Multiculturalism in Education: An African View

Paper presented at the XIX World Congress of Philosophy, Moscow, 20 – 29 August, 1993.

Author – Raphael Gamaroff

This paper overlaps with Multiculturealism and EMI

We have our understandings no less different than our palates; … the meat may be the same, and the nourishment good, yet every one may not be able to receive it with that seasoning; and it must be dressed another way if you will have it go down with some, even of strong constitutions.

John Locke (1690) “Essay on Human Understanding”



Cultural relativity between individuals

The reality-construction view

The mapping view

Non-cognate lexis and background knowledge

The role of background knowledge in the learning of English in Africa




This paper deals with some of the problems of multiculturalism, where the emphasis is on the cultural differences and disparities. Two views of knowledge acquisition are considered: the construction of reality view and the mapping view of reality.


Modern anthropologists are aware that any worthwhile study of culture should be wary of behaviourial descriptions that take on purely linguistic forms (Bloch, 1990), because they are not able to adequately tap the submerged energies of flesh and blood. Books on culture are yet one step further removed from the purely linguistic communications of the human beings under study. One is reminded of Plato’s “simile of the cave”. Books are shadows of shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave.

My title can have many meanings. Shall I be talking as an African, or as a white African, or as a white South African about multicultural education? Or as an unimplicated member of the human species about African education? I leave that for anthro-apologists to decide.

I want to begin by describing some of the views expressed in discussions I had with a Xhosa speaking South African educationist at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, where I teach English for academic purposes to second language speakers of English. The conversations occurred during the first few months of 1993. His views are shared by other black South African academics, some of whom work in the same educational institution as I. I mention two opinions of my informant as I have formalised them:

1. My informant questions the bona fides of anyone who assumes that mother tongue education is a sound principle.

2. Conceptual differences between cultures (e.g. Western science versus African culture, one African culture versus another), is a myth (the term myth here means of “exaggeration”, “fabrication”). Within the notion of conceptual differences, I shall imitate Wiredu (1992) by making a distinction between “conceptual disparity” and “conceptual relativism”. I explain these terms later.

I focus on my informant’s second opinion. The question I want to ask is whether this opinion reflects a grasp of educational realities or is rather a misguided (but understandable) reaction to the injustices of apartheid ideology. I shall argue that concepts are culturally mediated. This applies not only to cultural groups, but also to the “cultural individual”.

Cultural relativity between individuals

I present two examples of how academics who share the same mother tongue (in this case English) can disagree. The first example, a brief one, shows a typical disagreement between speakers of the same language. The second example, a longer one, gives an actual example of teacher judgements in the evaluation of a student’s writing.

Example 1

It is possible for members of the same group to share the same vocabulary and grammar, and still not understand one other. Consider the following paragraph (Edge, 1993).

Let us then define the fundamental function of language as: the textualization of human awareness [original italics]. Thus the energy of awareness is channelled into thought or speech and becomes linguistic matter – the textualization of human awareness in linguistic substance [Underlining].

Five lecturers (of my university “Fort Hare”) – philosophy, literature, music and linguistics (two, of which I am one) could not agree on how “awareness” differed from thought (conscious or unconscious). The reason is that these lecturers – all mother tongue speakers of English – have constructed their realities using different linguistic/conceptual repertoires.

Example 2

When I asked my EAP (English for Academic Purposes) students at Fort Hare to write a definition of culture, they invariably came up with rote textbook descriptions culled from their other subjects: “Culture refers to the norms and values…”, etc. Now, normsand values are the kind of “objective” things that do indeed belong to specific groups, which an individual has to conform to. But let us for a while suspend this traditional definition of culture and consider it anew.Here is an (uncorrected) extract from an essay of one of my Practical English students. The title was “Home is where the hope is”. I have substituted “culture” for “home”:

In a universal perspective home [culture] may be defined as an individual continent or world, where its inner circumstances is perfumed and gorgeoused by the sounding existence of happiness created by freedom of religion, personal custom, uncramped dignity, norms and values. The happiness which permits its development, a compounded feeling which proves itself to be only love which is strong as death, that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually by called by the name is evanescant as a dream.

