Clifford Geertz



When, a decade ago, I collected a number of my essays and rereleased them under the title, half genuflection, half talisman, The Interpretation of Cultures, I thought I was summing things up; saying, as I said there, what it was I had been saying. But, as a matter of fact, I was imposing upon myself a charge. In anthropology, too, it so turns out, he who says A must say B, and I have spent much of my time since trying to say it. The essays below are the result; but I am now altogether aware how much closer they stand to the origins of a thought-line than they do to the outcomes of it.


I am more aware, too, than I was then, of how widely spread this thought-line--a sort of cross between a connoisseur's weakness for nuance and an exegete's for comparison--has become in the social sciences. In part, this is simple history. Ten years ago, the proposal that cultural phenomena should be treated as significative systems posing expositive questions was a much more alarming one for social scientists--allergic, as they tend to be, to anything literary or inexact--than it is now. In part, it is a result of the growing recognition that the established approach to treating such phenomena, laws-and-causes social physics, was not producing the triumphs of prediction, control, and testability that had for so long been promised in its name. And in part, it is a result of intellectual deprovincialization. The broader currents of modern thought have finally begun to impinge upon what has been, and in some quarters still is, a snug and insular enterprise.


Of these developments, it is perhaps the last that is the most important. The penetration of the social sciences by the views of such philosophers as Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Gadamer, or Ricoeur, such critics as Burke, Frye, Jameson, or Fish, and such all-purpose subversives as Foucault, Habermas, Barthes, or Kuhn makes any simple return to a technological conception of those sciences highly improbable. Of course, the turning away from such a conception is not completely new--Weber's name has always to be called up here, and Freud's and Collingwood's as well. But the sweep of it is. Caught up in some of the more shaking originalities of the twentieth century, the study of society seems on the way to becoming seriously irregular.


It is certainly becoming more pluralistic. Though those with what they take to be one big idea are still among us, calls for "a general theory" of just about anything social sound increasingly hollow, and claims to have one megalomanic. Whether this is because it is too soon to hope for unified science or too late to believe in it is, I suppose, debatable. But it has never seemed further away, harder to imagine, or less certainly desirable than it does right now. The Sociology is not About to Begin, as Talcott Parsons once half-facetiously announced. It is scattering into frameworks.


As frameworks are the very stuff of cultural anthropology, which is mostly engaged in trying to determine what this people or that take to be the point of what they are doing, all this is very congenial to it. Even in its most universalist moods--evolutionary, diffusionist, functionalist, most recently structuralist or sociobiological--it has always had a keen sense of the dependence of what is seen upon where it is seen from and what it is seen with. To an ethnographer, sorting through the machinery of distant ideas, the shapes of knowledge are always ineluctably local, indivisible from their instruments and their encasements. One may veil this fact with ecumenical rhetoric or blur it with strenuous theory, but one cannot really make it go away.


Long one of the most homespun of disciplines, hostile to anything smacking of intellectual pretension and unnaturally proud of an outdoorsman image, anthropology has turned out, oddly enough, to have been preadapted to some of the most advanced varieties of modern opinion. The contextualist, antiformalist, relativizing tendencies of the bulk of that opinion, its turn toward examining the ways in which the world is talked about--depicted, charted, represented--rather than the way it intrinsically is, have been rather easily absorbed by adventurer scholars used to dealing with strange perceptions and stranger stories. They have, wonder of wonders, been speaking Wittgenstein all along. Contrariwise, anthropology, once read mostly for amusement, curiosity, or moral broadening, plus, in colonial situations, for administrative convenience, has now become a primary arena of speculative debate. Since Evans-Pritchard and his ineffable chicken oracles and LÈvi-Strauss and his knowing bricoleurs, some of the central issues of, as I put it below, "the way we think now," have been joined in terms of anthropological materials, anthropological methods, and anthropological ideas. 


