Version classiqueVersion mobile

Revolution or Renaissance

D. Paul Schafer

Part II - The age of culture

6. Foundations for a Cultural Age

Texte intégral

Culture constitutes the topmost phenomenal level yet recognized—or for that matter, now imaginable—in the realm of nature.
—Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn (1963), p. 290

1If a cultural age is to function effectively, it will have to be erected on firm foundations. Without this it will be not be possible to realize the full potential of culture or to achieve the aims and objectives established for it. Of the foundations that will have to be created, four stand out from all the rest: achieving general agreement on the nature of culture, broadening and deepening understanding of cultures, interpreting history from a cultural perspective, and capitalizing on cultures great practical and theoretical tradition.

The Nature of Culture

2Achieving general agreement on the nature of culture is the most difficult to realize because there are so many different concepts and definitions of culture in use throughout the world. Today, this is causing confusion, misunderstanding, and uncertainty for many people. For some people culture is the arts. For others it is the legacy from the past, or leisure-time activity. For still others it is the “cultural industries” of publishing, radio, television, film, video, and sound recording. For others again, it is a state of mind, a way of life, a set of shared values, symbols and beliefs, a means of interacting with the natural environment, or the organizational forms of different species. This makes it essential to reach general agreement on the nature of culture before anything else is addressed. It would be foolhardy to predicate any age, but particularly a cultural age, on a concept that causes confusion and misunderstanding rather than acceptance and a reasonable measure of certainty.

3How are we to proceed when there are so many different concepts and definitions of culture from which to choose? While many approaches to the problem are possible, the most promising one involves examining the way in which culture has evolved as a concept over a history spanning some two thousand years (see Schafer 1998a, pp. 13-65).

4The concept of culture can be traced back to the Romans, who associated it with cultivation of the mind, as when Cicero wrote that cultura animi philosophia est (“philosophy is the cultivation of the soul”). This view remains influential today since, while most scholars see culture as something substantially broader and deeper than this, many people continue to think of culture in terms of individual self-refinement.

5During the Middle Ages, culture was associated more with the arts than with philosophy, another approach that remains influential: most countries and governments use a similar concept of culture as art in their official definitions of the word. There are legitimate reasons for this. The arts have long been recognized for their capacity to provide countries with a distinctive identity through their concern with excellence, creativity, beauty, truth, inspiration, freedom of expression, and a sense of “place.” Moreover, the arts are often responsible for propelling societies to higher and higher levels of accomplishment through their capacity to create signs, symbols, stories, myths and legends, metaphors and beliefs that are then diffused through the process of cultural communication and enrichment.

6Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, in the hands of Matthew Arnold and other social critics, culture came to be associated with education, in the sense of the pursuit of excellence and perfection, as individuals and societies alike acquired greater knowledge and understanding, and set out, in Arnolds phrase (p. 70), “to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.” In Arnold’s view, it was not sufficient for people to learn and understand without giving anything back in return. It was also essential for people (whom Arnold, being of his time, calls “men”) to ensure that “the best” was made accessible to all citizens and to future generations (p. 69):

The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time; who have laboured to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanize it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time, and a true source, therefore, of sweetness and light.

7Even as Arnold was writing, Tylor and other anthropologists were beginning to view culture in substantially broader terms than his, launching the holistic understanding of culture discussed in the previous chapter. They had discovered that, while there were all sorts of words to describe the specific activities in which people engage as they set about meeting their individual and collective needs, and working out their complex relationships with the world, there was no word to describe how all these activities are woven together to form a whole. “Culture” was the word they chose to designate that whole. Accordingly, Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Ralph Linton, Bronislaw Malinowski, Alfred Kroeber, Edward Hall, and numerous other anthropologists have defined culture as “the sum of all activities in a society,” “all manifestations of a community,” “the totality of material and non-material traits,” “the sum total of ideas, conditioned emotional responses, and patterns of habitual behaviour,” or “the total body of belief, behaviour, knowledge, sanctions, values, and goals that mark the way of life of any people” (all quoted by Kroeber and Kluckhohn, pp. 81-84). Their intention is not to downplay or denigrate the parts of the whole, but rather to recognize that those parts are always combined in specific combinations and arrangements to form a whole that is greater than the parts or the sum of the parts.

8Interest in this holistic way of looking at and thinking about culture has become prevalent not only among anthropologists but also in cultural institutions such as UNESCO. After many years of defining culture largely as the arts, the finer things in life, heritage, and “the cultural industries” of publishing, radio, television, film, video, and sound recording, UNESCO has started to define culture in far more expansive terms, as the total way of life of a people. This holistic view was confirmed in 1982, when the following definition was adopted at UNESCO’s Second World Conference on Cultural Policies in Mexico City (UNESCO 1987, p. 41):

Culture may now be said to be the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions, and beliefs.

9The arguments for adopting this holistic understanding of culture were set out even more forcefully in the planning documents and working papers for the World Decade of Cultural Development (1988-97) referred to earlier (UNESCO 1987, p. 16):

Without neglecting the importance of creativity as expressed in intellectual and artistic activity, they [the participants at the Second World Conference on Cultural Policies] considered it important to broaden the notion of culture to include behaviour patterns, the individuals view of him/herself, of society, and of the outside world. In this perspective, the cultural life of a society may be seen to express itself through its way of living and being, through its perceptions and self-perceptions, its behaviour patterns, value systems, and beliefs.

10As long as people and countries are in no danger of losing their cultures, it is easy to define culture in partial rather than holistic terms, whether as the arts, the humanities, heritage, or the “cultural industries.” However, as soon as culture is threatened or there is a danger of losing it, as is the case for many countries and peoples today, there is a sudden realization of the comprehensive character of culture as a total way of life. Clearly, there is nothing quite like the threat of cultural extinction or foreign domination to bring about a rapid realization of the holistic character of culture.

11It is impossible to view culture in holistic terms without extending it to all groups, classes, activities, people, and institutions. Culture in this sense is all-inclusive. It is education and the environment as well as economics, pop music as well as classical music, science as well as art, business as well as recreation, technology as well as sports, industry as well as religion, politics as well as social affairs, popular activities as well as elite activities. This is what more and more people mean when they say that they are products of their culture. This is probably why the Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka views culture as “Source,” from which all things flow and to which all things return (p. 21):

We need therefore to constantly reinforce our awareness of the primacy of Source, and that source is the universal spring of Culture. It is nourished by its tributaries, which sink back into the earth, and thereby replenish that common source in an unending, creative cycle. That one tributary proves more aggressive, domineering, more seemingly nourished than others does not transform its egalitarian quotient.

12Perceived this way, culture is concerned with the entire set of ways in which people visualize and interpret the world, organize themselves, conduct their affairs, elevate and enrich life, and position themselves in the world. Since each component of this holistic understanding of culture enriches our knowledge and understanding of culture as a concept, it pays to examine each component in turn.

13First, people’s ideological, mythological, cosmological, aesthetic, scientific, religious and ethical beliefs and convictions constitute the cornerstone of culture, because they provide the axioms, assumptions, and premises on which culture is based. They function very much like the submerged part of a huge iceberg: while they are more implicit than explicit, they are always there, just below the surface. As a result, they are of crucial importance to the overall understanding of culture and cultures because they are intimately connected to the natural environment, the global situation, the world system, the human condition, concepts of space, time, life, death, reality, and the universe, and theories of development and change.

14Second, culture includes how people organize themselves with respect to economic systems, social processes, political procedures and government activities, technological and communications policies, and ecological practices, whether in neighbourhoods, communities, towns, cities, regions, countries, cultures, civilizations or the world system overall. These activities are undergoing profound change as a result of shifting trading practices, globalization, computerization, commercialization, demographic developments, pluralism, and new economic, political, social, environmental and technological realities.

