Pre-History of the Culture Concept
Philipp Foltz, Discurso funebre pericles
The reality and experience of gravity precedes the development of the concept of gravity and the adoption of the word “gravity”. Similarly, the reality and experience of culture long precedes the development of the modern concept of culture and the adoption of the word “culture”.
Every human is not merely a biological being but also a social being. Every person is born into a particular context of social relationships. Every person learns how to behave and how to think in a manner that is particular to the social entity or entities of which the person is a part. While there are myriad definitions of ‘culture’, that which is cultural is distinct from that which is merely biological. Since so little is purely biological, every one of us is profoundly shaped by culture, whether we are conscious of this or not. In modern times, ‘culture’ has become a central concept in many social sciences. The complexity of cultural reality, together with the absence of any final external determinative authority, has led to myriad attempts to encapsulate the essentials of culture in pithy definitional statements. An analysis of culture and of cultural dynamics has become a very sophisticated enterprise which must consider a vast array of factors that play a part in explaining how humans can be so varied in how they view reality, in what they believe and value, and in the ways they think, act, speak and relate to others and the world around them.
We would not expect to find, and we do not find, such intensive and focused analysis of cultural reality until quite recent times. My interest in this paper is on locating conscious pre-modern attempts to articulate ideas that are relevant to and/or anticipate our contemporary conceptions of culture. What follows is not comprehensive but notes some of the major contributions in history up to and including Tylor’s famous definition of culture in 1871.
RUDIMENTS OF CULTURE
Ancient Chinese Foundations
Throughout much of Chinese history a basic distinction has been made between fa and li. Fa is conventionally translated as ‘law’, while li is conventionally translated as ‘rites’ or ‘rituals’, but with traditional customs, mores and norms in mind. The relationship between fa and li is a complex one and much debated, complicated by the way these terms assume different meanings in different contexts. But it can be said that Chinese history has been characterised by two contrasting approaches to creating political order. One clear approach, termed fazhi, has been that of the State using coercive power to force people to conform to laws, which sometimes have flown in the face of traditional culture. The alternative Confucian approach, lizhi, seeks social and political order by especially appealing to what might be thought of as traditional cultural values. Indeed, especially in Confucian thought, li approaches a concept of culture. As Nilar observes,
“The rites of li are not rites in the Western conception of religious custom. Rather, li embodies the entire spectrum of interaction with humans, nature, and even material objects. Confucius includes in his discussions of li such diverse topics as learning, tea drinking, titles, mourning, and governance.”
The system of norms that constitute li govern a broad range of practices and involve ideal guidelines for behaviour, especially interpersonal interactions. However, arguably, li falls short of a full conception of culture. It is a conservative conception which, given its stress on traditional customs, rituals and values, does not adequately allow for the dynamism of culture and the reality of cultural change.
Ancient Greek Foundations
The city-states of ancient Greece formed one pan-Hellenic community, despite adopting different political systems – democracies, oligarchies and aristocracies. Indeed, as Wooyeal and Bell remind us, Herodotus “defined the Hellenic body or unity as a community of race, a community of language, a community of religion, and a community of manners.” Citizenship was of major importance to most if not all of the city-states. Typically, strict limits were placed on the number of citizens, with citizenship usually denied to foreigners. This was associated with a strong “attachment to one’s own geographically based political community.”
In ancient Greece there were three words in particular which bear relation to what we now refer to as culture: nomos (often rendered ‘law’, as typically in the New Testament), ethos and paideia. This language was especially used with reference to the life of citizens in the polis which was of such central importance that the oikos or household, with its obligations, played second fiddle. This stands in stark contrast to the marginalisation of citizenship and the primacy of the family and attendant obligations in ancient China.
In the sixth century BC, the poet Pindar said “Nomos is king over all!” (nomos basileus panton). It is important to understand here that for the ancient Greeks the term nomos did not merely refer to the written “law” but also to the unwritten “law”, that is, to customs. So it is that in Pericles’ Funeral Oration as presented by Thucydides, Pericles states:
“We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.”
In the great play Antigone, Sophocles creates a scenario which sets such an unwritten law against a written law. Cleon regards Antigone’s dead brother Polynices as a traitor. He therefore legislates that his corpse be left exposed on the battlefield, prohibiting the performance of any sanctifying rituals. Antigone, knowing that to defy Cleon’s law means certain death, nevertheless feels compelled to do that which a higher law demands of her - to provide her brother with proper burial rites. Despite others imploring him to change his mind, Cleon implacably refuses to accept the validity of this unwritten law, with tragic results for himself as well as for others. By implication, a healthy society is one in which there is a harmonious relationship between written and unwritten laws and customs.
