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Context Series


How to think about Cultural Difference

Vivek Dhareshwar


2021, Seminar #1

5 PM – 8 PM: Mon, Jan 11 2021 | Wed, Jan 13 2021 | Sat, Jan 16 2021 | Mon, Jan 18 2021

Maximum participants: 15

Register for the hybrid online/in-person seminar: https://bit.ly/cultureseminar

Deadline: Dec 15 2020

Pre-requisities: None!
Expectations: Attend all sessions, read the readings, and engage!


Seminar description and readings:

In this week-long seminar, we will explore how cultural difference has been theorized or not theorized in the social sciences and the humanities. What are some of the issues? Although we familiarly speak about all cultural domains being conceptualized in the same way-religion in the west and religion in India, Western morality and Indian morality, Indian art and western art--most of us on reflection would perhaps question if the domains are really identical across cultures. On the other hand, India is supposed to have a peculiar social system--the caste-system--that is apparently not present in any other cultures. The question of how cultures differ--that is to say, they may contain domains that do not match--has not really been addressed in a serious way despite the fact that understanding societies and cultures requires comparative study of cultures. We will use some of the recent work – Edward Said's Orientalism and Michel Foucault's work on modern and ancient Europe – to conceptualize the different domains as a possible way of understanding cultural difference.

Philosophy of Culture

There is a branch of philosophy corresponding to each important domain and the discipline(s) covering that domain. Thus the philosophy of science deals with issues having to do with our understanding of nature: How do we form theories? How do we know they are true? Is scientific knowledge cumulative? What’s the nature of scientific explanations? The philosophy of language explores questions such as the relationship between thought and language, how language hooks on to the world, the nature of meaning and so forth. Similarly, logic, ethics, mind have all been, and still are, the subjects of intense and lively philosophical inquiry.

Surprisingly, culture—its existence, its, nature, its plurality, how we might study it—has never been subjected to philosophical inquiry, despite the fact that it poses so many compelling and fundamental questions that are so central to understanding ourselves. Part of the reason certainly has to do with the fact that some of the questions that culture gives rise to have been studied under different headings and in relation to different domains—for example the questions standardly thrown up by relativism, or by the debate on the difference between the natural and human sciences.

A central question for any inquiry--design, artistic, scientific—is in what way it is related to culture. Can a deeper philosophical understanding of any field or discipline be achieved by probing its epistemic links with culture as we are trying to understand the latter?  For students of art, the question is far more pressing and straightforward: is “art” a recognizable domain in every culture?  And for those interested in alternative knowledge-systems, the question would be the nature of the link between culture and knowledge (why did the natural sciences develop in the West and not, say, in China or India). What other forms of knowledge are there? 

Readings (selected pages from):

Edward Said, Orientalism.

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol 1 and 2.

M. K. Gandhi. Hind Swaraj.

Vivek Dhareshwar, Valorizing the Present.

-------------------------, Politics, Experience, and Cognitive Enslavement.



At Srishti, Vivek Dhareshwar heads the Bangalore Human Sciences Initiative (BHISI), which has set itself the objective of reinvigorating research in the humanities and the social sciences: http://srishtimanipalinstitute.in/people/scholar-in-residence

Previously, Vivek Dhareshwar was Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, of which institute he was the Director between 2001 and 2004. From 1993 to 1997, he was at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, where he was Fellow in the Social Basis of Culture and Sociology. He has also taught as Visiting Faculty in the Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA.

Dhareshwar obtained a Ph.D. from the History of Consciousness Program, University of California, Santa Cruz (1989). His masters' degree was in Modern Indian History, from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His current research investigates the role of culture in learning different kinds of knowledge. He is working on two book projects: a philosophical exploration of the relationship between norms and experience; the other on the idea of multiple sites of ethical learning in Gandhi. He has published widely in the areas of ethics, political theory, literary criticism, and the philosophy of culture.