Solving problems first requires them to be understood.
Culture is a phenomenon that encompasses lifestyles and relationships. People form their cultural worlds by changing and transforming the inputs from nature through their feelings, thoughts, and actions. Cultural objects acquire a completely new existence with the human essence and form added to their natural essence and form. The human hand leaves a mark on every object it touches, and so every cultural object is like a reflective device, a mirror; and the imagination, thought and purpose it manifests turns it into a different object.
The most salient feature of culture is “coexistence” – “binding together” through moral “covenants,” traditions and customs. Culture can also be defined as an art of living. Every society on earth has a unique art of living, and cultural life is shaped by personal “interests” under the guidance of natural conditions and historical processes. Of all the objects, events and facts that surround them, people notice only those that they need, those that concern or interest them; and this interest is born out of a “bond of life”. In the absence of such interest, people cannot see anything. Shedding light on the relationship between lifestyle and interests, between the interested agent and the world that opens up to them, reveals their lifestyle.
What is seen is assigned a meaning based on the “mental contents” of the viewer, that is to say their tendencies, character, level of education, habits and interests.
Different worlds are constructed out of the same reality setting, with the worlds of art and science being just two examples of this. When the interest wanes or comes to an end, so do these worlds.
Natural or material reality is real in itself, independent of human consciousness and effect, and is a riddle. Human reality, on the other hand, varies depending on how the riddle is interpreted, what meanings are assigned to it, and for what purpose it is shaped and used. Therefore, culture can also be defined as “the totality of productions in natural and social relationships, and how these are used and passed down between generations”.
Different worldviews formed after being reflected from the reality of life, create cultural processes that follow divergent paths, although all are connected through the reality of life. This reality of life is manifest in basic life instincts, and is universal in terms of nutrition, protection and reproduction.
Culture is vital for social relationships and human behaviors. People do not leave life as is. They dissolve and reconstruct its relationships, and reproduce it. Life experiences transformed though the acts of individuals conflict with what exists, create tensions, and continuously change the “historical substance”. This historical substance is further reshaped by the living conditions and social relationships of each new generation. If we were to abstract historical events from the people who lived through them and their cultures, we would be left with a pile of events that would be devoid of meaning and life.
Culture equips human communities with a common identity, and can thus be considered the “unconscious memory of societies”. Culture is permanent to the extent that it is inherent in habits. Cultural life is thus a direct (non-mediated, without the mediation of thought), calm and safe form of life that is transformed into civilization through the mediation of thought. “Civilization” is manifested by the creation of values out of cultural life, and these values of civilization transform into culture when practiced and implemented, in turn increasing the level of culture. “Civilization” is a product of creativity, and creativity is all about finding new relationships; while denying the existing cultural reality indicates an ability to change it.
Culture is a carpet that is weaved around feelings, and comes alive through feelings. Thoughts create ripples in the feelings that depend on needs, causing the person to lose cultural vitality. Faced with new conditions, new needs and new desires, people start looking for ways to secure and assign meaning to their lives. This is a form of crisis and disengagement from reliance on culture, but also involves freedom and possibilities.
A crisis or problem emerges every time the cultural style changes, and any change that shakes up the habits of life –whether political, economic, artistic, religious or philosophical in style– creates a crisis or a problem.
Just as the status quo is not always good, change does not necessarily create absolute good. That said, every change allows the cultural essence to reveal itself, and the possibilities, dynamics, power of development and permanent essence are revealed.
The social unity observed in culture is made up of conflicting structures and tendencies, and the main conflicts give rise to cultural change.
Every culture has simultaneously a local, national and a universal character. All values are products of cultural and social organization, and are reflected in the interests of a society. Values change when the nature of the interest shown changes. Values exist so long as they serve to satisfy a need. In this sense, civilization refers to the organic integrity of values and culture, which is a manifestation of these values.
Societies make history to the extent that they have a “cultural life” equipped and reinforced with the values they produce; and societies have honor to the extent they live by their values.
The level to which a culture is refined and improved depends on the intellectual and artistic activity that inspires society. The thinkers and artists in a society discover and reveal deeper and higher truths of life, striking a path before society, and showcasing progress. Cultures would be unable to create civilization if life did not interpret and reflect itself through art and thought. Art provides life with new interpretations and examples, and this function of art is what gives cultures their superior form. Life in itself is ignorant of itself, but despite this, life is no doubt real, although not a well-defined reality. For life to be a well-defined reality, it needs to be interpreted and reproduced in a vertical and visible form.
Wars, migrations and revolutions create extraordinary and powerful changes in cultures, and the crises generated by such changes are of critical importance. People lose confidence in life, and social and mental collapses occur, causing people to lose self-confidence as the foundations of their world are shaken. Under such negative conditions, members of strong cultures can usually sense what is coming; that is to say, they sense new opportunities early, and so fear is replaced by hope. Life requires safety; life is afraid of voids. As such, in major crises, the power of the past fills the void as the hope of the future. The search for a safe world is the same as the search for a new “life form”.
Overall, Turkish society is open to change. And why not? Turks made a living through animal husbandry, hunting and raiding in the vast expanses of the Central Asian steppe, and had a nomadic, wandering character. They cared about their freedom; they were never enslaved in history, and nor did they keep slaves. Aside for a small minority, they did not settle in one place for long, which meant they maintained significant room for maneuver. Their nomadic and warlike character brought them into contact with many societies and cultures, and they witnessed many different life forms, and both scarcity and abundance. Most important of all, they were the leading tribes during the migration period. Looking for new lands and moving to new climates took courage, and Turks were an adventurist society that showed this courage. They spread to many different parts of the world, but chose Anatolia as their home.
The Anatolian lands, on the other hand, were not simply awaiting the arrival of the Turks. Anatolia was home to the oldest and most ancient civilizations in the world, although the incoming Asians had a culture that was also to be reckoned with. This culture did not disappear in Anatolia, nor did it destroy the existing cultures. Among the common people in particular, the differences were soon accepted. It did not integrate or merge with the existing cultures, but got on well with them. The Anatolian tribes together created a culture of tolerance, and while the Saints of Khorasan played an important role in this outcome, so did the people of Anatolia. After all, Anatolia was the land of Mother Cybele, and was where the cultures of Dionysus and Orpheus spread, where Christianity was present with its seven churches, and where gnostics and mystics settled. Through migrations, Turks brought their shamanic essence to Anatolia, but they also carried Tao from China, Buddha through the Uighurs, Zoroaster as they passed through Iran, and the Islam of Ali in the poetry and baglama (a musical instrument) of their folk singers and the jem (gathering) rituals of Dede Korkut. Anatolia is like a pot of ashure (Noah’s pudding); cultures, all having retained their uniqueness, have come together with the sweetener of tolerance, creating the unique ashure of Anatolia. The ashure of the 13th century is good for friends, and an example to the world.
These new people of Anatolia finally gained their unique character through revolution under the leadership of Ataturk, after wavering in the hands of many adventurists. Arguably, the radical changes brought about by the revolution were confined to the world of rulers and government institutions, as the lifestyle secured by the revolution was nothing but the culture that had already been developed by the people. In the words of Ataturk, “Societies that have the ability to change, change.”
* First published in Us Düşün ve Ötesi (Reason, Thought, and Beyond), no.5, 2001. Translated by Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, and revised by the editorial board.