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Are Universalistic Psychological Explanations Across Cultures Possible?

Roger D. Carlson
Whitman College

Paper presented at the XXII Interamerican Congress of Psychology
Buenos Aries, June, 1989.


    The hope for universal psychological explanations of "basic processes" that endure across cultures may only be the product of the discursive practices of a society. The breakdown of explanations referring to the universal "basic" processes is most likely to occur cross-culturally. This paper uses two types of analyses to examine the proposition that the psychological explanation of human actions in a culture which is foreign to that of the "explainer" is epistemologically and metaphysically acceptable. Those analytic techniques are borrowed from (a) archeology of knowledge developed by Michel Foucault, and (b) ordinary language analysis developed by the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Illustrations are taken from explanations across cultures in the Americas as well as other countries (e.g., psychologists in the United States attempting to understanding the political actions of Argentineans, and Argentineans attempting to understand the psychological basis of the political actions of United States citizens. The paper concludes that such explanations and the methods which produce them are fictions which serve the purposes of a particular culture. Unless the purposes of two societies are shared, the imposition of one explanation over another society only produces an illusion of explanation from the point of view of the imposing society.

    Generally psychologists seek to give general explanations of human behavior in the form of laws and theories. Like physicists, psychologists seek to give explanations of human behavior in the form of laws and theories.

    A critical question is whether such explanations can ever be made specific enough to explain behavior across cultures. That is, are the general laws and theories that are developed in psychology specific enough to adequately account for the specific diversity evidenced in human behavior across cultures? The purpose of this paper is to examine this question using the modern techniques of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Michel Foucault.

    Methodological Note. This paper is concerned with the fundamental assumptions which are inherent in the ways psychologists pursue knowledge and understanding. The approach used herein in analyzing psychological explanation is not an empirical approach, but rather conceptual analysis which is commonly used by philosophical psychologists. In doing such analysis the author is drawing upon the methods of the later work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953), and those of psychologist/philosopher Michel Foucault (1965, 1970). Wittgenstein's approach, known as ordinary language philosophy, was fundamental in discovering critical flaws in the philosophical foundations of logical positivism (Stevens, 1963, Hartnack, 1962) upon which most modern psychological methodology and theorizing is based. Wittgenstein argues for consensuality of knowledge as opposed to knowledge universals (or "logical atoms" derived by either experimental or logical analysis [Russell, 1956]). Likewise, Foucault's work which he called archeology of knowledge, endeavored to describe the taxonomy of knowledge/power systems developed by cultures which contribute to the creation of discursive and political practices.

    The author's working assumption is that before methods and theoretical practices of psychology are accepted at face value, the assumptions entailed in those methods and theoretical practices ought to be critically examined.

    Wittgenstein on Knowledge and Society. For Wittgenstein, knowledge is something that is based in language and on the tacit rules for using knowledge terms in the language. What constitutes an "explanation" is governed by the tacit rules for using the word "explanation" by the language users of a particular culture. Therefore, the criterion for the adequacy of an explanation is dependent upon the users of the language in the culture. This also implies that the criterion for correctness in using a term such as "explanation" is social. Therefore if E is generally said to be and accepted as an "explanation" in a given culture, then it is an explanation.

    Foucault on Language, Knowledge, Culture, and Politics. For Foucault, knowledge is a derivative of the taxonomy that language parcels up our experience. Language is the cultural fabric of knowledge systems. Knowing oneself, or knowing one's own culture is only possible given the taxonomical structure of knowledge of the knower (or the language users of a society). Knowing a country necessitates knowing how the language structures political relationships between people in the country. Knowledge becomes difficult if not impossible if one does not know the culture's language or language game. Linguistic taxonomies are developed in order that a given society can accomplish particular purposes and goals. All linguistic taxonomies and their derivative knowledge systems connote implied political relations. Examples of linguistic taxonomies which have obvious political implications are "professor"/"student", "doctor"/"mental patient", "speaker"/"audience", "host"/"guest", "underdeveloped countries"/"developed countries". Each of the above examples has implied political power relations and certain behavioral expectations on the part of actors.

    Cross Cultural Understanding and Explanation. Explaining the behavior (e.g., political behavior) of another culture using concepts developed in an outside culture becomes difficult if not impossible without knowing what constitutes "explanation" in the culture in which the behavior is being explained. Knowing what constitutes "explanation" is contingent upon knowing that culture's tacit rules for using the word, "explanation." In saying, for example, that we as U.S. citizens do not understand the practice of taking people against their will for interrogation without arrest warrants or other legal accountability, we are, in fact, saying that this practice is unintelligible. It does not "make sense" in terms of the culture in which we live--namely the culture of the U.S. By the same token, an Argentinean who says that (s)he does not understand what U.S. citizens mean by "human rights" does not understand the culture of the United States.

