Comment on: Michael Carrithers: is anthropology art or science?, 
in: Current Anthropology (Chicago/Il./USA: University of Chicago Press), vol. 31 no. 3 (1990), p. 274

Institute for Advanced Study, School of Social Science, Princeton, N.J.
08540, U.S.A. 12 XII 89

I do not wish to comment on the substance of Carrithers's paper, which strikes me as distracted and banal by turns. I only wish to have it on record that I do not hold the views he attributes to me. I do not believe that anthropology is not or cannot be a science, that ethnographies are novels, poems, dreams, or visions, that the reliability of anthropological knowledge is of secondary interest, or that the value of anthropological works inheres solely in their persuasiveness. On the second page of Works and Lives, in a passage invoking ladies sawed in half, I explicitly, and as I thought forcefully, both denied that I held such views and predicted that I would be accused by the easily frightened of holding them.

I do, indeed--doesn't Carrithers?--think that rhetorical effectiveness has something to do with who gets believed and who doesn't and that it matters a bit who says what, where, when, and to what purpose. But the notion that I have an "absolute realist" conception of science is a sheer fantasy. (I have never written at any length on the nature of science, but if I did it would look more like Thomas Kuhn's work than anything else; it would not look, as much as I admire him, like Dan Sperber's.) So, too, is the notion that I differ from the views of Taylor, Hacking, Polanyi, or Roth that science is a human, thus social and cultural, activity, that it does not involve the search for absolute truth, that the specific form it takes varies from field to field, even from problem to problem, that it involves more than thinking and theorizing, and that representations are one thing and what they purport to be representations of, like Carrithers's of me, quite another ..

As I have spent much of my career vigorously opposing the idea that "there is one truth at which we aim ... [one] correct representation of the world" (or, I might add, anyone correct way of representing it), inside "science" or out, and that there is some red line to be drawn across thought polarizing "insubstantial art" and "firm science," it is more than a little dismaying now to be represented as defending it. Perhaps a more interesting question, after all, than why so many anthropologists can't write is why so many can't read. Or won't.

Current Anthropology, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Jun., 1990), 274.


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