Arun Micheelsen



I had the honor of interviewing Clifford Geertz at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, USA, on October 18, 2000. The interview focused on Geertzís theoretical conceptions, the tradition on which he draws, the critique he has encountered, and on interpretive anthropologyís future development. Of particular interest was the clarification of his much-debated method, his definition of symbol and his famous definition of religion as a cultural system. Geertz emphasizes his attempt to exercise an applied pragmatic phenomenological and hermeneutical method without any general theory (or philosophy) of meaning, phenomenology, or culture. He maintains that he only has a conceptual framework inspired by different scholars, which nevertheless has consistent focus and perspective, i.e., meaning and symbol. In relationship to this, Geertz defines his symbol within the Peircean semiotic tradition. Therefore, the term symbol is understood as a sign (an index for example), which becomes a symbol via a cultural interpretation. Furthermore, his definition of religion as a cultural system is, in his view, a nonessentialistic definition and therefore is notóas Talal Asad claimsóethnocentric. Although it is Geertzís opinion that interpretive anthropology has been influenced by postmodernism, he predicts that interpretive anthropologyís future development will be in reasonable continuity with its past. In my closing comments I tentatively suggest that Geertz may have a theory of interpretation because of his definition of the symbol, his unavoidable assumptions, and his unique method, which has the capacity of grasping the cultural specific in a general way.





Most students of religion know that Geertz has had an enormous impact on the general study of religion with his interpretive anthropology. On the one hand, he has opened new and stimulating areas of research through his interpretive perspective. This perspective, with its definition of religion as a cultural system and, therefore, as a symbolic system, has helped the study of religion to understand the mechanisms and processes which create and communicate meaning within historical and cultural perspective. This is partially possible because of the emphasis he placed on culture, system, symbol, symbolization and "thick description" methodology.


On the other hand, the shift in focusóand the resulting partial emancipation from traditional anthropological paradigmsóhas generated an ongoing debate in the study of religion. This debate has to some extent evolved around the issue of our task as researchers of religion, the definition of science, and the concept of interpretation.2 There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that Geertzís characteristic way of introducing his thoughts, his literary style, and inherent theoretical assumptions are challenging. This is not meant to be a critique of Geertzís research, but there remain stillóafter all these yearsóa few central points that could be clarified for the benefit of scholars of religion. Therefore, this interview focuses on Geertzís disciplinary background, his theory of meaning, his opinion on method, and his definition of the symbol. I hope that it will be beneficial in the sense that it is Geertz who clarifies his viewpoints on these matters and, furthermore, that my concluding remarks may help shed some light on Geertzís research for those of us who "do systems".



The interview


Micheelsen: I would like to ask you how you came to focus so explicitly on the phenomenon of culture?


Geertz: In Available Light I tell in length of how I worked with Clyde Kluckhohn and A. L. Kroeber on their Culture book as their assistant, which of course influenced me (Geertz 2000: 12; Handler 1991: 604; Kluckhohn & Kroeber 1963 [1952]: v). The other reason is that I came out of a humanistic background. I had studied philosophy and literature, not anthropology or social sciences. I actually never had an anthropology course before I came to Harvard. Therefore, I naturally went toward culture with that background.


Micheelsen: Did your fieldwork in Indonesia in the 1950s also inspire you to focus on culture?


Geertz: WellóI went to Indonesia with a team, and it was my task to study religion, which gets you into cultural matters rather quickly. Because I did my thesis on religion, I suppose I ended up with culture, but I would have ended there anyway (Geertz 1960).


Micheelsen: If we look at your work and method, you write in Person,Time, and Conduct in Bali that:

What we want and do not yet have is a developed method of describing and analyzing the meaningful structure of experience (here, the experience of persons) as it is apprehended by representative members of a particular society at a particular point in timeóin a word, a scientific phenomenology of culture. (Geertz 1966: 7)

Do you feel that you have reached this point, i.e., developed a scientific phenomenology of culture?


