(to "Available Light")

by Clifford Geertz


As befits two disciplines, neither of which is clearly defined and both of which address themselves to the whole of human life and thought, anthropology and philosophy are more than a little suspicious of one another. The anxiety that comes with a combination of a diffuse and miscellaneous academic identity and an ambition to connect just about everything with everything else and get, thereby, to the bottom of things leaves both of them unsure as to which of them should be doing what. It is not that their borders overlap, it is that they have no borders anyone can, with any assurance, draw. It is not that their interests diverge, it is that nothing, apparently, is alien to either of them.


Beyond their normally oblique and implicit competition for the last word and the first, the two fields share a number of other characteristics that trouble their relations with one another and make cooperation between them unnecessarily difficult. Most especially, both of them are porous and imperiled, fragile and under siege. They find themselves, these days, repeatedly invaded and imposed upon by interlopers claiming to do their job in a more effective manner than they themselves, trapped in inertial rigidities, are able to do it.


For philosophy this is an old story. Its history consists of one after another of its protectorates and principalities--mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, latterly even logic and epistemology-- breaking away to become independent, self-governing special sciences. For anthropology, this contraction of imperium under separatist pressure is more recent and less orderly, but it is no less severe.


Having carved out, from the mid-nineteenth century on, a special place for itself as the study of culture, žthat complex whole including ÷ beliefs, morals, laws, customs ÷ acquired by man as a member of society,Ó it now finds various cooked-up and johnnycome-lately disciplines, semidisciplines, and marching societies (gender studies, science studies, queer studies, media studies, ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, loosely grouped, the final insult, as žcultural studiesÓ), crowding into the space it has so painstakingly, and so bravely, cleared and weeded and begun to work. Whether as an ancient and honored holding company whose holdings, and honor, are slowly slipping away or as an intellectual high adventure spoiled by poachers, parvenus, and hangers-on, the sense of dispersal and dissolution, of žend-ism,Ó grows by the day. Not a particularly felicitous situation for generous interaction and the combining of forces.


Yet, the attempt to so interact and so combine remains well worth making. Not only are the fears exaggerated and the suspicions ungrounded (neither field is about to go away quite yet, and they are less opposed in either style or temper than their louder champions like to imagine), but the stirred up and trackless postmodern seas they are now indeed alike passing through makes them, more and more, in active need of one another. The end is not nigh, or anywhere near, for either enterprise. But aimlessness, a baffled wandering in search of direction and rationale, is.


My own interest in effecting a connection, or strengthening one, or, thinking of Montaigne or Montesquieu, perhaps reviving one, stems not from any interest in altering my professional identity, with which I am as comfortable as could be expected after fifty years struggling to establish it, nor in widening it out to some sort of higher-order thinker-without-portfolio. I am an ethnographer, and a writer about ethnography, from beginning to end; and I don't do systems. But it probably is related, somehow or other, to the fact that, as I explain in the opening chapter, I started out žin philosophyÓ but gave it up, after an indecently short time, to ground my thought more directly, as I thought, in the world's variety. The sorts of issues I was concerned with then, and which I wanted to pursue empirically rather than only conceptually--the role of ideas in behavior, the meaning of meaning, the judgment of judgment--persist, broadened and reformulated, and I trust substantialized, in my work on Javanese religion, Balinese states, and Moroccan bazaars, on modernization, on Islam, on kinship, on law, on art, and on ethnicity. And it is these concerns and issues that are reflected, a bit more explicitly, in the žreflectionsÓ here assembled.


Paradoxically, relating the sort of work I do--ferreting out the singularities of other peoples' ways-of-life--to that philosophers, or at least the sort of philosophers who interest me, do--examining the reach and structure of human experience, and the point of it all--is in many ways easier today than it was in the late forties when I imagined myself headed for a philosopher's career. This is, in my view, mainly a result of the fact that there has been, since then, a major shift in the way in which philosophers, or the bulk of them anyway, conceive their vocation, and that shift has been in a direction particularly congenial to those, like myself, who believe that the answers to our most general questions--why? how? what? whither?--to the degree they have answers, are to be found in the fine detail of lived life.


The main figure making this shift possible, if not causing it, is, again in my view, that posthumous and mind-clearing insurrectionist, žThe Later Wittgenstein.Ó The appearance in 1953, two years after his death, of Philosophical Investigations, and the transformation of what had been but rumors out of Oxbridge into an apparently endlessly generative text, had an enormous impact upon my sense of what I was about and what I hoped to accomplish, as did the flow of žRemarks,Ó žOccasions,Ó žNotebooks,Ó and žZettelÓ that followed it out of the Nachlass over the next decades. In this I was hardly alone among people working in the human sciences trying to find their way out of their stoppered fly-bottles. But I was surely one of the more thoroughly preadapted to receive the message. If it is true, as has been argued, that the writers we are willing to call master are those who seem to us finally to be saying what we feel we have long had on the tip of our tongue but have been ourselves quite unable to express, those who put into words what are for us only inchoate motions, tendencies, and impulses of mind, then I am more than happy to acknowledge Wittgenstein as my master. Or one of them, anyway. That he would return the favor and acknowledge me as his pupil is, of course, more than unlikely; he did not much like to think that he was agreed with or understood.


