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Imagined and Contested Communities.

An Introduction to Philosophy of Culture

Published onAug 24, 2021
Imagined and Contested Communities.

1 • Introduction1

Soon after the Argentine-born Máxima Zorreguieta became princess—and therewith, soon-to-be-queen of the Netherlands—she gave a speech in which she denied the existence of “de Nederlander” (the Dutch person). In her view, the Dutch population was far too diverse to be encompassed within one single image. A storm of outrage followed: critics accused her of being too ‘politically correct’ and labeled her a cultural relativist. Of course, she was right: there is no ‘typical’ Dutch person, and nor is there an average European, Asian or African. Still, that does not mean that we cannot speak of or think about Dutch culture, about differences between Asian and African cultures, or about any other culture in a meaningful way. It does, however, mean that culture is a complex, difficult to pin down, and contested phenomenon.

What is culture? What are its origins? What constitutes a culture, and how is culture distributed, sustained and transformed? These are some of the central questions within the philosophy of culture. Although its research subject— human culture—is as old as humankind itself, the philosophy of culture is among the youngest branches on the tree of philosophy. This is probably because for a very long time in human history, culture was not conceived as a problem. Although someone like Michel de Montaigne had already questioned the extent to which European culture was superior to the customs of the people living in the recently ‘discovered’ Americas, it was not until the late eighteenth century that Johann Gottfried Herder argued how each culture is unique, and that “nothing is more deceptive than the application [of a single concept of culture, TL] to entire peoples and eras” (Herder quoted in Konersmann, 2003, 12).

Because of this, the questions that concern the philosophy of culture are constantly changing. Not only according to scientific insights in related academic fields (such as anthropology, history, sociology, and media studies, as well as other subdisciplines of philosophy such as political philosophy and the philosophy of technology), but also according to public debates on culture and identity. Perhaps more than any other branch, then, the philosophy of culture fits Hegel’s definition of philosophy as “its own time comprehended in thoughts” (Hegel, 1812/1991, 21).

In this chapter, I will first discuss the concept—or rather, concepts—of culture. How we define culture is very often not value-neutral, and also hangs together with who is defining or describing whose culture. Hence, we will look next at the relationship between culture and power. After determining culture as a primarily collective practice (rather than as a set of objects), I will look at how culture is transmitted and distributed through media. Finally, I will discuss what culture, and the philosophical study of culture, mean in a globalized world in which different cultures are increasingly confronted with each other—sometimes mixing and sometimes clashing.

2 • Defining culture

‘Culture’ is one of those terms we use so often that we hardly think about what it means. We speak of ‘local cultures’ and ‘popular culture’; we have a ‘ministry of culture’, go on ‘cultural vacations’, and we even wage ‘culture wars’. But is there a common meaning to be discovered across all these different ways of using the concept? The British philosopher Raymond Williams (1976) famously defined three distinct uses of the concept of culture . The first, is the idea of culture as ‘civilization’, as it was commonly used in the age of the enlightenment, and which is closely connected to ideas of progress and universalism. When thus applied, one usually presumes that only some groups of people ‘have’ culture, while others are considered ‘primitive’. This also means that the primitive groups are supposed to, eventually, live up to our standards. The second, is culture as defined by the cultural critic Matthew Arnold, as the “pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know [...] the best which has been thought and said in the world” (Arnold, 1869). This account is usually applied to the arts, and culture is then seen as a synonym of ‘high’ art as represented by the canon of the great works of tradition. Finally, we have the broad anthropological use of the concept of culture as being the culture of a certain group. In this third use, culture is understood as collective practices of meaning-making. Although each of these uses still come up regularly in contemporary debates, and will also return in what follows in this chapter, the latter, broad concept of culture clearly predominates today. As Williams put it in a different essay, “Culture is ordinary” (Williams, 1977); culture is not something reserved for the higher social classes or for western civilization, but is simply people’s everyday customs and practices, and the significance they attach to them.

