A Theory of Culture, Learning, Teaching, Defence and Security
Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado
What is the relationship among culture, learning, teaching, defence and security, and how can understanding it enhance our security?
This question has two parts: theoretical and practical. Its first part is theoretical. To answer it, one must relate learning to teaching, defence to security, and both pairs to each other and culture. One must examine these terms, seeing how their definitions imply, and their implications define one another. Its second part is practical, framed from our point of view. To answer it, we must identify ourselves, in terms of the definition of culture used in answering the first, and see how others so identify us. We shall then ask what our cultural identity implies for us, and for our culture’s defence and security, and what we must learn and teach, to mount our defence and enhance our security.
In this enquiry’s first part I define terms, and identify us. In the second, I consider how to put theory into practice. Now let us examine our terms: culture, learning, teaching, defence and security.
Culture does not here mean only subjective valuation: “Excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture.” Subjective valuation works within a single culture, but we must compare different cultures objectively. Relating culture, learning, teaching, defence and security means comparing cultures. For conflict between cultures, civilisations, groups or individuals calls for defence and security. Conflict’s outcomes provide objective criteria, winners and losers, for comparing opponents. So we must discuss conflict and outcomes, since conflict is integral to defence and security. We may also ask if it is integral to culture, learning and teaching.
We need a definition of culture that assumes conflict between cultures, allowing their objective comparison. One such is used by ‘clash of civilisations’ theory. This identifies cultures as Western, Nipponic, Sinitic, Indic, Islamic and so forth. Culture thus becomes synonymous with civilisation. That definition suits that theory, but does not suit this enquiry. Conflating culture with civilisation, it omits cultures that are not civilisations, so ignoring the basic elements of culture. Most of these are isolated and defined by anthropologists studying cultures that are not civilisations.
That conflation removed, culture’s definition becomes: “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.” This is better, but ignores how culture works. Yet better definitions for our purpose are used by some anthropologists. ‘By some’, because as in any academic discipline, anthropology’s basic concepts are unendingly debated.
My working definition draws on current debate over culture’s definition. It is holistic: “Culture is all human nongenetic, or metabiological, phenomena.” It says how it works: Culture is “an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning.”
In my own words, culture is a repertory of tools and skills, material and notional. Culture’s purpose, by this definition, is to help men (including women) do a job. Its job is to maintain, enhance and propagate human life. Not just any human life, but that the job’s performers think worth it: their own, and their children’s. So, to use this definition, one must identify whose lives are maintained, enhanced and propagated.
This definition implies that conflict is integral to culture. For if culture is a repertory of tools and skills to maintain human life, and that repertory includes tools and skills for defence, and defence implies conflict, conflict is integral to culture.
This is so, not only because culture includes tools and skills for conflict, but because culture occurs in a context of competition. Culture occurs in the context of human life. Human life, in constant competition with other species and its own, involves conflict.
From its participants’ point of view, human life is governed by a bewildering variety of random forces and circumstances: nature’s capricious power; the chance of birth, life and death, and so of one’s identity, in a given place and time; others’ unpredictability, and their potential hostility in competition over resources.
Culture tries to defend against hostility, reduce unpredictability, rationalise one’s birth, life, death and identity, and cope with nature’s caprice, to help one survive, thrive, and reproduce. It seeks to replace randomness with order, system, security, sense and success in one’s dealings with nature. “Culture … is how man organizes his experience … the imposition of arbitrary form upon the environment.”
From an impersonal point of view, human life is governed by natural selection, an unconscious, involuntary and inescapable form of random competition, known only retrospectively, through observation of outcomes in evolution. So, conflict over resources occurs within the wider context of evolutionary competition. Thus, whether conscious, voluntary or not, competition conditions culture’s purpose: the maintenance, enhancement and propagation of specific human lives.
Leaving identification of whose lives are meant here for later, let me develop our working definition of culture as a repertory of tools and skills.
Some anthropologists call culture’s repertory of tools ‘material culture’. This means everything man-made. In simpler societies it includes tools and weapons for hunting, foraging or farming, vessels for storing and preparing food, dwellings for humans and animals, clothing and ornament, and objects with notional meaning and function. In complex civilisations it also includes infrastructure and architecture; venues, systems and machinery for producing food and goods; vehicles for transport by land, sea and air; all the furniture, appliances, instruments and weapons we use for whatever purpose, from nutcrackers to nuclear bombs.
