New Horizons in Institutional and Evolutionary Economics series
Chapter 1: Cultural Thought and its Origins
Ever since the dawn of man, people have been born into a pre-existing society, however primitive, and raised according to its customs. Each generation has learnt the prevailing way of life and then, in turn, passed this on to the next generation. Culture can be traced back over hundreds of thousands of years, a period much greater than recorded history: human societies already had elaborate cultures long before farming, towns, markets and organised economies first appeared. An established culture has been fundamental to all economic activity, and major cultural changes have accompanied each stage of economic development. Culture as an academic concept is far more recent. Ideas related to culture occurred in ancient and medieval philosophy but were never brought together into a coherent tradition of cultural thought, which emerged only in response to the Enlightenment. During the eighteenth century, after triumphs in the natural sciences, Enlightenment philosophers attempted to investigate society by similar rationalist and empiricist methods. Detailed study of this kind would, they believed, uncover the principles behind social behaviour. Sceptics about the Enlightenment were unhappy with its methods when applied to the social sphere. Sensitive to human diversity and complexity, they felt that such a mechanical, ahistorical stance was inappropriate for social studies. The concept of culture derived from a desire to break away from the methods of the Enlightenment (if not from its aims) and find alternative methods better suited to the humanities. Modern economic thought was also a product of the Enlightenment but had fewer...
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