Material Culture

Ethical or spiritual culture is about value expressed in our doings, and ways and patterns of doing. Material culture is the literal reification of such values into material objects — a piece of carved stone or painted pottery, for instance, or a book (perhaps even a web page). Hegel would surely recognize that Geist is also embodied in the pottery or the book.

Among other functions, cultural artifacts and culturally contexted material objects of all sorts supplement our memory with a kind of external storage, as archaeologist Colin Renfrew suggested. They differ from psychological memory in that they are publicly accessible. Something is lost, but something is also gained by this. The archaeologist has no choice but to work from this sort of data embodied in objects.

Material culture is like revealed religion in Hegel — it is open to all, with nothing esoteric about it. It turns traces of the operation of the transcendental into publicly accessible objects.

A certain kind of reification can be a good thing, a fulfillment even — an actualization making explicit what was implicit. Embodiment is a good thing, not the embarrassment Porphyry attributed to Plotinus.

Foucault developed a whole metaphorical “archaeology” of intellectual and cultural history, focused not on implicit subjectivity but on differences in materially explicit forms. There is a lot to be said for this sort of approach.

Some time between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago in Africa, human material culture began to change much faster than human biology. By the time of the European Upper Paleolithic, our kind of apes had clearly become cultural animals.

Individualistic prejudices in the modern West lead people to downplay the importance of culture in human behavior, but individual personality itself is a sort of micro-culture. Aristotle used the same word (ethos) for personality and culture. (See also Aristotelian Matter; Historiography; Freedom and Free Will.)

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