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Available Light

Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics

By Clifford Geertz

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000, 270 pages

Reviewed by
Richard A. Shweder
(This review first appeared in Science, November 24, 2000 issue.)

Richard A. Shweder is Professor of Human Development at the University of Chicago.
He is coeditor (with Martha Minow and Hazel Markus) of the Fall 2000 issue of Daedalus:
Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences entitled "The End of Tolerance: Engaging Cultural Differences".
Mailing address: Committee on Human Development, University of Chicago, 5730 South Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, Illinois 60637.

For three decades Clifford Geertz has been the single most influential and the single most controversial cultural anthropologist in the United States.

Throughout his career has put his cognitive and literary skills to work "ferreting out the singularities of other peoples' ways of life", cultivating a provocative variety of philosophical pluralism and promoting the idea that there is no fixed kernel to human nature. No "mind for all cultures." No "deep down homo." No "dog under the skin." "If anthropology is obsessed with anything", he writes, "it is with how much difference difference makes" (p. 197). "If you want a good rule-of thumb generalization from anthropology I would suggest the following: Any sentence that begins, 'All societies have' is either baseless or banal." (page 135).

In many ways his intellectual style has exemplified (and given distinctive character) to his beliefs. He is a Zen master of discernment and distinctions who recoils at typologies, grand theories and universal generalizations and rejects abstractionism and reductionism as methods for the social sciences. He is a discriminating writer with meticulous sensibilities and broad knowledge and experience of the disciplines who feels most at home taking the measure of some complex scene (for example, the contemporary multicultural scene, both inside and outside the academy). "Rushing to judgment", he writes, "is more than a mistake, it's a crime." (page 45) He is Ludwig Wittgenstein (the latter day philosophical Saint) reborn as an American anthropologist who believes that meaning is use, that reality is a complex continuum of overlapping likenesses and differences that should not be placed in neat boxes, and certainly not two boxes. He is the mahatma of "thick description." Most of all he likes to look at actual cases. "I don't do systems", he writes, and his antipathy for general laws and formal principles is apparent. He is clearly weary of most of the (from his point of view) tired old oppositions (subjective vs. objective, humanities vs. science, universals vs. particulars) that fuel academic debate. He prefers to dwell in the ambiguous middle. But he is also an ironist. And he just loves to quip and to sally ("It is important to say something and not just threaten to say something"), and otherwise entertain his readers (and infuriate his critics) with evocative (and at times wickedly humorous) turns of phrase, such as "relax and enjoy it ethnocentrism" or "culture-free conceptions of what we amount to as basic, sticker-price homo and essential, no additives sapiens".

His critics are many. Almost everyone initially gets side-tracked by the visibility and distinctiveness of Clifford Geertz's writing style, which is like Cyrano de Bergerac's nose. It is conspicuous, it is spectacular, but (especially for a reviewer) it is best to just ignore it, for the sake of getting on with a discussion of his ideas. He is a writer, and no one has ever accused him of being obscure.

Beyond reactions to style, the big time lumpers in the social sciences feel frustrated with him because he is a splitter who is not so easy to dismiss. He argues that knowledge is "local" and most social science generalizations restricted in scope, for which he has no regrets. He writes, "I have never been able to understand why such comments as 'your conclusions, such as they are, only cover two million people [Bali], or fifteen million [Morocco, or sixty-five million [Java], and only over some years or centuries' are supposed to be criticisms." (page 137).

The universalizers (mistakenly) think he is a radical relativist. The positivists (mistakenly) think he is anti-science. And the skeptical postmodernists, (by which I mean those scholars who really are subjectivists, nihilists and radical relativists, which Mr. Geertz is not) think he is a middle-of-the-road liberal and an antiquarian who still believes there is some good work to be done with that old fashioned idea of "culture".

But I am a fan, and not just because I am a neo-antiquarian. I am a fan of this author because he is one of the world's most significant proponents of cultural, moral and scientific pluralism (which is not the same as radical relativism and is certainly not the same as being "anti-science"). Relativism "disables judgment", he notes as he occupies his middle ground, while absolutism "removes it from history." (page 72) And I am a fan of his new book. Available Light, a collection of eleven essays, is a welcome, predictably fascinating and highly elucidative exposition of the very best of Mr. Geertz's brand of pluralism, and it will do much to set the record straight.

