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Cultural Perspective is Essential for Knowledge

Isamu Nagami, from “Cultural Gaps: Why Do We Misunderstand?”

A well-known Japanese psychologist, Takeo Doi, expressed his frustration and puzzlement with American ways of life in his book, The Anatomy of Dependence:

From time to time I began to fee an awkwardness arising from the difference

between my ways of thinking and feeling and those of my hosts (that is,

Americans). For example, not long after my arrival in America I visited the

house of someone to whim I had been introduced by a Japanese acquaintance,

and was talking to him when he asked me, ‘Are you hungry? We have some ice

cream if you’d like it.’ As I remember, I was rather hungry, but finding myself

asked point-blank if I was hungry by someone whom I was visiting for the first

time, I could not bring myself to admit it, and ended by denying the suggestion. I

probably cherished a mild hope that he would press me again; but my host,

disappointingly, said, ‘I see’ with no further ado, leaving me regretting that I

had not replied more honestly. And I found myself thinking that a Japanese

would almost never ask a stranger unceremoniously if he was hungry, but would

produce something to give him without asking.

Those who have lived in foreign countries have experienced more or less the sort of cultural shock Doi expressed so well. These kinds of intercultural experiences have led many thinkers to probe into the core elements of culture for comparative study. In Japan, for example, we find many popular writers who explain the difference between Japanese culture and that of Western nations including the U.S. in terms of group orientation and individual identity. The thesis for this type of argument is that while Japanese behavior in general can be explained by orientation within the group, Americans behave on the basis of individual freedom. There is no doubt that this reveals a meaningful comparison between the two cultures to those who have journalistic interests. But if we start by inquiring into various modalities of the experiential world of daily life in culture, we find we cannot follow the above approach primarily for three reasons: 1. Those who accept the group versus individual thesis tend to explain every cultural phenomenon in terms of this and as a result they conceal many other rich possibilities which every culture may contain. 2. Certain features are common to all social worlds. In this respect every culture can share a kind of symbolic common denominator through which we can compare differences. Yet, this approach of contrast ignores the universality in human existence. 3. The very fact that people understand and describe different cultures reveals a kind of cultural ethos in which their thinking is embedded. This is to say, their ways of thinking are inescapably and necessarily cultural. This thought process is not self-critically oriented in the sense that it is not able to show its historic-cultural character and, therefore, tends to be ideological.

The most striking characteristic of these approaches is based on their inability to provide any critical perspective and at the same time on a sort of false legitimacy in our actual human life. Thus it is crucial for us to find another way to understand culture in its most sensible manners. In this respect, we would propose a method of phenomenological reflection, for phenomenology can reveal the various dimensions of human life which, I believe, symbolize culture and thereby can help us to overcome the aforementioned difficulties.

When, for instance, a boy and his mother see a cedar, she is most likely to call it a tree rather than a cedar. After a while if he happens to see an oak tree and asks her ‘What’s that?’ she will call it a tree. At that time he might be very confused with that term simply because there is a difference between a cedar and an oak and yet they partake of the same name, tree. But gradually he realizes that the word or sound ‘tree’ implies a certain group of characteristics which belong to the same category. It is clear that the word ‘tree’ signifies an abstract expression in the sense that it represents certain characteristics and ignores others such as those that belong to the category ‘flower’. In this respect, concreteness in common sense is not concrete in reality, but rather abstract. The reason why people mistake abstract expressions for concrete reality is due to the fact that they unconsciously accept the expressions as taken-for-granted, rooted in a specific-temporal world. Hence some concrete meanings in one culture are not concrete but very enigmatic, non-concrete expressions in another. In English, people distinguish tree from parts of tree which are used for architectural and other purposes, that is ‘wood.’ But in Japanese we don’t do so. We express the idea of tree and wood both with one term, Ki. Yet, the dictionary usually describes Ki as having the same meaning as tree. Languages also differ in their built-in grammatical signals, that is, semantics, syntax, and phonetics. In English people are very conscious of specifying the number of people involved in what they are discussing. But in Japanese the contrary is often true. Here we can see that the very nature of language through which we comprehend the world and understand ourselves inevitably involves us in the cultural context of language. Hence languages differ immensely from one another not only in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar, but also in the way they recognize certain things and ignore others, thereby reflecting the society and culture they serve. Experience and language are reciprocal in the sense that human beings can experience outside reality only in terms of the meanings disclosed by language. Human beings are thrown into language worlds in which they learn to identify things as well as to understand reality. In this sense it is obvious that our ways of understanding and interpreting reality are already conditioned by the socially given language.

