Disagreement and Misunderstanding Across Cultures

Hans Rott


Members of different cultures speak different languages. When communication problems arise, they may be due to disagreement or misunderstanding. It appears crucial to separate "genuine" disagreement from "mere" misunderstanding. Sometimes it is said that disagreements are so fundamental that they are best represented as cultural disagreements about the logical validity of certain inference patterns. In a sense, it is harder for members of different cultures to disagree than for members of the same culture. Within a language, there are markers - negation signs, for instance - serving as devices for the direct expression of disagreements. In order to identify a disagreement between speakers of different languages, however, we need some sort of translation between them before we can speak of any disagreement. It is only relative to a given translation scheme that one can talk of a member of one culture denying what a member of another culture affirms. In my talk I attempt to find out what kinds of considerations might help us to determine whether two persons of different cultures "really" disagree. Looking at a few anthropological examples, I argue that it is in fact difficult to tell whether people of a different culture are wrong about a particular question, and much harder still to show that they make use of a different ("wrong"?) logic. Any kind of disagreement must be based on some more basic agreement. It turns out that this non-trivial problem transfers to speakers of the same language (or, at least, what looks as the same language). Translation across subcultures may be just as hard as translation across cultures: Radical translation begins at home, as Quine used to say.


20th century philosophy; philosophy; social studies; Wittgenstein Ludwig; belief; disagreement; misunderstanding; terminological dispute; translation; Zande logic

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