freud also argued that parental attachment — an evolutionarily ancient trait in mammals, also played a role. While this surely is correct, it still leaves things too simple. As the anthropologist RR Marrett recognized long ago, religious ideas and feelings are always Janus-faced: there is a positive aspect which he called mana, and a negative which he called taboo.

The positive aspects, or affects, were of course the subject of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Though it remains a classic and something that should be read, I’ve always found it a bit mushy and almost mystical. Even so, James reminds us that religion is never just an idea — it is also an experience that entails the full array of human emotions, including not just fear but also love. More elaborated (or cognitively inflected) emotions, which Damasio characterizes as “feelings,” also have an evolutionary basis — these include awe, curiosity, and wonder. James’ insights have been ably extended, and situated within an embodied-evolutionary framework, by James Fuller. His Spirituality in the Flesh: Bodily Sources of Religious Experience (2008) is a superb collection of essays on these intersections. They remind us that purely cognitive accounts of religion will always fall short, or partially miss the mark.

St. Theresa's Spiritual-Sexual Ecstasy

St. Theresa’s Spiritual-Sexual Ecstasy

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30 thoughts on “Fear & Loathing in Emotive Africa

  1. Sabio Lantz

    I am the worst of writers on religion. I indulge in reductionism, speculation and use imaginary modules to illustrate these things. But I am not ashamed, they are helpful tools for me to escape perhaps worse conclusions. But more importantly, I try to read outside my echo chamber — I read you and Damasio.

    In light of that caveat, I wrote a post about Tibetan Buddhism on emotions that addresses your statement that:

    “Cognition, in other words, is comprised not just of thoughts but also of feelings.”

    And consequently, agreeing with your summary of William James, I have argued against atheists who don’t seem to get that “religion is never just an idea — it is also an experience that entails the full array of human emotions, not just fear but also love.”

    Interestingly, I wonder if the subset atheists that tend to think of religion as “just an idea” have either no personal emotionally-rich experience upon which to generally empathize with religionists even while disagreeing, OR they actually have a defect in their theory-of-mind module (I phased it that way with comic intent) and not only can’t imagine others having those feelings, but can barely really action imagine others having feelings other than their own. (Did you see Rees’ recent cheaply journalistic article on Atheists and Empathy?).

    I am glad you discussed awe, curiosity and wonder. I will have to get to Fuller’s book. Discussing these, which many atheists can feel, even though they can’t sympathize talking to imaginary friends as an adult, will allow some otherwise unsympathetic atheists to perhaps understanding some religious folks they might otherwise dismiss.

    BTW, your writing style, as I am sure you are aware, gives away you apparent huge bias toward African bush hunter-gatherer society when you tell us their are electrifying. But in the back of my head I think of Pinker’s writings illustrate that murder rates in these societies were/?are surprisingly high — ? higher than present rates. Could you help correct my image on that or perhaps Pinker himself. But when I hear anyone idealizing any time or place, my antenna go up and I then read any of their theories with extreme caution — more than even my normal skeptical stance.

  2. Arvind

    Hello Dr. Campbell,

    This isn’t a reply to this particular post, I just wanted to share some thoughts in general about the study of religion and evolutionary biology, some issues:

    The main problem with evolutionary explanations of religion is that they presuppose the universality of religion:

    It is taken as a pre-theoretical given that religion exists in all (or most) cultures and societies. And then ad-hoc explanations are groomed to explain for this pre-theoretical assumption.Whatever definition one chooses to give of ‘religion’, it remains the case that they commit the fallacy of petitio principii: they presuppose the truth of a proposition whose truth they should prove, namely, that religion is universal. After all, it cannot depend on one’s definition of the word ‘religion’ (belief in supernatural, spirituality etc) whether or not religion is universal. Just imagine we let the existence of gravitation on all planets depend on our definition of ‘gravitation’ (‘a force that exists on all planets’). A definition of a word cannot help us decide on the universality of a phenomenon.

