Seyla Benhabib has made some observations about radical difference that I continue to wrestle with despite my many disagreements with how it fits into her general argument. If we wish to claim that a culture or way of being is radically different from our own, how is it that we understand it as a culture at all?

Radical incommensurability and radical untranslatability are incoherent notions, for in order to be able to identify a pattern of thought, a language – and, we may add, a culture – as the complex meaningful human systems of action and signification that they are, we must first at least have recognized that concepts, words, rituals, and symbols in these other systems have a meaning and reference that we can select and describe in a manner intelligible to us – as being concepts at all, for example, rather than mere exclamations. If radical untranslatability were true, we could not even recognize the other set of utterances as part of a language, as, that is, a practice that is more or less rule-governed and shared in fairly predictable ways.

Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture, p. 30.

Thus, it is reasonably to presume that there is some foundational human ‘way of being’ against which different cultural modes of being show up as different. Now, whether this foundational way of being has a structure that can be discerned remains a question. In any event, Benhabib suggests that we generate mutual understandings across difference through “conversation and interaction”, which, for Benhabib, emerges when those involved have access to arenas of reasoned deliberation.

I am interested in the move Benhabib makes between the recognition of difference as such and the practice of translating it – representing it – into a different cultural idiom in the course of deliberation. For it seems to me that one can understand difference while being unable to produce a translation that is anymore than a statement that difference exists.  Benhabib suggests that we can identify comparable practices of “marriage, feast, and prayer” in other cultures, but it is quite another thing to suggest that deliberation will clarify rather than obfuscate the differences that mark these practices from our own. We may come to understand a practice through our experiences of participating in it – an understanding that could not be gained through conversation. This, I think, is where our intuitions about incommensurability come from: the difficulty that we face when attempting to capture the meaning of practices in representations of those practices. What, then, does this say about a theory of democracy and pluralism based on speech and deliberation?