Notional culture includes skills involved in making and using tools, such as designing, building, working, riding, driving, shooting, firing, hiring, buying and selling. Acquiring, exercising and transmitting skills involve culture’s core skill: language.
Language is culture’s core skill because it lets or makes culture develop. A cogent theory of human culture’s origin holds that it develops from interaction, via language, between tool use and sociality. Other animals use tools, and show sociality, but their interaction’s quantity and quality is not so high as among humans. The difference lies in human language. It is not only more copious, dense and complex, but different in kind from communication among other animals. It generates meaning differently.
Meaning uses means, relationships between things, to signify one with another. We call such means signs. All signs used by animals, and some used by humans, are iconic. Icons resemble what they signify. Icons of men and women indicate respective lavatories. Onomatopoeias sound like animals they imitate. A piano-teacher’s fingers striking a pupil’s forearm signify the touch desired.
Though some human language is onomatopoeic, thus iconic, most is symbolic. Symbols need not resemble what they signify. Their meaning is, or seems, conventional. The basic signs of human language are sounds. Most do not resemble what they signify. All language’s sounds may once have been onomatopoeias, but if so, the link to the iconic meaning of most is lost.
A process analogous to that whereby sounds may drop the link to their iconic meanings can be seen in writing systems’ development. Most begin as visual icons, signifying things. Visual icons are spoken as words. Words are sounds used as signs, whether iconic or symbolic, signifying those same things.
Syllabaries are signs, based on visual icons, that drop the iconic link to the thing signified. They symbolise the words’ sounds, simple or complex, alone, recombinable into other words. Alphabets subdivide syllabaries. They symbolise simple sounds combinable into complex ones. So letters symbolise meaningless sounds, gaining meaning by combining with other sounds, becoming words, whose meanings change, develop and multiply.
Iconic vocal sign systems, assigning one sound to one thing, are finite, limited by vocal repertory and onomatopoeic linkage. Symbolic vocal sign systems can multiply indefinitely. Multiplication matters, because it creates a critical mass of useful new meanings, and so leads, through interaction between symbolic thought and social learning, to culture.
Two main needs drive culture’s interaction: coping with reality, and managing sociality.
Reality is not what is, but man’s conscious notion of what is. Consciousness is a skill that generates reality. Consciousness, from Latin con ‘with’ and sciens ‘knowing’, begins when man knows one thing from another. ‘Thing’, from ‘think’, is any object of thought. When man communicates this knowledge to another, within sociality, man uses language. Consciousness, ‘knowing with’, occurs. When man relates consciously to what is, man relates not directly to what is, but to man’s notion of what is: reality.
Reality, from Latin reor, ‘think’, and res, ‘thing’, is one’s notion of what is. What is includes both matter and notions. Reality is itself a notion, including notions about matter, material reality, and notions about notions, notional reality. Together they constitute reality, all we can think of, but not all there is, much of which lies beyond our ken.
Man is both material and notional. Materially, man lives in a habitat. Notionally, man lives in reality. Insofar as culture is notional, reality is culture’s habitat.
Man’s relationship with man is mainly interactive, mediated by language, so notional, as well as material. Society is a notional reality within reality. Sociality is man’s relationship with others.
Man copes with reality from within society, using tools made and skills learned through sociality. Man manages sociality by managing behaviour, using the notional tools and skills of identity, telling who one is and others are, and ethics, telling how to behave accordingly.
Thus culture has two interdependent functions: coping with reality, and managing sociality. Managing sociality helps cope with reality, and vice-versa, because man is a social animal. Sociality makes communication necessary. Man’s specific form of communication, symbolic language, makes culture possible. Human life depends on culture. Culture grows from human life. They overlap interdependently and interactively via language.
Language is both material, requiring sight, sound, or touch to occur, and notional, receiving, understanding and transmitting meaning. Language informs all culture, material and notional. It lets one: acquire, use and transmit skills, to make and use material tools, to cope with material reality; and, to cope with material and notional reality, spawns notional tools and skills, like writing and mathematics; or, to manage sociality, generates identity, kinship systems, social structure, politics, ethics and religion.
Identity, telling who one is and others are, is descriptive; ethics, saying how to behave accordingly, normative. Complex notional tools and skills that manage sociality show both aspects.