My own work, insofar as it is more than archival (a function of anthropology much underrated), represents an effort to edge my way into odd corners of this discussion. All the essays below are ethnographically informed (or, God knows, misinformed) reflections on general topics, the sort of matters philosophers might address from more conjectural foundations, critics from more textual ones, or historians from more inductive ones. The figurative nature of social theory, the moral interplay of contrasting mentalities, the practical difficulties in seeing things as others see them, the epistemological status of common sense, the revelatory power of art, the symbolic construction of authority, the clattering variousness of modern intellectual life, and the relationship between what people take as fact and what they regard as justice are treated, one after the other, in an attempt somehow to understand how it is we understand understandings not our own. 


This enterprise, "the understanding of understanding," is nowadays usually referred to as hermeneutics, and in that sense what I am doing fits well enough under such a rubric, particularly if the word "cultural" is affixed. But one will not find very much in the way of "the theory and methodology of interpretation" (to give the dictionary definition of the term) in what follows, for I do not believe that what "hermeneutics" needs is to be reified into a para-science, as epistemology was, and there are enough general principles in the world already. What one will find is a number of actual interpretations of something, anthropologizing formulations of what I take to be some of the broader implications of those interpretations, and a recurring cycle of terms--symbol, meaning, conception, form, text . . . culture--designed to suggest there is system in persistence, that all these so variously aimed inquiries are driven by a settled view of how one should go about constructing an account of the imaginative make-up of a society. 


But if the view is settled, the way to bring it to practical existence and make it work surely is not. The stuttering quality of not only my own efforts along these lines but of interpretive social science generally is a result not (as is often enough suggested by those who like their statements flat) of a desire to disguise evasion as some new form of depth or to turn one's back on the claims of reason. It is a result of not knowing, in so uncertain an undertaking, quite where to begin, or, having anyhow begun, which way to move. Argument grows oblique, and language with it, because the more orderly and straightforward a particular course looks the more it seems ill-advised. 


To turn from trying to explain social phenomena by weaving them into grand textures of cause and effect to trying to explain them by placing them in local frames of awareness is to exchange a set of well-charted difficulties for a set of largely uncharted ones. Dispassion, generality, and empirical grounding are earmarks of any science worth the name, as is logical force. Those who take the determinative approach seek these elusive virtues by positing a radical distinction between description and evaluation and then confining themselves to the descriptive side of it; but those who take the hermeneutic, denying the distinction is radical or finding themselves somehow astride it, are barred from so brisk a strategy. If, as I have, you construct accounts of how somebody or other--Moroccan poets, Elizabethan politicians, Balinese peasants, or American lawyers--glosses experience and then draw from those accounts of those glosses some conclusions about expression, power, identity, or justice, you feel at each stage fairly well away from the standard styles of demonstration. One makes detours, goes by side roads, as I quote Wittgenstein below; one sees the straight highway before one, "but of course . . . cannot use it, because it is permanently closed." 


For making detours and going by sideroads, nothing is more convenient than the essay form. One can take off in almost any direction, certain that if the thing does not work out one can turn back and start over in some other with only moderate cost in time and disappointment. Midcourse corrections are rather easy, for one does not have a hundred pages of previous argument to sustain, as one does in a monograph or a treatise. Wanderings into yet smaller sideroads and wider detours does little harm, for progress is not expected to be relentlessly forward anyway, but winding and improvisational, coming out where it comes out. And when there is nothing more to say on the subject at the moment, or perhaps altogether, the matter can simply be dropped. "Works are not finished," as ValÈry said, "they are abandoned." 


Another advantage of the essay form is that it is very adaptable to occasions. The ability to sustain a coherent line of thought through a flurry of wildly assorted invitations, to talk here, to contribute there, to honor someone's memory or celebrate someone's career, to advance the cause of this journal or that organization, or simply to repay similar favors one has oneself asked of others, is, though rarely mentioned, one of the defining conditions of contemporary scholarly life. One can struggle against it, and, to avoid measuring out one's life with coffee spoons, to some extent must. But one must also, if one is not to become a lectern acrobat, doing, over and over again, the anthropological number ("culture is learned"; "customs vary"; "it takes all kinds to make a world"), turn it to one's account and build, particular response by particular response, a gathering progress of analysis. All the essays below are such particular responses to such unconnected and, it so happens, extramural invitations. But all are, too, steps in a perseverant attempt to push forward, or anyway somewhere, a general program. Whatever these various audiences--lawyers, literary critics, philosophers, sociologists, or the miscellaneous savants of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (to which two of these essays were addressed)--asked for, what they got was "interpretive anthropology," my way. 


