The Cultural Relativity of Categories

We now come to the second point, the dependence of categories on cultural factors. As already mentioned, the Whorfian thesis of the dependence of categories on linguistic factors is part of a general conception of cultural relativism which has developed in the past 50 years; although even this is not quite correct, since Wilhelm von Humboldt has already emphasized the dependence of our world perspective on linguistic factors and the structure of language.

It appears that this development started in the history of art. At the beginning of this century, the Viennese art-historian, Riegl, published a very learned and tedious treatise on late- Roman artcraft. He introduced the concept of Kunstwollen, a term which may be translated as “artistic intention.” The unnaturalistic character of primitive art was conceived to be a consequence not of a lack of skill or know-how, but rather as expression of an artistic intention which is different from ours, being not interested in a realistic reproduction of nature. The same applies to the so-called degeneration of classic art in the late Hellenistic period. This conception later was expanded by Worringer who demonstrated in the example of Gothic art that artistic modes diametrically opposed to the classical canon are an outcome not of technical impotence, but rather of a different world view. It was not that Gothic sculptors and painters did not know how to represent nature correctly, but their intention was different and not directed towards representative art. The connection of these theories with the primitivism and expressionism in modern art needs no discussion.

I wish to offer another example of the same phenomenon which is instructive since it has nothing to do with the antithesis of representative and expressionistic, objective and abstract art. It is found in the history of the Japanese woodcut.

Japanese pictures of the later period apply a certain kind of perspective, known as parallel perspective, which is different from central perspective as used in European art since the Renaissance. It is well known that Dutch treatises on perspectives were introduced into Japan in the late eighteenth century, and were eagerly studied by the Ukiyoye (woodcut) masters. They adopted perspective as a powerful means to represent nature, but only to a rather subtle limit. While European painting uses central perspective where the picture is conceived from a focal point and consequently parallels converge in the distance, the Japanese only accepted parallel perspective; i.e., a way of projection where the focal point is in the infinite, and hence parallels do not converge. We may be sure that this was not lack of skill in those eminent Japanese artists who, like Hokusai and Hiroshige, later exerted a profound influence on modern European art. They certainly would have found no difficulty to adopt an artistic means which even was handed to them ready-made. Rather we may conjecture that they felt central perspective, dependent on the standpoint of the observer, to be contingent and accidental and not representing reality since it changes as the observer moves from one place to another. In a similar way, the Japanese artists never painted shadows. This, of course, does not mean that they did not see shadow or go into the shade when the sun was burning. However, they did not wish to paint it; for the shadow does not belong to the reality of things but is only changing appearance.

So the categories of artistic creation seem to be dependent on the culture in question. It is well known that Spengler has expanded this thesis to include cognitive categories. According to him, the so-called a priori contains, besides a small number of universally human and logically necessary forms of thinking, also forms of thinking that are universal and necessary not for humanity as a whole but only for the particular civilization in question. So there are various and different “styles of cognition,” characteristic of certain groups of human beings. Spengler does not deny the universal validity of the formal laws of logic or of the empirical verites de fait. He contends, however, the relativity of the contentual a prioris in science and philosophy. It is in this sense that Spengler states the relativity of mathematics and mathematical science. The mathematical formulae as such carry logical necessity; but their visualizable interpretation which gives them meaning is an expression of the “soul” of the civilization which has created them. In this way, our scientific world picture is only of relative validity. Its fundamental concepts, such as the infinite space, force, energy, motion, etc., are an expression of our occidental type of mind, and do not hold for the world picture of other civilizations.

The analysis upon which Spengler’s cultural relativism of the categories is mainly based is his famous antithesis of Apollonian and Faustian man. According to him, the primeval symbol of the Apollonian mind of antiquity is the material and bodily existence of individuals; that of the Faustian mind of the Occident is infinite space. Thus “space,” for the Greeks, is the me on, that which is not. Consequently, Apollonian mathematics is a theory of visualizable magnitudes, culminating in stereometry and geometric construction which, in occidental mathematics, is a rather inconsequential elementary topic. Occidental mathematics, governed by the primeval symbol of the infinite space, in contrast, is a theory of pure relations, culminating in differential calculus, the geometry of many- dimensional spaces, etc., which, in their un- visualizability, would have been completely inconceivable to the Greeks.