Take a certain kind of religion. On the one hand, it purports to describe reality, its origin, structure, function, authorship and purpose. On the other it proposes norms for coping with reality, including how to manage one’s identity, behaviour and sociality for its purpose.
Reality’s purpose, or that ascribed to it by such a religion, may or may not coincide with the purpose of given individuals, to maintain, enhance and propagate their and their children’s’ lives. But it always seeks to maintain, enhance and propagate a specific culture.
By ‘a specific culture’ here is meant “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group”, ranging from a couple or family to a civilisation.
Notions such as tongue, race, class, creed and nation serve a specific culture’s purposes by defining and promoting its identity. This is because they are selected by culture to maintain, enhance and propagate the group, rather than the individual. In this they mimic evolution, for which the individual, once reproduced, is dispensable. Culture’s, like species’ identity results from selecting configurations that work.
Defining identity is vital for security, since, given competition, so conflict, one must know whom to defend or attack. Culture’s repertory of tools and skills is versatile: it serves not only to cope with reality and manage sociality, but to identify those inside and outside a given group, so as to know whom to defend or attack.
Defence and attack, actual or potential, ensure, and so constitute security. Security is a condition of controlled risk that lets man maintain, enhance and reproduce human life and culture.
To maintain themselves as such, humans, so cultures, must not only be secure, but transmit their identity to successive generations. This is because humans are mortal, a problem culture tries to cope with, but has not yet solved.
Humans transmit identity through reproduction, culture through teaching and learning. Teaching and learning ensure, and so constitute culture. They are to culture what defence and attack are to security.
Culture also enhances itself and so human life through teaching and learning. Indeed, the ancient Greek word for culture is ‘παιδεία’: what is taught to children. What is taught to children is “an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning.”
Knowledge, belief, and behaviour. To these I would add feelings, including pleasure, pain, desire, fear, love and hate, that animate symbolic thought and social learning. They do so by discernment, leading to choice. One distinguishes live, dead, well, sick, wins, loses, works, fails, right, wrong, good, bad, to choose this over that.
This process is called valuation. Valuation, animated by feeling, and tempered by experience, is vital to culture, since it is how tools and skills are made and improved, learning and teaching occur, knowledge is acquired, belief generated, and behaviour managed. Values, managing sociality and coping with reality, are integral to culture.
Cultures cope better or worse. Those that cope well survive. Those that fail die. Prehistory and history are full of traces of once thriving cultures that failed and died.
As in evolution, the key to survival is adaptation. This means that cultural security depends on cultural adaptability and integrity. As circumstances change, cultures must change, or die; yet, to survive as such, maintain their identity. To paraphrase Lampedusa’s Leopard, everything must change so that everything remains the same.
The greatest change in human history since taming fire, inventing the wheel, and developing agriculture, is the scientific revolution. Starting fairly recently, and still ongoing, it is changing material and notional reality, material faster than notional. Cultures that adapt notional reality to changing material reality survive. The rest die.
In adapting notional reality, the most vital and hardest task is redefining identity. It is most vital because notions of identity shape notional reality and vice-versa, governing behaviour and social management, and so adaptiveness to changing material reality. It is hardest because notions of identity are rooted in belief, and so resist change.
Belief, the ability to act on notions unverified or unverifiable, is vital to culture, as is knowledge, but they are dialectical opponents, and each works best in different areas. Notional reality changes and adapts or not through outcomes of dialectical opposition. Outcomes vary. Either side may win, or they may compromise. Much hangs on which.
Belief is indispensable to managing sociality, because the answer to the question ‘Can one know the mind of another?’ is generally ‘No’. Therefore, in the form of trust or hope, belief rather than knowledge governs most human interaction.
Belief is bonding, binding couples, families, and civilisations together. It does so using group identity, defined by variable criteria, which may be mythical, to include those whose lives or memories are maintained, enhanced and propagated, and exclude those not so chosen. Thus, insofar as managing sociality helps cope with reality, belief is vital to culture.
Among other benefits to culture, belief, in the form of hope, foments risk-taking, without which knowledge is not gained. Losing bets leads to knowledge, albeit at the cost of individual or collective loss or death. But as we have seen, individuals, or even collectivities, so long as they are not totalities, once they have contributed either to the gene pool or the cultural repertory, are, from evolution’s or culture’s point of view, dispensable.
Knowledge is discerning. It acts by distinction and comparison, leading to choice and valuation. Knowledge banks the gains lost by believers who bet wrong.