15Third, culture includes how people make and carry out their decisions about family life, child-rearing, consumer behaviour and expenditure, living arrangements, gender relations, and personal preferences and practices. Just how important these things are is indicated by the enormous importance of family life, child-rearing, and gender relations in the modern world.

16Fourth, culture includes how people elevate and enrich their lives through education and training, artistic and scientific preferences, spiritual practices, moral values, and all those things that make life deeper, richer, and more meaningful than it would otherwise be. It is in this domain that many of the signs, stories, and rituals are created that are used to understand culture in the holistic sense, providing the building blocks, tools, and techniques to unlock the secrets of culture.

17Finally, culture includes how people position themselves in the world in respect of geographical location, temporal situation, geopolitical processes, and territorial manoeuvring. These factors play a critical role in determining the ways in which distinct groups of people in different parts of the world situate themselves in space, relate to the natural environment and the world around them in a specific, practical sense, interact with each other, and occupy particular pieces of the planet.

18When culture is defined in this all-encompassing sense, it can be visualized as a huge tree with roots, trunk, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit, to adopt the metaphor favoured by Dr. Min Jiayin of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Mythology, religion, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy, cosmology, and the like constitute the roots. Economic systems, technological practices, political and governmental processes, social structures, environmental policies, and the like constitute the trunk and branches. Artistic works, educational endeavours, moral codes, buildings, spiritual activities, and the like constitute the leaves, the flowers, and the fruit. This metaphor contributes a great deal to unlocking the secrets of culture. Just as every tree is a dynamic and organic whole composed of many interconnected parts, so too is culture. Just as all the component parts of the tree play integral and indispensable roles in the effective functioning of the tree, so all the component parts of culture perform a similar function.

19Culture, then, when stripped to its essence, is concerned with three matters: worldview, values, and people. It is clear, in the first place, why culture is concerned with worldview: the way in which people visualize and interpret the world has a crucial bearing on how they live, act, and value things in the world, both individually and collectively. Without a vastly improved understanding of worldview in general, and the specific worldviews of people in different parts of the world in particular, humanity could easily experience higher levels of environmental degeneration, a great deal more poverty, pollution, violence, terrorism and suffering, and increased conflict among the diverse cultures and civilizations of the world. It is a frightening prospect in view of the high levels of these atrocities today, but one that is possible if much more attention is not accorded to the impact that worldviews have on every aspect of the human condition.

20In the second place, as the US anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn pointed out in 1963 (pp. 340-41):

values provide the only basis for the fully intelligible comprehension of culture, because the actual organization of all cultures is primarily in terms of their values. This becomes apparent as soon as one attempts to present the picture of a culture with reference to its values. The account becomes an unstructured, meaningless assemblage of items having relation to one another only through coexistence in locality and moment, an assemblage that might as profitably be arranged alphabetically as in any other order, a mere laundry list.

21Values are important because they assign weights or priorities to the component parts of culture. How much emphasis is placed on the economy compared to the environment? How much emphasis is placed on products, compared to people and matters of human well-being? How much emphasis is placed on the arts compared to the sciences? How do politics, education, business, and technology fit into the equation, and how much emphasis is placed on them? How these values are determined in particular parts of the world varies a great deal from culture to culture and from one part of the world to another, according to people’s needs, wants, preferences, policies, practices, and circumstances. Some people may prefer to put a great deal of emphasis on the economy, products, the sciences, politics, and technology, while others may prefer to put a great deal of emphasis on the environment, ethics, people, religion, the arts, education, and the humanities. It all depends on how people decide to order the component parts of their cultural life.

22The intimate connections among culture, worldview, and values make it apparent why culture is so concerned with people, for it is people who create worldviews and values as they set about meeting their individual and collective needs. Their needs to breathe, bond, eat, belong, create, procreate, recreate, work, communicate, reflect, love, and so on give rise to the complex set of requirements that constitute culture in general and cultures in particular.

23What is steadily unfolding here are some of the main reasons why culture is of such vital importance to the world of the future, as well as why it is essential to achieve a general agreement on the nature of culture if firm foundations are to be established for a cultural age. As a Chinese proverb says, the beginning of wisdom lies in calling things by their right names.

24Culture is concerned, as we have seen, with the whole, and not just a part or parts of the whole. The US anthropologist Ruth Benedict illustrates this point by using the metaphor of making gunpowder (1963, p. 33):

The whole, as modern science is insisting in many fields, is not merely the sum of all its parts, but the result of a unique arrangement and interrelation of the parts that has brought about a new entity. Gunpowder is not merely the sum of sulphur and charcoal and saltpetre, and no amount of knowledge even of all three of its elements in all the forms they take in the natural world will demonstrate the nature of gunpowder. New potentialities have come into being in the resulting compound that were not present in its elements, and its mode of behaviour is indefinitely changed from that of any of its elements in other combinations.

25Culture is also concerned with the myriad relationships that exist among the parts of the whole. It was this that the British literary and social critic Raymond Williams had in mind when he wrote about the critical importance of cultural theory (1961, pp. 46-47):

I would then define the theory of culture as the study of relationships between elements in a whole way of life. The analysis of culture is the attempt to discover the nature of the organization which is the complex of these relationships. Analysis of particular works or institutions is, in this context, analysis of their essential kind of organization, the relationships which works or institutions embody as parts of the organization as a whole.

26It is not difficult to identify some of the most important of these relationships as far as the world of the future is concerned: human beings and the natural environment; economics and ethics; technology and people; rich and poor countries; rich and poor people; women and men; and materialism, ethics, and spiritualism. Broadening and deepening understanding of these and other strategic relationships, as well as the priorities that should be placed on them, holds the key to lessening many of the world’s tensions, pressures, conflicts, and confrontations.

27Finally, as has been emphasized throughout this book, culture is concerned with the need to achieve balanced, harmonious, and equitable relationships between the parts and the whole. This is imperative if excesses, imbalances, and deficiencies in the world system, in people’s lives, and in economics, technology, and all the other parts of the whole are to be reduced, or, even better, eliminated.

28This completes our examination of the nature of culture. With this cornerstone in place it will be possible to broaden and deepen understanding of the character of cultures. Fortunately, we now have a very specific concept of culture in place to assist with this process.

The Character of Cultures

29If culture in the broadest sense is a whole composed of many interdependent parts, so is each specific culture. This makes every culture distinctive and unique, with its own particular set of characteristics, though there are different ways of classifying them depending on which parts of each whole are emphasized, be it activities; geographical areas; groups of people defined by ethnicity, religion, or some other factor; or some other set.

30To broaden and deepen understanding of the point that every culture is a whole made up of many interdependent parts, consider Jewish culture, Armenian culture, and the cultures of aboriginal peoples (although any culture could be used to illustrate the same point).

31The groups chosen as examples have been able to keep their cultures together as wholes despite formidable challenges and deplorable conditions. Faced with the perpetual threat of extinction, Jewish, Armenian and aboriginal cultures have remained remarkably intact over hundreds, indeed, thousands of years because these peoples have repeatedly created, recreated and reordered the component parts of their cultures in the light of rapidly changing conditions and terrifying historical events. They have done this through a variety of initiatives and devices: the sharing of myths, legends and rituals; the telling of stories; the preservation of customs, traditions, beliefs, and identities; the development of specific signs and symbols; the enjoyment of communal feasts and celebrations; the establishment of vast networks of international contacts and support mechanisms; the evolution of many indigenous art forms and musical works; the use of humour; and engagement in a great deal of social interaction. If this were not the case, Jewish, Armenian and aboriginal cultures would have split apart and died out a long time ago.