The opening essay, "Blurred Genres," was originally delivered, appropriately enough, as a lecture to the Humanities Council of the State of Nevada at Reno. The charge was to say something or other reasonably coherent about the relation of "The Humanities" and "The Social Sciences," a matter anthropologists, considered amphibious between the two, are continually being asked to address, and to which (following the examination-room maxim--if you don't know the answer, discuss the question) I responded by attempting to cast doubt upon the force of the distinction in the first place. Grand rubrics like "Natural Science," "Biological Science," "Social Science," and "The Humanities" have their uses in organizing curricula, in sorting scholars into cliques and professional communities, and in distinguishing broad traditions of intellectual style. And, of course, the sorts of work conducted under any one of them do show some general resemblances to one another and some genuine differences from the sorts that are conducted under the others. There is, so far anyway, no historiography of motion; and inertia in a novel means something else. But when these rubrics are taken to be a borders-and-territories map of modern intellectual life, or, worse, a Linnaean catalogue into which to classify scholarly species, they merely block from view what is really going on out there where men and women are thinking about things and writing down what it is they think. 


So far as the social sciences are concerned, any attempt to define them in some essence-and-accidents, natural-kind way and locate them at some definite latitude and longitude in scholarly space is bound to fail as soon as one looks from labels to cases. No one can put what LÈvi-Strauss does together with what B. F. Skinner does in anything but the most vacuous of categories. In "Blurred Genres," I argue, first, that this seemingly anomalous state of affairs has become the natural condition of things and, second, that it is leading to significant realignments in scholarly affinities--who borrows what from whom. Most particularly, it has brought it about that a growing number of people trying to understand insurrections, hospitals, or why it is that jokes are prized have turned to linguistics, aesthÈtics, cultural history, law, or literary criticism for illumination rather than, as they used to do, to mechanics or physiology. Whether this is making the social sciences less scientific or humanistic study more so (or, as I believe, altering our view, never very stable anyway, of what counts as science) is not altogether clear and perhaps not altogether important. But that it is changing the character of both is clear and important--and discomposing. 


It is discomposing not only because who knows where it all will end, but because as the idiom of social explanation, its inflections and its imagery, changes, our sense of what constitutes such explanation, why we want it, and how it relates to other sorts of things we value changes as well. It is not just theory or method or subject matter that alters, but the whole point of the enterprise. 


The second essay, "Found in Translation," originally delivered to the Lionel Trilling Memorial Seminar at Columbia University, seeks to make this proposition a bit more concrete by comparing the sort of thing an ethnographer of my stripe does with the sort of thing a critic of Trilling's does and finding them not all that different. Putting Balinese representations of how things stand in the world into interpretive tension with our own, as a kind of commentary on them, and assessing the significance for practical conduct of literary portrayals--Austen's or Hardy's or Faulkner's--of what life is like, are not just cognate activities. They are the same activity differently pursued. I called this activity, for purposes rather broader than those immediate to the essay, "the social history of the moral imagination," meaning by that the tracing out of the way in which our sense of ourselves and others--ourselves amidst others--is affected not only by our traffic with our own cultural forms but to a significant extent by the characterization of forms not immediately ours by anthropologists, critics, historians, and so on, who make them, reworked and redirected, derivatively ours. Particularly in the modern world, where very little that is distant, past, or esoteric that someone can find something out about goes undescribed and we live immersed in meta-commentary (what Trilling thinks about what Geertz thinks about what the Balinese think, and what Geertz thinks about that), our consciousness is shaped at least as much by how things supposedly look to others, somewhere else in the lifeline of the world, as by how they look here, where we are, now to us. The instability this introduces into our moral lives (to say nothing of what it does to our epistemological self-confidence) accounts, I think, for much of the sense of believing too many things at once that seems to haunt us, as well as for our intense concern with whether we are in any position, or can somehow get ourselves into one, to judge other ways of life at all. And it is the claim to be able to help us in this that links, whatever their differences in view or method, those such as Trilling, trying to find out how to talk to contemporaries about Jane Austen, and those such as myself, trying to find out how to talk to them about imaginative constructions--widow burnings and the like--that contemporaries are even further away from in assumption and sensibility than they are from Austen. 


