The Relation(s) Between People and Cultural Kinds13 min read

How do people relate to cultural kinds? This is a big topic that will be the subject of future posts. For now, I will say that the discussion has been muddled mostly because, in the history of cultural theory, some cultural kinds have been given excessive powers compared to persons. For instance, in some accounts, people’s natures, essential properties and so on have been seen as entirely constituted by cultural kinds, especially the “mixed” cultural kinds (binding cultural cognitive to artifactual aspects) associated with linguistic symbols (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Geertz, 1973). The basic idea is usually posed as a counterfactual, presumably aimed at getting at something deep about “human nature” (or the lack thereof): “if people didn’t have language, [or symbols, etc.], then they’d be no different from (non-human) animals.” This is an idea with a very long history in German Romantic thinking (Joas, 1996), and which was revived in 20th century thought by the turn to various “philosophical anthropologies,” most influentially the work of Arnold Gehlen, who conceptualized the “human-animal” as fundamentally incomplete, needing cultural input, and in particular language, symbols, and institutions, to become fully whole (Joas & Knobl, 2011).

I argue that these type of theories (showing up in a variety of thinkers from Berger and Luckman–directly influenced by Gehlen–to Clifford Geertz) has led theorists to fudge what should be the proper relationship between people and cultural kinds in a way that does not respect the ontological integrity between culture and persons. What we need is a way to think about how persons (as their own natural kind) relate to cultural kinds (and even come to depend on them in fairly strong ways) in a way that does not dissolve persons (as ontologically distinct kinds) into cultural kinds (Archer, 1996; Smith, 2010). or, as in some brands of rational actor theory, see people as overpowered, detached manipulators of a restricted set of cultural kinds (usually beliefs), that they can pick up and drop willy-nilly without being much affected by them. Whatever relations we propose, they need to respect the ontological distinctiveness of the two sides of the relata (people and cultural kinds), while also acknowledging the sometimes strong forms of interdependence between people and culture we observe. So this eliminates hyper-strong relations like “constitution” from the outset.


What are the options? I suggest that there are actually several. For cultural kinds endowed with representational properties (e.g., beliefs, attitudes, values), Abelson’s (1986) idea that they are like possessions is a good one. Thus, we can say that people “have” a belief, a value, or an attitude. For persons, “having” these cultural-cognitive kinds can be seen as the end state of a process that has gone by the name of “internalization” in cultural theory. Note that this possession version of the relation between people and culture works even for the cultural-cognitive kinds that have been called “implicit” in recent work (Gawronski et al., 2006; Krickel, 2018; Piccinini, 2011); thus if a person displays evidence of conforming to an implicit belief, or attitude, etc., we can still say that they “have” it (even if the person disagrees!). This practice is both of sufficient analytic precision while respecting the folk ascription practices visible in the linguistic evidence pointing to the pervasiveness of the conceptual metaphor of possession concerning belief-like states (Abelson 1986). The possession relation also respects the ontological distinctiveness of people and culture, since possessing something doesn’t imply a melding of the identities between the possessor and possessed.

As a bonus, the possession relation is not substantively empty. As Abelson has noted, if beliefs are like possessions, then the relationship should also be subject to a variety of phenomena that have been observed between persons and their literal possessions. People can become attached to their beliefs (and thus refuse to let go of them even when exposed to countervailing evidence), experience loss aversion for the beliefs they already have, or experience their “selves” as extended toward the beliefs they hold (Belk 1988). People may even become “addicted” to their beliefs, experiencing “withdrawal” once they don’t have them anymore (Simi et al. 2017).


What about ability-based cultural-cognitive kinds? Here things get a bit more complicated; we can always go with “possession,” and this works for most cases, especially when talking about dispositional skills and abilities (e.g., abilities we impute to people “in stasis” when they are not exercising them). Thus, we can always say that somebody can play the piano, write a lecture, or fix a car even when that ability is not being exercised at the moment; in that respect, abilities are also “like possessions” (Abelson, 1986).