    If the study of religion is to be scientific, it will have to answer a few questions: What is the proof for the universality of religion? How could one test this claim about the universality of religion? That is, which criteria allow one to test the presence of religion in a culture or society? More importantly that all that, what makes a phenomenon, any phenomena, into a religious phenomena/religion?

    If one begins to realize the difficulty of proving that religion is a human universal, then the question becomes: How come all these brilliant minds have simply presupposed that religion is universal? Historically, it is very clear that we have inherited this assumption from Christianity. Christian theology tells us that God has given religion to humanity. It is inscribed in our souls, so to say. Thus, the stubborn presupposition that religion is universal (whether among scholars of religion, biologists, psychologists, common sense, …) is simply a secularized Christian theological claim.

    At present, the discussion in the social sciences and evolutionary biology is about definitions and there is no good theory of religion (except one). I sincerely hope you read my reply, I would really appreciate your feedback on this.

    thank you,


  3. Arvind

    thanks you Sabio.

    But even saying “religion does not exist” is also committing a fallacy. Because that is also a pre-theoretical assumption. Before saying religion does or does not exist and what qualifies as religion, one needs a theory of religion. So far, I have only come across one scientific theory of religion. It’s a theory developed by one Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara and his research group at Ghent University, Belgium.

  4. Sabio Lantz

    Well, Arvind, if you read my post, you would know that it is not assuming either way. But I could tell by your last note that you were on a mission to witness the truth to us. The wiki article on your fellow Indian discusses the controversy of his view by merely describing it as confused and circuitous. I wonder if it is a theory that somehow makes valorized versions of Hindu culture escape the “religion” label while lambasting Western colonialization — just a suspicion before reading.

    It is rather missionary-like to post on a blog without relating to the content only to plug for a certain view. Are you a student of his? May I ask how you found this blog? You’ve got me curious now about your motivation.

  5. Arvind

    not at all. My only motivation is a scientific understanding of both religion and culture in general. I am not a student of his, but I was an anthropology at York university. As I went through the program, I was also interested in learning about religion and its relation with culture. It was during that time that i happened to run across one of balagangadhara’s students’ papers. Through that I got introduced to his research program, and it was really eye-opening. Because his theory addresses many issues and problems in the study of religion and culture; it is also able to solve many of these problems and gives an explanation that is not ad hoc. So this is what got me interested in the research, and that’s basically my motivation.

  6. Arvind

    As an aside, I really feel that it should be mandatory that every university student, whether he or she is getting into the natural or social sciences should take a course on philosophy of science. Especially in the social sciences, there is a lack of understanding of the basics. What is Science? What is a hypothesis? What is a theory? What a theory is supposed to do etc etc. Larry Laudan’s ‘Progress and its problems: Towards a theory of scientific growth’ explains this beautifully.

  7. Cris Post author

    Sabio — while I have a soft spot in my heart (and hard place in my head) about hunter-gatherer societies the world over, my comment about the African bush in this post was directed not toward people or cultures but to the actual environment and the impression it can make on a person. If I didn’t know better, I’d think humans may have some kind of deep genetic memory of our ancestral home. Perhaps it was just my evolutionary training that primed me for it and made me especially receptive, but I can say this: the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of African landscapes, flora, and fauna are deeply moving (i.e., emotional). I have heard others say this too, and most of them don’t know or care much for hominin evolution in Africa, so this doesn’t account for their emotive impressions of the bush.

    So while I wasn’t speaking to aggression or violence among humans, or comparing foragers with agriculturalists, I have previously said some things about Pinker’s findings in this post on his book, Better Angels of Our Nature. The comments to that post continued my line of thinking in that regard.

  8. Cris Post author

    Arvin — I don’t think that most evolutionary approaches to religion presuppose its universality. Evolutionary theories of religion certainly don’t need to assume the universality of the phenomena — we can study things that may be pervasive or widespread without making the unprovable assertion that it’s universal.

    In fact, the early evolutionary theorists of religion (anthropologists such as Tylor, Lubbock, Frazer, and Marrett) observed that what we today call “religion” is a social-cultural formation that probably did not exist in the past and which still did not exist in small-scale societies. They thought (and I agree, but for different reasons) that something preceded “religions” that was in fact universal. Tylor called it animism and Marrett called it animatism. Whatever one wants to call it, these ideas are a complex stew of ideas about invisible agents and agencies.