If we accept that our knowledge is socially given, it seems that we are caught in the relativistic position of suggesting that there is no such thing as objectivity. Hence, we may ask a further question: How can we affirm something as an objective entity on which everybody can agree? In this question we again need to reflect on what I will call the inter-subjective world which language as well as our everyday life thinking always presupposes. Situationally we unconsciously put ourselves as the center of spatio-temporal coordinates in the world. This means that I usually see the position I occupy as ‘here,’ distinguished from ‘there’ taken by a fellow human being. Yet we can interchange our positions freely, as if we can place ourselves in the other’s situation. A saying such as ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ implies this interchangeability. This interchangeability is possible because there is an inter-subjectivity acknowledged spatio-temporal world in which both she and I are embedded and therefore can exchange, as well as share, our positions in essentially the same fashion with essentially the same possibilities and consequences. The concept of inter-subjectivity signifies this inter-subjectively acknowledged spatio-temporal world. Each socio-cultural environment presupposes an inter-subjective world which historically develops various conceptions of the world as symbolized in language. Those who have been living in American society share various typicalities as a horizon of familiarity and of unquestioned pre-experience. Through the use of these we can converse with one another and understand the objects of the world as the reality of the taken-for-granted. The meanings of words such as tree or flower are simply taken for granted and therefore are self-evident. In other words, we are speaking, acting, and understanding within an inter-subjective world in which we share our perspectives through knowledge gained by previous experience. The fact that I am able to express my thinking to a fellow human being already presupposes an inter-subjective world in which both she and I are embedded and, therefore, she can share my thinking and I hers. This sharing is the very basis with which we can affirm objective reality, for we are able to identify an entity within the same perspective. Understanding, hence, always presupposes a common social heritage of an inter-subjective world with the participation of Mystery. It is in this inter-subjectivity that we can understand our ways of perceiving outside reality as the objective one.

Up until this point in our discussion, inter-subjectivity has not seemed to present a crucial problem to our cultural concerns. However, when we consider cases in which there are two distinctive groups responding differently according to their own inter-subjective worlds, the problem of inter-subjectivity can be seen. In order to reveal this problem, let me follow Alfred Schutz’s notion of ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group.’ The in-group, as defined by Schutz, are those who accept the ready-made standardized scheme of a socio-cultural environment, that is, an inter-subjective world as an unquestioned and unquestionable system of knowledge. For them the system of knowledge in everyday life situation as manifested in language, tradition, habits, and various social systems appears to have sufficient coherence, clarity, and consistency. In contrast, those who stand outside of that world are defined as the out-group. Members of the out-group sometimes feel that what is taken-for-granted by the in-group is actually an ambiguous and enigmatic reality, since the out-group have not had any sharing experience with the in-group’s historical traditions. Suppose, for instance, that an American who has never lived in any foreign country has to live in Japan, without first learning about the culture or studying the language, and to work at a Japanese factory in a Japanese style. Being astonished by the Japanese employer’s daily singing of the company’s song or quoting the company’s slogan in a militaristic manner, she would as a result have considerable difficulty in understanding the Japanese way of life simply because she does not share her inter-subjective world with that of the Japanese. The self-evidence of everyday life for the members of an in-group may not be self-evident for those of the out-group. It is this gap that creates misunderstandings.

