Culturologists versus Philosophists? Culturology versus Philosophy?

SUMMARY. A culturologist perspective is that cultural change drives the production of new philosophies. This is based on finding systems patterns in a dataset of concrete experiences. A philosophist perspective is that philosophical changes drive the production of new cultures or cultural changes. This is based on assuming the primacy of the abstract world of thought over the concrete world of experience. The culturologist’s approach to cultural interpretation and social transformation is more in tune with the ascending world culture and global Christianity. The philosophist’s approach is more in tune with the declining Western culture and Christendom. This critical difference helps explain some of the conflict between the missional-incarnational-contextual paradigm and the conventional-attractional-universal pardigm as to what constitutes appropriate strategies and structures for churches in our era.

In Steve Taylor’s recent post, “Hey Jude Echoes Across the Universe,” he makes an important contribution to highlighting some core issues in cultural research. It struck a chord for me, and I suspect the difference he touches on between pop culture and philosophical culture goes far, far deeper than we’ve yet realized. Hopefully, his post will open the way to more dialogue. Here’s the essential quote that I’d like to pick up on for my commentary on culturology versus philosophy:

A few months ago, Al Roxburgh watched Atonement movie and asked what it means to form leaders in a culture losing memory.  He quoted Goethe, “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living hand to mouth.”

Across the Universe raises another possibility; that “She who cannot draw on three decades of popular culture is living hand to mouth.”  I left the cinema humming “Hey, Jude.”

Hey, Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better

Practically, we need to, in response to the incarnation, let our pop cultural world get under our skin. To sit with the everyday narratives, whether micro-, meso- or macro-. To refuse to pay it cool, as a starting point for our missiology.

Personal questions on this dichotomy between culturology and philosophy have been churning for me lately. I’d been planning to post on the subject eventually, but since Steve brought it up, it seems the timing is ripe. Here’s a sampling of my internal wretching and kvetching:

  • Cultural studies and missional approaches should make my heart sing because they’re about (in part) my passion for culture and contextualization! So, why do I consistently feel like I don’t connect well with what I perceive as more “academic oriented” cultural research approaches? The people involved are critical thinkers, exploring important research issues, and publishing resources – so what’s the disconnect or blockage? Am I just too far removed from their paradigm or methodologies to feel comfortable in partnering with them?
  • Why can’t I seem to interest very many leaders, pastors, professors, (and even missionaries and church planters) in looking at futurist and culturologist perspectives and tools, or at least seemingly little beyond enjoying the stimulation of new ideas or different viewpoints?
  • Is it not the right timing for a culturology approach? Or methods that give more weight to global-media-pop-tribal influences than to the traditions of Western philosophy? Or just me? A combination? Something else?
  • What are plausible responses in Western societies while it is forgetting its cultural memory and/or fusing in new cultural sources from non-Western societies? What are preferable responses? Is there one or more biblically prescriptive responses?

I think I’m finally getting some clues … but it’s still feels up in the air.

For months, I’ve been mulling over the gut-level disconnect I feel between myself as a culturologist and those I perceive as philosophists. I see a culture-centric view as using more of a field-researcher/practitioner/activist paradigm, committed primarily to a focus of study on concrete media, pop culture, and emerging values of the present and near past. (And I do come from an interesting activist background. My first political meeting was at age 9, and I asked my parents to take me – shades of Alex P. Keaton on TV’s “Family Ties”! Environmental education summer intern at age 15. Reporting on local politics for public TV and volunteering with several non-profits by age 17. Monitoring aspects of Title IX/Affirmative Action at age 20. You get the drift …)

I see a philoso-centric view as using more of an academic/theoretical/theological paradigm, with a primary focus on the more classical and abstract discipline of Western philosophy, embodied in high culture and worldview structures of our long-term past. Have I totally misjudged their perspectives? Or merely labeled them and boxed them in? Or is it that I just don’t like their perspective? Is a philosophic-leaning perspective too utopian in a dystopian world? But is culturology always realistic?