By Herodotus’ time nomos was used in three broad ways:
To refer to a written law enacted at a particular time.
As standing in contrast to physis (‘nature’) and describing human behaviour that varies from society to society.
To refer to what we would call ‘laws of nature’ – regularities in the working of the cosmos.
In particular, nomoi were effectively the rules which so strongly governed society that it was almost inevitable that the life of every individual would be shaped by traditional values and demands. The Ancient Greek use of the word nomos comes close to matching our modern concept of “culture”, since nomoi comprehended the laws, customs, institutions, traditions, way of life and ethos upon which every citizen depends.
Ever since the sixth century BC, the Greeks had argued as to whether nature (phusis/physis) or convention (nomos) had primacy. In other words, the nature or nurture (culture) debate is ancient, though our modern approach to this matter is skewed by the fact that for the ancient Greeks ‘nature’ did not equate to naturalism in our modern sense. Indeed, they had a transcendent view of physis as denoting ‘the divine norms of the universe” from which the “norms of human and social behavior” were derived. So, for the Greeks, the issue of primacy did not necessarily presuppose an antithesis between physis and nomos. Indeed, Heinimann observes that in the Hippocrates’ treatise named “On Airs, Waters and Places”, the two concepts are complementary. However, Herodotus reveals that, after the Greeks defeated the Persians, while some attributed this victory to the influence of Greek nomoi, others, especially in aristocratic circles, believed that it was the Greek’s personal physis that made them such successful humans.
For Plato and Aristotle nomoi is integral to the very nature of the polis. For them and thinkers like Protagoras and Thucydides, nomos served as a check on individuals, whose pursuit of personal interests and profit, threatened social cohesion. Their views of nomoi were fashioned against the backdrop of Sophistic treatments of nomoi as being merely culturally conditioned and relative, a perspective they developed after the Greeks came into contact with other civilizations and were thereby exposed to different nomoi. Sophistic views threatened the entire foundations of Greek morality, suggesting that even such categories as “good and evil, truth and error, justice and injustice were not divinely sanctioned or rooted in nature but were mere conventions created by human society on the basis of expediency or imposed by those with superior power.” In the fifth century BC, Antiphon provides the longest discussion of the contrasting relationship between nomos and physis. This work, fragment 44, has been variously interpreted, but at the least he questions nomos, saying:
“In this we are made barbarians, the ones against the others; for by nature we are all organized in a similar way in all respects, barbarians and Greeks. You can observe the necessities of what is organized by nature in all humans, as it is provided by the same faculties for all of them; and in this there is neither barbarian nor Greek discriminated among us: we all breathe into the air by mouth and nostrils, we laugh when we are glad in our mind, and we weep when we are feeling distress; and by hearing we accept the sounds, and through brightness we see with our eyesight; and we are active with our hands, and we walk with our feet."
Antiphon actually begins with a conventional definition of justice as ‘not transgressing the nomoi of the city in which one is a citizen.’ Antiphon effectively adopts the stance of cultural relativism, because he sees such nomoi as being merely products of social agreement, whereas physis, ‘the things of nature’, denotes that which is ultimately necessary. As Antiphon saw it, “the majority of the things that are just according to nomoi are hostile to nature.” He notes that while people can hear and see because of nature, it is nomos that determines what objects it is appropriate for a person to hear and see. Nevertheless, Antiphon should not be seen as completely rejecting nomos. He recognises, for example, that refraining from murder or repaying debts is not a natural necessity such as seeing with the eyes or hearing with the ears. But nomos involves laws opposing murder and requiring the repayment of debts.
In Plato’s Crito the perspectives of the imprisoned Socrates and his visiting friend Crito are contrasted. Crito, the pragmatist, is “imprisoned” by his values: reputation (public opinion), property and physical life, which, since he regards this as an absolute value, causes him to fear death. Socrates, the idealist, is “free” because, though his body is imprisoned, his soul supremely values justice. Crito tries to save Socrates’ body, while Socrates endeavours to save Crito’s soul. Socrates holds the view that one person cannot directly damage another person’s soul. However, he can damage the nomoi upon which every citizen depends.
