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Gustavo Bueno

Spiritualism and Materialism
in the Philosophy of Culture

Cultural Sciences and the Philosophy of Culture

Translated{1} by Brendan Burke
© 2011 FGB · Oviedo

First Section. Cultural Sciences and the Philosophy of Culture. Table I as a Gnoseology Table.

Second Section. Spiritualism and Materialism in the Philosophy of Culture. Table II as an Ontology Table.



Good morning. It is a pleasure to be speaking here in Mainz, a city where classical Spanish philosophy was very present, especially through Francisco Suárez’s Disputationes Metaphysicae and Luis de Molina’s Concordia. Let me first thank Johannes Gutenberg University, its Seminar of Philosophy, and especially Professor Stephan Grätzel and Mr. Andreas Thimm from the General Study. It is an honor for me to be able to deliver this lecture here. I must apologize for its schematic nature, but time constraints demand it as such. I must also apologize for my rusty German, as it is the German of a reader, not of a listener, nor much less of a speaker.



1. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, «Culture» has grown into an immense field susceptible to positive-scientific research. Diversified across multiple disciplines, this research has usually been labeled under «cultural sciences», particularly since Heinrich Rickert.

At the same time, Culture is also an inescapable target for philosophical attention, which itself has been institutionalized in a discipline known as the «philosophy of culture». As such, several disciplines and scientific methodologies (such as structuralism, functionalism, evolutionism, etc.) exist within the total of cultural sciences. Likewise, several different philosophies of culture also exist (the most important of which – spiritualism and materialism – will be considered here).

In spite of this, the extensional domains of the terms used above (such as «science», «philosophy», «functionalism», «spiritualism», etc.) lack precise and clear limits. Rather, they act as «fuzzy sets», as defined by Lofti Zadeh. The concept of «Aztec culture» is a scientific concept (or at least considered as such by the majority of archeologists and historians). Nevertheless, this same concept may very well employ an idea of a «cultural sphere» whose reach surpasses any categorical field and imposes certain philosophical assumptions. The materialist interpretation of culture is commonly considered a philosophical alternative (rather than a scientific alternative) to the spiritualist interpretation of culture. A number of schools (for example, the school of cultural materialism) consider materialism as a requisite to perform any scientific study on cultural phenomenon. On the contrary, numerous schools (among them, schools close to the «Baden idealism» expressed in the Ernst Carrier’s works) object to cultural materialism’s incapacity (an incapacity stemming from its very principles) to come to a genuine comprehension of cultural phenomena, which themselves are interpreted as symbolic processes.

These domains, then, are surely «fuzzy». In considering the above examples, however, it becomes clear that this «fuzz» which seems to affect them is not always of the same kind, and that many different forms of fuzz exist.

The aim here is to outline these «fuzzy sets» («cultural sciences», «philosophy of culture», «spiritualism», «materialism») using abstract demarcation lines themselves defined within a certain system of coordinates. The goal is not a utopian transformation of fuzzy sets into clear and distinct sets, but rather an establishment and measurement of the different varieties of fuzz in view of the proposed abstract limits. The grid of parallels and meridians geographers intentionally cast over the Earth’s surface does not (except on the map itself) discriminate isolated networks with marked, impassible borders. Nonetheless, this artificial grid functions perfectly to measure the incessant processes of encroachments, violations, and interactions which take place between the sectors separated by clear and distinct lines of demarcation.

2. Here, I posit two «grids» to cast over the «field of culture» (understood in the broadest sense – the field of Culture which is opposed to the field of Nature or Mathematics).

The first – Grid I – seeks to establish applicable criteria in order to determine the «sphere of jurisdiction» of cultural disciplines – both disciplines of a scientific nature and of a philosophical nature. Grid II seeks to establish applicable criteria in order to determine the differences between ontological conceptions that may be recognized as alternative philosophical doctrines.

Grid I has a notably gnoseological reach. By «gnoseology» I mean a theory of positive sciences that is contradistinct from so-called «epistemology» or the theory of knowledge. Positive sciences cannot be reduced to knowledge, and therefore a theory of science must go beyond a theory of knowledge.{2} Even though in its strictest sense, gnoseology is restricted to analyzing the structure of the positive sciences, it must also consider similar structures. In the analysis of disciplines that have yet to become positive sciences, gnoseological questions arise from the fact that such disciplines use logical structures very similar to those found in the positive sciences (such is the case for philosophical disciplines, legal-doctrinal disciplines, and theological-dogmatic disciplines). Accordingly, these disciplines – insofar as counterparts of positive sciences – are also inescapable targets for gnoseology. (For long periods of history, moreover, these disciplines have been considered deductive sciences, on a scale similar to that of Euclid’s Elements – for example, Francisco Suárez’s Disputationes Metaphysicae, Baruch Spinoza’s Ethica More Geometrico Demonstrata, or Hans Kelsen’s Reine Rechtslehre).

