Culture Is Symbolic


Conrad Phillip Kottak, Mirror For Humanity: A Concise Introduction To Cultural Anthropology, Fourt Edition, (New York: McGraw-Hill: 2005), hlm 43-44)

Symbolic thought is unique and crucial to humans and to cultural learning. A symbol is something verbal or nonverbal, within a particular language or culture, that comes to stand for something else. Anthropologist Leslie White defined culture as

Dependent upon symbolling . . . . culture consists of tools, implements, utensils, chothing, ornament, institutions, belief, ritual, games, works of art, language, etc. (White 1959, p. 3)

For White, culture originated when our ancestors acquired the ability to use symbols, that is, to originate and bestow meaning on a thing or event, and, correspondingly, to grasp and appreciate such meaning (White 1959, p. 3)

There need bo no obvious, natural, or necessary connection between the symbol and what it symbolizes. The familiar pet that barks is no more naturally a dog than it is a chien, Hund, or mbawa, the words for “dog” in French, German, and Swahili, respectively. Language is one of the distinctive possessions of Homo sapiens. No other animal has developed anything approaching the complexity of language, with its multitude of symbols.

Culture Is Symbolic
Symbols are often linguistic. There are also myriad nonverbal symbols, such as flags, which stand for the various countries, and arches symbolizing a particular hamburger chain. Holy water is a potent symbol in Roman Catholicism. As is true of all symbols, the association between a symbol (water) and what is symbolized (holiness) is arbitrary and conventional. Water is probably not intrinsically holier than milk, blood, or other natural liquids. Nor is holy water chemically different from ordinary water. Holy water is a symbol within Roman Catholicism, which is part of an international culture system. A natural thing has been arbitrarily associated with a particular meaning for Catholics, who share common beliefs and experiences that are based on learning and that are transmitted across the generations.

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have shared the abilities on which culture rests, the abilities to learn, to think symbolically, to manipulate language, and to use tools and other cultural products in organizing their lives and coping with their environments. Every contemporary human population has the ability to use symbols and thus to create and maintain culture. Our nearest relatives—chimpanzees and gorillas—have rudimentary cultural abilities. However, no other animal has elaborated cultural abilities—to learn, to communicate, and to store, process, and use information—to the extent that Homo has.

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