TOPIC 1. Can we have beliefs or knowledge ..

Assumptions and knowledge issues

The question assumes that beliefs and knowledge are linked to culture. You can argue that there is knowledge which is independent of culture, but as you communicate your ideas using language you are necessarily translating your ideas to symbols (words) that are shaped by culture. You should recognize the impossibility to communicate ideas without cultural context in your essay and develop it as one of the knowledge issues.  

Ways of knowing

Knowledge can be acquired through sense perception, logical operations (reason) and emotional reactions. This type of knowledge in its basic form is generated by biological responses to stimuli, and could be regarded as independent of culture. We know for example that facial expressions of basic emotions are biologically determined not learned.

Our knowledge acquired through senses, emotions and reasoning may initially be private, but get shaped by the environment (see the video below). Through interaction with the environment and cultural osmosis we learn concepts, ways of thinking, norms, values and language. Although culture does not completely determine our thinking it shapes it to a large degree and language plays an important role in this.  

A philosopher once visited Buddha and asked him: "Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?"

Buddha kept silence.

After a while the philosopher rose up gently, made a solemn bow and thanked Buddha saying: "With your loving kindness, I have cleared away all my delusions and entered the true path."

When the philosopher had left, Ananda, a senior disciple of Buddha, enquired: "O, Blessed one, what hath this philosopher attained?"

Buddha replied: "A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip!"(1)

The Buddhists believe it is possible to acquire knowledge through direct experience. Such experiences can be reached in silent meditation. Contrary to western philosophical tradition which emphasizes clear expression of ideas and debate, the Buddhists think that words can come away to discovering the truth. However, the acceptance of Buddhists beliefs and practices as prerequisite to discover the truth demonstrates the culture dependency of such knowledge.  


It is easier to argue that beliefs and knowledge are dependent on culture than that we can have knowledge which is independent of culture. The logical way to communicate the idea that you have knowledge independent of culture would be to take the Buddhist approach and hand in a blank piece of paper, but I do not think examiners would respond well to this. To argue for knowledge that is independent of culture it is better to concentrate sense experiences, emotional responses and basic cognitive functions such as pattern recognitions. Whichever way  decide to argue, remember to point out that your views are biased by your culture and remember to discuss counter claims. This demonstrates self-awareness and ability to analyse which are given credit in the assessment.

Areas of knowledge

You should discuss at least two areas of knowledge in your essay. Make your discussion as specific as possible. One of the areas of knowledge students are likely to discuss in this essay is mathematics, and many will try to argue that mathematics is more objective, less culture dependent, because it uses abstract concepts and pure logic. However, this is not entirely true as
ethnomathematics demonstrates.

Human sciences, history, arts and ethics are areas of knowledge that are more culture-dependent due to their subject matter. There is more room for interpretation of data in these areas of knowledge and culture plays an important role in the interpretation. Use specific examples,  instead of talking about ‘human sciences’ choose a particular human science, psychology for example, and use particular theory or experiment to support your argument. The more detailed you are the better.

Personal voice

Tell about your own experiences that are relevant to the topic. You may for example tell about an insight you think is private knowledge and not culturally determined; or you could discuss ideas you feel are clearly  culture-dependent, like the ideas you have acquired from your parents or religious views that have been passed on to you. Remember to show you are aware of your own biases and that you are reflective - pondering about the objectivity and reliability of what you know. 


Remember to consult the assessment criteria as you write your essay. To maximise your grade you have to write to meet the assessment criteria. Make sure your essay is formally correct by adding referencing and a bibliography and meeting other formal requirements such as word limit. Get a free essay template join the mailing list and come back to this site for more resources. Like us on Facebook and post questions there. Good luck!

Experiences shape our believes and knowledge. DOWNLOAD a sample essay on this topic now