Culture is What?

by samdelbiaggio

Many people run to Wikipedia or when they begin to think about a subject.  I on the other hand, almost always pull the The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy off my  bookshelf and begin there.  I am not sure why or how I began this ritual, but there it is.  This ritual has been part of my culture for so long the book has oil stained edges and it tends to open to the page that ends the entry on Hume and begins the one on humour (the book is printed in England, so they get to spell it that way).

I have been on a quest to question my assumptions about what most people take for granted and lately I have been pondering the meaning of culture.  It is easy to be glib, such as the fellow that said, “culture is roughly anything we do and the monkeys don’t.”  However, I am not sure this is helpful, and it also assumes monkeys do not have a culture.  By way of illustrating why I love the Routledge Encyclopedia I thought I would quote the entry by Anthony O’Hear as a way of starting the conversation.


Culture comprises those aspects of human activity which are socially rather than genetically transmitted.  Each social group is characterized by its own culture, which informs the thought and activity of its members in myriad ways, perceptible and imperceptible.  The notion of culture, as an explanatory concept, gained prominence at the end of eighteenth century, as a reaction against the Enlightenment’s belief in the unity of mankind and universal progress.  According to J.G. Herder, each culture is different and has its own systems of meaning and value, and cannot be ranked on any universal scale.  Followers of Herder, such as Nietzsche and Spengler, stressed the organic nature of culture and praised cultural particularity against what Spengler called civilization, the world city in which cultural distinctions are eroded.  It is difficult, however, to see how Herder and his followers avoid an ultimately self-defeating cultural relativism;  the task of those who understand the significance of human culture is to make sense of it without sealing cultures off from one another and making interplay between them impossible.

Over and above the anthropological sense of culture, there is also the sense of culture as that through which a people’s highest spiritual and artistic aspirations are articulated.  Culture in this sense has been seen by Matthew Arnold and others as a substitute for religion, or as a kind of of secular religion.  While culture in this sense can certainly inveigh against materialism, it is less clear that it can do this effectively without a basis in religion.  Nor is it clear that a rigid distinction between high and low culture is desirable. It is, in fact, only the artistic modernists of the twentieth century who have articulated such a distinction in their work, to the detriment of the high and the low culture of our time.