The Way We Think Now: 
Toward an Ethnography of Modern Thought
Clifford Geertz



"Thought," says my dictionary (suitably enough, given the nature of the occasion, * the American Heritage), has two primary meanings: (1) "The act or process of thinking; cogitation," and (2) "The product of thinking; idea; notion." In clarification of the first, "process" meaning, a number of, as we would put it, internal psychological phenomena are listed: "attention," "expectation," "intent," even "hope," with the implication that the set may be expanded to include everything from memory and dream to imagination and calculation in some way a "mental act." In clarification of the second, "product" meaning, we get, grand and undifferentiated, virtually the whole of culture: "The intellectual activity or production of a particular time or social class." Thought is what goes on in our heads. Thought is what, especially when we put them together, comes out of them.


Discrepant meanings for the same term are not, of course, in themselves surprising, at least in ordinary language; polysemy, as the linguists call it, is the natural condition of words. I bring this example of it forward because it takes us into the heart of the unity and diversity theme as it has appeared in the social sciences since, say, the twenties and thirties. The overall movement of those sciences during that period has been one in which the steady progress of a radically unific view of human thought, considered in our first, "psychological" sense as internal happening, has been matched by the no less steady progress of a radically pluralistic view of it in our second, "cultural" sense as social fact. And this has raised issues that have now so deepened as to threaten coherence. We are forced at last, whether we work in laboratories, clinics, slums, computer centers, or African villages, to consider what it is we really think about thought.


In my own particular corner of the social sciences, anthropology, this issue has been with us late and soon in a peculiarly unnerving form. Malinowski, Boas, and LÈvi-Bruhl in the formative phases of the discipline, Whorf, Mauss, and Evans-Pritchard after them, Horton, Douglas, and LÈvi-Strauss now, have all been unable to leave off worrying it. Formulated first as the "primitive mind" problem, later as the "cognitive relativism" problem, and most recently as the "conceptual incommensurability" problem--as always, what advances most in such matters is the majesty of the jargon--the disaccordance between a lowest common denominator view of the human mind ("even Papuans exclude middles, distinguish objects, and lay effects to causes") and an "other beasts, other notions" one ("Amazonians think they are parakeets, fuse the cosmos with village structure, and believe pregnancy disables males") has grown steadily more difficult to avoid noticing.


The primitive form of the "primitive thought" formulation--that is, that while we, the civilized, sort matters out analytically, relate them logically, and test them systematically, as can be seen by our mathematics, physics, medicine, or law, they, the savage, wander about in a hodgepodge of concrete images, mystical participations, and immediate passions, as can be seen by their myth, ritual, magic, or art--has, of course, been progressively undermined as more about how the other half thinks has become known (and more, too, about just how unvirginal reason is); though it persists in certain sorts of developmental psychology, certain styles of comparative history, and certain circles of the diplomatic service. The error, as in rather different ways both Boas and Malinowski gave much of their careers to demonstrating, lay in attempting to interpret cultural materials as though they were individual expressions rather than social institutions. Whatever the connection between thought as process and thought as product might be, the Rodin model--the solitary thinker mulling facts or spinning fantasies--is inadequate to clarify it. Myths are not dreams, and the rational beauties of mathematical proof are guarantees of no mathematician's sanity.


The second, "cognitive relativism" formulation of the issue consisted, then, in a series of attempts, more or less desperate, to avoid this culture-is-the-mind-writ-large fallacy and the we-logical, you-confused provincialism that went with it. Particular cultural products (American Indian grammatical forms, seasonal variations in Arctic settlement patterns, African divination techniques) were related to particular mental processes (physical perception, temporal sense, causal attribution). The truth value of the specific hypotheses proposed--that the Hopi see the natural world as composed of events rather than objects; that the Eskimo experience time as cyclic rather than serial; that the Azande conceive causal chains in mechanical terms but explain their intersection in moral ones--may be problematic. But such studies did at least open up the distinction between the vehicles in terms of which persons must think, given who they are and where they are, and the perceiving, imagining, remembering, or whatever that they engage in when they get down in fact actually to doing so.


