Etymology Of Culture: Cultivation To Encapsulation

In a 1771 letter to Robert Skipwith, Thomas Jefferson included a list of books, recommended for a general private library. Amongst them, Cicero’s Tusculan Questions (Tusculanae Disputationes), a series of texts concerning Greek stoicism. Of particular importance to contemporary semantics is Cicero’s use of cultura animi (cultivation of souls), similar to the German bildung (personal growth through philosophic education), as articulated by Wilhelm von Humboldt, which serves as the basis for the contemporary concept of “culture” as concretized in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. What is interesting to note in relation to Cicero’s cultura animi, and contemporary usage of the word “culture,” is the specificity of the former and the all-encompassing broadness of the latter.

For example, contemporary publications speak of data culture, cannabis culture, gang culture, corporate culture and indeed, even crystal (meth) culture, which is to utilize ‘culture’ as a umbrella descriptor for any normative, collective (non-individual) human action and to ignore the (formerly important) aspects of character development (the privileging of cultura animi and bildung) itself. This semantic shift, then, represents a wholesale transition from ‘culture’ as descriptive assessment and proscriptive project, to mere encapsulation (pure description).

Cognizance of this fact raises the pertinent question: Since ‘culture’ is now deployed as a mere placeholder for everything that a group of humans does at any given point in time, regardless of the content of the action(s), what collective behaviors can be rightly described as ‘uncultured?’ Under the contemporary rubric: None. And so, what then is the purpose of using ‘culture’ as opposed to ‘collective action/behavior’ given that they are now used as synonyms?


Sources

  1. Adrian Bridgwater. (2019) Tableau Advocates Blueprint For ‘Data Culture’ In Business. Forbes.
  2. Marcus Tullius Cicero. (45 BCE) Tusculanae Disputationes (I-V).
  3. (2002) From Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, with a List of Books for a Private Library, 3 August 1771, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0056. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, 1760–1776, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950, pp. 76–81.]

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