Cast over a field of culture considered philosophically, Grid II has an ontological reach, given that the reference points it uses (de Mundo or physics, de Homine or psychology, and de Numine or natural theology) are the same ones around which the metaphysica specialis was structured, stretching from Hurtado de Mendoza and Francis Bacon to Leclerc and Christian Wolff. This organization of «special metaphysics» is partially reflected in philosophical materialism’s Special Ontology, insofar as it is a doctrine of three genera of materiality. It is my supposition that the Ontology of Culture is related to everything contained under the label of Special Ontology. On the contrary, it lacks any connection – at least from a materialist point of view – with anything falling under the General Ontology label, as far as it is a doctrine of matter in the general-ontological sense.){3}


Section I
Cultural Sciences and the Philosophy of Culture
Table I as a Gnoseology Table

1. In this section, I seek to determine the criteria by which to establish a general line of demarcation accounting for the actual diversity between two treatments of the field of culture. The first treatment encompasses the technical and positive-scientific treatments that have managed to penetrate this «field of cultural phenomena». The second includes the philosophical treatments of these selfsame fields, which have often already been tilled over by technical and positive-scientific treatments of culture.

The problems arising from such a line of demarcation in the field of cultural categories are analogous to those stemming from a general line of demarcation in the fields of natural or mathematical categories. In the latter, the division takes place between technical and positive-scientific treatments of Nature or the mathematical world and the philosophical treatments of these same contents. Nevertheless, the problems inherent to each one of these disciplines are different in each case, in spite of their analogies.

In effect, technical and positive-scientific treatments of the physical, biological, and mathematical fields have achieved an autonomy, a peculiar sort of «closure» which nearly always allows them to separate philosophical questions (or at least keep them at bay), even if this means considering them nonsense – «What can be said about space outside of geometry?» Moritz Schlick asked more than 70 years ago. Technical and positive-scientific treatments of cultural fields, however, rarely achieve this sort of «categorical autonomy», nor much less the degrees of autonomy required for a closure in their respective fields. In other, more treacherous and debatable terms, the techniques and positive-sciences in natural and mathematical fields frequently manage to separate questions related to «value judgments» by focusing more on «questions of fact.» In the fields of culture, very few technical and positive-scientific methodologies are able to set aside the values affecting any cultural content. After all, these fields themselves are defined by their reference to values, at least in Heinrich Rickert’s opinion. For many observers, this means that any technical or positive-scientific treatment of a cultural field will always implicate a more or less explicit philosophy.

I myself cannot accept these criteria, which suggest Max Weber’s «freedom from value judgment» thesis in the positive sciences. This rejection stems from my assumption that neither cultural sciences nor natural or mathematical sciences can be considered disciplines absolutely free from values. In place of these rejected criteria, I will use others that the theory of categorical closure establishes between natural and cultural disciplines which achieve an alpha-operating state and natural and cultural disciplines which cannot extend beyond the state of beta-operating construction.{4}

2. Here is not the appropriate place to bring up the question about the differences between techniques, technologies, and positive sciences that deal with natural or mathematical entities and those that refer to cultural entities. For our purposes, it is sufficient to affirm the following as a matter of fact: that, at the very least, certain scientific techniques and investigations performed in the most diverse cultural fields (not only investigations performed in natural or mathematical fields) express a strong will to abstain from any philosophical proposition in their work. A linguist researching the diphthongization process in the Latin vowels of Romance languages does not want nor may not even need to know anything about the «creative freedom» or «spirituality» of human language in general. A positive researcher in the religions of the most diverse human societies – primitive or recent – does not, as Evans-Pritchard affirms, seek to know anything about the truth, nor even the origin of these religions’ dogmas (questions which no philosophy of religion could ignore).

Speaking «in general», however, is rather misleading. In the anthropology of kinship, for example, there is ample space to research the different types of families without maintaining any philosophical concerns. For example, a researcher may see polygamy as associated with farming and shepherding communities and polyandry as generally linked to female infanticide in peoples with only a very reduced amount of cultivable land available. Anthropologists researching the origin of the idea of God, however, would be hard-pressed to conduct their analyses without philosophical premises. The research of Wilhelm Schmidt and his school explicitly assumed the Thomistic doctrine of the five ways in order to come to a rational understanding of the idea of God. For them, this doctrine was necessarily manifested in even the most primitive of peoples.

At any rate, it is usually taken as a given that profound differences exist between humanistic and cultural disciplines geared in a technical or positive-scientific direction (linguistics, the science of comparative religions, art history, and political anthropology) and those humanistic and cultural disciplines geared in a philosophical direction (the philosophy of language, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of art, political philosophy, etc.). My acknowledgement of this distinction does not imply any assumption regarding the value of each of those two groups of disciplines: I abstain from the opinion of many positive-science researchers of culture who frequently consider philosophical disciplines as mere rhetoric or, at best, as a sort of juvenile science. Furthermore, my acknowledgement refrains from any assumption regarding the relationship between these two groups of disciplines. A number of different questions arise in considering this relationship: do the positive-scientific disciplines have a greater or even absolute independence with respect to the corresponding philosophical disciplines than those philosophical disciplines have with respect to the positive sciences? Or, given the large influence that a number of philosophical schools – Husserl’s Phenomenology, Marx’s historical materialism, or existentialism – have had and continue to have on research carried out in the field of cultural sciences, then how much should that influence be taken into account?

