Culture is central to civilisations and groups. Through culture we keep a history that the group shares. This can include traditions that old generations pass on to the young ones, or books of knowledge that also last through time. Culture is not something that a baby possesses when he or she is born. It’s knowledge a person acquires. When we say “this person is cultivated”, it generally means that person is knowledgeable. We imply that the person has an ability to think, thanks to that knowledge. Isn’t there a contradiction?
Culture means two things that can be incompatible
In the book “La défaite de la pensée“, in English the defeat of thought, Alain Finkielkraut gives the example of the butter and jam French people put on their bread each morning without asking themselves why they do it, and why they dip that bread in their coffee and milk. It is part of the French culture, part of habits, traditions, and while we enact these traditions because they are habits, we don’t ask ourselves why. Finkielkraut was not making a point about nutrition. Instead he argues that culture is contextual, and because it is rooted it can lead us to act without thinking why we do things one way and not another. What is the value of a culture devoid of thought?
To the extent that the environment does not change, and to the extent that the habits, the traditions, are in alignment with that environment, the lack of thinking has no consequence other than creating a habit of not being thoughtful. We live in a fast changing society. Technology, globalization, the rapid outgrowth of human population relative to limited resources on earth, these are a few examples pointing to tomorrow needing to be unlike yesterday. Keeping our culture of eating animal products in high quantities is not sustainable. Without making a vegan argument, it is clear society will need to change in the coming decades.
Our culture of work, of play, of meditating, of interacting, must be dynamic. We need to question whether traditions, as secular as they might be, should continue or evolve in a new direction. Our brains need habits. We need some amount of well tested practices we can do each day without over-thinking, without doubting everything. Culture, like many other concepts, is a balancing act.