32Unfortunately, it is not possible to see cultures as wholes or total ways of life, which makes it exceedingly difficult to know them in the comprehensive, holistic sense. There are three aspects to this problem that must be dealt with. First, it is not possible to know all the parts of cultures because there are too many of them. Second, it is not possible to know any part in great detail because every part is a vast and complicated entity in its own right, regardless of whether it is an activity, a geographical region, an ethnic or religious group, or anything else. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is not possible to have total knowledge of the ordering process that is used to bind all the component parts together because this is conducted by many different people, institutions, and groups in society. How, then, is it possible to “know” cultures in the holistic sense? According to Giles Gunn, the best place to start is with the parts, and with the dynamic interplay that is constantly going on between the parts and the whole. In his book The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture he states (p. 95):

We cannot understand the parts of anything without some sense of the whole to which they belong, just as we cannot comprehend the whole to which they belong until we have grasped the parts that make it up. Thus we are constantly obliged to move back and forth in our effort to understand something “between the whole conceived through the parts which actualize it and the parts conceived through the whole which motivates them” in an effort “to turn them, by a sort of intellectual perpetual motion, into explication of one another.”

33For people interested in getting to know cultures as wholes, the best place to start is with their own culture and their own specific part of the whole—their job, their family, their community, their life, their geographical location—considered, not in isolation, but rather as a part of their culture as a whole. While this cannot provide a complete solution to the problem, it starts the process moving in the right direction by compelling people to think about the larger context in which their own experiences are situated.

34To progress further in this area, it is necessary to turn to people who possess the ability to sense how cultures as wholes are put together, as well as the ability to communicate this to others. Invariably, they are artists, scholars, historians, philosophers, critics, and other types of creative people who possess the necessary intuitive and sensorial skills, as well as expressive and communicative abilities. Robert Redfield, a cultural anthropologist who spent his life studying cultures as wholes, comments on the ability that these types of people possess as follows (pp. 158-59):

Still farther from where we just now stand are those who study the relations of parts to parts, of elements abstracted out from the whole in strict and limited relationship to each other, generally described... They are those who make a science from chosen parts of human wholes, placed in relation to other such parts, but not in relation to all the parts of the original whole. Over there, on that other side, are all those who strive to present the concrete reality of each human whole as each, in itself, is. They are a various group. Included are novelists, philosophers, historians, philosophers of history, literary people, critics of literature and of art, historians of art, and writers of personal reminiscence. These people describe human wholes—personalities, civilizations, epochs, literatures, local cultures—each in its uniqueness.

35The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is a cliché, but it speaks volumes about the ability of people such as artists to communicate knowledge, information, and insight into cultures as wholes that it is impossible to convey or communicate in any other way.

36Redfield calls this “the ability for portraiture,” commenting (pp. 161-62):

The characterizations of the artist... are of course not precise at all, but very much of the whole is communicated to us. We might call them all portraits. They communicate the nature of the whole by attending to the uniqueness of each part, by choosing from among the parts certain of them for emphasis, and by modifying them and rearranging them in ways that satisfy the “feeling” of the portrayer.... In the portraitures accomplished by art, exaggerations, distortions and substitutions of one sort or another play important parts. Caricature and satire are special forms of portraiture. Each describes the whole by overemphasizing something felt to be significantly true of the whole. Metaphor and analogy offer different and parallel images for understanding the whole, as does the parable: a narrative standing for a human something other than itself.

37Take, for example, the way in which the US television producer Ken Burns has used baseball and jazz to broaden and deepen understanding of American culture as a whole.

38Baseball and jazz are both highly symbolic of that culture because they are populist forms of expression, and the United States has a very populist culture. Baseball is the “national game” and jazz is one of the country’s most indigenous forms of musical expression. As a result, they have something extremely powerful to say about American culture that could not be communicated otherwise. Using baseball and jazz also makes it possible to bring to the fore a number of other strategic aspects of American culture in the holistic sense, particularly relations between whites and blacks, the competitive urge that is arguably characteristic of American culture, the creation of new and popular forms of recreation and cultural expression, and the commercialization of popular forms of entertainment. This made it possible to shed a great deal of light on the character and evolution of American culture at very crucial periods in the course of its development.

39Another example of this is the way in which the nineteenth-century Czech composer Bedřich Smétana used the Vltava (the river also known as the Moldau) to say something extremely powerful about Czech culture as a whole. There is something about the way in which Smétana depicts the Vltava majestically flowing through the Czech countryside, from its inauspicious beginnings to its meanderings past vast forests, famous castles, and other historic sites, that communicates a great deal about the character of Czech culture as it was understood in Smétana’s day. Not only did the Vltava dominate Czech culture at a very crucial stage in its development, by linking villages, regions, and activities together, it also dominated Czech culture as long as water transport was central to so many economic activities. What is true of the Vltava and Czech culture is equally true of many other waterways and other cultures, such as the Yangtze in China, the Ganges in India, the Po in Italy, the Volga in Russia, the Amazon in Brazil or the Mississippi in the United States, “Ol’ Man River” itself.

40While artists use parts of the whole such as rivers, baseball, jazz and the like to say extremely powerful and symbolic things about cultures as wholes, they also create parts of the whole to achieve similar effects. An excellent illustration of this is Irving Berlins song “God Bless America”:

God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans white with foam,
God bless America,
My home sweet home.

41Berlin created a part of the whole that has something extremely powerful and profound to say about American culture as he and many others have known it. Not only has this inspiring song helped to bind Americans and the United States together in the comprehensive and cohesive cultural sense, it also says something very meaningful and patriotic about the expansiveness and beauty of the country, and the faith that many Americans have in their culture and their identity. At no time, perhaps, was this more in evidence than during the period following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, when “God Bless America” was heard almost as frequently as the national anthem.

42A similar function is performed for British culture, or at least some versions of it, by Hubert Parry’s setting of William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem”:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon those clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

43It is interesting, in this regard, to find “dark satanic mills” so often interpreted as a reference to the industrial revolution, though Blake was in fact expressing his opinion of the Christian churches of his time. This is an example of how a culture can absorb and assimilate a particular part by altering its meaning.

44British culture has also been symbolized by Edward Elgar’s setting of A. C. Benson’s “Land of Hope and Glory”, just as Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia” is still seen by many Finns as symbolizing and communicating a great deal about their national culture. There are comparable works in every culture, for every culture has its own inspiring and symbolic “parts of the whole,” communicating vital information and feelings to people about the culture as a whole, in the attempt (not always successful) to bind them together in space and time, and give them a sense of unity. They may also be musical compositions, as, for example, in the case of Spanish culture, which is expressed and celebrated in Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and Concierto de Andaluz, Enrique Granados’s Goyescas and Danzas españolas, Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia, and Manuel de Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España and El amor brujo. Their evocations of hot days, sultry nights, splendid architecture, and majestic monuments rival, if they do not surpass, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s classic Don Quixote de la Mancha.

45However, painters, novelists, poets, playwrights, film-makers, and other creative people also possess the capacity to produce evocative works of this type: for example, Shakespeare in the context of British and other Anglophone cultures, Omar Khayyam, Rumi, and Sadi in Persian culture, Monet and other Impressionists in French culture, or Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn in Russian culture.

46Indeed, any part of a culture can say something powerful, profound, symbolic, and meaningful about it. Sports may do so, as is the case with baseball in the United States, or soccer in Brazil and Argentina. Individuals, or more usually the legends about them, may do so, as Confucius does for China, Gandhi for India, Nelson Mandela for South Africa or Martin Luther King Jr. for the United States. So too may buildings such as the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China.

