Since I was talking about the challenge of defining culture, we should look at how Joseph Henrich defines it in The Secret of Our Success, an important book that I have referred to often (most notably in this piece for National Affairs). On p. 3, he writes
By “culture” I mean the large body of practices, techniques, heuristics, tools, motivations, values, and beliefs that we all acquire while growing up, mostly by learning from other people.
That’s all he has to say in terms of definition, which leaves some questions unanswered.
1. Why the qualifier “while growing up”? It implies that we reach an age at which the receipt of cultural transmission stops, which seems odd. What empirical or theoretical problems does Henrich think he is avoiding by including the qualifier, rather than taking the view that cultural transmission can be received at any age?
2. Why the qualifier “mostly”? If it were me, I would be tempted to partition our personalities into three components: biologically innate; acquired through our own experience with nature; and learned from other people. Of course, any single behavioral tendency or thought pattern can be the product of all of these components, so that the precise partition may not be readily applicable. Still, I would make the general point that much of our behavioral tendencies and thought patterns are learned from other people, either directly or indirectly. In fact, that might serve as a one-sentence statement of the thesis of Henrich’s book. But in the definition of culture, I would drop the “mostly” and say that to the extent that a behavioral tendency or thought pattern is not learned from other people, then it is not cultural. In that case, it is mostly innate and/or learned through our own experience. If culture includes more than what we learn from other people, then what does it not include?
3. Note the inclusion of “tools,” which goes beyond my shorthand of “behavioral tendencies and thought patterns.” While we are at it, why not include consumer goods, or at least say that consumer goods are included as “tools” that help satisfy our wants? If we are going to include tools, then don’t we have to include institutions? Note that “institutions” is another term that gets used to mean many things, so we would do well to define it, also.
But perhaps instead of broadening the definition of culture, why not narrow it? Tools and institutions in part act as channels for socially communicating thought patterns and behavioral tendencies. But why not define culture itself as socially communicated thought patterns and behavioral tendencies (which I think covers everything other than “tools” in Henrich’s definition)?
Anyway, I think that if Henrich were to embark on another edition of the book, I would encourage him to spend several pages discussing the definition of “culture” and related terms, rather than leaving it to one off-handedly casual sentence.