Geertz: I do not know if I have reached it, but I certainly continue to work on it. I recently did a seminar with Thomas Luckmann, and we talked about phenomenologyóhis approach to it and mine. My phenomenological approach is not unlike Luckmannís or Peter Bergerís (Berger and Luckmann 1967). Although for themóas for Edmund Husserlóphenomenology is a prior subject. They do that before they do the analysis, understood as a general consideration about the life world. I have no objection to that, but I do not work that way. I work directly empirically. Therefore, whatever phenomenological developments occur in my thoughts, occur in the context of analyzing the material. Consequently, it is not a prior notion or a prior philosophy of culture that I have. I am not against it, but it is not what I do. The question of science is another matter here. Nevertheless, I think that phenomenology of culture is what I have been doing in all my work. Not just in Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali, but also in Negara where I talk about the phenomenology of power (Geertz 1980: 85). Maybe I did not use those terms, but that is the general approach I have, i.e., to describe the life world in which people live, using more of the late Ludwig Wittgenstein than Husserl. The science part I might leave out now, but I do not feel that I am close to some kind of omega point, i.e., a final scientific phenomenology of cultureóthough, I think, I have been developing a general phenomenological approach to culture or at least an approach that is consistent with phenomenologists like Luckmann and Berger. There are of course some problems with Husserl which I would have trouble with, like the transcendent ego and the Cartesianism that exist in some forms of phenomenology. Nevertheless, I think I have learned a lot from those people and I try to apply it in my work. Especially as time goes, since I have become more interested in how people see things and how they understand their life world.


Micheelsen: But does that mean that you also have to be hermeneutic in your approach?


Geertz: YesóI have been much influenced by Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Perhaps more by Ricoeur. However, hermeneutics inevitably takes you into phenomenology, or at least a phenomenological descriptive approach (Geertz 1980: 103-104). AgainóI work empirically. Both Ricoeur and Gadamer are interested in the general possibility of knowledge, which I have learned a lot from, but it is not what I am doing. I am trying to get some knowledge about some thing. I am trying to have an applied phenomenology, an applied hermeneutics, to really do a hermeneutic job on whatever it is that I am trying to understand. For example, the cockfight, which is an example of an attempt to get a phenomenology into a hermeneutic approachóand back again, which is also noticeable in From the Nativeís Point of View (Geertz 1980: 103-104; Geertz 1983: 55-70; Geertz 1995: 114). So I see myself as belonging to the phenomenological tradition, although my work tends to be a little shy of a general philosophy of culture.


Micheelsen: Could one then argue that you are eclectic when it comes to your theoretical presumptionsófor example your use of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Susanne Langer, Gilbert Ryle, Talcott Parsons, Paul Ricoeur, Alfred Schutz, Max Weber and others?


Geertz: Well, it is eclectic in the sense that they are different people, but they all have a similar focus, i.e., symbol, meaning, or the philosophy of mind. Parsons introduced me to Weberís work, so I have to some degree a Parsonian view of Weber. The interpretation of Weber and, therefore, the discussion about Weber is of course whether he really believed in a social science with a scientific approach to culture, or if he believed in an interpretive one. I think one can read him either wayóalthough I use him from the interpretive perspective. I am more interested in the sociology of religion than types of faith and so on. Langer, Wittgenstein, Schutz, and Ricoeur are all interested in meaning in some sense. Ryle was interested in the philosophy of mind (Ryle 1976). So I do not think it is an eclectic list. There are many people not thereóall the positivists are missing. It is of course eclectic in disciplinary terms, but the list has an inner consistency.


Micheelsen: Did you feel that there was, within anthropology, a lack of tools when you started studying culture?


Geertz: Yes, one did look aroundófirst to Langer and Ryle, but always toward Weber. Later on toward Wittgenstein, Gadamer, and Schutz. Anthropology is a much better user of concepts than a developer of concepts. Most concepts are borrowed from other disciplines because anthropology is so empirically focused, or used to be.


Micheelsen: In relationship to meaning, you say that:

one cannot write a "General Theory of Cultural Interpretation." Or, one can, but there appears to be little profit in it, because the essential task of theory building here is not to codify abstract regularities but to make thick description possible, not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them. (Geertz 1993: 26)

Nevertheless, is the particular interpretation not based on some kind of "theory of meaning", and if it is, what is your theory of meaning?