    "Explaining" cross-cultural behavior becomes especially difficult. What culture A (Argentinean) considers "explained", culture E (U.S. culture) does not. Conversely what culture E considers "explained," culture A does not. The difficulty lies in knowledge of the criteria used in a culture for use of the word "explained."

    If this is the sort of difficulty that takes place on an everyday level of cross-cultural discourse in which different language games are being used, the problem is compounded where professionals are attempting to "understand" and "explain" cross-culturally using psychological theory. The application of a theory which is "foreign" to the actor does not make intelligible in his/her knowledge terms his/her own behavior. Theories and explanations serve the social/political purposes of the culture doing the explaining rather than the culture that is explained. For that reason explanations imposed from outside of the culture being explained may appear from within that culture as unintelligible. Language/discourse in a knowledge/power relationship serves to make one culture intelligible to the culture doing the explaining. In these terms, the purposes for explanation are for the culture doing the explaining.

    Consider, for example, the knowledge/power relationship in the use of terms like "developed" countries vs. "underdeveloped" or "third world" countries. Such terms encapsulate particular knowledge/power relationships between countries which are not neutral.

    As long as psychologists' activity is within language, that language cannot be neutral, and usually is of a form which is alien to that of people within the culture that is explained. As an aside, the language of Pavlov seems intelligible in terms of the automaticity of behavior expected in the culture of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in which it was developed and used, the language of Freud intelligible in terms of the culture of puritanical Vienna (and conversely the attractiveness of psychoanalytic explanations to puritanical United States culture), the language of Skinner is understandable in terms of the Horatio Algier possibilities and profit motive of the culture of the United States, and the language of Spearman (g intelligence) is comprehensible in terms of the traditional intellectual caste system of the British. Understanding cultures outside of the language-taxonomical systems of the explaining culture is not possible because of the power relations in the language-taxonomical systems of the explainer's language tacitly performs.

    The hope for a "universal" language that can make all human actions everywhere intelligible is misguided in that language itself is a cultural system which serves the political-social purposes of the explaining culture.

    Understanding can better be seen by analyzing the political relationships between actors within a given culture v. presuming that our culturally developed linguistic system, English, in the United States can be imposed upon another culturally developed linguistic system, namely that of Argentina.

    What of all of this? Where is there hope? The outlook is a pessimistic yet philosophically defensible one. Given these views, "explanation" must be understood within the context of the explaining culture since "explanation" is a term tacitly used and understood in terms of the explaining culture's needs and purposes. The explanation of one culture may be used to "explain" another, as we, in our culture, tacitly understand the use of the word "explain." However, it is only "explained" in the context of the explainer's culture. Argentineans can not be expected to know what U.S. citizens mean by "human rights" any more than U.S. citizens can be expected to know what Argentineans have known and experienced as "terrorism." We can make judgments about another culture but only in terms of our own knowledge/power discursive practices. The use of the foreign discursive practices to explain a culture can only result in a fictionalism as ludicrous as applying psychoanalytic terms and concepts to one that in a reasoned way, resists the adequacy of those explanations concerning their own behavior. Likewise "explaining" a psychologist's humanistic approach in behavioral terms only results in a meaningless reductionism and the supremacy of the behaviorist. Such "explanations" only result in a kind of theoretical and/or conceptual imperialism. They don't "explain" the behavior of the humanist in a way which is satisfactory to the humanist. When U.S. citizens say that, for example, Argentineans do not respect human rights in the context of la guerra sucia, that is not a sufficient commentary in the context of the lives of Argentineans who insist that la guerra sucia must be understood within the context of political terrorism.

    As shown in Foucault's work on the politics of language, language has political structure. When actions are carried through based upon the discursive linguistic practices of a culture, then we have at a behavioral level practices that might be called a language of politics. The politics of language and the language of politics may related. Cross-cultural understanding only can be attained in a non-verbal observational relational form where socio-political relations between actors are observed and described.

    In sum, true explanation must be intra-cultural, not intercultural. It must take account of what constitutes "explanation" within its own culture and the kinds of cultural constructs and practices which make the behavior intelligible within a linguistic milieu. The hope for developing "universal" language would by definition destroy what it means to have a culture.


Foucault, M. (1965). Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon.

Hartnack, J. (1962). Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy. Garden City, N. Y.: Anchor.

Russell, B. (1956). Our Knowledge of the External World. New York: Mentor.

Stevens, S. S. (1963). Operationism and logical positivism. In M. H. Marx, Theories in Contemporary Psychology. New York: Macmillan.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan.

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