Perspectives About The Notion Of Culture: Matthew Arnold And Raymond Williams

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In this essay, before all else, I will be giving a brief biography of Matthew Arnold and Raymond Williams, to introduce them and then, finally, I will be comparing their perspectives about the notion of culture.

In Matthew Arnold’s (1822-1888) lifetime, he was known for being a poet, a social and literary critic and a professor of poetry, at Oxford University. In turn, Raymond Williams (1921–88) is recognized for being, while alive, a Welsh Marxist theorist, academic, novelist and critic, who became one of Britain’s greatest socialist intellectuals.

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Although nowadays culture can be defined as a set of patterns of human activity within a community or structures that give meaning to such activity, in the 1790s until the 1850s, the main idea of culture consisted of the distancing of the poet/artist from the public, furthermore, the poet/artist was seen as the embodiment of the spiritual knowledge of the people having a creative imagination and genius. According to William Godwin[footnoteRef:14626], the only way to become cultured was through conversation and meditation, although this was impractical, and almost impossible, for the working class, since most of them had no time for this because they were too busy trying to make a living. [14626: social philosopher, political journalist, and religious dissenter who anticipated the English Romantic literary movement with his writings advancing atheism, anarchism and personal freedom.]

In the western world, the first influential presentation of popular culture as mass culture was Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy[footnoteRef:8727]. To define culture, in Arnold’s point of view, we must take a look into the first chapter (Sweetness and Light) of his book called Culture and Anarchy, in which Matthew explicit that culture is related to curiosity, furthermore, he claims that culture as a study of perfection is motivated by “the moral and social passion for doing good” [footnoteRef:19123]– it is possible to evidence that culture is intimately linked to the Christian faith. It is also defended by Arnold that culture can be attained only by “the disinterested and active use of reading, reflection, and observation, in the endeavor to known the best that can be known”( Culture and Anarchy), so, logically, acquiring culture was extremely difficult for most people, taking into account that most of them were illiterate, for instance. [8727: major work of criticism by Matthew Arnold, published in 1869] [19123: David Walton, (2008),]

Consonant what Arnold believes, culture realizes a Christian purpose, in other words, culture considers in making reason and the will of God prevail. As it is said by Arnold, Culture is sweetness and light, it makes “the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.”

The ideal definition of culture, in Arnold’s perspective, is related to class and politics, which I will be talking about further. When it comes to classes, Arnold divided them as Barbarians, Philistines and the Populace.

Barbarians were defined as the aristocratic class that was in decline and losing their authority; they were characterized for aspects that included individualism, field sports, good looks, chivalry, manners, among others. Other attributes of this first-class, praised by Arnold, involved courage, self-confidence and high spirits.

The middle class, also known as Philistines, are described as materialistic because they believed that greatness and welfare “are proved by our being very rich”, they are also described as dreadful utilitarian, obsessed with machinery and seem to be hostile towards the ideals of high culture, however, they appear to be important to economic prosperity.

Finally, the working class, who was divided into two groups: the first group shared the ideals and characteristics of Philistines; the other one was the “vast mass”, also known as the Populace, represented as “raw and half-developed”, labeled for their poverty and squalor. Also, this class is mostly exploited by the Barbarians and Philistines

Arnold seems particularly hard on this class, associating them to “aliens” and claiming that he was against “all their demands for rights and liberties”, he goes further and explains that he always saw them as “working against civilization or my model of culture.” Arnold defends his point of view, arguing that culture must be above class if “we are to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere”, it is possible to state that he sees culture with relation to a broad analysis of different classes in society.

According to Raymond, who was fundamental in the founding of modern Cultural Studies[footnoteRef:29751], the word “Culture” meant both a “whole way of life” (material, intellectual and spiritual) and this was the expression that formed the basis of his 1958 work Culture and Society[footnoteRef:10750], which was a book that was received by his peers as polemical and as a manifesto for the New Left. [29751: Cultural Studies studies diverse mass phenomena, for example, soap operas] [10750: This book, published in 1958, explores how the notion of culture developed in the West, especially Great Britain, from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries.]

In 1950 existed two cultures: the first one, most aspired by the middle class, was the high culture or establishment (fine arts, high ideas); elite culture, the other one, called Popular culture was largely homogeneous, made up of the manual working class, which was culturally invisible to the establishment. Although existed these two cultures, Williams preferred culture was the “great English literary tradition” from the Romantics of the Industrial Revolution to George Orwell of the 1930s. William believed that “Culture” also involved the values, habits and institutions of the majority- a popular or working-class culture. Williams thought Culture was not only the intellectual and imaginative work of the educated, burgeois minority, but culture also had elements related to the society, to the mind and to the arts.

In Williams perception, Culture is ordinary since “every human society as its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings”, also culture as two important aspects: “the known meaning and directions, which its members are trained to; the new observations and meaning, which are offered tested”.

Williams learned a lot from the Cambridge Marxists, but also came to reject and refute some of their cultural analyses. He noted that the Marxists taught him several things: “First, they said that a culture must be finally interpreted in relation to its underlying system of production.”[footnoteRef:1913] Raymond did not accept the conception of culture according to the Marxists since they believed that “we live in a dying culture”, surrounded by ignorant masses, furthermore, Marxists created a kind of relationship between culture and production, and the observation that education was restricted, so, as it is possible to affirm, Raymond was totally against the Marxists and their interpretation of culture, describing them as “stupid” and “arrogant”. [1913: Derek Wall, (2016),]


  2. Derek Wall, 2016:
  4. -Basil Willey, 2020


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