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Coffee & Wisdom 02.73: Embodied Cognition Part 4

David Breeden is speaking all week about the issues with liberalism.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This week on Coffee and Wisdom, we’ve been talking about embodied cognition and the difference between two phrases, “I think therefore I am” and “I am because we are”, that we’re discussing the Western idea that led up to this very individualized concept of the person and then looking a little bit at how this differs within other cultures. That’s more of what we want to do today. This is from a BBC online magazine. The author is David Robson, and it’s called “How East and West Think in Profoundly Different Ways”. Fun little article if you want to look it up online. Partially in there he says this; “Psychologists are uncovering the surprising influence of geography on our reasoning, behavior and sense of self. From the broad differences between East and West, to subtle variation between U.S. states, it is becoming increasingly clear that history, geography, and culture can change how we all think in subtle and surprising ways, right down to our visual perception. Our thinking may have even been shaped by the kinds of crops our ancestors used to farm, and a single river may mark the boundaries between two different cognitive styles. Wherever we live, a greater awareness of these forces can help us all understand our own minds a little bit better.” Interesting and intriguing, I hope you find those ideas. One of the things he mentions in the article is this idea of Weird, Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and Democratic.

Joseph Heinrich was the first person to name this in his book, “The Weirdest People in the World.” At that time, he was a researcher at the University of British Columbia. Now he is a research assistant fellow at Harvard. He says, “If we are what we see, and we are attending to different stuff, then we are living in different worlds.” One of the critiques here then is why are we looking at mostly privileged college students when we do various kinds of psychological research? And that idea, when he introduced it, really began to change how research was being done in American universities. Robson goes on to say, “The tacit assumption had been that this select group of people could represent universal truths about human nature, that all people are basically the same. If that were true, the Western bias would have been unimportant. Yet the small number of available studies which HAD examined people from other cultures would suggest that this is far from the case. “Westerners — and specifically Americans — were coming out at the far end of the distribution”, says Joseph Heinrich, again now at Harvard, who is one of the study’s authors.” And as I’ve mentioned before, this is one of the ways we know there is somebody behind the curtain. Generally, we call that European ideas, Weird, white supremacy, etc. The idea that whiteness is in some way a universal value. There are have been a lot of books that have come out since that time. This discovery, one that you might be enjoy because it is a PDF online and free is “Decolonising the University”, edited by three professors in Johannesburg. That would be getting outside of this Weird designation to look at how really other people in the world see reality.

Robson goes on, “When questioned about their attitudes and behaviors, people in more individualistic Western societies tend to value personal success over group achievement, which in turn is also associated with the need for greater self-esteem and the pursuit of personal happiness. But this thirst for self-validation also manifests in overconfidence, with many experiments showing that Weird participants are likely to overestimate their abilities. When asked about their competence, for instance, 94% of American professors claimed that they were ‘better than average'”. Yes, that is a numerical impossibility. Robson goes on to say, “This tendency for self-inflation appears to be almost completely absent in a range of studies across East Asia; in fact, in some cases the participants were more likely to underestimate their abilities than to inflate their sense of self-worth. People living in individualistic societies may also put more emphasis on personal choice and freedom.” So, no, Weird people are not the universal norm. When we begin to look outside of this whiteness, as in Europeanness as a universal norm, there are lots of things out there like “Decolonising University”. Desmond Tutu has a Peace Foundation that you can find online. Born in 1931, still very much alive, he is a South African Anglican Bishop and he really began to bring the idea of Ubuntu into the Western consciousness because he does have quite the bully pulpit.

He says this “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone, we say, ‘Yu, u nobunto’; ‘hey so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say you share what you have. Sorry. It is to say “My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.” That’s how Desmond Tutu defines the idea of Ubunto. I should quickly mention that the term Ubuntu has various forms and you’re going to see it in various South African native languages in several different kinds of form. But there is a overarching across tribal boundaries idea in the southern part of Africa that is often described as a form of native African humanism, an idea that does not have any kind of supernatural views at all, but rather is about the community of human beings. And in English anyway, it’s usually rendered as Ubuntu. Remember that we started the week talking about this Descartesian dualism that’s built into the Western ways of thinking that lead to the idea of individuality, “cogito ergo sum”, I think therefore I am” is the famous way of saying this. But actually “Dubito ergo sum, cogito ergo sum” “I doubt, therefore I think and I think therefore I am” so putting individual doubt as the basis for all human knowledge, and that has led to a particular way of thinking. And as I’ve mentioned through the week, actually Descartes is only summarizing an idea that goes all the way back into Greek philosophy and is embedded in Christianity as an idea between a material world and some kind of spiritual or soul world. You can find lots of information about Ubuntu and other things. A contemporary philosopher is Michael Onyebuchi Eze, who says, “if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations. We are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance.” And this from a book, “Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa”, summarizing the ideas of Ubuntu from tribal cultures. And of course, then many of the contemporary African philosophers are interacting this with Western ideas. Specifically, he is addressing this “cogito ergo sum”, this “I am”, to say that the African tribal way of seeing this is very different from the Western way of seeing these things. And the idea of personhood is about a dynamic of interaction with others. Stanlake Samkange and John Thompson, this is an older book from 1980, “Hunhuism or Ubuntuism” again using some of the different Bantu dialects in talking about this, but a Zimbabwe Indigenous Political Philosophy.

They were some of the first ones to call attention to Ubuntu. They call it an ism at that time period before Desmond Tutu really popularized the idea. They say in that book “actions are right roughly insofar as they are a matter of living harmoniously with others or honoring communal relationships”. So the morality of Ubuntu is always communal and the concept of the individual is always bound up in how that individual works with the larger communal whole. If you’re interested in finding out more about how other cultures are dealing with these questions of individuality, the greatest of African philosopher at the moment is Cameroonian Achille Mbembe. His book just came out called “Out of the Dark Night, Essays on Decolonization”. The press release says this “Achille Mbembe is one of the world’s most profound critics of colonialism and its consequences, a major figure in the emergence of a new wave of French critical theory.” He does, by the way, write in French and but there are English translations. “His writings examined the complexities of decolonization for Africans subjectivities and the possibilities emerging in its wake. In ‘Out of The Dark Night’, he offers a rich analysis of the paradoxes of the post-colonial moment, that points toward new liberatory models of community, humanity and planetarity,” a word that I hadn’t seen before I saw this press release. So there you have it. One of his main points that I find very valid is that we can’t go back to how Ubuntu was before colonization; that horse is out of the barn.

So how do we now deal with the fact that cultures have been stampeded by Western colonialism and have been damaged irreparably in some cases by these? But how can we still find the wisdom that has survived the attacks of the colonial European powers? So very important book, I think just came out in January. And you can find a lot of his work and many talks in that kind of thing online on YouTube. So definitely a thinker that is important. And you should spend some time if you are interested in decolonization. Speaking of which, this Sunday at 10:30 Central Time, our assembly will be called “From Climate Apartheid to the Beloved Community of All Life”. We have a special guest speaker this week, Dr. Sam Grant, who is part of our Earth Day celebration coming up this Sunday. There are more events and definitely go to our website to find out more about what’s going on on Sunday. And he is very much as a scholar interested in how we can decolonize here in the U.S. ideas of climate justice. So don’t miss that on Sunday. And our theme for the month is “Becoming”. I’ll be back tomorrow to summarize what we’ve been talking about this week in terms of the difference between “I think, therefore, I am” and “I am because we are” and the idea of embodied cognition. Thanks a lot and I’ll see you tomorrow.

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