May 1, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science, culture and cultural differences

Athene Donald recently published a thought-provoking blog post on culture and science. This post was itself motivated by discussions she has had with the Science Advisory Council for the Department of Culture, Media and Sports and a question posed by a member of this advisory council, Geoff Crossick, namely: ‘What do you mean by science?’ Implicitly Athene’s post asks: ‘What do you mean by culture?’ Both questions reflect a divide between science and culture which Athene wants to bridge, indeed make disappear.

She speculates that one of the reasons why, at least in English, this divide exists is the language we speak. For a variety of historical and cultural reasons, English, unlike German for example, has no word that covers science and culture. To be more precise, English has no word that can be used neutrally to refer to both the (natural) sciences and the arts and humanities. In German, the word Wissenschaft conveys a broad sense of what I’d call systematic knowledge-gathering which is the foundation for a large variety of Wissenschaften (for a list, see here).

These reflections on science, culture and language made me curious and I tried to dig a bit deeper to see whether there are not only ‘two cultures’, but also cultural differences in how we talk about culture and science in various languages (and I have only chosen those that I speak).

To do this I took a rather slap-dash approach. I looked at the English, French and German Wikipedia entries for ‘culture’. I see these entries as shifting sediments of collective cultural knowledge (and they shifted while I looked!) that one can sift through. I wanted to find out whether science is mentioned in these entries and in what way. I only scrutinised the very beginnings of these three long entries, as ordinary readers will gain their first impressions of the meaning of culture from the first paragraph or so. (And also because things would otherwise have become much too complicated – the topic of ‘culture’ is endless)

Culture in English

Let’s start with the English entry. It begins with a very traditional definition of culture by E.B. Tylor, who defined this phenomenon at the end of the 19th century as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” So if culture includes ‘knowledge’, it includes by definition knowledge derived through scientific means and methods. But the entry doesn’t say that explicitly. This description is followed by a dictionary definition taken from the Cambridge English Dictionary. It explains that culture is “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.” Here we move from the universal to the particular and with it away from an inclusive definition of culture that could embrace science.

Kultur in German

Let’s now look at the German entry. The entry first relates the etymology of ‘Kultur’ which comes from Latin cultura and relates mainly to agri-culture but is also used more broadly to refer to what humans can create, shape and change through their own labour, as opposed to what exists ready-made in nature. The entry goes on to say that cultural creations are shape-giving transformations of a given material, as in technology and the creative arts, but they also include mental creations such as music, languages​​, ethics, religion, law, economics and science. So science is in there as Wissenschaft, a word that one can vaguely translate as ‘knowledge-ship’ [like friend-ship] and ‘knowledge-creation’. The entry goes on to say that the concept of culture has changed and changed again over time depending on historical, political, intellectual and cultural conditions. It is indeed a bit of a shape-shifter.

Culture in French

And so we come to the French entry. It changed between the day I looked at it on the 28th and the 29th. On the 29th it started with philosophical conceptions of culture. On the 28th a long sociological section was added at the start. I’ll stay with the 28th of April version.

The entry says that in philosophy the word culture refers to what is different to nature, that is, what is acquired rather than innate. The entry goes on to stress that for a long time culture was seen as a uniquely human attribute but that research has also found it in primates. Then the entry segues into sociology and talks about culture as an attribute of a particular group. This is followed by a definition of culture provided by UNESCO and I quote the French first: « Dans son sens le plus large, la culture peut aujourd’hui être considérée comme l’ensemble des traits distinctifs, spirituels , matériels, intellectuels et affectifs, qui caractérisent une société ou un groupe social. Elle englobe, outre les arts, les lettres et les sciences, les modes de vie, les droits fondamentaux de l’être humain, les systèmes de valeurs, les traditions et les croyances. » As one can see, ‘les sciences’ are included.

When I followed the link to the source of this definition, I found that it stems from the Mexico City Declaration on Cultural Policies (World Conference on Cultural Policies Mexico City, 26 July – 6 August 1982). However, in the English version science does not feature! It says: ‘in its widest sense, culture may now be said to be the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and belief”. When investigating a bit further, it turns out that UNESCO does make reference to scientists and scientific achievements in some of its documents relating to culture, but does not include science in the core definition of culture.

After that little diversion, let’s just go back to the beginning of the French culture entry which goes on to make a distinction between individual and collective culture and points out that people normally don’t associate science with an individual’s ‘culture’ or Bildung, while science was however part of the original and broader meaning of ‘culture’. [That sentence has now moved down, though].

So what does this tell us?

This tells us (perhaps) that there are some cultural differences in how people (writing Wikipedia entries) collectively write about culture. This claim needs further research though (e.g. Tylor is mentioned in the English and German entry but not the French; Kant is mentioned in the German entry, but also Bourdieu, and Saussure; while Kant is not mentioned in the French entry and so on and so forth…).

There are common themes, such pointing out that the word has its lexical roots in agri-culture, highlighted at the beginning of the German entry, but referenced also in the French and English one. A distinction is also commonly made between a wider and a narrower definition of culture, as something universal or something pertaining to a group or even an individual.

There is one difference though between the English and the ‘continental’ entries. The English one doesn’t directly refer to science at the beginning – only to knowledge -, while the German and the French explicitly refer to science as being a component of culture in its wider sense. This seems to confirm Athene’s suspicion that how we talk about culture and science might be culture specific, with English speakers blending science out of culture and, perhaps, French and German ones highlighting it more. However, as the French entry points out, when people talk about a person’s culture or Bildung they generally don’t think that this might also include and that one should value knowledge, appreciation and enjoyment of science – even in French, where the word ‘la/les science(s)’ has as broad a remit as the German Wissenschaft.

Science‘ in French covers, according to Wikipedia, ‘the exact sciences (such as mathematics and theoretical physics; the physico-chemical and experimental sciences (the sciences of nature and matter, such as biology, medicine); and the human sciences concerned with human beings, their history, behaviour, language, the social, the psychological and the political).


This post is of course just a bit of fun. This is not proper Wissenschaft! However, it might show that there are quite a few historical, intellectual cultural and linguistic obstacles to overcome when trying to bridge the culture/science divide. What is important is to talk about these in whatever language you like but also between languages (and not only English, French and German!). It might also be a good idea to take a historical (and cultural) approach to exploring the various practices, meanings and public understandings of science and culture and how they have changed over time in Europe and beyond.

Image: Pixabay

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