Culture is everywhere: moral (read: cultural) relativism; social (read: cultural) construction; multiculturalism; cultural identity, cultural diversity, and cultural imperialism; Cultural Studies and culture wars; high culture, mass culture, and “sub altern” culture; the cultures of instant gratification, of poverty, of death, and (aspirationally at least) of life. And so on. One helpful way of understanding postmodernism is that it makes cultures”always in the plural”do the work previously thought to belong to biology, human nature, or reason: ordering experience, validating ideas, grounding value, rendering human life intelligible and meaningful.

Now Adam Kuper, a South African“born and British“educated anthro pologist, seeks to offer a map through the thicket of claims about culture and some narrative of how they came to ensnare us. Though “cultural studies” now chiefly occupy the humanities, Kuper recognizes both that social scientists are seen as the real experts on culture and that much current discussion about culture somehow traces back to their work.

Kuper begins his story engagingly, working primarily from mid“twentieth“century interpretations of eighteenth“and nineteenth“century sources. As he tells it, French Enlightenment thinkers identified “culture” with the process of civilizing humanity, liberating it from religion through greater reliance on universal (and secular) reason. German Romantics rebelled against this, from the desire not so much to preserve religion as to maintain the local folk customs and habits of feelings, with which they identified culture, as against the universalizing and dispassionate reason the French philosophes had found unproblematic. British humanists from Coleridge through Eliot rightly wanted to get beyond the Germans’ sharp dichotomy, fearing it would turn the advocacy of culture into a cult of unreason.

They muddied the waters, however, using “culture” as a name for the vague alternative they posited to bourgeois liberalism. They envisioned culture as the antidote to a world of individuals motivated only by profits, where reason is reduced to commercial and technological instrumentalism, and where a complacent agnosticism allows thought to float at the surface of things, untroubled by what may lie at the depths of the human heart or the larger reality that surrounds us. Of course, it is doubtful any one concept could capture all these thinkers wanted. For them, cultures”now sometimes in the plural”tended to become both valuable and strictly equal in value, universal but also somehow reserved to the social elite.

The sociologist Talcott Parsons conceived social science as a general theory of human action, and wanted to define culture by its place within that theory. He made culture anthropolo gy’s special province (to the consternation of some physical anthropolo gists), but assigned the larger “social system” to sociology and the individual mind to psychology. In the second half of this century American anthropologists broke this boundary, demanding a larger, more central role for culture”and, therein, for themselves. (My experimental undergraduate college featured a social sciences “division,” minus academic departments, under Margaret Mead’s titular direction and shaped by her vision that all the social sciences at least be modeled on and guided by anthropology, and perhaps become versions of it. Once I saw how this worked, I switched my major.)

Though Kuper doesn’t notice, this breakdown was inevitable. For Parsons’ desired division of labor faced another, already in place, that assigned sociologists to study us , while anthropologists were to study them , that is, distant, exotic, primitive peoples. Layering Parsons’ division onto this one would leave no one to study our own culture. As change swept through postwar Western customs, such a gap would have been intolerable.

Increasingly, some anthropologists (and their intellectual allies in social sciences and humanities) insisted that Parsons’ “social system,” as well as the working of the individual’s mind and even the body, were all influenced, shaped, and finally “constructed” by culture”indeed, differently constructed by different cultures. Clifford Geertz, David Schneider, and Marshall Sahlins all argued for this wider role for culture, often with murky reasoning that Kuper effectively criticizes.

Geertz has had the widest influence, especially outside social science, and Kuper’s chapter on him, the best in the book, will be of the widest interest. Kuper shows that Geertz became increasingly influenced by contemporary philosophy and other writings in the humanities, and that the Geertzians’ stronger claims”e.g., that actions, because symbolic, are “texts” and that texts have meaning without reference to anything beyond themselves”are largely unsupported by the field work that established Geertz’s early professional reputation. (Kuper does credit Geertz, however, with returning religion to the cultural center from which other twentieth“century anthropologists had banished it. Geertz came to see culture as consisting in systems of often ritualized meaning. In that context, it became increasingly important to study religion”the seat of ritual”and the social elites who could best interpret religious rituals and meaning systems.)

