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Immanuel Kant among the Tenejapans: Anthropology as empirical philosophy

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Levinson,  Stephen C.
Language and Cognition Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Brown,  Penelope
Language Acquisition Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Citation

Levinson, S. C., & Brown, P. (1994). Immanuel Kant among the Tenejapans: Anthropology as empirical philosophy. Ethos, 22(1), 3-41. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/640467.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0013-2BBD-2
Abstract
This paper confronts Kant’s (1768) view of human conceptions of space as fundamentally divided along the three planes of the human body with an empirical case study in the Mayan community of Tenejapa in southern Mexico, whose inhabitants do not use left/right distinctions to project regions in space. Tenejapans have names for the left hand and the right hand, and also a term for hand/arm in general, but they do not generalize the distinction to spatial regions -- there is no linguistic expression glossing as 'to the left' or 'on the left-hand side', for example. Tenejapans also show a remarkable indifference to incongruous counterparts. Nor is there any system of value associations with the left and the right. The Tenejapan evidence that speaks to these Kantian themes points in two directions: (a) Kant was wrong to think that the structure of spatial regions founded on the human frame, and in particular the distinctions based on left and right, are in some sense essential human intuitions; (b) Kant may have been right to think that the left/right opposition, the perception of enantiomorphs, clockwiseness, East-West dichotomies, etc., are intimately connected to an overall system of spatial conception.