On Culture

A philosopher in pursuing truth has a natural interest in culture.    If our notions are true at all they can be shared by others.   So we seek fertile ground for bearing philosophical fruit together. 

Few writers are as mature and thoughtful as Ralph Waldo Emerson on culture.   In this essay, Emerson puts culture in dialogue with american individualism.    He challenges us to think more essentially about what culture means at both an individual and societal level.   This brings in important considerations for education as well.

These essays refer mostly to "self-culture" which goes pretty deep and isn't accrued simply through travel and books.  It is a quality of character we walk with every day made possible only within a nourishing epistemic environment.    Self-culture involves remaining true to one's deepest commitments in a way that requires recognition of our thoroughly dependent and relational nature.   This means "being true to ourselves" requires moving away from simple self-absorption toward a more fulfilling and responsive engagement with the world.

The essays are below.  However, the main goal of this meetup is to open a creative space for sharing our own reflections.  Also in this sprit, feel free to comment below.

ESSAY: Self- Reliance 

ESSAY: Culture

If you have time, try and read both.   If time for only one, choose Self-Reliance.


This audio of Self-Reliance is recorded by one of my favorite Librivox readers: 

http://ia600404.us.archive.org/23/items/essaysfirstseries_1207_librivox/essaysfirstseries_02_emerson_64kb.mp3


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  • Brian

    Thanks for the discussion. I'm impressed such a large group held together so well.

    April 27

  • Ceilia A.

    Hi everyone! So I am new to these meetings and just wanted to double check if there was somewhere in particular we go after arriving at Eva's cafe? Thanks for your help! I have been loving everyone's comments on these two essays so far.

    April 26

    • Brian

      Hi Rachel, you'll easily find us at the two big tables in the way back. Looking forward to meeting everyone!

      April 26

    • Ceilia A.

      Thanks Brian. See you soon!

      1 · April 26

  • Carol

    I'm gonna try to get through the Self-Reliance but especially like the Essay on Culture. I love this statement... "Culture redresses his balance, puts him among his equals and superiors, revives the delicious sense of sympathy, and warns him of the dangers of solitude and repulsion."

    1 · April 26

    • Brian

      Excellent. Maybe try the hour long audio I linked if that helps with time

      April 26

  • mariann

    Nietzsche was indebted to Emerson- and it has been verified by his own copies of his work in German, in which his marginalia is extremely enthusiastic. I cannot read these essays without thinking that Nietzsche basically lifted his entire philosophy.

    1 · April 24, 2014

    • mariann

      Oh! Apparently Emerson was the first to say "God is dead" or "God -was-." Not Sartre, not Nietzsche. Freaking cool.

      April 26

    • Brian

      Divinity school address, I think

      April 26

  • jerryvp

    From a first reading of each, the Culture essay seems to be missing the inspired coherence I expect of Emerson. In relation to Self Reliance it might be worth checking the etymology of "a calling." A dictum I adopted long ago is that a calling is the most important work you can do which only you can do.

    1 · April 25, 2014

    • jerryvp

      To give credit where it is due the quote is from the prolific Gary North, as best I remember it thirty years later: "Your calling is the most important work you can do which you can do better than anyone else."

      April 26

  • Rohit

    Hi, I would like to attend if any other spots open up or the quota is expanded out. Let me know, thanks!

    1 · April 25, 2014

  • Rey L.

    we are all event hosts. what does that say about our culture? ;)

    2 · April 25, 2014

    • Brian

      Good question. At minimum it suggests that how we receive one another is an aspect of our work each as sovereigns.

      April 25, 2014

  • Brian

    What does Self-Reliance have to do with culture? Emerson draws out the following: " If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh to-day? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and if we follow the truth it will bring us out safe at last.—But so may you give these friends pain. Yes, but I cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility. Besides, all persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region of absolute truth; then will they justify me and do the same thing."

    1 · April 24, 2014

    • Josefina

      this essay speaks to me.

      1 · April 24, 2014

  • Brian

    What an amazing essay. "The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded?"

    April 24, 2014

  • Naomi

    Dangit, I just got called in to work on this day and now I cannot attend. I enjoyed reading the essays! This should be a good discussion.

    April 22, 2014

  • Ann

    Mike B. - I like where you're headed with the useful definition of culture - good observation. Looking forward to discussing Saturday.

    1 · April 20, 2014

  • Ann

    So I come back from the east coast with 6 days to spare and the group is full - I guess I'll be sitting at the bad table. LoL.

    April 20, 2014

  • Brian

    I'm adding a second essay: SELF RELIANCE

    April 4, 2014

  • Mike B.

    After two minutes' thought, I wonder if it's possible to address "culture" independent of it's many connotations. Precisely because culture is so closely related to values, I cannot imagine a value-neutral definition of culture. I need to think: Does there exist a useful definition of culture?

    2 · March 25, 2014

    • Brian

      That's a great point. Maybe culture is a great discussion topic for precisely that reason. In doing so, we cross-pollinate while also learning what's felt as uniquely important as conditions for growth.

      March 25, 2014

    • eric

      Even though Saussure cautions against starting with a definition of words...Mike asked for it! :-)

      "Through the functioning of the receptive and co-ordinating faculties, impressions that are perceptibly the same for all are made
      on the minds of speakers. How can that social [cultural] product be pictured in such a way that language will stand apart from everything else? If we could embrace the sum of word-images stored in the minds of all individuals, we could identify the social [cultural] bond that constitutes language. It is a storehouse filled by the members of a given community through their active use of speaking, a grammatical system [of meaning and values] that has a potential existence in each brain, or, more specifically, in the brains of a group of individuals. For language is not complete in any speaker; it exists perfectly only within a collectivity."

      That collectivity is culture.

      1 · March 26, 2014

  • Derwin

    by what general definition of "culture" are we going by here?

    March 24, 2014

    • Brian

      The essay has mostly to do with self-culture which goes pretty deep and isn't accrued simply through travel and books. It is a quality of character we walk with every day which is made possible only within a nourishing epistemic environment. Note - I kept the write-up description intentionally light for this topic. But I'll include this definition above.

      March 24, 2014

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