Where they were less successful was in, once they had opened it, avoiding the "every people gets the psychology it deserves" particularism that tends to go with it. If verb forms, camp layouts, or chicken-poisoning rituals yield somehow specific modes of mental functioning, it becomes profoundly unclear how individuals enclosed in one culture are able to penetrate the thought of individuals enclosed in another. As the work of the cognitive relativists itself rested on a claim to such penetration, and of a rather deep-going sort at that, this was, and remains, an uncomfortable situation. Hopi tensors (words denoting intensity, tendency, duration, or strength as autonomous phenomena) drive reasonings so abstract, Whorf said, as to be almost beyond our power to follow. "We feel," Evans-Pritchard sighed, confronted on the upper Nile by cow poems and cucumber sacrifices, "like spectators at a shadow show watching insubstantial shadows on the screen ... what the eye sees and the ear hears is not the same as what the mind perceives."


The situation was made even more difficult because, as I mentioned, at the same time as this radical pluralization of the "product" side of thought was taking place, not only in anthropology but in certain regions of history, philosophy, literature, and sociology as well, a number of powerfully unitive approaches to the "process" side were gathering force, most especially in psychology, linguistics, and such latter day originalities as game theory and computer science. These approaches have themselves been disparate. The only thing that links Freud, Piaget, von Neumann, and Chomsky (to say nothing of Jung and B. F. Skinner) is the conviction that the mechanics of human thinking is invariable across time, space, culture, and circumstance, and that they know what it is. But the general movement toward universalistic conceptions of, to use the most neutral word I can think of, ideation has naturally come to have its effects upon the pluralizers too. The fundamental identity of mental functioning in homo sapiens, the so-called "psychic unity of mankind," had remained a background article of faith among even the most thoroughgoing of them, anxious as they were to do away with any notion of primitive minds or cultural racism. But the content of that identity was confined to the most generalized of general capacities, hardly more than the ability to learn, feel, abstract, and analogize. With the appearance of more circumstantial pictures of such matters, however incompatible with one another or difficult to swallow whole, this sort of evasiveness--everything is general in general but particular in particular-seemed increasingly strained.

The reaction from those (ethnographers, sociologists of knowledge, historians of science, devotees of ordinary language) whose en plein air working conditions make it hard for them to ignore the fact that, however computers may work, grammar arise, or eros unfold, thinking as we find it lying about "in nature" is nothing if not various, has been to move the issue out of the cobweb world of mentality and restate it in terms of the supposedly more tensile one of meaning. For structuralists, LÈvi-Strauss cum suis, the product side of thought becomes so many arbitrary cultural codes, diverse indeed, with their jaguars, tattoos, and rotting meat, but which, when properly deciphered, yield as their plain text the psychological invariants of the process side. Brazilian myth or Bach fugue, it is all a matter of perceptual contrasts, logical oppositions, and relation-saving transformations. For neo-Durkheimians, such as Mary Douglas, though the persuasion is widespread to the point of orthodoxy in social anthropology, social history, and social psychology, the product side and the process side are reconnected through a new and improved brand of sociological determinism in which meaning systems become a middle term between social structures, which vary, and psychological mechanisms, which do not. Hebrew dietary laws, endlessly sorting out foods, represent the boundary-obsesed consciousness of an hermetic community threatened on all sides with social absorption. For symbolic action theorists (a smaller band, but hardy, to whom, with some reservations, I would give my own allegiance), thinking is a matter of the intentional manipulation of cultural forms, and outdoor activities like ploughing or peddling are as good examples of it as closet experiences like wishing or regretting. But whatever the approach (and there are others), what formerly was seen as a question of the comparability of psychological processes from one people to the next is now seen, given how much more one would have to deny these days in denying that, as a question of the commensurability of conceptual structures from one discourse community to the next, a change of formulation that has led some inquirers into what I suppose we might call practical epistemology, Victor Turner, Edmund Leach, Mircea Eliade, or Melford Spiro, for example, out of relativism and others, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Nelson Goodman, or myself, for example, more complexly into it.