I referred to this conception of what culture explainers of all sorts claim they can do for us as "translation "--a trope current in my own field since Evans-Pritchard, at least--and, invoking a line of James Merrill's, argued that though obviously much is lost in this, much also, if ambiguous and troubling, is found. But just what it involves, how it is in fact effected, was left unexamined. In "From the Native's Point of View," the piece to which Trilling had in fact originally reacted, I did examine it, and with some particularity, at least for anthropology. Or at least for my own anthropology. 


The occasion this time was an address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in which, as they were giving me an award for my work, I thought I might try to tell them what sort of work it was. The publication of Malinowski A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term several years before had fairly well exploded the notion that anthropologists obtained their results through some special ability, usually called "empathy," to "get inside the skins" of savages. It is not clear how widely this was ever believed ("The more anthropologists write about the United States," Bernard DeVoto growled when Mead And Keep Your Powder Dry came out, "the less we believe what they say about Samoa"); 


but with the Diary and its revelation of a man so deeply self-engrossed as to suggest he might have been better employed as a romantic poet, the question of how they did obtain them (as Malinowski and, DeVoto notwithstanding, Mead as well so clearly did) demanded to be addressed in less subjectivist terms.


The peoples I have worked among--various sorts of Moroccans and Indonesians; Muslims, Hindus, and one disguised as the other--can hardly be called savages by anybody's definition; but their approach to things differs enough from one another to put the issue into general focus. To demonstrate this, I first described, rather telegraphically, the concepts of selfhood I had found current in central Java, south Bali, and mid-Atlas Morocco and, even more telegraphically, the broader frames of thought and action in which those conceptions flourished. I then argued that what the anthropologist has to do to bring this kind of thing off is tack between the two sorts of descriptions--between increasingly fine-comb observations (of how Javanese distinguish feelings, Balinese name children, Moroccans refer to acquaintances) and increasingly synoptic characterizations ("quietism," "dramatism" "contextualism")--in such a way that, held in the mind together, they present a credible, fleshed-out picture of a human form of life. "Translation," here, is not a simple recasting of others' ways of putting things in terms of our own ways of putting them (that is the kind in which things get lost), but displaying the logic of their ways of putting them in the locutions of ours; a conception which again brings it rather closer to what a critic does to illumine a poem than what an astronomer does to account for a star.


However that may be, it is, this catching of "their" views in "our" vocabularies, one of those things like riding a bicycle that is easier done than said. And in the following two essays I attempt to do a bit of it, in a rather more organized way, for what under some descriptions, though not under mine, would be the antipodal extremes of culture: common sense and art.


Indeed, for many people and most especially for its champions, common sense is not cultural at all, but the simple truth of things artlessly apprehended; plain fact acknowledged by plain men. Thus, I began "Common Sense as a Cultural System," first given as a John Dewey Lecture at Antioch College in the middle of a sixties uprising, by arguing, contrary to this (commonsensical) idea, that common sense was a cultural system; a loosely connected body of belief and judgment, rather than just what anybody properly put together cannot help but think. There may be things hat anybody properly put together cannot help but think--that rocks are hard and death inevitable. And there certainly are some--that rocks are insentient and death disagreeable--that, though Wordsworth gave a moral life to stones and Fascist thugs shouted viva la muerte at Unamuno, no one much doubts. But common sense has more to do with how to deal with a world in which such things obtain than with the mere recognition that they do so. Common sense is not a fortunate faculty, like perfect pitch; it is a special frame of mind, like piety or legalism. And like piety or legalism (or ethics or cosmology), it both differs from one place to the next and takes, nevertheless, a characteristic form. 