3. For our purposes, I will look to apply certain criteria taken from the theory of categorial closure. These criteria presume a categorial organization of fields susceptible to a technical or positive-scientific treatment. Any «discipline organized categorially» is a discipline that achieves both effective and intentional results as long as it remains within the immanence of a category which is delimited directly from its «interior». This delimitation itself begins with processes of technological or positive-scientific construction. Geometry’s categorial organization excludes the possibility of demonstrating a geometric theorem by appealing to sociological, physical, or biological methods. The categorial organization of a biological science (insofar as it is irreducible to a physical-chemical science) excludes the possibility of constructing an organic morphology – the figure of a bacterium, spleen, or an eye – by using only biochemical concepts. Undoubtedly stemming from earlier technical constructions, the strongest constructions in geometry, mechanics, and biology are those which manage to establish scientific truths through the closure established within their respective categories. The recent and growing exaltation of the advantages of interdisciplinary scientific and technological research would lose all sense if their initial categoriality were ignored.

For a definition of «concept», I first base my understanding on the etymology of the term. Originating from the Latin capere, the term still maintains a reference to manual operations: to catch, to chase, or to capture. I, in turn, call «concept» any configuration proceeding from technical or scientific operations which itself achieves a more or less precise delimitation within its field. The theory of categorial closure distinguishes three «axes» for each categorial field – a syntactic axis, a semantic axis and pragmatic axis. The syntactic axis comprises manual operations with terms that result in new relationships between those terms. Examples of the delimitation of a category’s immanent concepts can be found in any given field’s terms, operations and relationships. Regarding the terms of geometry, for instance, the concepts of triangle and circumference found in Book I of Euclid’s Elements may be cited. Regarding relationships, the concepts of equality, congruence, and homothety are just a few examples. Finally, concerning operations, various mathematical fields have shaped the concepts of addition, product, and differentiation.

Scientific concepts are the most strict categorial concepts. But other fields too may acheive varying degrees of categoriality (some more complete, others more deficient) by establishing concepts. For that reason, many technical or technological figures may be considered concepts. This is particularly so in mechanical fields, with concepts such as the «two-cylinder engine.» Concepts may also be delimited in fields with a heavy component of magic. For instance, in spite of its «magical» nature, the Roman ceremony known as suovetaurilia resulted in the delimitation of a closed field of influence. According to Theodor Hopfner’s analysis, the officiant began the ceremony by demarcating the area under his control, the area under his magical powers and thus conceptualized it in a positive sense.{5} Before sacrificing the pig, the ram and the bull, he would circle them three times around the space their energy was supposed to fertilize.

Together with this goes another central assumption of the theory of categorial closure: that the conceptualization of terms, relationships, and operations in a given categorical field does not exhaust the actual matter contained in this field. The biological morphology of a spleen, a lung, or a bacterium does not exhaust the integrity of the matter contained in the spleen, lung, or bacterium. A triangular configuration of a given object does not exhaust the reality of the matter triangularly configured. This geometrical configuration results from the abstraction of colors, smells, and other traits irrelevant to the configuration itself.

On one hand, this abstract nature of categorial conceptualizations explains the possibility of interdisciplinary studies in the development of new technological or scientific constructions. On the other hand, it explains the possibility of Ideas, themselves understood as resulting from the confrontation of concepts linked to different categories. Since different categories only partially conceptualize common materials, this inexhausted matter eventually must burst beyond categories and concepts. A confrontation of concepts then ensues. As such, Ideas do not «descend from heaven» (as Saint Augustine and Descartes thought), nor do they «emanate from consciousness or pure reason», acting as a «vacuum» of any categorial content (as Kant and his successors thought). They are, consequently, neither timeless nor coeternal. Ideas have a history. For instance, the Idea of God in natural theology itself may only have begun in relatively recent civilized societies in the first millennium B.C.E. – hardly a coeternal Idea.

On the whole, Ideas come from earlier conceptualizations – scientific and technological conceptualizations. The three Ideas epitomizing the Scholastic tradition (seen even in Kant) – the Idea of World, Man, and God – serve as examples of this, at least when seen through the following theses: the Idea of World is not a sort of «secretion» from pure reason working by hypothetical syllogisms, but rather is a boundary construction originating from a technical object – a bridal chest (or mundus) expanded so large as to make it capable of holding all the «jewels» that God the Creator could place inside.{6} Furthermore, the Idea of God does not descend from up high, nor ensue from pure subjective reason employing disjunctive syllogisms, but rather from technical or political experiences with numinous animals of diverse species and kinds.{7} Nor does the Idea of Soul – whether human or animal – issue from the experience of some inner consciousness, but rather, from proprioceptive sensations combined with representations of other humans or animals that move or eventually become corpses.

Whatever the case may be, the number of Ideas that history has been accumulating far exceeds these three traditional Ideas. Insofar as Ideas stem from concepts, they can be considered broad, trans-categorial concepts, or second-degree concepts.

Here, I have ascribed technical or scientific disciplines to forms of technical or positive-scientific conceptualization. Following the Platonic tradition, I ascribe the philosophical disciplines to Ideas (as is known, Kant examined a redefinition of metaphysical philosophy by referring to the three proverbial Ideas – the anthropological, the cosmological, and the theological).

The preceding formulas allow for a more precise, more positive conception of philosophy than that offered by the more common conceptions – conceptions of philosophy as «an investigation into the first cause or beginning», or as a «meditation on Being, on Nothing, or on Death, etc». Understood as it has developed historically from the Hellenic tradition, philosophy is the analysis and confrontation of Ideas, in opposition to the analysis and confrontation of concepts that is characteristic of the positive sciences. And insofar as Ideas stem from concepts, philosophy shall then be understood as second-degree knowledge.