Geertz: No, I do not think that a particular interpretation has to be based on a general theory of meaningówhatever that may be. I am not a meaning realist. I do not think meanings are out there to theorize about. One tries to look at behavior, what people say, and make sense of itóthat is my theoretical approach to meaning. But no, I do not think I need a general theory of meaning. That is why I said that I differ a little bit from the phenomenologists. They concern themselves with general issues of meaning independently of any empirical case. I am concerned with what some thing meansówhat the cockfight means, what a funeral means. I have a conceptual framework óyou have to have thatóbut a theory of meaning, which classifies meaning and formulates laws about meaning, is not my style of work. I cannot think of anywhere in my work where I have a theory of meaning, even in more general discussions such as Thick Description (Geertz 1993: 6-10). I am not even sure of what a theory of meaning would be. However, my work is certainly based on different conceptions of, for instance symbols, reference etc., which go back to the semiotic or semantic tradition. I have not contributed to the discussion of a general theory of meaning. Of course, I have learned from Gottlob Frege, but I do not do that kind of thing. I learn from others and try to use it.


Micheelsen: In relationship to this, you state that your view of culture is essentially a semiotic one, which can be viewed as clusters of signs (or symbols), and that the means for unpacking the inherent meaning in such symbolic systems is through thick description (Geertz 1993: 5, 6, 14). Furthermore, you state that:

Such an approach is neither introspectionist nor behaviorist; it is semantic. It is concerned with the collectively created patterns of meaning the individual uses to give form to experience and point to action, with conceptions embodied in symbols and clusters of symbols, and with the directive force of such conceptions in public and private life. (Geertz 1970: 95-96)

On the other hand, you use terminology from the semiological tradition in Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society (Geertz et al. 1979: 200-201). Do you understand interpretive anthropology as a semiotic enterprise?


Geertz: Well, semiotics is of course not just one thing, but I do agree that I am interested in meaning and symbols, and in that sense one can understand my work as semiotic, though without a general theory of meaning. Ferdinand de Saussure and the structuralism that followed in his steps is not the approach I use. Of course, I have learned from Saussureóno one can ignore himóbut as I have already said: As I am not interested in a separate science of phenomenology, I am not interested in a separate science of semiotics. The other tradition is Charles S. Peirce, who is, in his phenomenological approach, too much a realist for me. But I am more in the Peircean tradition. However, semiotics as a formal, scientific, abstract, objectivistic discipline is not the way I go (Geertz 1983: 120). So, when I say semiotics, I do mean in the sense of the general conception of the function of sign or symbol. Nevertheless, it is the pragmatic tradition and the phenomenological conceptual tradition which I feel myself more comfortable with. Again, semiotics as quasi-logical, quasi-formal discipline is not for me.


Micheelsen: Umberto Eco has, in my view, tried to bridge the two traditions, i.e., Saussure and Peirce, and heóas you doóplaces the sign within the boundaries of culture (Eco 1976: 66). Have you been inspired by his work? 


Geertz: I have read some of Ecoís work. I have not been deeply influenced by himónot because I do not like his work. I just have not read that much of him. He tends to be, like me, a little bit of an essayist. I like what he has to say about interpretation, but then again, I tend to be an anti-structuralist, which means that I have stayed clear of his more formalistic work. 


Micheelsen: If you say that you to some degree do semiotics, why do you call it symbols and not signs, i.e., use different terminology?


Geertz: Well, that distinction comes out of Susanne Langer (Geertz 1993: 100; Langer 49: 60-61). I do not really care about the terms. I am willing to use the term sign, as long as it is understood that a sign is conceptual and not a signal (Langer 1962: 54-65). In this sense, a dark cloud is a sign of rain, but it is not a symbol of rain, except in somebodyís poem (Geertz 1993: 91). I have no objections to the term signs, as long as it is understood in the Peircean way and not in a Saussurean way. There is a difference between an index, an icon, and a symbol.


Micheelsen: Which means that you hold on to the idea of the sign having a reference?


Geertz: Yesóthe sign is about something, which is a better formulation than "a reference". Signs in the Peircean sense have an aboutness (Langer 1962: 112, 147). Therefore, when I use the term symbol in my work, it is to be understood as a sign (an index for example), which becomes symbolical via a cultural interpretation. Dogs cannot, in my view, respond to symbols. They can only respond to signs. The famous example is from Langer, where she tells of a person who comes into a room where there is a dog. The person said the masterís nameófor example, "James"óand the dog responded by looking for James. If you do the same to a human, the person would properly respond with: "What about James"? (Langer 1962: 149). You see, there is an "aboutness". That is the distinction I want to hold on to.


