Ideas about culture

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted between individuals and groups by symbols.

The behavioural patterns constitute the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts. In this context, the essential core of culture consists of traditional ideas and especially their attached values, which govern the way the members currently use nature, live in nature and relate to their historical roots expressed in traditions of art , technology and landscape. Culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand, as conditioning value-influences upon further action.

Cultural ideas manifest themselves in different ways and differing levels of depth. Symbols represent the most superficial and values the deepest manifestations of culture, with heroes and rituals in between.

Symbols are words, gestures, pictures, or objects that carry a particular meaning, which is only recognized by those who share a particular culture. New symbols easily develop, old ones disappear. Symbols from one particular group are regularly copied by others. This is why symbols represent the outermost layer of a culture.

Heroes are persons, past or present, real or fictitious, who possess characteristics that are highly prized in a culture. They also serve as models for behavior.

Rituals are collective activities, sometimes superfluous in reaching desired objectives, but are considered as socially essential. They are therefore carried out most of the times for their own sake (ways of greetings, paying respect to others, religious and social ceremonies, etc.).
The core of a culture is formed by values. They are broad tendencies for preferences of a certain state of affairs to others (good-evil, right-wrong, natural- unnatural). Many values remain unconscious to those who hold them. Therefore they often cannot be discussed, nor they can be directly observed by others. Values can only be inferred from the way people act under different circumstances.

Symbols, heroes, and rituals are the tangible or visual aspects of the practices of a culture. The true cultural meaning of the practices is intangible; this is revealed only when the practices are interpreted by the insiders.

The ‘human habitat’ encompasses all those material remains that our ancestors have left in the landscapes of town and countryside. It covers the whole spectrum of human creations from the largest towns, cathedrals, industrial markers or highways - to the very smallest - signposts, standing stones or buried flint tools.

These are all components of the `sense of place’, through which we relate to and value our local environment. A full appreciation of the historic dimension can therefore be of the greatest importance to the development of appropriate and successful schemes of economic development and community regeneration, rather than the impediment that is sometimes supposed.

In seeking a reason for conserving cultural heritage in the form of sites and artifacts, human evolution has to be seen in the context of the current state of development of the universe. This is to be seen as a cosmos, possessing meaning and value as an ordered whole, which is reflected in the earth's eco-system which includes the human habitat.

Modernity has led to a loss of such a holistic understanding (as existed previously, for example, in the 19th century 'Great Chain of Being'). Matters of meaning and value have been expunged from nature, which has been reduced to simple mechanism. Can this materialistic determinism, in its 'cosmic pessimism', provide an ethical basis for an holistic heritage protection policy which encompasses both ecosystems and human history?

Some scientific 'pessimists' have argued for such a policy on fundamentally anthropocentric grounds, of purely human need and potential - which can equally justify continued exploitation/ manipulation of nature destroying ecosystems and cultural heritage. A number, notably in defending biodiversity, have stressed the preciousness of life more generally; but even this 'preciousness' depends finally on what Homo sapiens in its cultural achievements, has brought to what it has created.

A dualistic view of nature, as serving or subordinate to humanity and without an intrinsic value, will eventually prove ecologically unsatisfactory. Instead, nature's worth needs to be seen in its inherent beauty, referring to an objective aspect of the universe, namely the 'ordering of novelty' or 'harmony of diversity' or 'unifying of complexity'. These features point to a dynamic balance in beauty, too much 'order' leading to a banal even 'dead' homogeneity and too much 'novelty' to a breakdown of coherence, even to chaos.

This vision is best captured by the idea of 'process humanism' in which the cosmos is not a static condition. Creation is an ongoing, open process, in which human creativity enhances the aesthetic intensity of the universe, or can disturb the balance between order and novelty/diversity.
Humanity can only too readily be seen as 'in charge' and unconstrained in its immediate material, 'worldly' inclinations and (hubristic) ambitions. Beauty is then demoted as a significant or practical consideration. Ecological degradation is the outcome of this tendency's ascendancy in world politics and economics. Humanity's capabilities require it to assume its responsibilities in sustaining the cosmic process, recognizing that it is not just for humans (it can exist, already has, without them) or valueless apart from them. Global order can no longer ignore its long-run ecological, cosmic basis. To take this successfully on board, a more than techno-scientific and economic rationality is called for. Conservation is then a human responsibility to sustain and enhance the ordering of novelty and the unification of complexity as the essence of the cosmic adventure towards ever more beauty. In this context, beauty is the objective patterning of things that gives them their actuality and definiteness as intrinsic cosmic values.