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Thoughts and Hallucinations

IIQM webinar summary

Universals, Particulars, and the Heartbreak of the Excluded Middle

I’m assuming that “we”—those who do or those who are interested in a particular kind of human social research--are the audience of this IIQM seminar. That kind of research requires an understanding of meaning and context among those whom the project deems “subjects.” Between the lines of this job description lurks a complication, one long ago recognized in anthropology with its two definitions of “culture." On the one hand, culture is what we Homo sapiens share that makes us all human. On the other hand, culture is a specific historical situation of some group of those humans that differ in massively important ways from other groups. Clearly both versions of culture are relevant to a research project of any type. Any group will be both familiar and strange to a person not a member. How is it that we—any two “we’s”—are both the same and different?

The wrong way to look at this complication is to try and figure out how to sort the all-human part from the unique local part. It’s the wrong way because it means you slice the social world into two pieces before you try to understand it, the universal piece and the locally different piece. In other words, you destroy the coherence of the data before you analyze it. That’s the heartbreak of the Law of the Excluded Middle in logic, either it’s this or it’s not this. What I want to argue in the IIQM seminar is that it’s not “either/or,” the so-called “exclusive or.” It’s “both/and” instead. Both/and, as it turns out, leads into controversies over Eastern or Buddhist logic. And since Lofte Zadeh introduced “fuzzy logic” in the 1960s in a “Western” format, the exclusive “Eastern” claim doesn’t work anymore anyway. I won’t try to deal with all that now.

In the IIQM seminar I will give in April, I’ll start with a story from the history of ethnographic research. It is a story about the terms “etic” and “emic.” The terms come from phonology in linguistics, “phonetic” and “phonemic.” In the old days, phonetic meant a system of notation that captured many distinct sounds that humans could make given the configuration of their articulatory biology. Phonemic meant the subset of those possible sounds that mattered in a particular language. I’ll give a few examples in the lecture to show how this works. Phonetic, the universal human part, was used to figure out the phonemic, the locally important part. But then when mainstream anthropology took the emic/etic distinction over, they lost the relationship between the two. Either you did etic ethnography or emic ethnography, never both. The heartbreak of the law of the excluded middle, a blow against clarity, and the creation of a lot of academic arguments that didn’t make any sense.

Next we’ll fast forward to the late 90s, when Donald Brown published his book on cultural universals. There is a brief YouTube of a public presentation he gave that we’ll look at to get the general message. Anthropologists have always been biased towards the discovery of human social differences. They ignored the fact that differences could only be made sense of if there is some kind of connective tissue to make a translation across those differences possible. In 2013 I wrote a book, The Lively Science: Reconstructing Human Social Research, where I made that argument. (The book is written for a general audience and suitable for birthdays and bar mitzvahs.) In the last few years I’ve given several talks, based on the book, that feature the emic/etic issue. Interesting to me is that the topic of universals makes most audiences nervous. It seems to me that the norm remains, that differences are the right focus and that universals run from problematic to threatening. The heartbreak of the excluded middle again, not both/and, but rather either/or.

Finally, though I’m no expert in the area, we’ll sample a few themes from the many fields that now blur the differences between cultural variability and universals with issues like the nature of cooperation, the ubiquity of social network power laws, the universality of fairness, and theory of mind. This sample won’t be a conclusion, but rather what I think of as a promising and comparatively recent direction that looks like a road to the both/and logic that will move us towards a single theory of what it is to be human and how it is that that humanity takes different forms. One theory, minus the excluded middle.

Where do we end? Most important is a mindset that rejects the law of the excluded middle. True, we need to guard against using the call to universals to justify naive realism. But we also need to hold off conclusions that differences are all that matter. We need to think of universals as the figure against which the ground of differences can be understood. Most importantly, we need a coherent theory that includes them both and considers how to mix evolutionary and historical explanation with contemporary ethnography. Time permitting, a final focused example from a serious game language/culture training project that I recently participated in will conclude the seminar and open up the digital gathering for discussion.
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