Learning Skills

Complex Definitions


Web Resources for This Assignment

For General Education 110 and 111

What is Culture?

Thinking in Definitions

   The most fundamental skill for you to learn in college is how to think in definitions. For the most part, thinking in definitions involves committing yourself to only the most important aspects of a term or concept. This will be your baseline definition; you always need a short, working definition on which to build your understanding of a concept and its complex relationships with other concepts. For instance, if you were to define philosophy, you could easily produce pages and pages of a definition. You need, however, to distill those pages and pages of stuff into a single sentence or two. What would it be? If you were to define philosophy, what's its most important characteristic? What single sentence definition would be able to describe everything you might say about philoosphy? That is your beginning definition, the one that you commit yourself to knowing by heart.

How to Form a Complex Definition

   However, you can't take complex ideas and walk around understanding them only in their most simple form: that's simplistic or reductionist thinking. Concepts such as "philosophy," "culture," "science," "the self," "freedom," "subjectivity," and so on, are extremely complex concepts. They are applied to a variety of phenomena and the meaning of these concepts change when they are applied to different phenomena. Let me give you a simple instance: the term, "culture," means something different when you apply it first to a symphony and then apply it to a hunting-gathering tribe in New Guinea and then apply it to bacteria on a petri dish ("culturing"). So the concept changes radically as you apply it to different phenomena.
   Not only that, the concept changes as you move from speaker to speaker. One person's definition of "culture" will be different from another person's. This is especially true between cultures: a concept that you define one way may be defined completely differently within another culture. Not only that, within your own culture, concepts change radically over time. For instance, when a Roman talked about "freedom," he meant something absolutely and completely different than the concept Martin Luther was discussing when he talked about "freedom." Our notion of "freedom," which is derived from Luther's, is not even close to what Luther had in mind. In fact, it's not even close to what the American rebels thought freedom when they put it in the Declaration of Independence.
   Complex concepts, then, involve several different definitions:
  • Diverse phenomena
    Complex concepts change meaning as they are applied to different phenomena.
  • Cross-cultural definitions
    Complex concepts change meaning as one moves across different cultures or sub-cultures within a dominant culture.
  • Historical change
    Complex concepts change meaning over time, that is, they evolve. This evolution is mainly due to applying the concepts to new phenomena.
  •    Your job as a student and as an intellectual is to use complex concepts across a diversity of meanings. You need to recognize, for instance, that the word "freedom" does not mean one thing, but many things, and all those things are "freedom" even if they don't appear to be such. So, in part, your understanding of complex concepts is an evolutionary process, that is, you will through your career as a student and throughout your lifetime learn more and more ways of understanding these concepts and integrate these into your own understanding of the concept.

    The Assignment

    For General Education 110 and 111

       Try this on the concept of culture. Examine the learning module, What is Culture?, very carefully. Now break up your own definition into the following parts: a.) what is your baseline definition of culture? b.) What phenomena is the term applied to? What doe these phenomena have in common? What are the differences between these phenomena? c.) What are the differences in people's definitions and uses of the term? How do you account for these differences? d.) Do you see any changes of the concept over time? Submit your analysis below.

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