Ancient Voices and Cultural (Meta-)Theory

Presented by: Alexander Forte

When: 9:15 – 10:15 am Section 3: Hermeneutics and Tools; Panel 5, 5A


As we consider what is necessary for a field of “Comparative Global Humanities,” I will offer an ethically oriented analysis of the concept of “culture” using two ritual texts from the ancient world. First, how should we account for the presence of an Indo-Iranian god of fire in a ritual text from the Hittite capital Hattusa in north-central Anatolia? Second, how might we understand an ancient Greek inscription that suggests that a priest of the Eleusinian mysteries speaks with the voice of his legendary ancestor? What model(s) of “culture” best account for these texts?

In his later works, Ludwig Wittgenstein advanced a therapeutic vision of philosophy, the goal of which is to solve problems: “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.’” (PI 123); “What is your aim in philosophy? – To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” (PI 309) One might apply these dicta to conceptual analysis in the following way: traditional methods of thinking and speaking about concepts (such as “mind,” “health,” and “virtue”) sneakily limit our perspective on those very same concepts. The therapeutic act on this account would be to show that what has been assumed to be self-evident or natural (the notion of a given concept as “natural kind”) is sometimes idiosyncratic and potentially deceptive. [1] After unveiling a given concept, one can choose to think of it in the same way or differently. The humanistic bonus of this unveiling, choice aside, is a state of self-awareness about one’s own thinking, yet this is still secondary to the communal boon of providing others with the same choice and opportunity for reflection. There are many flies in the same bottle. [2]

We generally suppose that we have an intuitive grasp of what “culture” means based on our lived experience, yet the concept, as pure abstraction, is difficult to define. This difficulty becomes evident when one considers the relationship between “nature” and its long-supposed opposite “culture.” If all human beings have cultures, then is culture natural? If different cultures conceptualize nature differently, is nature cultural? My first question, in particular the phrase “have cultures,” reveals one way in which we simplify, though language and thought, the concept of “culture” to discuss it in a manageable way: we think of “culture” as a thing. Whether one prefers to call this process reification, ontological metaphor, or conceptual metonymy, the result is the same: “culture” is something we can possess, pass down, or even appropriate. It is an object. If one questions culture’s conceptualization as object, then “possession,” “tradition,” or “appropriation” of culture make less sense.

However, if we overtly conceptualize and discuss “culture” as a dynamic process of human interaction rather than as an object, different nuances emerge: “possession” is replaced by “performing (or embodying),” “tradition” is replaced by “replicating (or reperforming)” and “appropriation” is replaced by “imitating (or impersonating).” To explore these alternative models, I will turn to recent work in enactivist cognitive science and social cognition, showing how ancient texts and contemporary theories can be mutually enriched through juxtaposition.

  1. The idea of a concept’s idiosyncrasy has overlap with historicist approaches despite Wittgenstein’s own aversion to historical scholarship.
  2. A philosopher is also a fly.