47It is this fact that makes it essential to examine very carefully the different parts of any culture, but particularly those parts that have become symbolic of the culture as a whole. The cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz called this kind of examination “thick description.” While the picture that emerges is always only approximate, because cultures are too vast and complex to be wholly seen or known, it is an exceedingly important function nevertheless. It is through “thick description” that people can piece together an understanding of their own culture, and the cultures of others, as dynamic and organic wholes. Artists can be particularly helpful here. As Edward Hall contends (1966, p. 74, Hall’s emphasis):

It is the artist’s task to remove obstacles that stand between his audience and the events he describes. In so doing, he abstracts from nature those parts which, if properly organized, can stand for the whole and constitute a more forceful, uncluttered statement than the layman might make for himself. In other words, one of the principal functions of the artist is to help the layman order his cultural universe.

48Without sustained and systematic exposure to the works of artists, popular as well as classical, historical as well as contemporary, it is not possible for people to get to know, understand or experience their own culture as a whole, or other cultures as wholes. Nor is it possible for people to “order their cultural universe” effectively.

49It should not be assumed, however, that the role of artists is limited to the functions outlined so far. Artists can also change cultures. Mark Twain, through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other novels, and Alex Haley, through his book Roots, each did a great deal to challenge stereotypes of whites and blacks in the United States, and to promote greater equality. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in particular revolutionized the language of fiction by using vernacular speech. This ability of artists to change cultures should be constantly borne in mind, since it may be required to make fundamental changes in the various cultures of the world in the future.

50Further, while artists and the works they make may be the best vehicles for helping people to get to know, understand, and experience their own culture and other cultures, they are not the only vehicles available. Architecture plays a particularly important role in this regard because it makes concrete statements that are often highly symbolic. One need only think of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Ring in Vienna, the Empire State Building in New York, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Opera House in Sydney or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and what they each symbolize. Virtually every country in the world uses architecture to make profound and highly visible statements, from cathedrals, presidential palaces, and legislative buildings to public squares and monuments of famous people.

51Language and the “cultural industries” of publishing, radio, television, film, video, and sound recording do the same, providing the communication tools and distributive mechanisms that bind people together, and make the works of artists, architects, historians, and others known to the public. So too do athletes, sports teams, and sporting events, because they represent parts of the whole that are often highly symbolic and therefore have something extremely powerful to say about cultures. Think, for example, of what Pele symbolizes in the case of Brazilian culture, Wayne Gretzky in the case of Canadian culture, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, and the New York Yankees in the United States, traditional acrobats in Chinese culture, or the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup for most contemporary cultures around the world. Anthropological and sociological studies also do this because they tend to deal with cultures in the comprehensive, holistic sense, and therefore with the patterns, themes, worldviews, values, social structures, and interrelationships that comprise cultures.

52Personality studies do this as well because, as Ruth Benedict contended, cultures are often “personalities writ large”: for example, Theodore Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy in relation to the United States, Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu in South Africa, Mao Zedong in China, Margaret Thatcher in Britain or Charles de Gaulle in France. Religious and philosophical treatises do this because they tend to deal with the totality of human experience or fundamental aspects of it, and therefore with the interconnected and interrelated activities of people’s lives. Scientific studies do this because they have a profound effect on the worldviews that underlie cultures. Ecological, economic, geographical and historical studies do it because they reveal how cultures have imprinted their holistic character on very specific parts of the natural and human environment.

53One of the first people to write about cultures in the broader, deeper and more comprehensive sense was the German poet and philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, considered by some to be one of the founders of anthropology (though it should also be pointed out that he has been criticised by others as one of the pioneers of modern racism and ultranationalism). Although Herder was writing at a time when it was not commonplace to write about cultures, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he had a remarkable understanding of the holistic character of cultures, as well as the ways in which cultures develop and are manifested in space and time. He likened cultures to organisms in order to emphasize their dynamic, cohesive, evolutionary and comprehensive character, and set out his ideas in his Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (1791). In Herder’s view, the most important factor in the development of cultures is not the individual, but the group, and many factors contribute to the creation and development of cultures, including history, heredity, tradition, education, interaction with other cultures, and, most importantly for Herder, climate, geography, and nature (quoted by Ergang, p. 90):

Man is no independent substance, but is connected with all the elements of nature; he lives by inspiration of the air, and derives food and drink from the most unlike productions of the Earth; he employs fire, absorbs light, and contaminates the air he breathes; awake or asleep, at rest or in motion, he contributes to the change of the universe; shall not he also be changed by it?

54The factors affecting the creation and development of cultures vary a great deal from one part of the world to another, so, according to Herder, every culture exhibits a specific “national character,” most plainly visible in its arts, language, literature, and religion. It was but a short step from this for Herder to conclude that the world is very much like a garden, with all sorts of flowers growing in it. Each culture has its own particular fragrance, colour, design, and distinctive features. The challenge, in Herder’s view, is to make it possible for every culture to develop its national character, or “circle of happiness,” to the fullest extent, thereby realizing its full potential and becoming all that it is capable of being.

55In retrospect, it is clear that Herder’s views had both positive and negative effects, particularly when they were combined with the views of other writers. On the positive side, Herder and other scholars helped to inspire the creation of many valuable artistic and scholarly works aimed at broadening and deepening understanding of culture, “national character,” and the influence of art, landscape, history, geography, climate, and nature on the development of cultures. On the negative side, Herder’s views had a profound influence on the growth of extreme nationalism and racism in Europe and elsewhere in the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In combination with many other developments taking place at the time, this resulted in the fighting of two major world wars, the deaths of millions of people, and a great deal of unrest. This was not part of Herder’s intention. He was much more concerned with the contributions that different groups of people can and, in his view, should make to the common cultural heritage of humankind, as Robert Ergang has argued (pp. 263 and 265):

The nationalism, however, which Herder advocated was not the narrow nationalism of the later nineteenth century. Herder’s nationalism was in its essence humanitarian; it was built around the principle of the essential unity of mankind as a whole. Hence his nationalism is free from the reproaches which may be brought against nationalism of the violent and exclusive type. He did not, like later nationalists, endeavour to inculcate in the minds of his countrymen an absolute faith in their superiority over all other nationalities.... His conception of nationality pointed toward toleration and mutual enrichment. His message in brief was: each nationality has its peculiar duty to perform for the common good of mankind, and its special contributions to make to the common fund of civilization.

56Despite this, there is no doubt that Herder’s views had some effect on the growth of nationalism and racism, largely because he tended to view cultures as homogeneous and closed systems rather than as open and heterogeneous systems. He tended to place a great deal of emphasis on cultural similarities and uniformity, the separation of one culture from another, the distinction between one group and another, and, inevitably, the inference that some cultures, races, and groups are superior to others.

57This example of the positive and negative impact of Herder’s ideas reinforces the point that it is imperative to be ever watchful for, and mindful of, the actual and potential uses and abuses of cultures, particularly when too much power is concentrated in too few hands, and cultures are exploited for political, military or imperialistic purposes. It is imperative to establish the necessary safeguards to ensure that cultures are not abused in this way, safeguards that include democratic and benevolent forms of government; a strong private sector to counterbalance the potentially dangerous power of the public sector; assurances that too much power is not concentrated in too few hands; cultural agencies and institutions at arm’s length from government and the political process; numerous and varied cultural relationships between countries and cultures; the democratization and decentralization of institutions, resources, and opportunities; and, above all, freedom of expression, movement, and participation in decision-making.

58At the time Herder was writing, and for some time afterwards, most cultures were much more closed, homogeneous, and uniform than they are today. Not only was there much less interaction going on among the various ethnic groups around the world, but most people in each culture shared the same or very similar ethnic, religious and linguistic identities. It is also true that Herder was writing largely about European cultures and had little knowledge of cultures elsewhere in the world, and it has been claimed that European cultures were much more diverse in Herder’s day than they later became.