Micheelsen: If we look at the critique you have encountered, then reservations against interpretive anthropology as a program have been raised by Paul Shankman (Shankman 1984), because of the general particularity of interpretive anthropology, its concept of "Cultural analysis [as] intrinsically incomplete" (Geertz 1993: 29), and with the practical method of "guessing at meaning, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses " (Geertz 1993: 20). Furthermore, Talal Asad has focused on the construction of meaning and power from a historical and institutional perspective, which is a subject he feels you fail to attend to in your work (Asad 1983). How do you respond to this?


Geertz: Well, I do not agree with their critique. If I did, I would change what I am doing. Shankman has a very superficial understanding of what interpretation is. He talks about Wilhelm Dilthey, but he does not really know what went on in that tradition. When Shankman gave his critique, Dilthey was not translated into English, and I doubt that he has read him in German. Therefore, I must admit that I have not given much attention to his critique. Asad is a more significant figure, and here I think there is a real disagreement. I think I have used a historical constitutional framework in my work, which he says I have not. To be honest, I think he is a power-reductionist. He thinks that it is power that really matters and not belief. His notion of definition and his following critique just ignores what I was doing (Asad 1993: 29). I suspect Asad is a Marxist who cannot be material-reductionist anymore, so instead he is a power-reductionist.


Micheelsen: Do you, in opposition to Asad, view meaning as being before power?


Geertz: No. I just do not think that power has any independent existence outside of a cultural or historical context. Moreover, I think there is a tendency nowadays to view human phenomena as a power struggle. From that perspective, any kind of meaning is a cover for a power struggle. Nevertheless, to say that meaning is before power would make me a meaning realist and idealist, which I am not. I just do not think that all significance comes down to the distribution of power.


Micheelsen: Although you say that "you do not do systems" (Geertz 2000: x), you refer to art, ideology, common sense, and religion as systems (Geertz 1983; Geertz 1993). How is this to be understood?


Geertz: Well, I think I do not do systems, but that is a fair question. The terms were just titles. When you read my analysis of art, religion, etc., it is not that systematic. I just said that there is some kind of internal coherence, and one should look at them in a contextual way. That is as far as I went with system analysis, and I do not use that title anymore. However, it is Parsonsí influenceówho ended up viewing culture as a pure system (Parsons 1937: 762-763)óthat can be seen here. But I do not view culture like that. The title is just an attempt to realize Parsonsí program of cultural systems, which I still would do, i.e., try to show systematic relationships (Parsons 1951). However, the systematic relationships are to be found in that which one is studying, not formulated before the analysis via a general philosophy or a general theory. I do not formulate general theories about anything!


Micheelsen: But what about philosophical standpoints before one starts to study culture?


Geertz: Well, first of all, before is not the right word. It is always already. One always has a perspective when one starts. In my case, before anthropology it was philosophy and literature. At that time, I was interested in ideas and society or practiceówhich is still my main interest. When I started to study anthropology, I tried to see the same relation in terms of culture and structure/practice. Then later in the Wittgenstein tradition via action and so on. So you are right, one always starts somewhere. Except it is not that one starts with a philosophical position and then changes it when confronted by facts. You start with a generalized take on the world, and as an anthropologist, it is within a professional context. But then again, I think that even though I have developed my views through time, they are still recognizable with what I started out with.


Micheelsen: But doesnít that which you produce when writing your books or when you go into the field and analyze have to have some kind of independent value or some relevance?


Geertz: Yes, things that were obscure and confused are clear when you can understand them. The cockfight is a good example (Geertz 1993: 412-453). When I first observed the cockfight, I had no idea at all of what was going on. If you have seen one cockfight you have seen them all, but the Balinese were passionate about them, and I could not figure out why. Hence, I tried to clarify what was going on because I did not understand it. A pure description might point toward gambling, but it was clearly more than that. What I wanted to do was to understand or clarify the fight, to understand how the participators might understand it and, at the same time, try to show how such an analysis should be done. The cockfight analysis is thus a model or an example of how to do this kind of work. You try to make sense of it, i.e., make sense that they make of it. Try to understand how they make sense of their world. In that way, it is phenomenological and hermeneutic. It is an attempt to understand things from the nativeís point of view. Nevertheless, it is on our terms, i.e., the observerís.


Micheelsen: Should one then, after the analysis, go back to the natives and show them ones results?


