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Humans as Homo Culturus

Human beings are not only speaking animals but users of different Cultural Symbols. Language needs to be understood as the basis of these Cultural Symbols. Credit: Flickr/ Thomas Hawk.

June 25, 2021

The concept of Homo Culturus is missing in the social sciences. Economists and those who have a materialist view have described Man as Homo Oeconomicus, political scientists have labeled him/her as Homo Politicus and sociologists see the human being as a social being or Homo Sociologicus. Because of the increasing use of numbers today, some talk about Homo Numericus. Despite their great interest in the study of culture, however, contemporary anthropologists have not used terms related to culture to describe Man as first of all a Homo Culturus. Positivist epistemology has prevailed in the social sciences. It claims that sensory experience is the bedrock of knowledge. Leading anthropologists are witness to the impact of that epistemology. In his 1973 book The Concept of Culture Leslie White mentions that Ralph Linton, Radcliffe-Brown and others considered culture anabstraction or something that does not exist or that designates no concrete reality. Positivist social scientists would hardly show great interest in culture as a non sensory and ambiguous phenomenon.

Positivism’s persistent impact

The above reservations about culture are also found among “the founding fathers” of Western sociology. The pre-1960 theorists of culture like Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Parsons, Mills and others are known to have had a “weak program” about culture in their published works. That is, they gaveculture minor importance. Furthermore, the Birmingham School, Bourdieu and Foucault have not done better: they too have adopted a “weak program” for the study of culture. The “weak program” trend still dominates sociological studies of culture today even though the “strong program”of cultural sociology (which gives culture great importance) is gaining growing attention since the birth of the “cultural turn” in the late 1990s.

The search for Homo Culturus

My research has incidentally led me to have a long-standing affinity with the study of culture. My intellectual curiosity in the 1990s motivated me to try to work out a theoretical framework which would help understand and explain people’s behaviors and the dynamics of human societies. In his 2014 book The Art of Social Theory sociologist Richard Swedberg argues that sociological theorizing is not in good standing. I felt I should take the risk in the theorizing adventure. I began by raising this methodological question: which should be the starting point for exploring the puzzle of the forces that lie behind human behaviors and the dynamics of societies? I thought I should start first by identifying the special traits which distinguish the human species from other species. I felt that in seeking to identify those traits, I should start my research at square one. In pursuit of potential distinctive human traits I left no stone unturned to finally discover what I was looking for: Cultural Symbols (CS), that is, language, thought, knowledge, religion, laws, myths, cultural values and norms. The study of CS thus appears to be fundamental for the understanding and explanation of human behaviors and societal phenomena. My theorizing has led me to look at language as the compelling force behind the birth of CS: language is the “mother” of CS. That is, the human being is not only a speaking animal as described by ancient philosophers and social thinkers, but she/he is also a great user of CS. As such, my version of the cogito ergo sum would state: I use language, therefore, I am human.

These theoretical assumptions have led to field observations which strongly reinforce the concept of Homo Culturus. I have found four distinct human featureswhich may explain why humans are Homo Culturus individuals.

Basic observations on human distinctiveness

The centrality of the CS in human identity may be considered new in contemporary social sciences, as outlined before. My conceptualization of CS at the core of human identities (Homo Culturus) was reached as follows:

1) The growth and maturation process of the human body is slow compared with that of most other living beings. For instance, on average human babies start walking at the age of one year, while animal babies may walk right away or within a few hours or days after their birth.

2) Humans have a longer life span than most animals.

3) The human race has an uncontested dominant role on the planet.

4) Humans are privileged by CS.

5) The human identity is made up of two parts: the body and CS.  It is a bi-dimensional identitywhich is often referred to in religions and philosophy as a dual identity made up of body and soul.

Insights offered by CS

Humans grow and mature slowly on both the body and the CS fronts. So humans are bi-dimensional in their overall development. In contrast, the growth and maturation of non-human species are largely uni-dimensional (body-only) because of their lack of CS in the broad and sophisticated human sense. The need to progress on two levels is seen to be behind the slow body growth and maturation of humans. That is, the process of the human body’s growth and maturation is slowed down, so to speak, because humans are involved in a second process of growth and maturation represented by CS.

CS should contribute to answer the puzzle inscribed on the cover of the Special Issue of Scientific American (September 2018) : “Humans: Why we are unlike any other species on the planet.” As pointed out above, humans are distinctive  from other species by virtue of CS. Thus, CS is what makes them unlike other species. The following drawing illustrates why the human being is a Homo Culturus.

Homo Culturus and the parsimony principle

It has just been illustrated that CS can explain the four distinctive human features. CS can explain countless further specific behaviors of human individuals and groups as well as the variety of the dynamics of societies and civilizations. Thus, CS is compatible with thePrinciple of Parsimony: the use of the lowest possible number of variables in order to explain the maximum possible number of phenomena.

Mahmoud Dhaouadi, University of Tunis, Tunisia and member of ISA Research Committees on History of Sociology (RC08), Sociology of Religion (RC22) and Language and Society (RC25) <m.thawad43@gmail.com>

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