Knowing Across Cultures

Is the concept of knowledge the same for all people? How might new data push debates on knowledge, wisdom, and understanding in new directions?

Although the global age has brought cultures closer together, it has also exposed vast intercultural differences and cross-cultural misunderstandings. Is it possible that communicating across cultures is limited by different underlying conceptions of what it means to know, to understand, or to be wise? An international project led by the anthropologist H. Clark Barrett and philosophers Edouard Machery and Stephen Stich is attempting to answers these questions.

Data from this study will likely reveal how legal transgressions vary cross-culturally depending on the way a community differentially evaluates intentionality and consequences.
The Geography of Philosophy Project (GPP) is a cross-cultural study of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Currently, the project is conducting over a dozen studies with ethnographic researchers in eight world regions. By inquiring into the multiple dimensions of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, the GPP hopes to provide data for answering longstanding questions in anthropology, cognitive science, and philosophy. Perhaps the most critical is this one: Is the concept of knowledge the same for all people?

As anthropologists will recognize, this inquiry is not the same as asking whether two cultures have divergent epistemic beliefs, but whether the very notion of knowledge is itself universal. The question of universality matters because Western philosophers have presumed since Plato that to know is completely translatable, meaning that it is a semantic prime common to all minds and languages. This assumption has carried over into the foundations of cognitive science. However, if people have fundamentally different intuitions about knowledge, as numerous ethnographies suggest, then Western philosophy—and by extension cognitive science—will have overlooked a significant fissure between cultures, including how culture and cognition interact. As Stich recently observed, evidence against a universally shared notion of knowledge would indicate that epistemology in Western epistemology and cognitive science is simply an exercise in the way Westerners talk about knowledge, and not an enterprise in discovering the foundation or coherent methods for having justified true beliefs.

Photograph of cloudy earth in blue and white.
Image description: The earth appears cloudy in blue and white. Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, and North America are visible.
Caption: Cross-cultural communication might be clouded by different underlying conceptions of what it means to know, to understand, or to be wise.
Cloudy Earth, NASA Earth Observatory/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Nevertheless, the GPP may find evidence that to know is indeed a universal, bearing at least some kind of family resemblance to people’s core folk epistemology. If so, then another question would need to be answered: What is the function of knowledge? As Machery points out, many of the GPP’s studies can be thought of as testing a functionalist theory of knowledge. That is to say, the project investigates how knowledge is a part of evolved cognition—i.e., a mental tool of sorts—for survival, and, specifically, the critical exchange of communication. That would mean knowledge plays a fundamental role in resolving the problem of attaining accurate and persuasive information. Anthropology plays a vital role in this vantage point, as cognitive anthropology suggests that the act of knowing could be empirically investigated from the first-person perspective of giving testimony, the second-person perspective of receiving testimony, or the third-person perspective of tracking objective features of the world. Data on these fundamental ways of knowing, and how people talk about them, would shed light on why knowing, in all of its cognitive and behavioral varieties, was naturally selected.

While the project cannot yet answer this fundamental question because it is still deep in data collection, there are a few studies close to completion that offer preliminary insights. In one study, which concerns how people conceptualize wisdom, researchers used a vignette to elicit peoples’ intuitions about the wisest way to make a decision when faced with a dilemma. For example, one vignette (with names adapted to the local context) went as follows: Carlos, a young man, asks Marcos, his neighbor, if he can help him prepare his field to be able to plant before the rainy season. Marcos has already started working in his field a few weeks ago and knows that if he helps his neighbor Carlos he will not be able to finish all the remaining work on time, and his harvest will not be as abundant as expected.

After hearing this story, participants were asked to compare four ways that Marcos might make a decision and, for each of those, which was the wisest, which they themselves would choose, and that which others would choose. The four ways of making the decision were relying on one’s own intuition, relying on one’s own reasoning, relying on the advice of close associates (e.g., friends and relatives), and relying on the advice of strangers.

[D]o people consider saying something false out of ignorance a lie? Tentative evidence suggests that there may be a divide between cultures [who do and who do not].

In the United States, participants preferred to rely on their own reasoning, a finding that preliminary results from different sites suggests is found around the world. An additional finding concerned first and third person judgments. Across different sites, people judged that they themselves would act in a wise manner, while judging that others would rely on their close relative(s) to make a decision. Surprisingly, this pattern held at all the sites for which the GPP has data, including countries in North and South America, East Asia, India, Africa, and Western and Eastern Europe. One might have expected that people in these so-called collectivist cultures would be more likely to rely on the advice of close others than people in so-called individualistic cultures. One might also have thought that Western countries would value decisions based on collective reason as much as if not more than other countries, because of the West’s idealization of objective rationality.

These preliminary results illustrate how difficult it is to predict people’s conceptualization of important epistemic matters, such as what counts as a wise decision. If other studies provide similar results, then the GPP’s studies are likely to complement many of the ethnographically centered studies undertaken by anthropologists. Such cross-cultural research suggests that differences in epistemology cannot be easily understood on the basis of simple binary distinctions such as individualism or collectivism, or broadly conceived notions such as the idealization of rationality. The GPP will likely discover several unanticipated similarities and differences across cultures.

The GPP’s geographic breadth and subjective diversity reflect current developments in anthropology. By investigating epistemology in multiple world regions, the GPP breaks away from empirical studies based almost entirely on the intuitions of WEIRD (Western, English-speaking, Industrial, Rich, Democratic) populations. Indeed, most empirical studies on knowledge to date have been limited to the views of participants who are almost exclusively Western college students in the global North. This is a problem, as Barrett recently argued, because the majority of the world lives in the global South. Hence, an upshot of the GPP is doing what anthropology has long done: providing representational data on how people from around the world think and, in this case, how epistemology relates to culture.

Anthropologists are likely to take interest in other ongoing GPP projects. GPP teams are investigating the intersection of intentionality and strict liability, asking when moral and legal judgments depend—and do not depend—on the intentions of the agent, and whether judgments increase or decrease when harm is incurred through bad accidents or failed intentional harms. Data from this study will likely reveal how legal transgressions vary cross-culturally, depending on the way a community differentially evaluates intentionality and consequences. GPP teams are also investigating people’s intuitions about lying and whether moral evaluations thereof depend on a community’s notion of knowledge. For instance, do people consider saying something false out of ignorance a lie? Tentative evidence suggests that there may be a divide between cultures who see false testimony as not being a lie unless the testifier intended to deceive, while others consider any false testimony—regardless of intent—a lie. These are just two examples of the many studies currently undertaken around the world by the GPP, whose results will soon be available.

Perhaps the most significant implication of the GPP will be the same as anthropology studies in general. By working with Indigenous communities in multiple world religions, including the Amazon and India, the GPP will contribute to interdisciplinary studies of world epistemologies and shed light on the value of humanity’s many ways of knowing. In so doing, the GPP will offer new data and push debates regarding knowledge, wisdom, and understanding in new directions.

Jordan Kiper is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He held a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and earned his PhD in anthropology at the University of Connecticut in 2018.

Chandra Middleton and Melissa Maceyko are contributing editors for the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology’s section news column.

Cite as: Kiper, Jordan. 2020. “Knowing Across Cultures.” Anthropology News website, September 30, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1510

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