However, possession doesn’t work for “occurrent” cultural kinds exercised in practice. It would be weird to refer to the relation between a person and a practice they are currently engaged in as one of possession; instead, here we must “move up” a bit on the ladder of abstraction, and get a sense of what the “end in view” is (Whitford, 2002). Once we do that, it is easy to see that the relationship between people and the non-conceptual skills they exercise is one of reliance (Dreyfus, 1996). People rely on their abilities to get something (the end in view) done or simply to “cope” with the world (Rouse 2000). The reliance relation concerning non-representational abilities has the same desirable properties as the possession relation for representational cultural-cognitive kinds; it is consistent with folk usage, and respect the ontological distinctiveness between persons as natural kinds and the abilities that they possess. A person can gain an ability (and thus be augmented as a person), and they can also lose an ability (e.g., because they age or have a stroke), and they still count as people.

Parity and Externality

Finally, what about the relation between people and public cultural kinds such as artifacts? First, it is important to consider that, in some cases, artifacts mimic the functional role played by cultural cognitive kinds. So when we use a notepad to keep track of our to-do list, the notepad plays the role of an “exogram” that is the functional analog of biological memory (Sutton 2010). In the same way, when we use a calculator to compute a sum, the calculator plays the same functional role (embodying an ability) that would have been played by our internalized ability to make sums in our head. In that case, as it would not be disallowed to use the same relational descriptors, we use for the relationship between people and cultural-cognitive kinds regardless of location (internalized by people or located in the world). So we would say that Otto possesses the belief that he should pick up butter from the store regardless of whether they committed it to “regular” (intracranial) memory (an “engram”) or to a notebook (an “exogram”).

This “parity principle,” first proposed by Clark and Chalmers (1998) in their famous paper on the “extended mind,” can thus easily be transferred to the case of beliefs, norms, values, “stored” in the world (acknowledging that this does violence to traditional folk-Cartesian usages of concepts such as belief). The same goes for the (lack of) difference between exercising abilities that are acquired via repetition and training, which are ultimately embodied and internalized, and those exercised by reliance on artifacts that also enable people to exercise those abilities (so we would say that you rely on the calculator to compute the sum). In both cases, people use the ability (embodied or externalized) to get something done.


This last point can be generalized, once we realize that most artifactual cultural kinds (inclusive of those made up of “systems” of mixed—e.g., symbolic–kinds) have a “tool-like” nature. So we say people use language to express meanings or use tools to get something done. Even the most intellectualist understanding of language as a set of spectatorial symbolic representations acknowledges this usage relation. For instance, when theorists say that people “need” (e.g., use) linguistic symbols “to think” (Lizardo, 2016) (a pre-cognitive science exaggeration, based on a folk model of thinking as covert self-talk; most “thinking” is non-linguistic (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999), and a lot of it is unconscious (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006)).

The general relation between people and artifactual kinds is thus analogous to the relationship between people and the skills they possess; for the most part, people use or depend on public artifactual kinds to get stuff done (another way of saying this is that artifactual cultural kinds enable the pursuit of many ends in view for people). Once again, note that the use or dependence relation is what we want; public cultural kinds do not “constitute” or otherwise generate, or “interpellate” people as a result of its impersonal functioning (as in older structuralist models of language). Instead, people use public artifactual culture as a “scaffold” that allows them to augment internalized abilities and skills to engage in action and pursue goals that would otherwise not be possible (alone or in concert with others).

In sum, we can conceive of the relationship between people and cultural kinds in many ways. Some, (like constitution) are too strong because they dissolve or eliminate the ontological integrity of one of the entities in the relation (usually, people). But there are other options. For representational cultural cognitive kinds, the relation of possession fits the bill; people can have (and lose) beliefs, norms, values, and the like. For non-conceptual abilities, the relation of reliance works. Finally, for externalized artifacts and other “tool-like” public kinds, the relation of usage, and more strongly dependence and scaffolding can do the analytic job.


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Belk, R. W. (1988). Possessions and the Extended Self. The Journal of Consumer Research, 15(2), 139–168.

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