Geertz: In general, no! When it comes to the cockfights, it is more difficult. I tried to do that, but the cockfight is based on an illusion, so they do not want to understand it. If they did, it would not work. Sometimes people have a natural resistance to understand what they are doing. On the other hand, I did go back and talked with them about what they were doing, but they are not interested in social science or alternative understandings/interpretations of what they are doing. They are not interested in the hermeneutics of cockfights. They already know what it means to them. What I want to do is tell somebody, who does not already know what the cockfight means, what it means.


Micheelsen: Is what you are doing also from a psychological perspective then?


Geertz: Well, there are some psychological dimensions in my work, but I do not do psychology.


Micheelsen: If we turn to your view of the religious perspective, then you say in Islam Observed:

We look not for a universal propertyó"sacredness" or "belief in the supernatural," for exampleóthat divides religious phenomena off from nonreligious ones with Cartesian sharpness, but for a system of concepts that can sum up a set of inexact similarities, which are yet genuine similarities, we sense to inhere in a given body of material. We are attempting to articulate a way of looking at the world, not to describe an unusual object. Ö The heart of this way of looking at the world, that is, of the religious perspective, is Ö the conviction that the values one holds are grounded in the inherent structure of reality, that between the way one ought to live and the way things really are there is an unbreakable inner connection. What sacred symbols do for those to whom they are sacred is to formulate an image of the worldís construction and a program for human conduct that are mere reflections of one another. (Geertz 1970: 96-97)

This seems to exclude anthropomorphism, which is evident in your definition of religion (Geertz 1993: 90). Why do you choose this perspective on the phenomena and study of religion, and how, in this context, are we to understand sacred symbols if we are not to talk about "sacredness"?


Geertz: Doing that, i.e., giving an essentialistic definition of religion, is what Asad is accusing me of doing, which he then says is really a Christian view of religion, and therefore unusable (Asad 1993). That is not what I am doing, but that is what I am accused of. I am more empirically focused, and if one starts out with the concept of "sacred", I do not think that that will hold up empirically. I do not think that belief in the supernatural is necessarily a part of religionóearly Buddhism would not be a religion in that sense. One can do that, i.e., make the concept of the supernatural a part of religion, but I think that one will eliminate many things. In addition to this, I think that the concept of the supernatural is a Western idea. Even cultures or societies who believe in spiritsóas the Native American Indians doó do not in that sense view them as being supernatural, and therefore do not divide the world into a natural and supernatural world. I am at least open to the possibility that they do not. Therefore, I do not want to make an essentialistic definition of religion.


Micheelsen: Armin Geertz suggests the concept of ëtransempiricalí in his definition (A.W. Geertz 1999: 471).


Geertz: Yes, and I do like Armin Geertzís work, but even that seems to assume that people are distinguishing between the empirical and the trans-empirical. I thinkóto some degreeóthat the dichotomist view, i.e., sacred/profane, supernatural/natural, or trans-empirical/ empirical, is a Western notion, which is not necessarily true in all cases. I am not on a crusade about it; I am just skeptical about it. In most cases, the religious person would understand his or her religious beliefs as being natural, or what we might view as being supernatural as being naturalóof course insofar as the person has a notion of natural and supernatural. In relation to this, I have had my problems with Melford Spiro (Spiro 1968: 91, 96).


Micheelsen: Is it because you want to be as close to the data as possible?


Geertz: I would not say I am closer to the data than Armin Geertz, who is an extraordinary researcher. I just want to be open and responsive to itóto go where it goes, rather than where I want it to go. I do not want to put ideas in peopleís heads, if they are not in there, such as distinguishing between the natural and the supernatural, unless that is what comes out of what they are doing.


Micheelsen: I see that we cannot stay clear of the discussion of what science is. Armin Geertz tries to formulate in his work a scientific standpoint for studying religion, if we want to call it a science (A.W. Geertz 1999: 446-447).


Geertz: Yes, I tend not to do that. The model for science is essentially taken from the natural sciences, which goes back to Edward Tylor. And that tends to make people look for laws and abstract regularitiesówhich again goes back to Wissenschaftówhich do not apply in Geisteswissenschaft. I do not make that distinction that sharp either. I think that the attempts to highly scientize social science, from behaviorism in the 1920s to social biology today, are destructive of what I want to do in the social sciences, which is to help people understand one another.3 I do not care if you call it science or social science, as long one does not understand science in a positivistic way.


