Friday, July 2, 2010

A theory of culture

I have formulated a theory of culture as an assemblage of values shared among a group of people.
These values are such that they each describe a good or its negative equivalent a bad.
An example may serve to illustrate. It is a good thing that mothers instinctively care for their children. It is a bad thing to cause harm to others without reason, such as self-defense. To love your neighbour as you love yourself is good.
The culture should be teachable for otherwise it would die out. It would be transmitted to the youngsters of the culture much as language is passed on from mother to child. Demonstrably, language is a huge part of a culture for many values can only be transmitted as part of language, such as good poetry or other aesthetically pleasing language forms: plays, speeches, essays and the like.
It is observable as this is actually done, that many values become condensed as aphorisms.
Use of language in particular ways can signal differences in culture that is differences in the shared values.
After Wittgenstein, "the meaning of a word is its use," or the way it is used in a particular language game.
Values thus must be meaningful or the culture is without point.
Language differences between people can signal a difference of culture.
People discourse to detect these differences.
Personal safety may be an issue, where variance in language use can signify a danger of association with the person.
This gives sense in having a discussion in order to get to know someone. In this case what is being sought is the presence of shared values, which may give credence to the possibility of a "meaningful relationship" being formed.
Thus it is that many sociologists regard culture as, " The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought."

For many to speak of culture is to speak only of the Arts: music, painting sculpture, crafts, etc. While it is useful for purposes of that discussion, it is nonetheless true that a person can be "of a culture" and that that culture may have identifiable artistic forms associated exclusively with that culture and indeed, that that culture may be identified by those arts, eg. Eskimo culture.
A culture must have a set of beliefs, for it makes no sense to speak of goods" if it is not also "believed" by a member of that culture that a thing is a good. Thus a culture necessarily has a belief structure, or equivalently a structure of non-beliefs.

UC Berkeley Classics Professor Tony Long says that "Epictetus scarcely needs updating as an analyst of the psyche's strengths or weaknesses, and as a spokesman for human dignity, autonomy, and integrity." The central Stoic thesis, says Long, is that our God-given reason and ability to self-reflect give us the power to shape our own lives. As Shakespeare put it: "Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so."

Epictetus thinks of being human as a profession.

A profession?

We think of professionals as having technical skills, and Epictetus uses the word in exactly that kind of way. So what is the profession of being a human being? It's acknowledging your irreducible social identity--that you are positioned in the world with a certain set of relationships--family, work, community, all kinds of relationships. And therefore your profession, as a human being, is to fulfill those relationships in the best possible way. This seems to me an extraordinarily different way of thinking about our identity from our usual idea of the "real me."
On all known subjects, ranging from aviation to xylophone-playing, I have fixed and invariable ideas. They have not changed since I was four or five."
—H. L. Mencken