I asked (separately) two Practical English (PE) lecturers and one philosophy lecturer for their judgements:

First PE lecturer: “What a lot of nonsense. It does not make sense.”

Philosophy lecturer: “I like it. I would give it a good mark. A bit flowery.”

Second PE lecturer: “He has imagination. Creative. A good effort.”

(One other lecturer’s – outside Fort Hare – comment on the text was “celebration” – it seems that there are two broad ways of looking at text/life: celebral or cerebral).

I discussed the above student’s passage with the first Practical English lecturer and the philosopher together. Here are two quotes, one from each of them:

First PE lecturer: Both of you are philosophers. You are used to extending boundaries. I like to impose them. My training is different to yours. I look for the limits of things. You look beyond the limits of things.

Philosopher: If you think this passage is meaningless you should try Derrida for size.

The “limits of things” needs closer inspection. According to Popper (1977:268), creative thinking is characterised by the ability to break through the limits of the range – or to vary the range…This ability, which is critical ability, may be described as critical imagination. It is often the result of culture clash, that is a clash between ideas, of frameworks of ideas.

Perhaps “clash” is too strong a word, because it connotes not only intensity and passion, but also confrontation, agitation, frenzy. However, a term like the “meeting (of cultures”) suggests that all that is required is a cordial invitation to enter into one another’s cultural space, which, in the context of my topic, is ” African spaces of culture” (Diawara in conversation with Mudimbe, see Mudimbe, 1992:382). Unfortunately people (cultures) not only do not dance to the same tune, they are very often contemptible of songs that differ from theirs. So, I settle for clash.

What I am going to argue is that much thinking-and-talking especially in the academic domain, involves a clash of cultures. The term “culture” requires definition.

For me, culture means what a person thinks/talks (about), and does about what s/he thinks/talks (about). Such a general definition might cause someone like Segal (1984) to remark that my definition signifies so much that it signifies nothing at all. Someone else will ask where is the concretisation of these thinkings and doings in a tradition? Rohner (1984) defines culture in a non-behaviourist way, as a “system of symbolic meanings”. The emphasis for Rohner is not on social “behaviour” (in the materialist, behaviourist sense; see Johnson-Laird, 1988:17), but rather on how people conceive their behaviour. Rohner’s definitions highlight two things: 1. Culture is systematic, i.e. it is concretised in a group; 2. Culture is a way of representing one’s world through thinking, i.e. through cognitive functioning. I shall define cognitive functioning presently but first I would like to remark that these definitions of culture above (including my own), resemble museum pieces in that they do not capture the dynamic clashings of culture. Manton Hirst, anthropologist and Principal Curator (Human Sciences Division) of King William’s Town Museum (Eastern Cape, South Africa) has a more dynamic view of culture (personal communication):”I tend to opt for a dynamic conception of culture.” Here is Hirst’s definition:

Culture is a mode of communication that expresses and addresses the self and the world, involves both verbal and non-verbal behaviour and not only has a logic, but a dialogic of its own.

In my way, this description fits in with what I want to say in the rest of the paper. I have deliberately avoided the term “dynamic” in my descriptions, because it, like “culture” – which I couldn’t avoid – is too gooey for words.

I now return to cognitive functioning in culture. Cognitive functioning is basic to culture, because it plays a central role in the constructing and sharing of symbolic meanings (Rohner above). For Cummins and Swain (1986:7), cognitive functioning refers to “measures involving general intellectual and linguistic skills such as verbal and non-verbal IQ, divergent thinking, academic performance and metalinguistic awareness.” Intelligence, as part of cognitive functioning, tends to be overlooked, nowadays, in definitions of culture, owing to its links with opinions about racism. But if culture is what people think and do, then surely, how well (intelligently) they do it is also important.

