What is a culture? What is its role in man’s life? Can a culture be good or bad?

The concept culture refers to shared beliefs, practices, tastes, values, attitudes etc. A culture plays many important roles in man’s life

As a child grows, he learns by observing the world around him. An important part of this learning process is observing and mimicking the actions of others. He builds his knowledge and his concepts on the evidence that he sees – the facts that he observes, the results of the actions that he and others around him perform. Even as an adult, it is difficult – if not impossible – for man to consciously and explicitly think about every issue in his life or question all conventional wisdom. A conscientious man will attempt to find first hand all the relevant evidence on issues that he considers important. But he will also have to depend on commonly held beliefs and on trusted authorities. Clearly then, the extent of a man’s knowledge, the validity of his concepts, his conviction in his beliefs all depend to a considerable extent on the culture he lives in. This should be obvious. The most intelligent and conscientious man living in a tribal society has far less knowledge and holds far more false beliefs than an average person in a modern industrial society.

A very important part of commonly held beliefs are moral beliefs – beliefs about the right way for man to live his own life and to deal with others. These beliefs determine how a society will deal with those who choose to dissent. Irrespective of the specifics of these beliefs, a person who chooses to dissent on fundamental beliefs will be shunned by society. But a society that does not believe in the right to dissent will make life physically impossible for the dissenters.

It is easier for a man to live in a society whose members speak the same language, have similar behavioral habits, eat similar foods etc. A shared culture eases communication and makes interaction predictable.

Shared tastes in music, literature, cinema, sport etc provide psychological support to man. They give him ways to enjoy the company of friends and content for polite conversations with strangers. They help in making a purposeful life complete.

These roles are interrelated, particularly the cognitive and moral ones. As an example, although the role of culture in the cognitive realm is one of default (It affects those beliefs which a man has not consciously questioned), a freedom-loving and rights-respecting culture increases the motivation to question and discover knowledge while an authoritarian culture kills it. As another example, a technologically advanced culture gives men leisure time to spend on the arts.

The cognitive and moral aspects of a culture are its defining or essential characteristics. It is easy for man to change his food and behavioral habits, or to enjoy different sports. It is not very difficult to learn a different dialect or a new language. It is difficult to reject long held fundamental beliefs. It is nearly impossible to change a thought process or an outlook on life. These are formed at the early stages of a person’s growth and they are the core of a person’s identity. A culture that promotes rational and independent thought is a great value to its members. A culture that inhibits it is a great burden.

A note on geography and globalization:
Today geography is an important factor in the way culture affects a person’s life. As globalization happens and people are exposed to ideas (and their effects) from other cultures, the importance of geography will decrease. But globalization is by no means an inevitable process. A culture that seeks truth and believes that its pursuit is possible by natural means will welcome globalization. A culture that believes that truth can only be attained by mystical insights will consider outside influences as harmful and will close itself to them. Moreover the mere spread of ideas and information is no guarantee that the right ideas will win. Information has to be interpreted. Ideas have to be understood. Understanding ideas and interpreting information from another place or age is not an easy task – especially in cultures dominated by bad ideas. The success of globalization depends on active effort by intellectuals who understand its nature and importance. If globalization fails, the results might be worse than if it had never occurred.

7 Responses

  1. I am a long-term student of history. Your clearly written post has started me thinking about X. I don’t have a name for X. It is the process of progressive awareness of and interaction with a wider and wider society and culture as time passes.

    Humanity has gone through this process through the millenia, from the smallest bands in tiny territories in the stone age, integrating–cognitively, socially, and geographically–into larger and larger groups (across wider and wider territory). Each child goes through the same process, starting with a single room and a few people, and gradually expanding cognitively, socially, and geographically.

    Thank you for the post. It is thought-provoking. As a reader, I can’t ask for more than that.

    P. S.–As a long-term student of history, I use a very broad definition of “culture” that I learned from anthropologists: Culture is all the products of the human mind that can be passed to other individuals and thus from one generation to the next. In this sense, culture includes chopsticks, symphonies, a particular government (as an institution), books, the concept of rights (expressed in writing or recorded speaking), customs about who precedes whom through a doorway, languages, and selectively bred chickens, and so forth.

  2. Burgess,
    I wrote “The concept culture refers to shared beliefs, practices, tastes, values, attitudes etc.” I am looking at only those products of the human mind which are shared (or atleast dominant) in a given place and time. The purpose of my concept of culture is to (attempt to) distinguish between the aspects of a man’s identity that are unique to him and those that are a result of him living in a specific society in a specific age.
    Your definition includes all products of the human mind. I can see how your concept is useful to an anthropologist or a historian.
    I believe there is a considerable difference in the two concepts and that we need different terms to refer to them.