In Socrates’ view to be a human being is to be a citizen. A city is its citizens, its institutions, customs, laws, traditions and ways of life. Heraclitus had insisted that citizens defend their nomoi as if defending their city walls. This is so because while nomoi are imperfect and not firmly rooted in natural principles, they are to be treated with the same kind of respect and obedience as is due one’s parents. For every individual is raised by both parents and nomoi, which includes, for example, language.
Socrates believes that the “soul” or ordering principle of the city is its nomoi, its culture. While one cannot direct harm the soul of another, one can indirectly do this by undermining the city’s culture. For “the caretakers of custom are the souls of men who revere custom; customs are sustained by souls that cherish them - keep them alive.” It is nomoi, culture, that binds citizens together. An unjust act is one that undermines this culture, this social order. For without conventions, institutions and social structures such as language, life and dialogue would be impossible. Socrates sees these as providing the very conditions which made his own life and career possible. So, to undermine culture is to not only destroy one’s own enabling context but also the matrix and context of the lives and activities of others. While customs change, life without customs is impossible.
Even by bribing the guide in order to see Socrates, Crito has chipped away at the social order that makes friendship and conversation possible. Everything a citizen does either contributes to or detracts from the culture of city, its moral and social environment.
The word “ethics” derives from the Greek word ethos. In rhetoric ethos was the first mode of persuasion used by a rhetorician, establishing his moral competence, as well as perhaps his expertise and knowledge. In such contexts as Greek tragedy or pictorial representation ethos might denote “character.” However, this word was also used to refer to “usage”, “custom” or “way of life.” In the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, this word is used in 1 Kings 18:28, which speaking of the Baal prophets, reads: “So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” In John 19:40 the word is used to say that the wrapping of Jesus’ body with spices in strips of linen “was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.”
All of the above illustrates that the reality and experience of culture was very real in ancient Greece. The importance attached to paideia further reinforces this. This is a word which approximates our modern words “enculturation” and “socialisation.” Paideia was the classical Greek system used to educate and train people from childhood so that they might assume their rightful place in the polis. Such “enculturation” included mousike and physical education. Mousike meant activities inspired by the muses, encompassing tragedy, comedy, elegy, oratory, music [in our sense], dance, natural history, history of society and astronomy. So paideia involved extensive development of body and mind and we can add to the foregoing list such things as gymnastics, grammar, rhetoric, poetry, mathematics, geography, physical sciences, ethics, and philosophy, though, significantly, not the visual arts.
Paideia did not merely refer to the process of education but also to the end or result of the process. This is because, as Jaeger points out, “Human nature and reason are the pillars of Greek culture.” Consequently, the Athenians especially sought to develop the humanity of their citizens, to bring about morphosis, ‘the formation of man’, something that was to resonate within later Christianity with its emphasis on transformation of character. It was understood that if Greek civilization was to flourish, as intended, that it was necessary to produce human beings who were competent to exercise “direct, active political responsibility in the popular assembly.” But this presupposed “one of the most powerful human instincts upon which all education and progress depends, the instinct of imitation,” that is, conformity to an “ideal pattern of humanity.” In the minds of Plato and Aristotle, nothing less than soteria, the very ‘salvation’ of society is contingent upon the realization of this goal.
RECOGNIZING CULTURAL DIFFERENCES
As we continue to consider early historical developments, we are particularly interested in those reflections of ‘otherness’ which involve a significant degree of reflection upon the nature of the differences found among those who are not like ‘us.’ For example, it is true that barbaros was used by Greeks to denote ‘others’, but it hard to find examples of this word’s usage that involve any substantial analysis of cultural dynamics and difference. This term was certainly used in a pejorative manner to denote those inferior to ‘us.’ But this was by no means a necessary use. At its most rudimentary level it simply recognised the fact that the other spoke another language. Herodotus used the term in a neutral fashion to refer to those who were not Greek. In a similar manner, we see Paul using the term in a neutral fashion in 1 Corinthians 14:11 to simplify signify a foreigner who speaks a language we don’t understand. Further, in Acts 28:1-10 the term is used twice in a context where Luke speaks in a highly positive manner about the Maltese as barbaroi. Herodotus recognised that the Egyptians had their own equivalent word for ‘barbarian’ to refer to all people who spoke a language other than their own.
