Distinguished Lecture: Anti Anti-Relativism (Abstract)
American Anthropologist June, 1984 Vol. 86 (2): 263-277

Geertz, Clifford

The overall concern Geertz deals with is to descend upon anti-relativism. Cultural relativism aids largely as a ghost "to scare us away from certain ways of thinking and toward others"(263). Geertz believes that the "ways of thinking" we are being scared away from are more convincing than those that are pushed towards us.

Anthropological data, not theory, has made the field of anthropology appear to be a huge argument against absolutism. The idea that some have contaminated anthropology with relativism and others have tried to eliminate it is one myth that confuses Geertzís lecture on anti anti-relativism. The broader implications of anthropological research are a debate about how to live with the implications, not about them. Once this fact is understood, and relativism and anti-relativism are seen as accustomed responses to these implications, there is an improvement in focus for the discussion.

Relativists desire for us to worry about provincialism, which is that our perceptions, intellects, and sympathies will be limited by the "overlearned and overvalued acceptances of our own society" (265). Anti-relativists want us to worry about a type of "spiritual entropy", a degradation of the mind. In this sense, everything is as significant as it is insignificant. Anti-relativism has largely contrived the anxiety it dwells in.

Geertz focuses on two ideas "of central importance" (267). First is the attempt to reinstate the concept, free of context, of "Human Nature" as a defense against relativism. Second is the attempt to reinstate the concept of "The Human Mind". The question then becomes, what should we do with the inarguable facts uncovered by research as we go about analyzing and interpreting other facets of different cultures.

These two concepts toward culture free restoration take many unequal forms. One form is on the naturalist side, the other on the rationalist. Different perspectives are also being generated out of many other ideas such as experimental psychology and artificial intelligence. Geertz then goes on to explain the concepts of "Human Nature" and "The Human Mind" with excerpts and writings of anthropologists, such as Midgeley, Spiro and Sperber.

The opposition to anti-relativism is not that it discards the relativistís approach to knowledge or morality, but that it envisions the defeat of these approaches by arranging morality beyond culture, and knowledge beyond both morality and culture.

This article was clear in the sense that Geertzís writing is, for the most part, easy to follow. He does have long sentences, which force the reader to look closely at what is stated. Geertzís wit and cleverness make for enjoyable reading. An example as he ends his lecture is, "If we wanted home truths, we should have stayed at home" (276).

In the article "Distinguished Lecture: Anti Anti-Relativism" Clifford Geertz attempts to destroy the fear of cultural relativism. To be more specific, Geertz does not want to defend relativism, but to attack anti-relativism. He points out that whatever cultural relativism may be, or originally have been, these days it serves largely as a specter to scare us away from certain ways of thinking towards others.

Geertz points out that the early practices of observation practiced by anthropologists are poorly based. He argues, however, that is not anthropological theory that has made this field of study controversial it is anthropological data. According to Geertz, the notion that it was Boas, Benedict and Melville who infected the field of anthropology with the relativistís virus is but another myth that infused this whole discussion. Instead, it is those that have bent anthropology so often that have introduced much traffic with its materials.

Geertz goes on to say that as anthropologists, we came to recognize the unscientific snobbery in calling indigenous people "natives". Even more respectable journals could show them naked without offense because "their pendulous breasts were inhuman to us as the udders of a cow." We eventually began to embrace relativism, and we went on to endorse a nice equality among cultures. Thus, the large sense of superiority that was once one of the white manís burdens was replaced by an equally heavy sense of guilt.

abstracts by: KELLY MARCIKIC (Michigan State University); PATRICIA MAIOLO York University


online source: http://www.publicanthropology.org/Archive/Aa1984.htm


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