Sunday, January 10, 2016

Can whole cultures be "esoteric"?

"We in the West are accustomed to a plain and direct mode of speech, which we think of as normal... But outside the modern West, people incline to a kind of esotericism of everyday life... Whatever the reasons for it... that is the plain, empirical fact." -- Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines, p. 51

This is the sort of equivocation which is all to common in Melzer. "Esoteric," in its common definition, means "intended for or understood by only a chosen few, as an inner group of disciples or initiates" (here.) It is bizarre to apply the term to a practice of indirect communication shared by an entire culture. What would be much more accurate would be to say that these cultures have an exoteric tradition of indirect communication. It is a "plain, empirical fact" that many cultures employ indirect communication styles: it is a very contentious hypothesis to say that such communication is "esoteric."

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