4. By applying the distinction between concept and Idea to the fields of culture, it becomes theoretically possible to classify terms from the semantic constellation «culture», even though the signifier of these terms cannot be reduced to the signifier of «culture» itself, such as is the case for the terms paideia¸ upbringing, Bildung, etc.{8} This classification falls into two large classes: one which contains cultural terms expressing cultural concepts, and another which includes terms expressing Ideas linked to culture or cultural components.

The terms or signifiers that are affected by the «cultural coefficient» often express different senses of the signifier «culture» itself. Other times, they refer to concepts or Ideas which make up the latticework of some cultural field, and not, for example, the latticework of some natural field: «Bell Beakers» is a signifier which refers to a cultural field, while termes lucifugus is a signifier which refers to a natural field.

The classification of cultural terms into two theoretical classes is not, however, the only possible, suitable classification in any given context. Other classification criteria independent from the criteria distinguishing concept and Idea are also possible. In spite of the existence of this independence, it should not be understood as an absolute separability among different classifications, but instead as a (logical) disassociability stemming from the possibility which of combining or «crossing» the classes obtained from a certain criterion with other classes obtained from another criterion. Determining a group of criteria that can be mutually crossed (thus guaranteeing their disassociability) paves the way for a classificatory system which can be represented in a classification table – Table I, in this case.

In what follows, I present such a system. Four criteria are used to classify terms that either express meanings of the term «culture» (or some equivalent) or meanings of terms from the same semantic constellation.

5. The first criterion to take into account stems from the application of the concept-Idea distinction to the field of culture. This criterion directly challenges those who consider that any thought about culture automatically implies an Idea about culture. Accordingly, the terms associated with Culture are classified into one of the following groups: «cultural concepts» or «Ideas about Culture.»

In light of this general distinction, cultural concepts are seen as determinations within a given cultural field, in which one part seems «cropped» with respect to other parts of the field. As such, cultural concepts are constructed from a diameric perspective with respect to the cultural field of reference.{9} The cultural concept «Aztec culture» is bordered by the concept of «Mayan culture» or the concept of «Incan culture». Conversely, Ideas associated with cultural fields are organized, in principle, from a metameric perspective with respect to the cultural fields considered in their own immanence. Cultural concepts remain as such as long as they stay within their own diameric, categorial context. Ideas arise once these concepts are considered in relation to the connections they maintain with other terms «outside» the fundamental parts of the cultural field.

In general, cultural Ideas presuppose earlier cultural concepts. Far from «descending from heaven» or «emanating from man’s pure consciousness» (as many idealist schools today would have it), the Idea of culture itself comes from concepts, from earlier established technical concepts. It is well known that the Idea of cultura animi comes from the technical concept of agri-culture. Employed by Cicero and other classical Latin authors, this expression operated as an Idea of culture, and not merely as a concept. This classical Idea, however, proves more limited than its subsequent development in modern times, whereby the original Idea becomes a circumscribed concept related to education. As an operating concept, this technical concept referred to the act of working, sowing, or harvesting virgin – «natural» – lands. It is interesting to note that up until the 18th and 19th century, the expression «culture» still signified the same original technical concept linked to agriculture, both in Spanish and in other languages. The «cultures of Oviedo», for example, meant the crops or fields of cultivation on the outskirts of Oviedo. Even more interestingly – given this linguistic setting – is a poster that can be read here in Mainz which Professor Grätzel has hung in his office – «Kulturen betreten vervoten», that is, «Entry prohibited in cultivations.»

Once these uncultivated, virgin lands are metaphorically substituted by infantile, untouched savage souls, then these virgin souls begin their own process of cultivation through the discipline of education and training. This cultivation will thus turn them into «cultivated souls» bearing new fruits. And so cultura animi is less a new concept, and more an Idea equivalent to nothing less than the humanist Idea of a free man. In the latter, cultura animi, or the humanities – that is, everything quoad humanitatem pertinent – define free men with respect to beasts, but also with respect to slaves – speaking beasts – and barbarians.

The transformation of a categorial concept of culture into an Idea of culture can take place in many different ways. For example, by starting with the categorial concept «Europe» (considered as a «cultural sphere»), I can regress to the universal-distributive Idea of «cultural sphere» itself and abstract its specific components.{10} In addition, by way of a progressus I can erect «Europe» as the prototype or attributive model for any other cultural sphere which looks to be considered truly human (as Husserl did in his Krisis).{11}

6. In both concepts and Ideas, the second criterion is based on the opposition between the particular or specific (speaking of «concrete cultural terms») and the universal or generic (for example, Edward Tylor’s «complex whole» that would define a given cultural field).

This is a functional distinction, and so its values depend on the parameters taken in each case. It should not be assumed that concepts are exclusive to the particular or specific, while Ideas reside solely in the universal or generic. What is important is to show how cultural concepts can reach a notable degree of indetermination or generality («the culture of a people» is a term often considered as a genuine ethnological concept) and how cultural Ideas can keep their links to very specific particular determinations, such as the Idea of latinitas present in Antiquity or Renaissance Humanism as the prototype of the most authentic culture.

