On Questions of Culture


C. Jordan

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On Questions of Culture, A philosophical proposal concerning the meaning of things

by C. Jordan

The art of writing American school term papers require that you begin by telling the reader what you are going to tell them. So: I am going to discuss the virtues and shortcomings of a branch of philosophy which I believe Ayn Rand would not have liked. I refer to cultural anthropology. I believe Ayn Rand would have disapproved of the field on philosophical grounds, because almost all of those definitions of culture and cultural that anthropologists use are by definition subjective. Certainly my own criticisms are inspired, in part, by the ideas of Ayn Rand.

But first I shall propose an answer to the question, of "what is reality?" Then I shall propose definitions of "subjective" versus "objective," because those are fundamental to Objectivism. The very name 'Objectivism' makes this importance clear. Then I shall define, in simple English, the basic concepts and ideas of anthropology. Then, finally, I shall come to the point.

Enough talking; let's do some thinking.

What is reality? That is one of those questions which we know, but can rarely ever define. If we all know what reality is, why can't we define it? The simplest definition of reality that I know was from a science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick (and that actually was his name). It is: "Reality is that which, when we stop believing in it, won't go away."

This definition is implicit in Ayn Rand's "John Galt Speech" from Atlas Shrugged. When we hear Galt saying that "A is A" and that rivers will not flow backwards because we believe that they should, the speech makes clear Rand's agreement with this fundamental quality of reality.

We know something is real if it is consistently present; if it is consistent with its qualities; if it does not exist or not exist because of our ideas and beliefs.

This leads to the basic dichotomy: what is "objective" as opposed to "subjective"?

I am proposing that “objective” is a basic quality of reality. Therefore something is “objective” if it does not change, irrespective of our beliefs and ideas.

Because “subjective” is the antithesis of “objective,” it follows that something is “subjective” if our ideas and beliefs are fundamental to its being.

Assuming these definitions to be true, what does it imply? (And if you don’t agree, this is the best place to catch me in an error. The best way to prove an argument is false to show that assuming it to be true leads to an absurd conclusion) Let us apply these definitions, and see where it leads us.

That a given tunnel is 140 meters from one end to the other is an objective fact. Whether that makes it a “long” tunnel or a “short” tunnel is subjective; it depends on the opinion of whoever is observing the tunnel.

The physical existence of gold is an objective fact. That gold is valuable is subjective; gold is only valuable to the extent that people believe it is, and are willing to behave accordingly.

Ayn Rand argued in John Galt’s speech that gold was an objective value, compared to the money issued by the socialist America in her novel, which was subjective, brought into value because the government said so. I agree with the second part of the statement, but not with the first.

If you were lost in the Zahara Desert with gold but no one to accept it in payment for water, of what value is your gold to you? The answer to this question underscores my point: the value of gold depends on the existence of people who value it. It cannot be objective, therefore.

These definitions gives an answer to the question on whether a tree falling in the forest, in the absence of anyone to hear it, makes a sound. My answer is: yes, because I consider it reasonable to assume that falling trees behave the same whether an observer is there or not.

Because all statements on value require a person to hold such a value, it follows that all values are subjective. If they were not, that would mean that ideas exist irrespective of the thinker. If this were so, we should be able to observe an idea existing without a person holding it. When someone can show me such a thing, I will admit my entire argument was wrong.

From this argument, I intend to move on towards ideas about culture, and whether culture is objective or subjective. Before we leave (for now) the issue of objective versus subjective, I would like to make a point clear. When I said that all ideas are subjective, I am NOT saying all ideas are equal. I am NOT saying that the philosophy of Ayn Rand is equal to the racist ideas of Adolph Hitler, just because both ideas are subjective.

This argument is better saved for my later discussion over anthropology, because this is in fact one of the fallacies I see in the philosophy of anthropology. It is enough here to say the difference is that Ayn Rand’s philosophy is both consistent with empirically observed facts, and is in large measure logically self-consistent. Hitler’s ideas were not. Subjective does NOT mean inconsistent with objective reality. It DOES mean different from objective. But objectivity and subjectivity are NOT mutually exclusive.

Next to follow is my argument about the main point: cultural anthropology.

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What is culture? Is culture an objective or a subjective phenomenon? How can we objectively study culture?

The answers to these questions are in large part inspired by Robert M. Pirsig. His arguments on cultural anthropology, which I cite below, may be found in full in his book Lila. What appears 'in single quotations' are not quotations, but paraphrasings of Pirsig's points.

