The Commensurability Principle Defined

Let’s now give a more concise formulation of the Commensurability Principle, based on the above discussion of its three parts.

First, the nature of commensurability is dynamic; at its core is the general human ability of bringing the world, culture, and the mind together in meaningful ways.

Second, commensurability operates at three levels of meaning representation. At the corporeal, most concrete level meaning is manifested in the form of image-schemas; at the cognitive, intermediate level meaning is manifested in the form of concepts; and at the semiotic, most abstract level meaning is manifested in the form of signs.

Third, intercultural communication can be seen as a spiral process of different people comparing their cultural maps. In this process, meanings are manifested and cultural lacunas filled in. This way, cultures measure up against one another and understand better other worldviews and their own worldview. Finally, both the possibility and necessity of intercultural communication must be emphasized.

In a nutshell, the Commensurability Principle can be formulated as follows:

Intercultural communication is a process whereby people from different groups compare their cultural maps and search for common ground, using the similar forms and levels of meaning representation.

Case Study: ‘The Globalization of Chinese Medicine: The Case of Acupuncture’

This case study is based on the article entitled‘Intercultural incommensurability and the globalization of Chinese medicine: The case of acupuncture’ (St. Clair et al., 2006)

As usual, it is recommended that you read the article in its entirety; below, you find a summary of the article.

Be ready to identify and then discuss the following topics:

  • 1. Differences between the Chinese and Western medical systems.
  • 2. How the intercultural incommensurability is resolved.
  • 3. The implications of this resolution.

The article focuses on how intercultural incommensurability can be resolved between different medical systems—the practice of acupuncture within Chinese medicine and Western modern medicine. The authors refer to the incommensurability thesis as formulated by Thomas Kuhn and show how conflicts between supposedly incompatible medical frameworks can be addressed.

The article starts by reviewing how Western medicine defines illness and how this differs from the traditions of Chinese medicine.

The earliest conceptualization of disease in the West, which goes back to Hippocrates (460 bc to 330 bc), started to change in the 16th century with the contagion theory of Fracastoro, and was scientifically framed within the context of germ theory based on Louis Pasteurs studies of fermentation in the 19th century that presented evidence for germs in the form of bacteria to be the cause of infectious disease. Hence, diseases are classified by modern Western science in terms of causal networks, represented by relations among the symptoms, the causes, and the treatment of a disease. In this light, a disease is due to a specific etiology (a cause or set of causes), develops over time, and is characterized by symptoms as its observable manifestations.

The disease is treated by affecting the symptoms and the causal factors that produced those symptoms.

The foundations of Chinese medicine are based on observations of natural phenomena by Daoist masters over 3,000 years ago. According to the principles of the Dao, usually translated as 'The Path’ or ‘The Way,’ all things exist in relation to other things. Human life is embodied and depends on its environment, having evolved on earth under the same primal forces that constitute the Five ElementTheory of Chinese medicine (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood). This system of checks and balances is sophisticated and contains acupuncture points throughout the body, aligned as Ying—Yang oppositions and pathways that connect them known as ‘meridians.’ The energy that flows within these meridians is known as Qi; when there is a lack of energy flow in the body, there is stagnation, resulting in disease.

The germ theory of Western medicine and the Five Element Theory of Chinese medicine appear to be incompatible. Western medical science is quantitative and grounded in reductionism, linearity, and causality. The scientific approach to disease calls for formulating hypotheses and conducting experiments to (dis)prove them. This way, causes are revealed and laws are established; based on such laws, diseases are treated.

In its turn, Chinese medical science is qualitative and sees everything as interconnected, concurrent, and holistic. Disease is treated by a balancing of Yin and Yang as two complementary forces that interact to form a dynamic system of homeostasis.

It may appear as if these two medical approaches to disease are incommensurable. And yet, a common measure between them can be found in the field of bio electromagnetism (BEM) or the study of how the biological cells and biological processes are sensitive to infinite small electromagnetic fields and fluctuations. Unlike medical treatments based on drug therapies and surgical interventions, BEM is still a scientific approach as it is based on the investigations of the interrelationships between high-frequency electromagnetic fields within the body. At the same time, the ancient Chinese description of Qi and its pathways and accumulations in the body closely correlate with research in BEM. In this light, disease is viewed as the oscillatory disequilibrium of cells originating from external causes. Since the body is capable of producing magnetic fields and exchanging such energies with other life forms, disease can be treated through harmonious electromagnetic communication. The units of such energies are known as biophotons—light particles generated within the body that could be measured as they emanate from the skin: they regulate such physiological processes as growth, maturation, cell differentiation, enzymatic activity, and immune system functions.

Thus, although the languages and the medical practices involved in this case were different, traditional Chinese medicine and modern medical science were found to be commensurable when viewed from the perspective of BEM research. Moreover,

Western scholars understood the significance of the Chinese tradition and its implications while Chinese scholars were able to benefit from the scientific achievements ofWestern medicine, each side having adjusted its views of disease. As a result, modern medicine within the context of the globalization has incorporated these views into what is now known as medical acupuncture—a model consistent with the tenets of both Western and Chinese scientific thought.

1. Differences between the Chinese and Western medical systems.

As was discussed in the chapter, people from different cultures organize all stimuli into concepts and label them differently. This is very clear when turning to how Western medicine and Chinese medicine define illness. The former sees it in the form of bacteria causing infections, the medical vocabulary including such terms as ‘etiology,’ ‘symptoms,’ and ‘causal networks,’ while the latter relates it to the action of primal forces leading to a lack of energy flow in the body, with the vocabulary including such terms as ‘the Dao,’ ‘Ying and Yang,’ and ‘Qi.’The differences between the Chinese and Western medical systems appear to be diametrically opposed: quantitative vs qualitative; reductionistic vs holistic; and experimental vs experiential.

2. How the intercultural incommensurability is resolved.

It must be remembered that intercultural communication doesn’t begin and end in signs and concepts only; after all, we constantly interact with one another and the world around us through our body. As noted earlier, we interact with the world through the similar bodily movements, manipulation of objects and experience of force. And it is in the biological processes within our bodies, which are sensitive to infinitely small electromagnetic fluctuations, that a common measure is found between the Chinese and Western medical approaches to disease.

One of the image schemas, derived from our bodily experience, is the ‘force’ schema that is experienced through interaction, involves a directionality and is characterized by degrees of intensity (Evans & Green, 2006; Slingerland, 2008). It is on the basis of magnetic fields and an exchange of such forces with other life forms that disease can be treated through harmonious electromagnetic communication. When the idea of resonance is discussed in communication theory, it is usually taken metaphorically—as a fit between a message and an audience’s worldviews (McDonnell et al., 2017). And yet, this idea can, and must, be taken literally—as an electromagnetic fit between people and the Earth since we are all part of this world because of the shared corporeality.

3. The implications of this resolution.

This case shows that every cultural worldview is valid to the extent that it sustains the lifestyle of its people. At the same time, it demonstrates how two cultural worldviews that seem to be incompatible can be brought together on the basis of a common measure. As noted in the chapter, any meaning can be conceived and potentially understood by people from other cultures. Moreover, this case shows that not only is intercultural communication possible, in spite of seemingly unsur-mountable differences, but it is necessary, as well. Only this way can people find out how they stand in relation to one another, and only this way do we gain a better understanding of what it means to be human.

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