7. The third criterion used to classify cultural terms is related to the distinction between subjectual and objectual culture. Subjectual culture – of which cultura animi is an example – is everything that refers to the modifications, acquisitions, abilities, etc., of a corporeal, operating subject acting as a foundation on which to base habits or abilities. These habits or abilities may either come from a distinct cultivation, training, or discipline, or as a consequence of an immanent, inspired science. The latter obviously requires the acceptance of the theological or spiritualist point of view.

Objectual culture, then, is everything that is supposed to exist beyond the operating subject, and which operates on it, whether it be as extra-somatic, material culture, or as inter-subjectual – either inter-somatic or social – culture. In more expressive terms, subjectual culture is supported within the operating subject, while the operating subject itself is supported and surrounded by objectual culture.{12}

It is quite important to point out that the distinction between subjectual and objectual culture must not simply be understood as a distinction between two exterior entities juxtaposed or coexisting in harmony or conflict. It is better understood by what is known in geometry as duality – an opposition arising between a point and a line in a Euclidean plane. In duality, each term assumes the opposite and is even defined by its mediation: a point is the intersection of infinite lines and a line is the co-alignment of infinite points. From a materialist perspective, it is impossible to accept subjectual culture without referring to objectual culture, just as it is impossible to accept objectual culture without referring to subjectual culture to at least some degree.

8. The fourth and final criterion revolves around Pike’s famous emic-etic distinction regarding perspective. The distinction depends on the analyst’s perspective with respect to the actor’s perspective, on whether the analysis takes place from within the actor’s point of view, or from without. Pike’s distinction – presented from a spiritualist viewpoint – can be reconstructed from a materialist standpoint.{13}

In its application to the cultural field, the emic-etic distinction can incorporate two separate attitudes, without being reduced to them. The first is the «engaged», practical attitude of an analyst identifying or rejecting the cultural contents in question and so the attitude of someone who positively or negatively values these contents. The second steps back with the distant, «non-engaged» (sometimes called «speculative») attitude of someone trying to keep a neutral attitude free from value judgments. The location «from without» is ambiguous, given the negative nature of its definition – «not emic». Many exterior possibilities, many external platforms exist with respect to a given cultural content.

How then can one accept even the possibility of locating oneself eticly in regard to human culture in general, and not simply in regard to a given cultural determination? I suggest that the viewpoint of ethology may be the only one that offers the possibility (at least from the materialist standpoint) of an etic consideration of human cultures in general.


Table 1
Concepts of Culture and Ideas of Culture

Criterion 1
Criterion 2

(of Culture)
(of Culture)

Criterion 1
Criterion 4

Determinate Culture
(determined by cultural spheres or components)


My ability to graft trees


My «cultures» (crops, cultivated land)



Cultura animi



(Husserl, Ortega y Gasset)



Grafting ability attributed to other humans


Other cultures (Mesopotamia, Maya), other cultural components (Jivaroan heads)






Egyptian culture as origin of other cultures

Indeterminate Culture


Education, paideia…of societies in general


Cultural institutions from the household, society, «circumscribed cultures»


Humanist spiritualism


Suprahuman spiritualism


3b 4b

Tylor’s subjective and objective phenomenal totalizations of spheres and components


Anticultural or infracultural naturalism


Cultural materialism,
Organicist spiritualism (Frobenius, Spengler)


Criterion 2
Criterion 3

Culture from subjectual perspective Culture from objectual perspective Culture from subjectual perspective Culture from objectual perspective

Criterion 4
Criterion 3


Section II
Spiritualism and Materialism in the Philosophy of Culture
Table II as an Ontology Table

1. In the introduction to this essay, I presented the ontology of culture as an analysis of the Idea of Culture (and through it, of the concepts of culture). I also defined this Idea less as a penetration «into the being of culture» in itself or absolutely considered, and more as a confrontation of the Idea of culture (and through it, of the concepts of culture) with the three nuclei around which the metaphysica specialis was organized – de Natura, de Homine, and de Numine. Here, I purposely ignore the question arising from the confrontation of the Idea of Culture with «Being», insofar as the latter is the nucleus of the metaphysica generalis. The three nuclei of the metaphysica specialis are somewhat present in the special ontology of materialism with its three maximum genera of materiality: first-genera matter (M1, related to the cosmological Idea), second-genera matter (M2, related to the anthropological Idea), and third-genera matter (M3, related to the theological Idea). In my Ensayos materialistas (Taurus: Madrid, 1972) and a brief treatise entitled Materia (Pentalfa: Oviedo, 1990), which corresponds to an article written for Europäische Enzyklopädie zur Philosophie und Wissenschaften, directed by Professor Hans Jörg Sandkuhler, one can find a more detailed presentation of these questions.

For now, I am looking to use the three genera of matter as criteria to establish the main alternative ideas through which one comes to an «ontology of culture», or a philosophy of culture developed from an ontological perspective, instead from a gnoseological one.

2. In placing Ideas about culture in juxtaposition with the cosmological Idea (M1), two basic alternatives emerge. The first develops the Idea of culture along spiritualist lines, while the other develops it along materialist lines.

