Philosophy Meets Cultural Diversity

Warp, Weft, and Way draws our attention to an upcoming conference, called “Philosophy Meets Cultural Diversity,” at the University of Pittsburgh. Here is a link to the program, which has as its goal “to bring together anthropologists, psychologists, comparative philosophers, and experimental philosophers in order to further our understanding of the similarities and differences in the lay understanding of, on the one hand, knowledge, and, on the other, agency and person across cultures.” The conference runs March 13th and 14th.

Among the exciting lineup is my dissertation chair here at UT-Austin, Stephen Phillips, who will be speaking, as well as our own Anand Vaidya, who is an invited panelist. It’s also nice to see (in relation to my last post with Elisa Freschi) that the conference includes several women philosophers (Miri Albahari, Winnie Sung, Amita Chatterjee, Kaori Karasawa) as well as women from other fields.

I can’t tell whether the conference proceedings will be made available in any form, but in the meantime, for those of us who cannot attend, this is a good place to discuss the conference aims. Below is a description in more detail and a few questions:

Over the last decade, the newly emerging field of “experimental philosophy” has posed a challenge to the claim that professional philosophers’ judgments about philosophically important thought experiments are universal. Rather, in a growing number of studies, it has been shown that people in different cultural groups – Asians and Westerners, males and females, people of high and low socio-economic status, people with different personality types, people of different ages, people with different native languages, etc. – have different intuitions about cases designed to explore what people think about knowledge, morality, free will, consciousness and other important philosophical issues. However, the extent and sources of this variation remain by and large unknown. The goal of this conference is to bring together anthropologists, psychologists, comparative philosophers, and experimental philosophers in order to further our understanding of the similarities and differences in the lay understanding of, on the one hand, knowledge, and, on the other, agency and person across cultures. Furthermore, we hope to sketch new avenues of research for philosophically sophisticated cross-cultural studies of the concepts of knowledge, person, and agency.



  1. Suppose it were to be empirically demonstrated that intuitions differ in a way that can be mapped to classifications such as those listed above. How would that (or would it) impact your philosophical work?
  2. To what degree, and in what ways, ought philosophers be seeking out anthropologists, psychologists, and so on, in order to understand “knowledge and agency across cultures”? Do comparative philosophers have an obligation to be up-to-date in current work in sociology, etc. in a way that, say, philosophers of science might with regard to current physics?
  3. Finally, do you think work in Indian philosophy ought to engage with current work in experimental philosophy? How?

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Division at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

15 Replies to “Philosophy Meets Cultural Diversity”

  1. Thanks, Malcolm. To the claim that intuitions differ across cultures I would reply “well, duh”. One of the frustrations I have with analytic philosophy is the too-easy insistence to rely on “our intuitions” (“our” often meaning the likes of “we in this classroom”) as the sources for moral judgements that are supposed to be universal. I recall a philosophy seminar I audited (in North America) on partiality where people were saying our intuitions didn’t say we had special obligations to extended family and I pointed out that my Indian relatives would see things differently. The response was basically “but they’re not in this class”. So one would wonder: then how are you saying anything at all about morality as such, rather than merely about people in this class?

    A roundabout way of saying, I suppose, that what would really affect my philosophical work would likely be if people could show intuitions didn’t differ.

  2. Thanks Malcom. I am really interested in all the qestions you asked, and I have been writing on some of them for some years. Instead of jumping in now, I will post up a post-conference summary of issues, as well as some of my own thoughts. But for now I am might just say that I am hopeful that something of genuine progress can come out of a union between experimental and comparative philosophy. But I am sure that will be a much discussed issue at the conference. More to come.

  3. Amod, do you think that Indian philosophers do not make use of intuitions like analytic philosophers do? It seems to me that the gap between the two may not be so large, after all. But maybe you think the two traditions, broadly speaking, employ them differently? I find myself frustrated with an analogous “too-easy reliance to rely on our intuitions” in the context of Indian philosophy of language. Sheldon Pollock has written about how, in reflecting on dhvani, there seems to be little awareness of its social-conventional nature, at least explicitly in theorizing (“The Social Aesthetic and Sanskrit Literary Theory”). I’m sure other examples can be adduced.

    Anand, I look forward to hearing your report on the conference!