59In any case, it is clear that cultures are generally much more open, heterogeneous and diverse today, largely as a result of developments in transportation, communications, technology, globalization and trade. There is much more interaction today, not only within cultures, but also between cultures. There is also a great deal more interethnic and intercultural mixing and borrowing, and a great deal more travel and migration than in any previous period of human history. As a result, a majority of cultures are much more diverse than before, bringing together different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. These developments pose problems for the character of cultures as wholes composed of many parts and require new understandings of culture, particularly in respect of the ways in which various activities are combined together. After hundreds of years of thinking about cultures largely in terms of religious and ethnic groups, or geographical regions, it is going to take a quantum leap in human consciousness to think about cultures in these more complex terms.

60Nevertheless, such a leap is of crucial importance to the world of the future. The ways in which people combine all the various activities in which they are engaged to form total ways of life are bound to have a crucial effect on their well-being, as well as on the vitality and sustainability of cultures in every part of the world. Cultures that fail to achieve balanced and harmonious relationships among the many different activities comprised within them, or fail to situate themselves effectively in the natural and global environment, are bound to find that their days are numbered.

61It will also require a quantum leap in human consciousness to think about cultures as open, diverse, heterogeneous, and inclusive, rather than as closed, uniform, homogeneous, and exclusive. Increasing numbers of people have multiple cultural identities and allegiances, which necessitates new understandings of what the various ethnic and religious groups that comprise cultures have to give and to gain. It also necessitates the creation of many more connections among peoples, subcultures, ethnic and religious groups, geographical regions, and environmental, social, economic, educational, political, artistic, scientific, technological, religious and spiritual activities. There are still elements of closedness and exclusiveness in every culture that make it difficult for outsiders to penetrate it or for insiders to change it, but cross-fertilization, communication, exchange, and inclusion must increasingly take the place of separation, non-communication, isolation, and exclusion within and between all cultures.

62Clearly, it will take time to make the transition that has just been described. It may be helpful in this regard to look at a couple of cultures that appear to manifest some of the capabilities that will be required to make these quantum leaps in the years ahead. Canadian culture, to take one example, is already relatively diverse, heterogeneous and open, because it is comprised of a broad array of different activities, regions, and ethnic and religious groups all interacting with one another (as discussed in the present author’s Culture and Politics in Canada). Compared to most other countries in the world, Canada has a much more open immigration policy and has allowed more influences from outside, and particularly from the United States, to penetrate its borders. While this is starting to change as a result of the terrorist attacks on the United States and the need for greater security measures, Canadian culture is still generally seen as a mosaic rather than as a melting pot, being composed of numerous ethnic and religious groups and “subcultures” that, apart from the First Nations and other aboriginal peoples, derive their identity and distinctiveness from other parts of the world, which is why Canada is often described as a land of immigrants. Indeed, it has been argued that Canadian culture is rapidly becoming a microcosm of the global macrocosm, with people from every part of the world contributing to its development and composition. Canada has shown that multiculturalism, the official recognition of pluralism and cultural differences, can work, and that cultures do not have to be uniform, homogeneous or closed in order to function effectively.

63What is true of Canadian culture is also true of Swiss culture, though in an entirely different way. Standing at the crossroads of Europe, and including people belonging to German, French, Italian, Romansch, and other linguistic and ethnic groups, Swiss culture is more diverse than most of its European counterparts, though it is less diverse or multicultural than Canadian culture. Swiss culture too functions very effectively as a whole, because all the ethnic, religious and linguistic groups and geographical regions that comprise it have been able to create structures, such as the system of cantons, or the practice of holding referendums on major political issues, that bind the various parts of Swiss culture together.

64While such structures vary from culture to culture, every culture in the world uses a variety of devices to bind its component parts together. These devices may be signs and symbols, such as flags, national anthems, official emblems and languages, national holidays, citizenship activities, and various types of civic celebrations. Myths, legends, rituals, and stories also play an important role, as do values, value systems, and value hierarchies. These are all important because they help people to coalesce all the various activities in which they are engaged into organized and meaningful wholes, as Jerzy A. Wojciechowski has pointed out (Wojciechowski, p. 54):

the hierarchy of values underlying each culture is the principle of internal cohesion of a culture, which bonds the various elements of a culture together and structures them into an organized whole composed of interdependent parts... The hierarchy of values underlying a culture integrates elements of knowledge into a world view, determines, to a large extent, attitudes and reactions to life situations, and offers a general framework for man’s conscious presence in, and relationship to, the world. Central to each culture are convictions about the universe and about man, about his nature, his relation to the external world, his place in the universe, the meaning of human life, the supreme values, and the distinction between right and wrong, good and evil. The sum of these convictions forms in each case a unique and distinctive system, differing from culture to culture, even though some of its elements are similar in different cultures. It is this system which shapes the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviour of individuals.

65Spatial factors are also important in providing cohesiveness to cultures. Every culture in the world occupies a very specific piece of territory, binding people together and giving them a sense of place, and particularly pride in place. On the one hand, people are anxious to receive the benefits that derive from sharing space together. On the other hand, they are anxious to protect their space whenever it is threatened. This explains military build-ups throughout the world, which may well increase in the future as population increases and peoples spaces are used up, invaded or threatened.

66All these devices bind the component parts of cultures together to form wholes. It is this process that gives cultures their distinctiveness. While the result is generally less particularistic or ethnocentric than earlier forms of “national character” tended to be, and therefore, arguably, less prone to nationalism, chauvinism, racism or political manipulation, the effect is still to bring together bundles of beliefs and assumptions to form cultural wholes.

67Since cultures are structured differently and have different qualities and capabilities, some are known for their architectural achievements, others are known for their music or art, still others are known for their cuisine, and others again are known for their customs, traditions, regional variations, community celebrations, historical development, or use of colour and language. This is what makes the exploration and discovery of the architectural, musical, artistic, culinary and historical complexities, intricacies and accomplishments of all the various cultures of the world alluring and attractive. There is a rich mine of materials, artefacts, and activities here to reward determined explorers. Standing behind this, of course, are cultures in the holistic sense, which are increasingly revealed as more knowledge and understanding of their parts, and the ways in which these parts are put together to form wholes, is acquired.

68It would be a mistake to conclude that expanding knowledge and understanding of cultures in the holistic sense is essential only for theoretical, intellectual, or educational reasons. It is also essential for practical and political reasons. As the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the conflicts in the Middle East, the tensions between Islamic and non-Islamic countries, and the pressures between eastern, western, southern, and northern cultures confirm, there are profound differences among the diverse cultures of the world, not only in their details but as total ways of life. Without a much better understanding of the character of cultures in general, and the reasons for such differences, humanity will pay a severe price in the future, particularly given the increased interaction among cultures today. This makes expanding knowledge and understanding of cultures in the holistic sense a categorical imperative.

The Cultural Interpretation of History

69Broadening and deepening understanding of the nature of culture and cultures is imperative if firm foundations are to be laid for a cultural age. So too is interpreting history from a cultural perspective. This is yet another pillar that will have to be manoeuvred into place if a cultural age is to function effectively.

70Interpreting history from a cultural perspective is essential because humanity needs accurate and authentic interpretations of the past to carry forward into the future. Interpretations of history have powerful effects, as illustrated in the case of the “economic interpretation of history”, because they provide answers to some of humanity’s most profound and pressing questions. Where did human beings come from? Why have they evolved the way they have? What are the most basic forms of human settlement and activity? What activities have human beings considered to be most important? Where do human beings stand at present? Perhaps most importantly, where should humanity go from here? Without accurate and authentic interpretations of history, it will not be possible to interpret the past correctly, understand the present properly, or confront the future effectively.

