Against Culture; For Cosmopolitan Wisdom

by Thomas R. Wells

The main job of ‘culture’ in a modern society seems to be shielding people from the demands of morality. In its intellectual role it justifies inequality between citizens. In its national history role it gives citizens a delusional sense of their country’s significance and entitlement, followed by a dangerous sense of grievance when this isn’t sufficiently recognised by the rest of the world. In its identitarian role it deflects demands for justification into mere proclamations of fact: ‘Why do we do this or that awful thing?… Because shut up. It is who we are.’

None of these ideas of culture is worth keeping. We should throw them all out and focus on a different idea of culture as integration in a social world, and of a cultured person as one who can hear and speak to many worlds.


First there is there is the idea of culture as a moral hierarchy between citizens. Individuals are supposed to strive to become better, more civilised people. Which turns out to mean, not better at being good people; not better at making and living up to ethical judgements, such as our obligations to the less fortunate. Rather, it means becoming a connoisseur of certain arcane and unpopular art forms.

Familiarity with opera, for instance, largely functions as a compass for orienting the socio-economic class structure between the civilised and the rest. Most people who attend opera performances do so as a performance of their class identity, not for genuine aesthetic delight. They have at best a superficial aesthetic appreciation of what is going on. This can be seen in their reliance on a handful of classic brands which substitute for independent taste or judgement. See for example the dominance of the odious Wagner, the Manchester United of opera. The best explanation of the popularity of opera among the upper classes is that it happens to be absurdly expensive and difficult to enjoy and therefore functions as a good – difficult to fake – signal of who is in the club.

This idea of culture is sometimes called high culture, which makes its sociological function clearer. Like a 5 star hotel, engagement with culture allows the rich and powerful to exclude the poor from their social circles, and thereby also to remove their voices and interests from moral consideration. But it goes further by converting superior wealth into superior moral status. Money is laundered of its grubby, profane, ordinary origins. A veneer of taste and intellect is painted on to show how unlike the rest of us they are, how deserved their elevated social position. High culture’s function is to separate and rank people into their different kinds, with a convenient empathy gap between them.


The second misuse of the idea of culture seems better at first, since it asserts national historical culture as something that unifies rather than separates citizens. Yet in practise it is a species of magical thinking that drives a dangerous chauvinism.

It is magical thinking because the implicit claim is that living in the same place where people used to think interesting things or paint nice pictures somehow rubs off on you and makes you a superior person. This is the same delusion football fans have when they congratulate themselves for what ‘we’ achieved on the field last night. Or when a painting by the hand of a famous artist is valued at zillions of dollars, however awful it looks, because of its ‘unique narrative’.

It is chauvinist because the intellectual and artistic achievements of national culture are routinely wheeled out to justify a difference in moral status, and hence different rules for different peoples. The European powers – but also others – used this as an explicit justification for imposing imperial rule. As in the case of high culture, civilizational prowess – having a Milton and a Shakespeare and a Magna Carta and so on on their side – was supposed to legitimise the rule of the English. Not the hard fact that they happened to have ships and guns.

In our time we see that asshole nationalist regimes (see previously) are particularly keen on attaching themselves to historical achievements. They are the foundations for a civilizational superiority complex that suppresses internal dissent and justifies acting like an entitled asshole towards weaker neighbours.

The Chinese Communist Party presently provides a particularly extravagant example of this. In living memory it attempted to eliminate all traces of pre-communist Chinese civilisation with dynamite, mass murder and re-education camps. More recently the bankruptcy of its communist ideology led it to appoint itself the guardian and heir to a – suitably edited – legacy of thousands of years of moral and intellectual supremacy over the rest of the world. And what happens when the rest of the world refuses to recognise the inherent superiority of Chinese civilisation – perhaps because of their own delusions of grandeur? We may not enjoy finding out.


The other two misuses of culture use a backwards looking connection to past intellectual achievements to justify moral status hierarchies. The final misuse to note is the voluntary disappearance of the individual into someone else’s value schemes – in the name of authenticity, of all things.

These are people proud of their values because they consider them British, rather than because they have any reason to think they are good values. When asked why they are doing something, they reply with some kind of nonsense, like ‘This is just what we do.’

The basic problem though is still the same. Identitarian culture functions as a shield against moral self-reflection or accountability. Much of the behaviour justified by identitarian culture is unobjectionable. The point is that even where it is objectionable objections can’t be properly raised. Culture here functions as a reason in itself – this is what we do because this is what we do. When you ask a moral question – But why ought one to do that? – you receive a descriptive reply, with a normative twist – this is how things are and therefore how they ought to be.


A better idea of culture retains the sociological approach but focuses on social relationships, not status rankings or identitarian solidarity.

We should think of a culture is as a more or less complete meaning system that complements membership in a group. The group may be as large as Americans, or as small as the set of international test cricketers, as closed as the office you work at or as ad hoc as the LGBT movement. To be culturally integrated is to be able to understand what the people around you are talking about, and to be able to make interventions of your own that others find meaningful.

Thus, to be an American is not only to share a certain political society and be subject to the same institutions, but also to be able to understand each other – even if you vehemently disagree. For example to follow the jokes in SNL sketches or Southpark and see why they are supposed to be funny because you know what they are referring to and how they are supposed to work.

Someone who is integrated into a group may have worked hard to get there, for example to play cricket exceptionally well, or to speak English fluently. But mere membership of a group is not necessarily impressive. Many of the skills required and prized within a group are of limited value elsewhere. This is why the Wagner attending toff is so unimpressive. He isn’t operating outside his class bubble. He may ‘knows what he likes’, but he lacks a proper, general appreciation of music that would make what he likes of the slightest significance to anyone else. Generally speaking, those who are well integrated but only within a few groups – work and church, say – are in the pitiful position of depending desperately on those groups for their value and their self-understanding. (The precariousness of these identities to the flux of globalisation may partly explain the wave of populism we are enduring.)

In contrast, the truly cultured person is a member of many different groups, and therefore adept at toggling between them and the different views that each provides on the world. This cosmopolitan can see things differently, can see beyond the clichés, because they have too many identities to be trapped by the myth of authenticity. Their experience of many social worlds also tends to create a certain humility, an important dimension of wisdom that distinguishes it from mere cleverness. In particular, humility to recognise that there may be value in something even if you do not (yet) see it, because if you took the time to familiarise yourself with the relevant standards you would come to recognise it too.


It is not that what is counted as culture has no intellectual or aesthetic value. Old temples can be pretty; Confucius had some wise things to say; even opera was an exciting aesthetic innovation at one time (Adam Smith raved about it). The problem is that rather than widening the mind as they are supposed to, these wonderful achievements of mankind are reduced to talismans that small-minded people believe give them the right to sneer at and oppress others.

If someone had a wonderful idea, wrote a great poem, or painted a great picture then that belongs to whoever takes the trouble to appreciate it, wherever in the world they may happen to live. Education systems should not comb through the history of the peoples and warlords who once lived in that area, looking for items to shape into some bullshit story of national becoming to indoctrinate children with. They should comb the world looking for what is worth paying the most attention to and give those to our children.

Migrants are often seen as the enemy of culture, with their foreign values threatening to undermine our way of life. In fact the many identities that migrants have to master reveal them to be far more cultured than those who never travelled outside the bubble they were born into. The fear migrants inspire reveals the cultural poverty of purity, the fragility of a native identity built on authenticity.


Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher at Tilburg University. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher’s Beard.