How Universal Is The Mind?

One expression of the misguided nature vs nurture debate is the understanding of our humanity. In wondering about the universality of Western views, we have already framed the issue in terms of Western dualism. The moment we begin speaking in specific terms, from mind to psyche, we’ve already smuggled in cultural preconceptions and biases.

Sabrina Golonka discusses several other linguistic cultures (Korean, Japanese, and Russian) in comparison to English. She suggests that dualism, even if variously articulated, underlies each conceptual tradition — a general distinction between visible and invisible. But all of those are highly modernized societies built on millennia of civilizational projects, from imperialism to industrialization. It would be even more interesting and insightful to look into the linguistic worldviews of indigenous cultures.

The Piraha, for example, are linguistically limited in only speaking about what they directly experience or about what those they personally know have directly experienced. They don’t talk about what is ‘invisible’, whether within the human sphere or beyond in the world, and as such they aren’t prone to theoretical speculations.

What is clear is that the Piraha’s mode of perception and description is far different, even to the point that what they see is sometimes invisible to those who aren’t Piraha. There is an anecdote shared by Daniel Everett. The Piraha crowded on the riverbank pointing to the spirit they saw on the other side, but Everett and his family saw nothing. That brings doubt to the framework of visible vs invisible. The Piraha were fascinated by what becomes invisible such as a person disappearing around the bend of a trail, although their fascination ended at that liminal point at the edge of the visible, not extending beyond it.

Another useful example would be the Australian Aborigine. The Songlines were traditionally integrated with their sense of identity and reality, signifying an experience that is invisible within the reality tunnel of WEIRD society (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). Prior to contact, individualism as we know it may have been entirely unknown for Songlines express a profoundly collective sense of being in the world.

If any kind of dualism between visible and invisible did exist within the Aboriginal worldview, it more likely would have been on a communal level of experience. In their culture, ritual songs are learned and then what they represent becomes visible to the initiated, however this process might be made sense of within Aboriginal language. A song makes some aspect of the world visible, which is to invoke a particular reality and the beings that inhabit that reality. This is what Westerners would interpret as states of mind, but that is clearly an inadequate understanding of the fully immersive and embodied experience.

Western psychology has made non-Western experience invisible to most Westerners. There is the invisible we talk about within our own cultural worldview, what we perceive as known and familiar, no matter how intangible. But even more important is the unknown and unfamiliar that is so fundamentally invisible that we are incapable of talking about it. This doesn’t merely limit our understanding. Entire ways of being in the world are precluded by the words and concepts we use. Our sense of our own humanity is lesser for it and, as cultural languages go extinct, this state of affairs worsens with the near complete monocultural destruction of the very alternatives that most powerfully challenge our assumptions.

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How Universal Is The Mind?
by Sabrina Golonka

So, back to the mind and our current view of cognition. Cross-linguistic research shows that, generally speaking, every culture has a folk model of a person consisting of visible and invisible (psychological) aspects (Wierzbicka, 2005). While there is agreement that the visible part of the person refers to the body, there is considerable variation in how different cultures think about the invisible (psychological) part. In the West, and, specifically, in the English-speaking West, the psychological aspect of personhood is closely related to the concept of “the mind” and the modern view of cognition. But, how universal is this conception? How do speakers of other languages think about the psychological aspect of personhood? […]

In a larger sense, the fact that there seems to be a universal belief that people consist of visible and invisible aspects explains much of the appeal of cognitive psychology over behaviourism. Cognitive psychology allows us to invoke invisible, internal states as causes of behaviour, which fits nicely with the broad, cultural assumption that the mind causes us to act in certain ways.

To the extent that you agree that the modern conception of “cognition” is strongly related to the Western, English-speaking view of “the mind”, it is worth asking what cognitive psychology would look like if it had developed in Japan or Russia. Would text-books have chapter headings on the ability to connect with other people (kokoro) or feelings or morality (dusa) instead of on decision-making and memory? This possibility highlights the potential arbitrariness of how we’ve carved up the psychological realm – what we take for objective reality is revealed to be shaped by culture and language.

I recently wrote a blog about a related topic. In Pāli and Sanskrit – ancient Indian languages – there is no collective term for emotions. They do have words for all of the basic emotions and some others, but they do not think of them as a category distinct from thought. I have yet to think through all of the implications of this observation but clearly the ancient Indian view on psychology must have been very different to ours.

Han 21 December 2011 at 17:06

Very interesting post. Have you looked into Julian Jaynes’s strange and marvelous book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”? Even if you regard bicameralism as iffy, there’s an interesting section on the creation of metaphorical spaces — body-words that become “containers” for feelings, thoughts, attributes etc. The culturally distinct descriptors of the “invisible” may be related to historical accidents that vary from place to place.

Simon 9 January 2012 at 06:33

Also relevant might be Lakoff and Johnson’s “Philosophy in the Flesh” looking at, in their formulation, the inevitably metaphorical nature of thought and speech and the ultimate grounding of (almost) all metaphors in our physical experience from embodiment in the world.