horizon as a metaphor for culture

(Chicago) The philosophers Edmund Husserl, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Jürgen Habermas use the metaphor of a horizon to describe the background or framework of experience. Without addressing thorny questions of interpretation involving these three disparate and difficult authors, I’d like to defend the metaphor in general terms:

Any person at any given moment has a unique visible horizon–the line that divides the objects on the earth from the sky. Yet if I stand right next to you, or stand where you were a minute ago, my horizon will closely resemble yours. Thus the metaphor captures the uniqueness of individual experience while making difference a matter of degree that is somewhat within our control.

It’s possible for two people to have entirely different horizons–they cannot see any of the same objects. Yet those two people could move until their horizons overlapped. A person could stand between two individuals whose horizons did not overlap and be seen by each. Or a whole chain of people could connect two remote individuals, allowing them to share vicarious experiences.

Your horizon is a function of the way the world is and how you see things. To a degree, you can change how you look and where you stand, but you must start from somewhere that you did not choose.

You have the capacity to see anything within your horizon. But you cannot see it all at once. You can describe and communicate anything within your horizon, but you cannot ever describe it all. You are aware of the horizon as a whole, but your attention focuses on objects within it.

I think if you replace “horizon” with “culture,” most of these sentences will ring true. At any rate, ever since my first book, I have been criticizing theories of culture that presume that everyone who belongs to Culture A shares the same structure of beliefs, which must be different from the structure that defines Culture B. That kind of model promotes unwarranted relativism and skepticism.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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