But first: what is culture?

If we go with the accepted scholarly language, we will before long be knee-deep into a morass of unnecessarily long words. In simplest language possible, I define "culture" as "those shared patterns of values, ideas and behaviours which define any group of people as separate from other groups." Or, "culture" can be "any group of people so defined by shared patterns of values, ideas, and behaviours."

Above, I defined "subjective" as being based on the ideas of people. If we accept this definition of culture, then culture is by definition a subjective phenomenon.

Yet culture also has an aspect of objectivity. For example, let us consider an idea few of us would agree with: that there are witch doctors able, through use of potions an incantations, to make a man impervious to bullets. This idea is of course subjective; it remains unproven to my satisfaction whether or not there is any validity to it. Even so, some people do believe such things.

One striking story was told by Rian Malan in My Traitor's Heart, over a group of miners who went on strike. They went to see a witch doctor, who did give them such a potion to "turn bullets into water." There was no evidence in this story that it worked; but because the men Malan described behaved according to their beliefs, this gave rise to a pattern of behaviour. This is part of the fundamental definition of culture, and patterns of behaviour are objectively observable events.

This is one way in which subjective ideas can give rise to objective reality. Believing does not make false ideas any more true, yet if people change their behaviour because of their beliefs, that is reality.

Now, to anthropology.

The stated goal of anthropology is to describe in an objective manner the patterns of culture. Usually in practice this means those cultures most foreign from the culture of the anthropologist.

Pirsig's argument comes into play here. He gives the historical background of cultural anthropology as beginning with Franz Boas. He states that Boas tried to apply the philosophy of physical science to the study of human beings, which leads to a logical problem. Physical phenomena (such as balls flying through the air) are purely objective, and will not change behaviour whether or not we observe them. But culture is in large part based on subjective phenomena. Being subjective, culture requires human beings in order to exist.

We all know, from experience, that all people will behave differently if someone is watching them; or even if they think that someone might be watching them.

This argument underscores a basic weakness in anthropology. Pirsig illustrates it with the experience of a friend and colleague, the late Professor Verne Dusenberry.

According to Pirsig, Dusenberry said that 'Many anthropologists try to hard to be objective that they behave in ways the Indians don't like. So the Indians don't tell them anything, or sometimes tell them lies and laugh at them behind their backs.'

While I agree that this is a fundamental problem with anthropology as currently practiced, it may be unfair to blame all of this on Boas. According to information at Wikipedia, the following are the fundamental premises of Boas's thinking:

( :angel: ) The method of science is to begin with questions, not with answers, least of all with value judgements.

( :alien: ) Science is dispassionate inquiry and therefore cannot take over outright any ideologies "already formulated in everyday life," since these are themselves inevitably traditional and normally tinged with emotional prejudice.

( :bug: ) Sweeping all-or-none, black-and-white judgements are characteristic of totalitarian attitudes and have no place in science, whose very nature is inferential and judicial.

To address the above briefly: the first is wrong. It is true that one should begin an inquiry with questions rather than assuming an answer; but the rest is wrong. I have defined "shared patterns of values" as a fundamental element of culture. This means that "value judgments" are a part of anthropology.

There is an objection anthropologists would raise, here and now, about the above. "This is not what we mean," they might say. "We meant one should never bring value judgments to another culture." They have a point; we come to this point in the second premise.

The second part restates, with more detail, the idea that scientists should avoid preconceptions and ideas tinged with emotion. These get in the way of objectively observing facts. When I am convinced things are so, then I won't want to admit that they aren't so; my emotions could potentially block me from seeing the objective truth.

This leads to the greatest strength of anthropology: it leads one to be aware that many ideas we take for granted are not necessarily objective laws of reality, but only habits we share with most other people, and we therefore assume are natural and normal. Is public nudity good? (Some people in Uganda would agree.) Does yak butter and salt taste good in tea? (Most Chinese think not, and most Tibetans think yes.) What kind of house does one want to live in? How should one behave in such a situation? All of these are artefacts of culture.

What I mean by an "artefact" is anything physical thing made, or any pattern of action such as a dance, which is done by at least one human being with purposeful intent. In fact, because of artefacts, we can determine that there is such a thing as culture to begin with. But that gets us into another argument.

However, the third thesis of Boas's underscores both the greatest value his theories of anthropology have, and the most fundamental weakness his theories have. I am glad to have taken the time to research with Wikipedia, because no one sentence seems to underscore the greatest contradiction in anthropology.

That, to follow.

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