7. Social Conditions of Knowledge

Imagine having the opportunity to spend a year studying abroad. Of course, many students do this, and they experience life in nations and cultures around the world. They learn what it is like to live in another culture. They make new friends, adopt the local language, celebrate local holidays, learn what the traditions are, and perhaps learn a new version of what is regarded as “common sense.” Travel broadens the mind by teaching us how much of our mental lives is due to just being in one culture rather than another.


We might also try to imagine what it would be like to “study abroad” in other cultures throughout history. Imagine spending a year in Mesopotamia five thousand years ago or in Ancient Rome or in the Mayan Empire or in Japan in the 12th century. Such experiences would broaden the mind to an even greater extent since the “common sense” of these cultures would be so radically different from anything we know or can even imagine. The locals would regard us as bizarre, strange-thinking aliens, and we would have to work extremely hard to learn what to say, what to assume, what to eat, and what customs we had to follow. Going to school—if there were schools—would raise another cluster of problems as we would have to catch up on the strange (to us) things our companions already knew, and we would have to get a sense for what the “problem space” of knowledge was. Were there gods or magical forces we need to take into account? Is there a creation story that plays an explanatory role? What sorts of questions can we raise, and what questions would be weird or offensive to ask?


After spending a year in another historical culture so radically different from our own, we might be shocked when we returned home. What once seemed familiar would seem extraordinary. What seemed so obvious would now seem novel and arbitrary. We might try to imagine all the difficulties a friend from the other culture would have as they tried to adapt to our world—what they would find weird, baffling, or ridiculous.


One thing is for sure: the study of other cultures, present and past, helps us to learn the importance of social conditions for knowledge, which include all of the things we would find surprising as we hop from one culture to another.


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Knowledge For Humans Copyright © 2022 by Charlie Huenemann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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