Overview Paper

Communication, Information and Media Studies  194:601

1 October 2002

The Interpretation of Cultures and Possible Worlds

A wonderful new thing is created.   A thing that will change the world.  At that moment, one might ask, 'How has the essence of the world changed?'  The commonsense answer is simple: new possibilities have come into existence.

This answer makes sense to ontological realists like Dyson (1999). They embrace a causal explanation of how possibilities for the future are realized as the world and its culture are transformed by events.  On the other hand, it is not clear how social constructivists, like Geertz (1973) and Bruner (1986, 1990), might answer the question.  In what way do new possibilities come into their world?  There is little doubt that some accounting must be possible, for the commonsense view is part of the public meaning in culture and visible in all manner of speculative talk.

I will translate key concepts of Geertz's social constructivism into possible worlds talk to enable comments on an account of possibility and change within cultures and relationships over cultures.  There is also a bridge between this formalism and a flavor of story telling directed at hypothesis making.  Speculative story telling about possible worlds that might be the actual world is common when exploring decision options in the face of incomplete information.  I am interested in this type of story telling because it is one way people can come to form a belief about the quality and utility of knowledge bases.

Possible Worlds

Work in modal logic, for example Lewis (1990), has provided a formalization of Leibniz's idea of possible worlds, that is, collections of worlds that are like the actual world but are different in some, or many, respects.  This type of talk has proven useful, especially in exploring issues of meaning in the philosophy of language.  The actual world for both realists and constructivists is a very inclusive thing, anything that exists in space and time, past, present or future, or is constructed of those things, is included.  Possible worlds are simply ways the actual world might be, but is not.

         The very existence of a new thing creates new possible worlds, for there are new ways in which the actual world might be different.  Dyson's bioengineered, fuel-producing trees create possible worlds where poor people possess control over cheap energy.  A laboratory invention can have world changing outcomes through causal interactions with people, institutions and culture, and a possible world of greater social justice can become the actual world.

An Ideal Observer

For Geertz and Bruner, interpretation is the result of the method by which culture comes to be understood. Interpretations have fundamental limitations, however, because of the nature of the instrument producing the interpretation, that is, the observer (ethnographer, ethnopsychologist, etc.).  Interpretations can be produced only by direct observation of what happens in a culture at a specific locale in space and time.  The observer must work within their culture and interpret its semiotic system in producing an interpretation of another culture. So, the act of interpretation produces a kind of translation good for just that combination of cultures.  This has two consequences. First, the interpretation cannot be generalized across cultures.  Second, interpretations of a given culture by different observers coming from different cultures may display no correspondence at all.

Interpretation follows from the observation of meaning in a culture, as embodied in its semiotics. It is essential that every culture have a semiotic system.  So, a sufficiently skilled observer with appropriate access to a culture can produce an interpretation at any time or place if there is some translation between the semiotic systems.  In principle, an observer can produce an interpretation, or collections of interpretations, of a 'depth' (or richness) that is limited by the observer's skills and the richness of interpretations available in their native culture.  Of course, the observer meeting these criteria is an ideal construction, suffering none of the practical limitations that may thwart production of complete, 'accurate' interpretations in the real world.

No Universal Ideal Observer

This ideal observer is an individual, however, and there are many ideal observers, each 'shot through with theory' and bound in a single culture that is the grounds for their interpretive capacity.  The number of ideal observers is just the sum of unique cultures across all possible worlds.  That number might be infinite.

Transworld Identity

Observers are anchored in their culture, presumably one that is not found in all possible worlds.  If the idea of an ideal observer is to be useful that observer must be capable of producing an interpretation in all possible worlds.  One might object that the act of being in a possible world or observing a culture could alter the ideal observer in an essential way, throwing in doubt their identity.  I believe this issue is unproblematic because we are only concerned with their capacity to generate interpretations in the possible world, not how they came to be in that world.  The observer is assumed to carry its same native culture in each possible world, and so the basis for their interpretation in each possible world is identical.

Bruner's explication of the constructed self is inextricably tied to narrative and, so, to culture.  This raises questions about his conception of identity and that might be thought to impact transworld identity.  If self is constructed within a culture then, it seems, the very essence of identity, at least as it has meaning to people, must be similarly constructed.  That said, Bruner (1986) expresses no such qualms about identity in possible worlds in his positive description of Goodman's worlds (p 95).

