Edward B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture articulates one of two major theories of culture to emerge around 1870. His theory defines culture in descriptive terms as the “complex whole” that makes up social ideas and institutions, and in this it helped to establish anthropology as a recognized science. Tylor’s ideas were closely related to those published about the same time by Matthew Arnold, who defined culture as a humanist ideal that society should strive for.
Gillen D’Arcy Wood is Nicholson Professor of English, and the Director of the Sustainability Studies Initiative in the Humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of two books on British Romanticism: The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760-1860 (Palgrave, 2001) and Romanticism and Music Culture in Britain, 1760-1840 (Cambridge, 2010). Now working in the field of sustainability studies and climate change, he is completing a book-length study of the Tambora eruption and its global, social and environmental impacts, to be published by Princeton University Press ahead of the Tambora bicentenary in 2015.
Romanticism’s Claim on Individuality | Thomas Cotterill
While a foundational figure in cultural anthropology, Tylor thought about culture in radically different terms than we do today. He accepted the premise that all societies develop in the same way and insisted on the universal progression of human civilization from savage to barbarian to civilized. Nowhere in his writing does the plural “cultures” appear. In his view, culture is synonymous with civilization, rather than something particular to unique societies, and, so, his definition refers to “Culture or civilization.” In part, his universalist view stemmed from his Quaker upbringing, which upheld the value of a universal humanity, and indeed Tylor’s refusal to accept the concept of race as scientifically significant in the study of culture was unusual in Victorian science.