Micheelsen: But there are theories of interpretation and therefore limits or boundaries for interpretation as a perspective.


Geertz: Yes, I am not saying that one should not think. I just do not think that the natural science model should be applied uncritically in the social sciences. I am not against reason or even science with a small "s".


Micheelsen: With the eradication of private language via Wittgenstein, the focus on the evolution of the human mind as parallel with the evolution of culture, and the notion of cultural systems as guides for human perception, what is your opinion on cognitive science in general and the "second cognitive revolution", i.e., Mark Turner, George Lakoff, Jerome Bruner, and Umberto Eco for that matter (Geertz 1963: 67; Geertz 1993: 12, 55-83, 216)?4


Geertz: Bruner claims not to be a cognitivist anymore. Again, what happened to cognitive sciences, after the cognitive revolution, was that it became subject to the natural sciences model, i.e., AI (Artificial Intelligence) and Chomskyism, which became what I would call a kind of super-science. I think that the "second cognitive revolution", in so far that there is oneóalthough I find the idea interestingóis more what Bruner would call cultural psychology, like Turner and Lakoff. I think that they are going in the right direction, because they are opposed to the highly formalized cognitive tradition which came out of Noam Chomsky. Turner and Lakoffís work is interesting, but it does seem a bit redundant. In my own work, I talk about the evolution of the brain and the growth of culture, not the evolution of culture (Geertz 1993: 55). I do not believe in cultural evolutionó culture changes and grows, and maybe by some standard, it evolves. I do believe that culture is involved in our brainís evolution. However, culture does not evolve in the Darwinian sense.


Micheelsen: Finally, I would like to ask you what interpretive anthropologyís potential development in the new millennium is, especially in regard to the postmodern paradigm.


Geertz: I think that postmodernism is past its sale date. It is not irrelevant, it had tremendous critical importance. However, as a pattern for future development I think it is a dead end. I think we should listen and learn from them and then move along. They have with their critique helped to clarify some of our fundamental concepts, such as culture or interpretation, but they will not last as a program in themselves. And that, the clarification and critique, changed the direction of anthropology. Therefore, my way of interpretive anthropology will go on much chastened by this. We will no longer have a simple-minded notion of what interpretation is; we are now aware of the problem of meaning-realism, and so forth. All this is terribly important. Personally, they influence me, and to some degree, I am still a part of it. As for cultural anthropology, it will in my view go on in reasonable continuity with its past.


Micheelsen: But do you think that interpretive anthropology might get more systematic through time?


Geertz: I think that disciplines tend to move in a rhythm where it becomes more systematic until it becomes a straitjacket, and then people move in different directions and break it apart. I do not think that a simple linear movement toward systematization is in store for interpretive anthropology, though I think some parts of it will become more systematic and taken for granted. It is almost a dialectic movement between systematization and renewal. But then again, I cannot predict the future!



Closing comments


As we have seen, it is Geertzís opinion that the systematic relationships are to be found in that which one is studying, not formulated before the analysis by means of a general philosophy or a general theoryóand therefore one should be careful of formulating any theory at all. In other words, it is to some extent his opinion that theory in itself can spawn its own imaginary systems. But what do those of us who study religion do when we do systems to some degree, i.e., when we identify systematic relationships in that which we are studying, in co-operation with theory? Can we, like Geertz, survive with only a conceptual frame as our life-jacket, or do we need something more? I fully agree with Geertz, that "[a]nthropologists donít study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods Ö ); they study in villages" (Geertz 1993: 22). However, should we not have something more than a pragmatically-applied phenomenological and hermeneutical methodóa method, to be sure, without any general theory (or philosophy) of meaning, phenomenology, or cultureóbefore we plunge into the sea of human culture?


"The understanding of understanding", which Geertz calls cultural hermeneutics, is possible because of his conceptual framework ócomprised of individual concepts that all have their own disciplinary story to tellóand the acceptance of the observerís participation in the enterprise of interpretation via the "thick description" method in itself (Geertz 1983: 5). Therefore, the question is if one should deny the disciplinary autonomy Geertz applies, or if one should recognize the usefulness, and possible necessity, of an explicated interpretive theory, so that we know how we and others like us experience these understandings. There might after all be systematic relationships in "the way we think now", and in relationship to this some general assumptions may need to be identified (Geertz 1983: 147-163).