Bohm (1983:50) makes a distinction (within cognitive functioning) between two broad spectra of energies: thought and intelligence . Thought is defined here as the “intellectual, emotional, sensuous, muscular and physical responses to memory” (Bohm, 1983:50). Thought is basically mechanical (conditioned) in its operations, but may at times perform in novel ways. However these novelties are likely to be nothing more than the kind of fortuitous (irrelevant) interplay displayed in a kaleidoscope. Intelligence, on the other hand, perceives new order and new structure. It is able to combine things together in fresh ways, creating new abstract patterns and relationships such as “identity and difference, separation and connection, necessity and contingency, cause and effect, etc.” (Bohm, 1983:50). These new patterns do not have to be new to the world, but new to the person’s mind. What we need to consider now is how these abstract patterns and relationships are made, and how they are concretised into a system; in other words, how people do what they think.

Much thinking-and-talking especially in the academic domain, involves a clash of cultures, namely different ways of either (1) perceiving the world or (2) constructing the world. These two “views”, represented by the reality construction view and the mapping view respectively, are based on different epistemological assumptions, which lead to two different ontological interpretations of reality. In other words, the way we (assume we) know the world is the way we accept it to be.

The reality-construction view

In the reality-construction view, there is no direct access to the outside world. Grace (1987:3-6) makes the following observations:

1. The effective environment of human beings is based more on the cultural than the natural.

2. The three major uses of language is to construct, preserve and transmit this effective reality. For this reason we can refer to the linguistic construction of (effective) reality (the creation of our view of things).

3. Since our reality construction is carried out by language, our best prospect for understanding the workings of reality construction is most likely to be through studying how language works.

4. It is important to keep in mind that our customary way of viewing language is itself the product of our reality construction.

In a given language-cultural community, established frameworks (whether scientific or social) which may remain fixed for a long time, are eventually restructured in terms of new ideas, which in turn leads to the restructuring of meanings, which may then either lead to changes in the meanings of established words, or to the creation of new words (Arbib and Hesse, 1986:144). The group and the individual are both involved in the symbiotic renovation of culture.

However this renovation does not mean that the models of reality that we construct are purely random, because the outside world does seem to impose some constraints on the inner world.

The mapping view

There are different and sometimes contrary views on what mapping means, all of which may be correct, depending on how one uses the term. In my mapping view, different cultures-languages share a pre-established common world, and languages are analogous to maps of this common world. Each language cuts up (classifies or maps) this common world in different ways. To use an analogy, the map of Eastern Europe is completely different to what it was four years ago. And in the present political negotiations in South Africa, there are five proposed ways of slicing up the new South Africa; a “cartographer’s nightmare” (South African “Sunday Times, 11 July, 1993). The proposed maps, not the terrain, cause the nightmare. When it comes to languages, the mapping view of language claims that different languages are different “maps” of a common world. The more cognate the map, the more similar the languages will be. Mascher (1991:3) defines cognate languages as belonging “to the same family of languages and so have a similar grammar and vocabulary because they share a common origin [ a common history/culture]”. Let us consider the grammatical component for the moment, i.e. morphology and syntax. In terms of the mapping view, the Sotho sentence Mosimane o mokgolo o ile o ithuta puo e and the English sentence The big boy had learnt this language may be claimed to be merely two different maps of the same reality. This means that maps as maps have no reality in themselves, but are merely two ways of looking (two different representations of) at the same terrain.

Non-cognate lexis and background knowledge

Owing to the fact that lexis is often culturally based, lexis is regarded as the main stumbling block in learning a non-cognate language. The problem is not just the quantity of new words that have to be learned, but also the quantity of new concepts attached to each new word, especially “abstract” concepts (I use the term “abstract” reservedly), which do not “come” singly attached to each word, but rather in knotty, gluey bundles, each a cultural conglomerate of meaning. (One cannot separate lexis from the building of discourse as a whole. Therefore I include here the infinite generation and combination of sentences in discourse).

