Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology

Cultural Software explains ideology as a result of the cultural evolution of bits of cultural knowhow, or memes. It is the first book to apply theories of cultural evolution to the problem of ideology and justice.

Cultural Software is now available in an online version under a Creative Commons Noncommercial Sharealike license.


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Hardcover, 352 pages
Published by Yale University Press

A New Theory of Memetics and Ideology 

 Cultural Software offers a new theory about how ideologies and beliefs grow, spread, and develop– a theory of cultural evolution, which explains both shared understandings and disagreement and diversity within cultures.

  Cultural evolution occurs through transmission and spread of cultural information and know-how– or “cultural software “– in human minds. Individuals embody cultural software: they are literally information made flesh. They spread it to others through communication and social learning. Human minds and institutions provide the ecology in which cultural software grows, thrives, and develops. Human cultural software is created out of the diverse elements of cultural transmission, also known as “memes.”

  Ideology is not a special or deviant pathology of thinking but arises from the ordinary mechanisms of human thought. Because cultural understanding is the product of evolution, it is always a patchwork quilt of older imperfect tools of understanding continually readapted to solve new problems. As a result human understanding is always partly adequate and partly inadequate to understanding and to the pursuit of justice. Cultural Software offers examples drawn from many different disciplines showing how ideological effects arise and how they contribute to injustice.

  The book also tackles the problem of mutual understanding between different world views. It shows how both ideological analysis of others and ideological self-criticism are possible and argues that cultural understanding presupposes transcendent ideals. These arguments should be especially relevant to current debates over multiculturalism, and to philosophers and political theorists who worry that different cultures have incommensurable normative conceptions.

  Cultural Software draws upon many different areas of study, including anthropology, evolutionary theory, linguistics, sociology, political theory, philosophy, social psychology and law. The book’s explanation of how shared understandings arise, how cultures grow and spread, and how people of different cultures can understand and critique each other’s views should be relevant to work in many different areas of the human sciences.

What the Reviewers Have Said about Cultural Software

“Balkin argues ingeniously that meme theory replaces more familiar critical theories of ideology, because it alone explains how people come to believe the things they believe, without reference to dubious assumptions about “false consciousness” or “hegemony.” Once we can understand this, we can act to change cultural beliefs for the better… . [Balkin] writes with lucid balance… . Balkin’s account is the most nuanced and convincing on the question of what we actually gain from meme theory.”

–Mark Kingwell, Harpers

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“After 250 years of writing about ideology, it is difficult to have something new to say that advances our understanding of this elusive concept, and yet Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology by J.M. Balkin manages to do just that… . Cultural Software is a remarkable work that will be usefully read by a broad audience.”

–Susan Silbey, American Journal of

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“Balkin’s book is a path-breaking effort to rethink legal critique using … biological and cybernetic models; the scope of its ambition and the subtlety of its execution are likely to make it a definitive work.”

–David Charny, University of Michigan Law Review

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“Balkin’s book is intelligent and extremely well crafted. Not the least of his accomplishments is a wonderfully clear presentation of the major strands of postmodern thought. Theories of social psychology, narrative, semiotics, metaphor, and metonym are discussed sympathetically but also sensibly and in understandable terms. For anyone interested in intelligible discussion of the work of Elster, Ricouer, Geertz, Goffman, Chomsky, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, and the like, this book is an excellent source.”

–Emily Sherwin, Philosophy in Review

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“Balkin takes the hot button words of current intellectual debate–culture, ideology, transcendence, pragmatism,
historicism–and manages the considerable feat of making them usable again. He avoids final judgment while at the same time redeeming the vocabulary of final judgment so that it is once again available to those who have learned the lessons of various postmodernisms. An impressive and truly helpful book.”

–Stanley Fish, Duke University

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“A brilliant and daring job of examining law in the light of new thought in the human sciences and vice versa. This is contemporary legal scholarship at its most thoughtful.”

–Jerome Bruner, Research Professor of Psychology at New York University and Senior Research Fellow in Law at New York University School of Law.

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