What is culture, or a culture?

“…those things which emanate from the mind itself: mathematics, mental constructs, epistemic frameworks, in short: culture.”
– Joep Leerssen (2012)[1, p.31]

“Culture, or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. (Tylor, 1871: 1)”[4, p.41]

Culture Definitions

Merriam-Webster defines culture as:[2]

1a – the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social groupalso the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time

1b – the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization

1c – the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

1d – the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations

2a – enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training

2b – acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills

3 – the act or process of cultivating living material (such as bacteria or viruses) in prepared nutrient media


5 – the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education

6 – expert care and training

Culture Etymology

Merriam-Webster names the 15th century as the earliest known use of the word culture. It’s meaning was in accordance with definition #4 listed above.[2] This notion is supported by etymonline:

“mid-15c., “the tilling of land, act of preparing the earth for crops,” from Latin cultura “a cultivating, agriculture,” figuratively “care, culture, an honoring,” from past participle stem of colere “to tend, guard; to till, cultivate” (see colony). Meaning “the cultivation or rearing of a crop, act of promoting growth in plants” (1620s) was transferred to fish, oysters, etc., by 1796, then to “production of bacteria or other microorganisms in a suitable environment” (1880), then “product of such a culture” (1884).

The figurative sense of “cultivation through education, systematic improvement and refinement of the mind” is attested by c. 1500; Century Dictionary writes that it was, “Not common before the nineteenth century, except with strong consciousness of the metaphor involved, though used in Latin by Cicero.” Meaning “learning and taste, the intellectual side of civilization” is by 1805; the closely related sense of “collective customs and achievements of a people, a particular form of collective intellectual development” is by 1867.”[3]

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[1] – Leerssen, Joep. “The Rise of Philology: The Comparative Method, the Historicist Turn and the Surreptitious Influence of Giambattista Vico.” The Making of the Humanities: Volume II: From Early Modern to Modern Disciplines, edited by Rens Bod et al., Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2012, pp. 23–36. JSTOR, Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.

[2] – Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.

[3] – Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.

[4] – Accessed 10 Nov. 2020.

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