Here, I mean «spiritualism» in the philosophical sense of the term, and not in the merely mythological sense, which interests ethnologists and anthropologists. As an ethnological concept quite similar to Tylor’s «animism», spiritualism designates an aggregate of beliefs extended across the majority of societies, both undeveloped and developed alike. According to these beliefs, certain incorporeal entities, or entities with slight, gaseous bodies – pneuma – exist. In general, these entities may live inside the organic bodies of animals and humans and be able to discard these bodies on certain occasions. They may also reside in places near Earth (in the atmosphere, for example) or even in places far from Earth, on planets or fixed stars. These spirits are known as animas, daemons, or spiritual entities (thus lending their name to «spirit-ualist» practices).{14}

While surely related to ethnological concepts, the philosophical conception of spirit is more abstract. Within the Ancients’ hylomorphic system, the idea of spirit results from approaching one of the two limits in that system. In it, every real, finite, and corporeal entity must be considered as being made up by a passive principle called matter (hyle) and an active one called form (morphē). Therefore, two Ideas can be derived by abstracting from the hylomorphic compound. The first is the Idea of «amorphous matter» detached from all form, which some identify with a common «prime matter» existing prior to any existing entity. The second is the Idea of «form detached from matter», which nonetheless conserves the principle of its activity and so, its «intelligence». This form culminates in the Supreme Form, which is understood as the Pure Act in the Aristotelian tradition. Insofar as they make up part of the natural or cosmic world, these spiritual entities – detached, active forms – are at times identified with the spiritual souls operating in humans. This identification follows the Augustinian tradition and has been taken up in the modern period by Gómez Pereira and Descartes in their doctrine of the automatism of beasts. Other times, these entities are identified with the detached active forms of angels, themselves understood as detached intelligences (for example, in Francisco Súarez’s 1597 Disputationes Metaphysicae, number XXXV.

A common denominator between philosophical and ethnological spiritualism does indeed exist, however. Establishing it will allow me to present the opposition between materialism and spiritualism while avoiding the difficulties arising from a direct definition of matter. Perhaps the best method to do so would be to call upon the Idea of life. With respect to this Idea, spiritualism becomes the common label for any conception that admits the possibility of life in entities detached from organic bodies. Materialism, on the contrary, becomes the common label for any conception internally linking life to organic bodies. In Descartes’ and Gómez Pereira’s systems, for example, an incorporeal spirit is assumed to continue living even when the organic body (an automaton) upon which it acts is dead and rotting. Even when this spirit acts on the organic machine, it is assumed that its life (and generally, its activity) are independent from the movement of the machine. Since this machine is merely automatic, it cannot be said to live, nor much less to feel, perceive, desire, or think.

And so spiritualism, defined as a detached active form, is obviously an Idea belonging to the field covered by the cosmological Idea, given that it conveys the disconnection of certain contents from others within that Idea. Detached active forms can be conceived of as part of nature, and even as acting, and in some way living, spirits – «culture as a living being». But this conception is only possible since it relies on these spirits being attributed with a creative capacity, a vis activa independent from the rest of the parts of the cosmic universe (this, notwithstanding that they can sometimes be conceived of as dependent on a universal, cosmic, and at times transcendent divine Spirit.)

Materialism, on the other hand, refuses the possibility that spiritual entities exist, among other reasons, because if the possibility were accepted, then the law of conservation of energy would be placed in doubt (a law formulated against the «vitalist» biological spiritualism of the 19th century).

These definitions of spiritualism and materialism can then be applied to the field of culture. Spiritualist conceptions attribute the genesis and structure of cultural forms to a creative, or poietic, process which «emerges» from some human foundation, from some or all peoples, and which takes off in its own direction, regardless of the corporeal matter it may use as a vessel. Cultural materialism recognizes the need to discover the decisive influence that initially pre-cultural, corporeal, and organic (human or protohuman) forms or energies have in any process of cultural creation or production. Through this influence, the development of cultural forms is interspersed within «enveloping» cosmic processes and particularly linked to the formative and developmental processes of so-called «animal cultures».

3. By placing the Idea of culture in juxtaposition with the anthropological Idea (M2, which contains operating subjects as its basis), multiple alternatives emerge. These can be reduced to the following:

a) A humanist alternative inclined to identify the Idea of man with the Idea of culture. The customary definition of man as a «cultural animal» fully expresses this alternative, whether it be interpreted in the spiritualist or cultural materialist line.

b) A second, somewhat «ahumanist» alternative is open to those willing to separate the anthropological Idea from the Idea of culture. This alternative can have two versions. The first considers culture as a reality engulfing man «from above» («suprahumanist culturalism»). The second considers culture as a reality corrupting man «from below». Remnants of this «infrahumanism of culture» can be traced to a tradition dating from the Cynics to Rousseau, and is found today in «countercultural» defenders such as Zerzan. «Radical antihumanists» also hold countercultural attitudes when they consider human cultures as mere «orthopedic devices» fit for a «bastard monkey» (Bolk, Daqué, Klages).

c) A third alternative interprets culture as a process which is not wholly human, nor infrahuman, nor suprahuman. Instead, culture is simply seen as a praeterhuman process. The genesis and development of culture indeed takes place through man, but man still maintains his own characteristic anthropological rhythms which have little to do with the rhythms of culture’s historical development.

4. The third confrontation – between the Idea of culture and the theological Idea (M3) – is obligatory for any analysis which takes seriously the thesis on the historical origin of the modern Idea of Culture, such as it is presented in El mito de la cultura. According to this thesis, the modern Idea of Culture (and with it, its main contents – languages, religions, political, moral, and artistic systems, etc.) has not arisen ex nihilo, but rather is the result of the process of dissolution of the medieval, theological-dogmatic Idea of the Kingdom of Grace (granted by the Holy Spirit). This Idea was subsequently substituted by the more or less secularized Kingdom of Culture (the expression of the «Spirit of the People»), which itself was called upon to administer the functions of the erstwhile kingdom of Grace – the functions of a medicinal, elevating, and sanctifying principle.

