We have often heard that human history compared to the geological or biological historical record is merely just a blip on the map of time. Compared with cultural agencies, processes, and aims, natural objects have a wider and deeper breadth of existence. “Natural science” according to A. N. Whitehead, “is exclusively concerned with homogeneous thoughts about nature” (Concept of Nature, 4). As David L. Hall writes in his superb study, A Civilization of Experience: A Whiteheadian Theory of Culture (1973, 73-4): “That is to say, natural science considers perceptual objects non-reflectively. A thinking about nature which includes a consideration of nature-as-thought-about is a heterogeneous thinking about nature. A speculative philosopher who seeks to promote the most general systematization of civilized thought must think heterogeneously about nature. Whereas the scientist’s subject matter is the object of perceptual experience qua object, the principle subject matter of the speculative philosopher considering nature would be the various theories and doctrines proposed by the scientists in order to explain perceptual objects” (see Process and Reality, 25-6).

On the other hand, the philosophical orientations we find in the work of Wilhelm Dilthey emphasize hermeneutical historicity which seems at odds with the more naturalistic approach. Heidegger was influenced by Dilthey in his early lectures and phenomenology developing what he called a “hermeneutics of factical life.” His development of Geisteswissenschaften as the basis of all science derives from the finite human context—there has never been a physics or astronomy without either a physicist or astronomer. Hence, any intellectual principle refers to the individual’s life and concrete cultural setting as the embodiment for scientific “objective necessity.” This is the justification for his distinguishing between the “human” and “cultural” sciences. So my question concerns metaphysical speculation and the issue of whether nature is a product of culture or do cultural objects determine what we know or can say about nature, as a system of organized beings or self-organizing processes. What justifies holding either nature or culture derivative from the other?

  • This seems to me the very old debate realism versus antirealism in a sophisticated language. Jul 14, 2013 at 21:19
  • I believe that debate does not address the various interpretive modes of natural and cultural objects. You are right to a degree because I am not interested in hashing warn-out debates. That is why I attempted to avoid the highly-condensed epistemological and linguistic focus. Jul 14, 2013 at 21:22
  • The dialogue between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy has been historically difficult. I am afraid that the philosophers of the analytic tradition not fully understand what is the problem. Jul 14, 2013 at 22:49
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    I think that is correct so long as it is not misconstrued as an attack on the analytic style of philosophizing or taken as validation for some false superiority by continentalists. Jul 15, 2013 at 0:54

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I think the answer depends on whether you're talking about ontology or epistemology.

By phrasing the question as you have, I think there's only one practical answer given a modern scientific understanding: culture is the term for a certain set of semi-arbitrary social behaviors of social animals, most particularly Homo sapiens. It's not so much that natural objects have a wider and deeper breadth of existence; culture is a description of one aspect of the natural world just like the phenomenology and theory of lightning. Stuff happens; we describe it. Ontologically, culture is undoubtedly a subset of the natural world.

But epistemologically, it is true that we can't know about the natural world unless we exist, and what we know and how we know that we know it is influenced heavily by culture. I've not seen an entirely compelling argument regarding the centrality of culture, so to be safe, I'd simply say that it is not clear whether epistemologically culture is a subset of the natural world--probably it is not.

We're in a rather odd place where we recognize both that we are the interpreters of the world, and thus are central; and that the world is causally basic and we are highly elaborate arrangements of matter resulting from these basic causes. As such, any bivalent answer to "is culture a subset of nature" is almost assuredly an oversimplification.


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