    As for definitions of “religion,” there are at least one hundred of them and perhaps more. Some are better than others. I prefer to be flexible in these matters, and use different ones for different purposes. It’s important to decide a research goal, and then loosely rely on those definitions that best fit the research goal. Modern evolutionary theories of religion tend to do just this. The cognitive-byproduct theorists tend to use Tylor’s minimum definition of religion as entailing ideas about invisible agents and agencies. These are deficient because they are underinclusive and fail to capture additional aspects of “religion.” The adaptationists tend to use definitions that are deficient because they are based on modern religions. These are then projected backward into the past.

    The key to using definitions for evolutionary theories of religion is to be quite clear about what time periods and what peoples are under consideration when discussing the evolution of “religion.” This clarity will result in much less confusion.

    My own use of definitions is substantially informed by Wittgenstein’s notion of language games and groupings. Under the Resources tab of this blog you will find an article on “Language Games, Essences, and Definitions of Religion” by Andrew MacKinnon. It’s quite good and I encourage you to read it.

    My view of all this is that doesn’t even make sense to talk about “religions” unless we are talking about post-Neolithic agricultural societies. I discussed this issue in this post.

  9. Sabio Lantz

    @ Cris:

    If I were going to take my now 13 year-old son to Africa in 2 years to try and experience what you are speaking of, where should I take him?
    Any suggestions.
    I am envious of the experience you describe.

  10. Arvind

    Hello Dr. Campbell,

    Thank you for taking the time to read and reply to my post. I appreciate it. I hope my arguments don’t anger or offend you; my purpose is to carry the discussion forward about religion and culture.

    You’re right, most evolutionary theories do not presuppose the universality of religion, but at the same time they do presuppose that religion is a widespread and pervasive phenomenon. you said something preceded religion called animism: “a complex stew of ideas about invisible agents and agencies”

    Replacing the idea of universality of religion, with the idea of the universality of animism doesn’t solve the problem. Are those cultures really attributing agency to things?

    I think the problem with definitions in religious studies has little to do with research goals. The real problem is that a definition is not subject to any constraints – you can give whatever definition you like. So each person gives a definition according to his/her assumptions and pre-conceived notions. No one is under any compulsion to modify their definition. On the other hand, a theory about what the phenomenon of religion would have certain implications/consequences. If these consequences are falsified, the theory gets refuted as well. Exactly this feature is missing in most of our theories of religion. We are unable to test for the presence or absence of religion using these theories. We cannot spell out the what the implications would be if religion is absent. The absence of implications for our theories of religion is a huge flaw.

    Most of these theories/explanations were groomed in order to explain certain facts. A theory that cannot be falsified cannot be a scientific theory.

  11. Arvind

    Let me give an example: Suppose that one defines grass as everything that is green. Could the yellow grass that is found beneath a stone be a counter-example to this definition? No, it could not, because according to this definition this yellow grass is not grass at all, because it is not green.Now take the example of a theory of photosynthesis which explains why grass is green. Contrary to definitions, this theory has consequences or implications, one being that if grass is not exposed to sunlight for a longer period of time, it will not turn green. Hence, the example of the yellow grass under the stone confirms the theory. Suppose that one does find green grass in a dark cave, this grass would indeed be a counter-example to the theory of photosynthesis and it would be falsified.

    Regarding Wittgenstein’s notion of language games and groupings:

    A term like ‘religion,’ one might wish to say, is akin to a term like ‘game.’ We do not know what is common to games like chess, football, solitaire and the Olympics (except that there is ‘family resemblance’), but our linguistic community teaches us the use of such and similar words. The inconsistency arises because we have assumed that all religions share some properties. If we give up this assumption, but instead ‘look’ at all these diverse religions, we see that they share, instead, a family resemblance. Therefore, the alleged inconsistency vanishes. Would this answer help us?