The papers are bound together by a series of interconnected themes. Theme 1: Diversity is inherent in the human condition. Theme 2: There is no universal essence to human nature that strongly determines human behavior. Theme 3: Across time and space (history and culture) human nature is continuously transformed by the never-ending attempt of particular groups of human beings - Balinese, Moroccans, Northern European Protestants - to understand themselves and to create a social world that makes manifest their self-understandings. Theme 4: In science, as in life, securing universal agreement about what is good, true, beautiful or efficient is rarely possible and, even more importantly, the ecumenical impulse to value uniformity (convergence in belief) over variety and to overlook, devalue or even eradicate "difference" is not a good thing. Culture is not icing, he writes. Biology is not cake. Differences are not necessarily shallow. Likeness is not necessarily deep.

Many of the essays in Available Light are gripping. In "Anti Anti-Relativism" he quotes Montaigne. "Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice for we have no other criterion of reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country we live in." "That notion", Geertz writes, "whatever its problems, and however more delicately expressed, is not likely to go entirely away unless anthropology does." (page 45). I am convinced there is far more to moral judgment than Montaigne imagined. Nevertheless insisting on a non-ethnocentric separation of the parochial from the transcendent (how easy it is to confuse familiar local evaluations with "Universal Reason") is what Clifford Geertz's pluralism is all about.

In "The Uses of Diversity" Mr. Geertz describes the aims of pluralism: "Imagining difference (which of course does not mean making it up, but making it evident) remains a science of which we all have a need." (page 85). Why? Because "the image of a world full of people so passionately fond of each other's cultures that they aspire only to celebrate one another does not seem to me a clear and present danger; the image of one full of people happily apotheosizing their heroes and diabolizing their enemies alas does." (page 86).

Turning his attention to the disciplines, our author, pluralist/anti-essentialist/dissolver of dichotomies, invites us to abandon the idea that there is a "unity to science". But he does not stop there. Mr. Geertz is often pigeon-holed as a "humanist.' In one of the more eye-opening sections of an already riveting book ("The Strange Entanglement: Charles Taylor and the Natural Sciences"; also "The Legacy of Thomas Kuhn: The Right Text At the Right Time"), he defies all classification by inviting us to swear off the addictive idea that the academy can be divided into "two cultures" (the natural sciences versus the humanities; the positivists vs. the interpretivists). Quoting the philosopher Richard Rorty he asks, "what method is common to paleontology and particle physics?""What relation to reality is shared by topology and entomology?" Such questions Mr. Geertz argues are hardly more useful than asking "is sociology closer to physics than to literary criticism?" or "is political science more hermeneutic than microbiology, chemistry more explanatory than psychology" (page 150).

All this is quite dazzling and refreshing. These are the days when the biologist E.O. Wilson is having widely publicized visions of a state of "consilience" in the disciplines and travels around the country marketing Enlightenment dreams about the unification or convergence of the natural and human sciences under the banner of biology. In astonishing contrast, when Clifford Geertz inspects the sciences and humanities he finds "polycentric collections" of different, semi-independent or incommensurate projects, "loose assemblages" of assumptions, vocabularies and research techniques. There are no tears in his eyes when he announces that unity is nowhere in sight. He is wary of imperial decrees and cautions us to beware of all forms of "destructive integrity" (intellectual and political).

This is what Mr. Geertz has to say about the fields of psychology and the cognitive neurosciences. "Paradigms, wholly new ways of going about things, come along not by the century, but by the decade, sometimes, it almost seems, by the month." "It takes either a preternaturally focused, dogmatical individual, who can shut out any ideas but his or her own, or a mercurial, hopelessly inquisitive one, who can keep dozens of them in play at once, to remain upright amidst this tumble of programs, promises and proclamations." (page 188). Amidst the tumble he gives his blessings to "cultural psychology", which is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry concerned with the role of meaning in producing and explaining psychological differences across human populations (the relevant essays are "Imbalancing Act: Jerome Bruner's Cultural Psychology" and "Culture, Mind, Brain/Brain, Mind, Culture"). While many cultural anthropologists remain stuck in a state of irrational "psycho-phobia", avoiding all research on the mental states of individuals, Clifford Geertz, the Viceroy of cultural analysis, calls for a semiotic study of the emotions. He recognizes that emotions are personal experiences and not merely words, ideologies or symbols. He writes, "however they may be characterized and however one comes to have them, feelings are felt" (page 212), which will be news to some anthropologists.

And then there is "The World in Pieces: Culture and Politics at the End of the Century" in which Mr. Geertz takes on "borderless capitalism" and the connections between globalization, multiculturalism and the reemergence of ethnic and religious identities. Against the odds he is in search of a liberalism "with both the courage and the capacity to engage itself with a differenced world". His version of liberalism, he notes, is committed to state neutrality in matters of personal belief, to individualism, liberty, procedure, the universality of human rights and, especially, the equitable distribution of life chances. Critics of liberalism around the world argue that liberals are prevented by those commitments "from recognizing the force and durability of ties of religion, language, custom, locality, race, and descent in human affairs, or from regarding the entry of such considerations into civic life as other than pathological - primitive, backward, regressive, and irrational." Quite characteristically, as always resisting all received dichotomies, he replies, "I do not think this is the case."