Herodotus wrote about the customs practised by non-Greeks he encountered as he traveled in Asia, Egypt and Greece. For example, c.430 BC he wrote On the Customs of the Persians. Here he records his observations of religious practices, the importance they attached to birthday celebrations, what they eat and drink, including differences between rich and poor, etiquette at meals, how they make decisions, how they greet each other, moral standards, funeral customs and trading practices. Among other societies, he also wrote about the social customs of the Thracians, Scythians, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Libyans and tribes of the Black Sea. He describes examples of cultural diffusion and states, “There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians.” At the risk of being anachronistic, Herodotus was what we might call a cultural relativist, recognising with an astonishing lack of criticism of others’ customs, that not just Greeks, but other peoples as well, regard as superior their own customs and way of life.
At the end of the first century AD, Tacitus, in his Germania, anticipated ethnography with his description of the customs of the Germans in the Rhine river valley region. Although these people were Rome’s enemies Tacitus finds aspects of their culture commendable. Tacitus begins by describing the geography of Germany and seeks to explain the origin of the name Germany. He considers German myths and legends. He attempts to describe their physical characteristics, their economic practices, their agricultural system, their behaviour and approach to warfare, their religious beliefs and practices, their governmental and legal system, including marriage laws, the training of youth, typical dwellings, family life and their treatment of slaves. His own observations caused him to conclude that in peace time the men were indolent and surrendered the management of the household, home and land to the women, old men and the weakest members of the family. He also makes observations about modes of dress and differences among various classes and across gender. He admires the Germans for their sexual ethics and the value they place on hospitality. He comments on attitudes to hygiene, favoured foods and drink, recreational pursuits and funeral rites.
Around 1298 AD Marco Polo wrote Description of the World which included descriptions of Asian cultures and customs, especially those of China, though the authenticity of these accounts is in question. Also, in the 13th century, Roger Bacon, so-called Doctor Mirabilis, in his Opus Majus, remarked:
And we see that all things vary according to different localities of the world not only in nature, but also men in their customs; since the Ethiopians have one set of customs, the Spaniards another, the Romans still another, and the Greeks yet another. For even the Picards, who are neighbours to the true Gauls, have such a difference in customs and language, but that we cannot but wonder at such diversity in neighbouring localities.
Muhsin Mahdi maintains that Arab politician and historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) had begun a science of culture as early as the 14th century. He summarises Ibn Khaldun as conceiving of culture as that which belongs to the nature of man, differentiating him from the rest of the animal world, which essentially “is the power or faculty of intellect or mind…”Indeed, some regard him as the founder of sociology. Ibn Khaldun analysed the nature of and need for human society and made much of the need to determine the laws that govern the transformation of a society. In his great work Muqaddimah (Prolegomena) Ibn Khaldun contrasted Bedouin and urban societies in Algeria. He considered geographical distribution, the nature of nomadic tribes and sedentary societies, political ranks, and economic organisations. Though anachronistic we might say Khaldun was almost Hegelian in his understanding of society, seeing social change as a result of the constant interaction between nomads and townspeople.
Khaldun is remembered for developing the concept of social stability, observing that the group or society is held together by the feeling of identity people have with others belonging to the same entity. Where social solidarity exists conformity to group expectations is strong and controls behaviour much more effectively than any external constraint can do. He argued that nomadic tribes have a greater degree of social solidarity than sedentary peoples, due to the harsher, more dangerous nature of their lives. This makes members of the tribe much more dependent on each other, with a willingness of individuals to make personal sacrifices for the good of the group. Khaldun expected that nomadic tribes would usually defeat sedentary peoples whenever there was conflict between them because sedentary peoples lack strong social solidarity and are more individualistic rather than interdependent.
The invention of Gutenberg’s Printing Press in 1450 took place near the beginning of the Great Voyages of Discovery (1400-1600) and had much to do with the circulation of the exotic tales told by sailors and traders. Literate people were increasingly struck by the immense disparity between the values and customs of the West and the values and customs of newly discovered, especially so-called ‘primitive’ societies. In the late 16th century Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) introduced an early form of cultural relativism when he sought to understand the morality of such peoples on their own terms and spoke against the prevalent depiction of them as “barbaric” and “savage”. Early forms of anthropological interest in “culture” were largely restricted to the study of isolated tribal groups and it was standard to suppose that European culture represented the highest level of cultural progress.