That thought is spectacularly multiple as product and wondrously singular as process has thus not only come to be a more and more powerful animating paradox within the social sciences, driving theory in all sorts of directions, some of them reasonable, but the nature of that paradox has more and more come to be regarded as having to do with puzzles of translation, with how meaning in one system of expression is expressed in another--cultural hermeneutics, not conceptive mechanics. In such a form it may not be any more tractable than it was before; but it does at least bring the war back home, because the problem of how a Copernican understands a Ptolemaian, a fifth republic Frenchman an ancien rÈgime one, or a poet a painter is seen to be on all fours with the problem of how a Christian understands a Muslim, a European an Asian, an anthropologist an aborigine, or vice versa. We are all natives now, and everybody else not immediately one of us is an exotic. What looked once to be a matter of finding out whether savages could distinguish fact from fancy now looks to be a matter of finding out how others, across the sea or down the corridor, organize their significative world.





It is that, then--how the presented diversity of modern thought is to be itself understood--that I want now for a bit to pursue. Not that I aim actually to produce such an understanding. That is not only far beyond my competence, it is far beyond anybody's. It is a task, like poetics or paleontology, for a continuing body of scholars working with what Kuhn, who keeps coining terms for speed-readers to abuse, calls "a disciplinary matrix." Indeed, it is toward the formation of such a matrix, by outlining what I think some of its characteristics should be, that my remarks are directed. To call, as I am about to do, for an ethnography of thought is to take a stand on what thought is by taking a stand on how it is to be thought about.

To name the study of thinking as it goes on in the fora and agorae of modern life "ethnography" may seem to claim it for my own indisciphnary matrix, anthropology. But such is in no way my intention. Just about everybody knows more about the matter than we do, still bemused as we are by cockfights and pangolins. My intention is to stress a certain bent of its character: namely, that it is (or, anyway, ought to be) an historical, sociological, comparative, interpretive, and somewhat catch-as-catch-can enterprise, one whose aim is to render obscure matters intelligible by providing them with an informing context. What connects Victor Turner, shuffling through the color symbolism of passage rites, Philippe AriËs, parading funeral images of death or schoolhouse ones of childhood, and Gerald Holton, ferreting out themata from oil drops, is the belief that ideation, subtle or otherwise, is a cultural artifact. Like class or power, it is something to be characterized by construing its expressions in terms of the activities that sustain them.

There are a number of practical implications that flow fairly directly from this notion that thinking (any thinking: Lord Russell's or Baron Corvo's; Einstein's or some stalking Eskimo's) is to be understood "ethnographically," that is, by describing the world in which it makes whatever sense it makes. But there are also a number of fears, powerful, engulfing, and so far anyway extraordinarily difficult to calm, that it stimulates more diffusely. What to some, heritors of the social fact tradition and its pluralizing impulses, looks like the introduction of more profitable ways of thinking about thinking looks to others, heritors of the internal happening tradition and its unifying drives, like a blowing up of the foundations of reason.


The most obvious of the directer implications is that, as thinking in this view is a matter of trafficking in the symbolic forms available in one or another community (language, art, myth, theory, ritual, technology, law, and that conglomerate of maxims, recipes, prejudices, and plausible stories the smug call common sense), the analysis of such forms and such communities is ingredient to interpreting it, not ancillary. The sociology of knowledge, to use the rubric, rather too Kantian for my taste, most often invoked here, is not a matter of matching varieties of consciousness to types of social organization and then running causal arrows from somewhere in the recesses of the second in the general direction of the first--rationalists wearing square hats sitting in square rooms thinking square thoughts, they should try sombreros, as Stevens says. It is a matter of conceiving of cognition, emotion, motivation, perception, imagination, memory ... whatever, as themselves, and directly, social affairs.