If meanings are not out there to be studied, then assuredly symbols are. Therefore, we should concentrate on them and their relationships in order to clarify Geertzís concept of interpretation and method, i.e., the relationship between our conceptual frame, the life in the "village", the observer, and the unavoidable a priori assumptions that are present.


The starting point thus is Geertzís definition of the symbol. As we have seen, Geertz understands symbols in the tradition of Langer and Peirce (and, as already mentioned, Peirce understood the symbol as a subclass of the sign). With the help of an applied phenomenology and an applied hermeneutic method, Geertz has a perspective that can clarify the fundamental mechanisms of the creation and communication of meaning within a culture (Geertz 1966: 67; Geertz 1993: 98, 215-220; Geertz 1995: 114). The symbol is thus a relational entity in which meaning, understood as a public phenomenon, is suspended. It is suspended in the sense that the symbol is comprised of three elements: the representamen (the tangible side of the symbol), the object (that which the symbol refers to), and the interpretant (which is the relation between the representamen and the object) (Peirce 1955: 98-119). This means that meaning is not "stored" in symbols or outside our cultures, as a free-floating phenomenon (Geertz 1993: 127). In this perspective meanings are a matter of the relation between human beings, their natural and cultural environment, and the symbolsí "aboutness". If this is the way we humans perceive ourselves and our surroundingsóat least some of us hope soóthen meaning is not only an internal matter (i.e., a purely singular and/or a general mental mechanism or process), but a partially open and explicated process which involves natural and cultural objects and the ongoing process of action via the symbols, i.e., symbolization. Consequently, it should be stressed that although the symbol is a pragmatic tool for any analysis (which to some degree enables us to convey specific cultural meanings from one system to our academic elaboration and explication of the same meaningóand in that process clarify how this is done), the symbol is already a theoretically formulated concept and is therefore not in direct contact with the data that one wishes to analyze. Thus when in use, the symbol as an analytical concept is already coming from a specific perspective.


The abstraction, however, does not stop here, for within any cultural matrix the symbols can have, or be given, a systematic relationship, which again can be assimilated by the inhabitants of that culture (Geertz 1993: 83). The systems, still understood as systematic relationships, can be distinguished as art, common sense, religion, ideology, etc., and are therefore at a more basic analytical level than the concept of symbol (Geertz 1983: 73, 94; Geertz 1993: 129, 193, 230). The systems can be definedóas Geertz did so many years ago with religionóas a guide for a new orientation for our research, and new analytical concepts attached to the system can be introduced, such as ethos and worldview (Geertz 1993: 87-141). Furthermore, the generalization does not end here, for these systems can interact with each other, such as common sense and religion do (Geertz 1970: 95). Although the interactions are culture-specific, they are still general relations between systems in all cultures. In that sense, science and common sense are also related to each other (Geertz 1970: 94-95; 1993: 111-113). It is here that we begin to glimpse the general within Geertzís thinking, i.e., the concept of symbols and their systematic relationships in any culture.


However, we seldom analyze (or interpret) religion as a phenomenon sui generis, but rather as a model for interpretation, i.e., we interpret interpretations. Geertz, with his concept of "model of" and "model for" has stressed the interpretive function of religion for the believer (Geertz 1993: 93, 118). Nevertheless, this changes several things, for we now have to clarify what it is we wish to study. Is it our task to study what a religion means, or is it our task to study how religion generates and articulates meaning? It is my view that Geertz is concerned with both issues, which is why he applies and combines a phenomenological and hermeneutical perspective. If this is the case, then the specific what and the general how is combined in Geertzís method and therefore one cannot do without the other. The question is: what is the general, and in which way is it related to the concept of symbol, culture, or even oneís general assumptions?


Does Geertzís interpretive anthropology then constitute an interpretive theory? This certainly depends on what is meant by theory. With his conceptual frame, including all the assumptions in each concept (for instance, symbol), his pragmatically-applied phenomenological and hermeneutical method, which has the capacity to penetrate and explicate cultures, and his unavoidable axiomatic base structure, he does have a theory in a restricted sense. It may be an open theory because of the bottomless quality of cultures and the refusal to formulate any general regularities or abstract laws (Geertz 1993: 26, 29). However, the abstraction is already there in his concepts and method, even though the hermeneutics is never-ending.


