Written in Sagi-no-mori Jinjya, Kyoto, 22 October 1995.

In such a place it is almost absurd to trouble myself further with the particulars of the history of certain patterned language forms, but the mind works well when at peace.

The distinction between cultural and non-cultural objects is a vexed one. Can we clarify it? Perhaps it is easier than at first appears, and, as so often, the solution comes not from resisting the fashionable levelling philosophies, but from taking their position more seriously than they themselves are willing to do.

Here in the shrine there are numerous objects, trees, stone lanterns, dragonflies, people, and dogs. A common sense distinction between these would be into living and non-living. Oddly, this would coincide with the equally common sense distinction between cultural and non-cultural. My foolish cultural studies philosophe would then object that living and non-living are culturally specific categories, and the distinction between cultural and non-cultural has no sounder basis. One might respond by defending these two fields, invoking the concept of bio-categories, as developed by certain cognitive scientists, and the presence of human agency in the causal histories of certain objects and not others. For many purposes this would seem to be adequate. But certain niggling problems would arise. Dogs are, in a very important sense, the creations of human beings, through artificial selection, and though the stone lantern is a non-living cultural object, how are we to distinguish it from the pebble that rests on its rim, thrown there by a worshipper? Isn’t man, and cultural belief, equally involved in the histories of both.

Sagi-no-mori Jinjya, Kyoto, 2012. Photograph by Kaoru Honda.

No lesser problem awaits the cultural generalist, for if the non-cultural lacks a firm definition so, by implication, must the cultural. It seems that by declaring everything cultural they have overstepped the mark.

The lesson of this tedious stand-off is that these categories are less useful than they appear, and that we need to acknowledge the continuity which the generalists insist upon while at the same time being able to make some sort of remark on the differences that cry out for attention. – The dragonfly and the bronze dragon fountain obviously inhabit different departments in our unreflective thought, and even reflection can do no more than uncertainly bring them together as cultural constructions.

The answer is to abandon the idea of an exclusive cultural-non-cultural polar division, and admit that the only thing we can say with any degree of certainty is that all is physical. The differences between objects are to be accounted for through this basic similarity, and attributed to physical constitution and causal history. It is therefore obviously possible, and it has been obvious all along, for an object to be both partly non-cultural and partly cultural. Dog is an object in which human preferences have played a large part, but, equally, physical causes operating on the common ancestor of dog and man clearly figure in our account as largely as any, perhaps more so.

Let us now turn to the more interesting question of whether the idea of “dog” is a cultural construction. At first it seems that this must be so, but we will take our physicalism seriously and note that an idea of some thing is as physical as any thing, even our idea of physicality, and that thus it must be a “cultural construction” only by virtue of being in part caused by an area of physicality defined as “cultural”. Very well, we have defined some part as cultural. – Does this undermine the physicality of the “dog” or other elements in its history. Hardly, for the definition presumes other areas of physicality.

We should therefore abandon areas of discussion which attempt to turn the physical into the non-physical, and instead grant that cultural is a vague term useful in that it enables us to discuss physical objects in which human brains and their products have played a significant causal role. Equally, let us admit that any perception must in that sense be cultural, though not necessarily flexible. Further, let us recall that an idea of something is physical before it is cultural, and that a causal history, as distinct from the events it describes, consists purely of events in the human brain. Lastly, let us abandon the word “culture” and speak only of objects and their histories.