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How do we know what we know?

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  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

What is wisdom? And does the answer change between cultures?

Pitt’s Edouard Machery and a global network of scholars are asking these questions and more as part of the Geography of Philosophy Project.

The initiative is the first worldwide effort to study how people think of knowledge, understanding and wisdom across cultures, languages, religions, traditions and socioeconomic statuses. In addition to finding answers, the researchers behind the project ultimately want to promote cross-cultural research in cognitive science.

“What we're concerned with is the fact that philosophers have mostly assumed that concepts of knowledge, understanding and wisdom are universal,” said Machery, a distinguished professor of history and philosophy of science in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. “We know those concepts are of central importance in Western culture. Still, it is not clear whether this is universally true, and whether people in other cultures conceive these concepts similarly.”

For example, project coordinators surveyed people around the world to learn how they ascribe blame when people in their community do harm. They asked respondents to rate how much they agreed with the statements, “What happens to people is determined by fate, not by their own choice,” and “To what extent do you think it is possible to know someone else’s thoughts?”

The team hopes to determine whether people's conception of liability depends on their belief in fate and/or the belief that one can never know what others think.

Heady as that may be, Machery expects the findings of the Geography of Philosophy Project to have real-world implications, too.

“Our research may identify the conceptual differences that contribute to instances of miscommunications between religions and cultures,” he said. “Misunderstandings are sometimes based on what we believe to be default concepts — people assuming everyone thinks like them. By mapping what is universal and what’s not, we can begin to improve communication across groups.”

Machery and the project’s two other principal investigators — Stephen Stich from Rutgers University and H. Clark Barrett from UCLA — work with a far-flung network of researchers local to the study’s eight regions: Eastern Europe, Ecuador, India, Japan, Morocco, Peru, South Africa and South Korea.

From the project’s inception in 2018, they instilled a practice of collaboration with their interdisciplinary research cohort. In addition to philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, economists and neuroscientists contribute their expertise to the project.

“The principal investigators started with a broad set of ideas that we needed to turn into an actionable research project. First, we reached out to our regional collaborators for input on the project’s specific research questions, rather than imposing our ideas,” Machery said.

After agreeing upon the project’s research questions, the local researchers were tasked with finding subjects and collecting data following best practices based on their region’s local customs. Their survey strategies ranged from contracting with polling companies to conducting in-person surveys in remote villages.

Machery said he’s surprised at the results from the team’s earliest completed study, which examined what it means to make a wise choice in life. The researchers expected the conception of a wise choice to vary across cultures, with small scale and collectivist societies valuing more group-based decisions, specifically drawing on the advice of relatives.

“But we found only small variation,” he said. “We concluded that to a large extent people perceive what it means to make a wise choice similarly across cultures. A wise choice is one that originates from an individual’s own reasoning rather than relying on group input.”

Machery added, “What’s more, people across cultures think they would make a wise choice, but not others. This is reminiscent of the finding that everyone thinks they are better drivers than everyone else.”

The Geography of Philosophy project, originally slated to end in March 2021, has been extended to December 2022 through an additional influx of funding, allowing researchers to continue their work despite the disruptions caused by COVID-19.

Machery and his partners hope that the project will spur new research in the field of cultural psychology and comparative philosophy.

“If you just limit yourself to traditional Western philosophy, you may be missing important questions and answers,” he said.


— Nichole Faina