Limitations to understanding (pt. 3): Culture

Writer’s note: this is part three of a three-part essay. Click here for part two.

In the previous two parts of the essay, I’ve discussed how our senses and mind could limit our ability to understand the world. I will be concluding this three-part essay by turning my focus to culture. First, a working definition of culture: “The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” This is one of the broader versions of the word, which encompasses all collective human creation (including technology) and across different geographical areas. 

No man is an island. I think it is important to state the significance of this, even though it seems plainly obvious. All of our thoughts are shaped by prior thinking conceived by someone else. For instance, when we try to communicate and manifest abstract thoughts and feelings verbally, we use words that we did not invent. When collectively aggregated, the whole of this precedent thinking is equivalent to culture. 

One approach to wrap our heads around this is structuralism, which began in the early 20th century (unsurprisingly) within the field of linguistics. Structural linguists realized that the meaning of a word is dependent on how they relate to other words in the language. Earlier, we defined the word “culture” using a string of other words. Every word is defined by other words. We can imagine language as a network of relationships between words. The implication of this is that a word has no meaning on its own, except where it fits structurally in the system. Over time, this idea became applied in other fields like anthropology and sociology, notably by figures like Claude Lévi-Strauss. Structuralism then became a “general theory of culture and methodology that implies that elements of human culture must be understood by way of their relationship to a broader system.” Structuralism, simply put, is an approach to understanding cultural “phenomena using the metaphor of language.”

The structuralist approach can be similarly applied to what we think, feel, know and understand. Coming back to the main thesis of this essay — what and how we understand is shaped and limited by culture. Several thinkers have explored this in their own ways. Zeitgeist, a German word that literally translates as “time spirit” (or less clunkily, “spirit of the time”) is a term that is commonly associated with Hegel. The term is defined as “the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.” This shows that there is an acknowledgment of how certain ideas and beliefs are bound to a specific time at least since the 1800s. Marx later built upon the idea with the bedrock concepts base and superstructure. He defined base as the economic production of society and superstructure as the non-economic aspects of society, like culture, politics, religion and media. (Do note that my definition of culture includes both base and superstructure, but we can continue for the time being.) Marx’s thesis is that products of culture (superstructure) are shaped by means of production (base). This, to some extent, was built on Hegel’s zeitgeist and explains how and why ideas and beliefs change over time. 

The two (similar) concepts that are most relevant to this essay came later. The first is episteme, coined by Michel Foucault. The second and perhaps more popularly known idea is paradigm (shift) by Thomas Kuhn. In Foucault’s book, The Order of Things, he describes episteme: “In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.” In other words, Foucault claims that the episteme sets the boundaries of what can be even thought of by individuals of a culture – a sort of ‘epistemological unconscious’ of an era. Kuhn, a historian of science, described paradigm shift in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, as “the successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution” and claimed that it “is the usual developmental pattern of mature science.” While Kuhn used the term purely within the scientific context, it has become more generally used over time. Examples of scientific paradigm shifts include the Copernican Revolution, Darwin’s theory of evolution and, more recently, Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Each of these shook the scientific establishment of the time and, in the case of the former, resulted in banned books and Galileo’s house imprisonment. We can see from the first two examples that society can be resistant to change, despite overwhelming evidence. This further cements the notion that ideas can sometimes be too far beyond what can be accepted by predominant culture. 

Culture shapes and, therefore, limits our understanding in a variety of ways. Culture defines who gains access to knowledge and understanding. According to UNICEF, only 49% of countries have equal access to primary education for both boys and girls. The numbers only get worse higher along the educational pathway. The gender disparity in education can be traced back to gender stereotypes and biases. Such implicit biases extend to inaccurate and unfair views of people based on their race, socioeconomic status and even their profession. They are insidiously absorbed through experience based on the social norms of our time and go undetected unless they are specifically made conscious. A form of philosophy and social sciences known as critical theory, started by the Frankfurt School in the early 1900s, aims to free human beings from prevailing forms of domination and oppression by calling attention to existing beliefs and practices. A development known as critical race theory, which seeks to examine the intersection of race and law in the USA, has recently been facing pushback in states such as Texas and Pennsylvania through book bans or restrictions within K-12 education. In this, we see a formal restriction of understanding by culture (in the form of a public institution). Further upstream in knowledge production, research deemed to be socially taboo can be severely limited. An example is the legal contradiction faced by scholars looking into the medicinal benefits of marijuana. The issue is nicely summed up by the following sentence from this article by Arit John: “marijuana is illegal because the DEA says it has no proven medical value, but researchers have to get approval from the DEA to research marijuana’s medical value.” 

Beyond such visible examples, I think it is important to emphasize that a majority of how our individual understanding is shaped by the culture we are embedded in is hidden in plain sight. It is only in retrospect that misguided views and practices may seem obvious today. Up until the 1980s in the UK, homosexuality was a mental disorder treated by electroconvulsive therapy. Homosexuality was removed from the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) only in 1992. Besides comparing cultural attitudes with those from the past, they can also be identified through intersubjectivity by comparing different cultures. In Singapore, homosexual acts are considered illegal based on Section 377A of the Penal Code, an inheritance from its past as a British colony. Other former colonies like Hong Kong and Australia have since repealed the law. Culture implicitly and explicitly defines what is normal within a group or society. As stated by Marshall McLuhan in his book The Medium is the Massage, “Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The ground rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns of environments elude easy perception.” This echoes a story from a speech by David Foster Wallace in which an older fish asks younger fishes about the water, to which they later respond, “What the hell is water?” Normality is invisible in our daily lives, we do not notice it because it is the ground on which we (and all of our perceptions and thoughts) stand.

Like words, culture is self-referential. Culture shapes culture. This not only applies to how current culture gives rise to future culture but also operates in the reverse direction, where today’s culture can be used to look at yesterday’s culture. This reminds me of how the art critic Jerry Saltz says in this lecture that “all art is contemporary art because I’m seeing it now.” Strangely, our visions of the future and our recollection of the past are and can only be done through the filter of the present moment. To repurpose a famous quote on McLuhan by his friend John Culkin — culture shapes the understanding of individuals, and individuals go on to shape culture. It is our collective human enterprise. Talks about culture often lead to the distinction between nature and culture, which distinguishes what is of/by human beings. Funny thing is, the nature-culture discourse is itself facilitated through culture. It seems, therefore, that all understanding is filtered through culture.

As I wrap up, I would like to address some issues that have increasingly become noticeable while writing this essay. First, I have rather simplistically equated knowing and understanding when they are differentiable mental processes. Second, there seem to be different flavors of understanding, which can be mostly grouped into two categories: objective and subjective. The physical sciences fall into the former, while the humanities and social sciences seem to fall into the latter. The issue here is that interpretation seems to play very different roles in either. For objective questioning (e.g. why does an apple fall toward the earth?), there is usually a convergence towards a single theory, whereas, for subjective questioning (e.g. why do people generally think that babies are cute?), there is a divergence in different approaches to understanding a single issue (sometimes even opposing viewpoints within an approach), none of which is definitive in explaining a phenomenon. Third and finally, how much of our understanding is motivated by our perspective and how much of our perspective is derived from understanding? Perhaps I will attempt these questions in future essays.