Culture – A Perspective On Individuals & Meaning

Delve into the mind and you find juxtaposition. The harder we look into the mind the more of us there is to discover outside of ourselves. In my mind I’ve been thinking of ‘culture’ as any set of beliefs and practices shared by a group of people. Shared by a group that is… of people with minds.

The internalization of socially rooted and historically developed activities is the distinguishing feature of human psychology.

– Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society

Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence—that is, at the bottom of the sea—for as long as we use the word “politics.” This is what the semanticists, who with good reason attack language as the one bulwark behind which the past hides…

– Hannah Arendt, Introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations

Destroying The Individual

There you have it, culture, something so intrinsically extrinsic to an individual, something surrounding; enveloping us so much so that it is synonymous with ‘environment’. Yet it is contained within the minds to whom it provides that habitat; the words, beliefs and practices of people are ‘in’ the minds. This inside-outness places a looking glass at how we understand ourselves and our relation with the world.

Culture can be thought of as a container in this juxtaposition, held by its content. Culture is a picture dreamed by M.C Escher. It is a spandrel of sorts; only there because its arches are there to frame it as the centrepiece of its own architecture.

“Socially established structures of meaning” are the meeting point of mind and culture, the trading zone in which psychology and anthropology exchange their goods.


to have at least certain kinds of meaningful, content-laden, intentional states one must be subject to rules, standards, and conventions…Recognizing the normative dimension to the mental takes one beyond the individual and into the social.

– Robert A. Wilson, Boundaries of The Mind

In realizing the mind in other words we realize that we are realized as entities whose determination lies not within ourselves but, necessarily outside the boundaries of that thing so sacrosanct… our individuality…

Consider first the example perhaps closest to common sense, the property of being a predator. Predators play a certain role in an ecological system, occupy a particular ecological niche, that of preying on other living things, typically (but not solely) for nourishment. This property is relational in at least two ways: An organism is a predator for certain other living things (their prey), and in certain types of environments (their ecosystem). Here the relevant system is the predator-prey system, whose dynamics are captured, in part, by the Lotka-Volterra equations and is explored in population ecology. While the part of this system most readily identifiable as playing a crucial causal role in producing or sustaining the property of being a predator, that is, that property’s core realization, might be thought to be contained within the organism that is a predator, the total realization for this property is clearly wide… being a predator involves a relation between an organism and something beyond its organismic envelope, what is metaphysically sufficient for particular bodily or behavioral phenotypes to be those of a predator extends beyond the boundary of the individual.

– Robert A. Wilson, Boundaries of The Mind

If we are social; and we do live in the most complex of all social systems, we cannot escape the role of the social environment in which we live. We take our cues at every thought from a world whose wisdom lies implicit in the rules, the places, customs and expectations that we share. In other words history, something beyond even the most forthright of us is an envelope crushing the the pointed selfhood that we hold so dear.

And of course the picture is bleaker for the hard-nosed individualists amongst us. For not only the untouchable past, stretching as far back as conventions begin, but also our genes remove us from ourselves. How ironic that something so wide as culture and something so small as protein molecules could work together to bring the very notion of a self face to face with itself in shattered glass.

The focus now is thus less on culture as a process of transmission and more on culture as a process of social coordination—and indeed, we argue here that modern human cultures were made possible by an earlier evolutionary step in which individuals made a living by coordinating with others in relatively simple acts of collaborative foraging.


to distinguish human thinking from that of other apes—we must characterize its component processes of cognitive representation, inference, and self-monitoring. The shared intentionality hypothesis claims that all three of these components were transformed in two key steps during human evolution. In both cases, the transformation was part of a larger change of social interaction and organization in which humans were forced to adopt more cooperative lifeways. In order to survive and thrive, humans were forced, twice, to find new ways to coordinate their behavior with others in collaborative (and then cultural) activities and to coordinate their intentional states with others in cooperative (and then conventional) communication. And this transformed, twice, the way that humans think.

– Michael Tomasello, In A Natural History of Human Thinking

Experience has that odd property of appearing to belong to someone. To us. It would all seem rather pointless otherwise. But, taken together the deterministic nature of history, our social world and the microscopic world of genetic agents controlling us like toy robots lead us to believe that our sense of self, the self which hungers for meaning is nothing but the center of gravity between two forces stripping us of an identity we believed we had.

Bringing The Individual Back to Self

This all rather misses the point. For genetics and the social world are quite different sorts of thing. We may be realized in both but, that is also to say that both are equally realized because of us. Reality is such in this sense that it is the hole that has a doughnut and not the other way round.

One way to illustrate this is think of yourself as a node. An intelligent one at that. Culture in this sense is not dissimilar to a larger cognitive structure learning from the nodes on which it supervnes. Genetics on the other side of the spectrum are a code that determine how we are able to use culture. As nodes we are free (within limits, in part determined by our code and in part determined by our history) to use the structural elements around us in the act of constructing and operating a reality.

Individual human beings develop uniquely powerful cognitive skills because they grow to maturity in the midst of all kinds of cultural artifacts and practices, including a conventional language, and of course they have the cultural learning skills necessary to master them. Individuals internalize the artifacts and practices they encounter, and these then serve to mediate all of their cognitive interactions with the world.

– Michael Tomasello, In A Natural History of Human Thinking

Within this system there is a loop. Neither our genetic framework nor the framework of our biology completely realize us or our experience; the two must interact. And they interact through the medium that is our minds. This places our minds at the center of a much larger framework that dynamically constructs and adjusts itself over time. Through this adjustment culture is determined through us as we use it to make sense of the world. It is in this respect that we realize the world around us and as we find the meaning we need we realize our culture and act on the world we experience.

In other words, what we call “direct physical experience” is never merely a matter of having a body of a certain sort; rather, every experience takes place within a vast background of cultural presuppositions. It can be misleading, therefore, to speak of direct physical experience as though there were some core of immediate experience which we then “interpret” in terms of our conceptual system. Cultural assumptions, values, and attitudes are not a conceptual overlay which we may or may not place upon experience as we choose. It would be more correct to say that all experience is cultural through and through, that we experience our “world” in such a way that our culture is already present in the very experience itself.

– George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, The Metaphors We Live By

Individuality, personal experience, the self in this respect are integral to the world and to culture. The mind is not just an epiphenomenon whose relation to itself propels itself forward, it is an agent, active in the world; an agent whose sense of meaning supports its ability to act meaningfully on the world it creates. It is in this sense that the many selves that constitute the world in which we live, through an act of mass cognition make the world mean anything at all.

You might say that what this suggests is the converse of what Givón (1995) meant in stating that today’s syntax is yesterday’s discourse. It is through a shared meaning today that our actions have the significances that they do and as time changes so do the meanings by which we act.

Though this may give us a more central role in our experience, we are left with one discomfort, the absolute impossibility of absolutes. Today’s hero may be tomorrow’s villain.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago.

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