    Perhaps it could, if it were an answer. However, it is not; it merely unravels a nest of problems. Linguistic practices of our communities, which teach us the use of words, have a cultural history. This history is the history of a community that has learnt to speak this way and not that way. For the West, this cultural history happens to be the history of Christianity. Therefore, our question becomes this: why are the people influenced by this cultural history convinced that other cultures have religion too?

  12. Cris Post author

    Arvind — “cultures” don’t do anything. People attribute agency, impute agency, and perceive agency. And the answer is yes, people do this. It’s universal, and scientists do it too. If you aren’t familiar with Robin Horton’s work on the similarities between animist reasoning and scientific reasoning, I highly recommend it.

    As for your Popperian definition of what constitutes science or a scientific theory, it’s nice and often useful, but I’ve never limited my investigations (or evidences and data) to things that fit within its rigidities. I’m a promiscuous positivist, and after giving due consideration to the constraints and problems that inhere in definitions and the social constructions and histories of definitions, I get on with the business of evidence gathering and analysis.

    If you go to the topic cloud of the blog, you will find a “Definitions” link. If you hit and that go through all my posts that have been tagged under that category, you’ll get a better sense for these issues and my views on them.

  13. Cris Post author

    Sabio — The usual suspects are South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania. I would recommend South Africa for a starter trip with your son, for a variety of reasons I’d be happy to discuss with you on the phone or via private email.

  14. Arvind

    I think there are a few separate issues at stake here.

    Firstly “ideas about invisible agents” is very vague and almost anything can qualify as religious under that concept; and we can’t observe ideas or beliefs, all we can study and observe are phenomena and practices. and this brings us to the second issue.

    Horton and most other anthropologists presuppose that a set of practices embody or express a
    set of beliefs; this has led them to postulate a linking of traditional practices to “belief in
    super-natural agency”. This link between action and belief is taken as a starting premise when studying these animist practices.

    When an anthropologist sees a “native” carrying out a set of ritualistic practices at the base of a tree facing the tree, he sees it as a ‘fact’ that the native is engaging in worship, or attributing some sort of agency to some invisible spirit or being. There is no ground for that assumption. For example, in most Asian traditions, they don’t even see human beings as agents, much less other things. And more importantly, these rituals are just seen as traditions, a set of ancestral practices that characterize a community (like the superbowl), rather than belief systems, theology, or truth claims about the world.

    We have to keep in mind that the anthropological/ethnographic description of the ‘facts’ of some society are not theory-neutral entities existing in either Nature or culture. All our facts are theory-dependent; in some contexts we treat some of the claims of a background theory as facts. In another context, the same facts are discussed as theoretical claims.

  15. Sabio Lantz

    @Cris Thanx, I will get back to you when the option of going is more real. S.Africa sounds like an interesting option.

    You said,

    in most Asian traditions, they don’t even see human beings as agents, much less other things.

    Could you elaborate on that? I only lived 12 years in Asia, but that was not my impression. And, I don’t view Asia as homogenous at all — so maybe your are speaking of somewhere I can’t imagine or using different terms. Thanx.

  16. Arvind

    An agent is a person with desires/intentions/goals. The actions of an agent are caused by his or her intentions. This is a very simplified description ofcourse. Philosophers and psychologists have written pages on this subject. The concept of agency is also tied into the concept of intentionality. Intentionality refers to the mind and its ability to form representations about the world. In this scenario, human beings have certain beliefs or representations about the world. They also have goals and desires that they form based on their beliefs about the world. The human agent will then act to realize its goals in light of its beliefs. In this sense, intentionality refers to the goal-directedness of our behaviour.

    This notion of human beings (as a person and an agent) is absent in the Asian traditions (whether it be Tao, Shinto, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain etc). In fact, many of these traditions postulate that intentionality is an illusion: .One decouples actions from human intentions. That is, our actions are inherently a-intentional and goalless.

  17. Sabio Lantz

    @ Arvind,

    Ah, thank you for your elaboration. Your explanation seems to hint of a flavor of a religiously-driven anthropological agenda. Or am I mistaken? To me, it seems that you want to somehow make Eastern traditions virtuous and Western traditions imperialistic, over-reaching, oppressive and blatantly biased.

