Disclaimer: Cultural appropriation is an emotionally charged topic and is criticized by a number of intellectuals, and my intent is to determine the philosophical grounding of the topic through vetted publications. Any objection to my phrasing will be answered with a good-faith effort to create more neutral language as my agenda is to cure my philosophical ignorance, and not push a position. From WP:

The concept of cultural appropriation has also been subject to heavy criticism and debate.[25][26][27] Critics note that the concept is often misunderstood or misapplied by the general public, and that charges of "cultural appropriation" are at times misapplied to situations such as trying food from a different culture or learning about different cultures.[28][29] Others state that the act of cultural appropriation as it is usually defined does not meaningfully constitute social harm, or the term lacks conceptual coherence.[30][31] Additionally, the term can set arbitrary limits on intellectual freedom, artists' self-expression, reinforce group divisions, or promote a feeling of enmity or grievance rather than of liberation.[31][32][33][34][26]


Pursuant to answering the question Can a subculture be appropriated? (PhilSE), some discussion ensued to my response drawing into question my skepticism of the conceptual coherence of the term 'cultural appropriation'. As appropriation appears to reduce to the notion of theft, the existence of such a phenomenon as cultural appropriation clearly has ethical and political implications. When raising the question, how can imitating others be theft, the argument apparently boils down to harm. While using the example of US bluesmen having their music and style imitated and not benefiting economically from it (loudersound.com), I can see the general outline of a case made for the coherence of cultural appropriation, however, at the same time, it seems like harm in most instances is made in the guise of "emotional harm". Given the subjectivity of emotions and feelings, this tends to lead to emotionally charged controversy about cultural appropriation as anyone who has any feelings or emotion vaguely uncomfortable can claim harm without objective and consensual measure. In fact, there is discussion on the Internet on exactly what constitutes 'cultural appropriation' in non-philosophical discourse given it's abstract characterization, such as this article.


Is there literature on 'cultural appropriation' that provides a coherent explanation of what it is, and if so what is the summary?

Clarifications and Edits

I make no claims as the 'reality' of the subjective. I'll accept the Meinongian jungle if it makes sense in the context of the literature in question. I include here only because it raises questions of objective verification or falsification as an epistemological strategy.

The question of what is 'cultural appropriation' has political implications, and is itself related to political philosophy because it revolves around power dynamics, and I have updated the tags to modify it, but that is distinct from the question serving a political agenda. As a pluralist, I am looking for a variety of sources with a variety of interpretations.

I have recently reformed the claim about the term being "widely abused" to noting it is both an "emotionally charged" and "controversial topic". I have also cited one (of many articles) that show that the term is widely misunderstood and requires clarification given the abstractness. There are obviously large segments of the general public who skeptical, and the best course of action is tempered dialog, not cancelation of opposing views by extremists in any political conflicts surrounding the topic.

  • 3
    Re your "Given the subjectivity of emotions and feelings", subjectivity doesn't mean it's not real. For example, most people's subjective pain could be readily observed objectively via their expressions by their surrounding people, even through online linguistic communication. And pleasure and pain are the main factors for moral utilitarians and consequentialists' consideration... Oct 1 at 17:57
  • 2
    @DoubleKnot, the subjective is real, but until recently, it was accepted in Western society that one cannot be held responsible for the unintended emotional responses of others. You could be held responsible for deliberately harassing people or for "fighting words", but not for someone's response to an action that was not directed at them. As we have seen recently, when causing subjective distress is censurable, people with power use it to lord it over others, using alleged emotional distress of convenient victim classes as an excuse to punish people who have done nothing objectively wrong. Oct 1 at 22:44
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    If there existed such literature, it would probably be written in English, a language that appropriated pretty much the whole French lexicon during the 13th and 14th centuries. The French, of course, had stolen their own language from the Romans, who stole everything from the Greeks, who themselves plundered the Egyptian culture.
    – Olivier5
    Oct 1 at 22:52
  • 1
    PBS has a .pdf about this topic here, I haven't looked through it yet for pros and cons in the framing/reasoning. Oct 2 at 1:39
  • 5
    Here's a good SEP article on the topic, though you might be familiar with it: The Ethics of Cultural Heritage. Section 4 specifically covers the appropriation question. Oct 2 at 1:58


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