I explained a sharing world of an in-group in distinction to that of out-groups. Actually this characterization does not really indicate the true meaning of sharing because the sharing world of an in-group eventually destroys the sharing world in the global sense. A sharing world of an in-group becomes a kind of confinement in which we tend to glorify ourselves as a sharing people, as exemplified in Germany and Japan during the Second World War. As long as we understand ‘sharing a world’ in terms of in-group and out-group, we in a sense validate a dualism of the human condition in which in-group stands apart from out-group. This does not really signify the true meaning of sharing. To share various human concerns in the world means not to differentiate in-group from out-group, but to take part in every possible activity in the world. This participation can create a sort of ‘fusion of horizons’ in which the differences between in-group and out-group eventually disappear, creating a new horizon of understanding which involves a broadening of the present horizon.

The encounter between in-group and out-group usually creates tension. How can we overcome this tension and at the same time attain a respectful understanding of each other, allowing every individual and every culture to their own dignity? Indeed this is an important question. Let us recall Gadamer’s attempt to explain the encounter between text and interpreter in is magnum opus, Truth and Method, for his analysis is helpful in understanding the question of the encounter between in-group and out-group. He states:

The concept of the ‘horizon’ suggests itself because it expresses the wide, superior

vision that the person who is seeking to understand must have. To acquire a horizon

means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand – not in order to look away

from it, but to see it better within a larger whole and in truer proportion.

“To acquire a horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand.” What does that mean? It means that we need to learn to understand the out-group’s own dignity enabling them to disclose their true nature. This requires from us an openness towards out-groups, a willingness to listen to what the members of out-groups would say. Earlier I discussed the example of the notions of tree and Ki; so long as we are caught up within the taken-for-grantedness of our notion in language, we will never be able to understand the real meanings of out-groups’ expressions. But if we are able to admit that our understanding is historically conditioned and therefore to allow ourselves to be open to what an out-group says, then a new horizon between us may come into being in the sense that everybody will become able to realize the limitedness of both tree and Ki in a larger context. Openness and listening are keys to understanding other cultures as well as other human beings. It is true that an understanding of other cultures involves issues more complex than the difference between tree and Ki. Yet, if we lose a sense of listening and openness, there is no possibility for us to understand different cultures and peoples.

At present we are confronted by the nuclear crisis. This came about because we lost the attitude of listening to others, because we forgot that human beings are rooted in the common destiny of the world, because we manipulated others at our disposal, and because we lost the original meaning of the Biblical story about human beings on earth: human beings were created to bring light and to protect the world in the context of relationships within which different people and things belong together with mutual dependency.

In the question of fusion of horizons between different cultures and people, language reveals very mysterious powers. Since every language is tied up to a particular historical setting, various languages differ from one another. Language is also the medium through which human beings are able to identify understood as differences among languages. In this regard, language always discloses particular characteristics of its own historico-cultural setting.

But how can we mediate these differences of language? Clearly it is also through language that differences can be fused or compared. In this respect, language discloses the universal dimension through which differences can be overcome. It is true that the English language is different from Japanese. But if English discloses totally different characteristics from Japanese, is it possible for any Japanese to understand the various meanings of English? The very fact that I can translate different English expressions into Japanese already presupposes that there are universally shared meanings between the two languages. Thus language discloses not only particular modes of being, but also the universal dimensions of our existence.

Language, furthermore, has the immanently transcending power by which I mean that language is able to overcome its own limited meaning in its historical condition. Here, paradoxically speaking, our fateful situation is not fateful when we reflect on, and open ourselves up to, the fatefulness of our existence. When I say that the tree of the English language is different from the Ki of Japanese, I note that the meanings of tree and Ki are limited. Yet, in so pointing out, language can open much larger possibilities than those of tree and Ki. Because an society signifies linguistically its historical heritage in which human relationality dwells, human relationships, too, disclose particular modes of being as well as universality. Human relationality contains something common to all humanity. Everywhere we find language, cultural objects, playthings for children, family life through which human beings live and celebrate such great events of life as birth, initiation, marriage, and death. These are given universally. Human beings are different and yet we share various dimensions of human existence as universally shared meanings. It is in this human sharing that we can appreciate and understand different people.

