The Geography of Philosophy: An Interdisciplinary Cross-Cultural Exploration of Universality and Diversity in Fundamental Philosophical Concepts

The question that motivates our project is whether fundamental philosophical concepts – concepts that play a central role in the world-view of contemporary Americans and Western Europeans – are religious and cross-cultural universals that are used by people around the world, or if there is diversity in these concepts. Our focus is on the following concepts: understanding, knowledge, and wisdom.

Why is this Question important?

This research will be of interest to scholars and scientists in a wide range of disciplines: philosophy, psychology, linguistics, anthropology and cultural studies. It may also make an impact in much more practical areas. Globalization, high levels of migration, and the emergence of the internet have led to vastly more communication – or miscommunication – among people from different religions and cultures. Shared concepts are one obvious foundation on which to build successful communication, and conceptual differences might well play a role in undermining successful communication and exacerbating conflicts between religions and cultures. If the terms for knowledge, understanding and wisdom express different concepts in different religions or different cultures, this may play a significant role in explaining and sustaining differences in political systems, educational practices, and moral beliefs. The plight of many Indigenous cultures may be exacerbated by the failure of dominant cultures to recognize and respect important conceptual differences in a variety of domains.

What are The goals of the project?

Our project has two overarching goals. The first is to dramatically advance what is known about the extent to which three fundamental philosophical concepts – knowledge, understanding and wisdom – are shared across religions and cultures. These concepts, which loom large in contemporary philosophical and religious discourse, play a major role in organizing our thinking about what to believe, how to conduct inquiry, and how to structure our lives. In order to achieve this goal, we have assembled religiously and culturally diverse interdisciplinary teams of researchers in many regions around the world. Our second goal is to build on the foundation of these Research Teams to create a new, multi-cultural research community focused on studying important philosophical concepts using the tools and insights of a wide variety of disciplines including philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, and cultural studies. To achieve these ends, the project seeks to improve upon extant cross-cultural research by:

  • expanding the methodologies, the range of cultures considered, and the cultural and disciplinary diversity of the investigators engaged in inquiry;
  • motivating and enabling researchers around the world to become involved in cross-cultural, interdisciplinary research on philosophical concepts by sponsoring workshops in Africa, Asia and South America where our research teams can interact with scientists and scholars in the region;
  • presenting our findings both in scholarly publications and in an integrated format accessible to non-specialists;
  • fostering discussion about the implications of the findings for venerable philosophical debates and for practical contemporary issues.

What is your Approach?

Our approach is thoroughly cross-cultural both in conception and in execution. We will conduct studies in a wide range of quite different societies, we will collect data from participants who differ in religion, language, education, income and political outlook, and we will collect detailed demographic information about these participants. Moreover, scholars and scientists from each region, drawn from a range of different religious traditions, will be actively involved in articulating the questions to be investigated and designing the studies that we will conduct.

Our approach is also thoroughly interdisciplinary. Our Research Team includes philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, linguists, neuroscientists, scholars in cultural studies and others. Many of these people have been involved in constructing this proposal, and they will be actively involved in designing and conducting our research, analyzing the results, and supervising younger researchers. 

where will the research take place?

We plan to conduct research at many research sites around the world, including: China, Eastern Europe, Ecuador, India, Japan, Peru, South Africa, and South Korea, among others.

Sample Research Questions:

  • Are participants in some cultural or religious groups, or across many groups, willing to attribute understanding to those whose beliefs are not literally true? If so, how does that compare to their willingness to attribute other epistemic states, such as knowledge? Are certain sorts of errors (e.g., idealizations) more acceptable than others? 
  • In some cultural or religious groups, or across groups, are people who understand thereby expected to be able to do things with the understood? Conversely, if people can act efficaciously in a domain, does that imply that they understand it? 
  • For people in different cultures or religious groups, or across many groups, can there be any sort of understanding where the understander cannot form, recognize, or otherwise interact with a good explanation? 
  • In some cultural or religious groups, or across groups, do people expect leaders to have a high degree of understanding? Are they more willing to defer to leaders? Does it matter what the person is a leader of? 
  • In some cultural or religious groups, or across groups, do people think theoretical reductions enhance understanding?
  • In some cultural or religious groups, or across groups, do people think that understanding be conveyed via testimony? Or do people need to come to understanding on their own? 
  • Do differences in cultural and/or religious views give rise to different conceptions of wisdom? If there is more than one term used in standard translations of the English term “wisdom”, how do they differ? 
  • What factors are involved in wisdom and do they vary across cultures? For instance, if someone acts wisely, but the act is solely based on the rational calculation of social expectation rather than authentic benevolence/morality, would this person still be considered wise? 
  • What are sources of wisdom? Do they vary across cultures or religions? Across cultures and sub-cultures, are there differences in views regarding who is capable of possessing wisdom? 
  • Are there cultural and religious differences in the perception of wisdom and in whether its core components are malleable or fixed? What are the consequences of such beliefs for the development of wisdom in a given society? 
  • Do ascriptions of wisdom require or entail different types of knowledge across cultures and/or religious groups?
  • What are the consequences of wisdom for people in different cultures/religious groups? 
  • How does one cultivate wisdom? What are the consequences of different beliefs about wisdom across cultures and religious groups for teaching and boosting wisdom?

How is this RESEARCH funded?

This project is funded by a generous, 3-year (2018-21), $2.6 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.