Monday, January 24, 2011

Culture and the person we are

In these blogs I have defended the view that our personal identity is not only in our psychological characteristics but also in what we physically are. It is both in our mind and in our body. This is in line with the idea that mind and body are not two separate entities but that they are integrated. But are psychological and physical components all that makes up our identity? As a sociologist by education I should have had the idea that there is more before. However, I needed the newest book by Antonio Damasio, Self comes to mind, to see that there really is. In this book Damasio presents an original idea of how self, mind and consciousness result from the physical processes in our brain. They are not epiphenomena, so Damasio, but play an important part in guiding what we do. Some products of what we do are shared with other people (a phenomenon that does not happen in that degree in the animal world) and survive our death. This has become the origin of what we call culture. Unlike our self, mind and consciousness, culture does not die when one of its bearers dies. On the contrary, it continues to exist despite the death of its individual bearers and remains to exist as long as there are bearers who share it and take it up when they come new into this world. As Damasio says in a recent interview in the Dutch Filosofie Magazine: “… through the cooperation of many brains [there is] a network that goes beyond our individual biological origin. We are born in a culture that has already been made by others before our birth. And while we grow up, we learn to integrate that culture into our own body ... All our moral values and our knowledge of literature, music, film, law or economics come from outside our brain, from the social space in which we are born. And at the same time, this knowledge has first to go into our brain, before we can do something with it, so that it can exist for us. That knowledge has adapted our brain and has formed it culturally.” This integration of culture in our body can probably go as far that cultural developments lead to changes in the human genome.
In this way culture constitutes us insofar as we absorb it and we form it insofar as we take part in it; just like our psychological characteristics, but also our physical characteristics, develop, at least for a part, in exchange with the world around us. Is it then too bold to think that not only our psychological (so individual) characteristics and our bodily characteristics but also our cultural (so social) characteristics make up what we are as a person? Think of the phenomenon of a culture shock, for instance. Just this is outstanding example how integrated culture and person are.


Simon said...

Henk I've been thinking about this in terms along the extended mind idea; but when you think about it this applies to many social animals as well.

I even recently heard that why cod haven't bounced back is that they had a social/cultural memory regarding certain behaviours and once you killed enough of the older fish they lost this knowledge.

In this way we all have extended memory sources and don't just rely on internal or genetic behaviour.

HbdW said...

Thank you Simon. It is very interesting and it is an addition to my view that a reduction of our bahviour and actions too brain processes is too simple.