However that may be, his attack upon the idea of a private language, which brought thought out of its grotto in the head into the public square where one could look at it, his notion of a language game, which provided a new way of looking at it once it arrived there--as a set of practices--and his proposal of žforms of lifeÓ as (to quote one commentator) the žcomplex of natural and cultural circumstances which are presupposed in ÷ any particular understanding of the world,Ó seem almost custom designed to enable the sort of anthropological study I, and others of my ilk, do. They were, of course, along with their accompaniments and corollaries-- žfollowing a rule,Ó ždon't look for the meaning, look for the use,Ó ža whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar,Ó žsaying and showing,Ó žfamily resemblance,Ó ža picture held us captive,Ó žseeing-as,Ó žstand not quite there,Ó žback to the rough ground,Ó žaspect blindness,Ó žmy spade is turnedÓ--not so designed, but they were part of a merciless, upending critique of philosophy. But it was a critique of philosophy that rather narrowed the gap between it and going about in the world trying to discover how in the midst of talk people--groups of people, individual people, people as a whole--put a distinct and variegated voice together.


The way in which the gap was narrowed, or perhaps only located and described, is suggested by what, for a working anthropologist, is the most inviting of the tags just listed: žBack to the rough ground!Ó žWe have got,Ó Wittgenstein wrote, žon to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!Ó (PI, 107).* The notion that anthropology (though, of course, not only anthropology) is exploring the rough ground on which it is possible for thought, Wittgenstein's or anyone else's, to gain traction is for me not only a compelling idea in itself; it is the idea, unfocused and unformulated, that led me to migrate into the field, in both senses of žfield,Ó in the first place. Wearied of slipping about on Kantian, Hegelian, or Cartesian iceflows, I wanted to walk.


Or walkabout. In moving across places and peoples, restlessly seeking out contrasts and constancies for whatever insight they might provide into any enigma that might appear, one produces less a position, a steady, accumulating view on a fixed budget of issues, than a series of positionings--assorted arguments to assorted ends. This leaves a great deal of blur and uncertainty in place; perhaps most of it. But in this, too, we are following Wittgenstein: One might ask, he writes, žŽis a blurred concept a concept at all?Ū--Is an indistinct photograph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn't the indistinct one exactly what we need?Ó (PI, 71)*.


Whether it is or it isn't, and whomever the žweÓ might be, what follows below is a diverse and only partially ordered set of commentaries, examples, critiques, ruminations, assessments, and inquiries having to do with matters and persons--žrelativism,Ó žmind,Ó žknowledgeÓ žselfhood,Ó Taylor, Rorty, Kuhn, James--at least arguably žphilosophical.Ó After a more or less introductory opening chapter reviewing the vagrant advance of my professional career, prepared for the American Council of Learned Society's žA Life of LearningÓ series, the next three chapters address moral anxieties that have arisen in carrying out fieldwork, certain sorts of so-called antirelativist arguments recently popular in anthropology, and a critique of some defenses of cultural parochialism in moral philosophy. Chapter V, žThe State of Art,Ó collects five extemporary pieces on present moral and epistemological controversies in and around anthropology. That is followed by more systematic considerations of the work of Charles Taylor, Thomas Kuhn, Jerome Bruner, and Willlam James, prepared for symposia in their honor. Chapter X, žCulture, Mind, Brain ÷,Ó is yet one more consideration of the (possible) relations between what (supposedly) goes on in our heads and what (apparently) goes on in the world. And, finally, žThe World in PiecesÓ is concerned with the questions raised for political theory by the recent upsurge in žethnic conflict.Ó


As for acknowledgments, which usually appear at about this point, I have, by now, so many people to thank that I am unwilling to risk leaving someone out by essaying a list; anyway, most of them have been thanked before. I have, instead, simply dedicated the book to my co-conspirators in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, where most everything in it first was written and discussed, rewritten and rediscussed, and where we have together created a place and an attitude worth defending. To prevent deep reading, by them or anyone else, they are listed in order of their distance down the corridor from my office.



Princeton August 1999


*    [PI] = Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Oxford 1953: Basil Blackwell


Preface, in: Available light: anthropological reflections on philosophical topics. Princeton/N.J./USA: Princeton University Press, pp. IX-XIV.


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