How precisely to accomplish this, how to analyze symbol use as social action and write thereby an outdoor psychology is, of course, an exceedingly difficult business at which everyone from Kenneth Burke, J. L. Austin, and Roland Barthes to Gregory Bateson, Jurgen Habermas, and Erving Goffman has had some sort of pass. But what is clear, if anything is, is that to do so is to attempt to navigate the plural/unific, product/process paradox by regarding the community as the shop in which thoughts are constructed and deconstructed, history the terrain they seize and surrender, and to attend therefore to such muscular matters as the representation of authority, the marking of boundaries, the rhetoric of persuasion, the expression of commitment, and the registering of dissent.


It is here, where the imagery gets political, or worse, that the uneasiness of those for whom the mind (or the id) is a thing apart, Ryle's secret grotto, Rorty's glassy essence, grows serious--an uneasiness expressed in a number of not altogether concordant ways: as a fear of particularism, a fear of subjectivism, a fear of idealism, and, of course, summing them all into a sort of intellectualist Grande Peur, the fear of relativism. If thought is so much out in the world as this, what is to guarantee its generality, its objectivity, its efficacy, or its truth?


This fear of particularism, which (I suppose it is clear by now) I regard as a bit of academic neurosis, is especially prominent in my own field, anthropology, where those of us who attend with care to specific cases, usually peculiar, are constantly being told that we are undermining thereby the possibility of general knowledge and should take up instead something properly scientific like comparative sexology or cultural energetics; but it appears with some force as well in relation to history, of which one of its practitioners once wrote the terror is that simply in knowing everything in particular one will end by knowing nothing in particular. The subjectivism charge, which certain sorts of sociologists and historians of science attract perhaps a bit more than the rest of us, is that if one interprets ideologies or theories wholly in terms of the conceptual horizons of those who hold them one is left without a means of judging either their cogency or the degree to which one represents an advance over another. And by idealism, what usually seems to be meant is not adherence to some identifiable philosophical doctrine, esse est percipi or whatever, but merely that if one pays much attention to surface manifestations, symbols and so on, the deeper realities, neurons and so on, will be obscured by forceless appearances. It is all these sins, plus global accusations of moral laxity and logical confusion ( Hitler is usually brought in at this point), that relativism evokes. The view that thought is where you find it, that you find it in all sorts of cultural shapes and social sizes, and that those shapes and sizes are what you have to work with is somehow taken to be a claim that there is nothing to say about it except, when in Rome, to each his own, across the Pyrenees, and not in the South.


But there is a great deal more to say. A great deal more about, as I mentioned, translation, how meaning gets moved, or does not, reasonably intact from one sort of discourse to the next; about intersubjectivity, how separate individuals come to conceive, or do not, reasonably similarly similar things; about how thought frames change (revolutions and all that), how thought provinces are demarcated ("today we have naming of fields"), how thought norms are maintained, thought models acquired, thought labor divided. The ethnography of thinking, like any other sort of ethnography--of worship, or marriage, or government, or exchange--is an attempt not to exalt diversity but to take it seriously as itself an object of analytic description and interpretive reflection. And as such it poses a threat neither to the integrity of our moral fiber nor to whatever linguists, psychologists, neurologists, primatologists, or artificers of artificial intelligence might contrive to find out about the constancies of perception, affect, learning, or information processing. What it forms a threat to is the prejudice that the pristine powers (to borrow a term from Theodore Schwartz) that we all have in common are more revelatory of how we think than the versions and visions (to borrow one from Nelson Goodman) that, in this time or that place, we socially construct.





The bearing of what one of these sorts of inquirer uncovers upon what the other sort does itself presents, of course, no small translation problem; one which, to the degree it can in fact be negotiated and the communities conceptually connected, will doubtless bring something of a sea change in the thinking of both. But rather than pursue that, which would involve too much technical detail and might anyway be premature, I want to render the ethnographic approach a bit more visible by tracing out what it comes to when one trains it on the general subject of our discussions here; the prismal and singular life of the mind. My argument that the diversity side of the issue, the one that appeals to fieldwork foxes, has as much to tell us as the unity side, the one that appeals to hypothesis hedgehogs, clearly demands, if not demonstration, at least something more in the way of spelling out in terms of methodological assumptions and research procedures.


