by Mark English
This post was prompted by some private discussion of a recent episode of my podcast, Culture and Value. The episode in question, entitled “Individualism and Cultural Embeddedness“, was centered – in fact the podcast in general is centered – around what you could see as the paradox of individualism: we are culturally embedded beings and yet we (or many of us) value individualism. At any rate, I thought it might be useful to set out in writing – as concisely as possible – some of my guiding principles. My assumptions, if you like.
I know I have dealt with these ideas before but they are difficult to pin down and important because they are so fundamental. Also, there are significant implications which I haven’t fully explored. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a currently-contentious social or political issue to which answers to the basic questions I am addressing would not be relevant. (This, to a large extent, is why these themes continue to interest me.)
Before I get to cultural embeddedness, let me elaborate briefly on another point I alluded to in that podcast episode: my scientific view of the world and ourselves.
Biology and culture. Culture and biology. That’s not all there is, but – with the inorganic world within which biological organisms evolved and within which they exist – that’s enough to make a human being.
Imagine growing a human fetus in a lab, doing whatever might be necessary to allow the body to grow and muscles to develop but not allowing social contact or cultural (e.g. linguistic) input. Such a being might look human and may even be able to perform some basic physical activities but how human would it be (except in a technical sense)? Crucially it would not (I am saying) be a person.
Now, if you believe in a spiritual substance which inhabits or animates the body you will have a different view from mine and may consider me to be disrespecting human dignity by even discussing such a hypothetical experiment at all. But my point is not to demean human dignity but rather to understand where it comes from.
The person is not just a body, but a body that has developed within a particular social and cultural environment. There’s no secret ingredient. There doesn’t need to be.
I recognize, however, that it’s natural for us to think in terms of embodied – and disembodied – spirits. Such ideas are widespread across many, unconnected cultures. The most concise and compelling account I have read of these things was by the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who, drawing on his research into African religions and on cognitive science, postulated a kind of universal mental template for persons which gives rise not only to our normal notions of embodied persons but also to the notion of disembodied persons, the notion of purely spiritual beings.
I am saying that we are culturally embedded biological organisms. Our personhood derives not from a soul or spirit but simply from the cultural matrix in which we grew up.
This is all very well, you might say, and widely accepted. But I am making two claims here. One is that there is no soul or spirit. One is that we are necessarily culturally embedded. It’s the latter point I want to emphasize.
People often talk as if one can or could “reject” or stand outside of one’s culture. I would reference here the Romantic myth of the rebel. Its hold within the cultural milieu in which I grew up always bemused me and I still see signs of it everywhere. Sure, you can reject aspects of your culture – but only by embracing and deploying other aspects of the cultural matrix within which you came to and continue to exist. An individual is always dependent on – and in fact defined by – this matrix and indebted to the other individuals, past and present, who have contributed to it.
This does not mean that individualism is impossible or is an illusion. The individualist simply seeks out and engages with a wider range of cultural elements than the unreflective conformist does.
I will finish with a few clarificatory remarks…
As I see it, neither cultures nor languages exist in a robust sense. Just as each of us deploys a unique linguistic system (idiolect) – different in various ways (scope and details of lexicon, maybe aspects of syntax, pronunciation, etc.) from others within our language group – so each of us embodies a unique cultural mix. This idea obviously relates to the idea of individualism and, I think, justifies taking individualism seriously as a potential way of dealing with social problems related to various kinds of identity politics and stereotyping.
Degrees of overlap vary between individuals but, because cultural elements are so diverse, there is no single measure of commonality. Some cultural elements are easily isolated and compared but most are not.
Language is probably the most basic cultural element for two reasons: it bridges biology and culture in ways that other cultural elements do not; and it is the foundation and sine qua non of culture in the more general sense. I admit that, for practical purposes, it is useful to distinguish between languages (or dialects) even if this necessarily involves abstraction and simplification.
Religion is another fairly clearly identifiable cultural element, at least in the sense that the churches and sects and religious movements of the modern world can be defined and demarcated in both social and doctrinal terms. Complications arise, however, when you start to look at how participating individuals envisage and justify their participation. Congregations may be gathered together physically, but each individual will have a unique perspective on what they are doing and why.
I am conceding that identifying and drawing cultural distinctions within certain defined areas is not only possible but inevitable and necessary. But defining and drawing distinctions between cultures in a general sense is difficult, and perhaps impossible to do in a rigorous way.
The notion of a national culture is particularly problematic. Where there can be said to be such a thing, it is of necessity imposed and artificial – in contrast to regional cultures, for example, which are shaped over long periods of time by local conditions and practices.