Notes Towards The Definition Of Culture, Introduction
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I think our studies ought to be all but purposeless. They want to be pursued with chastity like mathematics.Lord Acton to Richard Simpson, 22 Jan. 1859
My purpose in writing the following chapters is not, as might appear from a casual inspection of the table of contents, to outline a social or political philosophy; nor is the book intended to be merely a vehicle for my observations on a variety of topics. My aim is to help to define a word, the word culture.
Just as a doctrine only needs to be defined after the appearance of some heresy, so a word does not need to receive this attention until it has come to be misused. I have observed with growing anxiety the career of this word culture during the past six or seven years. We may find it natural, and significant, that during a period of unparalleled destructiveness, this word should come to have an important role in the journalistic vocabulary. Its part is of course doubled by the word civilisation. I have made no attempt in this essay to determine the frontier between the meanings of these two words: for I came to the conclusion that any such attempt could only produce an artificial distinction, peculiar to the book, which the reader would have difficulty in retaining; and which, after closing the book, he would abandon with a sense of relief. We do use one word, frequently enough, in a context where the other would do as well; there are other contexts where one word obviously fits and the other does not; and I do not think that this need cause embarrassment. There are enough inevitable obstacles, in this discussion, without erecting unnecessary ones.
In August, 1945, there was published the text of a draft constitution for a ‘United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation’. The purpose of this organisation was, in Article I, defined as follows:
1 . To develop and maintain mutual understanding and appreciation of the life and culture, the arts, the humanities, and the sciences of the peoples of the world, as a basis for effective international organisation and world peace.
2. To co-operate in extending and in making available to all peoples for the service of common human needs the world’s full body of knowledge and culture, and in assuring its contribution to the economic stability, political security, and general well-being of the peoples of the world.
I am not at the moment concerned to extract a meaning from these sentences: I only quote them to call attention to the word culture and to suggest that before acting on such resolutions we should try to find out what this one word means. This is only one of innumerable instances which might be cited, of the use of a word which nobody bothers to examine. In general, the word is used in two ways: by a kind of synechdoche, when the speaker has in mind one of the elements or evidences of culture – such as ‘art’ or, as in the passage just quoted, as a kind of emotional stimulant or anaesthetic.
At the beginning of my first chapter I have endeavoured to distinguish and relate the three principal uses of the word: and to make the point, that when we use the term in one of these three ways we should do so in awareness of the others. I then try to expose the essential relation of culture to religion, and to make clear the limitations of the word relation as an expression of this ‘relation’. The first important assertion is that no culture has appeared or developed except together with a religion: according to the point of view of the observer, the culture will appear to be the product of the religion, or the religion the product of the culture.
In the next three chapters I discuss what seem to me to be three important conditions for culture. The first of these is organic (not merely planned, but growing) structure, such as will foster the hereditary transmission of culture within a culture: and this requires the persistence of social classes. The second is the necessity that a culture should be analysable, geographically, into local cultures: this raises the problem of ‘regionalism’. The third is the balance of unity and diversity in religion – that is, universality of doctrine with particularity of cult and devotion. The reader must keep in mind that I am not pretending to account for all the necessary conditions for a flourishing culture; I discuss three which have especially struck my attention. He must also remember that what I offer is not a set of directions for fabricating a culture. I do not say that by setting about to produce these, and any other additional conditions, we can confidently expect to improve our civilisation. I say only that, so far as my observation goes, you are unlikely to have a high civilisation where these conditions are absent.
The remaining two chapters of the book make some slight attempt to disentangle culture from politics and education.
I dare say that some readers will draw political inferences from this discussion: what is more likely is that particular minds will read into my text a confirmation or repudiation of their own political convictions and prejudices. The writer himself is not without political convictions and prejudices; but the imposition of them is no part of his present intention. What I try to say is this: here are what I believe to be essential conditions for the growth and for the survival of culture. If they conflict with any passionate faith of the reader – if, for instance, he finds it shocking that culture and equalitarianism should conflict, if it seems monstrous to hirn that anyone should have ‘advantages of birth’ – I do not ask him to change his faith, I merely ask him to stop paying lip-service to culture. If the reader says: ‘the state of affairs which I wish to bring about is right (or is just or is inevitable) and if this must lead to a further deterioration of culture, we must accept that deterioration’ – then I can have no quarrel with him. I might even, in some circumstances, feel obliged to support him. The effect of such a wave of honesty would be that the word culture would cease to be abused, cease to appear in contexts where it does not belong; and to rescue this word is the extreme of my ambition.
