Cultural Relativity

written by Dr. Thomas Howe

In preparation for an upcoming class on the philosophy of hermeneutics, I was reviewing and updating my notes. One of the issues dealt with early in the notes is the significance of culture and cultural studies on our understanding of how to interpret the world. What struck me and motivated me to attempt to write a blog post was the pervasiveness of self-defeating claims made by those who are supposed to be experts in cultural studies. Unfortunately, it seems that they are not also experts in philosophy or logic.

Pervasiveness of Cultural Studies 

Walter Kaiser identifies an issued in hermeneutics as the problem of contextualization. Contextualization is question of how an interpreter can make a distinction between what in the biblical text is culturally bound and what is universally applicable. It may at first seem easy to distinguish between descriptions in narrative as bound to the time and place of the events. We probably do not take Jesus’ command to the disciples to go into the city and loose a donkey and bring it to Him as a command that every Christian should obey, somehow. But what about Paul’s command in 1 Cor. 14:34 that women keep silent in the church? Is that a command that was relevant only to the culture of Paul’s day, or is this a command that applies universally to all Christian women in every church today? In an effort to dealt with contextualization, many scholars have begun to discuss what constitutes a culture and what belongs to cultures.

Kaiser goes on to say, “Recently, Charles Taber has also raised the question of whether one’s hermeneutical stance is not part and parcel of the cultural heritage each received.”1 In other words, is the interpreter’s understanding of the text the product of his own culture? This question is partly due to the influence of Structuralism and such particular structural applications as the Sociology of Knowledge perspective. According to Doyle McCarthy, “The sociology of knowledge has occupied a preeminent (if sometimes marginal) place in the social sciences, for its core texts elucidate sociology’s paramount claim that society is constitutive of human being.”2 Such assertions serve to demonstrate that cultural studies is perceived to transcend and permeate all disciplines. This is also indicated in the opening declaration of a recent book called Cultural Semiosis: Tracing the Signifier: “Cultural Studies has come of age, and its reach is wide. The study of the humanities can no longer divide itself into philosophy, literature, history, and social theory, expecting all the while to maintain intellectual and disciplinary autonomy. Cultural studies provides links for the philosophical, the literary, the historical, the social theoretical, and much more.”3 Why is Cultural Study perceived to transcend and permeate all these other disciplines? Its significance is a result of the contemporary understanding of the nature of culture. What, then, is culture?

The Question of the Nature of Culture 

Consider this definition from a standard introduction to Sociology: “Beliefs, on the other hand, refer to conclusions that are not backed up by sufficient empirical support to be seen as unequivocally true.”4 The author is attempting to introduce the idea of “culture” by making a distinction between various components: Material and Nonmaterial Culture; Knowledge and Beliefs; Values and Norms, etc. The author distinguishes between knowledge and belief with the definition above, and with the following definition of “knowledge.” He says, “Knowledge refers to those conclusions based on some measure of empirical evidence.”5 So, knowledge is empirically based, and by implication is true, and beliefs are not empirically based, and he asserts that beliefs cannot be held to be unequivocally true. Unfortunately for this author, his description is not empirically based. What empirical evidence can there be for the claim that knowledge is based on some measure of empirical evidence? One would have to know, non-empirically, what qualifies as empirical evidence for knowledge.

Another text asserts, “In this book . . . ‘reality’ and ‘knowledges’ are discussed in process terms: reality and knowledges are reciprocally and socially generated. This is no less true of the social worlds we inhabit than of the selves we possess: both exist as real for us; both our worlds and our selves are spun from knowledges that render them real and meaningful. Accordingly, knowledge refers to any and every set of ideas accepted by one or another social group or society of people, ideas pertaining to what they accept as real.”6 Is culture a force that dictates to the members of a culture what is to be accepted as true, what is to be accepted as knowledge, etc.? If reality and knowledges are reciprocally and socially generated, then this author’s knowledge about the reality and knowledge of reality and knowledges is only socially generated and is therefore not universally true. How could this author know what are the ideas accepted by a social group since his own reality and knowledge is generated by how own social group? Yet he makes these claims as if they are generated by his own social group but are universally applicable to all social groups.

Culturally Determined Values and Morals 

Another book asserts, “Culture is not all that easy to define. In its broadest sense, it usually means the patterned way people do things together. . . . Thus culture designates the unique ways a given group of people view and do things in a particular period of time, including their values, manners, morals, expressions, and accomplishments.”7 This particular author goes on to equate values, morals, and tastes as equally culturally determined: “While there are certain basic needs common to most groups of people, it is surprising how cultures vary and differ from each other. In the area of foods, for example, non-Westerners are often horrified to think that Westerners eat fermented milk (cheese), while some Westerners are scandalized when they realize that Koreans eat pickled cabbage, Eskimos eat pungent walrus meat, and the Chinese eat fermented duck eggs. One man’s meat, as they say, is another man’s poison — but that’s culture for you.”8 This author is using the differences in taste to characterize the nature of culture. But he has already said culture designates the unique ways a group of people live, including their values and morals as well as tastes. If “that’s culture,” then it seems as if this author is asserting that values and morals are as culturally determined as taste. We might not be too surprised at such a thought in our modern times except for the fact that this is an Evangelical Christian author. Perhaps he is not using the term ‘values’ in a broad sense, but how should one take the reference to morals? Are morals culturally determined? I suspect this author would not want the reader to think he is advocation moral relativity, but ought one to expect a less ambiguous statement in a book on hermeneutics?

