Knowledge of self and other

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Wed, 24 Apr 1996 11:58:37 -0400

This discussion calls to mind a phrase one of my professors used constantly: "No
contrast, no information." The phrase occured usually in the context of
linguistic analysis, but it applies to culture as well. And, it can be extended
to represent the fact that conscious knowledge of one's native language/culture
requires knowledge of other possibilities.

A useful concept here might be the distinction between acquisition and learning.
Everyone acquires a native language as a biological process which develops given
adequate social context (cf. Chomsky's Language Acquisition Device or
Bickerton's Language Bioprogram, both of which are metaphors for the biology
underlying language acquisition). At least some of culture is acquired
similarly, most likely thru the very same mechanisms. This kind of acquisition,
to be successful, must happen (apparently) during what some call the "critical
period" or it doesn't happen, or it happens incompletely.

Of course, there are aspects of culture that are not acquired in this way, and
that must be learned (literacy, driving a car). Learning is different, in the
sense that a conscious effort has to be made, and a lot of it takes place in
special settings (school, etc.). Also, most of what we, as humans, learn (as
opposed to acquire) is via the symbolic system of language (but note that we
didn't have to already have a language to acquire our first language!).

And then there is the question of "knowledge." We have "knowledge" of our first
language, but it's mostly unconscious knowledge. Try and get a native speaker
of English to tell you how they form the plural of cat, dog, and bush (cat-s,
dog-z, bush-iz). They can't do it, but they "know how." The same applies to
culture. Many things that we "know how" to do (say, how to shake hands) have
been acquired, but we can't explain them very precisely. This is different from
"knowledge about" which we learn (again, thru language!) in (e.g.) linguistics
and anthropology classes.

I think we can acquire (as opposed to learn about) at least parts of a second
language and culture in ways somewhat similar to first language/culture
acquisition. I know that as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Carriacou, Grenada,
before ever having an anthro class, I acquired enough of the language and
culture that, later in grad school, as I "learned about" language and culture,
things which I had internalized unconsciously became clear and understandable.
And it was really at this point that I began to understand some of the
differences between Carriacou culture and my own.

One vivid example: I had always thought that some defect in my personality made
me initially uncomfortable shaking hands with men in Carriacou, where a
handshake can last thru at least the opening greetings of a conservation and, on
occasion, even longer. Of course, over time I "acquired" the Carriacou
handshake-hold; only later, thru anthropology, did I discover that my culture's
preference for brief contact between men made me uncomfortable.

Anthropology (and linguistics) helped (and continues to help) me develop
conscious knowledge about things that I already "knew how." Maybe we should
insist that before people can get a degree in anthropology, they have to have
lived in another culture as learners-how, rather than learners-about (I taught
Spanish in Carriacou for 3 years with no thought of returning to "study" the
language and culture, indeed, without even knowing that such a thing existed). I
know that's what participant-observation is supposed to do, but maybe it can't,
given the time constraints that we often have to deal with.

Just some thoughts.

Ronald Kephart
Dept of Language & Literature
University of North Florida
Jacksonville, FL USA 32224-2645
Phone: (904) 646-2580