Culture has often been considered as the defining feature of humankind. Humans are, to borrow a phrase by Helmuth Plessner, “by nature artificial” (Plessner, 1975/2019), meaning that we can only survive by actively intervening in our natural environment: since we don’t have fur, we need clothes and shelter; since we don’t have claws, we need tools. Furthermore, we need to teach these practices to the next generation in order for them to survive. Hence, signs and language play an important role in culture (as we will see later on when discussing media). Still, while some species of animals also use tools and build shelters, what actually sets humans apart is our reflection on such practices and the meanings we ascribe to them. According to Martin Heidegger this has to do with the awareness of our mortality (Heidegger, 1927/1996): the realization of the finitude of our lives on this planet causes the desire to somehow make sense of, and give meaning to our existence—through rituals, stories or myths, and works of art. This meaning can only be granted by, and in relationship with others (other people, as well as animals, objects, etc.). Therefore, culture always has a social and relational dimension; one cannot ‘do’ culture on one’s own.

While culture thus belongs to the very nature of humankind, the varieties and diversity of different cultures is endless. And, as we learn more from other cultures, we might begin to question our own. The British-Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that culture is closely connected to identity— that is, to the ways in which we consider ourselves and others (Appiah, 2018). Appiah describes (cultural) identity on the basis of three characteristics. First and foremost, identity is a label with which we tend to classify ourselves and other people, along lines of creed, country, colour, class, gender, and so forth (as in: I am a catholic, a Frenchman, et cetera). Secondly, such labels provide guidelines and orientation for people in their actions, values and beliefs (e.g. ‘as a European, I am tolerant’, or ‘as an American, I am proud of my country’). Thirdly, identity can also determine the ways in which others think of or treat you, in either a positive or negative sense; for instance, in the form of prejudice or stereotyping.

History is, unfortunately, full of examples of crimes that were committed against people simply because they belonged to a different culture. But, Appiah states, cultural identities are never strictly defined—their boundaries are never fixed but are always in motion, because history itself is in motion. They are constructions which, nevertheless, have an enormous power to connect people to, or alienate them from each other; hence he calls them, ‘the lies that bind’.

Cultural identities are ‘fluid’, which means that they do not have a fixed, deeper core or essence; they are not solid but ‘liquid’ (to follow the imagery of Zygmunt Bauman, 2000). On the basis of this, it is sometimes suggested that we therefore have a great freedom to construct, or even to choose, our identity at will, simply by behaving or dressing differently. Appiah points out, however, that identity has both a subjective and an objective dimension, and the latter is sturdier than notions of ‘fluidity’ or ‘liquidity’ imply. After all, in many cases, we are identified in a certain way—categorized according to certain existing cultural and social parameters or norms. This implies that our identities are not a merely subjective, individual matter, and hence not, or at least not entirely, for us to ‘construct’; this is rather a social, intersubjective process. Our identities always, to a certain extent, conform to existing cultural and social norms. To further analyze that process, it is important to look at the element of power that is part of any discussion on culture.

3 • Culture and power

It has already been mentioned that an important function of culture is a socializing one: in and through culture, we learn the ways of acting and behaving, and the beliefs, symbols and norms of the society we are born into. Thus, culture contributes to the integration of the individual in a specific social, political and economic order. This raises the question of who determines these norms and beliefs. Are we all equally capable of constituting the culture that we are part of? Historical and contemporary struggles of suppressed minority groups demanding the right to freely express and transmit their culture, are clear evidence that we are not all equally involved, and that, in fact, there have always been groups in society whose culture is considered to be more valid and valuable than that of others.

Karl Marx is one of the main sources of inspiration for modern and contemporary cultural theory, and one of the first who pointed to this close connection between culture and power. This is ironic, since Marx criticized such emphasis on the power of ideas from predecessors like Herder and Hegel. While Hegel considered human history as the progression of human self-consciousness, Marx rejected this ‘idealism’ (i.e. the belief that ideas are the driving force of history) and replaced it with his ‘historical materialism’. In his view, the material and economic circumstances of a society determine human consciousness. This view is elaborated in the so-called ‘base-superstructure’ model, according to which the socio-economic ‘base’ determines the ideological ‘superstructure’ (Marx, 1859/1978). What Marx calls the ‘base’ consists of the means of production (tools, technologies and materials, but also human labour power) and relations of production: social relations between the class that owns the means of production and the one that does not—the latter of which, therefore, has to sell their labour power to the one with the ownership. According to Marx, history is a continuous ‘class struggle’ in which a certain class (in his age, the industrial proletariat) is exploited by the owners of the means of production, until they can no longer take it and start a revolution.

