In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Culture and Cognition

  • Introduction
  • Precursors
  • Anthologies, Handbooks, Special Issues
  • Cultural Evolution of Cognition
  • Cultural Learning and Scaffolding in Evolution
  • Nativism versus Anti-nativism
  • Culture in Development
  • Cognition and Culture in Religion
  • Embodiment, Culture, and Expertise
  • Instructional and Observational Learning
  • Emotions
  • Memory
  • Material Culture, Distributed Cognition, and Cognitive Ecologies
  • New Approaches in Anthropology
  • Cultural Neuroscience
  • Language and Perception
  • Morality

Philosophy Culture and Cognition
Mirko Farina
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0324


Culture is, notoriously, an intractably large and complex phenomenon, and any attempt to define it is ultimately doomed to failure. However, one can characterize culture by looking at some of its crucial elements. These can be summarized as follow: (1) Culture is both learned and inherited. That is, it derives from one’s social environment as well as from one’s genes. (2) Culture has both universal and variable components. That is, it consists of behavioral patterns (e.g., rules to regulate sexual behaviors, jokes, games, art, or music) that are shared by all of humanity collectively, and by other variable elements (e.g., perception of time and odors, interpretation of gestures) that are culture-specific and largely acquired in developmental settings. (3) Culture gradually evolves over time and therefore is not static. Incremental changes occur by virtue of innovations, discoveries, diffusion (temporary acquisition) or acculturation (long-term contact with another culture). (4) Culture is transmitted, and is therefore adaptive. Each generation passes its culture on to the next—which constantly refines it in the face of adaptive pressures. (5) Culture is based on symbols—systems that people use to capture and communicate their experiences, feelings, and emotions. These include language, but also images, paintings, icons, stories, myth, legends, rituals, and so on. While no one denies the fact that culture is important to human cognition, much of the current debate about their relations is concerned with the precise extent to which the former can influence or determine the latter. This entry, besides providing a general overview of the field (Precursors; Anthologies, Handbooks, Special Issues) and offering insights about the cultural basis of human cognition (Cultural Evolution of Cognition; Cultural Learning and Scaffolding in Evolution), makes important steps to clarify their relations. It does so by looking at a number of domains in which culture and cognition have been studied empirically (e.g., Emotions; Morality; Memory; Material Culture, Distributed Cognition, and Cognitive Ecologies; Language and Perception; Cognition and Culture in Religion; Embodiment, Culture, and Expertise; Instructional and Observational Learning), and by summarizing current findings (Cultural Neuroscience; New Approaches in Anthropology) and theoretical perspectives (Culture in Development; Nativism versus Anti-nativism). This helps problematizing the relation between culture and cognition, while driving further reflections on how they reciprocally interact (e.g., causal versus constitutive contribution). These reflections are relevant to philosophers that routinely make assumptions about the cognitive processes involved (e.g., perception, social cognition, language acquisition, learning, reasoning, emotion, or morality), and about their origin, functions, interactions, development, and evolution. This entry thus represents a valuable source to researchers in philosophy of mind, biology, and cognitive science, because it offers them precious insights into the various mechanisms through which culture enters into human cognition. The author would like to express his appreciation to the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences and to King’s College, London for financing his research. A very special thanks goes to Duncan Pritchard and Daniel Rogers. Thanks also to Julian Kiverstein for helpful comments and sharp criticism on earlier drafts of this manuscript.


The intellectual roots of contemporary research on culture and cognition can be traced back to early work conducted on cultural and developmental psychology, which stresses the importance of embodiment in explaining cognition, to research carried out on symbolic and cultural anthropology, and to investigations at the confluence of philosophy, ethnography, biology, and linguistics. In psychology, Vygotsky 1980 and Luria 1976 were among the first to study the extent to which psychological and behavioral tendencies are rooted in an embodied culture. In anthropology, Boas 1940 introduced the idea of culture as the primary concept for describing differences in behavior between human groups. Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952 further contributed to the development of culture theory by defining the concept of culture in operational and scientific terms, while Geertz 1973 successfully explored the role of symbols in constructing public meaning across different cultures. In philosophy, Peirce 1931–1960 argued for the dependence of logical and mathematical thinking on external symbolic systems. Another pragmatist, George Herbert Mead, should be acknowledged for the emphasis he placed on studying communication and the influence of the other’s perspective on our own self-conception (see Mead 1934). Winch 1964 also argued that the principle of bivalence (the idea that every sentence expressing a proposition [of a theory under inspection] has only one truth value) is also culturally contingent. In biology, Darwin 1872 sought to trace the origins of genetically determined aspects of behavior and attempted to demonstrate that emotions in both animals and humans were outwardly manifested in similar ways, so they were cultural universals. In linguistics, the idea that the structure of a language deeply affects its speakers’ cognition, and therefore its perception of the world, was first explored through the lenses of the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which essentially states that the way people think is strongly affected (if not determined) by their native languages and cultural environments. The sharpest formulation of this hypothesis is probably in Whorf 1941, written for Sapir’s Festschrift. Bruner 1985 also presents an extremely interesting analysis of the social and interpersonal nature of language. Similarly, Mikhail Bakhtin has been enormously influential for his work on the dialogical nature of thinking and for the emphasis he placed on studying the role of dialogue and communication in the transmission of culture (see Bakhtin 1981).