    • Everybody has to start where they are, from preexisting judgements. But “intuition” is a dumb name for them, unless we’re moral-sense theorists (as few are today, and as few Indians were). We should recognize them for what they are: the prejudices of one given society (and I mean that in the at least partially positive Gadamerian sense of “prejudice”). The term “intuition” obscures that that is what they are.

      Substantively, do Indians make the same mistake on this issue that analytic philosophers do? I think so. But we shouldn’t. We, like analytic philosophers, have a more acute awareness of cultural difference than did ancients who often thought a people of their varṇa shouldn’t even leave the continent. Moderns don’t have the excuse of ignorance. Part of the reason to study Indian philosophy is to see what it means to start from different prejudices – ones that might be better than our own.

      • Thanks, Amod, this is an enlightening comment, especially as for the issue of intuitions–prejudices. The term should not be misunderstood as a pejorative. There is nothing wrong with prejudices, as explained by Gadamer, as long as one constantly tries to become aware of them and in this sense the study of Indian philosophy can indeed work as an antidote.

  4. Wow, this looks like a great conference. Thanks for alerting us to it, Malcolm. Let me just add that in some of her recent work, Jennifer Nagel (who is incidentally, an analytic thinker quite interested in Indian thought) has pushed back against some of the claims in X-phil to make “armchair philosophy” irrelevant.

    She has also looked to work in Gangesha and Nyaya generally to motivate the view that that there is more consensus than one may think in cross-cultural views on knowledge.

  5. Also, a very speculative musing inspired by Amod’s comments:

    When we strip away the idiots and parasites from all sides, I think that part of the reason for political disagreement in our country has to do with a core difference of sensibility that mirrors the debates between the Confucians and Mohists in classical China on the issue of whether our “local” world deserves more care than the “non-local” world. I’ve always thought that this would be an interesting case of cross-cultural philosophical excavation that could actually provide clarity.

    • For me the big issue is the confusion between the universal and the particular. It’s fine to work from “our intuitions”, and use those as checks on ideas, if you’re trying to assert what is only the case within our society which shares those prejudices. If you’re trying to make a universal case about humanity in general, you need to make it accessible from anyone’s intuitions.

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  7. This is an incredibly interesting post, and I very much hope that it inspires further discussion. This whole topic definitely seems like a very fruitful opportunity for exciting research.

    Before things go any farther, though, I just wanted to make a quick clarification about the experimental results. The key finding coming out of the experimental research is that people’s attributions of knowledge *do not* differ across cultures. This is the result obtained in all of the following papers:

    It is also the result obtained in a bunch of new studies that are currently under review.

    Of course, in saying this, I don’t at all mean to call into question the project of looking at connections between experimental philosophy and Indian philosophy. On the contrary, my sense is that this is an extraordinarily promising avenue for further research, and it would be wonderful to begin pursuing it right away. All I meant to do is to clarify the basic empirical result that requires further philosophical inquiry: namely, the very striking degree to which knowledge attributions are *the same* across populations from different cultures.

    • Thanks, Joshua. I intended my counterfactual question to be just that–what if such results were to be obtained, how would it impact one’s research–but it is important to note that the research is not tending in that direction so far. (It’s also interesting given the way the conference was described in the excerpt above, which seems to emphasize difference.)

  8. Hi Malcolm,

    Thanks so much for your generous reply. I hadn’t at all meant to suggest that you were saying anything incorrect. It’s just that I think this is a wonderfully exciting opportunity for further research, and I wouldn’t want it to get off on the wrong foot.

    Sometimes I worry that people might think the only thing that would call for work that draws on comparative philosophy is something about cross-cultural difference. But clearly that isn’t the case. We can also get extremely surprising results involving cross-cultural *similarity*, and these can also call for work in comparative philosophy.

    Within the existing literature, it seems like the leading figure within that latter approach is the amazing Chinese philosophy scholar Hagop Sarkissian ( Across a number of papers, he finds these striking results whereby people from very different cultures have similar views about highly abstract philosophical questions involving, e.g., free will and moral relativism. Thus far, these results have mostly been taken up by researchers in cognitive science, but it would be wonderful to see how work in comparative philosophy might shed light on those questions as well. (Full disclosure: I am among Sarkissian’s many coauthors on some of those papers.)

    Thanks again for your thoughts on these issues!

    p.s. If you are ever curious about the latest research on particular claims about cross-cultural differences in philosophical intuitions, be sure to look up those claims at:

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