    The first warning for me, is when someone generalizes East vs. West.

    Without diverting into conversation of “intention”, “agent” and such, it is clear to me that Chinese, Indian and other Easter philosophies/religions contain as many varied stances on these issues as exists in Western traditions — which, have been mixing for millenium. And thus your broad generalization make me wonder where you want to go.

  18. Arvind

    Not quite Sabio. I am not denigrating or valourizing either the Western or Eastern culture. I’m simply trying to understand both. My agenda is not religiously driven but scientific. If I am biased against anything, it is towards the current crop of social sciences. social sciences today are not sciences, whatever else they might be. If anything, they prevent the emergence of knowledge and insight into human beings, their cultures and societies (Eastern, Western, African, first nations peoples you name it).

    Within social sciences my interest is studying different cultures, and I do think that it is possible to scientifically study and understand human cultures. Unfortunately, the social sciences of today are not adequate for the task. The fundamental problem is that the human sciences reflect the western cultural experience as though it were the universal human experience. Both theories about the West and those about other cultures are expressions of how the West experiences itself and the ‘other’. As I said, this is not a knock on Western culture but on the nature of the social sciences.

    At the same time I don’t want to trivialize the social sciences and the enormous amount of genuine effort and passion that has gone into producing this huge body of work by so many great intellectuals. In this sense, I do have great respect for these anthropologists and the genuine passion that they display in their field. I also think the body of work that they have produced is useful.

    It is useful in the sense that If many members from a particular culture (say, the western culture) have produced descriptions of another culture (say, some specific non-western culture) in such a way that all such de-scriptions exhibit some shared pattern or another, then we can also study the cultural conditions under which such patterned descriptions are generated.

    Simply put: if all (or even most) individual descriptions of some non-western culture exhibit a common structure or a shared pattern, then this structure or pattern allows us to formulate questions for research that reveal the nature of the western culture. This, I think, is the first step towards building a science of cultures. We need to understand the Western culture.

    The second step is building robust scientific theories on what religion is and what culture is. In my previous posts, I focused on religion, and what a scientific theory of religion should look like. Many of the same things apply to developing a theory of culture. In addition, a theory of culture should answer the following question: What makes a difference, any difference, into a cultural difference rather than a biological or psychological difference?

    This brings me to your point about the danger of generalizing or essentializing “East” and “West” and “African”. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. When biologists use the word ‘mammals’ it doesn’t mean they are denying variety with that category. The blue whale is completely different from the Lion and yet they are both called mammals. This is because the biologists have specific criteria (based on a scientific theory) on what constitutes a mammal.

    So, to summarize: my agenda is to try to get the intellectuals in the social sciences to reflect upon and think critically about the nature and methodology of the field itself.

    PS. Regarding the concepts of agent and agency, i’ll be brief. These concepts developed within a specific cultural context and framework and only makes sense within that framework.

  19. Sabio Lantz

    Yeah, Arvind, I’m still not convinced.

    The fundamental problem is that the human sciences reflect the western cultural experience as though it were the universal human experience.

    I find this suspect in a few ways:

    (1) I don’t see a uniform “western cultural experience”
    (2) It sounds like your going to point us to some “Eastern cultural experience” which would be corrective.

    As long as you fill your sentence with West vs. East, I will be suspicious — just waiting for your cards to be put clearly on the table.

    As my last note said, because of the huge variety in “the East” (whatever that is — such a dichotomy points to a bias all of its own), and thus generalizing about it is wrong on several levels. And heck, I have no anthro

    However, I could be horribly wrong because we are just typing back and forth. And besides, I have absolutely no anthropology training — well, one into course 40 years ago. :-)

    Perhaps what would help is, instead of criticisms, tell us what your non-Western-polluted mind has helped you see.

  20. Arvind

    I think there seems to be a miscommunication here, because I thought I couldn’t have been clearer in my last post, i hope you read through my previous post fully. i’m assuming you did.