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

    Introduces the theory of dialogism, which is an approach to texts and discourse that emphasizes their historical, sociocultural, and context-specific nature. Central to this approach is the idea that meaning is created and recreated through dialogic processes. Bakhtin’s work is crucial for current research in the philosophy of cognitive science because it offers the conceptual tools to understand cognitive phenomena as context-dependent and in relations to each other.

  • Boas, Franz. Race, Language, and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940.

    This volume is a collection of essays on the science of anthropology. Here the author introduces and discusses the idea that people see the world through the lens of their own culture, and therefore that culture may condition people to understand and think about the world differently.

  • Bruner, Jerome S. Child’s Talk: Learning to Use Language. New York: Norton, 1985.

    Bruner explores how children acquire language, and also studies the mechanisms that may facilitate this learning. The central thesis of the book is that language is the vehicle for the transmission of culture.

  • Darwin, Charles. The Expression of Emotion in Animals and Man. London: Methuen, 1872.

    DOI: 10.1037/10001-000

    An important source for a defense of the idea that emotions are cognitive universals; that is, that they are invariant patterns across species.

  • Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

    The book presents a new method to explain human behavior. This method is based on the idea of “thick descriptions.” Thick descriptions are, according to Geertz, descriptions that not only specify facts about a particular culture, but also explain the context, conceptual structures, and/or hidden meanings underlying it. Geertz’s approach has been very influential among philosophers of mind, especially among embodied cognition theorists.

  • Kroeber, A. L., and Clyde Kluckhohn. Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952.

    This book helpfully catalogues and critically reviews the many and varied definitions of “culture” that scholars have produced since the late 19th century. The authors end up with 164 different definitions.

  • Luria, A. R. The Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations. Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

    This book presents experimental data collected among several groups of minorities (Uzbeks and Kirghiz) in remote parts of Central Asia. These data are used to support the main thesis of the volume: the idea that mental processes are social and historical in character.

  • Mead, George Herbert. Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.

    This book lays down the foundation of symbolic interactionism—the idea that human action is symbolic in character. This theory describes the mind as the capacity to use symbols to create meanings for the world, and society as a network of interactions in which humans symbolically interpret behaviors and thoughts. This theory is relevant to current research in philosophy of mind because it emphasizes the role of individuals in shaping their own environments.

  • Peirce, Charles S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. 8 vols. Edited by C. Harshorne, P. Weiss, and A. Burk. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931–1960.

    One very important thesis contained in this magnum opus is the idea that we don’t have immediate access to our inside realm. Peirce argues that thinking does not start with introspection, but rather with extrospection. Our thoughts begin with percepts that are out in the open. Accordingly, our cognitive processes cannot be fully understood by solely looking at the activities of the internal machinery of our brain.

  • Vygotsky, L. S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

    The volume presents a selection of Vygotsky’s most important essays. One of the central ideas of this book is that the mind cannot be understood in isolation from the surrounding society. Human intelligence, it is argued, develops in interaction with people and is characteristically mediated through objects and social activity. This work has inspired many contemporary approaches to philosophy of mind (such as embodied and extended theories of cognition).

  • Whorf, Benjamin Lee. “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behaviour to Language.” In Language, Culture, and Personality: Essays in Memory of Edwards Sapir. Edited by Leslie Spier, 75–93. Menasha, WI: Sapir Memorial Publication Fund, 1941.

    This paper defends the idea that we cognize and perceive the world in the way we do because of the specific set of language habits that characterize our environments and our communities. Language, on Whorf’s account, is thus understood as the ability to structure and predispose our choices and interpretations about the world.

  • Winch, Peter. “Understanding a Primitive Society.” American Philosophical Quarterly 1.4 (1964): 307–324.

    Engages the ethnographic work of Evans-Pritchard and claims that different cultures are characterized by different sets of norms and values—which, however, are equally valid. The goal of this article is to develop a position that prevents anthropologists from concluding that a given culture is “wrong” about a certain reality (cultural imperialism). Winch’s position has become the cornerstone of modern anthropological work.

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