A second antithesis is that of the static character of Greek, and the dynamic character of occidental thought. Thus, for the Greek physicist, an atom was a miniature plastic body; for occidental physics, it is a center of energy, radiating actions into an infinite space. Connected with this is the meaning of time. Greek physics did not contain a time dimension, and this is at the basis of its being a statics. Occidental physics is deeply concerned with the time course of events, the notion of entropy being probably the deepest conception in the system. From the concern with time further follows the historical orientation of the occidental mind expressed in the dominating influence of the clock, in the biography of the individual, in the enormous perspective of “world history’’ from historiography to cultural history to anthropology, biological evolution, geological history, and finally astronomical history of the universe. Again, the same contrast is manifest in the conception of the mind. Static Greek psychology imagines a harmonic soul-body whose “parts,” according to Plato, are reason (logistikon), emotion (thymoeides), and cathexis (epithymetikon). Dynamic occidental psychology imagines a soul- space where pyschological forces are interacting.

Taking exception from Spengler’s metaphysics and intuitive method, and disregarding questionable details, it will be difficult to deny that his conception of the cultural relativity of categories is essentially correct. It suffices to remember the first lines of the Iliad, telling of the heroes of the Trojan war autoiis te heloria teuche kynessin, that their selves were given a prey to the hounds and birds, the “self” being essentially the body or soma. Compare this with Descartes’ cogito ergo sum—and the contrast between Apollonian and Faustian mind is obvious.

While the German philosophers of history were concerned with the small number of high cultures (Hochkulturen), it is the hallmark and merit of modern and, in particular, American anthropology to take into account the entire field of human “cultures” including the multiplicity exhibited by primitive peoples. So the theory of cultural relativism wins a broader basis but it is remarkable that the conclusions reached are very similar to those of the German philosophers. In particular, the Whorfian thesis is essentially identical with the Spenglerian—the one based upon the linguistics of primitive tribes, the other on a general view of the few high cultures of history.4 So it appears well established that the categories of cognition depend, first, on biological factors, and secondly, on cultural factors.

A suitable formulation perhaps can be given in the following way.

Our perception is essentially determined by our specifically human, psychophysical organization. This is essentially von Uexkiill’s thesis. Linguistic, and cultural categories in general, will not change the potentialities of sensory experience. They will, however, change apperception, i.e., which features of experienced reality are focused and emphasized, and which are underplayed.

There is nothing mysterious or particularly paradoxical in this statement which, on the contrary, is rather trivial; nothing which would justify the heat and passion which has often characterized the dispute on the Whorfian, Spenglerian, and similar theses. Suppose a histological preparation is studied under the microscope. Any observer, if he is not color-blind, will perceive the same picture, various shapes and colors, etc., as given by the application of histological stains. However, what he actually sees, i.e., what is his apperception (and what he is able to communicate), depends widely on whether he is an untrained or a trained observer. Where for the layman there is only a chaos of shapes and colors, the histologist sees cells with their various components, different tissues, and signs of malignant growth. And even this depends on his line of interest and training. A cytochemist will possibly notice fine granulations in the cytoplasm of cells which represent to him certain chemically defined inclusions; the pathologist may, instead, entirely ignore these niceties, and rather “see” how a tumor has infiltrated the organ. Thus what is seen depends on our apperception, on our line of attention and interest which, in turn, is determined by training, i.e., by linguistic symbols by which we represent and summarize reality.

It is equally trivial that the same object is something quite different if envisaged from different viewpoints. The same table is to the physicist an aggregate of electrons, protons, and neutrons, to the chemist a composition of certain organic compounds, to the biologist a complex of wood cells, to the art historian a baroque object, to the economist a utility of certain money value, etc. All these perspectives are of equal status, and none can claim more absolute value than the other (cf. von Bertalanffy, 1953b). Or, take a slightly less trivial example. Organic forms can be considered from different viewpoints. Typology considers them as the expression of different plans of organization; the theory of evolution as a product of a historical process; a dynamic morphology as expression of a play of processes and forces for which mathematical laws are sought (von Bertalanffy, 1941). Each of these viewpoints is perfectly legitimate, and there is little point to play one against the other.