The first of such assumptions, and the most important, is that the various disciplines (or disciplinary matrices), humanistic, natural scientific, social scientific alike, that make up the scattered discourse of modern scholarship are more than just intellectual coigns of vantage but are ways of being in the world, to invoke a Heideggerian formula, forms of life, to use a Wittgensteinian, or varieties of noetic experience, to adapt a Jamesian. In the same way that Papuans or Amazonians inhabit the world they imagine, so do high energy physicists or historians of the Mediterranean in the age of Phillip II--or so, at least, an anthropologist imagines. It is when we begin to see this, to see that to set out to deconstnict Yeats's imagery, absorb oneself in black holes, or measure the effect of schooling on economic achievement is not just to take up a technical task but to take on a cultural frame that defines a great part of one's life, that an ethnography of modern thought begins to seem an imperative project. Those roles we think to occupy turn out to be minds we find ourselves to have.


The development of methods of research designed to explicate such mÈtier-made mentalities and render them intelligible to those to whom they seem foreign or worse (as well as, indeed, to those who have them, to whom they seem merely inevitable) is, of course, hardly without precedents to guide it. The reduction of puzzlement in the face of unfamiliar ways of looking at things has been something of a speciality of at least one strand of my own discipline; that concerned to make Tewas, Turks, or Trukese less riddles wrapped inside enigmas. But others have addressed it as well: historians, especially those concerned with more than how we got to be so much cleverer than we used to be; literary critics, especially those who have read something beside Twain and Melville in the original; and lately even philosophers, to whom it has occurred that if grammar glosses the world for English (or, facing page, German) speakers it should do so as well, and otherwise, for Chinese. Yet so far, whatever has been learned about how to get at the curve of someone else's experience and convey at least something of it to those whose own bends quite differently has not led to much in the way of bringing into intersubjective connection historians and sociologists, psychiatrists and lawyers, or, to rub a wound, entomologists and ethnographers.


Indeed, when we get down to the substance of things, unbemused by covering terms like "literature," "sociology" or "physics," most effective academic communities are not that much larger than most peasant villages and just about as ingrown. Even some entire disciplines fit this pattern: it is still true, apparently, that just about every creative mathematician (those men a quattrocento aesthetician once finely dismissed as people who quiet their intellect with proofs) knows about every other one, and the interaction, indeed the Durkheimian solidarity, among them would make a Zulu proud. To some extent the same thing seems to be true of plasma physicists, psycholinguists, Renaissance scholars, and a number of other of what have come to be called, adapting Boyle's older phrase, "invisible colleges." From such units, intellectual villages if you will, convergent data can be gathered, for the relations among the inhabitants are typically not merely intellectual, but political, moral, and broadly personal (these days, increasingly, marital) as well. Laboratories and research institutes, scholarly societies, axial university departments, literary and artistic cliques, intellectual factions, all fit the same pattern: communities of multiply connected individuals in which something you find out about A tells you something about B as well, because, having known each other too long and too well, they are characters in one another's biographies.


The second methodological theme that seems transferable from ethnography generally to the ethnography of thought, the concern with linguistic categories, is, of course, not something peculiar to anthropology; everyone is, as they say, "into" language these days. But the anthropological concern, which dates from its founding and long discussions about "mana," "tabu," "potlatch," "lobola" and so on, does have a somewhat special twist. It tends to focus on key terms that seem, when their meaning is unpacked, to light up a whole way of going at the world.


Since I am pretuned to be interested in such matters, the vocabularies in which the various disciplines talk about themselves to themselves naturally fascinates me as a way of gaining access to the sorts of mentalities at work in them. Whether it be mathematicians, discoursing, like so many wine-tasters, on the differences, apparently extremely real to them and invisible to everybody else, between "deep," "elegant," "beautiful," "powerful," and "subtle" proofs; physicists invoking such peculiar words of praise and blame as "tact" or "skimming"; or literary critics invoking the relative presence of a mysterious property, to outsiders anyway, called "realization," the terms through which the devotees of a scholarly pursuit represent their aims, judgments, justifications, and so on seems to me to take one a long way, when properly understood, toward grasping what that pursuit is all about.