    My criticism was of the social sciences and not of anything else.

    About the ‘generalizing’ by using terms like Western and Asian, I gave the ‘mammals’ example. When biologists or zoologists use sentences like “Mammals are like…..” “Mammals are…..” they are not saying that mammals are a uniform group of animals lacking any diversity. There is huge diversity within that group from the Blue Whale to the lion. But within that diversity is a structure that makes all these diverse animals into mammals (blue whale is a mammal even though it looks like a fish). This is because biologists have a theory of mammals that is very specific and testable.

    The same thing applies to terms like ‘western’ culture. Yes, there is no uniform Western culture. But within all that diversity is a structure that makes a culture ‘Western’ and some other culture ‘Japanese’. And by culture, I’m not referring to a group of people, i’m not referring to geographic locations or country. Culture refers to a certain way of going about in the world: a configuration of learning. In each configuration, one kind of learning to learn (or meta-learning) dominates all other learning process (with their respective meat-learning). This is what I mean by culture.

    In the case of Western culture; western culture is the configuration of learning where theoretical learning dominates and subordinates other learning processes. In the case of Asian culture, experiential learning dominates over other learning processes.

    The hypothesis of configurations of learning allows of scientific study of cultural differences. It is now possible to pose cognitively productive questions that can be answered and tested. It becomes possible to distinguish the real issues from the pseudo-issues (e.g. the universalism vs. relativism debate).

    Now to the problem with the social sciences. At this point one could ask the question: what is wrong with the social sciences? How do you know the descriptions they have given of different cultures are not accurate and factual? have they produced knowledge?

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with or read Edward Said’s Orientalism. If you haven’t, you should definitely pick it up. It goes into this topic in more detail than I can in this post, but I’ll explain briefly:

    Many modern scholars assume that when they study different cultures, what they have to do is to objectively write down what one has observed for it to count as ethnography.

    These assumptions literally belong to the `stone age’ of human knowledge: one’s observation is deeply saturated with theories, ideologies and prjeudices. There is no `neutral’ or `pure’ observation: either good theories guide one’s observation or bad ones do. Since the time Europeans started traveling and coming into contact with other parts of the world they have been describing and writing about other cultures. And for the most part, it is assumed that these accounts are a ‘true’ description. It is important to note that these accounts, as diverse as they are, share a pattern. That is across the centuries, from missionaries to traders to anthropologists, a certain consistent way of studying and describing Indian/Chinese/Ugandan cultures (to name a few) emerged.

    As mentioned, there is no ‘neutral’ or pure observation. One is always (implicitly or explicitly) operating within a theoretical framework. In this case, these European travelers weren’t guided by any scientific theory. They just described how they experienced the other culture. This is what I meant when I said “human sciences reflect the western cultural experience as though it were the universal human experience.” The western cultural experience becomes objective ‘facts’ about the other culture.

    Ofcourse the discourses of the social sciences is neither monolithic nor homogeneous. Over the centuries, many things have been said, retracted and modified. But the framework that guides those discourses, the kind of questions that they ask about other cultures has shown a constancy.

    If constancy, consistency and durability are there to the West’s descriptions of itself and others, then such descriptions tell us much more about the culture that produced these descriptions, rather than the culture that is the object of such descriptions.

    In conclusion, the point i’m trying to get across is not “East vs West”, i am not talking about “eastern cultural experience”, neither am i talking about my “non-western polluted” mind. If a random Japanese were selected and dropped into Kenya and asked to describe that culture without any scientific theory of culture and cultural difference he would do the same thing: he would describe his experience of Kenyan culture as objective ‘facts’. Neither the western cultural experience nor the eastern cultural experience is what we should be using to study human beings and their cultures.

    My ‘agenda’ is very simple: to start doing social sciences in a scientific manner; which means scrapping the current paradigm and starting afresh. The first step is realizing that the western descriptions should tell us more about the West than about the ‘Orient.’ We need to understand western culture.

