Preface to the 2000 Edition of 
"Local Knowledge"

(by Clifford Geertz)

It is hard to decide which is the more difficult task: starting a line of thought, or sustaining one. As anyone who has tried to publish a sequel, produce a spinoff, or get money from a foundation for extending a going enterprise rather than for launching a "cutting edge" project knows, the "infinite grandeur of beginnings" gives a force to new departures not available to adjuncts and continuations. It may be better the second time around, but is certainly isn't easier.

Local Knowledge, with its rather limp promise of "further essays," was clearly a pushing on from established positions. Published an exact ten years after my The Interpretation of Cultures announced a concern with "webs of meaning," "thick description," and "deep play," "the confusion of tongues," and "the said of social discourse," it was neither a rerun nor a new departure; it was an attempt to make good on some broad and incautious claims. Having called various sorts of spirits from the vasty deep, I thought it necessary to show that at least some of them had come.

As I was unable to deliver on everything advertised in my initial promotion--a not uncommon failing in the human sciences--I gathered, in this follow-up volume, only such of my writings that seemed to bear in one fashion or another on the question of the cultural frames of knowing, on, as I put it in one of my subtitles, "the ethnography of thought." Pieces on Social Thought ("the refiguration of"), Moral Imagination ("the social history of"), and Anthropological Understanding ("the nature of") were followed by ones on Commonsense, Art, and Authority as culturally constructed conceptual systems, on the contemporary styles of la pens»e academique, and finally and most extensively, on the forms and variations of legal reasoning east and west, professional and popular, forensic and jurisprudential. The general philosophical

cast of my project, in itself and empirical not a speculative enterprise, thus became more marked and apparent. Or, perhaps, it only became more uncertain: "le perplexit»" and "les embarras" of Diderot's "genre s»rieux," invoked in my ironical epigraph, were fairly well displayed. As with any science (and, against all the protests of Materialists, Realists, Positivists, Critical Rationalists, and, more recently, crazed Hyper-textualists, I regard my work as some sort of science), the deeper you get in, the odder things begin to look. Whatever we are moving toward, it is not omega, an asymptote, or a theory of everything.

But if Everything In General is out of reach, and likely to stay there, not everything in particular is. The repeating theme that emerges from these miscellaneous "further essays," and which constitutes amid their miscellany their common aim and subject, has to do with that most ancient, most obsessive, and, as usually framed, most misleading of epistemological concerns: the relation between abstract and concrete knowledge. Generalizations and cases, laws and instances, universals and particulars, knowings-that and knowings-how, synoptic visions and immediate observations, the world around here and the world overall--"erklren" and "verstehen," "savoir," and "conna”tre," "explanation" and "understanding"--are normally opposed to one another as last analysis metaphilosophical choices, once made, forever in place; fatalities of reason. Here, however, they are regarded as cooked up and concocted interpretive styles, meaning-seeking strategies to be used when usable, to be ignored when not: ways in which, to one end or another, thought is composed, sense made.

The notion that the surer grasp of unshapely and incongruent, even unique, particulars is as proper an aim of science as the abstractive formulation of exceptionless regularities--and is, often enough, more illuminating as well--has grown steadily more acceptable over the last quarter century as rationalism stumbled, positivism evaporated, and "the prism face of Newton" (the image is Wordsworth's) faded from view. The notion that all knowledge aspires to the condition of mathematical physics, or, even less plausibly, to diagrammatic economics, lacks the air of simple obviousness that it had even a few short years ago. Everything, from the philosophical reconsideration of the nature of natural law to the spread of perspectival, observer-dependent explanation, has strengthened the claims of case-based knowledge to scientific standing. "Heaven in a grain of sand" is no longer just a pantheistic trope.

It is, however, still a trope, and one, in fact, I have abused before to put off difficult questions. Whatever its suggestive power, multum-in-parvo imagery leaves the central issue rhetorically glossed over: how does one move among

(across, over, amid, through, between) cases, instances, and granular observations to broader, more elevated--heavenly is too much to expect--perceptions? If anthropologists, to bring the matter directly home, are not to be mere peddlers of singularities--oddities, astonishments, and not-in-the-south exceptions to received opinions--they must contrive to place such singularities in an informing proximity, connect them in such a way as to cause them to cast light on one another. Contextualization is the name of the game.

This is how Local Knowledge (the book) is to be read, how it was intended to be read: as a series of demonstrations of the explanatory power of setting sui generis phenomena in echoing connection. Whether it be a Balinese widow burning, a Moroccan family name, a Navajo hermaphrodite, a Yoruba carving, an Elizabethan pageant, or a Muslim legal procedure, the effort is to preserve the individuality of things and enfold them in larger worlds of sense at the same time. Doubtless, method is undeveloped, technique crude, and success uneven. But it is the sort of thing one can get better at doing, given opportunity to practice. We learn, a poet once said, though he could as well have been an anthropologist, by going where we have to go.

Clifford Geertz 

Princeton August 1999

Preface to the 2000 Edition, in: Local knowledge: further essays in interpretive anthropology, paperback edition New-York/N.Y./USA 2000: Basic Books Classics, pp. ix-xi


online source:


Using this text is also subject to the general HyperGeertz-Copyright-regulations based on Austrian copyright-law (2001), which - in short - allow 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).