6. SO/M, “the (cultural) world,” and “horizon of expectation”

Turning from perception theory to interpretation ◆ horizon of expectation

— Terms —

  • Introduced:
    • horizon of expectation
  • Mentioned and should now be familiar (review if necessary):
    • patterns and models
    • selection, organization / matching (SO/M)
    • thoughts, feelings / actions (TF/A)
    • Theory of Mind (ToM)

— Chapter Abstract —


This short chapter serves as a bridge between an introduction of SO/M elements and a consideration of a wide variety of patterns involved in the matching process. It restates that our course goal is a better other-culture grounded understanding (use of selection, organization, and matching) of a narrative or the TF/A of a ToM and further makes the argument that culture (the transpersonal worldviews, values, and common practices of a group) is mobile, travels between ToM via, as one pathway, the gifting and appropriation of patterns.

— Chapter Outline —

  • 6.1. The key questions of this course
  • 6.2. Understanding first, practical matters follow
  • 6.3. “Horizon of expectation”

6.1. The key questions of this course

The previous two chapters outlined how we are driven to make meaning of incoming data and described schematically a set of cognitive processes for doing so: object *selection, object *organization, and *matching these organized objects to *patterns or *models.

Now we enter a more complex arena.

This course’s two key questions—both designed to facilitate the discovery of important cultural differences that might lead to misinterpretations—are:

  1. What cultural *patterns and *models influence the love-related thoughts, feelings, and actions (*TF/A) of a character in a story (*narrative figure) or its author, and, second
  2. What cultural *patterns and *models influence how we should understand why the story develops as it does (*narrative progress, its *cause-and-effect chains)?

As for *patterns and *models themselves, we are most interested in those that are entangled in the (cultural) world as we can reconstruct it by thinking about worldviews, ethical values, and common social practices (*WV/CP).

In pursuit of these two questions, we are transported from a theoretical and schematic discussion of perception and significance-attribution processes to the open sea of speculation about the origins of identity and causes of social behavior. Even when limited to the one angle of the role of culture in these speculations, our deliberative space is exceptionally complex and ambiguous. We are inviting “the world” into our theoretical discussion and in so doing have lost the ability to control the boundaries of the discussion in the way that theoretical inquiry is able to do.

6.2. Understanding first, practical matters follow

Though we have left a limited, figurative and theoretical discussion, this does not mean we have swung over to the other end of a “theory-practice” spectrum. This course does not seek to identify, with practical agenda or goals in mind, the most strategic or effective ways we, or others, might move in the world in the ways we wish, armed with greater cultural fluency. Our goal is not directly practical in that it is not focused on outcomes. Often the best strategic choice in a situation (or a relationship) does not need cultural sensitivity or wisdom or even understanding. And, when it comes down to making choices and decisions, very frequently the most important factors are personal attributes of the actor that may originate more relevantly from elements that have for all practical purpose distant relationships with culture, such as that individual’s age, training, interests, and status in the relevant context (brother, foot soldier, car designer, ex-partner . . . ).

Instead, our course work is located at a half-way point between theory and practice, namely, to develop a better understanding, one derived of theoretical investigation (and so limited to within narrative boundaries, not the “real” world), of the role of culture in *TF/A. This understanding, achieved through the interpretive analysis of *narratives, often does provide practical benefit: while ours remains a course with a solidly theoretical character, the practical reward is that we can, in some situations, do better when dealing with other people due to our better understanding of the individuals we are working with, including their cultural perspectives.

This course assumes that we will think more differently from one another than our casual assumptions suggest. It further assumes or at least aspires to the idea that our interactions can be more successful when we develop the talent to notice and understand non-obvious differences between individuals. This exercise in imagination (constructing accurate *ToM [*Theory-Theory] rather than assuming an individual’s *ToM must be more or less “like us” [*Simulation Theory]) comes up against practical needs that are constrained by goals and circumstances, including time. For example, I will not take a long time deciding whether a certain driver is going to run a stop sign or not. If it is an intersection I know, I have a sense for the likelihood of that and that sense can be helpful. But it might be easier to not bother with complex calculations and just drive defensively. In this way, we strike a balance, all the time, following, as we should in most circumstances, a “good enough” (highly practical) standard. This course is not about striking that balance. Whether or not cultural differences are actually key to a situation, they are our object of study. We will dive directly into the complex issues of how culture does or does not influence *TF/A. While our goal is better understanding, it is also true that the “good enough” standard can be shown to be exceptionally narrow in its perspective, and vulnerable to culturally-bound wishful thinking and in ways that might even go so unnoticed as to not good enough.