By ‘superstructure’, he meant all spiritual products of man: religion, art, science, but also law and politics (so, actually, the entire culture). In Marx’s metaphor, the superstructure rests on the base like a house on its foundations; in other words, culture depends on the economic system. This implies that culture is a form of ideology, as a reflection of existing class power, as well as a legitimation thereof. Take religion as an example: for a long time, Christianity sustained existing relations of power because it made the oppressed class believe that God created the social order as it should be—if you do your duty and accept your suffering, you will be rewarded in the afterlife. Marx famously called religion the ‘opium of the people’, because it keeps the masses peaceful and quiet.

There are at least two problems with this view on the relationship between culture and power, both of which have been pointed out by the twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault (1982). Firstly, the power struggle that Marx is talking about is not only taking place between two main social classes, but also takes place within classes, between different groups, and on different socio- cultural levels. During the early twentieth-century struggles for women’s voting rights, for instance, women from different classes stood side by side, since women were being suppressed within both the upper and the lower classes. The same goes for other forms of exclusion (for example, on the basis of ethnicity or sexual orientation) which cannot be caught in Marx’s binary logic of class struggle. Secondly, Marx talks about power as the repression, by means of laws and/or violence, of the otherwise ‘free’ individual. For Foucault, however, there are far subtler, as well as more effective forms of power, in the shape of caring, monitoring, and thus disciplining. These he calls ‘pastoral power’ because the way that modern institutions rule over us best resembles the way a pastor keeps watch over his flock; to be able to guide everyone on the path to salvation, the pastor has to know what is going on within the congregation, the sins and secret desires of each of the members. This form of power is thus based not on violence, but on knowledge and specific uses of language: what Foucault calls discourse. Two fields of cultural theory that have been very much influenced by these ideas are gender studies and postcolonial studies, which I will briefly discuss to further elucidate the relationships between culture and power.

The French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir famously stated that one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one (de Beauvoir, 1949/2015). The identification by others, discussed earlier, starts at birth, if not already in the womb (“is it a boy or a girl?”). This seems like a mere fact of nature, but in fact is a label that comes with all kinds of connotations. Gender creates expectations: e.g. boys don’t cry, and ‘girls just want to have fun’. According to Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément (1986), such expectations are deeply ingrained in our culture, and are even part of our language. Gender differences are an element of a linguistic system of binaries (between culture and nature, mind and body, subject and object, reason and passion, active and passive, etc.) in which one tends to be considered as superior to the other. Men are supposed to be rational and proactive; women were traditionally conceived of as passive, emotional (and hence irrational) and weak. To consider such differences as biologically determined, of course, serves the existing power relations between genders (e.g. “women are by nature caring creatures that simply don’t want to have be in a leading position, but rather want to stay at home with the kids”). Conversely, by studying such differences as cultural phenomena (which is not the same as denying the existence of gender differences altogether), one opens up the possibility to change gender roles, a possibility which is absent if one takes a more naturalistic perspective on identity.

Closely related to these issues are the ways in which minorities and non-western cultures are represented by western culture and media. This is one of the subjects of postcolonial studies—an academic field that studies the history and legacy of western colonialism. Colonialism was never a mere political or economic matter, but also implied cultural hegemony—that is, the power to describe cultures. A classic in this field is Orientalism (1987/2003) by the Palestinian- American scholar Edward W. Said, which is an analysis of the ways in which European colonial reign was preceded and legitimized by the production of a body of knowledge and imagery of Eastern countries and cultures. By looking at, for instance, 18th and 19th century literature and visual art—such as Flaubert’s letters from Egypt or Delacroix’s paintings—Said shows how a picture of the Orient was created as being exotic, mysterious, and sensuous but also irrational, backwards and barbarian. At the same time, and by creating this image, the West started to define itself in the opposite way, as innovative, modern, advanced, and rational. Said writes: “Therefore as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West.” (Said, 1987/2003, 5) This idea pervades up until this day—first of all, in representations within popular culture (for instance, the way the Orient is portrayed in Disney’s Alladin, or the way Hollywood action movies tend to portray Arabs as terrorists), but, moreover, it also still functions as political legitimization of more recent Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This once again shows that the discourse on culture—and our knowledge and image of it—is never value-neutral, but is thoroughly intertwined with relations of power. Part of the research within the philosophy of culture is to understand and map such power relations. These are never as one-dimensional or binary as Marx thought (as simply being the power of one class over the other). In Said’s analysis of Orientalism, too, other differences are obscured (such as the fact that the kind of western fantasy of the East he describes was primarily a male one). The black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to point out how certain groups, such as black women, are dealing with a particular form of suppression that is not sufficiently addressed or recognized by (in this case) either (white) feminists nor by the Black Power movements at that moment (which focused mainly on male issues). Such groups are on the ‘intersection’ of different forms of discrimination and oppression, to which we could also add (dis)ability, sexual orientation, age, and so on. How minorities are represented in media—traditionally in painting or literature, and today in movies, popular music and television, forms an important part of such forms of oppression.