The rest of the essay then seeks to illustrate all this, first with some examples taken from the anthropological literature (Evans-Pritchard on witchcraft, Edgerton on hermaphroditism) to display the variation, and then with some features seen as distinctive of common sense in whatever clime (distrust of subtlety, exaltation of the practical, and so forth) to expose the form. The oscillation between looking particulately at particular views and defining globally the attitude that permeates them thus governs again the progress of analysis. Only here there is an attempt to push things on to broader issues: the construction of anthropological categories, the generality of their reference, and the conditions of their use. 


When one turns to art these issues become, if anything, even more pointed, for the debate over whether it is an applicable category in "non-Western" or "pre-Modern" contexts has, even when compared to similar debates concerning "religion," "science," "ideology," or "law," been peculiarly unrelenting. It has also been peculiarly unproductive. Whatever you want to call a cave wall crowded with overlapping images of transfixed animals, a temple tower shaped to a phallus, a feathered shield, a calligraphic scroll, or a tattooed face, you still have the phenomenon to deal with, as well as perhaps the sense that to add kula exchange or the Domesday Book would be to spoil the series. The question is not whether art (or anything else) is universal; it is whether one can talk about West African carving, New Guinea palm-leaf painting, quattrocento picture making, and Moroccan versifying in such a way as to cause them to shed some sort of light on one another. 


The essay in which I tried to do exactly this, "Art as a Cultural System," was delivered at Johns Hopkins University as part of a wildly multidisciplinary symposium--Maurice Mandlebaum, Paul de Man, and Alan Dundes to Umberto Eco, Thomas Sebeok, and Roman Jakobson--on "semiotics" (the occasion being a commemoration of Charles Peirce, whom the University had at one time fired), with the result that I was almost as much concerned with how not to talk about such things--in terms of some sort of mechanical formalism--as I was with developing my own approach. In particular, the identification of semiotics, in the general sense of the science of signs, with structuralism seemed to me important to resist. (Structuralism, as a sort of high-tech rationalism, seems to me important to resist in general.) And so I employed my cases--Robert Faris Thompson's analysis of Yoruba line, Anthony Forge's of Abelam color, Michael Baxandall's of Renaissance composition, and my own of Moroccan rhetoric--to suggest that the social contextualization of such "signifiers" is a more useful way to comprehend how they signify, and what, than is forcing them into schematic paradigms or stripping them down to abstract rule systems that supposedly "generate" them. What enables us to talk about them usefully together is that they all inscribe a communal sensibility, present locally to locals a local turn of mind. 


Like common sense--or religion or law or even, though it is, given our predilections, a touchier matter, science--art is neither some transcendent phenomenon variously disguised in different cultures nor a notion so thoroughly culture-bound as to be useless beyond Europe. Not only Sweeney's Law ("I gotta use words when I talk to ya") but the simple fact that thinking of Noh plays and operas, or Shalako and L'Oiseau de feu, in relation to one another seems a more profitable thing to do than to think of any of them in relation to canoe building or the Code Civil (though, remembering Zen and motorcycle maintenance, one ought not to be too sure) suggest that radical culturalism will get us nowhere. And the impossibility of collapsing these so very different things into one another at any but the most abstract, and vacuous, levels--"objects of beauty," "affective presences," "expressive forms"--suggests that a universalist tack is hardly more promising. The reshaping of categories (ours and other people's--think of "taboo") so that they can reach beyond the contexts in which they originally arose and took their meaning so as to locate affinities and mark differences is a great part of what "translation" comes to in anthropology. It is--think of what it has done to "family," "caste," "market," or "state"--a great part of what anthropology comes to. 