Here are a few examples from the academic domain: Four of my Xhosa speaking informants tell me that in Xhosa there is only one word for mind and brain, namely Ingqondo. Therefore they translate “Psychological construct” by “Ukubona kwengqondo [kwengqondo = kwa ingqondo] (to see of brain/mind). Does this mean that a “mental operation” will turn out in Xhosa to be a “brain operation”? No not necessarily; because it is quite possible to use the same word to express different concepts (and use the context to create meaning). What could cause problems for the Xhosa speaker in such a case is learning fitting his/her concept to the different English forms (sometimes misleading referred to as “vocabulary”). However, there is no doubt that concepts differ from culture to culture. For instance, in the physical sciences, there is no adequate way of translating such “knots” as “atom”, electron “molecule”, “mole” into an African language. Each of these terms consists of a complex networks of concepts, which many non-mother tongue speakers of English find difficult to master. Indeed mother tongue speakers as well.

In the non-academic domain, tensions over translation can cause more than inconvenience. Two situations come to mind: 1. A Xhosa speaker with low English proficiency fails a driving test, because s/he had to learn the rules of the road from treacherous Xhosa translations of the original English; 2. Mistranslations in the South African Law Courts have evoked “gasps of horror” (Crawford, 1993:19).

I have given a few examples to show that English and Bantu languages are non-cognate languages, and therefore their linguistic-cultural maps differ quite radically. Now I find most astounding the following statement made by Gregersen (1977:2): “…African languages differ in no essential way from the languages of Europe, Asia, of the Americas”. What exactly does “essential” mean here? The Vedanta, Zen and a few quantum physicists would say that there is no essential difference between an arm and a leg, between a verb and a noun, between and beneath, between essence and existence. The fact is that Gregersen (1977:2) is just not interested in African languages as linguistic phenomena:

It is not linguistics, but a variety of nonlinguistic considerations – notably geographical, political, and anthropological – that has focused interest on the 1000 or so African languages as a group.

I might agree that languages such as Greek and English have a common base of background schemata (of course their grammars, I would think, are quite distant from one another) owing to the fact that they share a common European heritage. However, the same schemata are not shared by English (or Greek) and the Bantu languages. If there is a problem (and I think there is, firstly in translating one Greek (e.g. Aristotle) into another Greek (e.g. Plato), and secondly Greek into English (there are certain lexical differences as well), the problem of translating Plato into Zulu (or Zulu into Plato) can only be – notwithstanding a glorious transformation – a treacherous translation (TRADUTTORE, TRADITORE “to translate is to betray”). And of course this does not mean that Zulu – or Greek – is not a rich language in its own right.

Not only is it preposterous to think that we could have a Chinese Heidegger and a Sotho Tolstoy sharing a common conceptual framework, it is just as preposterous (and mythical), within the context of African languages, to think that we could have a Zulu Luo, or a Xhosa Akan; or a Luo Akan, or an Akan Luo (I shall come back to West African languages of Luo and Akan later). According to Appiah (1992:229) and Hountondji (1983), there just isn’t such a thing as an African system of concepts. Appiah (1992:229) suggests that we should also distinguish between the shared conceptual frameworks or assumptions of a specific society or culture and the beliefs of the individuals of that society. My view is that each person is a conceptual framework, as I tried to show earlier on.

Derrida’s position is “radically” different to Appiah as well. Derrida’s main concern in translation/interpretation is not the translation between natural languages, but rather within natural languages (i.e. between people using the same natural languages), i.e. “between Greek and Greek”, where translation (of meanings) deals with “nothing less” than the “problem of the very passage into philosophy” (Derrida, 1981:71-72). The first part of this paper was concerned with this “between Greek and Greek” issue.

The role of background knowledge in the learning of English in Africa

Many of the problems of learning English are related to poor background knowledge. Problems occur when the background (old) knowledge of the learner cannot connect up with the new knowledge, either because the old knowledge has not been made available, or because the new knowledge is culturally (culture = symbolic meanings) so gooey that it gums up the understanding. There are two important concepts that stand out in what I have just said.