And so, although I say that in after this chapter we will now begin to consider “the world” in our ruminations, in fact, as suggested in the final part of the previous chapter, we have already been doing so. “The world”—for us, a cultural group’s *worldviews, *values and *common practices—is baked into our cognitive biases and has a hand in object *selection and object *organization. But in my view, there is more.

6.3. “Horizon of expectation”

I arrived at Stanford as a graduate student proud of his academic record at the University of Oklahoma. For better or worse, I saw myself as an open-minded, caring individual who also was smarter than most others—if not all others—in the room. (Probably we were all thinking the same thing.) In the first week of classes at Stanford I learned, with a bit of disconcertion, that there were other people smarter than me. And, over the next few years, I became self-aware that I was more competitive, and less caring, than I had thought. For me, since I had core *values of being generous, thoughtful, and not competitive, these realizations were profoundly disorienting. But, in my new cultural contexts, I was learning important lessons about my identity.

So as not to dwell too much on personal matters, let me boil things down to just one example: male chauvinism. I have changed on matters related to this. Initially, I was someone who truly thought he was not chauvinist (and was proud of it) but who was, in the eyes of others, rather completely chauvinist. Although it took a few years, I finally fully perceived this cognitive dissonance for what it was. Becoming not chauvinist is much harder and, in ways, although we learn to rise above some of our prejudices and dispositions, perhaps they never fully go away and we have to “rise above” them over and over again. In any event, the point here is not about personal change but the first early moments of personal discovery, the rare and surprising “ah-ha” moment, the “Ohhhh, now I get it!” moment of actually understanding something new.

Given that our interpretive projects are meant to understand someone in terms of their culture, not our own, this is essentially our course goal: to leap past comfort zones and horizons and think un unfamiliar ways, with the goal of thinking more closely to how another person thinks. This way of describing what we are attempting is my extension of Jauss’ idea of the “*horizon of expectation.”[1] By my definition anyway, a true cultural *horizon of expectation cannot be seen by members of the culture; that is, to be in a culture is to accept certain things and be blind to others. Except that, as you will see, I argue for the plurality of the self so, more accurately stated, that part of us that is a member of a culture cannot see what is beyond the horizon or even know what might be there. But, since we are multicultural creatures, we instead experience these *horizons as “some think like . . . but I am aware that others think . . . “. In this way we move the *horizon or travel beyond the limits of thought. That being said, we are still trapped. At some point, no matter how many identities we construct for ourselves, we are still living within the limits of our understanding. This course, in this sense, is asking for travel past the *horizon and that, I would suggest, is sometimes mentally (privately) represented to oneself as an “ah-ha” moment, as new territory suddenly unfolds before one.

A few weeks ago, during my university’s spring break, I took a walk in the beautiful redwoods of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. My wife and I were on the Redwood Grove Loop Trail. Almost no one was there, but there was one very heavy man who seemed to walk with difficulty and was taking a number of bench breaks along the way. Since we, too, were walking slowly, sometimes we would pass him and sometimes he would pass us. We came upon him in front of an especially enormous redwood, at which he was staring. He turned and said something like, “It’s a very special tree, isn’t it?” We said we thought so, too. Then he said, “Do you see how the ferns there look just like low clouds drifting above the ground? They are so beautiful.” We smiled and nodded and he walked quietly away. I regret that I did not take a picture of those ferns because I have thought about what he said often and now would like to share the moment. I know myself well enough to know that whenever I see young, fresh green ferns like that again, I will think of little low, drifting clouds and I am very glad to have this image now in my mind. I had been looking at clouds, but in an entirely different direction (looking up through the grand trees at the gaps between them). My object selection was following a concept of “soaring / imposing” while his was “drifting / gentle.” Or, to put it another way, I was walking the trail with a Redwoods = power = enormity line of thought while he (perhaps?) was thinking Redwoods = power = a shield for smaller living things. I am glad our different cultures crossed-paths and his way of thinking made the leap from his mind to mine. The first image below is one I took a few minutes before that conversation. The second, since I do not have an image of what he was looking at, is a cropped image taken from the park’s trail guide. The ferns he noticed were not at trailside; they were farther way, at the base of the tree, and somewhat younger, fresher and more numerous than these but the image is close enough.