    The second step is constructing a theory about culture and western culture and then using that as a backdrop to develop a comparative science of cultures.

    sorry for the long post. I want to try to get more people interested in this kind of research. that is my agenda. so i hope i’ve made myself clear.

  21. Sabio Lantz

    Arvind you said,

    This notion of human beings (as a person and an agent) is absent in the Asian traditions (whether it be Tao, Shinto, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain etc). In fact, many of these traditions postulate that intentionality is an illusion: .One decouples actions from human intentions. That is, our actions are inherently a-intentional and goalless.

    I see this generalization as wrong. For one, their legal systems say otherwise.

    Mammals have many traits in common to separate them from other animals (even if the borders are fuzzy). Exactly what is it you think separates East from West, and who in the East are you talking about?

    Certainly you are not talking about the Carvakas in Indian philosophy or Japanese Yakuza or Korean Rapsters.

    Maybe I am not as big of a believer in “culture” as you are.

    You said,

    In the case of Asian culture, experiential learning dominates over other learning processes.

    I graduated from a Japanese University. I saw tons of emphasis on the learning process and then people go through apprenticeships much like they do here. There, some older-styles apprenticeships are very oppressive, however. In modern medicine, no so, but in Oriental Medicine the secretive master method is still abused. I was involved in both as well as the University system which was very similar to ours.

    So there is a generalization I find very different than the ones to describe mammals.

    I have heard of Said’s work, of course, but never read it. Why? Because when I read summaries it sounded full of generalizations and mis-typifications I hear hints of in your writing. And I know folks like Robert Irwin and others have written scathing criticisms of his works.

    So I think we will still have to wait until you say something more plainly and concretely that I could weigh out. Perhaps you ought to start a blog if you mission is to get out a message.

  22. Arvind

    “Mammals have many traits in common to separate them from other animals”.

    The same thing applies to cultures. A ‘culture’ with all its internal variety has an underlying structure that makes it into a culture. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t be able to talk about cultural differences. If the biological notions of ‘species’ (in the singular) and ‘Homo sapiens sapiens’ do not flatten out biological variety, why should ‘culture’ do so?

    “I graduated from a Japanese University. I saw tons of emphasis on the learning process and then people go through apprenticeships much like they do here.”

    Culture doesn’t refer to a group of people or countries. Culture refers to a configuration of learning (a specific way of using the resources of socialization, what I called meta-learning). In different societies and groups, different ways of going about have emerged. But that doesn’t mean members of different cultures can’t learn from other cultures, and adopt their knowledge and their method of learning to suit their own needs.

    In addition, just as each individual has his/her own unique genetic makeup and personality, is is also possible to speak of an individual’s ‘culturality’. Each individual has his/her own unique culturality, which is influenced by different social settings and configurations of learning. Because of this, it is not possible to compare the experiential dimension of individual culturalities and speak of an exemplary ‘Westerner’, or ‘Indian’, or ‘African’, true. But when individuals form a group or society, a certain way of going about becomes dominant and structures everything else.

    “So I think we will still have to wait until you say something more plainly and concretely ”

    I thought i was pretty plain and concrete in my previous post. Maybe you want more elaboration on what I mean by ‘Western’ culture, religion etc which I admit i haven’t gone into yet.

    Because uptil now, I started at a meta level and questioned the validity of the social sciences themselves (how they assume the universality of religion among other things without having a proper scientifc theory) and the necessity of understanding the culture that has produced these social sciences.

    Would it be more plain and concrete if I told you what i’m referring to when i talk about ‘western’ culture and religion

  23. Cris Post author

    I see that Sabio and Arvind have been very busy in here. I contracted that nasty flu everyone was talking about (and for which I failed to get a flu shot), and have been completely out of things (and my mind) for the past week. Since you two are carrying on so nicely, I’ll leave you be and try to muster some thinking energy for some new content. The mere thought of it is tiring.

  24. Sabio Lantz

    @ Cris
    LOL! Glad to hear your are on the mend, and looking forward to your next post. (Doesn’t you software send you an e-mail for each comment posted?)

    @ Arvind,
    Who is the author of that blog? It needs an ABOUT section.

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