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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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Ideas on the Content of Culture. Broadly speaking,
there are two distinguishable approaches: (1) those
which essentially constitute a critique of modern civi-
lization, stressing its cultural fragmentation, and (2)
those which conceive of culture as an integral whole.
At times both positions have been held concurrently,
the critique of disunity being in fact a plea for unity.

(1) Culture versus Civilization. When Diderot,
Rousseau, Herder, the romantics, or, more recently,
Spengler, pointed up the contrast between the natural,
organic, creative, genuine, on the one hand, and the
artificial, mechanical, stereotyped, and superficial, on
the other, between the nobility, deep-rootedness, free-
dom, and equality of the savage, or the contentment
of medieval man, and the corruption, alienation, ser-
vility, and exploitation of modern man, the chief
impetus was invariably polemical. That the apotheosis
of primitive or medieval man was or was not support-
able by anthropology or history was scarcely relevant.
What mattered was to unmask the pretensions of con-
temporary civilization, to puncture the pride and
complacency that went with it. Underlying the polem-
ics was a craving for spontaneity, sincerity, and warm
sensibility rather than cold rationality, the concrete
rather than the abstract, and a recognition of the in-
comparability and immeasurability of things. Though
Vico's ideas were seminal in a number of these direc-
tions, they were rarely known at first, and there can
be little doubt that Diderot's influence was the most
pervasive, soon to be followed by that of Rousseau and
Herder.

Diderot's critique of contemporary society, center-
ing on the self-estrangement of modern man, finds its
most pungent articulation in his novel Rameau's
Nephew
(Le Neveu de Rameau) written in the 1760's
but not published during his lifetime. The abject
Rameau extols vice, but in doing so, uncovers the
inversion and perversion of prevailing values. Rous-
seau's Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (Discours sur
les arts et sciences,
1750), written some fifteen years
earlier, though with Diderot's encouragement, also
pursues the theme of alienation. Rousseau does not
claim that human nature was intrinsically better before
the advance of the arts and sciences, only that social
life and mores were in closer harmony with it. Modern


617

civilization imposed its pattern on men, unlike the
original cultures which grew out of men's needs. What
is more, modern civilization imposed a wholly uniform
pattern, casting every mind in the same mold. “Polite-
ness requires this, decorum that; ceremony has its set
forms, fashion its laws, and these we must always fol-
low, never the promptings of our own nature”
(Oeuvres, Deterville ed., I, 10).

In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Dis-
cours sur l'origine de l'inégalité,
1754) Rousseau assails,
as Vico had done before him, the natural law theorists
for mistaking the artificial for the original, for making
man a philosopher before he is a man, and for giving
the name of natural law to a collection of norms they
happen to find expedient, thus rationalizing existing
practices and institutions, in particular that of private
property. Such natural laws may be in conformity with
modern civilization, but they have nothing in common
with original customs and traditions. Private property
may indeed have ushered in the era of civilization, but
what has it done to the traditional way of life of earlier
cultures? “It now became the interest of men to appear
what they really were not. To be and to seem became
two completely different things.” Men lost their sense
of identity; they became estranged from themselves
and from each other. In place of the bonds of organic
community relations there arose “rivalry and competi-
tion on the one hand and conflicting interests on the
other” (Oeuvres, I, 286).

Herder's indictment of his age was no less severe.
Few documents constitute so devastating an attack on
contemporary civilization as his Yet Another Philoso-
phy of History
(Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte,
1774). With the incisiveness of a surgeon's knife it lays
bare the sores of the eighteenth-century world. The
so-called enlightenment and civilization have affected
only a few in a narrow strip of the globe, and even
where light has been shed, ominous shadows are never
far afield. Civilization has forced people into mines,
into treadmills, and into cities which are fast becoming
slag-heaps of human vitality and energy. So much in
the arts, in industry, in war and civil life has been
mechanized that the human machine has lost its zest
to function. Man is alienated from himself: head and
heart are rent apart. The culture of the age is a paper
culture, its ideals mere abstractions, instruments of
self-deception (Werke, V, 532-41).

