Culture and the Mental

Wed, 2 Feb 1994 22:16:00 PST

Graber writes:

"I have a "litmus test" for whether phenomenon X ought to be considered
part of the culture of a specified social group: How does it work to
say,"X is a feature of the group's socially acquired way of life"?
... My argument is not that culture does not include mental phenomena, only
that it is not confined to them."

Implicit in the last sentence is some implicit understanding of what
constitutes culture, and the first sentence appears to be an attempt to
operationalize that implicit understanding. Thus, to paraphrase Graber, we
can define culture to refer to all those X's where it is true that "X is a a
feature of the group's socialy acquired way of life". That is certainlly a
valid form of a definition. One could also say that culture = learned
behavior. Or one could say that culture refers to whatever humans do. What
I am suggesting is that the problem is not with setting forth a valid
definition, but with determining what is a priori and what is derived in the
range of phenomena that is of interest to anthropologists. If one person
only wants culture to refer to mental phenomena in some restricted sense,
that does not deny the existence, nor the legitimacy in studying, phenomena
not included in the more restrictive defintion. It seems that definitions
can play one of two roles, as I have suggested earlier. They can serve to
define new concepts from either primitives or well establlished concepts (and
none of the definitions offered of culture, either here or elsewhere satisfy
this criterion) or serve to demarcate the domain of study. In the latter
case the question becomes: Why these boundaries and not those boundaries. In
a real sense, one is in a catch-22 situation. Ideally, the boundaries
should encompass a domain for which the phenemena in that domain can be
accounted for within a single, or closely related, theoretical paradigm.
E.g., population genetics, roughly speaking, has to with genetic information
coded on DNA and is transmitted from one generation to another via a
Mendelian model of inheritance. Correspondingly, there is a fairly coherent
bodyh of theory that relates to this domain. But the catch for the
discussion here is that what that more or less coherent body of theory might
look like is not known/widely accepted, hence it is difficult to say what are
the boundaries, and further, one attempts to establish what that body of
theory might be by virtue of the boundaries that are defined; i.e., it all
becomes very circular.

My quiblle with Graber would be that his definition of culture encompasses
domains that will require quite different kinds of theory; i.e., theory
about, say, kinship terminology structures will not look at all like (nor use
the same primitives, etc) as theory about the relationship between
population size/density, degree of societal organization, etc. Further, to
continue with this example, neitther boty of theory will likely have the
other body of theory as its derivative--the work I do on the structure of
kinship terminologies informs us not in the least about, say, the kind of
work Graber does on developing mathematical models that have as their topic
the way in which populaiton size, spatial constraint and social/organization
complexity intertwine.

Thus if we accept a broad definition of culture, then we will need to come up
with labels for these disparate domains that come under this broad
definition. Alternatively, we can let culture refere to a domain according
to how the term was initially devised, and invent new term for those domains
that would be excluded under a more restrictive definition of culture.

When someone says: cultuer = learrned behavior, I don't take from this a
better understanind of what is culture. Rather, I take from that statement
one of two things: (1) the author is really interested in studying learned
behavior or (2) the author is making the claim that learned behavior is the
level at which the primitives of a theory will be stated. In the former case
I have no quarrel--each of us has particular interests. The second statement
is open to discussion and dispute--as has occured in various posts. Now in
so doing I am assuming that "culture" should be the cover term for the domain
which serves this role as providing the location for the primitives of a
theory which, in conjunction with other theories, helps us to build
understanding of our species in its many facets. In other words, assuming
(as seems to be the case) that biological reductionism is not going ot work
when studying human phenomena, then there must be some "beginning point" at a
level above the purely biological from which, analytically, theories will
develop. This "beginning point" serves to prevent "why?" questions from
leading ot infinite regresses. Thus, with a statement such as cultuer =
learned behavior, we can ask if "explanatory" arguments framed at this level
have satisfactory resolution to "why" questions, or whether arguments framed
at this level depend upon assumptions that themselves require explanatory
arguments at a level above the biological one. For example, one can simply
ask: Why did hte learned behavior arise in the first place?

I think if one keeps asking Why quesitons, one will find oneself pushed to
the level of mental phenomena before one is willing to say something like: we
take X as a given and once X is given, then our theoyr comes into play and
accounts for the phenomena we are examining. It is for this reason that I
prefer a definition of culture that has as its reference "mental phenomena".

D. Read