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Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology Paperback – May 25, 1998

ISBN-13: 978-0300072884 ISBN-10: 0300072880

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 350 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (May 25, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300072880
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300072884
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,842,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap

According to J.M. Balkin, cultural evolution occurs through the transmission of cultural information and know-how-- "cultural software"--in human minds. Individuals embody cultural software and spread it to others through communication and social learning. Ideology, he contends, is neither a special nor a pathological form of thought but an ordinary product of the evolution of cultural software. Because cultural understanding is a patchwork of older imperfect tools that are continually adapted to solve new problems, human understanding is partly adequate and partly inadequate to the pursuit of justice.

Balkin offers many current and historical examples that demonstrate the causes of ideological effects and their contributions to injustice. He also enters the current debate over multiculturalism, applying his theory to problems of mutual understanding between people who hold different worldviews.

"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.

"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

From the Back Cover

"Balkin takes the hot button words of cultural 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, Due University "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 Butler, Research Professor of Psychology at New York University and Senior Research Fellow in Law at New York University of Law. "Balking 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, Harper's "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 Sociology "Balkin's book is a path-breaking effort to rethink legal critique using these 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 "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 butu 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 --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 32 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 8, 1999
Format: Paperback
This is a wonderfully wise, erudite, and well-written book. Don't let the title fool you. The book is not about forms of software designed to promote culture. The book is about cultural understanding, and culture software is an apt metaphor, helping Balkin to explain his position. As Balkin demonstrates in a wide variety of contexts, our tools of cultural understanding are a double-edged sword leading us to progress on the one hand and substantial injustice on the other. The book features an enormously valuable guide to and critique of the literature on ideology, a persuasive account of the pragmatic necessity of making transcendent claims about truth and justice, and extremely rich discussions of the ways we think about the world, including, e.g., narration, metaphor, and paired oppositions. Particularly impressive is Balkin's ability to crisply, accessibly, and fairly treat a wide variety of important thinkers from many different disciples. This book should appeal to all who try to think broadly whether their primary intellectual allegiance is to Anthropology, History, Law, Philosophy (analytic or continental), Political Science, Psychology, or Sociology.
Steven Shiffrin, Cornell University
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 22, 1998
Format: Paperback
I highly recommend this book, especially for scholars in law, philosophy, and political theory. It is one of the most insightful and wide-ranging books I have read. Balkin develops a profound and sophisticated theory of cultural understanding - the ways in which individuals think, form their beliefs, values, and identities, and evaluate each other's ideas. Balkin explains cultural understanding by using the very appropriate metaphor of "cultural software." With this metaphor, he crafts a theory of cultural understanding that accounts for the effects of historical change on shared belief systems as well as variation and disagreement among individuals in the same culture. Balkin's topic is one that is both incredibly complex yet essential to many fields: conceptions of cultural understanding underpin much of the scholarly discourse in philosophy, sociology, political theory, and law. Although his project is quite ambitious, he engages it with remarkable clarity, depth, and sophistication. The book is unusual in that it masterfully synthesizes numerous diverse fields, including philosophy, law, psychology, biology, and sociology. Balkin is at home in each of these fields, displaying command over the thought of such diverse thinkers such as Plato, Geertz, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Gadamer, Goffman, and Mannheim.
Balkin is a fantastic writer, able to explain his concepts very clearly without resorting to excessive jargon and without sacrificing complexity or nuance. The richness of his thought is manifested when he applies his theories to concrete issues in law and politics, such as his powerful analysis of racism toward the end of the book. The book is also worth reading for Balkin's absolutely superb discussion of narratives, one of the most illuminating I have read. In sum, this book is definitely worth reading; Balkin has set forth a serious and convincing theory to be reckoned with.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Enjolras TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 23, 2011
Format: Paperback
Theories should have predictive power and present insights otherwise available. I don't see what Balkin's Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology gives us. Much of the book seems to contrast his theory to other great philosophers, but the exact contours of his theory remain elusive. Perhaps this is because of the metaphor of software prevalent throughout the book. It just doesn't seem to fit what he's describing. He describes an interactive process between individuals and cultural power, but software is generally created by one person or group and installed into a passive computer. I suspect the metaphor stems from the fact that Balkin wrote this book near the height of the tech bubble (today it would probably be the "cultural app"). Still, he does manage to parry his arguments against a wide range of philosophers and at least exposes the weaknesses in their theories, if not the strengths of his. Beware though that this book will only be readable to professional students of philosophy; layreaders will be left bewildered.
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4 of 43 people found the following review helpful By noone on October 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
The eastern churches, for example, banned musical instruments because they were believed to diminish the spirit. No one in the eastern church ever refers to him or her self as "an instrument of god."

When one picks up a tool, one both limits oneself while extending one's abilities.

People talk about interfacing with each other now. An interface is something between two computers.

As you have probably surmised, my argument is only with Belkin's terminology. I believe it dooms his book.

I could never call anything brilliant that suggests 'human software.' The conceit dissappoints.

I gave a star only because the amazon commenting program requires a star rating. It is intended to mean nothing. I am critiquing only the terminology here.
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