History of the concept of culture

The concept of culture emerges from many sources, three of which are particularly important. First, eighteenth-century debates in France and England, concerning the character of human development and the purpose of education, resulted in the idea of the "cultured person." These debates were sparked by anxieties about identity, particularly in the face of threats from populations mobilized by industrialization - both directly revolutionary threats posed by the new working class, and the indirect but no less impressive threat of the newly empowered and enriched middle class, who imperiled the aristocracy's control over society (and who indeed fulfilled that threat in the twentieth century). New means of discrimination were required, on both a class and an individual level, and what we can call the "classist" concept of culture arose to meet this need. (Later thinkers such as Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot build on this concept.) "Culture" came into initial use as a marker of refinement and, of necessity, social class; the "cultured person" was the civilized and sophisticated person. Significantly, because of the very conditions that caused its birth, the modern concept of culture is profoundly secular, and indeed possesses an anti-theological orientation: as Raymond Williams has pointed out, " 'Culture' was then at once the secularization and the liberalization of earlier metaphysical forms" (Williams 1977:15). The concept of "culture" thus offers an (at least initially) non-theological locus of value and significance for human beings.

Later thinkers, particularly the German Romantics, gave culture an explicitly political valence when they conceptualized linguistically distinct societies as distinct national "cultures," using the term to mark national identity. This development had benefits, particularly the pressure it immediately put on the "classicist" notions with which the concept was initially burdened, eventually expanding the concept of culture to include "folk" cultures. But it also created problems, especially its implicit assumption that cultures are essentially primordial and homogeneous wholes - entailing an "esthetic holism" in regard to cultures, and ascribing to them a monolithic identity-conferring power over their participants (Tanner 1997:10). This understandable attention to cultural homogeneity arose from attempts to conceptualize Romantics' nostalgia for what they thought was being lost. The awareness of massive social transformations, and the increasing realization of human historicity, made thinkers sensitive to the separateness of social structures (as if we had inhabited an ice-floe we thought was solid earth, but which one day separated itself from the continent and began to drift into the sea). This transformation focused attention on questions of cultural integrity, and on the "authentic" and the "genuine" in contrast to the "artificial" and "merely conventional." Intellectuals imagined culture as the organic expression of a people's racial character, the "outward" correlate of their inner essence, thereby legitimating general disquiet about the replacement of this cultural inheritance with the fabricated products of mass-production industry.

The concept of culture not only developed from reflection at home; it also developed from ethnographic reflections, in particular reflections about how to understand human differences along lines that are neither developmentally triumphalist nor essentially racial or climatological. This source drew on Romanticism's aggressive defense of the old folkways in the face of an increasingly pervasive industrialization, and its perceived corrosive effects on tradition. But it went beyond earlier formulations' emphases on culture as value-constituting, person-determining, and authentic, to include recognition of the contingency of human structures. "Contingency" here does not mean arbitrariness, or a straightforward social contractualism or voluntarism, where everything is (or ought to be) the object of explicit (even potentially explicit) assent; it means rather to highlight the fact that cultures (and thus people) are decisively different, which is due not to essential divergences in "race" or nature, but to thoroughly accidental differences of climate, geography, history, and above all the influence (or inheritance) of the innumerable choices and decisions humans have made over millennia about all the questions of how to live life, the minutiae as well as the momentous (insofar as we can specify such decisions as one or the other).

If recognition of culture's inclusion of all sorts of (indeed, all) human interactions, was the result of historical imagination, the recognition of the contingency of culture awaited the encounter of European intellectuals with radically different cultures. In a way, paradoxically, we can say that the appreciation of culture's breadth was a consequence of reflection on the historical depth of specific cultures "native" to Europe, while the appreciation of culture's depth - or rather, its "shallowness" - arose from reflection on the global breadth of human cultures. "Cultural evolutionists" such as E. B. Tylor understood human diversity to represent different stages of development, undermining thereby the Romantics' insistence on cultural homogeneity; furthermore, they assumed "implicit forms of contexualism and functionalism" which "suggest a non-evaluative relativism" (Tanner 1997:19). Anthropologists brought all of these elements into a practically (if provisionally) applicable concept, affirming that "the human intellect is conditioned from the very start, not by some ahistorical Kantian set of

50 charles t. mathewes categories or structural principles, but by the concepts, values, and worldview of the particular culture in which human beings begin to think" (1997:24). This account culminates in the work of Clifford Geertz, which depicts culture as the self-spun "webs of significance" that humans inhabit (Geertz 1973:5). (However, Geertz's work in some ways strains against this vision as well.)

Our concept of culture possesses the inheritance of these very diverse sources. But recent cultural theory has added more complexity to this mix by charting how the concept of culture "deconstructs" itself - how it conceals some very powerful dynamic tensions. For our purposes the most important of these tensions are those between the concept's implication of universality and locality, value and relativism, and determinism and contingency. This semantic over-determination of the concept of culture provides it with an enormous, indeed perilous, flexibility. Its complexity compels any application of the concept to emphasize some of its aspects and implicitly de-emphasize others. Even so, these dynamics interrelate to give "culture" the semantic and epistemological vitality, and volatility, that it, for good and ill, possesses.

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