The moral significance of the material culture

Inquiry 35 (3 & 4):291 – 300 (1992)
Ethics as a philosophical discipline has always been preoccupied with theory to the detriment of practice and the exclusion of material culture. Lately, practice has been rehabilitated, but material culture continues to be ignored. Cultural critics and sociologists have attended to it but have also refrained from a moral assessment of it. The findings of Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg?Halton, however, reflect two kinds of cultural realities that sponsor two kinds of conduct. The first kind, represented by musical instruments, I call commanding reality. It invites social and physical engagement and provides orientation within the world. The second kind, exemplified by stereos, consists of consumable commodities and conduces to a life of distraction and disorientation. I conclude that ethics is not just a matter of conduct within whatever reality but of deciding which kind of reality we favor over the other. My plea is on behalf of commanding reality. Modern philosophy has been at two removes from the real world. First, in aspiring to theory, it has been distanced from practice. Theory can inform practice, but practice is richer than theory and, above all, self?sustaining. Practice can survive without theory while theory arises from a practice and perishes without the nourishment of a practice. Practice, as philosophers have always seen it, is in turn removed from its tangible setting. Yet material culture constrains and details practice decisively. Practice, abstracted from its tangible circumstances, is reduced to gesturing and sometimes to posturing
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