Available Light is also full of sharp judgments about well-known scholars and fashionable schools of thought. About "sociobiology": "a degenerative research program destined to expire in its own confusions". (page 51) About James Clifford, the skeptical postmodern historian of anthropology whose recent essays Mr. Geertz finds "ephemeral" (page 116): "Clifford, whatever his originality and his openness to experiment seems stalled, unsteady, fumbling for direction." (page 118) About Charles Taylor, the philosopher who is a celebrated critic of "the ambition to model the study of man on the natural sciences", and whose supposed opposition between doing "hermeneutics" and doing "natural science" is dissolved by our author: "It is an enormous pity that some of the most consequential developments of contemporary culture are taking place beyond the attention of one of that culture's profoundest students." (page 157). And then there are the anthropologists Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere. Their heated and widely publicized debate about whether the 18th century Hawaiians really believed that Captain Cook was a God (Sahlins says "yes", Obeyesekere says "no") was evaluated by Mr. Geertz in the New York Review (and is republished here). Assessing the controversy (is it "yes" or is it "no"?) and taking the measure of the two antagonists, he writes: "To all this highly carpentered and suspiciously seamless argument [by Marshall Sahlins], Obeyesekere gives a resounding 'no' - more apparently for moral and political reasons than for empirical ones." Contemplate that sentence and the skill and temper of the mind that crafted it.

But most of all, this collection helps set some records straight. In Available Light Mr. Geertz is critical not only of the intellectual fanatics in the academy (the total systems builders, the "it all comes down to" types, those who fancy "theory-of-everything" notions) but of the infidels (the skeptical anti-science postmodernists) as well. This may surprise some of his detractors, who often misread his variety of pluralism as a version of radically skeptical postmodernism. But his detractors are wrong.

That is not to say that Clifford Geertz is obviously right that he can have his cake and eat it too. Rejecting subjectivism while refusing to place anything (other than banalities) outside of culture is not an easy thing to do. The embrace of both liberalism and durable bonds of community is still a stretch. And reading him (Ludwig Wittgenstein, his kindred spirit, has the same effect) one is left wanting something more, which Mr. Geertz will certainly refuse to give us - namely more systematic theorizing, especially about his own philosophy of translation. If there is so very little that transcends culture and history, how it is possible for "others" to be both different from us yet comprehensible to us at the same time? A fully theorized pluralism may well have to take us beyond any particular culture and force us to step outside of history, for the sake of it own systematic justification. But that is where serious engagement with this important book should begin.

Available Light opens with an autobiographical address, "Passage and Accident: A Life of Learning", delivered to the American Council of Learned Societies in 1999, and described by its author as an act of "public self-concealment." The G.I. bill (the "degreeing of America") launched him into academia where, as he puts it, he just kept catching the right wave. He goes from Antioch College ("the reigning attitude, Jewish, all irony, impatience and auto-critique") to the Department of Social Relations at Harvard ("a gathering of fugitives from traditional departments") to the University of Chicago, where he was a major voice of the "symbolic" or "interpretive" anthropology movement of the 1960s. The next big wave was the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he has represented anthropology for the last thirty years. Portentously, invoking images of the sunset years, the life narrative draws to a conclusion: "As my friends and co-conspirators age and depart and I, myself, stiffen and grow uncited, I shall certainly be tempted to intervene and set things right once more". (page 20) All of which reminds me of a story about the five stages in the career of an academic consultant. Let's call him Clifford Geertz. Stage 1: Who is Clifford Geertz? Stage 2: What do you know about Clifford Geertz? Stage 3: I want Clifford Geertz! Stage 4: I want someone just like Clifford Geertz. Stage 5: Who is Clifford Geertz? If thirty minutes ago you didn't know the answer to that question you should definitely read this book. Everyone else has probably already read it, hot off the press.

Richard Shweder, November, 2000.

Copyright, ©Richard Shweder, 2000-2014

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(15Dec2001 rev - Add top of page frame-breaker.)
(21Aug2003 rev - Add anchor to quotes of Geertz on "relativism disables judgment.")
(23Sep2005 rev - Add 'World in Pieces' anchor to apropos paragraph.)
(24Oct2007 rev - Update copyright. Slightly reformat. Massive respell check.)
(20Apr2010 rev - Make page current.)