Do We Need Culture?

I confess, I have written the following with the intention of being admired for my wit. Showing some respect in return for its articulation in a format most prone to underestimation is the price to be paid for a clear philosophical text!

There are certain objects that turn the statement ‘X exists’ into an absolutely true one.  While Descartes’ argument serves well to persuade most sincere thinkers of the existence of thought, there is another phenomenon which convinces all subjects, reasonable or insane, to admit its existence regardless of their sincerity: sheer pain. Unable to do anything else I once made a philosophical experiment at a 42 degree fever.  I examined whether it would be possible in such a condition to doubt the existence of pain, and well, it was humanly impossible. The pain laughs at skepticism.  The experience convinced me that some statements can hold absolutely true, on a biological level, as far as the word ‘absolute’ indicates the highest degree of certainty with which a subject expresses his earnest avowal. The experience is open to the public for re-examination.

Pain is the cause of firm beliefs. Strenuous and harsh socio-political situations generate ideologies, while good food prepares the ground for liberalism. Pain conditions us more than pleasure. The fright of hell overshadows the power of longing for heaven.

General facts up to here, but still acceptable.

The purpose of pain is to force and compel us to action, not just to inform us that something is not functioning correctly. It is more than an alarm system. Among other drives, there is only one that is as strong as pain: the desire to be admired and loved (the same thing that encourages the writing of a text similar to this one.) Our making is such that it enables us to resist pain and neglect pleasure for the sake of being admired. All this sounds too simple. What makes it complicated is that we are also reasonable creatures, i.e. we can condition ourselves to what is a condition for something else. We can lose interest in something that has an apparent causal relation to something that we dislike or become interested in something that relates to another thing that we like. This is the definition of being truly convinced in practical terms. When we regard such a relation to be existent and yet our interests remain unchanged we are not really convinced. Now, I believe who we are and what we do is very much dependent on how we organise a network of such relations so as to resist one motive and give way to another.

I consider them in the form of a network.

Mere supposition, but useful.

Culture and reason determine the structure of the network: culture by organising how one can become adorable and reason by determining whether there is a causal relation between any two given events. (It can err in doing so, but this is not a matter of concern here.) One way of defining culture from the individual’s point of view is actually to say that culture is the way in which we organise this network without using our reason. What we rationalise, or have the time to rationalise, is very little compared to the whole body of the network. At the age when rational thinking becomes self-aware one has already absorbed culture for a great deal. No thinking emerges in vacuum: as soon as independent critical thinking starts, it finds itself struggling with culture.

But now, no philosophy is so sophisticated as to allow an individual to organise this network in every matter on the basis of that philosophy. Reason regulates incoming experiences but such a body of experience never reaches the point of enabling the subject to answer the question ‘what decision should I make in matters that influence a whole life?’ from such a general viewpoint that every consequence of such a decision is taken into consideration. Reason will recommend reliance on experience but will not go beyond recommendation, since induction is not a flawless and perfectly suitable method of dealing with systems that rely on chance or for events that are not repeated each time in a same manner.  It is the best known method. Again according to experience. Not reasoning. Especially if one lives only one unique life, which he apparently does.

Reason shall not give a verdict on the ultimate way of doing things, it would take every situation as being unique. Its generalisations will rely on particulars. Culture, however, seems to be capable of undertaking the task because it lacks the harmony that philosophy enjoys. It has a prepared answer for everything, everything that an individual needs to know.

It is widely acknowledged that by obscuring the inhabitant’s view with its walls culture builds a home for the individual to live in. It is not and cannot be a logical system—partly due to the variety of individuals whom it serves, partly due to the different stages that life has and to all of which culture must correspond. It has to be fragmented and incoherent. Or else it will not function.

If culture cannot be substituted by reason, then it seems that rationalisation should be the rationalisation of culture, if it is to make any practical sense. (The other option is to consider rationalisation as the rationalisation of individuals: an attempt to build a society of philosophers.) It should change the beams of the roof one by one without destroying it altogether. But is rationalisation of culture a feasible project or will reason challenge culture forever?

Let us praise reason for all it does except one thing: as reason realises that it is the most legitimate faculty for legislating for the will in every matter, it forgets that it is not always there to accompany the subject. What reason can hope is that the subject believes enough in what reason legislates for him and remembers it when reason is not present. One should believe in reason’s usefulness, in order to perform its verdicts in its absence. Reason legislates, does not force action. Belief. Here. The psychological mistake of reason, as it were, turns into the socio-psychological mistake of rationality when rationality becomes the principle upon which a society operates. It neglects cultural beliefs and their strength. Belief. Here again. But what is belief?

Cultural beliefs are society’s memory. They serve to preserve what society has learnt through experience. For what is culture from society’s point of view? It is what is present from the past in the present. It is not history, but a living image of the past. Men’s social reactions are not just reactions to social events, to present stimulants: to the extent that they are cultural, they are also reactions towards the past.

Culture works through belief, prejudice and historical superstition. However, the more one contemplates the nature of belief, the more he realises that it has the same nature as knowledge. It is actually a kind of knowledge, but an inaccurate one. Now, the most powerful tool we know against superstition and prejudice is skepticism, i.e. to suspend belief. To suspend belief, in its own turn, is to believe in reason. To believe in mere suspension, will be to refute reason and abandon the use of it altogether. No philosophy can escape belief in this sense.

Back to reason.