What is obvious in these special examples equally holds for what traits of reality are noticed in our general world picture. It is an important trend of the development of science that new aspects, previously unnoticed, are “seen,” i.e., come under the focus of attention and apperception; and conversely, an important obstacle that the goggles of a certain theoretical conception do not allow to realize phenomena which, in themselves, are perfectly obvious. History of science is rich in examples of such kind. For instance, the theoretical spectacles of a one-sided “cellular pathology” simply did not allow one to see that there are regulative relations in the organism as a whole which is more than a sum or aggregate of cells; relations which were known to Hippocrates and have found a happy resurrection in the modern doctrine of hormones, of somatotypes and the like. The modern evolutionist, guided by the theory of random mutation and selection, does not see that an organism is obviously more than a heap of hereditary characteristics or genes shuffled together by accident. The mechanistic physicist did not see the so-called secondary qualities like color, sound, taste, etc., because they do not fit into his scheme of abstractions; although they are just as “real” as are the supposedly basic “primary qualities” of mass, impenetrability, motion and the like, the metaphysical status of which is equally dubious, according to the testimony of modern physics.

Another possible formulation of the same situation, but em- phasizing another aspect, is this. Perception is universally human, determined by man’s psychophysical equipment. Conceptualization is culture-bound because it depends on the symbolic systems we apply. These symbolic systems are largely determined by linguistic factors, the structure of the language applied. Technical language, including the symbolism of mathematics, is, in the last resort, an efflorescence of everyday language, and so will not be independent of the structure of the latter. This, of course, does not mean that the content of mathematics is “true” only within a certain culture. It is a tautological system of hypothetico- deductive nature, and hence any rational being accepting the premises must agree to all its deductions. But which aspects or perspectives are mathematized depends on the cultural context. It is perfectly possible that different individuals and cultures have different predilections for choosing certain aspects and neglecting others.5 Hence, for example, the Greek’s concern with geometrical problems and the concern of occidental mathematics with calculus, as emphasized by Spengler; hence the appearance of unorthodox fields of mathematics, such as topology, group theory, game theory and the like, which do not fit into the popular notion of mathematics as a “science of quantities”; hence the individual physicist’s predilection for, say, “macroscopic” classical thermodynamics or “microscopic” molecular statistics, for matrix mechanics or wave mechanics to approach the same phenomena. Or, speaking more generally, the analytic type of mind concerned with what is called “molecular” interpretations, i.e., the resolution and reduction of phenomena to elementaristic components; and the holistic type of mind concerned with “molar” interpretations, i.e., interested in the laws that govern the phenomenon as a whole. Much harm has been done in science by playing one aspect against the other and so, in the elementaristic approach, to neglect and deny obvious and most important characteristics; or, in the holistic approach, to deny the fundamental importance and necessity of analysis.

It may be mentioned, in passing, that the relation between language and world view is not unidirectional but reciprocal, a fact which perhaps was not made sufficiently clear by Whorf. The structure of language seems to determine which traits of reality are abstracted and hence what form the categories of thinking take on. On the other hand, the world outlook determines and forms the language.

A good example is the evolution from classical to medieval Latin. The Gothic world view has recreated an ancient language, this being true for the lexical as well as the grammatical aspect. Thus the scholastics invented hosts of words which are atrocities from the standpoint of Cicero’s language (as the humanists of the Renaissance so deeply felt in their revivalistic struggle) ; words introduced to cope with abstract aspects foreign to the corporeally-thinking Roman mind, like leonitas, quidditas and the rest of them. Equally, although the superficial rules of grammar were observed, the line of thinking and construction was profoundly altered. This also applies to the rhetorical aspect, as in the introduction of the end-rhyme in contrast to the classical meters. Comparison, say, of the colossal lines of the Dies irae with some Virgilian or Horatian stanza makes obvious not only the tremendous gap between different “world-feelings” but the determination of language by the latter as well.

Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.

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