The following essay, "Centers, Kings, and Charisma," written for a volume honoring the theoretical sociologist Edward Shils, focuses on one such usefully tortured category--along with "alienation," "ego," "anomie," and, of course, "culture," among the most useful and the most tortured in all social science--namely, "charisma." Originally charisma was a Christian theological term having to do with a God-given capacity to perform miracles; later it was adapted by Max Weber as a label for the I-Am-The-Man type of leadership grown all too familiar in our century. Most recently, however, an excessive currency has obscured its genealogy and taken the political edge off it almost altogether, transforming it into an up-market synonym for celebrity, popularity, glamour, or sex appeal. In "Centers" I attempt to restore both the genealogy and the edge by comparing royal progresses in more or less Protestant late-Tudor England, more or less Hindu late-Majapahit Java, and more or less Muslim late-Alawite Morocco. 


The juxtaposition of Elizabeth's tours through her realm as an allegorical representation of Chastity, Peace, or Safety at Sea, Hayam Wuruk's parades through his as the incarnation of the Sun and the Moon Shining Over the Earth-Circle, and Mulay Hasan's expeditions through his as the material expression of Divine Will seeks, like the similarly eccentric juxtapositions in the earlier essays, to attain what generality it can by orchestrating contrasts rather than isolating regularities or abstracting types. It is analogy that informs, or is supposed to, in this sort of anthropologizing, and it is upon the capacity of theoretical ideas to set up effective analogies that their value depends. And it is this kind of analogy between, here, the cult of a Virgin Queen, of a God King, and of a Commander of the Faithful, that the concept of charisma, training our attention on the witchery of power, enables us to construct. 


All this is perhaps acceptable enough for traditional monarchies, where the symbolics of domination are so elaborate and egregious; whether extending the comparison to modern states, as I do in a rather hurried and anecdotal conclusion, strains the analogy beyond reasonable bounds is a more difficult question. One may doubt that high politics have been completely demystified in such states, even that they ever will be. But the general issue that is raised by considering the matter against so panoramic a comparative background--how far a mode of analysis designed to apply to the long ago or far away can be applied to ourselves--nevertheless remains. The DeVoto Problem is all too real: what, save impressionism and self-parody, plus a certain amount of ideological axe grinding, might come from anthropological discussions of modern culture? 


In the final two essays--or, more accurately, an essay and a three-part mini-treatise--I turn to this problem. "The Way We Think Now" was originally given as a bicentennial address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences under the general theme "Unity and Diversity: The Life of the Mind," as a sort of dialectical counterpoint to one given by the artificial intelligencer Herbert Simon. Taking the charge to heart this time, and thinking about what Simon would be likely to say, I distinguished between two reasonably different approaches to the study of human "thought" currently in vogue: a unific one, which conceives of it as a psychological process, person-bounded and law governed, and a pluralistic one, which conceives of it as a collective product, culturally coded and historically constructed--thought in the head, thought in the world. Rather than trying to adjudicate between them (in their radical forms--Chomsky and Whorf--neither seems especially plausible), I first traced the tension between them as it developed in anthropology--"primitive thought," "conceptual relativism," and all that--to become a driving, and often enough a distorting, force in ethnological theory. Then, turning again to notions of interpretation, translation, disarrayed genres, and analogic comparison, I sought to show that the enormous diversity of modern thought as we in fact find it around us in every form from poems to equations must be acknowledged if we are to understand anything at all about the Life of the Mind, and that this can be accomplished without prejudice to the idea that human thinking has its own constraints and its own constancies. 


To do this, to produce a description of modern thought that can account for the fact that such assorted enterprises as herpetology, kinship theory, fiction writing, psychoanalysis, differential topology, fluid dynamics, iconology, and econometrics can form for us any category at all, it is necessary to see them as social activities in a social world. The various disciplines and quasi-disciplines that make up the arts and sciences are, for those caught up in them, far more than a set of technical tasks and vocational obligations; they are cultural frames in terms of which attitudes are formed and lives conducted. Physics and haruspicy, sculpture and scarification are alike at least in this: for their practitioners they support particular modes of engagement with life, and for the rest of us they illustrate them. Where they differ is that, though we know at least something by now about the sorts of engagements haruspicy and scarification tend to support, physics and sculpture, and all the other grand departments of the Life of the Mind, remain for the most part ethnographically opaque, mere recognized ways of doing recognizable things. 