To reason, mind can appear as an empty space. A clear working desk. Reason sees itself at work, allowed to question everything that is in the mind and judging everything that is laid at its tribunal. The empty space is actually a temporary state of peace and quiet for the mind, a heavenly gift, a mercy for a healthy mind at the time of its best performance and equilibrium. Reason sees rationality as the primary state. It legislates belief, therefore regards belief as its creation, as something that must obey. But the function of belief is to make the subject obey. It can resist reasoning since not all beliefs are generated by reason. One can also learn them from culture.

Now, the more reason contemplates social systems the more it finds it impossible to surrender to culture, to recognise it is in its own right and justify its commandments: culture appears as a creature that has a life nearly independent from that of the society, not entirely in its service, following its own goals while preserving some links with the social situation. One can predict what the verdict of reason in such a situation might be: social situation is a fact, it is what is actually out there; culture is no more than a shadow, it should conform to the fact.

Yet, reason relies on culture for the peace and equilibrium that it enjoys. It stands on and above the fears and sufferings experienced by many men in hundreds of thousands of years, crystallised into and suppressed by civilisation. Culture crystallises social pain. It is the nervous system of society which operates with delay but serves a purpose. Culture is a means of controlling and taming wild psychological powers. Unseen is the vulnerability of reason: a king, but a child king; the only faculty that has the legitimacy of ruling the mind provided it receives sufficient protection.

What culture does naturally, unconsciously and blindly, reason does affectedly, justly, and clear-sightedly. Reason goes for the Law: another way of doing things but open to discussion, to necessary changes, at least in theory. Like culture, it has the power to control men’s ambitions, usually through pain, rather than determining one’s will which is what culture does. Law determines what one can do and sets the price of it, but does not say what one must want. More liberal in this sense.

Culture limits human desires. Each culture eliminates certain potentialities in human beings and allows and encourages other ones to flourish. Now I claim that this is not entirely bad; that culture is not just the mere ‘form’ of our social activities: it determines the taste and meaning of such activities as well. It determines what we want. Each era, each cultural situation is a different notion of life, I believe. The difference between two men one of the 15th and the other of the 19th century is not that the first would have done what the second did if he was in his shoes. Even if he was wearing those shoes, he would have still been in the wrong shoes since ‘who he is’ is determined by culture. More radical would be to say that cultures, like reason, need some continuity and relative stability in order to flourish and elaborate. It is more radical, since supporting such continuity—supporting ‘a culture’ against ‘cultures’—is to oppose pluralism. (Name this §1)

But what is wrong with many cultures living together, side by side, creating an active multi-cultural atmosphere? Such a notion, as far as the term ‘active’ is concerned, takes the irrationality of individuals for granted, for they are expected to actively preserve and perform their culture while they clearly see the cultural differences. They understand that the walls of the cultural home are fake, that they limit their freedom, but they are at the same time expected to remain within them. A more rational choice on their behalf would be to go for what they themselves have in common.  Now, in the post-modern, multi-cultural, plural, liberal viewpoint they are expected to go for activating all the potentials of humanity, through the support of law and as far as possible, exactly what cultures had up to current day endeavoured to restrict and confine. This new culture (which deserves another name) should be much different from any other that existed previously. It differs from them by definition. Imagine an individual with all his powers activated. Not in one but in every aspect. And not with one but with all the possible forms. One cannot imagine this. He can only imagine a society with all extremities, some individuals being the representative of one or two. One is free to decide in such a society among everything but according to nothing. A society of gods, each more of a Sisyphus rather than a Prometheus, for they are not justified in why they are doing what they do and no reasonable man will ever dare to tell them what to want.

As one might predict, such a situation might also encourage a universal form of attitude parallel to the extremities. If no one is able to take all freedom in, a more conservative approach would be to have a little of everything. This universal form will again be a culture (back to §1) and is not the same thing as a rationalised one, a culture supposed to be reasonable in every aspect, for a culture based on what everyone has in common is more of a Zeitgeist than of a common sense; it includes common mistakes as well. It has the disadvantages of any other culture without having its merits.  It does not allow things to settle down and there is no other culture to oppose it. This culture encourages everything as long as everything conforms to the law, but the law is devised according to either some rational principles or the will of majority. What the majority should want is beyond question, for such a question is cultural; they should just avoid doing anything thatharms others. And as for the rational principle, if reason is to maximise a society’s happiness and minimise its agonies, it should look into the past and rely on experience, on history. But history in the form of a collection of facts will not serve for this purpose, for one cannot conclude what makes humans happy without taking the influence of culture into consideration. Reason cannot weigh happiness without culture.

To summarise: The law which reason devised to substitute the power of culture thus has to rely on the benefit of society. This ‘benefit’ in its own turn is meaningless unless interpreted in terms of the economy of happiness and misery which is in turn highly dependent on culture.

While culture shows without proving what should be sought, reconfirming itself over and over again, reason hesitates to perform but negatively: by reduction. While culture tries to maximise pleasure and to give it its different colours by restricting and making it more complicated, reason strives to minimise pain. For pain is more factual and real. In order to avoid the above cycle, reason tries to place itself on a safer ground, a more acceptable motive for moving the masses, namely, a fair distribution of misery: the essential core of socialism. Thus rationalisation for the greater part has rightly been the elimination of the painful.

But what if someone loves culture for what it does? He who esteems culture higher than anything, who strives for sublimity, would accept cultural pains (for himself and others but in practice more for others than for himself) for the sake of a ‘higher’ pleasure, which is not accessible to everyone. He, the cultural man, who believes living without the support of culture is the most painful and depressing human situation, would prefer, I believe, to stay by the side of ‘some’ culture and accept some sort of neglect and egoism. He will abandon thinking of rationalisation as a homogenous project, for he believes in the vulnerability of his reason. This wise man, however, will not find the privilege to be considered a philosopher.