4 • Culture and media

Imagine that someone tells you they’re going on a ‘cultural vacation’ to Paris. You would probably expect that person to go see the Louvre, the Notre Dame, and perhaps go to the opera or a concert rather than, say, go shopping, drinking or visiting Disneyland.

Here, we have the concept of culture as ‘high art’ that we mentioned in the beginning. Throughout modern history, cultural institutions such as museums, theatres and cultural heritage sites, have played a decisive role in the constitutive process of (national) cultures, in constructing cultural hierarchies through processes of canonization. Only those objects and ideas that were considered to be valuable enough to be preserved and remembered, were placed in a museum or library, or were taught at universities. One could also say that these institutions were the media through which culture was disseminated to the wider population and transmitted to future generations.

While the production, distribution and consumption of this kind of culture was, for a long time, the privilege of the happy few, the late 19th century saw the dawn of mass culture made possible by technological innovations such as photography, film, radio and the gramophone. Cultural philosophers of the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’ were among the first to seriously study this mass culture, although they evaluated it in various ways.

Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (1936/2008), asks what the consequences are of (in his time) new media for our experience of art—most notably, visual art. Images generally used to have a religious meaning; think of religious icons, the statues of Greek gods, or the images of Mother Mary or the saints in the Catholic Church. This ‘cultic value’, as Benjamin calls it, still resounds in our respect for authentic masterpieces of art, and the fact that thousands of people everyday want to catch a glimpse of da Vinci’s real Mona Lisa or Rembrandt’s Night Watch.

But, while the creation of images used to be a time-consuming enterprise, photography, for the first time, made it possible to make an image in the blink of an eye, and to reproduce it limitlessly. Moreover, in the case of photography and film, it no longer makes sense to speak of a singular ‘original’ as opposed to its copies: the same work of art can be seen anywhere at the same time. In other words, as a consequence of these means of technological reproduction, images now surround us in our everyday lives: on posters and advertisements, in magazines and movies, and, more recently, on tablets and smartphones. This drastically alters our traditional attitude towards images—they lose their religious significance (what Benjamin calls their ‘aura’, 1936/2008) and become something mundane for us. According to Benjamin, this process had a potentially democratic effect, since the mass of the people are now themselves involved in the creation and distribution of images, rather than merely bowing before the images handed over to them by tradition.

His friend and colleague Theodor W. Adorno, however, thought otherwise. In Adorno’s view, mass culture was not a form of democratization, but rather ‘mass deception’. It did not emerge spontaneously from the masses—from the people’s own needs and desires—but rather was imposed upon them from above by media companies that served only one purpose: profit. Therefore, he preferred to speak of the ‘culture industry’ rather than of mass culture (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1947/2002). This term also refers to a specific mode of the production of culture which resembles the industrial production of commodities. Principles of standardization and efficiency had now also started to dominate the realm of culture—each production company wanting to make a ‘hit’ or a ‘blockbuster’— thus seriously reducing the creativity and spontaneity of both the artist and the public.

Adorno’s view still resounds today in often-heard complaints about the uniformity of Hollywood movies or thirteen-in-a-dozen pop stars. However, Adorno’s point was not that the mass audience lacked good taste; rather, he saw the danger of a possible dwindling of critical thought. The freedom and creativity originally offered by culture also allowed it to be a realm of critical reflection on society. Art, in his view, always shows us different worlds—thus, critically questioning the existing one. As soon as culture exists merely in the service of profit maximization, Adorno argued, it tends to become standardized, and thus loses this critical capability, and only further affirms the status quo. For Adorno, who, as a Jew, had to flee Europe in the early 1930s, it was of utmost importance that the masses have the capacity to critically reflect on the societal system that they are part of.

However, Adorno’s negative take on mass culture has also been criticized by cultural philosophers and media scholars. First of all (and especially since the 1960s), mass culture has not been as uniform as Adorno claimed it to be. On the contrary, popular culture turned out to be an important carrier of a protest generation and subculture that, for instance, protested against war, racial oppression, and inequality (think of protest songs by Bob Dylan, or movies like Easy Rider). Rather than being a monolithic ideological apparatus, contemporary cultural philosophers and theorists consider mass culture as an arena where different world views and interests are competing with each other. Moreover, the profit motive need not undermine the critical role that culture can have. A movie like Black Panther was both a critique of colonialism and white supremacy, as well as a savvy superhero blockbuster.