Much of what these critics had to say on the ills
of eighteenth-century civilization in Europe, on alien-
ation, acquisitiveness, colonialism, and so on, reverber-
ates in subsequent sociopolitical writings; but nowhere
is the parallelism of mood and terminology quite so
striking as in Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West
(Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 1918-23). For
Spengler civilization marks the disintegration, the last
dying phase of a culture. In his characterization of
civilization one encounters practically every one of the
themes just traced. The basic source of cultural decline
Spengler sees in the giant city, the “megalopolis,” as
he calls it. Its society is not a community but a “mass,”
leading a sort of nomadic, parasitic life, devoid of past
or future. Rootless, restless, traditionless, it is constantly
on the move, knowing neither whither nor why. In
the end the city—and with it civilization—proves the
negation of the negation, the seed of its own destruc-
tion (I, 31-34, 424; II, 310; trans. C. F. Atkinson, New
York [1926-28]).

For writers such as Kant, Coleridge, and Matthew
Arnold, culture represents essentially the moral condi-
tion of the individual, while civilization means the
conventions of society. Invariably the former is also
associated with “spiritual” values, the latter with “ma-
terial” values. Remarking that Rousseau was not so far
wrong when he preferred the state of the savages, Kant
adds (in the Seventh Proposition of the “Idea of a
Universal History”) that though we are civilized, “even
to excess in the way of all sorts of social forms of
politeness and elegance... there is still much to be
done before we can be regarded as moralized.” Exter-
nal propriety merely constitutes civilization; only the
idea of morality “belongs to real culture.” This distinc-
tion, and to some extent the skepticism about the value
of civilization, became quite common in nine-
teenth-century English writing, largely owing to the
influence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an ardent disci-
ple of Kant. “Civilization,” Coleridge writes in On the
Constitution of Church and State
(1830, Ch. V):

... is itself but a mixed good, if not far more a corrupting
influence, the hectic of disease, not the blossom of health,
and a nation so distinguished more fitly to be called a
varnished than a polished people, where civilization is not
grounded in cultivation, in the harmonious development of
those qualities and faculties that characterize our humanity.

Matthew Arnold, another leading advocate of cul-
ture in terms of moral self-perfection, interestingly
anticipated in his Culture and Anarchy (1869) C. P.
Snow's theme of the “two cultures.” Culture is first
and foremost moral improvement and not “merely or
primarily [the perfection] of the scientific passion for
pure knowledge” (Ch. 1). Toynbee, by contrast, gener-
ally understood by civilization the highest development
of social cultures from their primitive origins (op. cit.,
I, 438).

None of these distinctions, however, has found reso-
nance in the writings of modern cultural anthropolo-
gists, the first leading exponent of whom was E. B.
Tylor. In his Primitive Culture (1871, p. 1) he defined


618

culture as “that complex whole which includes knowl-
edge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other
capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member
of society.” This holistic conception was, however, not
entirely novel; it had its intellectual antecedents from
Vico to Herder and beyond.

(2) Culture as an Integral Whole. Vico's ideas prove
highly original in this direction also. Both his multiple-
independent-origin theory and his theory of cyclical
development clearly indicate that he thought of cul-
tures in terms of wholes or configurations. At each stage
of its development a given culture represents a com-
plex of interrelated and interdependent constituents,
each of which shares with the others certain distinctive
characteristics. “As from a trunk, there branch out from
one limb logic, morals, economics, and politics,” Vico
wrote in the New Science (§367). Diderot, in D'Alem-
bert's Dream
(Le Rêve de D'Alembert, 1769), employed
the image of a swarm of bees in order to give expression
to this notion of organic unity, i.e., to the idea that
a whole is qualitatively unique and different from a
mere aggregate of individual parts. The conception of
a whole as a complex whole characterizes also Voltaire's
epoch-making contribution to the study of culture, the
Essai sur les moeurs. Civilization, for Voltaire, is a
totality forged by men in their social life and actions.
Few thinkers before or after him penetrated more
profoundly into the “spirit of the time,” a concept he
was the first to express; yet only rarely did he succeed
in transcending the values of his own times. While he
strongly emphasized the need for a harmonious balance
of diverse human aspirations, his criterion for what
constituted a proper balance was highly culture-bound,
a fact which the young Herder was not slow in observ-
ing. Why, Herder asked in Yet Another Philosophy,
should we take for granted that the beliefs of past ages
were the same as ours, their standard of happiness
identical to our own? “Has not each man, each nation,
each period, the center of happiness within itself, just
as every sphere has its center of gravity?” (Werke, V,
509).