Naturally, this transition implies, to a certain degree, an original detachment of the Idea of Culture from the theological Idea. My proposition of the «theological inversion» seeks to understand some of the developments of philosophy in the modern period. Through this inversion, God «returns to the world and to man» by being identified with them – at least in the field of philosophy (although He keeps His distinction in dogmatic theology). The world and man begin to be viewed through conceptualizations that had taken place in theological philosophy. Therefore, from the point of view of the theological inversion, it would be justifiable to set aside the theological Idea when analyzing the meaning of the Idea of culture. Notwithstanding, as the analysis begins to consider how the Idea of culture is reached through the theological Idea, then the reconstruction of the relationship between the Idea of culture and the Idea of a transcendent God must be considered important. After all, it was the Idea of culture itself which took in the Idea of a transcendent God.

Two main alternatives are exposed when confronting the Idea of culture with the theological Idea:

(T) The theological alternative, arising when the theological Idea appears more or less explicitly in the ontology of Culture. This can occur in two ways. The first interprets everything in the «world of culture» (perhaps even in the «world of nature») as the «work of God», as the creation of the universe itself effectuated by a God looking to communicate symbolically with finite spirits He previously created. This communication takes place through cultural (or natural) forms. From the standpoint of the philosophy of Culture, Berkeley’s metaphysics could be reinterpreted as an onto-theology of culture. Although seemingly paradoxical (given the spiritualist slant of Berkeley’s «material idealism»), his metaphysics could also be reinterpreted as a materialist ontology of culture. This is made possible by the definition I have offered of the materialism of culture – as an insertion of cultural processes in the context of other cosmic processes – in this case, theological processes. It is appropriate to note that this interpretation of Berkeley’s material idealism as a materialism of culture (obliged by the defined conception of cultural materialism) fully agrees with the interpretation Fichte – through his own absolute idealism – made of Berkeley’s idealism.

The preceding does not exclude the possibility of a spiritualist ontology of culture, though. This second way sees this ontology as closely related to the theological Idea. Their mutual approach occurs when the theological Idea begins to draw near to the Idea of man as a creative spirit nearly fully identified with the divine spirit. The main traits of this quasi-theological, spiritualist ontology of culture are seen in Fichte, as well as in Catholic theologians of the present day (such as Karl Rahner) who see human culture as a continuation of «divine creation», of the «Six Days’ Work».

(A) The atheological alternative is obligatory for any ontology of culture that considers it necessary to cut out, and even completely oppose the theological Idea. This can be seen in the «postulatory atheism» of Nietzsche, Scheler, and Nicolai Hartmann.

5. The final criterion can be considered subordinate to criterion 1 and as such is not given a number of order, but rather a 0. Taking into account the distinction – already use in Table I – between the subjectual and objectual perspective, this criterion seeks to establish an internal link between Table II (Ontology) and Table I (Gnoseology).


Table II
Ontological Conceptions of Culture

Criterion 2
Culture/anthropological Idea (M2)

Criterion 1
Culture / cosmic Idea (M1)


Culture-Man Identification (Humanism)


Culture-Man Separation (Supra-, Infrahumanism)


Partial Identification (Praeterhumanism)

Criterion 0










N. Hartmann Subjectual perspective


Hegel   Objectual perspective









Freud Subjectual perspective

Teilhard de Chardin


Extra-terrestrial cultures

    Marx Objectual perspective

Criterion 3
Culture / theological Idea (M3)


Criterion 0



To conclude, I would like to explain two very important points that have been implied but not directly expressed in the preceding exposition.

1. The first has to do with the relationship between Table I (Gnoseology) and Table II (Ontology). Both are built over Grids 1 and 2, but these grids are neither commensurable nor coordinated point for point. Nor can Table II be considered as an extension or «detail» of the quadrant made up by the squares (7a, 7b, 8a, 8b) of Table I. A point-for-point correspondence is not possible even when Table II can indeed be coordinated on the whole with the above-mentioned quadrant of Table I, since the criteria used in these tables are not always the same. Table II does not contain criterion 4 – the distinction between emic and etic perspective – from Table I. Table I, on the other hand, does not contain either Table II’s criterion 1 or criterion 2 – the distinction between spiritualism and materialism and the distinction between humanism, ahumanism, and praeterhumanism, respectively.

The incommensurability of Tables I and II provides the opportunity to affirm the wealth and variety of perspectives available to approach the field of culture. It also allows for greater understanding of Plato’s symplokē principle, which establishes that «some things will commingle and others will not.»{15}

2. The second point is related to Table II. As seen herein, categorial concepts have been assigned to the positive sciences, and are assumed to not exhaust the reality of their respective fields. Ideas have been assigned to philosophy, and do not descend from heaven nor from an a priori consciousness, but rather from the material reality itself conceptualized through techniques and sciences. The following, then, can be affirmed:

1) It is senseless to speak of a «universal cultural science» capable of covering both human and animal cultures. Cultural anthropology– itself defined as the «science of human culture» – is nothing but a utopian project, a gnoseological ghost.