Belief, involving risk, serves to manage sociality, insofar as this involves interaction with unknowable others, but knowledge, once gained, copes better with reality. The scientific revolution seeks to increase the ratio of knowledge to belief. In so doing, it conflicts with established belief systems underlying social identity.
These resist overthrow by knowledge, because they are designed to bind the group together at all costs, including that of truth or fact. Truth and fact are endlessly debatable, at least in academia. Belief is more stable, typically impervious to reason.
Therefore belief is preferred to truth or fact for social bonding. The best belief for bonding, the safest against overthrow, is in unverifiable myths.
Myths are prescientific theories or narratives purporting to describe reality, whence implications are drawn for defining identity and managing sociality. Myths are objects of belief. So, in the form of hunch or hope, are scientific theories.
Science moves forward, from hunch to experiment to outcome to implication. Myth jumps backward, from implications to objects of belief, omitting experiment and outcome. Implications derivable from myth determine propositions proposed by myth. This may happen consciously, as in publicity and politics, or unconsciously, through trial and error like natural selection, knowable only from outcomes. Either way, myths’ durability depends on their usefulness in managing sociality.
If they describe material reality (or some notional realities, like mathematics), both theories and myths may be true or false, valid or invalid. True or valid theories and myths become knowledge. False or invalid theories are soon discarded by thinkers, though they may survive as popular myths.
False or invalid myths are still believed, because myths’ job is not storing knowledge, but informing and managing notional reality. If a myth suits a society’s notional reality, it may enjoy widespread belief. If a society’s notional reality changes, and a myth no longer suits it, belief lapses.
Societies’ notional realities may change for many reasons. Most change in notional reality has historically been an unintended consequence of changes in material reality, like disaster, discovery, victory, defeat, opportunity, resulting from random natural events, or human actions narrowly conceived within a given notional reality. The scientific revolution changes material reality intentionally, changing notional reality in theory, and putting those changes into practice.
Thus it conflicts with established belief systems underlying social identity, like myths describing reality, its origin, structure, function, authorship and purpose. Such descriptions, if they describe material reality, are falsifiable. If, falsifying myths, science changes material reality, eventually notional reality changes, and belief in myths lapses. This happens in the scientific revolution.
The conflict between science’s account of reality and that of a certain religion, Abrahamic monotheism, spanning Judaism, Christianity and Islam, continues. That religion rests on a myth describing reality, whose astronomy, physics, and biology science has disproven.
Societies where the scientific revolution began and thrives, those where that religion once reigned supreme, have begun to disbelieve its account of reality, though many believers remain, while some disbelievers, fearing chaos, cling to its normative injunctions, ignoring aught else wherewith to manage sociality.
Science also meets opposition in societies free of Abrahamic monotheism, whether from other religions, or from deeply rooted social systems and their notional realities. There, lacking an opponent claiming to explain all that is, science may triumph quicker.
Despite opposition, the scientific revolution is unstoppable, barring cataclysm, natural or man-made. So societies and cultures which adapt to it will arguably survive, while those that do not will not.
Our challenge therefore lies in adapting our notional reality to the material reality found and shaped by science, while preserving our cultural identity and managing our sociality.
Who are ‘we’? The time has come to identify this enquiry’s intended beneficiaries.
We are the children of modernity. Cultural adaptation to the scientific revolution, beginning simultaneously with it, is called modernity.
Modernity involves open minds, intellectual curiosity, scepticism, tolerance, patience and discernment. Modernity’s discernment is based on logic and knowledge, not belief. Insofar as social management requires belief, modernity prefers the minimum: the benefit of the doubt.
Modernity belongs to no one culture, and can be espoused by any. This suggests that the greatest threat to any culture’s survival is failure to espouse modernity.
That threat may come more from within societies and cultures than from conflict between them, though this also may occur. An example of the former is the attempt by some in the culture loosely defined as ‘the West’ to prohibit teaching evolution, perhaps the greatest challenge to established belief systems underlying their sense of identity; of the latter, the attempt by some in cultures affected by Abrahamic religion to impose fundamentalist interpretations of its description of reality, and injunctions for managing sociality, not only on their cultural cousins, but on the whole world.
Neither is likely to succeed, if only because they tout old wares, while living cultures and societies seek novelty. A greater danger comes from severely misguided attempts to impose modernity by force. Modern times have seen several such, and fought both hot and cold wars over them.