The remainder of the essay then consists of some reflections on the specters ("subjectivism," "idealism," "relativism," and the like) that academics conjure up to scare us away from an ethnographic approach to their thought; on some methods already at work in anthropology by means of which such an approach, dismissing the specters for the concoctions they are, might be practically pursued; and on the usefulness, if it is pursued, of such an approach for the construction of a more realistic model of liberal education than the Athenian gentleman one that, however disguised at either Cambridge, still predominates. But it is only in the final three essays, devoted to a particular Life of the Mind subject, namely law, and to a particular issue within that subject, namely the relation between fact finding and rule applying in adjudicative processes, that the program--seeing thoughts as choses sociales--is empirically tried out. 


These essays, collectively titled "Local Knowledge: Fact and Law in Comparative Perspective," were given as the Storrs Lectures for 1981 at the Yale Law School, and they are the only essays of those assembled here that have not been previously published. Faced with trying to imagine something properly anthropological that would be of interest to lawyers, apprentice lawyers, law teachers, and perhaps even the odd judge, I thought to discuss a topic central to both Anglo-American jurisprudence and to common law adjudication, the is/ought, what-happened/was-it-lawful distinction, and to trace its half-parallels in three other legal traditions I had encountered in the course of my own researches: the Islamic, the Indic, and the Malayo-Indonesian. The notion was, first, to examine the issue as it appears in the contemporary United States; second, to describe the quite different forms it takes in these other traditions--so different as to demand a fairly thoroughgoing reformulation of it; and then, third, to say something about the implications of such differences for the evolution of orderly adjudication in a world where, no longer confined to their classical terrains, contrasting legal traditions are being forced into the most direct and practical sorts of confrontation. 


Accordingly, the lectures describe, once again, a rather dialectical movement, tacking between looking at things in lawyers' terms and looking at them in anthropologists' terms; between modern Western prepossessions and classical Middle Eastern and Asian ones; between law as a structure of normative ideas and law as a set of decision procedures; between pervading sensibilities and instant cases; between legal traditions as autonomous systems and legal traditions as contending ideologies; between, finally, the small imaginings of local knowledge and the large ones of cosmopolitan intent. It all looks almost experimental: an effort to assay the fact-law formula by seeing what remains of it after it has been rung through the changes of headlong comparative analysis. That much does and much does not is hardly surprising; that is how all such experiments without metrics come out. But what does remain (an accommodation of a language of general coherence and a language of practical consequence) and what does not (a social-echo view of legal process) are of perhaps a bit more interest. 


In the last analysis, then, as in the first, the interpretive study of culture represents an attempt to come to terms with the diversity of the ways human beings construct their lives in the act of leading them. In the more standard sorts of science the trick is to steer between what statisticians call type-one and type-two errors--accepting hypotheses one would be better advised to reject and rejecting ones one would be wiser to accept; here it is to steer between overinterpretation and underinterpretation, reading more into things than reason permits and less into them than it demands. Where the first sort of mistake, telling stories about people only a professor can believe, has been much noted and more than a bit exaggerated, the second, reducing people to ordinary chaps out, like the rest of us, for money, sex, status, and power, never mind a few peculiar ideas that don't mean much anyway when push comes to shove, has been much less so. But the one is as mischievous as the other. We are surrounded (and we are surrounded) neither by Martians nor by less well got-up editions of ourselves; a proposition that holds no matter what "we"--American ethnographers, Moroccan judges, Javanese metaphysicians, or Balinese dancers--we start from. 


To see ourselves as others see us can be eye-opening. To see others as sharing a nature with ourselves is the merest decency. But it is from the far more difficult achievement of seeing ourselves amongst others, as a local example of the forms human life has locally taken, a case among cases, a world among worlds, that the largeness of mind, without which objectivity is self-congratulation and tolerance a sham, comes. If interpretive anthropology has any general office in the world it is to keep reteaching this fugitive truth.



Introduction, in: Local knowledge: further essays in interpretive anthropology. New-York/N.Y./USA etc. 1983: Basic Books: Introduction, pp. 3-16


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