Furthermore, it is necessary to point out that while the constitution of some disciplines has an undoubtedly cultural genesis – geometry, electro-technology, and nuclear physics – they cannot be considered as cultural sciences, as Gaston Bachelard suggested. However, they cannot be considered as natural sciences, either. Such is the case for geometry. This is one of the main arguments to discard the dualist Nature-Culture dichotomy which many observers use as a reason to consider a scientific discipline as a cultural science if it cannot be considered a natural science.

2) If a universal cultural science does not exist, much less can a philosophy of culture be spoken of as a detached and relatively autonomous discipline – not because the philosophy of culture does not exist, but rather because there are diverse, incompatible philosophies of culture, both in methods and in doctrines. The thesis of an autonomous philosophy of culture can only be defended ( «deduced» perhaps) by the assumption either that cultural sciences remain in the field of description of cultural phenomena, or that the reality of culture can be understood within an Idea of culture interpreted as if it were an independent and intelligent Idea in and of itself. And so to speak of a philosophy of culture as a detached, autonomous system can only take place from an extreme hypothesis: that the omnitudo realitatis can be reduced to a «culture created by man» or by God. Such a hypothesis rings of the pancultural ontology hypothesis I have associated with Berkeley and Fichte.

As such, the conflicts between different philosophies of culture cannot be resolved in the assumingly autonomous field of the philosophy of culture. It is necessary to return to other principles given beyond the philosophy of culture and even culture itself. From a materialist perspective, one cannot «lean on culture» in order to draw, from that selfsame culture, a certain conception of the world capable of resolving questions concerning God, spirit, liberty, and the like. It is the conception of the world which determines a philosophy of culture.


{1} Translation of a lecture delivered in German by Gustavo Bueno at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz on May 14, 2002, on the occasion of the presentation of Der Mythos der Kultur. The original Spanish – Espiritualismo y materialismo en filosofía de la cultura. Ciencia de la cultura y filosofía de la cultura – was translated into German by Nicole Holzenthal. The English version here presented has been translated by Brendan Burke.

{2} For more on this, see my Teoría del Cierre Catagorial, vol. 1 (Oviedo: Pentalfa, 1992).

{3} For a brief overview of Bueno’s philosophical materialism and his theory of the three genera of materiality, as well as of his distinctions between special and general ontology, see Translator’s Note.

{4} See note 2.

{5} Theodor Hopfner, "Mageia," in August Pauly and Georg Wissowa, Realencyclopädie der Klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, 1 (Stuggart: J. B. Metzler, 1928). 301-393.

{6} In Spanish, the word «world» – mundo – comes from the Latin word mundus. The word mundo can still be used today to refer to the physical chest of goods a bride brought (or brings) to her marriage – thus the Creator filling His world with treasures parallels the bride filling up hers. Translator’s Note.

{7} Bueno’s theory of religion is at the basis of his conception of animals as the first «divine» entities. See Gustavo Bueno, El animal divino: ensayo de una teoría materialista de la religión (Oviedo: Pentalfa, 1996). Translator’s Note.

{8} I have translated crianza as «upbringing». This translation fails to capture the dual meaning of the original, which can be used both for the upbringing of children as well as for the cultivation of plants. More on the etymological relationship between the two can be found below in subsection 5. Translator's Note.

{9} Diameric, in philosophical materialism, is defined as any term related or compared to another term of the same class. Metameric is defined as any term related or compared to another term of a different class. The relationship of one organism with others from the same species is considered diameric, whereas the relationship of that organism with the continent on which it lives or the subatomic structures which make it up is considered metameric. A more complete definition can be found (in Spanish) at Translator’s Note.

{10} Distributive parts conform a (distributive) totality through their joint belonging to a specific class according to given parameters. Attributive parts conform a (attributive) totality by their mutual assembly in space or succession in time. See for more. Translator’s Note.

{11} Progressus and its (Scholastic) counterpart regressus are used in philosophical materialism to analyze the movements in any circular process of operations. The distinction acts as a criterion to determine if a given scientific category can be reduced to another. For instance, the atomic destruction of an organism – regressus – cannot be followed by its physical reconstruction – progressus. It can also be applied to philosophical ideas and their capacity to regress from a given set of phenomena into theories capable (or incapable) of progressing back to phenomena. Bueno has suggested that idealist philosophies are those which fail to complete the second operational course. For instance, the metaphysical substantialization of the idea of «Culture» as if it were a unified entity makes it impossible to explain the actual variety among different «cultural fields.» Translator’s Note.

{12} In order to avoid certain connotations brought about from «subjective» and «objective», Bueno prefers to employ the terms «subjectual» and «objectual» to refer strictly to that contained within the body (subjectual) versus that which remains external to it (objectual). Translator’s Note.

{13} For more on this reconstruction, see my book Nosotros y ellos (Pentalfa: Oviedo, 1990).

{14} I have translated espiritismo as «spiritualist practices». Espiritismo cannot be translated as "Spiritism", given that the latter refers to an established religious doctrine. Particularly visible in Latin America and the Caribbean, espiritismo refers to the informal syncretic beliefs and practices which often use magic to communicate with and influence a spirit realm capable of influencing the corporeal world. Translator's Note.

{15} Plato, Sophist, 252e, in Harold N. Fowler (trans.), Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 12 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1921).


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