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CULTURE

 

O.T. FORD

 

Culture is learned belief, practices, and abilities. More succinctly, culture is anything that can be learned. This compares with, for example, innate abilities, whether determined by instinct or by physical strength or structure: the ability to reach a tree branch is innate, while the ability to climb a tree is cultural.

Belief includes what is generally called knowledge. Very few things, however, can genuinely be known. Typically we apply the term ‘knowledge’ to beliefs that happen also to be true; but then we all believe that everything we believe is true, and again very little of that is knowable.

Historically, the understanding of culture has centered on the transmission from one generation to the next. By that standard, though, an item becomes culture even if it is transmitted only once and remains historical culture after it has died off, while a new discovery never counts as culture if its discoverer dies without passing it on.

There are three main elements of culture:

    — language
    — religion
    — material culture

Language is the use of symbols — arbitrary signs used to represent concepts. The most important form of language is speech, where the signs in question are sounds made with the mouth; all non-deaf humans have will have at least one spoken dialect as a native dialect, and spoken language will remain primary. While secondary to speech in importance, and mostly used to represent spoken language, writing is nonetheless an important carrier and record of culture and ideas.

A religion is a shared, organized system of belief. Religion serves two main functions, cosmology and ethics, which tell us, respectively, how the universe works, and how to behave within it. Not all religions do both, or do both equally. The largest systems among conventional religions are Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese religion. Scientific materialism exists alongside the recognized religions, the primary belief system of many in the world, and professed casually by many believers in the conventional religions, despite numerous points of contradiction.

Material culture is the culture of objects. This includes how we live in general — food, shelter, clothing, most things classed as technology. Groupings for material culture are quite different from language and religion. For example, food culture is heavily influenced by physical geography; migrants carry language and religion with them, but must often adapt their agriculture to local climate, soils, and topography. Clothing and shelter are obviously dependent on climate. Material culture tends to be more regional, then, crossing broader cultural patterns.

 

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