This internal battle is nothing new. I first became aware of this same disconnect a decade ago when I undertook an intensive course on futurist skills. There may be academic discipline differences that contribute to the anti-magnetism. Here’s my current take on what I learned then.

More inherent to a futurist or culturologist perspective is that cultural change drives philosophy. Society/culture changes first, in response to people’s ACTUAL visceral desires for values that are not present in current cultures. Whatever needs or desires or longings drive them, they seek and find those with common desires. Philosophy then attempts to describe the changes that have already occurred, once those changes are noticeable enough to be emerging or have emerged. Usually these philosophical attempts do articulate an ever-closer approximation to the ideal embodied in the real changes, so their perspectives do somewhat influence additional social change … but they do not drive it.

That is oversimplified, but I think a more detailed model of culturology fits with diverse cultural phenomena: creation of new subcultures and countercultural movements, the eventual influence of subcultures and countercultures into mainstream cultural values, the subversion or overthrow of the dominant culture in a parallel-culture society, global distribution of cultures and subcultures, violent and non-violent approaches to change and why they appeal to different types of people, etc.

This is contrary to the usual approach I seem to find among theologians and specialists of many other disciplines. They generally assume that philosophy drives cultural change, where the ideal or utopian or abstract philosophical expression of what SHOULD be sparks people to new values, new thoughts, and/or new changes. I know there are good, sincere people who advocate this; all I’m saying is that it just doesn’t sit right with me – even when it is clear enough that we are pursuing similar missional objectives: be culturally relevant and yet transformationally countercultural, without syncretizing to other cultures or superimposing conformity to our culture upon the others.

Personally, I rather like the idea of having one descriptive, flexible, and highly-explanatory meta-culturology approach that covers the vast variations in contemporary cultural systems. I feel like the more conventional approach of studying streams of Western philosophies is too confining for me … always feels like trying to find the prescriptive One Right Theory. But culturology is far more interdisciplinary – I can be an integrative philosopher without having to feel like it’s all about philosophies.

I don’t think this queasiness is about density or vocabulary – heaven knows, what I write is so dense and wordy that sometimes I can’t even understand it the day after I write it!  And yet, I just do not seem to process well what I perceive as the esoteric language of philosophically driven attempts to interpret cultures.

Actually, I think it’s more about the reaction my highly-concrete learning styles have to what seems to me a highly-abstract learning style. Is it a battle between the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator “S” (more concrete) versus “N” (more abstract)?  Maybe. But, ooooh, got a problem there, as I am clearly “iNtuitive” on MBTI, while very concrete on other learning style assessments, which would make one think I should be a dominant “Sensory” on MBTI.

Is it maybe a clash between the MBTI “J” (relatively linear/segmentational) and “P” (relatively random/gestalt)? Maybe. If philosophy is more a function of “Judging” (breaking it down and analyzing) versus “Perceiving” (looking at the whole system), I still have a problem – I’m barely in the “P” zone, and on the Cognitive Style assessment, I rate Very Analytic.

From MBTI and some other learning style assessments, it really seems I could be engaged in abstract philosophizing – but instead am enjoying concrete culturology and systems development theory.

I just don’t know. But if I’m to get any farther into possible collaborations on culture and contextualization, I guess I’ve got to figure it out enough to be at peace in partnerships. Input, anyone? I’m floundering here …

Hmmm … is it possible that these polarities just cannot easily be partners? I appreciate the value of paradox and dynamic tension between polarities. So maybe I’m struggling about whether these are actually irreconcilable paradigms instead of complementary perspectives, and thus must remain culturology VERSUS philosophy, and one or the other may need to become pre-eminent in this era? Or can they be converted to some kind of both/and dynamic tension and we could serve side-by-side in a paradoxical partnership team of academician-activist-field-reseracher-theoretician-practitioner-theologians? I’m sure I’ll have more internal Gollumlogues emerge on this dilemma as time goes by …

Anyway, perhaps Steve’s providential pairing of the Atonement and Across the Universe pieces has opened a door for dialogue.