As things are, it is normal for anybody who advocates any social change, or any alteration of our political system, or any expansion of public education, or any development of social service, to claim confidently that it will lead to the improvement and increase of culture. Sometimes culture, or civilisation, is set in the forefront, and we are told that what we need, must have, and shall get, is a ‘new civilisation’. In 1944 I read a symposium in The Sunday Times (November 31 ) in which Professor Harold Laski, or his headline writer, affirmed that we were fighting the late war for a ‘new civilisation’. Mr. Laski at least asserted this;
If it is agreed that these who seek to rebuild what Mr. Churchill likes to call ‘traditional’ Britain have no hope of fulfilling that end, it follows that there must be a new Britain in a new civilisation.
We might murmur ‘it is not agreed’, but that would be to miss my point. Mr. Laski is right to this extent, that if we lose anything finally and irreparably, we must make do without it; but I think he meant to say something more than that.
Mr. Laski is, or was convinced that the particular political and social changes which he desires to bring about, and which he believes to be advantageous for society, will, because they are so radical, result in a new civilisation. That is quite conceivable; what we are not justified in concluding, with regard to his or any other changes in the social framework which anybody advocates, is that the ‘new civilisation’ is itself desirable. For one thing, we can have no notion of what the new civilisation will be like: so many other causes operate than those we may have in mind, and the results of these and the others, operating together, are so incalculable, that we cannot imagine what it would feel like to live in that new civilisation. For another thing, the people who live in that new civilisation will, by the fact of belonging to it, be different from ourselves, and they will be just as different from Mr. Laski. Every change we make is tending to bring about a new civilisation of the nature of which we are ignorant, and in which we should all of us be unhappy. A new civilisation is, in fact, coming into being all the time: the civilisation of the present day would seem very new indeed to any civilised man of the eighteenth century, and I cannot imagine the most ardent or radical reformer of that age taking much pleasure in the civilisation that would meet his eye now. All that a concern for civilisation can direct us to do, is to improve such civilisation as we have, for we can imagine no other. On the other hand, there have always been people who have believed in particular changes as good in themselves, without worrying about the future of civilisation, and without finding it necessary to recommend their innovations by the specious glitter of unmeaning promises.
A new civilisation is always being made: the state of affairs that we enjoy today illustrates what happens to the aspirations of each age for a better one. The most important question that we can ask, is whether there is any permanent standard, by which we can compare one civilisation with another, and by which we can make some guess at the improvement or decline of our own. We have to admit, in comparing one civilisation with another, and in comparing the different stages of our own, that no one society and no one age of it realises all the values of civilisation. Not all of these values may be compatible with each other: what is at least as certain is that in realising some we lose the appreciation of others. Nevertheless, we can distinguish between higher and lower cultures, we can distinguish between advance and retrogression. We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity. I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it is possible to say that it will have no culture. Then culture will have to grow again from the soil; and when I say it must grow again from the soil, I do not mean that it will be brought into existence by any activity of political demagogues. The question asked by this essay, is whether there are any permanent conditions, in the absence of which no higher culture can be expected.
If we succeed even partially in answering this question, we must then put ourselves on guard against the delusion of trying to bring about these conditions the sake of the improvement of our culture. For if any definite conclusions emerge from this study, one of them is surely this, that culture is the one thing that we cannot deliberately aim at. It is the product of a variety of more or less harmonious activities, each pursued for its own sake: the artist must concentrate upon his canvas, the poet upon his typewriter, the civil servant upon the just settlement of particular problems as they present themselves upon his desk, each according to the situation in which he finds himself. Even if these conditions with which I am concerned, seem to the reader to represent desirable social aims, he must not leap to the conclusion that these aims can be fulfilled solely by deliberate organisation. A class division of society planned by an absolute authority would be artificial and intolerable; a decentralisation under central direction would be a contradiction; an ecclesiastical unity cannot be imposed in the hope that it will bring about unity of faith, and a religious diversity cultivated for its own sake would be absurd. The point at which we can arrive, is the recognition that these conditions of culture are ‘natural’ to human beings that although we can do little to encourage them, we can combat the intellectual errors and the emotional prejudices which stand in their way. For the rest, we should look for the improvement of society, as we seek our own individual improvement, in relatively minute particulars. We cannot say: ‘I shall make myself into a different person’; we can only say: ‘I will give up this bad habit, and endeavour to contract this good one.’ So of society we can only say: ‘We shall try to improve it in this respect or the other, where excess or defect is evident; we must try at the same time to embrace so much in our view, that we may avoid, in putting one thing right, putting something else wrong.’ Even this is to express an aspiration greater than we can achieve: for it is as much, or more, because of what we do piecemeal without understanding or foreseeing the consequences, that the culture of one age differs from that of its predecessor.