1. Availability of concepts.

2. The cultural relativity of concepts (i.e. cultures that are conceptually impermeable to one another).

An appreciation of the difference between the above two concepts is crucial to understanding how the threads of language, culture, thought and intelligence are woven together in our brains. I discuss these two concepts in the following paragraphs. The context of my argument will be the South African educational context, but I also weave into the story threads from other parts of Africa.

Hartshorne (1987) mentions four reasons for the low standard of English among South African black learners and teachers:

1. The effects of Bantu education.

2. The DET, staffed mostly by Afrikaners, lacks the dedication to promote English.

3. The majority of English teachers are black or Afrikaans speaking, many of whom cannot teach English for communicative purposes.

4. English mother tongue speakers and English second language learners are generally racially segregated into different schools.

Mascher (1991) does not deny that these factors play a role in poor English performance, but his view is that none of these factors can compare with the fact that “the medium of instruction from Std 3 onwards is a language which is non-cognate to the learner’s first language” (Mascher, 1991:2). He complains that the ability to learn a second language in a tutored situation, especially a non-cognate one, requires special linguistic gifts of an analytical nature. To add to the difficulty, the child from Std 3 onwards has to learn through the medium of English, a task which s/he is generally wholly inadequate to do. The dilemma is that on the one hand there is the spiritual/ cultural dimension of the mother tongue and on the other hand there is the economic necessity of learning English. In the ensuing discussion, I consider Mascher’s claim that only the linguistically gifted can learn successfully through a second language learnt in an artificial situation.

I discussed earlier the relativity of meanings within the same linguistic group, namely English speakers. What I would like to do now is look at some of the problems between different language-cultures in terms of the mapping view and reality construction view of language. Consider Van Niekerk’s (1993:32)view, which seems to be a mapping view. He states (1993:32):

Isn’t the ease with which different cultures and languages seem to be conceivable and expressible in the other’s conceptual framework not remarkable? And does not that reveal something of a type of conceptual commonality or constant that is ab initio denied by social relativists?

Contrast the above statement with the following statement by Van Niekerk (1993:34), who is describing Western culture versus “Azande” culture:

The contrast between Western and Azande culture is that the latter is unfamiliar with the theoretical approach to problem solving and rather represents a residue of the mythical thought pattern with its entwinement of knowledge and action.

(The meaning of “myth here is “a story that conveys a system of values and meanings”).

This latter statement implies that different cultures “have different views of the world” (Van Niekerk, 1992:33). But, Van Niekerk also maintains that it is wrong to argue that the “practice of argumentation, that is of establishing relationships between beliefs by means of logical rules… does not obtain in certain cultures”. There are two points I would like to make:

Firstly, there are many who would disagree with Van Niekerk’s view that “conceptual frameworks” are easily translatable. One of these is John Sallis (1992), who like Derrida (1985) and many others find grist for their mill in the Tower of Babel story. One of the messages of the Tower of Babel story is essentially this: In order to build or construct (POIESIS “construct”) successfully, one has to move smoothly between the paradigm (plan) and its exemplification (the building). Architecture as paradigm is disrupted by its limitation to a site; a limitation that distorts the paradigm (image). Similarly, in translation it “goes without saying, translation is anything but a smooth and efficient circulation between signifiers [paradigms] and signifieds [exemplification, site]” (Sallis, 1992:30). [My square brackets].

Secondly, it may be true that the “practice of argumentation” obtains in all cultures, but this is a far cry from the claim that “conceptual frameworks are intertranslatable. For example, how does one translate this page into an African language? Or into someone else’s English? According to Verster (1986:15) “some, if not most executive processes (I identify this with Van Niekerk’s “conceptual frameworks”) may be culturally relative and hence not represented in all populations”.

Millar (1988:157) goes further than Verster by claiming that courses in skills development pursue the “impossible” because processes such as classifying and hypothesising cannot be taught, but can only develop (i.e. they are part of inborn intelligence). The upshot: Van Niekerk, maintains that all cultures have got much in common; Verster says that (non-cognate) cultures have not got much in common; and Millar says if you haven’t got it, you’ll never get it.