Though Herder's thought owed much to Voltaire,
it marks an important departure from Voltaire's cul-
tural monism. Herder felt it would be more accurate
to speak of specific cultures—in the plural—rather than
of culture in general. There is no such thing, Herder
further declared, as a people devoid of culture. To be
sure, there are differences, but these are differences
of degree, not of kind. To apply the standard of Euro-
pean culture as a standard for comparison, let alone
as a universal yardstick of human values, is plainly
meaningless. Each culture carries within itself its own
immanent validity, and hence we have to think of the
world as being composed of uniquely different socio
cultural entities, each with its own pattern of develop-
ment, its own inner dynamic growth.

Although Herder was mainly concerned with elicit-
ing sources of integration within a given culture, he
recognized that there were subcultures that could ex-
ercise a divisive no less than a unifying influence. “A
nation,” he writes, “may have the most sublime virtues
in some respects and blemishes in others... and reveal
the most astonishing contradictions and incongruities”
(ibid., V, 506). To speak, therefore, of a cultural whole
is not necessarily a way of referring to a state of blissful
harmony; it may just as conceivably refer to a field
of tension. In contrast to those who identified culture
with spiritual pursuits, and civilization with material
progress, Herder rejected the dualism between “mate-
rial” and “non-material” activity. Artifacts are as much
part of culture as ideas, beliefs, and values. Culture
comprises all of man's creative activities, both what
he does and what he thinks. Of particular concern to
Herder were culture determinants that help to produce
a sense of collective identity, and these he identified
chiefly with language, shared symbols and values, cus-
toms and norms of reciprocity. Physical environmental
factors he considered of secondary importance, capable
of “only influencing, favorably or unfavorably, but not
of compelling a given course of development,” as he
put it in the Ideas (ibid., XIII, 273). It is interesting,
both from the point of view of modern anthropology
and also against the historical background of the “age
of reason” to find that Herder saw in nonrational ele-
ments significant molding agents of social cultures.
Neither myths nor prejudices are dismissed by him as
irrelevant aberrations. Furthermore, unlike subsequent
thinkers, Marxists in particular, Herder did not view
ideas and beliefs as epiphenomenal, as mere super-
structures. Certain myths or religious doctrines, he
agreed, may indeed be intimately associated with eco-
nomic and political institutions and practices; but this
does not prove anything about their respective origins
or significance, nor does it deny their essential auton-
omy. By the same token, whatever “functions” either
of them may be said to perform within a given “sys-
tem” proves nothing about their necessary or even
sufficient conditions or interrelationships. Myths and
religions may or may not serve the function of main-
taining authoritarian (religious and/or political) struc-
tures, but this is not tantamount to saying that such
structures would necessarily disappear with the disap-
pearance of myths and religions (or vice versa), or that
shamans, priests, or dictators invented certain beliefs,
or invariably used them to deceive others without
accepting them themselves. “By dismissing them as
cheats,” Herder observes in the Ideas (ibid., XIII, 307),
“one is inclined to think that one has explained every-


619

thing. They may well have been cheats in many or
most places, but this should not induce us to forget
that they were people too, and the dupes of myths
older than themselves.”

Herder's historical relativism and cultural pluralism
affected, directly or indirectly, the thinking of J. G.
Fichte, Friedrich Schlegel and Hegel, the historical law
school of Savigny, the political romantics, J. S. Mill,
and the writing of cultural history up to Spengler, T.
S. Eliot, and Toynbee. Nor has Herder's anatomy of
culture lost relevance for modern sociology and an-
thropology. In particular it demonstrates that situa-
tional-functional analysis, taken by itself, is inadequate
as an explanatory tool if what we seek in terms of
explanation is evaluation of content and/or determi-
nation of purpose, and that, therefore, functionalism
can scarcely dispense with process analysis. Thus, far
from being inconsistent, functional and historical
approaches are indeed complementary or interde-
pendent. Furthermore, Herder's heuristic principle of
treating every manifestation of culture as essentially
autonomous, though interrelated in the two-
dimensional sense indicated, also implies that the ap-
plicable mode of causality is that of multiple causation.
Both the idea of two-dimensional interaction and the
idea of multiple causation have come to be recognized
as potentially fruitful perspectives or conceptual aids
in the study of social cultures.