By Ashraf Naushahi
What is culture? No specific definition of culture is devised yet. Often culture is defined and viewed in the contexts of foods, music, festivals, dresses, architecture, languages, literature and similar peculiarities of a people or part of a world. However, defining culture in these contexts causes difficulties in understanding the concept of culture, clearly. It is because foods, music, festivals, and other peculiarities are specifically well defined as distinctive distinctions of a people or a part of the world. Language, whether a vernacular or lingua franca, is a means of talk and communication while literature is what is written in literary diction on literary topics in the language or languages spoken in a part of the world, by its people.
Culture needs its specific definition to define it clearly. In the absence of a specific definition, its concept remains ambiguous and difficult to understand. Though not about culture, T. S. Eliot’s words can be helpful in comprehending the ambiguity: ”When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not”.
Culture is sometimes comprehended as a synonym of civilization. When both concepts, of culture and civilization, are perceived as synonyms, culture can be comprehended in the
context of civilization. Dictionary describes the word “culture” as a type of civilization, refinement and improvement. Similarly, dictionary describes the word “civilization” as culture, instructed in arts and refinements. It is thus reasonable to understand that culture and civilization are synonymous concepts. Civilization is often viewed as enlightened, noble, refined and transcendent human values, ideas, virtues and practices. Culture can be understandably viewed similarly.
Foods, festivals, music, dresses, architecture, languages and literature of a people are well defined distinctions of a people and culture should not be defined or viewed in contexts of these concepts. By understanding culture and civilization as synonymous concepts, the ambiguity in defining either culture or civilization can be solved.
A perception of culture is a concept of collective socioeconomic norms, knowledge and arts of a society or a segment of a society. People in a society follow its cultural preferences while learning continually from its socioeconomic environment.
In different faculties of human knowledge and studies, culture is viewed differently. Arts, music, festivals, foods, cooking, clothing, and shelter are considered to be significant topics for studying culture, in Anthropology. Humanities study and signify more the progress of a people in civilization, manners, knowhow, scientific, technological levels during day-to-day work, and differences among different segments of the society. Similarly, in other faculties, the word “culture” is used and comprehended differently.
It is said that the word “culture” was found to be earliest used by ancient writer Cicero, in the meaning of philosophical development of the human mind. Philosophers explained culture as the acquirement of human qualities by a person. It attached the meaning of “cultivation of the human mind” with the word “culture”.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, culture was considered and discussed by several prominent philosophers, thinkers, and writers, in the contexts of enlightenment, culture of a person or individual, culture of a group or society of people, and worldviews of different people and societies. It was discovered that comparing different human societies on a scientific basis, made it clear that basic cultural elements in human societies were either the same or similar.
In the literary context, Matthew Arnold used the word “culture” in the meanings of refinement, urbanity, sweetness, moral and intellectual virtues, illumination, inspiration, rationality and eloquence. He wrote “Culture and Anarchy” in 1869 and described the concept of culture as “the best that has been thought and said in the world”. In the world of literature, he was known as the man of culture as well as literature. Matthew Arnold emphasized the need of cultivating the human mind through taking care of culture in literary theory and literature.
Thin, thin the pleasant human noises grow,
And faint the city gleams;
Frank Raymond Leavis, known as F. R. Leavis, discussed similar ideas, views and concepts in “Mass Civilization and Minority Culture”. He said that culture had always been in minority keep. From it, he meant that very few people were capable of appreciating the refined literature and arts.
Thomas Stearns Eliot (T. S. Eliot) wrote his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” in 1920, and emphasized the significance of historical context for appreciation of new and individual literary talent. T. S. Eliot viewed poetry and literature as a collective sequence of literary works, accomplishments, and developments starting from the past to the present. He mentioned it in the context of continent Europe, however, his concept of tradition in poetry and literature as a continuity from the ancient ages to the present day world, could be extended to other continents and world. In his view, poetry and literature had been continued to change and develop from ancient classics to modern classics.
Beginning with the writings of Matthew Arnold, F. R. Levis and T. S. Eliot, discussions on the significance of culture, tradition, individual talent, refinement and appreciation of the “best that has been thought and said” in the world of literature, continued. Industrialization, globalization, mass production, and other big changes, affected socioeconomic structures in various parts of the world.
The twenty-first century world became a global village with the developments of sciences, technologies, electronic devices, computers and the Internet. These all developments emphasized the need of choosing well from a lot of productions and things around. Cultivation of a taste, compatibility, economy and quality became relevant in a world of increasing quantities. Changes in a society, affected other societies, changing patterns of foods, music, festivals, dresses, architecture, languages and literature, around the world. Culture, in the meaning of refinement, can solve the problem of choosing well in the world of so much and so quick.
Literature in a world of scientific inventions, technological innovations, and socioeconomic developments, needs culture to become compatible with twenty-first century, enabling the human mind to ponder on the best that has been thought and said in its world.