After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist.
By Clifford Geertz.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 198 pages, $22.95,
Reviewed by Melford E. Spiro
A new book by Clifford Geertz is an event. For if Claude LÈvi-Strauss was the most prominent anthropologist of the 1950s and 1960s, then arguably Geertz acquired that status in the 1970s and 1980s; moreover, like LÈvi-Strauss, Geertz's influence has been felt not only in anthropology but in the other human sciences, as well. Their respective messages are, of course, diametrically opposed, for while LÈvi-Strauss's structuralism takes its departure from the putatively universal characteristics of the human mind, Geertz's interpretivism takes its departure from the allegedly unique meanings engendered by each cultural tradition. Again, whereas LÈvi-Strauss employs an "objective" method for the explanation of cultural materials taken from a wide range of human societies, Geertz employs a hermeneutic technique, formerly associated with literary criticism, for the interpretation of the cultures of individual societies.
But Geertz differs from LÈvi-Strauss in yet anther way. Unlike the latter, whose important technical works involve the secondary analysis of cultural materials (especially kinship and myths) collected by others, Geertz is preeminently a field anthropologist who has devoted many years to the first-hand study of various societies and cultures (Javanese, Balinese, Moroccan). Such an extensive and intensive immersion in the minutiae of field data is as rare as it is admirable.
As its subtitle--Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist--suggests, the present book is both a looking back at an academic career and a summing up of an intellectual and research career. The academic career begins in Antioch College, where, unexpectedly enough, Geertz's under-graduate thesis was an attempt to "marry Freud to Spinoza." It proceeds to Harvard, where, as a graduate student, Geertz was present at the moment of creation--the creation, spearheaded by Talcott Parsons, C. Kluckhohn, and H. Murray, of an interdisciplinary and theoretically informed social science. Although in Geertz's view, this project ultimately failed, still the influence of Parsons and Kluckhohn on his own thinking is, I believe, more evident than he acknowledges.
From Harvard his academic career moved to the University of Chicago, where Geertz (together with David Schneider) initiated a new creation--symbolic anthropology--which, he says, was nothing less than an attempt to "redefine the ethnographic enterprise whole and entire." This "move toward meaning," Geertz forthrightly remarks, "has proved a proper revolution: sweeping, durable, turbulent, and consequential." From Chicago, Geertz moved in 1970 to the Institute for Advanced Study, where he has remained ever since. If Chicago, he writes, was "the most beneficent and supportive, as well as the most stimulating, academic environment I have ever experienced," then the Institute has been "the most difficult." Indeed, most of Geertz's discussion of his tenure at that singular institution is an account of struggle and conflict over turf, over appointments, and over intellectual direction.
Engaging as it is, Geertz devotes only one of the six chapters of After the Fact to his academic career; the others are concerned with his research and intellectual careers. With regard to the former, this book both summarizes his earlier research of the 1950s in Java (in the town of Pare) and Morocco (in the town of Sefrou) and also, based on his later research, describes the dramatic changes they have undergone since then. Moreover, by tacking between Pare and Sefrou, Geertz successfully deploys the social and cultural characteristics of the one to deepen our understanding of the characteristics of the other. Strangely, however, there is virtually nothing in this book about Bali, and considering that Geertz is perhaps best known for his paradigmatic and immensely influential paper on the Balinese cockfight, this omission is strange indeed.
In any event, for those who, like myself, have derived much intellectual stimulation and anthropological instruction from Geertz's previous works, these chapters on Java and Morocco will not disappoint. They are marked by the impressive learning, the illuminating insights, the marvelous description of scene and event, the masterful summary of complex social history, and the evocative characterization of cultural heritage, as well as the elegant style, the pithy phrase, and the illuminating trope, that we have come to expect from vintage Geertz. Moreover, these chapters are more than ethnographic, the discussions of Java and Morocco being occasions for the elucidation of his considered views of theory, method, the ethnographic enterprise and of his vision of anthropology. In sum, an intellectual feast.
And yet this is ultimately, at least for me, a sad book, for from all that fieldwork and the many years spent pondering its significance, there emerges only one anthropological (as opposed to ethnographic) finding: namely, things are always different--different across space in diverse societies and different across time in one and the same society. Other than this not-very-illuminating generalization regarding social and cultural diversity, there is in this book no other empirical generalization, nor is there any theoretical formulation, conceptual proposition, or analytic principle that might explain this diversity, or any other characteristic of human social and cultural life. Their absence, as we shall see, is not adventitious, but principled, deriving from Geertz's conception of the limitations of the human sciences.