Here are the three views in summary:

1. Van Niekerk – concepts are translatable across languages.

2. Verster – concepts are culturally relative.

3. Millar – conceptual development is dependent on innate ability. I call this innate ability intelligence or deep language.

There are two broad categories of concepts, those that come through the level of perception (the “physical” world) and those concepts that Van Niekerk, Verster and Millar seem to be referring to, which belong to the relatively more (gooey) “abstract” level. The terms cognate and non-cognate refer to the degree of similarity between languages in both levels, though the lion’s share of the problems of translation belong to the disparate ways that different languages/cultures put together (generalise) the isolated bits entering the brain-mind;.whether through perception or through reasoning (I have simplified grossly).In trying to find my way through this multicultural maze of ideas, I came across the work of the philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu (1992). Here is Wiredu’s (1992:331) paragraph:

[L]et me point out that no sort of conceptual relativism is intend…Conceptual disparities among peoples and cultures, even among individuals in limited environs, are a brute fact of the human situation. Doubtless, this is the source of all sorts of complications in translation, particularly across cultures…But overriding all such problems is the fact, which is surely one of the most remarkable facts about language, that we can understand even what we cannot translate. This is due to the fact that we can learn languages other than that (or those) in which we were brought up. The fundamental fact here is that, because of the biological unity of mankind, any human being can participate or imaginatively enter into any human life form, however initially strange.

Wiredu’s distinction between cultural “relativism” and cultural “disparities” is of interest. By “relativism” Wiredu means that one culture is impermeable to another, and thus never the twain can meet. By cultural “disparity”, Wiredu means that differences exist between cultures, and no matter how non-cognate (I am using Mascher’s term above) the cultures/languages, it is possible for them to enter into one another’s cultural/linguistic space.

The meaning Wiredu gives to “relativism” is not, I think, the same that Verster gives to the term. Verster is arguing that concepts are culturally mediated; I don’t think that Verster’s “culturally relative” necessary means that one culture – Wiredu’s “human life form” – cannot enter into another (“strange”) “human life form” (Wiredu). Verster seems to be merely arguing that deep conceptual disparities exist between cultures, and is not arguing that it is impossible to overcome these conceptual disparities. Therefore, Verster’s cultural relativity seems to be similar to Wiredu’s cultural disparity.

The term translatable now requires more attention. I compare Wiredu’s use of the term with my use of the term in my description of Van Niekerk’s views described above. I said above that “there are many who would disagree with Van Niekerk’s view that ‘conceptual frameworks’ are easily translatable”. Van Niekerk does not mention the term translatable in his analysis, but I would think that this is the correct term to use to describe what he means when he asks the question (see above): “Isn’t the ease with which different cultures and languages seem to be conceivable and expressible in the other’s conceptual framework not remarkable?”

Let us now turn to Wiredu’s (to me remarkable) statement that “we can understand even what we cannot translate”. In order to understand another person or culture, one has to have the ability to move from one conceptual framework to another (Van Niekerk above), i.e. to translate one conceptual framework into another. So frankly I don’t know what Wiredu means.

After a consideration of some of the issues we may be able to better understand the informant that started us off on this journey. To recap, firstly, he 1. questions the bona fides of anyone who assumes that mother tongue education is a sound principle. Secondly, he does not believe in conceptual differences between cultures. My informant, I learnt at a later stage , was educated from early childhood through the medium of English. Therefore, in Wiredu’s terms, he likely found it (relatively) easy to “participate or imaginatively enter into [the] human life form [of English culture], however initially strange” (Wiredu above). This means that, for him, mother tongue education is not a sound principle, because he was educated, from his early years, in English. The problem is that most of the children in Africa have not had the good fortune of early childhood education through English. Therefore, the problem of overcoming conceptual “disparities” looms large in a African societies in general and South Africa in particular, where it was an “immoral[ity] act” for ONE to inseminate the conceptual spaces of the OTHER.

