jameson/existence of cultural thingies a

Thu, 20 Jan 1994 16:08:00 PST

I reply here to but one part of what Foss writes:

" To understand myself, I return to
the definition of Culture as "the mental life of society and the material
products wherein it is objectified."

Since the mental life in question must be shared in order to exist at
all, and presupposes a material life whereby the biological organisms which
share it may continue to live at all,"

When I first read this, I said to myself that this has a nice ring to it.
Then I thought more and asked whether this (or any of the other definitions
that have been offered) provide the basis for how one would begin to proceed
to develop a theory of culture. Let me express some scepticism (which could
equally have been expressed at any of the other definitions of culture that
have been offered), yet I will not offer a definition that better satisifes
the objections I will raise. My purpose in writing this is not to revive the
earlier set of postings, but to see if we can go beyond disputes over one set
of definitions versus another.

What does this definition do? Does it inform us what culture IS or does
it inform us what it is NOT? Let me clarify. Mathematicians circa the 1800's
began to realize that in effect there were two kinds of mathematical
objects--those that are primitives and taken as givens, versus those that are
defined using primitives. For example, what is a nujmber? We could offer
various "definitions" and dispute which is better or worse at defining what
is a number. In the axiomitization of the number system there is no
definition of a number. Rather, one positis the existence of the number 1
(with no definition of what is meant by "the number 1") and one posits that
if n is a number then there is a successor number, call it n' (with no
definiton of what is menat by "a successor number"). Those two primitives,
plus what is referred to as the induction axiom, suffice to generate what we
call the number system. That is, one proves that in any system in which the
two primitives are valid and the axiom of induction holds, then the whole set
of theorems that constitute the number system must be valid, regardless of
what the primitive "1" is thought to represent. Now in the oridary usage of
the number system, we take the symbol "1" to mean the quantity "one" (which
is definable without recourse to numbers so there is no circularity here).
So what the abstract construction establishes is that if the symbol "1" shall
be interpreted as the quantity "one", then the system of quantities
encompasses the structure we know of as the number system.

The other kind of definition does not have this vagueness and is very
precise. E.g., one can define an "integer" to be a solution to an equation
of the form a = b + x, where a and b are counting numbers (1,2,3,...).
>From the definition of an integer one then derives properties that the
integers must have.

Here we arrive at the point I am trying to make. The definitions (such as
that of an integer) that mathematicians also enable the development of a
theory, or (in the case of primitives) serve as the foundaiton for everything

Now in the definition of culture, we lack this property. On the one hand,
"culture" is define in terms that can hardly be called "primitives" (is it
any better to take "society" as a primitve than "culture" as a primitive).
On the other hand, the definition does not enable the development of a theory
that arises from the definition (in the way that one has a theory of integers
in mathematics that arises out of the defintion of an integer).

Instead, what we seem to have is a rough sketch of what culture is NOT. For
example, if were to take the offered statement as a definition of what
culture IS, then anything thing which satisfifes the definiton would be part
of culture. Thus we might ask: do primates have "society" and do they have
"mental life"? I assume the answer to both questions is yes. Thus they
have culture according to this definition. I presume, however, that while
some might be willing to ascribe "culture" to some primates, there is
agreement that primates as a class do not have "culture."

As a definition which excludes, but is vague on what should be included, I
think it is quite reasonable--e.g., culture excludes properties that can be
accounted for solely by reference to somatic properties of human organisms.
But by being vague on what is included within the domain of "mental life"
"society" etc. it is inadequate as a basis for building theory. Again, if I
may make analogy to mathematics, it is as if we were to set out to develop
mathematical theory by first trying to define what is mathematics. (Try to
find an adequate definition of what is mathematics!). There are certainly
definitions of mathematics similar to this kind of definition of
culture--that is, definitions which assert what mathematics definitely is
NOT, but are vague on what it is--but the lack of an adequiate definition
hardly prevented the development of mathematical theory. Perhaps we are
facing the same problem here. Perhas we have the illusion that we need the
"right" definition of culture and through that definition all else will begin
to flow. Instead, what we may need is mereely a rough-and-ready kind of
definition, e.g., such as the one given by Foss (or others that roughly say
the same thing) and then we may need to begin to work out not a theory of
culture, but a theory about a piece of what is agreed is part of culture.
For example, Foss's definition, and others like it, place first priority on
mental activity. We might begin by asking a question such as: When we
consider culture to refere to mental products, are these mental products
structured and if so in what manner? Can we account for how such mental
products can be generated or produced (at the level of mental activity)? Or
we might focus more on the second part of his definition where there is
implicit recognition that the "mental life" is abstract and eventually has
material representation or interpretation. We might ask: What is the process
by which this representation takes place? (Obviously, both of these
approaches have already been explored in anthropology -- I am not suggesting
something new, only, I think, a different way to think about what a
scientific anthropology should have as its goals).

D. Read