Even the larger, grand classifications, containing as they do strong "persuasive definition" type elements, including the hallowed "Science" versus "Humanities" divide itself, are ripe for this sort of examination. In our intermediary sort of grand subarea, the "Third Culture" Snow forgot, whether one likes to call the whole enterprise the Social, the Behavioral, the Life, or the Human Sciences (or indeed deny the "Science" accolade altogether) tells a great deal about what one thinks the whole enterprise is, or at least ought to be, or at least ought strenuously to be prevented from becoming. And the "hard/soft," "pure/applied," "mature/immature" distinctions in the sciences, or the "creative arts"/"critical studies" one in the humanities, bear similar ideological overtones worth more reflection than, an occasional outburst against think-tank technocrats or New Haven mandarins aside, they usually get.


My third theme, the concern with the life cycle, is not precisely biological in nature, though it stems from a sensitivity to the biological foundations of human existence. Nor is it precisely biographical, though it sets social, cultural, and psychological phenomena in the context of careers. Passage rites, age and sex role definitions, intergenerational bonds (parent/child, master/apprentice) have been important in ethnographic analysis because, marking states and relationships almost everyone experiences, they have seemed to provide at least reasonably fixed points in the swirl of our material.


There are a number of ways in which this way of looking at things could prove of use in thinking about thought. I mention just two.


The first is the extremely peculiar career pattern that marks the academic disciplines: namely, that one starts at the center of things and then moves toward the edges. Induction into the community takes place at or near the top or center. But most people are not settled at or near the top or center but at some region lower down, further out--whatever the image should be. Put concretely, the overwhelming proportion of doctorates in my profession, for example, are still awarded by seven or eight universities; but only a very small proportion of those who receive them work in those universities. There are some doctorates awarded elsewhere, of course, and perhaps (but the most recent figures do not support the idea very much) there has been some diffusion in recent years. But it is, for all that, still true that the majority of people follow a career pattern in which they are for several years at the perceived heart of things and then, in differing degrees and with different speeds, are, in the jargon, "downwardly mobile"--or, again, at least perceive themselves to be. And in some other disciplines the phenomenon is even more marked. The physics departments of the whole country are dotted with people who were "around MIT (or Cal Tech) for awhile"; and to study English history at Princeton and teach it at Louisiana State can lend a particular tone to your life.


To see how odd this pattern is (I don't want to go into its justice), consider the police, where everyone is inducted at the bottom and moves, grade by grade, toward the top; or the two-caste, officer and enlisted man career path of the army; or the Catholic Church, where there is almost nothing between parish priest and bishop so that the great majority of people stay at the same general level of the hierarchy for thirty or forty years. So far as I know, no one has investigated the consequences for thought of this peculiar pattern of incorporating people into academia. But I am convinced that someone should, and that what one might call the "exile from Eden syndrome" is rather more important in shaping our general cast of mind (and accounts for some good part of the nature of our ritual life--professional meetings, for example) than we have allowed ourselves to realize.


The second, and rather closely related, matter I want to mention in this connection is the different, or anyway supposed so, maturation cycles in the various scholarly fields. Mathematics is, of course, one extreme of this, at least in popular imagery: people seem to blossom at eighteen and be washed up at twenty-five. History, where fifty-year-old men are sometimes thought to be still not mature enough to tackle a major work, is, of course, the other. A visitor to the Institute for Advanced Study, where one can see virtually the whole range of cycles in marvelously cacophonic operation at once, is supposed to have asked a mathematician and an historian at tea one afternoon how things were around the place these days. "Oh, you can see," said the historian, waving his hand at the beardless youths about, "it's still a nursery for mathematicians." "And a nursing home for historians," said the mathematician.