71From a cultural perspective, what stands out most clearly is the fact that people in every part of the world have struggled to build cultures in the holistic sense, as the first and foremost act of human effort and ingenuity, whenever and wherever people have come together for the express purpose of living together in the world and working out their association with the world. While economic activities have constituted an essential component in each culture, because they have been concerned with peoples material needs and physiological requirements, and the ever-recurrent problem of survival, they have been only part of a substantially broader, deeper, and more fundamental process. Cultures in this sense constitute the basic building blocks of human society and the real foundations of human existence. The fact that all the diverse cultures of the world have been wholes composed of an intricate interlacing of numerous interdependent parts is evident from the very beginnings of human life on Earth. Crucially, then, the cultural interpretation of history, in contrast to other interpretations, is consistent with reality, the human condition, and the nature of historical development, because this history is viewed from a comprehensive, egalitarian, and multidimensional perspective, rather than a partial, partisan and one-dimensional perspective.

72History viewed in this way is a continuous process involving the ebb and flow of different cultures and civilizations. The German historian Oswald Spengler called this process (p. 18) “a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvellous waxing and waning of organic forms.” Whether cultures actually rise and fall, or merely pass through periods of greater and lesser dynamism and creativity, history in the all-encompassing, holistic sense involves the building up and fading out of many different cultures: Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Islamic, Greek, Roman, Mayan, European, African, Asian, Latin American, North American, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, and so forth. While all these cultures have had their positive and negative aspects, their strengths and weaknesses, there is no group of people or society anywhere in the world that has not experienced this miraculous process at one point or another in its history.

73This is why the historian Karl Weintraub contended that the most important question in historical interpretation is this (p. 1): “how can a civilization or a culture be understood and presented in all its complexity, and yet as an intelligible and structured whole?” Weintraub’s own answer was as follows (pp. 2-3):

In this delicately fashioned network the arts may have their ties to religion and economic values, morality may affect the constitutional arrangements and in turn be affected by political realities, a mood reflected in literature may also come to the fore in a social custom, and a scientific insight may work back upon a religion belief.... This double concern with what has been called by anthropologists the synchronic and the diachronic mode of culture implies, on the one hand, the study of connections between cultural factors in their structural relationship, and, on the other hand, the study of the gradual changes, either by the introduction of new factors or by a shift in emphasis among the existing relations, resulting in a modification of the cultural configuration. In the world of the cultural historian all things touch one another.

74One of the first historians to interpret history from this broad cultural perspective was the nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. His own artistic training served a very valuable purpose, since Burckhardt was aware that every artistic work is a whole composed of many interrelated parts, regardless of whether it is a painting, a play, a building or a musical composition. This helped him to understand how any attempt to interpret history from a cultural perspective requires coming to grips with the comprehensive and interdependent nature of cultures, and therefore with the fundamental relationships between the parts and the whole.

75Burckhardt applied this principle to the interpretation of the culture of Italy in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The parts of the whole that he used to shed light on the culture of Renaissance Italy were the state as a work of art, the development of the individual, the revival of antiquity, the discovery of the world and of man, society and festivals, and morality and religion. Through the detailed examination of these parts and by paying close attention to the complex interrelationships and interconnections among them, Burckhardt was able to produce a portrait of the culture of Renaissance Italy as a whole. What makes Burckhardt’s portrait particularly powerful is the way in which he uses works of art and architecture to depict and confirm his case that a culture can be revealed through a detailed examination of its parts. Perhaps this is why Florentines of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw culture as “the first and greatest of all needs,” according to Burckhardt, and therefore of central rather than marginal importance. As Burckhardt put it (Vol. I, p. 229):

The age in which we live is loud enough in proclaiming the worth of culture, and especially of the culture of antiquity. But the enthusiastic devotion to it, the recognition that the need of it is the first and greatest of all needs, is nowhere to be found but among the Florentines of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century. On this point we have indirect proof which precludes all doubt.

76It was this technique of using the arts and architecture to shed light on the holistic character of cultures that Burckhardt used to great advantage in his lectures and writings on ancient Greek culture, which were left incomplete on his death in 1897.

77Just as historians and scholars such as Voltaire, Gibbon, Condorcet, Buckle, Goethe, Moeser and Guizot had paved the way for Burckhardt, largely by struggling to overcome specific methodological problems in the development of the cultural interpretation of history, so Burckhardt paved the way for such historians as Huizinga, Spengler, and Toynbee. What all these cultural historians share in common is the quest to understand cultures as wholes that exude very specific ways of life and are composed of many different elements. It is this that makes the cultural interpretation of history more accurate than the economic interpretation of history. It is impossible to point to any culture that has been preoccupied exclusively with economic needs. Regardless of how destitute people have been, they have never neglected the need for social organization, recreation, religious and spiritual understanding, artistic expression, mythology, play, symbolism, governance, training, and just plain idling. These needs have been every bit as important to peoples overall survival and well-being as their economic and material requirements. Seen from this perspective, economic needs do not cause other needs, any more than other needs cause economic needs.

78This is not to say, however, that cultures cannot be dominated by certain themes, of which economics may be one. Indeed, it is clear that cultures have been dominated by different themes just as ages have been dominated by different ideas. Whereas the dominant theme in one culture may be aesthetic or religious, in another it may be scientific, political, technological or economic. For example, during the Middle Ages the dominant theme in many European cultures was religion. This is apparent as soon as attention is focused on the central role that the church played in shaping most if not all aspects of life. In the early modern era, in contrast, the dominant theme in many European cultures was aesthetic, as is confirmed by the use of the term “Renaissance” to refer to the return to the arts of antiquity. In our own time, the dominant theme in many cultures, particularly Western cultures, is economic. It makes sense, therefore, to talk about “medieval religious culture,” “Renaissance aesthetic culture” or “Western economic culture.”

79The fact that different cultures have been dominated by different themes is brought home with startling clarity in the modern world. Think, for example, of the profound differences between the culture of the United States, on the one hand, and the culture of the Taliban in Afghanistan, on the other hand. Whereas the dominant theme of American culture is economics, as epitomized by the World Trade Center before it was attacked by terrorists, the dominant theme in Taliban culture is religious fundamentalism. This has caused numerous pressures, tensions, and conflicts between the two cultures, and others associated with them, because the differing symbols and themes of the two cultures have aroused fear, misunderstanding, suspicion, and mistrust.

80While there is a pressing need for greater understanding between the different cultures of the world, awareness of the fact that cultures can be dominated by different themes serves a very valuable purpose. It confirms the fact that history has been dominated by different themes, thereby challenging the central premise of the economic interpretation of history. The cultural interpretation of history asserts that history can be dominated by different themes at different times and in different places. This makes history the product of a greater degree of free will, and a smaller degree of determinism, than in the economic interpretation of history, and is therefore much more consistent with the actual facts of the matter.

81While it is not possible to say in advance what theme or themes will dominate history in the future, because the future is always an open book to be charted in accordance with humanity’s needs, ideas, and assets, the cultural interpretation of history brings to an end the belief that history must be dominated by one theme and one theme only, namely economics. In so doing it opens the doors to a more fluid and flexible way of understanding the past, comprehending the present, and confronting the future. This demonstrates how essential it is to interpret history from a holistic, impartial and egalitarian perspective, rather than a specialized, partial and partisan perspective. It has been the development of cultures, not just economics, that has been the central concern of humanity, making the challenge of the future one of broadening and deepening understanding of how cultures can be developed most effectively, and of the lessons to be learned from the cultural interpretation of history.

82One lesson is surely the need for environmental sustainability, sensitivity, and awareness. It is impossible to view history from a cultural perspective without recognizing that the development of cultures has been strongly influenced by the natural environment and the intimate associations that people have with it. Just as cultures provide the context within which the various parts of cultures are situated, so the natural environment provides the context within which whole cultures are situated. As the historical development of cultures has shown, time and again, cultures that are insensitive to the natural environment run the risk of overextending themselves and collapsing.