With regard to differences (“conceptual disparities”) between cultures, Wiredu distinguishes between two broad kinds:

1. Scientific concepts.

2. Humanities.

Wiredu’s view is that there is no big problem in introducing concepts like “electron” (and its accompanying term, of course) into a language like Akan, or any other African language. He maintains that the introduction of the word electron would “have to be part of a pedagogic package in which the Akan listener is led to form the concept electron through ostensive or periphrastic means”. Actually, I think that this is the way all concepts are developed (I am careful not to use the term “acquired” – remember Millar) in one’s mother tongue. The English-speaking child who is learning what an electron is, has to go through the same process. The difference between the English child and the Akan child is firstly that the English child does not have any interference from a previous “effective environment” (reality construction – see Grace, 1987), and secondly that he/she has been previously exposed to the “pre-conceptions” (background knowledge; an efficient goo remover) that predispose him/her to affiliate with the new knowledge.

However, a major conceptual problem arises, according to Wiredu, in the areas of the humanities, e.g. art, literature, sociology, philosophy, theology. There is a wide cultural disparity between European the (“Northern”) and African concepts such as substance, mind, punishment, retribution and African. According to Okot p’Bitek (Wiredu, 1992:308), the concept of creation (ex nihilo) does not even exist in the Luo language. The closest a Luo speaker can get to the transcendental metaphysics of “the word was God (Logos) of John’s Gospel is “News was the Hunchback Spirit”. Akan does, in Platonic eyes, a vastly superior job: “The Piece of Discourse was God”. Though, if there was a choice between Luo and Akan (neither less metaphysical than the other), I’d go for the pictorial Luo rather than the dull (but by no means less metaphorical) Akan version (Actually St John’s version is not very useful to most aplatonic Christians; happily, Christ’s descriptions of mansions, banquets and widow’s mites do help to fill in picture).

Before looking at a different topic in Wiredu’s thought, I just want to slip back very briefly to mention Appiah’s and Hountondji’s view that there is no such thing as a unanimist (un-animist?) system of African thought. Imagine combining the Luo’s “News was the Hunchback Spirit” (Lok Aye ceng Lubango) with the Akan’s “The piece of discourse was God” (Asem no ye Onyame). I gather from the surface forms of these two languages plus their widely different translations that a Luo-Akan equivalent of the English “The piece of the Hunchback was God” would not serve the holistic cause of pan-African unanimity – or of equanimity.

I would now like to take a critical look at Wiredu’s distinction between science and the humanities. It seems to me that it is not possible to make clear distinctions between the two kinds of knowledge in the modern world view of things. For example, some science authors (granted this does not occur at elementary levels of scientific writing, yet) do not invite their readers on a scientific discourse but rather take them on a poetic/philosophical excursion. Compare the following two passages, the one from David Bohm (1983), the quantum physicist, the other from Alan Watts the Vendantist, who both reject the Aristotelian slicing up of reality into subject, verb and object).

For Watts (1989) and Bohm all is “wholeness”, and they therefore advise that we get rid of the nouns and use verbs instead.First Bohm (1983:29-30):

Is it not possible for the syntax and grammatical form [Bohm – oddly – separates syntax from grammar] of language to change so as to give a basic role to the verb rather than the noun…for the verb describes actions and movements, which flow into each other and merge.

Then Watts (1989:95): “Why can’t we think of people as “peopling”, of brains as “braining”, of an ant as an “anting.”

Watts and Bohm seem to have more in common with some African cultures than with cultures in the “North”. However, I need to be cautious in saying this because some members of the Luo and Akan groups are Christians, and the fact is that the split between the Bohm-Watts schema of universal flux, of “I is IT” and the ex nihilo creator, for a Christian (Moslem and Jew) is (or should be) total.

What conclusions can I come to in this appraisal of Wiredu? I think the important thing is that it is not possible to prove or disprove cultural relativity (impermeability). Both views are “incorrigible” (Grace, 1987:7), i.e. they are not subject to correction in the light of subsequent experience. What we can say is that certain individuals belonging to whatever culture are able – providing conditions are right – to enter into any other culture. The question is why some individuals are better at it than others. Here we are touching, what I think is a neglected issue in multicultural studies. And this is where Millar comes back into the picture.

