Thursday, August 2, 2012

10. Culture is not essential

We are inclined to put things and people into conceptual boxes, in categorization. That yields categorial identity: To what does a person or a group ‘belong’. People are European or Dutch. That thinking in terms of boxes is useful, up to a point, but next we have a strong inclination to accord an essence to the box. To ‘belong to’ the box one must have certain characteristics, and everyone in the box has them. There can be no doubt whether or not something belongs the category. You are inside or outside. You are a Dutchman or not. That essentialization of cultural identity is a source of imperialism and nationalism that blocks tolerance of immigrants and integration of states because that requires mixed bags of culture.

We have the inclination to think in boxes on the basis of a fundamental metaphor that we do not see as a metaphor: the idea that a concept is like a container of objects. That metaphor arises from our dealings with things in the world, in a struggle for survival in evolution, which has been imprinted on our thought. A chair is in one room or another, never in two at the same time, and it does not change when we carry it from one room to another. Ambiguity concerning inside and outside is as uncomfortable, confusing or even threatening as a home with holes in the roof, or the sabre-toothed tiger that is half inside and half outside the house, or being half inside and half outside your car. However, for concepts and identities that thinking does not apply. If you move a word from one sentence to another its meaning changes. One situation calls forth another aspect of identity than another. One can at the same time have several identities.

Essences are often difficult to determine because they do not exist. What is the essence of a chair? Once I saw a photo in the newspaper of someone sitting in a stuffed cow, saying: ‘See me sitting in my cow’. For natural kinds, such as species, one can say that their genes form their essence, but different specimens of the species have different configurations from their gene pool.

Personal identity is derived from biography, depending on what one has come across along one’s life path, and on expectations and plans one may have. One belongs to different groups, is in different boxes, at the same time. If those boxes had essences one would have a collection of essences, which is difficult to reconcile with the notion of an essence. Your identity flies off in all directions. What aspect of identity counts depends on the situation. In church you belong to one community, and when getting a passport to another.

Perhaps the cultural identity of a person is a collection of positions in networks that intersect in it.

1 comment:

  1. What if... we abolish Holland? Or Belgium or Europe. The void we are creating then, would it be a positive development with new possibilities and without politicians hesitating what to do? Or would everything still be the same. Europe could become a rich refuge for the world. But at the same time we still have the same box/void as we have right now.