Category Archives: miscellaneous

how universal is the mind?

the “mind” concept is not as universal as one might imagine. non-western cultures associate different characteristics with the invisible aspects of personhood. In Korean, the concept “maum” replaces the concept “mind”. “Maum” has no English counterpart, but is sometimes translated as “heart”. The Japanese have yet another concept for the invisible part of the person – “kokoro”.”Kokoro” is a “seat of emotion, and also, a source of culturally valued attention to, and empathy with, other people”. Yet,  the notion of “cognition” in contemporary studies is informed by western conceptions of the “mind”, characterized by thinking, knowing, reasoning and other such ‘invisible’ abilities/properties. Andrew D. Wilson and Sabrina Golonka argue,

In a larger sense, the fact that there seems to be a universal belief that people consist of visible and invisible aspects explains much of the appeal of cognitive psychology over behaviourism. Cognitive psychology allows us to invoke invisible, internal states as causes of behaviour, which fits nicely with the broad, cultural assumption that the mind causes us to act in certain ways.

To the extent that you agree that the modern conception of “cognition” is strongly related to the Western, English-speaking view of “the mind”, it is worth asking what cognitive psychology would look like if it had developed in Japan or Russia. Would text-books have chapter headings on the ability to connect with other people (kokoro) or feelings or morality (dusa) instead of on decision-making and memory? This possibility highlights the potential arbitrariness of how we’ve carved up the psychological realm – what we take for objective reality is revealed to be shaped by culture and language.

see the rest of the post How Universal is the Mind?  here


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intellectual identity crisis?

I used to think i was firmly in the culturalist camp, that materialist power/interest explanations fell short in explaining international politics without an emphasis on the identity of actors, the impact of normative structures, questions of legitimacy and all that other constructivist ‘fluff’.

then i started following the Syrian crisis closely.

the US, France, and Britain have asked for Assad to  end the violence and step down. same goes for turkey and saudi arabia and the arab league. the discussion of possible consequences for failing to do so range from sanctions to intervention. ( the arab league approved sanctions as of yesterday).  this concern and these sanctions are framed in terms of the rights of people, democracy and liberty.  turkey and france argue that to oppose assad is necessary for them as democratic countries, i.e it necessarily follows from their identities.

a culturalists dream? the strengthening of a solidarist international society? Even the Arab League is coming around to support liberal norms, warming up to even R2P.

but, only the really naive would buy this narrative. the Syria game is being driven by strategic interests, an an ongoing competition for influence in the middle east.  the US would like to curb Iranian influence, especially in light of its withdrawal in Iraq. Iran would like to increase its influence, and with the US withdrawal from Iraq,  Iran could now have a sphere of influence extending from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Israel is apprehensive either way –  it would like to see the end of the Syria-Iranian friendship, but is worried about an Islamist government coming to power – Assad is the enemy they know. The Great Game is on, and is accelerating to dangerous levels in Syria.

And its not about human rights, democracy or other solidarist  norms. Its about strategic interests, competition, and  the balance of power played out against the shadow of the future.This would fit a realist analysis well; ideas are epiphenomenal and mostly just serve as justifications for achieving strategic interests. States might use the language of human rights and democracy, but these are justifications masking other interests. Andrew Hurrel points out how pluralist concerns are advanced and strengthened through solidarist arguments.

So, goodbye arm-chair culturalism? Hello realism?

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