Mutual Intelligibilty

Sat, 26 Nov 1994 19:04:59 -0700

Anthro-L Subscribers: I am forwarding this mislaid message at the author's

Jim Eighmey
Department of Anthropology >>>---------->
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ. 85287-2402
----------------------------Original message----------------------------
For some years now I have shamelessly lurked on ANTHRO-L,
drinking deep at the well of your discussions, but feeling that my own
grasp of matters anthropological was insufficently developed to make a
sensible contribution (and there's more than enough ill-informed drivel on
the Internet without my adding to it). Now however, I do have a query, a
little piece of ontological gristle that has been frustratingly jammed
between my back teeth in a floss-unfriendly way, and which has grown ever
more irritating as I peruse the recent firefights raging on ANTHRO-L and
ARCH-THEORY (Theoretical Archaeology discussion list) concerning Post-
Modernism and Epistemology. Curtailing my tendency to waffle without end,
I ask the following of you all:

Are humans (H. Sapiens sapiens) mutually intelligible?

By this I mean, is it possible to sympathise/empathise with, or even understand
, those members of our own species who have encountered the world through a
very different cultural "filter" than one's own?

Yes, yes, I KNOW this is a "biggie", but I do have my reasons for asking
a forum of anthropolgists. I'm fully aware that most responses to this
question will be riddled with echoes of the largest debates in philosophy
and anthropology, but my own question arises from the deepest recesses of
the a-priori assumptions which I, as a (hopefully) self-monitoring "reflexive"
Archaeologist, have identified within my own efforts at interpretation of the
material record of the past. Identified, but not eliminated, or even been
able to step back from and consider objectively. Let me explain myself.

In trying to think about motivations and actions in the past, I am
quite comfortable with the idea that the individuals whose material residue
concerns me may have had a radically different culture from my own, or from
any I see around me. This means that I am open to the idea that their
knowledge of their environment, their priorities, their goals, valuations and
social relationships may be vastly different from my own. However, rooted
deep down inside me, with no justification for its existence, is my
unswerving belief that:
"People is People"

ie: they may be different in everything from diet to deities, but they're
still just humans, and in my naivety I believe I know the broad parameters of
what humans are. To argue that a different culture renders people so different
that I can't possibly understand them is anathema to the little voice of
hitherto-unspoken assumption that chatters away in my head.

Perhaps this little bias that I cannot eliminate arises from a fear that if
we can say that the people of the past can be fundamentally unintelligible,
because of their culture, then we can start distancing ourselves from other
elements of our species. In other words, we can start to excuse our species
from some of the things we have done. If we can't understand the Nazis, how
can we share their guilt? I find this notion terrifying - the Nazis were just
you and me, they are perfectly understandable, and that is the horror of it.
If they were some alien species whose make-up we did not share that would be
different, but they weren't, they were human, and that potential lies within
us all, (albeit closer to the surface in some). But I'm digressing.

Now, where was I? Oh yes... this implicit assumption behind all my
thinking about humans: we are ALL mutually understandable.

How valid is it? Can I construct a falsifiable hypothesis to replace this
intransigent belief? Might Chomsky offer some sort of answer in the way he
thinks about linguistics, in the way that a childs first language sets the
"switches" in the "language organ" (pardon the quotation marks, but I fear I
may be doing Noam a great disservice in using the broad stokes of his theory
in this way) which in turn influences the way in which all subsequent languages
are learnt and dealt with. Could this apply to culture, a sort of cultural
"hardwiring" of the brain by the first patterns received?

Anyhow, I yield the floor to those more versed in these matters. Good luck!

Stephen P. Johnston * *
Postgraduate Student, *
Department of Archaeology, *
University College Dublin. *