Possible Worlds and the Interpretation of Cultures

The act of producing an interpretation involving a culture's semiotic system must take the form of a translation into the semiotics of the culture of the observer.  So there is an important assumption for the capacity of ideal observers to produce interpretations.  An interpretation exists for an observer only if there is a translation available between the semiotic system of the observed culture and the semiotic system(s) used by the observer.

Issues of radical translation in language, that is, cases where there is no basis to say what a sentence in language A means in language B, apply to interpretation of cultures as well. If there is no part of the semiotic system of the culture that can be understood in relation to some part of the semiotic system used by the observer, then no meaningful interpretation is possible.  Interestingly, a failure to produce an interpretation of the culture does not mean the observer would also fail to produce a linguistic translation.  One can still produce a translation because many objective referents are still available to both observers and they can agree 'This rock is red'.  This underscores the point that social constructivism is, at its base, an epistemic enterprise and difficulties in its application will arise in situations where the process of observing constructs is problematic.

Universal Traits

In this scheme, a universal for human culture can be defined in terms of the collection of all interpretations by ideal observers over all cultures that are relevantly similar to the cultures of the actual world.  A universal trait exists when all of the observers identify the trait in all of the cultures.  The restriction to relevantly similar cultures is reasonable because we want to know whether there is a universal for human cultures in the actual world.  Quantifying over all worlds is necessary because we are interested to know if the trait is essential to those cultures and not just a contingent fact due to the particular state of the cultures in the actual world.

Possibility and Cultural Change

Finally, we can provide an account of possibilities in Geertz's view.  When a new thing comes into existence, say Dyson's fuel tree, every observer produces an interpretation, including ones relating to 'degree of social justice', for each culture in every possible world, including the new worlds. One can then trace a sequence of interpretations for each possible evolution of the impact of the bioengineered tree.  This account preserves Geertz's theory of strictly local interpretation and meaning, yet allows one to follow possible changes in culture with uniform standards of interpretation.  To the degree that the interpretations of cultures overlap, in every relevantly similar possible world to the actual world, this construction also permits an account of cross-cultural interpretations.

Storytelling as model making

There is a common form of narrative or conversation, which is a speculative story about the state of the actual world in the face of incomplete information (Bruner, 1986).  He sees stories as redescriptions of the world that instantiate models we carry in our own minds (p 7) and these stories are about possible worlds "in the sense of modern modal logic" (p 44).  In business and institutions, managers are consumed with trying to determine the real state of the world on the basis of a handful of facts and their knowledge of cultures.

The point of this story telling is to test how well the facts cohere with one another and with imputed motivations of agents and so on.  Each of these stories describes a possible world that might be part of the actual world or close to the real state of affairs.  That possible world is a model of how the actual world might be.  The model is tested by checking for completeness, logical validity and by elaborating the story.  One might fill in the blanks with speculative facts to derive new consequences to test the story against the observed world.

My research interest is in measuring the quality of knowledge and how people come to believe the knowledge is valuable and useful for their needs.  Story telling as model building suggests a means to help people form a belief about a knowledge base.

After some collection of facts and other elements is selected, one might allow the user to create a story based on those facts and test how well that model works for their purpose.

The practical guide for design of knowledge systems would be to provide a facility to encourage story telling about possible worlds that consist of user-selected relevant facts.  An implementation of computer mediated story telling system for users mediated by a sketch pad has already been explored as a means to capture propositions for an artificial intelligence system (Forbus, Ferguson, & Usher; 2000).

One might provide story creation tools to encourage the user to construct stories explaining key facts in the knowledge base using other facts, identified agents in the world, and so on.  Such a tool kit would include a storyboard and support to fill out the tropes and might encourage the construction of scenery and an environment.  It would ask the user to speculate about casual relationships and motivations for actions.  While abetting creation of stories, the system can establish a correspondence with identifiable elements in the ontology implemented in the knowledge base.  As the user fills out the story, the virtual environment can identify facts and other elements that have some relevance to the story by virtue of their ontological relation to the actors, scenery, and semantic and other relationships.  These can then be presented for integration into the story on an iterative basis or as a challenge to the story's coherence and explanatory power.


Bruner, J. (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Bruner, J. (1990) Acts of Meaning Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Lewis, D. (1986) On the Plurality of Worlds Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Inc.

Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures New York:Basic Books

Dyson, F. (1999) The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet New York:Oxford University Press

Forbus, K., Ferguson, R., & Usher, J. (2000) Towards a computational model of sketching.             Proceedings of the International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces. Sante Fe, NM