Looking straight up, where there are bright clouds among and above the high tops of the redwoods
Henry Cowell Redwoods – upwards (clouds)
Looking at the base of the tree, where there are light green, delicate, baby ferns.
Henry Cowell Redwoods – downwards (ferns)

There are several reasons I lingered on this episode. First, it is an example of how social we are as creatures. A man had come upon a scene that delighted him, and he wanted to share it for no other reason than to share it. “Seeing,” in my opinion, is often seeing “with someone else”—imagined (such as “I’ll tell my wife later about that”) or real (such as in a movie theater, with others)—or seeing “through the eyes” of someone else (such as when we wonder how others see us, or when we think something is beautiful because someone else has declared it so). When this man told me of the ferns, and I looked, and I smiled, I do believe that the moment has gained greater meaning for him, and of course for me, too.

To be entirely frank, I have a very extensive view of this type of phenomenon, believing that our very sense of existence derives from being visible, actually or just affective-cognitively, to others. Jean-Paul Sartre’s assertion in No Exit that “Hell, it is others (L’enfer, c’est les autres)” is often on my mind.[2])

Second, this episode is a good example of how two people move in different cultural worlds and object *select differently because of it. I had noticed the ferns, but not really. They were just green accents in the scene. He had noticed the wind gently stirring them, and their horizontal shape hovering over the ground. I was looking for grandness, he was of a different mind. Yet, within the fifteen seconds or half-minute of the exchange of words, our worlds overlapped, his vision leapt to me, and remains.

And so, finally, I think perhaps this brief episode is a good cautionary tale of how mobile ideas are and so how possible it is for culture to be transported cognitively. Cultural membership is not residing within a particular country, or having a certain circle of friends, but it is rather the acceptance and identification with a collection of worldviews, values, and common practices, though I would add that these are entirely entangled in linguistic formations (languages and expressive practices).

While I cannot say with certainty, I am fairly sure that my interest in the size and mass of the redwoods is inherited from my interest in Rodin’s sculptures, probably most obvious in his sculptures of hands (such as “Large Clenched Hand / La grande main crispée“). He taught me a way of cognitively “feeling” mass and volume that is still part of my daily way of looking at things. But, in any event, a Rodin “*pattern” is very active when I am attributing significance to massive objects. Whether or not the man on the trail knows or cares about Rodin I have no idea of course. But it is clear that, at that moment, some *pattern having to do with “floating” or “lightness” was enriching the significance of what was before him. This is a round-about why of saying that while object *selection and *organization are indeed touched by “the world” in many cases, perhaps all cases, it is in the power and turbulence of cultural *patterns and *models that should be seen as something like a direct doorway in which the world can pour into our interpretations and conclusions. And so, I think it is not a bad idea to consider some of the various shapes and sizes of *patterns and *models that participate in the interpretive process.

  1. For a discussion of this concept see Ormond Rush, The Reception of Doctrine: An Appropriation of Hans Robert Jauss' Reception Aesthetics and Literary Hermeneutics (Georgian University Press, 1997), 79–82.  https://books.google.com/books?id=KfZeoo0_ULgC&pg=PA79&lpg=PA79&dq=horizon+of+expectation&source=bl&ots=bhFMpTpzFi&sig=5xt_L5_wxiqdkWFNhV6defy66t8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=gq7gT8-gHeia2AXYvpSACg&ved=0CGUQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=horizon%20of%20expectation&f=false.
  2. This often misunderstood quote should not be taken to mean that being with other people is hateful or that unkind people are the main problem of the world but rather that being in the gaze of another is oppressive. There is a thoughtful discussion of this at Kirk Woodward, "The Most Famous Thing Jean-Paul Sartre Never Said," Rick on Theater(blog), July 9, 2010,http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2010/07/most-famous-thing-jean-paul-sartre.html.