The modern term "culture" is based on a term used by the
Ancient Roman orator
Cicero in his
Tusculanae Disputationes, where he wrote of a cultivation of the soul or "cultura animi,"
 using an
metaphor for the development of a philosophical soul, understood
teleologically as the highest possible ideal for human development.
Samuel Pufendorf took over this metaphor in a modern context, meaning something similar, but no longer assuming that philosophy was man's natural perfection. His use, and that of many writers after him, "refers to all the ways in which human beings overcome their original
barbarism, and through artifice, become fully human."
In 1986, philosopher
Edward S. Casey wrote, "The very word culture meant 'place tilled' in Middle English, and the same word goes back to Latin colere, 'to inhabit, care for, till, worship' and cultus, 'A cult, especially a religious one.' To be cultural, to have a culture, is to inhabit a place sufficiently intensive to cultivate it—to be responsible for it, to respond to it, to attend to it caringly."
Culture described by
... originally meant the cultivation of the soul or mind, acquires most of its later modern meaning in the writings of the 18th-century German thinkers, who were on various levels developing
Rousseau's criticism of "
Enlightenment". Thus a contrast between "culture" and "
civilization" is usually implied in these authors, even when not expressed as such.
In the words of anthropologist
E.B. Tylor, it is "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Alternatively, in a contemporary variant, "Culture is defined as a social domain that emphasizes the practices, discourses and material expressions, which, over time, express the continuities and discontinuities of social meaning of a life held in common.
Cambridge English Dictionary states that culture is "the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time."
Terror management theory posits that culture is a series of activities and worldviews that provide humans with the basis for perceiving themselves as "person[s] of worth within the world of meaning"—raising themselves above the merely physical aspects of existence, in order to deny the animal insignificance and death that Homo sapiens became aware of when they acquired a larger brain.
The word is used in a general sense as the evolved ability to categorize and represent experiences with
symbols and to act imaginatively and creatively. This ability arose with the evolution of
behavioral modernity in humans around 50,000 years ago, and is often thought to be unique to humans, although some other species have demonstrated similar, though much less complex, abilities for social learning. It is also used to denote the complex networks of practices and accumulated knowledge and ideas that is transmitted through social
interaction and exist in specific human groups, or cultures, using the plural form.