Culturally Determined Knowledge 

Not only are values and morals believed to be culturally determined, but the prevailing view today is that knowledge itself is culturally determined: “Today, as I argue here, knowledge is best conceived and studied as culture, and various types of social knowledges communicate and signal social meaning — such as meanings about power and pleasure, beauty and death, goodness and danger. As powerful cultural forms, knowledges also constitute meanings and create entirely new objects and social practices.”9 These definitions are fairly standard in texts on sociology and culture, and the fact that this author refers to “knowledges” indicates that he is referring to different ways of knowing. Do cultures determine the way the members of a culture know? Is what knowledge is and how knowledge is gained and justified different from culture to culture? And if this is the case, how could anyone from one culture know that those of another culture know differently?

Another text asserts, “What is culture? Here is a simple but good definition: culture is everything we think, believe, do, and have as members of society.”10 This definition does not seem to be a problem, until the author goes on to explain the characteristics of culture. Interestingly, the text does not attempt to demonstrate that these characteristics are true. Rather, it assumes that the reader knows that these assertions are true. First, the author asserts that “Culture is learned.11 The author asserts, “We are socialized into the values, beliefs, and rules of our society . . . because culture is a learned process, the content of various cultures can and does vary greatly.”12 Remember, the definition of culture is “everything we think, believe, do, and have as members of society.” Now, if culture includes everything, and culture is learned, it follows that everything is learned. This, of course, implies that there is no “human nature” that is a constant throughout all cultures, and consequently no knowledge that transcends culture, except, of course, the author’s claims about culture. Apparently his claims about culture are to be accepted as universally true and applicable to all cultures. From where did this author acquire such knowledge about all other cultures? Do not his assertions imply that there is something universal, something that transcends all cultures, that enables him to know what must be the case about all cultures? If there is such a universal something, then doesn’t this invalidate his claims about culture?

Transmission of Culture 

Another characteristic that the author identifies is that “Culture is transmitted.”13 By “transmitted,” the author means that culture is passed on from one generation to the next by what he calls “the symbolism of language.”14 In other words, culture — that includes everything we think, believe, do, and have — is not transmitted from generation genetically or spiritually. Nor is there any common human nature that is passed on to the new “humans,” at least not a common human nature that is the basis of anything we think, believe, do, and have. Rather, culture is transmitted by way of the symbolism of language. The significance of this fact is brought out by the author’s explanation:

Another way of getting at the importance of language is through its relation to perception. The categories and distinctions that are part of our language introduce perceptual distortion. That is, they act as a filter between us and the world we perceive. Eskimos see and name many more types of snow than we do. One Philippine tribe, the Hanunoo, has more than 1,800 distinct species labels for the plants in its environment, while Western scientists class them into less than 1,300. Thus, the categories and models we use that determine what we see and name are largely learned and largely cultural.15

How does this author come to know that the categories and distinctions that are part of our language “introduce perceptual distortion”? Would not he need to know the undistorted perception in order to identify the distortions? Also, it has been demonstrated that Eskimos do not name many more types of snow than we do, but how could he know this if his own language introduces distortion into his own perception? His final statement may alleviate for him the self-referential problem, but not much. He leaves the reader to attempt to figure out how much qualifies as “largely.”

Culture and Language 

The connection between the nature of culture and the nature of language is the link that directs theorists to speak of cultures in relativist terms. One text asserts, “Language does far more than enable people to communicate with others. The very nature of language, it has been argued, structures the way we perceive the world.”16 Such statements as these cannot be made except on the basis of an unstructured, direct perception of the world. One text, dealing with culture and language in terms of cultural models asserts, “A cultural model is a construction of reality that is created, shared, and transmitted by members of a group. . . . Because cultural models are shared and accepted, they are assumed by members to be natural, logical, necessary, and legitimate . . . language and language use express, reinforce, and thus perpetuate underlying cultural models.”17 The cultural and philosophical influences that have generated these approaches would involve an entire semester of study. Strangely enough, that is what I hope to do in the class of Philosophy of Hermeneutics.

  1. Kaiser, “Issues in Contemporary Hermeneutics,” 48.
  2. E. Doyle McCarthy, Knowledge as Culture: The New Sociology of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1996), 1 (emphasis in original).
  3. Hugh J. Silverman, “Introduction,” in Cultural Semiosis: Tracing the Signifier, ed. Hugh J. Silverman (New York: Routledge, 1998), 1.
  4. Norman Goodman, Introduction to Sociology (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 32.
  5. Ibid.
  6. McCarthy, Knowledge as Culture, 2.
  7. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Obeying the Word: The Cultural Use of the Bible,” in An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 174.
  8. Ibid.
  9. McCarthy, Knowledge as Culture, 1.
  10. Robert Hagedorn, Sociology (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, 1983), 63. Emphasis in original.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 64.
  16. Goodman, Introduction to Sociology, 35.
  17. Nancy Bonvillain, Language, Culture, and Communication, 2d ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997), 2.

Download Your FREE eBook!

Learn how studying at SES will be helpful in your Ministry. You will learn why:
  • Reading Books and Listening to Talks is Not Enough
  • Not All Apologetics Methods Are Created Equally
  • A Degree is More Than a Piece of Paper

Follow Why Do You Believe by E-mail

Subscribe to follow this blog and receive email notifications of new posts.