How do beliefs get to be challenged, on what kinds of subject, and by whom? Obviously those questions raise key issues for our understanding of the development of enquiry, not just about nature or the external world, but about other matters as well. Yet a prior question is: have we any right to treat belief as a cross-cultural category? Does that term pick out a cognitive attitude, faculty, or disposition that is exemplified by humans everywhere? The ethnographic literature is full of reports of what the members of the societies studied are said to believe, but whether that term is appropriate is more problematic than is sometimes acknowledged. This can be seen especially in the case of what has been discussed under the category of 'apparently irrational beliefs'. I have mentioned before the Dorze notion that the leopard is a Christian animal and the Nuer one that twins are birds—where the question of what commitment the Dorze or the Nuer have to those ideas (and how to interpret them) has been the subject of intense debate.
One consideration that may weigh with ethnographers in saying that the Dorze and Nuer believe rather than know those items may be the common Western assumption that you cannot know what is not the case. Sometimes it seems the beliefs are being evaluated from the standpoint of the ethnographer rather than of those whom he or she cross-questioned.
Yet the first problem with that is that even Westerners have often claimed to know what has later turned out to be false, such as the view that the earth is at the centre of the universe. We are accustomed to claim that we believe a certain item (a fact or a proposition) when we feel ourselves not to be in a position to make the stronger claim that we have knowledge—though it may be said that in Western religious discourse knowledge is often claimed even in circumstances where ordinary patterns of verification—by readily accepted criteria—are not available. I know that my Redeemer liveth. A pagan ethnographer, faced
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Publication information: Book title: Ancient Worlds, Modern Reflections: Philosophical Perspectives on Greek and Chinese Science and Culture. Contributors: Geoffrey Lloyd - Author. Publisher: Clarendon. Place of publication: Oxford, England. Publication year: 2004. Page number: 64.
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