Wiredu maintains that it is much easier for a “non-cognate” (Mascher’s term, not Wiredu’s) culture to penetrate the enclosure of the physical sciences than to penetrate the enclosure of the human sciences. (I have already mentioned by objections to this cleavage). He also maintains that culture is an historical, not a biological, phenomenon. The problem is how to explain the large disparities in academic ability between individuals belonging to the same culture. Millar maintains that one can develop concepts, but cannot acquire them. This seems to mean that there are innate capacities that must have something to do with biology. Some people have stronger constitutions than others. They are born that way. How long they are going to live, how angry they are going to feel (not necessarily get), how talented they are going to be, depends to a large extent on their genetic makeup. One of these innate capacities is intelligence. Exactly how intelligence, biology and environment work together is not clear, but there is no doubt that ability is related to inborn capacities, which are different in each person (I’m talking about individuals, not about groups, ethnic or other wise). I am not suggesting a (purely) deterministic order, but merely that each individual is “set up” in different ways.

There are two further considerations of importance in intelligence. First, there is the question of opportunity; of being free to develop one’s potential, of being able to have a fair share of social, political and economic resources. These freedoms and sharings have been tragically lacking in a country like South Africa. Secondly, people only think/assume/believe/feel, i.e. construct, what they want/need to.

There are two broad kinds of motivation that are relevant here. There is integrative motivation, which is the desire to enter into the OTHER’s effective environment, in order to improve one’s own. But also important, is instrumental motivation, namely the desire to acquire the “information” of another language/culture in order to improve one’s economic, social, intellectual and political standing. Instrumental motivation raises the interesting question of the role of information exchange in the modern world. Unfortunately I cannot deal with this question here.

I have tried to tease out some of the problems of multiculturalism from my perspective, in which I considered the cultural disparities between languages. I considered two views of knowledge acquisition; the reality construction view and the mapping view of reality. I lean towards the reality construction view – which may have little to do with my beliefs. What seems to occur is that preconceived theories drive experience rather than the other way around. In the sense that theories are pre-conceived, their driving force must be pre-conceptual, a force that is generated on the edge of awareness, on this side of which erupts the urge for preservation, and on that side of which is nurtured the desire to avoid pain.With regard to the reality construction view, Arbib and Hesse (1986:58) maintain that:

There is no reason that schemas developed in one culture should be fully translatable into patterns and schemas in another language. Even for persons raised in the same society, the differences in genetic constitution and individual experience provide “individuality” and “personality” as is constituted by a distinctive network of schemas for each person.

This does not mean that cultural or individual networks of schemas cannot criss-cross one another. At the nexus of these criss-crossings is language. It is these linguistic criss-crossings that Freud calls verschlungenheit. Jacques Lacan (Miller, 1978), in his seminars on Freud, explains this verschlungenheit:

Verschlungenheit [Freud’s term] designates linguistic criss-crossings — every easily isolable linguistic symbol is not only at one with the totality, but is cut across and constituted by a series of overflowings, of oppositional overdeterminations which place it at one and the same time in several registers. This language system, within which our discourse makes its way, isn’t it something which goes infinitely beyond every intention that we might put into it, and which, moreover, is only momentary?

With regard to Wiredu’s observation that culture is an historical, not a biological, phenomenon, it may be true that culture, in the narrow sense of mores and values and so on, is historically, and not biologically, transmitted, but in the sense that I have defined culture, namely, as something an individual thinks and does, I would say that the basis of academic success has to do with inborn intelligence, which is influenced by crucial factors such as health, mental stimulation, self-concept and fair access to resources, while still granting the fact that instruction through the medium of the mother tongue would be, in many cases, relatively easier than instruction in a non-cognate language. Concepts come in gooey bundles (whether in a first or second language), which have to be unstuck and reassembled. What helps to unstick the goo is intelligence. And much of intelligence, like talent, is a gift. What matters is what we (choose to) use it for. A potion or a poison.


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