Saturday, October 27, 2007

Cultural Richness

Modern societies have developed such an incredible breadth and depth of culture that any one individual can possess only the slightest sliver of it. Should we view this division of cultural labour as a good or a bad thing?

Compare pre-literate societies, where each individual may possess almost the entire collective wisdom of their age, passed along in shared myths and practices. There is an important sense in which such an individual is culturally richer than any of us could hope to be today. She is a generalist, with broad knowledge and capabilities covering the entire expanse of life as she knew it. There is surely something to be said for the coherence and completeness of her cultural wealth. (I do not mean the empty "completeness" of being totally ignorant, or in full possession of an impoverished culture. There's clearly nothing grand about knowing "all of nothing". Rather, I assume that the shared culture is sufficiently rich that it really does outstrip, on some broad measure, what any individual in our society grasps.)

Modern individuals, by contrast, are cultural specialists. We each know a great deal more about a great deal less. Our individual lives are arguably the poorer for it (all else equal; obviously there have been instrumental benefits), but together we constitute a civilization of such cultural richness as to dwarf those that have gone before.

We may find this trade-off intrinsically satisfying only insofar as we go beyond individualism and conceive of society at large as a locus of value.


  1. an individualist might be happy about how he knows knowledge that millions of others don't have, maybe? Or the ability to choose a set of knowledge as opposed to being forced to know a set.

    Or to be a bit more introverted, he might suggest that he sort of "absolute breadth of his knowledge is relative - and since the modern person is in a context where the full breadth required is narrower then that he is able to span that breadth is all that matters. I.e. both have 100% of the knowledge they need to know so are identical.

    Of course I am a collectivist so I may not really grasp what an individualist thinks.

    To me knowing huge amounts of almost randomly true and untrue facts like many ancient cultures is abhorent - as is being straight jacketed into believing them.

    On a side note I remember a sci fi story that was (in part) about aliens coming to earth and finding individual humans to be below their level of comprehension of beings (i.e. like cells or arms) and seeing something like ‘Islamic society’ as an organism with values and rights. With some thought, I think that may actually be quite likely.


  2. You do not define culture, or what you understand by possessing it, so I must ask: if music, for example, is culture, is to have heard that piece of music enough to possess it? Or must you have played it? On the original instrument? On period-authentic (say, Baroque) instruments? In period temperament? I think that I can meaningfully engage with a piece of music without having to possess it in the sense that a music historian does, let alone a composer.

    This is true of all civilized, literate culture: it is possible to engage with it in different degrees--and even in passing. Pre-literate culture can be engaged with, by people within it, in but one degree--as a distraction from hardship and as a smothering sop on the fire of curiosity.

    How can an illiterate culture not be poor? I do not mean to say that it can contain nothing valuable, but it is by nature circumscribed within the narrow limits of the human memory. Even allowing that memory is more reliable in those accustomed to rely on it, it can hold relatively little organized information--a few epic poems at most. A literate studying, or coming from, an illiterate culture may discover the outlines of a wealth capable of artful elaboration--but the conduct of that elaboration is the prerogative of the literate and leisured. Even the aesthetic appreciation of the nature surrounding them is likely to be unavailable to the illiterate: cultural history indicates that we do not get our appreciation of poetry from nature, but our appreciation of nature from poetry.

    Even when superior in innate capacity, the mind of an illiterate human being is in every way--in breadth as much as depth--_smaller_ than the mind of a literate, because the passive acquisitions of literacy are both broader and deeper than what can actively be acquired by the illiterate, especially with time and energy subtracted from the necessities of survival.

  3. I'm thinking of 'culture' broadly as what we transmit to our children besides our genes. Practical knowledge of how to get around in the world and solve problems seems an important part of this. And here, at least, the pre-literate medicine woman plausibly has broader capacities than I do.

    Here's a little test. Imagine two isolated towns pop into existence as cultural "blank slates". God then teleports in "teachers" to help them out. One town gets an average preliterate citizen, and the other gets an average Westerner. (Assume they can communicate, etc.) Which would do better?

  4. hmm if the environment is not similar to either modern world or the pre literate person's world then I guess the westerner's would do a little better because their knowledge structures are more generic - the preliterate persons structure would be very poor for a massively changed environment.

    So the pre literate person might know how to start a fire from certain types of wood but may assume it is impossible without that wood (and it would be avery unfair test to give them their sort of wood) because in his head fire is defined in relation to the thing that makes it (i refer here in part to flynns explination of the flynn effect).

    Then again I am envisaging you or I rather than Britney spears.


  5. Careful, are pre-literate societies really like that? The scraps of ethnography I've encountered suggest "no". Even consider something we might have all read: Homer's Iliad. In that pre-literate society there is no one character who is a vessel for all cultural knowledge, nor is it certain that the bard was one person. Not to mention, can we tell what societal values are transferred through the Iliad and which are actually held by the society? Nothing seems to separate a pre-literate guru from, say, Phillip Roth. I'm quite certain that the idea that society used to be more compact and shared in myth is itself a modern myth.

  6. Could be. It doesn't really matter though. The fictional case is enough to raise the question: should we value the richness of our whole culture, or just the part of it that we individually possess?

  7. Not sure why 'culture' is valuable, except in as far as it achieves some sort of end.

    but otherwise is this a question about being an individualist or an collectivist?

    nyway - I can imagine people sitting around in a room discussing what their flag should be and one says "make it really complex - then our culture will be richer!" or "lets have a million flags each with a picture of the individual in the middle then we will have the richest culture in the world!"


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