On the Meaning of Culture

Grid-Group Cultural Theory is an uncomfortable thing to live with. It claims that our rationality is partial rather than complete. Instead of one version of common sense, which sensible people have and stupid people ignore, there are actually four competing versions of rationality, four different takes on the way the world actually is. Although we are quite flexible, we spend much of our time stuck inside one or other of these four boxes, unable or unwilling to see anything beyond the walls of the box.

In The Meaning of Culture (1929) John Cowper Powys wrote:

Culture is what is left over after you have forgotten all you have definitely set out to learn…One always feels that a merely educated man holds his philosophical views as if they were so many pennies in his pocket. They are separate from his life. Whereas with a cultured man there is no gap or lacuna between his opinions and his life. Both are dominated by the same organic, inevitable fatality. They are what he is.

Technology publisher Tim O’Reilly sees this as a strength, since it’s part of what gives an individual or an organisation a personality.

“Great companies always have this sense of authenticity, while “me too” companies have a culture made up of the latest management fashions.”

But it can also be a great weakness. Having matched one’s opinions to one’s life and one’s life to one’s opinions it then becomes next to impossible to see the life that exists beyond the opinions, or the opinions that exist beyond the life.

Powys nicely put his finger on exactly the point that Cultural theory seeks to expose: the point at which we abandon our ideas of opinion or philosophy and resort to the claim that ‘this is how the world really is’.

Cultural theory might therefore be regarded as an antidote to cultural inevitability, because it claims that no matter how comprehensive a particular cultural milieu appears to those on the inside, three quarters of the world is always on the outside, waiting to be discovered. Furthermore, it provides a map for navigating this expansive, meta-cultural territory. And like all maps it confronts us with a crucial question: is this organic or is it constructed?

Now read:
A way of trying not to fool yourself

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