Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Some assert that it is a fallacy to compare cultural elements cross-culturally. Sometimes called the “incommensurability thesis,” this position posits that because objects, concepts and behaviors tend to have very specific meanings for the groups that produce them, they must therefore be utterly unique. Variety negates universality. Basically a version of cultural relativism, this attitude emanates from three circles (or, rather, minorities within three circles): philosophers who attack commonalities in human experience; critics who over-emphasize outlier phenomena in order to challenge conventional assumptions; and ethnographers who argue for the absolute uniqueness of the populations they study, in part to elevate their own stature as privileged experts. Yet, just because human activities take heterogeneous forms does not eliminate the possibility of shared motivations.
Steven Pinker argues this point as it relates to the human capacity for language. He concludes in The Language Instinct: “Knowing about the ubiquity of complex language across individuals and cultures and the single mental design underlying them all, no speech seems foreign to me, even if I cannot understand a word.” This observation seems indisputable: language is a biological characteristic of the human species.
Philosopher of art Denis Dutton expands on Pinker’s claim in The Art Instinct. He asks: “Is it also true that, even though we might not receive a pleasurable, or even immediately intelligible, experience from art of other cultures, still, beneath the vast surface variety, all human beings have essentially the same art?” Dutton contends that, like language, artistic behaviors have spontaneously appeared throughout recorded human history. Almost always, observers across cultures recognize these behaviors as artistic, and there is enough commonality between them that they can be placed within tidy categories: painting, jewelry, dance, sculpture, music, drama, architecture, etc. To Dutton, this suggests that the arts, again like language, possess a general omnipresent structure beneath the varied grammar and vocabulary.
It should be noted that Pinker himself has elsewhere challenged this assumption. Most famously, he dubbed music “auditory cheesecake,” or a non-adaptive by-product (of language, pattern recognition, emotional calls, etc.) that serves no fundamental role in human evolution. It is not my intention here to place that hypothesis under a microscope or investigate the many arguments against it. (Perhaps, being a linguist, Pinker sees language as a sort of holy ground that mustn’t be stepped on by “lesser” human activities.) Wherever the evolutionary debates travel and whatever clues or counter-clues they accumulate, one thing is convincing: art appears rooted in universal human psychology.
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