Nevertheless, even though our academic life-world may be subject to the same inquiry as any cultural phenomena are, it is a life-world that is constructed on the basis of inquiry both toward itself and our subject matter (Geertz 1993: 230-233). It is ideological and scientific in the sense that it wishes to understand the world, communicate that new understanding, and does all of this by followingócriticallyóa distinct method. By critically I mean, on the one hand, that we accept the history of our concepts and, on the other hand, that we constantly and explicitly reformulate our concepts and working method in relationship to whatever we are dealing with at the moment. However, our analytical concepts are not isolated entities which we can use eclectically, but are part of a tradition, and an even larger theory. They might, when we single them out, have the same focal point, but eventually they are selected in relationship to their analytical relevance. Furthermore, in each specific perspective, the base axiomatic structure and the conceptual frame defines what can be understood as relevant for the analysis at hand and how to analyze the subject matter. The perspective and analysis that follows from the perspective have assumptions after all, like our common sense. Geertz may with good reason formulate this as "always already", but it is my conviction that an explicated theory of interpretation could explicate those assumptions.


Which consequences does this have for the study of religion and the understanding of Geertz? To some degree, there are none.


Geertzís opinions can easily be found in his own work. However, his own clarification of his definition of the symbol can be of some help. Because culture, common sense, art, religion, law, etc., are symbolic systems, and because we humans not only think, but also perceive and act via symbolic systems, the overall understanding of the symbol has tremendous importance for the understanding of Geertzís research. The symbol as a key concept establishes the general outlook and limit for observation, interpretation, and overall understanding of the human species. In other words, the symbol, and that which constitutes it, is on one level that which enables our species to think, act, and reflect. On another level, the symbol is that which we produce and which influences us, i.e., cultural systems. Finally, it is the tool for our investigation of others and our own life-world through a hermeneutical and phenomenological perspective. In this sense, the limit of interpretation is "always already" drawn by the definition of the symbol.


If the definition of the symbol is, as I am claiming, one model or perspective among others, then we could do well with a general argumentation and investigation of the validity of this model in relationship to what we are studyingóhumans, cultures, religions, etc.ó in order to separate and understand the specific what and the general how. In many respects, Geertz has done that. His essay on common sense as a cultural system is, in my opinion, a good example of exactly that (Geertz 1983: 73-93). However, his efforts have intentionally never produced any general conclusions, except maybe one: "If you want a good rule-of-thumb generalization from anthropology, I would suggest the following: Any sentence that begins, ëAll societies have Öí is either baseless or banal" (Geertz 2000: 135). And right he is. But it is of some interest that one can conclude just thatóthat is, that one can formulate the relative in an absolute manner and vice versa.


I neither can nor will draw any final conclusions on this matter. Instead I will let Geertz haveóalmost haveóthe last word:

What we need are ways of thinking that are responsive to particularities, to individualities, oddities, discontinuities, contrasts, and singularities, responsive to what Charles Taylor has called "deep diversity," a plurality of ways of belonging and being, and that yet can draw from themófrom itóa sense of connectedness, a connectedness that is neither comprehensive nor uniform, primal nor changeless, but nonetheless real. (Geertz 2000: 224)

It is my opinion that Geertzís unique method has the capacity of exactly that, i.e., of grasping the culturally specific in a general way.



[The University of Arhus, Denmark]





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1 I would like to thank Jeppe S. Jensen, Armin W. Geertz, and the Department of

the Study of Religions at the University of Aarhus for advice and funding.

2 The debate, which has been going on for almost three decades, is too extensive

to comment on here. For an introduction to and critical review of and some good

references to Geertzís work, see Ortner (1999).

3 "Looked at in this way, the aim of anthropology is the enlargement of the

universe of human discourse" (Geertz 1993: 14).

4 See Bruner 1983, 1993; Eco 2000; Turner 1987, 1998; Lakoff and Johnson

1981; Lakoff and Turner 1989.



"I don't do systems." An interview with Clifford Geertz (with Arun Micheelsen), in: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion. Journal of the North American Association for the Study of Religion (Leiden/NED: Koninklijke Brill NV),  vol. 14 no. 1 (1 March 2002), pp. 2-20


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