Philosophy of Culture

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Culture and Human Nature

The ability to transmit information across generations and peers by means other than genetic exchange is a key trait of the human species; even more specific to humans seems the capacity to use symbolic systems to communicate. In the anthropological use of the term, "culture" refers to all the practices of information exchange that are not genetic or epigenetic. This includes all behavioral and symbolic systems.

The Invention of Culture

Although the term "culture" has been around at least since the early Christian era (we know, for instance, that Cicero used it), its anthropological use was established between the end of eighteen-hundreds and the beginning of the past century. Before this time, "culture" typically referred to the educational process through which an individual had undergone; in other words, for centuries "culture" was associated with a philosophy of education. We can hence say that culture, as we mostly employ the term nowadays, is a recent invention.

Culture and Relativism

Within contemporary theorizing, the anthropological conception of culture has been one of the most fertile terrains for cultural relativism. While some societies have clear-cut gender and racial divisions, for instance, others do not seem to exhibit a similar metaphysics. Cultural relativists hold that no culture has a truer worldview than any other; they are simply different views.

Such an attitude has been at the center of some of the most memorable debates over the past decades, entrenched with socio-political consequences.

Multiculturalism

The idea of culture, most notably in connection with the phenomenon of globalization, has given rise to the concept of multiculturalism. In one way or other, a large part of the contemporary world population lives in more than one culture, be it because of the exchange of culinary techniques, or musical knowledge, or fashion ideas, and so on.

How to Study a Culture?

One of the most intriguing philosophical aspects of culture is the methodology by means of which its specimens have been and are studied. It seems, in fact, that in order to study a culture one has to remove herself from it, which in some sense it means that the only way to study a culture is by not sharing it.

The study of culture poses thus one of the hardest questions with respect to human nature: to what extent can you really understand yourself? To what extent can a society assess its own practices? If the capacity of self-analysis of an individual or a group is limited, who is entitled to a better analysis and why? Is there a point of view, which is best suited for the study of an individual or a society?

It is no accident, one could argue, that cultural anthropology developed at a similar time at which psychology and sociology also flourished. All three disciplines, however, seem to potentially suffer of a similar defect: a weak theoretical foundation concerning their respective relationship with the object of study. If in psychology it seems always legitimate to ask on which grounds a professional has a better insight into a patient’s life than the patient herself, in cultural anthropology one could ask on what grounds the anthropologists can better understand the dynamics of a society than the members of the society themselves.



How to study a culture? This is still an open question. To date, there certainly are several instances of research that try and address the questions raised above by means of sophisticated methodologies. And yet the foundation seems to be still in need of being addressed, or re-addressed, from a philosophical point of view.

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