Philosophy of Culture

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Philosophy of Culture


(in German, Kulturphilosophie), a branch of philosophy that studies the essence and meaning of culture. The term was first used in the early 19th century by the German romanticist A. Müller. Philosophy of culture must be distinguished both from philosophy of history—inasmuch as the process by which mankind creates culture does not match the pace of historical evolution—and from sociology of culture, which is the study of culture within a given system of social relations.

Philosophy of culture was first recognized as a field of inquiry by the Sophists, who formulated the antinomy of the natural and the moral (the latter to be identified with culture): thus, according to Hippias, such human institutions as customs and laws “often force us to go against nature” (as quoted by T. Gomperz in Grecheskie mysliteli, vol. 1, St. Petersburg, 1913, p. 346). The opposition between the natural and the moral was further developed by the Cynics (for example, Diogenes of Sinope and Antisthenes), who reached the conclusion that what was needed was a return to nature—that is, to the simplicity of primitive human existence. The Cynics can thus be seen as among the earliest critics of culture. Their criticism, directed against the artificial and depraved state of society, was adopted in a modified form by the Stoics; it subsequently became an integral element of the spiritual atmosphere of early Christian social thought and its “theology of culture.”

In modern times, questions of philosophy of culture and cultural criticism have been explored in particular by G. Vico, J.-J. Rousseau, F. Schiller (with his concept of “naive” and “sentimental” poetry as the two phases of cultural development), J. G. Herder, and the romanticists of Jena (with their idea of the uniqueness of individual national cultures and their concept of distinct historical stages of cultural development). Philosophy of culture—narrowly defined as a philosophical conception of the various stages of evolving human culture—can be said to date back to F. Nietzsche and in part to the Russian Slavophiles. The central issue was now the opposition between culture as an organic whole and civilization, regarded as the manifestation of a mechanical and utilitarian relationship to life. This view was shared by G. Simmel, O. Spengler, L. Klages, H. Keyserling, J. Ortega y Gasset, and other followers of the school of Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life), as well as by the Russians K. N. Leon’tev, N. Ia. Danilevskii, and N. A. Berdiaev. Dani-levskii and Spengler furthermore conceived of individual cultures, whether national or historical, as being absolutely locked into themselves and mutually impermeable; a corollary of this view was the denial of the unity of human culture. A. Toynbee, who sought to rise above relativism and skepticism in his interpretation of culture, brought about a revival of Augustine’s religious and philosophical ideas. Finally, S. L. Frank represented culture and civilization as two distinct, contemporaneous, and necessary levels in the development of culture.

From the Marxist point of view, historical materialism provides the frame of reference for all questions pertaining to culture, such as the relationship between society and nature, the successive development of various forms of social consciousness, and the correlation between nonmaterial and material production. According to Marxism, culture is the historically determined level of social and human development. Being common to all mankind, on the one hand, culture is a class phenomenon; on the other hand, socioeconomic changes result in the formation of new types of cultures. At the same time, each new culture assimilates and elaborates the achievements of the preceding one.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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