We cannot escape the ‘taken-for-grantedness’ of our world. We are fatefully thrown into that world where we must find meanings for our existence. It is impossible for us to have meaningful dialogue with others if we do not take our language. For example, it is impossible for us to bring our sick baby to a doctor if we do not take some medical knowledge for granted. In this regard, ‘taken-for’grantedness’ discloses appreciative human meanings in addition to its ideological dimensions. One of the fundamental mistakes utopian theorists often make is to assume that they themselves are the vanguard as they claim a priori powers to transcend the ideological power of culture. But, in so doing, they themselves become ideological in the sense that they negate the ultimate human condition: human beings are historical who disclose a fateful as well as a transformative mode of life and thought. It seems to me that every human being at certain points has to share in the ideological power of existence. We are, in a sense, living within original sin. However, this does not mean that we cannot transcend various modes of ideological power in our respective cultures. We are living in a constant transformative process within the horizon of encounters between different people. If we are open and responsive to other people in dialogue, then Mystery can lead humans to learn to trust and find a way of reconciling the differences of culture and existence. This awareness opens up much richer possibilities of shaping various modes of our existence in more meaningful ways. The genuine work of education, it seems to me, is to provide and teach this dialogical-critical ability to human beings so that we can create and develop meaningful societies in a global sense.

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Kate Hunter
Kate Hunter

This article also made me think about something that we talked about in my psychology class this semester: culture-fair testing. Many IQ tests are formatted for a specific culture, and don’t take into account that not all cultures share the same general knowledge and experiences, which makes it possible for people taking the test to have skewed results. I feel that your knowledge is extremely effected by your culture, but also by how exposed you are to other cultures of the world.


I definitely feel that your culture molds your views of the world and they way you think. A lot of Americans who have never been out of the country would be just as shocked going to a foreign country as foreigners who come to America. A lot of things from different cultures people would never know or understand unless they see it first hand. If you can understand someones culture and their lifestyle it could definitely help you understand them more as a person. This article made some really good points, especially the first one when the guy was offered food. I feel that is very common for someone to feel like that and just say no , but it…


Lauren Chamberlain
Lauren Chamberlain

I have noticed in class just how much culture affects our ethics and moral views. For example, when we were going over Uncle Ben's Choice, some of our foreign transfer students very much understood the story, and had a higher priority on children and family being the legacy of a person or a form of wealth. Many hands make light work, after all. I as an American have less of a priority on having children; they are not a legacy to me. I would have likely chosen the Mami Wota, as I don't want children, and I would rather use monetary wealth to help children, fund a charity, etc., because that is a legacy to me.


Lauren Chamberlain
Lauren Chamberlain

I have noticed in class just how much culture affects our ethics and moral views. For example, when we were going over Uncle Ben's Choice, some of our foreign transfer students very much understood the story, and had a higher priority on children and family being the legacy of a person or a form of wealth. Many hands make light work, after all. I as an American have less of a priority on having children; they are not a legacy to me. I would have likely chosen the Mami Wota, as I don't want children, and I would rather use monetary wealth to help children, fund a charity, etc., because that is a legacy to me.


I'm an international student, so I fell clearly about different cultures between Vietnam and America. I am not sure about the number of countries in the U.S, but I see here it has a lot of different cultures from Mexico, Korea, and South America. I can open my knowledge in this country. I was excited when I am studying in America. I can study my major and know new cultures. A clear example is when I studied English Second Language. I make friends with Japanese, Korean, and Bangladesh.

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