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The opening sentence of The Idea of Culture repeats, without attribution, Raymond Williams's observation that "culture" is one of the two or three most complex words in the English language. Williams is a good place to start; for pretty well everything of real substance in Eagleton's book was better expressed by Williams in the luminously clear pages on "Culture" and "Civilisation" in his erudite Keywords.
Williams notes that the notion of "culture" is derived from "husbandry, the tending of natural growth". From the sixteenth century on this was extended to a process of human development; in Bacon's words, "the culture and manurance of minds". Williams identifies Herder's Ideas of the Philosophy of the History of Mankind as a key moment in the evolution of the term. Herder argued the necessity of speaking of "cultures" in the plural, attacking the assumption of the universal histories that "civilisation" or "culture" - the historical self-development of humanity - was what we would now call a unilinear process, leading to the high and dominant point of eighteenth- century European culture.
And so multiculturalism was born and, along with this, the anti-universalist and in some respects counter-Enlightenment emphasis on national and traditional cultures and the concept of folk-culture. This, and factors such as the brutalities of early industrialization, precipitated something of a crisis in the hitherto friendly relations between the notions of "culture" and "civilization", and they jostled for supremacy. On the one hand, (organic) culture could be seen as superior to (mechanical, inhuman) civilization; on the other, (spiritual) civilization could be seen as superior to (material) culture.
"Culture" itself acquired several distinct meanings: variously, "a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development"; "a particular way of life - of a people, a period, or a group"; and "the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity". Ranging from the aesthetic to the anthropological, its meaning could encompass everything from the least conscious behaviour to the highest expression of consciousness.
"Eagleton's latest book promises to be an important addition to the field of cultural studies." Library Journal
"A magnificent reassertion of timeless cultural values." The Observer
"A voice of sanity amid the roar of turbo-capitalism."Independent
"As always, Eagleton shows a provocative wealth of learning. He is able to see the many sides of a problem, to put it in context and suggest new ways of viewing it, a healthy corrective to the soundbite society."Times Higher Education Supplement
"Stimulating and very readable. The Idea of Culture is a book which challenges our attention."The Irish Times
2. Culture in Crisis.
3. Culture Wars.
4. Culture and Nature.
5. Towards a Common Culture.