Walker Percy Wednesday 177



What happens when the functional method of the sciences is applied to cultural phenomena? Does culture lend itself to such an understanding? If there are difficulties in the cultural sciences, are the difficulties due to the complexity of the material, as is often alleged, or are the difficulties inherently methodological?

Let us keep in mind what the scientific method does and what culture is. The scientific method seeks to arrive at regularities of two sorts, those which separate according to differences and those which unite according to functional similarities, the classificatory and the functional. Cassirer describes the totality of scientific knowledge as a complex of overlapping functions. Biologists who claim that biological laws like the law of allometry and Mendel’s rules are different from mechanical laws nevertheless insist on the unity of scientific knowledge. Franz Boas was frank to set forth the ultimate objective of anthropology as the understanding of culture as a dynamic and lawful process. The steadfast conviction behind the scientific method, whatever its subject matter, is that “every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner exemplifying general principles.”

Culture, in its most characteristic moments, is not a catalogue of artifacts or responses to an environment but is rather the ensemble of all the modes of assertory activity. Culture has been defined as all human inheritance, material as well as spiritual. As such it would include hoes, baskets, manuscripts, and monuments, as well as the living language and art of the current culture. If we consider culture in a broader, yet more exact sense-the sense in which Cassirer considered it-we will see it as the totality of the different ways in which the human spirit construes the world and asserts its knowledge and belief. These are the “symbolic forms”: language, myth, art, religion, science. Cassirer’s contribution has been described as the first philosophy of culture. The major symbolic forms of Cassirer’s long work, The Philosophy of the Symbolic Forms, provide a convenient frame of reference for the assertory phenomena of culture and I shall use them as such and without endorsing the Kantian mold in which they are cast.

If we examine Cassirer’s symbolic forms, we shall discover that each is, in its moment of actualization, an assertion. The major cultural forms which Cassirer treats in his long work-and the phenomena which we shall examine from the perspective of the scientific method-are myth, language, and science. Now an ethnologist can list any number of items which are the proper subject matter of his science and which are not assertions. A linguist may indeed spend his entire life compiling a dictionary of Kwakiutl without ever dealing with an assertion as such, as the phenomenon under investigation. But the fact remains that language, when it is spoken, is a tissue of assertions. Religion is not a museum of cult objects but a living tissue of beliefs, professions, avowals. The central act of myth and religion is the act of belief or worship. There is no such thing as an isolated word in speech; it is only to be found in dictionaries. The heart of science is not the paraphernalia of the laboratory; it is the method, the hunch, the theory, the formula. The art work is not the paint on the canvas or the print on the page; it is the moment of creation by the artist and the moment of understanding by the viewer.

But suppose this is true, suppose that cultural activity is mainly assertory activity. Does it follow that culture is placed beyond the reach of objective knowledge in general and the scientific method in particular? Certainly an assertion is a real event in the world albeit not a space-time event; it is also a natural, not a supernatural, event. People make assertions and we observe them do so. We can hear a man speak, read a formula, understand a painting. Then, if these various assertions are real happenings, phenomena in the world, is there any reason why they should be exempt from the searching gaze of science? Clearly not. And specifically, the functional method we have described should be used as long as it is useful. It has been so applied to culture and with great energy and resourcefulness.

The question which must be raised is not whether the scientific method should or should not be applied to culture. The question is rather whether its application has not already issued in an antinomy which compromises the usefulness of the method. If this is the case, two further questions must be asked. What is the source of the antinomy? And, how may the method be modified so that it may yield valid and fruitful conclusions when it is applied to culture?

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