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Culture, Anarchy, and Everything Else

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Let me see if I  can backtrack a little here and do this in order.

John wants to know how I’m using the word “culture,” since to him it means things like music and art, and a Wall Street CEO and an assembly line worker would have two entirely different cultures.  He also wants to know if it isn’t possible that certain “elites” in the West just happened to find the scientific method, by accident.

So, to culture first–I’ve been trying for most of two days to find a succinct definition that I could use here without needing to send everybody to the history of anthropology–but the best I’ve been able to do (and it’s got holes in it) is that culture is a set of factors–assumptions about the nature of the world and the human being; habits of mind; customary and literate references (if the culture in question is literate at all)–shared by a geographically cohesive group of people or peoples.

Like I said, that’s got holes in it, but it will do for a start.   Not only do the Wall Street  CEO and the assembly line worker not have entirely different cultures, but they are so distinctly Western (and probably distinctly American) that they’d be recognizable anywhere else on the planet with no trouble at all.

I’ve got cousins who are 100% ethnically Greek in spite of being born and brought up here, but the genes don’t matter a damn.  Set them down in Athens, and every Greek can nail them as Americans without ever hearing them say a word.  Americans walk differently than even other Westerners, and Westerners walk differently, use different body language and approach problems differently than the members of any other civilization.

The differences between a Wall Street  CEO and an assembly line worker look vast only when we compare them to each other without taking into account the other cultures in the world.  Put both of them next to a !Kung tribesman or a Yemeni Muslim, and their similarities become entirely clear.

Even differences that look vast on the surface often turn out to be less so as you look into them.  As an article on Arts and Letters  Daily pointed out a while ago, even our Biblical fundamentalists assume that they can, and should, prove the literal truth of the Genesis account of creation by reference to material evidence outside scripture–that scripture and authority are not enough. 

Western Civilization starts in Greece because Greece where philosophy first arose.   Robert said to me once that he lumped philosophy in with theology, but the point of philosophy is precisely that it is not theology.  Philosophy says that we can know the world by studying the world, without references to anything (like a supernatural deity, or magic) outside the world.  Revelation does not matter.  We can understand how the world works, and how we work, by reason alone.

This does not mean, of course, that philosophy is necessarily atheistic, in the strong sense of declaring that God (or the gods) do not exists.   It simply declares the existence of God to be outside the realm of what it studies, and then it just ets the question go.  Individual philosophers have been everything from militant atheists to devout  Roman  Catholic monks.  It just doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that this assumption–that we can understand the world, and ourselves, by reference to the world alone, by reason, and without revelation–is the necessary foundation of anything we would now call science, and it is an assumption not shared by or developed by any other civilization on earth.

Without this assumption, we could never have developed the scientific method, and having this assumption, it was inevitable that, given enough time, we would develop the scientific method.

Virtually everything we think of as an academic subject began first as philosophy.  What we now call the “natural sciences” began as “natural philosophy,” and although some of that natural philosophy was speculation about the nature of being (which is probably what Robert thinks of as like theology), an awful lot of it was more familiar.

Aristotle collected examples of plant and animal life from all over the world and insisted that natural philosophy required observation of the world to be of value.  Theophrastus, who lived around 310 BC, is still considered the “founder of botany” because of his lifelong attempts to observe, categorize and classify what he hoped would be all the plants in the world, plus trying to grow as many as he could in a vast garden he used to make notes and observations about how things grew, how they differed, how they could and could not be cultivated.

Even the endless chitter chattering about ‘Being” which drives so many people crazy was just the first stab at what would later become particle physics.  We haven’t stopped trying to find what it m eans for something “to be,” or what reality is made of, we just do it with cyclotrons these days.

Ancient philosophers, though, didn’t confine themselves to finding a science of plants and animals and the  Ground of Being.  As far as they were concerned, reason could be applied to all aspects of life, including art and morality, and all aspects of life were as open to study as the nature of plants and animals, or the operations of the heavens.

Aristotle was the first literary critic (in the academic, not the book reviewer, sense), and he gave us the first systematic non-religious examination of what it means to be “good,” to be moral.

John said that a lot of ancient societies seem to have been slave societies, but there is no “seems” about it.  Every single literate society that has ever existed on this planet has kept slaves, and the idea that there was something wrong with this, and that it should be stopped, doesn’t show up until the nineteenth century.

Even then, it shows up only in the Anglophone sphere, in England and America and Canada, the children of the English (sometimes called the Scottish) Enlightenment.  Britain had an empire at the time, and a big one, and the rest of the world ended up bowing to her when she insisted on suprressing the slave trade.

But slavery exists even today, mostly in Muslim nations in Africa, and those societies by no means accept the Western prescription that such behavior is wrong.   In fact, the weaker the West looks–or is made to look by the kind of idiots who declare that there are no universal rights and every culture is just as good as any other–the more frequent become the declarations ofthe “right” of socities to choose slavery. 

And they don’t argue on the West’s terms, either.  Western creationists feel the need to at least look like they’re presenting evidence for what they believe.  Non-Western advocates of slavery just say “we’ve always done it this way, it’s our tradition” and “the  Koran says it’s okay and you don’t have any right to question it.”  

The interesting thing about Western civilization is not that it once condoned slavery, it’s that it gave it up.  Robert will tell you that that was largely due to Christianity, and he’s right–but Christianity itself is a part of the West, and it didn’t start out opposed to slavery any more than Rome did.   It got there by applying the Western philosophical approach to questions of morality rather the way lawyers apply legal reasoning to the law. 

And that approach made all the difference in the world. 

Which I think I’ll get to tomorrow, with any luck.

Written by janeh

June 17th, 2009 at 6:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Culture, Anarchy, and Everything Else'

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  1. Jane, that was a very post. But, I ran out of sleeping pills yesterday and my tinnitus ran wild all night, so I am in no mental shape to provide a sensible reply today.

    I do think that your definition of culture is too broad. “The differences between a Wall Street CEO and an assembly line worker look vast only when we compare them to each other without taking into account the other cultures in the world. Put both of them next to a !Kung tribesman or a Yemeni Muslim, and their similarities become entirely clear.”

    Put an Italian and an Icelander next to the !Kung and Yemeni and the similarities become clear also holds.


    17 Jun 09 at 1:45 pm

  2. I can’t leave this with only one comment!

    Unlike John, I can agree that the various subcultures making up western civilizations are different from other broad categorization of cultures. I’m not entirely convinced that means that none of the others are inherently incapable of change or of questioning. I don’t know others well enough to be sure. More importantly, cultures always change. Even the most static change – the more slowly the more isolated they are from really different cultures – but they all change over time. And the rate of change seems to be increasing. Western cultural ideas, and the lifestyles they support, seem to be as appealing as they are threatening to a lot of members of other cultures.

    You’re right about the genetically vs culturally Greek thing. On my first trip overseas, I was astonished how easily everyone identified me as a foreigner even before I opened my mouth. Of course, I can do the same here. Someone once tried to convince me that of course I was a member of ‘European’ (read: ‘White’) culture, and I couldn’t buy it for a minute. My culture is closely related to one of the Old Country ones, sure, and I’m interested in them. But I’ve been there, and I’m a foreigner. A well-treated one, to be sure; one who has had many great experiences there, but a foreigner still.


    18 Jun 09 at 5:04 am

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