Although the thesis that everything is different may seem banal--after all, it is also true of snowflakes and raindrops--it is in fact momentous. For unlike the trivial differences found among snowflakes or raindrops, the differences that Geertz sees among societies and cultures are of a magnitude that renders those societies virtually, if not actually, incommensurable. This does not. however, mean--as some Geertz watchers, including some reviewers of this book, erroneously believe--that Geertz subscribes to the epistemological relativism of post-modernism, according to which non-Western peoples are Other and hence opaque to the understanding of Western anthropology. On the contrary. In three incisive pages (pp. 128-31) he rejects this nihilistic epistemological stance of postmodernism, together with its ideological stance (e.g., its views regarding orientalism, cultural hegemony, symbolic domination), as entailing the end of anthropology as he conceives it, that is, as a comparative project.
This is not to say that Geertz subscribes to the comparativist goals of, for example, a Tylor, a LÈvi-Strauss, or a Murdock, for his is much more limited; that is, it is ethnographic, not theoretical. In short, for Geertz comparison affords an opportunity to better understand one society or culture by contrasting it with another, but it cannot generate theoretical propositions that might explain their differences, let alone account for their similarities. If the latter goal is precluded by Geertz's radical conception of social and cultural diversity, the former and latter alike are precluded by his negative view regarding the possibilities of social science theory.
This view, once again, does not stem from Geertz's acceptance of the post-modernist claim that anthropological theory is nothing more than an exercise in cultural imperialism or symbolic domination. Rather, it stems from his view that everything is chaotic and in flux, from his materialistic conception of scientific theory, and from his rejection of metaphysical realism. Given these working premises, which I shall examine below, it is little wonder that Geertz is of the opinion that social and cultural theory cannot, in the nature of the case, consist of anything more than "banalities." Thus, for example, if power is depicted as some sort of featureless, universal force producing an abstract, invariant relationship called "domination" Ö[then this] leave[s] us with hardly anything to say but that big fish eat little ones, the weak go to the wall, power tends to corrupt, uneasy lies the head, and master and man need one another to exist: the dim banalities of theory, (p. 40).
While this contention is surely true, it overlooks the fact that the admonition "garbage in, garbage out" applies not only to computers but also to theorists. While I do not doubt that there are some "theorists" who characterize power as "some sort of featurelessÖ" and who consequently construct banal "theories" of the kind mentioned in the quotation, nevertheless to instance these theories to support the claim that social science theory is necessarily banal is like instancing the sermons of Jerry Falwell to support the claim that Christian theology is necessarily vacuous. Surely Geertz, without too much effort, might have pointed to other theories that, though he might disagree with them, are nevertheless not banal.
Indeed, in my opinion the main problem with social science theories is not that they are banal but that social scientists--and this holds particularly for interpretivists--are only rarely concerned with, or else employ a method that is incapable of, testing them. As a result, it is hard to winnow out good theories from the bad because both remain in the realm of speculation. In any event, in my view Geertz is pessimistic about the possibilities of social science theory not because, in the nature of the case, it is banal but because of his adoption of the three working premises mentioned previously:
1. The (first) premise that everything is chaotic and in flux (e.g., pp. 19-20, 48-49, 166-67). Although unexceptionable, this premise is as much a challenge to the physical as to the social sciences. After all, it is the physical world that James characterized as a booming, buzzing confusion, and if nonetheless we do not experience it as such, it is because--to utter a banality of my own--we have teamed to perceive that world through the lens of powerful theories that impose order on its apparent chaos. Now it may be the case that Geertz is correct in claiming that similar conceptual order cannot, in principle, be discovered in the human world, but that is an article of faith for which, in my opinion, there exists no compelling warrant. To believe that such a warrant exists is to refuse to acknowledge the impressive order that has been achieved, say, by linguistic theory or psychodynamic theory or kinship theory, to name but a few.
2. The (second) premise that scientific theory is necessarily materialistic (e.g., p. 127). In describing his "interpretive" project, Geertz observes that human beings arepossessed of intentions, visions, memories, hopes, and moods, as well as of passions and judgments, and these have more than a little to do with what they do and why they do it. An attempt to understand their social and cultural life in terms of forces, mechanisms, and drives alone, objectivized variables set in systems of closed causality, seems unlikely of success.
To each of these first two propositions many non-interpretivists, myself included, would say yes and yes again. They would say no, however, to the implicit contention that forces, mechanisms, and the like are alone the constituents of causal (explanatory) theories or that if the important constituents of human social action are intentions, passions, and the like then such action is only susceptible of interpretive assays, not causal explanation. But if, as Geertz says, these psychological characteristics "have more than a little to do with what [human beings] do and why they do it," then surely intentions, passions, and the like, for all their being nonmaterial, are nothing if not causal. And if that is the case, then what people do and why they do it are susceptible of causal explanation, and nonbanal explanatory (causal) theories can be--and indeed have been--constructed to do precisely that.
