Significant linguistic universals exist and significant musical universals exist. Both are cultural universals. Significance via irreducibility to noncultural biological phenomena rests in the centrality of knowledge-acquisition for each activity. Cultural universals are unreducible (non-natural) when part of the required knowledge remains non-innate. Surprises result from applying current neo-essentialism (Kripke)—e.g., words are like natural kinds and have essential properties only empirically discoverable (including meanings!); melodies also have essential empirical properties (Happy Birthday’s dominant beginning and tonic end); and the locus of contingency is shifted to the decisions and actions of cultural participants.


Natural Kind Linguistic Universal Definite Description Cultural Phenomenon Natural Kind Term 
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  1. 1.
    Two 19th century figures are closely associated with these uses of ‘culture’—E. B. Tylor for the anthropological and Matthew Arnold for the humanistic. Notice, however, that the appellations for the two concepts are my coinages and are not terminology of typical discussions of culture (more’s the pity). Cf. note 3 of [29] for an example of a typical tentative move to acknowledge the two concepts as fundamental, followed by an immediate conflation of them. Also, English dictionaries contain other senses for ‘culture’ such as ‘result of cultivating micro-organisms for scientific study’. These are irrelevant to the two senses I considered to be fundamental—except etymologically of course.Google Scholar
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    The ideas and terminology of Peterson [29] permit a more accurate description of C.P. Snow’s [37] discussion of ‘the two cultures’. Snow was describing a difference between ways of thinking and acting largely due to the difference between science (and engineering), on the one hand, and humanities on the other—a distinction which would be more accurately described with the two uses of the word ‘culture’ carefully distinguished, though his two cultures are not direct instances of my distinction. However, he was using ‘culture’ in just the anthropological sense to do it. Cf. notes 2 and 4, [29].Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    One question that comes immediately to mind is, if the Postmodernists are right, is it a cultural universal that politics controls all action, explanation, and evaluation in science, art, literature, and life? Here’s another: aren’t Postmodernists explicitly engaged in equivocating on the two senses of ‘culture’ of Peterson [29]—even to such an extent that if the two senses were honored their whole approach would collapse?Google Scholar
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    Of course, contingency alone would not prove anything, since the facts and laws of biology, or other ‘natural’ phenomena, are ordinarily taken to be contingent as well—i.e., not necessary in the traditional sense in which facts of logic and mathematics are paradigmatically necessary and facts of the ‘natural world’ are paradigmatically contingent. I return to this topic below in Section Essentialism and Natural Cultures, advancing an alternative view.Google Scholar
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    Care must be taken to realize what I am saying here. In a broader sense of ‘biological’, all cultural phenomena are obviously biological via being supported by biological systems which are humans (not to mention everything else biological and physical in the human ecological niche). (I certainly do not believe that cultures have any origins outside the ‘natural world’—in the ‘supernatural’, sacred, or otherworldly ‘spiritual’—or even outside our immediate planetary zone from science-fictional aliens or places.) My aim here is to distinguish those aspects of biological phenomena broadly-speaking that are properly called ‘cultural’ from those that are not (and are merely biological, in the narrower sense).Google Scholar
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    Think of the succession of ever simpler melodies one might generate out of a given tune by, first, omitting the pitches which seem absolutely the least important to the tune (pitches which when omitted still easily permit the melody to be detected), and then moving on to generate a third melody out of the slightly simplified first by repeating the process, and then moving on in the same way to generate a fourth, fifth, etc. simplification for as far as you could go until one or two dominant pitches result (pitches which do not permit recognition of the original melody, but which do somehow characterize the melody at the highest level of abstraction). Now if this process is carried out in the way intended a hierarchy will be developed of the pitches in the original melody, with those pitches which survive longer ‘dominating’ in the hierarchy those that don’t. This is not the whole picture with time-span reduction (a kind of recognition of hierarchical structure in strings of pitches, where the structure is not ordinary beat or ordinary phrasing—both of which cut across these hierarchies, as well as being hierarchical themselves). For the subordinate links between dominating and dominated (elaborative) pitches must also be acknowledged. However, this is the best 1 can do briefly.Google Scholar
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    Make this comparison: select one of L & J’s universals—say, GPR 5 (Symmetry): prefer grouping analyses that most closely approach the ideal subdivision of groups into two parts of equal length—and compare it with what surely would be a trivial (explanatorily fruitless) cultural universal, if it were a cultural universal (which I am sure it is not), viz., the practice of deep-frying seafood. I can’t now see how anything important or illuminating will turn out whether deep-frying of seafood is universal or not. It seems to me to be a curiosity (if universal, which I doubt). Of course, very strange things happen in science and scholarship. So, maybe some Postmodernist will soon show how such a ‘marginal’ or simple-minded aspect of cooking can be shown to make a great contribution to our understanding of cultures or sub-cultures. On the other hand, GPR 5 does seem to me at least to have some potential for contributing to interesting explanatory tasks, both within direct anthropological or sociological studies of cultures and within (for example) cognitive psychology.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip L. Peterson
    • 1
  1. 1.Syracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA

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