83Another lesson is how essential it is to try to interpret history impartially. What a cultural interpretation of history provides here is the realization that people, countries, and cultures in every part of the world have made strong, lasting and valuable contributions to human development, global progress, and the cultural heritage of humankind. This confirms the equality, value, and dignity of all people, countries, and cultures, not just some of them. Fortunately, significant advances have been recorded in this area in recent years, as noted earlier, despite the fact that much remains to be accomplished. Such developments augur well for the future because they signal the need for a more just and equitable world characterized by more equality between men and women, among ethnic groups, among the diverse peoples of the world, and between the developing countries of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, on the one hand, and the developed countries of Europe, North American and elsewhere, on the other.

84There is also a more sinister side to history that must also be taken into account in all future developments: the countless conflicts and confrontations between the different cultures and peoples of the world, and the record of acts of brutality, barbarism, violence, and oppression. As the history of colonialism, imperialism, Nazism, fascism, and “cultural revolutions” throughout the world confirms only too well, there are always problems when too much power is concentrated in too few hands and there are major inequalities in the world. This makes it imperative, as indicated earlier, to be ever mindful of, and to create safeguards against, the abuses of culture. Without cultural education, aimed at broadening and deepening understanding of cultural differences, and international cultural relations aimed at intensifying cross-cultural communication, it will not be possible for people or countries to experience order, stability, and security, rather than instability, chaos, and violence.

85There is one final lesson to be learned from the cultural interpretation of history, and that is the importance of taking non-material factors into account in all future development. One of the biggest problems with the economic interpretation of history is that it reduces everything to materialism and ignores non-material factors. The cultural interpretation of history, in contrast, recognizes the importance of ideas, theories, motives, emotions, images, ideologies, personalities, ethics, and spirituality in history. This is particularly true with respect to ideas, since it has become evident in recent years that ideas, especially creative ideas, play a quintessential role in driving major developments throughout the world.

The Great Cultural Tradition

86If a cultural age is to develop properly in the future, it will also be necessary to capitalize on culture’s practical and theoretical tradition. Just as the economic age is predicated on a solid tradition of theoretical and practical accomplishments in the field of economics, so a cultural age will be predicated on a solid tradition of theoretical and practical accomplishments in the field of culture.

87There is, however, a significant difference between the two traditions. Whereas the economic tradition is reasonably well-known—as a result of the agricultural, industrial, technological, and commercial revolutions, the amount of attention devoted to economic thought and practice in the mass media and educational institutions, the historical and contemporary encounter with economics, and the fact that we are living in an economic age—the cultural tradition is virtually unknown throughout the world. This makes broadening and deepening knowledge and understanding of the great cultural tradition one of the most pressing requirements for a cultural age.

88The practical side of the cultural tradition is as old as history. Wherever there have been attempts to improve the human condition, and to elevate and embellish life, there also the practical side of the great cultural tradition is to be found: in the efforts of peasants and labourers in every part of the world, in the works of artists, scientists, scholars, and educators, in the commitment of religious and spiritual leaders, and in the determination of humanists, social activists, business people, and politicians. It is also manifested in all the oldest cultures of the world, as epitomized by Stonehenge and Carnac, the settlements at Ur, Catal Huyuk and Alaca Huyuk, and the pottery and utensils of prehistoric times.

89China and Egypt were probably the first areas of the world to recognize that the fruits of culture can be multiplied many times over when the practical development of culture is attended to in earnest. There is ample evidence of this in the various cultures created in China from ancient times, as well as in the numerous publications, exhibitions, and television programmes on Chinese and ancient Egyptian culture, both of which are still making their presence felt in the world today. One can only marvel at the countless treasures being unearthed in recent archeological digs in China, the throne of Sitamon, the funeral mask of Tutankhamen, the pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, Thebes, Abu Simbel, or the tombs of the pharaohs, and appreciate the lofty heights to which the practical side of the great cultural tradition can be raised when the development of culture is pursued with vigour and imagination.

90These accomplishments were perpetuated in brilliant style by the ancient Greeks and Persians. In Greece, such accomplishments reached their zenith in Athens, Mycenae, Delphi, Sparta, Corinth, and elsewhere, thanks to the efforts of such visionary rulers as Pericles and the triumph of the polis, the ancient Greek city state. As in China and Egypt, a kind of renaissance flourished there in ancient times, a renaissance known for its outstanding aesthetic, intellectual, political, economic and social accomplishments. In Persia, where it also culminated in a brilliant civilization, it is epitomized in many elegant and decorative buildings, such as those at the imperial cities of Susa, Persepolis, and Pasargadae.

91There is hardly a place on Earth or an epoch in history that has not benefited from the practical side of the cultural tradition. Alongside the cultures already mentioned can be placed the Inca, Maya and Aztec civilizations of the Americas, the Ashanti and Benin cultures of Africa, the Heian and Ashikaga eras in Japan, the Gupa and Moghul cultures of India, the Medician and Elizabethan periods in Europe, and countless others. It would be a mistake, too, to conclude that the practical side of the great cultural tradition is limited to large-scale cultures. Cities such as Beijing, Kyoto, Bangkok, Venice, Vienna, Buenos Aires, Quito, Isfahan, Marrakesh, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Samarkand, San Francisco, Cairo, Sydney, Quebec City or Mexico City are inconceivable without practical contributions from a host of individuals and institutions. In each of these cases conscientious efforts on the part of people and organizations of all kinds have been needed to turn these places into cultural treasures in their own right. Stretching back to the very beginnings of history and reaching right up to the present, the practical side of the great cultural tradition has been steadily developing and gathering momentum for thousands of years, giving rise to the wealth of cultural achievements and masterpieces we know and appreciate today.

92There is an equally valuable constellation of accomplishments on the theoretical side of the great cultural tradition, created by generations of scholars working in such disciplines as anthropology, sociology, the arts, philosophy, history, geography, ecology and biology. What makes their accomplishments important is the fact that what they have had to say is relevant to the human condition in general, as well as to developments at local, regional, national and international levels, whether they have been addressing the formation of human personalities, the development of towns, cities, regions or countries, the character and classification of cultures, the natural environment, the importance of creativity, diversity, equality, and identity, the role of the state in cultural life, the diffusion of culture throughout the world, or the meaning of progress.

93As far as the formation of personalities is concerned, the most prominent contributors are Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, Georg Simmel, John Cowper Powys, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Gordon Allport, Anthony Wallace, Edward Sapir, John Harding, Irving Hallowell, John Honigmann, Abram Kardiner, Géza Róheim, and Ralph Linton. They have made their contributions by focusing on the role that cultures play in shaping personalities. Arnold, for example, emphasized how important it is for people to attend to the harmonious development of all the powers that comprise human nature. Carlyle formulated a “law of culture” predicated on the belief that people should “cast off all foreign and especially all noxious adhesions,” and “stand in their full stature.” Goethe urged people to “live in the whole, in the good, and in the beautiful.” Benedict, Mead, Sapir, and Kardiner focused attention on the formation of “national character” and “national identity.” Powys, perhaps the most persuasive commentator on the role of culture in the development of personalities, made his view clear in his book The Meaning of Culture (p. 8):

The art of self-culture begins with a deeper awareness, borne in upon us either by some sharp emotional shock or little by little like an insidious rarefied air, of the marvel of our being alive at all; alive in a world as startling and mysterious, as lovely and horrible, as the one we live in. Self-culture without some kind of integrated habitual manner of thinking is apt to fail us just when it is wanted the most. To be a cultural person is to be a person with some kind of original philosophy.

94What is significant about all these contributions is the way in which they attempt to broaden and deepen understanding of what it means to be “a whole person” and to “live a full life.” Such writers and thinkers have been at the cutting edge of attempts to develop a perception of personality formation based on the integration of all the mental, physical, emotional, aesthetic and spiritual factors that comprise human existence. This may prove to be one of the greatest challenges of all in the years ahead.

