The Commensurability Challenge

cultural differencesThe below is from Radical Conflict: Essays on Violence, Intractability, and Communication. Edited by Andrew Smith. Lexington Books, 2016.

The assumption that two groups are incommensurable, and locked in their culturally particular language, has some undesirable side effects such as cultural essentialism and parochialism. Moreover there is a tendency to focus on the past and the traditional which can lead increasingly to dualist dichotomies. The Israeli-Palestinian dualist narratives are classic examples of the consequences of moving toward incommensurability and differentiation. Neither side can escape the past and both are poor when it comes to establishing conditions for change. Because each side refuses to get beyond its own boundaries, and remains encapsulated in their particular cultural logic that is incommensurable with the other, they reproduce the exact conditions they are trying to avoid. Solving problems and moving toward some acceptable integrated consensus (becoming more commensurable) will only accrue with more generality rather than specificity.

Wang makes the argument that a cultural group confined by particularity is in fact in a position to achieve more universality through the workings of the particular. This is especially pertinent to my arguments because from this perspective the particular is not a matter of the opposite of universal but plays an active and vital role in constructing commensurability. The particulars, for example, of Palestinian and Israeli culture should be the stimuli for communication about more broadly shared commonalities. A simple clash of opinions and historical statements will never close up this divide. But a more organic approach, with greater interaction between paired concepts, including an open system mentality that continuously monitors the environment for information, can produce an understanding of history that is mutually constituted. As with the fled-expelled dichotomy, a new common ground as possible

The most basic challenge for incommensurability is to bridge differences and find ways to do it such that one paradigm can be translated into the language of another demonstrating that differences are not irreconcilable. It is important to underscore that commensurability is more concerned with similarity and equivalents rather than commonality. A particular culture might find commonalities with another culture quite difficult yet have enough similarities to facilitate communication. As Wang states, “no two human beings or cultures and societies are ‘the same’ at any moment, in any way.” This is true because all humans communicate and this communicative function re-conceptualizes their individuality into something more interdependent and other-oriented. Any constructivist perspective on communication, which challenges the Enlightenment notion of individual autonomy, by definition implies that attitudes, beliefs, and values are a consequence of interaction and thereby malleable enough to move from isolated incommensurate realities toward commonality.

A position that holds incommensurability as equivalent to incomparable or incommunicable is indefensible. It is certainly possible to immerse oneself in the language and culture of another and learn to translate that culture into something more broadly communicable. Ricoeur has made the argument that despite the challenges, confusions, and barriers to learning another culture and language it is possible to be multilingual and multicultural. It is possible, for example, for one day in the future Israelis and Palestinians to find new interpretive links and resonate with the culture of the other. No two cultures are completely different especially when each culture has been the recipient of deep hermeneutic interpretation that reveals hidden similarities and differences. Dialogue, when it is functioning properly, should move the two conflicting cultures toward improved historical background and cultural contexts that offer deeper clarification and understanding. Cultures present arguments differently and express worldviews on the basis of opaque cultural influences and traditions, but can still sometimes find commonalities. Everyday knowledge, shared experiences, and similar linguistic expressions are the tools for understanding incommensurability and then become the basis of new language worlds that unfold as commensurability is revealed.

The commensurability-incommensurability argument is an important theoretical and philosophical position because it speaks to a key conundrum in cultural conflict. The issue of each side in a cultural conflict having roots in its local soil but reaching out to connect to others has implications for research directions as well as managing difficult conflicts. This matter of roots in local soil and connections with broader networks is a fundamental characteristic of the type of political conflicts discussed here. Moreover, the theoretical power of the micro-macro link, which explores the reciprocal relationship between macro structural categories in society (e.g. race, gender, class etc.) and the micro interactions of individuals (real-time talk), remains ripe for research attention. If communication and dialogue are as effective as academicians and professionals would have us believe, then examination of these issues must continue until we reach a point of theoretical coherence.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on May 16, 2016, in Peace and Conflict Politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Commensurability Challenge.

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