TOWARDS A CONCEPT OF CULTURE
Giovanni Batista Vico’s book New Science (1744) has led to him being dubbed the pioneer of ethnology. Vico had a view of culture that consisted in sets of linguistic and physical symbols holding societal structures together, which enabled individuals, as members of a group, to safely and successfully negotiate life.
By 1750 a concept of culture was also expressed by Anne Robert Jacques Turgot:
Possessor of a treasure of signs which he has the faculty of multiplying to infinity, he [man] is able to assure the retention of his acquired ideas, to communicate them to other men, and to transmit them to his successors as a constantly expanding heritage.
It was in the 1870s that an articulated concept of culture was first introduced into the English language by Matthew Arnold and Edward B. Tylor. In Culture and Anarchy, Arnold explained in the preface that culture is
a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.
Arnold’s view of culture is often dubbed “high culture.” As the title of his book suggests, Arnold contrasted culture with anarchy. However, others were moving towards a concept of culture which rather depended on comparing and contrasting civilised life with the so-called “state of nature.” It was Hobbes who sparked off interest in the state of nature with his view, expressed in Leviathan, that this natural human condition was lawless, apart from two natural impulses – the endeavour of each individual to seek peace and security, plus a willingness to allow others of like mind to enjoy commensurate freedom insofar as this promoted a person’s personal goals for peace and security. In Hobbes’ mind it is these impulses that lead to the kind of mutual contracts that result in the formation of civil government. Others like Locke, Rousseau and Hume, with differing understandings of the state of nature, inevitably developed varying perspectives on the civilised life, with Rousseau, for example, even making civilisation responsible for teaching human beings to act badly.
But it was especially Tylor’s definition of culture (1871) that continues to serve as a major reference point for all continuing discussions:
Culture, or civilization, taken in its wide, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.
We have noted some major precursors to the concept of culture. The ancient Chinese concepts of fa and li are certainly relevant, as are ancient Greek terms such as nomos, ethos and paideia. Significantly, in both instances the terms are used especially in relation to one’s own society, be it Chinese or Greek. There is little evidence that non-Chinese or non-Greeks are also seriously viewed as cultural beings to whom such terms equally apply. There is also a dearth of evidence that any attempt was made to understand the dynamics of culture, for example, how to understand the impact of such factors as human nature, history, environment and socio-political context on the shaping of different ways of life.
Greeks tended to use the above terms in a restricted manner with a primary focus on citizenship. There is little evidence of an understanding that non-Greeks were also cultural beings. This is also true with respect to non-citizens in the Greek polis, such as slaves. Herodotus constitutes a remarkable exception to this. He treats non-Greeks as cultural beings and evidently possessed a considerable degree of cultural intelligence. He had a keen eye for cultural differences, even if not always accurately recorded. But we do not find in Herodotus’ writings any articulation of culture or depth of cultural analysis that goes much beyond the recognition that all people groups have their nomoi.
Tacitus, Marco Polo and Roger Bacon, among others I have not named, followed in Herodotus’ train in their own attempts to recognise and list different customs followed by other peoples. But it is only following Ibn Khaldun that something akin to a scientific approach is adopted in seeking to account for such cultural differences through an understanding of human nature, along with an analysis of societal and environmental factors.
The voyages of discovery, together with the wide circulation of printed accounts of other people groups and societies, played a key role in motivating early approaches to anthropology, especially seeking to understand remote tribal peoples whose ways of life seemed so very different. It was in the late 18th century, via such figures as Vico and Turgot, that the importance of symbols and signs are associated with an understanding of culture. But modern understandings of culture often look back to Tylor’s famous 1871 definition. There was a tendency on the part of many to identify culture with civilisation, as Hobbes had done. But others rightly dissented from this view. The very fact that Tylor’s definition does involve the identification of culture with civilisation shows that in a very real sense it still belongs to the pre-history of the culture concept.
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Notes  Peerenboom, “Law and ritual in Chinese philosophy.”  Sor-hoon Tan recalls that when John Dewey spent time in China from 1919-1921, he concluded, “The emperor did not govern. He ruled by not governing, by not interfering with the real government, the customs of the people, which were so immemorial and so interwoven with agriculture, with the operations of nature that they themselves were like the workings of nature.” “The Dao of Politics,” 468.  “The Concept of ‘Li’ in Confucius’ Social Ethics,” 54  Epley, “Care Ethics,” 882-3, 885.  “Citizenship,” 19.  “Citizenship,” 26.