95In relation to the role of culture in the development of towns, cities, and, regions, Lewis Mumford, Friedrich Ratzel, Leo Frobenius, Fritz Graebner, Franz Boas, Clare Wissler, Amos Rapoport, John Agnew, John Mercer, David Sopher, Richard Sennett, and others have focused attention on “culture centres,” “culture areas,” “cultural circles,” or “cultural complexes.” For example, Ratzel, Frobenius, Graebner, Boas, and Wissler shed a great deal of light on how such complexes are created and coalesce, how they develop in space and time through the sharing of values, traditions, and ways of life, and how these are transmitted and diffused to other parts of the world. Mumford shed a great deal of light on how culture acts as an integrating and powerful force in urban development, largely by providing cohesion, balance, order, belonging, and pride of place. He also enhanced understanding of the ways in which human settlements have developed historically, as well as how essential it is to incorporate culture fully into community planning and development.

96These contributions have a great deal of relevance to the world of the present and the future, especially now that more than half of the world’s population is living in urban settlements. Perhaps this is why more and more attention is being focused on the role that culture can play in community and urban development. It was the former Minister of Culture of Greece, Melina Mercouri, who first proposed the idea of “cities of culture” at the inaugural meeting of the Ministers of Culture of the European Union in Athens in 1985. The idea has since caught on elsewhere, as more and more communities seek to focus on what makes them dynamic, creative, inspiring, and unique (see Landry). This helps to explain the burgeoning interest in liveable and sustainable cities, as well as the importance of cultural districts and corridors, and the key role played by creative individuals and activities in urban development and municipal affairs.

97Another seminal contribution to the theoretical side of the great cultural tradition was made when Edward Burnett Tylor formulated his anthropological definition of culture in 1871. This has had a profound effect on cultural thought because it focused attention on culture as a whole, and not just some limited part of it. A related contribution came from Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn in their book Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions (1963). This comprehensive compendium is essential reading for anyone interested in plumbing the depths of culture. Not only does it expand knowledge and understanding of the many different concepts and definitions of the term, it also expands awareness of those qualities that are most relevant to culture, including worldviews, values, value systems, patterns, and beliefs. In so doing, it focuses attention on those ideals that have been accorded the highest priority by human beings down through the ages.

98Yet another valuable contribution came when anthropologists such as Lewis Henry Morgan, Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, William Halsey Rivers, A. H.Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, Edward Evans-Pritchard, Raymond Firth, Leo Frobenius, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Margaret Mead, Ruth Bunzel, Ruth Benedict, and others began studying cultures in depth and on the ground by travelling to the South Pacific, the Northwest coast of North America, the interior of sub-Saharan Africa, and many other parts of the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Working under conditions of extreme hardship, these pioneering scholars and others like them contributed greatly to broadening and deepening understanding of cultures in every part of the world. Their work was not always free of errors, which is understandable in view of the fact that they had little initial knowledge of the cultures they were studying and field work was still in its infancy (see Peacock on the problems involved). Yet there is no doubt that their achievements did much to enhance the knowledge and understanding of culture that are needed more than ever if conflicts and confrontations between the diverse cultures of the world are to be avoided, or at least minimized.

99The work of such cultural scholars as Pitirim Sorokin and F. S. C. Northrop has also done a great deal to enhance knowledge and understanding of different types of cultures, as well as the ways in which cultures can be classified and analyzed. For example, in his pioneering work, Social and Cultural Dynamics: A Study of Change in Major Systems of Art, Truth, Ethics, Law and Social Relationships (1957) Sorokin identified four principal types of cultures—sensate, ideational, idealistic, and mixed—each of which has a distinct set of characteristics. In setting out his views on this subject, Sorokin created a typology of different types of cultures and signalled the need to shift from sensate cultures to ideational, idealistic and mixed cultures if environmental sustainability and human fulfilment are to be achieved. While Northrop’s views on culture were different than Sorokin’s, he was equally interested in different types of cultures. In his seminal book The Meeting of East and West (1946) Northrop drew on concerns at the time about the relationship between the United States and Japan to focus on the need to develop effective methods for ensuring that occidental and oriental cultures complement rather than conflict with one another. His research remains relevant today because it enhances understanding of the development of both East and West, and the interactions and tensions between them.

100Related contributions have been made by such historians as Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Johan Huizinga, Jacob Burckhardt, Fernand Braudel, W. M. F. Petrie, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Peter Burke, and Karl Weintraub, who have each shed a great deal of light on how cultures develop over long periods, and on the reasons for the growth and decline of different cultures. Why, for example, does the light go out in some cultures? Spengler contended that all cultures pass through four distinct stages analogous to the four seasons, moving from creation through flourishing to decline and death. Toynbee saw the reasons for cultural decline in the inability of cultures to respond to challenges, particularly as these challenges grow stronger while the capacity to respond gets weaker.

101Yet another contribution has come from the US anthropologist Edward Hall, whose work explores how different cultures interact, and how values and worldviews are transmitted between cultures, groups, and individuals. As cultures interact more frequently, and as people move more freely from one culture to another or from one part of the world to another, the need for intercultural understanding, communication, and exchange increases proportionately. Flail and others have helped to provide the context for this development by focusing on the various ways, both verbal and non-verbal, in which cultural communication takes place and conflicts can be avoided.

102Economists have also made significant contributions to the cultural tradition. John Maynard Keynes, William Baumol, John Kenneth Galbraith and others have been strong advocates of cultural development as it relates to the arts, social affairs, education, and the humanities. Keynes, for example, was a champion of the arts both in private, as a leading light of the Bloomsbury Group, and in public, as Chairman of the wartime body that, after his death, became the Arts Council of Great Britain. Baumol turned his attention late in life to the complex connection between economics and the arts, and discovered that the main reason why artists encounter financial difficulties is not that they mismanage their funds or are frivolous with their money, but that, in many cases, they create handcrafted products and are involved in labour-intensive activities. They are forced to compete in a mechanized age but cannot take advantage of technological gains as corporations can. This led Baumol to develop his theory of the income gap, which has had a profound effect on arts management because it explains why artists need public assistance to cover the shortfall between earned income and total expenditure, just as educational institutions, hospitals, and other institutions do. Galbraith too made a strong case for the development of the arts and humanities, both in his writings as an economist, and in his activities as an adviser to US Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

103A final noteworthy set of contributions has come from poets, philosophers, educators, and diplomats, including Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Elise Boulding, Wole Soyinka, Léopold Senghor, Takdir Alisjahbana, Soedjatmoko, and many others. Each in his or her own way has helped to broaden and deepen understanding of the role that culture plays in society and in the development of cultures. For example, Tagore and Gandhi saw the world largely in terms of the interaction between different cultures, religions, and peoples. Soyinka, as we have seen, views culture as the “Source” from which all things flow and to which all things return, and Alisjahbana views culture as the very foundation of human existence. These and other writers have shown that it is impossible to understand many of the developments taking place today without understanding the powerful role that cultures play in human affairs.

104It is on the foundation of such thoughts, ideas, and findings that the theoretical foundations for a cultural age should be established. Just as the economic age is predicated on the theoretical contributions of the economists discussed in Part I of this book, so a cultural age should be predicated on the contributions of the scholars mentioned here, as well as of their colleagues and successors. Their legacy has been largely ignored over the past two hundred years or so because the world has been preoccupied with economics, but it will need to be known and used throughout the world on an unprecedented scale from now on, since it provides the theoretical underpinnings for a more authentic way of looking at the human condition. As the Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein put it, “we need thought as a film needs light, for clarity and definition.” If, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, thoughts are the antecedents and ancestors of action, then it is through the thoughts of generations of cultural scholars that the actions will be forthcoming that are most essential for the world of the future.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2008

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.


Volume papier
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search