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4 thoughts on “Culturologists versus Philosophists? Culturology versus Philosophy?

  1. What is culturology? Is it just a word you found lying around or is there a working definition? I find at least two different usages so far, and I’ve just started looking?

  2. Hi Toby, and thanks for your comment. Actually, I’ve been taking notes to launch into a short “Culturology Tutorial,” which I hope have time to write up and post in the very near future.

    Meanwhile, you may already have gone to Wikipedia, and seen some relevant entries, like on “Culturology” and “Leslie White.” Without getting into technical stuff here, I’m not following the post-Soviet approach mentioned in the former article, as best I understand what that’s about (and about which I have found very little). And I do borrow some basic ideas from American anthropologist Leslie White of the second article, but I tend to go in different directions.

    I like White’s framework of reality consisting of three sets of systems: physical, biological, and cultural. Before I found out about White and read excerpts from his works, I already believed that culture is the most complex “thing” that we humans create. So, it made sense to me that culture should be the largest possible integration point or hub for academic disciplines/studies about humanity. This also takes the study of culture out of the conventional Western social scientific approach, with what I see as its fatally flawed assumptions of “objectivity” and “moral neutrality.” (In other words, researchers assume they are “objective” observers who are merely describing the culture as it exists, and that all cultures are equal; none is superior to another – which also means, if you take that to its logical conclusion, that no culture is evil. Well, that certainly doesn’t jive with Scripture … but that’s a story for another day!)

    Also, from what I’ve read thus far, it seems White’s overall approach offers a framework to adapt for what I have called “paradigm studies” – examining the full paradigm system that permeates social organizations or cultures. To me, this includes about seven interconnected elements (still refining my approach, so this number and layering may change). Going from the deepest to the most surface layers, they are:

    (1) Information processing styles
    (2) Values (end-state values about the way things should be, and instrumental values about how we should act toward one another as we move toward those end-state goals)
    (3) Theology/Philosophy
    (4) Strategies and (5) organizational infrastructures
    (6) Methodological models (possible approaches to formal actions, based on the same cluster of strategies and structures)
    (7) Personal and social behaviors; lifestyles; activities

    In my estimation, “paradigm studies” work better for me than the current academic disciplines labeled “Cultural Studies,” which typically seem to take analyze from a specific perspective: Feminist Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, Queer Studies, etc. I just don’t think these perspectives delve deep enough into all possible layers of a paradigm, and I also see them often as orbiting around deconstruction. Deconstruction, while a needed stage in potential social change, is easy to get stuck in … just critiquing what has been and perhaps advocating for specific future possibilities. However, I am more interested in moving toward social transformation, specifically, toward the goal and means of “Kingdom culture” – the essence and parameters of what God intends for every culture to be and to do, with wide latitude in how that looks, based on the cultural journey and current status of a society. So, I also find a cultural evolution approach that is along the lines of what White advocates offers a framework to adapt for “paradigm work.” – constructive or reconstructive change in culture.

    I’m sure Leslie White would have a lot of arguments with what I have done with some of his concepts, and in using them for Kingdom purposes. Still, I find the term culturology helpful in describing the original research and development work I have engaged in since the mid-1990s on culture typology and cultural transformation. It isn’t the same as Cultural Anthropology, or Cultural Studies. It is bigger than the academic discipline of Philosophy, although it involves philosophizing. And since what I’m attempting to do for an original Kingdom perspective, it makes sense to find/develop a new term that can accommodate my merging of paradigm studies, organizational systems development, and strategic foresight/futurist studies with cultural research tools.

    So, that’s the stuff, as best I could offer it in brief. Stay tuned for the series …

  3. What I think is that everything you will reason about will have some philosophy into it so even cultures have their philosophy, literature does too.

    Philosophy is there, you just try to make those abstract ideas into material symbols present in any culture.

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