Secondly, on the consumer side, the audience might not be as mindless as Adorno envisioned. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1993) argued that cultural productions are inherently ‘polysemic’, meaning that they can be interpreted in different ways. He described this as a process of encoding and decoding, in which a preferred meaning is ‘coded’ into a cultural product and subsequently interpreted by the audience. This ‘decoding’ can happen in line with the dominant and intended values but the audience can also take in an oppositional position. While the preferred meaning of Batman is that of a caped crusader fighting for justice in a crime-infested city, an oppositional reading might consider him a fascist billionaire who is merely maintaining the domination of his class.

Media, however, are not merely a means of distributing culture; they have the power to change culture as well. As philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium is the message (McLuhan, 1964)—by which he meant that, with the introduction of new media, our culture will change as well. For example, the world with television or internet is radically different from the world without, and, if Twitter allows you to only use 280 characters, this will alter the nature of your messages. In our media-saturated society, advertisements, movies and online content have a huge influence on how we think about, say, beauty or love; and, in politics, for instance, the ‘image’ often seems to be more important than the content of issues at hand. The images that surround us in our everyday lives are therefore not mere representations, but also determine the ways in which we view the world. Jean Baudrillard said that these images—‘simulacra’ as he called them—become more real than the reality they are supposed to represent; they become a ‘hyperreality’ (Baudrillard, 1953/1995).

Many consider this to be a disquieting development. If images become more real than the things they represent, how can we still distinguish the fake from the real, and truth from lies? Are we indeed living in a ‘post-truth’ condition, as is sometimes suggested—that is, a situation wherein the truth gets buried under a cacophony of opinions and worldviews? Bruno Latour (2004) argues, however, that there is a difference between saying that truth is context-dependent and saying that there is no truth whatsoever. The truth was never ‘out there’, waiting to be discovered—we always had to ‘make’ it ourselves. And this did not happen automatically: one needs to research, negotiate, translate, convince, etc. What the discussions on ‘post-truth’ do show, is that truth depends upon a common agreement on how to determine it, and a basic trust in certain institutions (such as universities and news media) to honour this common agreement. That this agreement and trust are increasingly lacking, seems to be a negative side-effect of the rise of social media.

5 • Globalization

Images travel fast in this digital age. Cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed published in a Danish newspaper in 2005, for instance, led to violent demonstrations in Muslim countries, a ban on Danish products, and even an attack on one of the cartoonists. But it is not only images that travel faster: also information, commodities, capital, and people. For several philosophers, such as Paul Virilio (2006) and Hartmut Rosa (2013), modernity itself can be characterized as a process of increasing acceleration, leading to a compression of space and time. As soon as one can be anywhere in no time, both time and space tend to lose their significance. According to some philosophers, this process of globalization will lead to an overall homogenization of culture. Western, and particularly American, mass culture dominates the world: we are all wearing the same jeans, listening to the same music and eating the same hamburgers. Will the traditional diversity of cultures soon cease to exist because of such a “McDonaldization” of our world? The Indian-American scientist Arjun Appadurai denies this. According to Appadurai (1996), the driving force behind the globalization process is imagination. This imagination is, in turn, fueled by migration and mass media. Migration is nothing new in itself: throughout history we have seen people leaving their homes, either to flee from danger or in order to pursue a better life. But while migrating used to imply being cut off from your native culture, modern mass media enables people to more easily take their culture with them and stay in touch with their homeland, via (satellite) television and internet. According to Appadurai, instead of being homogenized, globalization is more likely to result in a diversification of societies. Although there might indeed be a McDonald’s in every major city in the world, in the local food market around its corner you will find foods, ingredients and dishes from a wide variety of cultures. Moreover, he discusses how elements that were once ‘foreign’ to a culture can be used over time to confirm cultural identity; the (originally British) sport cricket, for instance, is now an integral part of Indian national identity. This back-and-forth between homogenization and diversification—sometimes referred to in the single term ‘glocalization’—is a central theme in contemporary philosophy of culture.