Geertz claimed that actions are systems of meaning, and therefore irreducibly cultural. Schneider tried to do the same for sex, arguing that sex “expresses” love in a way that is symbolically meaningful and therefore irreducibly cultural. Such contentions are unscientific, of course”based more in (unconvincing) philo sophical argument than anthropo logical data.

Kuper’s most important point here is a simple and familiar, yet devastating, one: if all our concepts, practices, and ways of thought are socially constructed, merely local, and historically specific, then so too must be the concept of culture. But if it is, then the anthropologists’ dogmas”for example, that all peoples have cultures, that all cultures are equal, that culture shapes all else”are themselves only local beliefs, historically contingent, and with no legitimacy beyond what we assign them. In the end, the anthropolo gists’ account leaves us without reason to reject ethnic intolerance. Indeed, it deprives us of any alternative to ethnocentrism. Kuper is keenly aware that in his native land advo cates of apartheid were wont to defend the practice as part of local culture and thereby immune from criticism by outsiders.

Kuper’s complaint is that rather than explaining culture, anthropolo gists today simply use it to explain other things. These are two distinct projects (though wholly compatible with each other), yet recent work neglects the former task. Kuper is a social scientist who sees culture as folkways, customs, and languages, and wants to explain them. He is troubled not just that this work is neglected, but that the tendency to regard culture as rock“bottom, all“inclusive, and omni“explanatory”and as sealed off from outsiders’ interpretation”makes doing the work impossible.

Kuper’s frustration is understandable, but we need to go deeper. Culture used to be tied to civilization, that is, to an indispensably normative and teleological process of cultivating the self for its improvement. Herder adapted the term “Kultur” from Cicero’s farm metaphor: a culture can be seen as an interpersonal environment that cultivates and nourishes the people who comprise it. A genuine culture does this by instructing people about where they came from, where they are going, in what surroundings they exist, and how they are to live. That is why culture is said to order experience and give meaning to life, and why it is closely tied to cultus , to religion. But if culture teaches about man, and man is fundamentally the same everywhere, then what different cultures teach may be evaluated as correct or incorrect, reasonable or unreasonable. As we move beyond the self“destruction of the anthropologists’ account of culture, I think we do well to recapture something from this earlier sense of the term.

This will have consequences. Societies and their cultures cannot “construct” people, sexes, or groups, for people are the ones who do the constructing. And they must already exist, and have sexes, and belong to groups, to do it. Nor can culture be the source of all values and ends; for culture is defined according to the preexistent end of improving humanity, and improvement is always measured relative to some preexistent standard of value. Probably we can continue to talk of culture in the plural, but maybe not: it depends on the question (which is only partially empirical) of whether more than one kind of interpersonal environment genuinely cultivates and nourishes human beings.

This understanding of culture should help us see through the claims of cultural relativism and social construction by today’s “cultural” left. Social conservatives (those on the “cultural” right) will also have to reform their linguistic practice. They too have dabbled in culture“talk, decrying, as noted above, what they deem the cultures of unbelief, of death, of poverty, and so on. Yet, social customs so negative and destructive have no right to be called “culture” at all, since they do nothing to uplift people or help them thrive. Perhaps reconceiving culture as that which improves our lives, which uplifts and ennobles us, will enable us to see again the special value of so“called “high culture,” to see it once more simply as real culture, culture at its most cultivating.

The initial value of Kuper’s work is negative (deconstructive, if you will). It punctures contemporary thinking about culture, undermining its sup posed sources in social science. Its deeper significance may be to help open the door to the reconstructive project of reconceptualizing culture along normative and teleological lines, with cultus , religion, seen again as its heart. As Paul Tillich says in the third volume of his Systematic Theology , “Religion is the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion.”

J. L. A. Garcia is Research Fellow at the Institute on Race and Social Division, Boston University, and Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University.