    I wrote this post to clear my own thoughts in response to a comment by softwarenerd on my last post. Now you say that my post set you thinking. This is very rewarding to me. Thanks for the comments and please keep them coming.

  3. “The most intelligent and conscientious man living in a tribal society has far less knowledge and holds far more false beliefs than an average person in a modern industrial society.”

    What do you define a tribe as? What knowledge does a “tribe” lack? What are these false beliefs? A tribe in perspective to what. I think that quite general and a bit assumptous to propose that as fact.

  4. I say this because wasn’t it you who said that society in general is a mainstream consciousness of ideologues created by “individuals” (which i disagree with since the individual itself is society). Anyhow, if this is the case, than wouldn’t a “tribe” member, pending your definition of it, be a more free thinking human being since it is not tied down to the limits of the state and have superior independent skills in the natural world since they don’t have the luxury of supermarkets, hospitals, or law enforcement and have a deeper awareness of their natural existence due to their proximity to the natural world. As far as falsely held beliefs, is the belief that the common modern man should be living in a grid like system where the objective is to work for the system to make money to survive and achieve personal happiness while abiding by the laws and mandates of the state far less fallacy than a tribe’s belief in living off the natural world? So you must define what “knowledge” a tribe lacks, and when you do, you will realize what “knowledge” modern industrial society lacks for it has forgotten where It came from. In an industrial world, of course a tribal person has far less knowledge, but put a modern human being in the desert, or the forests, the mountains, the coasts, the tundras from which we came from and were meant to be in, and we know who has far less knowledge. The common modern man believes he is independent, a falsely held belief in my opinion, because we have civil services working for us, garbage, water, trash, sewer, utilities companies working for us, electricity, gas, etc, paved roads, healthcare, automobiles, grocery stores, we are completely dependent on these things, and we are naive to think we are superior human beings. Ask the common man to navigate home by using the stars, or to tell time from the position of the sun, ask the modern man to find the herbs necessary to heal, and the correct form of catching fish, proper farming, how to find water or even make a simple fire. What tribes have you studied, and the word tribe comes from an outsider’s perspective, do you really think originally these peoples called themselves tribes? No. Westernization proclaimed such peoples as “tribes” because they did not measure up to their standards. I really believe you should question more the perspective of Western thought about how all this universe is somehow able to be categorized and measured and weighed and defined, and look at it through the other side.

  5. Interesting classification, K.M.

    At its root, a culture espouses some type of philosophy. I think a second level is the cultural “mood” or the dominant “metaphysical value judgments”. These, in turn, influence psychological approaches. Finally, there are the optional implementations — like food. Some implementations — like the art or etiquette — are a mix of the underlying (philosophical and psychological) influences, mixed in with optional/historical influences.

  6. Marc,
    A tribe is a society without explicit laws, without a division of labor economy and without much theoretical knowledge. Perhaps I could come up with a better definition, but I was only using the word in a general sense. Typically tribes worship a variety of gods and ascribe natural phenomena to their moods. These are the false beliefs I was talking of. Sure tribe members have a lot of general practical knowledge in dealing with nature. Men in a modern industrial society lack such knowledge. But that is besides the point. Industrial society is based on division of labor. Men in an industrial society have a lot of specialized knowledge which they trade with others. Trade makes it possible for man to concentrate on one narrow field and get the benefits of the enormous pool of knowledge that results from specialization. So yes, I know nothing about farming, fishing, carpentry, steel manufacturing, mining and innumerable other fields. All I know is how to write specific types of software for a specific operating system using a specific set of tools. And yet I have the time to sit in the comfort of my home and write on my blog, confident in the knowledge that I can trade the products of my specialized knowledge for the products of the knowledge of others. A man in a tribal society knows how to light a fire, hunt for food, cook it, skin the animals he has hunted, make clothes from the skins and a lot of other such things. And yet he cannot be confident that he will get his next meal or find a secure place to sleep. That is the difference that a culture makes in the life of man. Am I a “superior” human being as compared to some member of some tribe? No comparison is possible in general (unless of course the comparison is for a software job). And who cares anyway? The point is not about the superiority of individuals from different cultures. It is about the superiority of a culture by the standard of its potential for supporting a life proper to man. The primary aspect of a culture that can support a proper life is a respect for reason and a corresponding respect for freedom.

  7. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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