Ethnicity is only culture

I’m actually doing a lot of reading again. That, plus issues at my employment (yes, downsizing again, that’s the only way they know how to increase profits!) have led to a slight reduction in writing time.

What am I reading? Well, I’ve just got interested in the philosophy of 20th Century Japan. This occurred resulting from comments on a very interesting article on the possibilities of multi-cultural engagement in professional philosophy at I include two pertinent comments I made there:

“Truth may be a feature of language (reducible to propositions one can analyze for truth-value). And that may be culture-transcendent. But *understanding* is feature of an embodied mind, and must engage various social and emotional responses as well. And I think understanding is a more valuable attainment for philosophic thought and reflection than mere truth-table verifiable exactitude. (As a Pragmatist, and a secular Buddhist, I don’t even buy all the Platonic ‘justified true belief’ definition of truth that the Analytic tradition has been saddled with, anyway; but that’s a larger discussion.) Understanding includes elements of sub-conscious responses, social awareness, historical preparedness, that mere truth cannot get us.”

“Considering response here, I thought to research the philosophy of another culture for reference. In the process, I discovered the Kyoto School, originating in the thought of Kitaro Nishida. This still has a lineage in the philosophy of Japan. It originated largely as an attempt to synthesize elements of Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Zen Buddhism, and (apparently) to recoup the principle, from the philosophy of Buddhists, of Emptiness (sometimes mistakenly translated as ‘nothingness’), as the dialectical cancelling of hypostasized conceptualizations to reveal a communitarian experience. It appears to be exactly the kind of multicultural convergence that the OP is really talking about, in furthering a deeper understanding of human experience.”

When I research in order to comment on articles at other blogs, I necessarily research my own computer, which has saved copies of comments I’ve made in the past. The following (and I don’t remember where I posted it) actually does have to do with the multicultural issue (concerning which I will probably post more in the future). Specifically, it has to do with the question of ethnicity, which is foundational to the whole issue of multiculturalism. As originating in the 19th century, ethnicity was originally considered a matter of biology – first in the sense that other peoples were somehow differing species or sub-species, then in the sense of severe genetic differences; all of this speculation has evaporated over time, revealed as inherently biased in favor of those doing the speculating, and without empirical foundation. (Having recently read biologist Stephen Gould on the issue, I realize there is more to say on this as well.) Eventually, I think (hope) that we will recognize ethnicity as the product of culture – mere accident of geographical location of birth and the pre-existent culture that one is born into (but never fully condemned to regurgitate). The comment:

If one abstracts a group from a general population and ‘breeds’ it separately from the original population, allowing it to develop a separate culture, etc., at what point does it acquire the distinct differences of a separate ethnic identity? E.g., despite the hopes of some and the suspicions of others, cultures of peoples of African decent in the Americas are just not African cultures – African decent Jamaicans are simply not ethnically African in the way that those in Africa are; indeed. ethnicity in Africa is not all of a piece (or we wouldn’t see the gross inter-tribal violence we do in some places).

The whole concept of ‘ethnicity’ seems to me wholly unclear at this point. In America, when I was young, it was a common question to be asked, ‘where are you from?’ – i.e, where did the immigrant ancestors come from. This always gave me problems. One side of my family was entirely from Ireland, but I never had any contact with them. The other side of the family was problematic: the grandmother came from Poland, but her parents were apparently not native there and refused to discuss their inheritance; the grandfather would never say where he was from (somewhere in eastern Europe, that’s all), would not even reveal his original name. But both grandparents were complete assimilationists – there was no ‘eastern European flavor’ to their household nor that of any of their children. Eventually I came around to replying to the question, ‘I’m from Brooklyn.’ Sometimes I envy those with an inherited ethnic identity, other times I am very glad to be free of the matter.

The relationship between genetic inheritance and cultural inheritance is a troubling one. There’s no real ground to assuming any necessary relationship at all (millions like me stand in utter disproof of it), yet it is something many, many people cling to, both for positive reasons (the need for identity and community) and negative ones (defining groups to be confronted or dehumanized). The matter can get pretty silly – Hitler in Mein Kampf actually claims that the German language itself is in Aryan blood, and he wasn’t kidding: his theory of ‘racial purity’ is totalistic.

I think that eventually we will come to see ‘ethnicity’ as simply a matter of genes, with no cultural component; at which point the word ‘ethnicity’ will be replaced with some term from genetics. Or perhaps, on the contrary, we will leave the genetic question to geneticists, and use ‘ethnicity’ in strictly cultural terms.


The final determination of this issue obviously cannot come in a remark this brief.  However, it should be noted in the discussion so far, that while the differences in culture are real, and need to be respected, they are not absolute, and in no way deterministic.  We can be, and should be IMHO, citizens of the world.  We share our humanness across borders, both those politically established, and those of the mind.  If we can’t do this, we are probably doomed.

There are ideologies committed to preventing this realization; that is as much to say that there are ideologies committed to the demise of the human species.  We who recognize the value in human survival must stand in opposition to these purveyors of death.

We experience a marvelous myriad of human opportunity.  We all still remain human for all that.  No ideology can ever change that.


One thought on “Ethnicity is only culture

  1. I agree with you that we should be citizens of the world.
    I have seen firsthand what ethnicity, it has been referred to as negative ethnicity, can do. Men and women kill each because they have been made to believe by their politicians that they are different.
    I think it is Einstein who said

    If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare me a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German, and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s