As a result of the process of globalization, as well as diversification, culture is becoming the subject of sometimes intense social and political debates. Take the debate in the Netherlands, France and other European countries, about the issue of women wearing headscarves in public functions, or even the ban of the Burka from public space altogether: while some people regard the headscarf as a symbol of women’s oppression, and therefore inappropriate within ‘our western civilization’, others stress that there are girls and women who say they wear headscarves by choice, to express their religious and cultural identity. These individuals demand respect for what makes them different from Western culture, and argue that banning headscarves is actually a form of intolerance toward different cultures and religions.

We see here that the different meanings of the concept of ‘culture’ that we discussed in the first section are intertwined. While one group relies on the value of emancipation and progress, and views the headscarf as ‘uncivilized’, the other relies on the value of a unique and authentic expression of one’s identity. Sometimes, we even find these two cultural concepts within one point of view. For example, if a right-wing politician says that he finds a different culture ‘backwards’ in comparison to our superior western culture, then he uses both the Herderian concept of unique cultures (that is, the idea that cultures radically differ from each other) and the enlightenment concept (namely that cultures can be placed along one and the same yardstick of ‘civilization’).

Globalization of cultures leads to tensions, not only between cultures but also within them. Cultures, and the traditions and beliefs that are part of them, are constantly changing, but the pace at which this is happening can cause feelings of anxiety and alienation for some parts of the population. Some even speak of ‘culture wars’ taking place. Marx’ class division between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, it is sometimes argued, has been replaced by the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of globalization, the cosmopolitans that benefit from easy travelling and free trade, and a precarious class losing their jobs as a result of the outsourcing of production or the austerity politics following the financial crises. While philosophers once hoped that globalization would turn the world into a ‘global village’ (McLuhan, 1964), there seems to be a countertendency towards new forms of nationalism and tribalism, the deepening of divides between (ethnic, religious, social) groups, and an increasing hostility amongst them. Philosophers of culture try to understand these tendencies, their origins, and potential consequences.

6 • Conclusion: beyond borders beyond culture

One of the problems of the aforementioned resurgence of nationalism and tribalism is that most challenges facing us today are not confined to the borders of a single nation state. Issues like climate change, pollution, nuclear power, terrorism, economic crises, and culture wars transcend the borders of nation states and intervene in the lives of people from very diverse backgrounds. At the same time, we see how groups within a nation state no longer feel automatically connected by a national identity, language or culture and obtain their information from a variety of media and information flows.

This poses a challenge for the philosophy of culture, which itself has to move beyond borders, including its own disciplinary borders. Contemporary philosophy of culture is, more than ever, intertwined with sociology and political theory, economics and even the natural sciences. Contemporary philosophers of culture write on labour, debt and neoliberalism—issues that one would rather expect from economists. Still, each of these issues has its own particular cultural dimension. Neoliberalism is not only viewed as an economic system or model, but also as a specific perspective on humankind in its relationship to its surroundings: it considers the individual as the basic unit of human experience and harbours a distrust against the social, as a potential limitation to the freedom of the individual. According to its critics, this leads (amongst other things), to a culture of individualization and competition, also outside of the market.

The scope of contemporary philosophy of culture is further broadened as a consequence of the increasing importance of the symbolic or expressive value of commodities: a sneaker or a smartphone is much more than just a shoe or means of communication. Hence, in what is sometimes called ‘cultural capitalism’, the entire economy seems to revolve around attributing meaning and significance to ourselves and to the world around us. To Raymond Williams’ remark that ‘culture is ordinary’ we can add that culture is everywhere.

At the same time, however, the limits of what human culture can or should be becomes very clear in the age of climate catastrophe, or what is sometimes referred to as the Anthropocene (of antropos, the Greek word for human—i.e. the era of humankind). As philosophers like Donna Haraway (2016) and Timothy Morton (2016) argue, ecological issues show us that the distinction between nature and culture is problematic to begin with, since our human culture is from the very outset intertwined with our natural surroundings. Even the word ‘culture’ is derived from agriculture—the working of the land—the start of which once formed the basis of civilization as we know it. In that sense, the Anthropocene forms a challenge. A challenge, first of all, for culture—particularly western culture, which is based on growth, mass consumerism, and fossil fuel energy supplies that contemporary climate scientists now claim to be unsustainable and destructive—but certainly also a challenge for philosophers of culture, to once more rethink the concept of culture in its relationship to nature and to describe, understand, and imagine ways in which human beings live with each other and their natural and artificial surroundings.


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