That being so, then in addition to inventing ad hoc, intuitively based interpretations, it is also possible to adduce systematic, theoretically derived explanations for what people do and why they do it. Admittedly, none of the current explanatory theories (which run the gamut from psychobiological to psychodynamic) enjoys the status of God's truth--all are subject to important modification, and all require further testing, more especially in non-Western societies. But that surely is one of the purposes (as well as responsibilities) of a genuinely comparative anthropology.
Many contemporary anthropologists, however (and many other social scientists, too) are disdainful of such a project. Since, as they see it, the human psyche is wholly culturally constituted and moreover every culture is unique, the notion that culturally relevant interpretations might be generated by or derived from some transcultural explanatory theory is absurd. Although that is the radical relativists' view, it is not Geertz's. For although he is (he once said) an "anti anti-relativist," nevertheless he is not--insofar, at least, as the human psyche is concerned--a radical relativist, or any other kind. That, at any rate, is the testimony of this book.
Thus, halfway through a description of the cultural differences between Java and Morocco, Geertz makes the following observation: "People, as people, are doubtless much the same everywhere. That is what you commit yourself to in calling them people, rather than Egyptians, Buddhists, or speakers of Turkish" (p. 51).
But if people as people are much the same everywhere, then that is because human "intentions, visions, memories, hopes, and moods, as well asÖpassions and judgments"--in short, the characteristics in virtue of which people are people--are also much the same. And if these characteristics "have more than a little to do with what [human beings] do and why they do it," then it would seem hard for Geertz to deny that in principle, at least, it should be possible to construct valid explanatory theories of human social and cultural life. That he nevertheless continues to take a dim view of that possibility is explained, I believe, by his third working premise:
The rejection of metaphysical realism. The scientific enterprise--if I may be
permitted a final banality--rests on the assumption of a mind-independent
reality, that is, a reality that exists independently of our representations of
it. On this assumption, known as metaphysical realism, scientific (or any other)
propositions and theories are true to the extent that they correspond to--that
is, accurately represent--the facts comprising that reality. This is the
so-called correspondence theory of knowledge and truth.
Geertz, however (together with the postmodernists, with whom he otherwise disagrees) rejects metaphysical realism and its correspondence theory of truth, a rejection that is signaled by the title of his book. That title. After the Fact, is, Geertz explains, a double pun, one of whose tropological construalsmeans the post-positivist critique of empirical realism, the move away from simple [sic] correspondence theories of truth and knowledge which makes of the very term "fact" a delicate matter, (pp. 167-68).
In fact, it makes it very delicate indeed, for the consequence of this move away from correspondence theories, Geertz acknowledges, is that there is not much assurance or sense of closure, not even much of a sense of knowing what it is one precisely is after, in so indefinite a quest, amidst such various people, over such a diversity of times, (pp. 167-68).
In short, although Geertz's bold acknowledgment that people, as people, are much the same everywhere opens up the potential for genuine explanatory theory, thereby providing an escape hatch from the prison of cognitive agnosticism, his rejection of metaphysical realism effectively closes that hatch. Consequently, although in reflecting on his own rich research career, Geertz can conclude his book by saying that anthropology is "an excellent way, interesting, dismaying, useful, and amusing, to expend a life," he is unable to say that it is also an excellent way to discover reliable knowledge. Which is why, for all this book's brilliance, I nevertheless characterized it above as ultimately a "sad" book.
Melford E. Spiro is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. His most recent books are Anthropological Other or Burmese Brother: Studies in Cultural Analysis and Culture and Human Nature. Each of these titles have been reissued by Transaction.
online source: EBSCO
Using this text is also subject to the general HyperGeertz-Copyright-regulations based on Austrian copyright-law (2001), which - in short - allows a personal, nonprofit & educational (all must apply) use of material stored in data bases, including a restricted redistribution of such material, if this is also for nonprofit purposes and restricted to a specific scientific community (both must apply), and if full and accurate attribution to the author, original source and date of publication, web location(s) or originating list(s) is given ("fair-use-restriction"). Any other use transgressing this restriction is subject to a direct agreement between a subsequent user and the holder of the original copyright(s) as indicated by the source(s). HyperGeertz@WorldCatalogue cannot be held responsible for any neglection of these regulations and will impose such a responsibility on any unlawful user.
Each copy of any part of a transmission of a HyperGeertz-Text must therefore contain this same copyright notice as it appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission, including any specific copyright notice as indicated above by the original copyright holder and/ or the previous online source(s).