Clearly, the facts of the matter are more complex than this and demand subtler concepts than these to determine what they are. I have no substantive propositions to defend in this matter, nor in the others I have so cursorily raised. My point is that "the natives'" notions about maturation (and postmaturation) in the various fields, together with the anxieties and expectations those notions induce, shape much of what any given one is like, "mentally," from inside. They give a distinctive, life-cycle, age-structure tone to it, a structure of hope, fear, desire, and disappointment that permeates the whole of it and that ought to be, as it has for Pueblo Indians and Andaman Pygmies but not for chemists or philosophers, looked into.


As I say, one could go on this way, advising thinkers how to go about understanding what it is they are up to. But as we are here concerned with an issue both more pointedly specific and more grandly general, unity and diversity in the life of the mind, some implications of thinking about thought as a social activity, diversely animated, organized, and aimed, need to be drawn out.


In particular, the hard dying hope that there can again be (assuming there ever was) an integrated high culture, anchored in the educated classes and setting a general intellectual norm for the society as a whole, has to be abandoned in favor of the much more modest sort of ambition that scholars, artists, scientists, professionals, and (dare we hope?) administrators who are radically different, not just in their opinions, or even in their passions, but in the very foundations of their experience, can begin to find something circumstantial to say to one another again. The famous answer that Harold Nicholson is supposed to have given to a lady on a London street in 1915 as to why he was not, young man, off defending civilization--"Madam, I am civilization"--is no longer possible at even the highest of High Tables. All we can hope for, which if it were to happen would be that rarest of phenomena, a useful miracle, is that we can devise ways to gain access to one another's vocational lives.





The question of where the "general" went in "general education" and how one might contrive to get it back so as to avoid raising up a race of highly trained barbarians, Weber's "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart," is one that haunts anyone who thinks seriously about the intellectual life these days. But most of the discussions that arise around it seem to me condemned to a certain sterility, an endless oscillation of equally defensible but rather academical positions, because they take as their starting point the notion that what should be restored (or should not be restored) is some kind of diffuse humanism, one "revised," as Max Black has put it somewhere, so as to be "relevant to our own pressing problems, rather than those of Athenian gentlemen or Renaissance courtiers." However attractive such a program may be (and I, myself, don't wholly find it so) it is a simple impossibility.


The hallmark of modern consciousness, as I have been insisting to the point of obsession, is its enormous multiplicity. For our time and forward, the image of a general orientation, perspective, Weltanschauung, growing out of humanistic studies (or, for that matter, out of scientific ones) and shaping the direction of culture is a chimera. Not only is the class basis for such a unitary "humanism" completely absent, gone with a lot of other things like adequate bathtubs and comfortable taxis, but, even more important, the agreement on the foundations of scholarly authority, old books and older manners, has disappeared. If the sort of ethnography of thought work I have here projected is in fact carried out, it will, I am sure, but strengthen this conclusion. It will deepen even further our sense of the radical variousness of the way we think now, because it will extend our perception of that variousness beyond the merely professional realms of subject matter, method, technique, scholarly tradition, and the like, to the larger framework of our moral existence. The conception of a "new humanism," of forging some general "the best that is being thought and said" ideology and working it into the curriculum, will then seem not merely implausible but utopian altogether. Possibly, indeed, a bit worrisome.


But if a more accurate perception of how deeply into our lives the specificities of our vocations penetrate, how little those vocations are simply a trade we ply and how much a world we inhabit, dissolves the hope that some new form of culture gÈnÈrale de l'esprit can turn their force, it need not leave us resigned to anarchy, grantsmanship, and the higher solipsism. The problem of the integration of cultural life becomes one of making it possible for people inhabiting different worlds to have a genuine, and reciprocal, impact upon one another. If it is true that insofar as there is a general consciousness it consists of the interplay of a disorderly crowd of not wholly commensurable visions, then the vitality of that consciousness depends upon creating the conditions under which such interplay will occur. And for that, the first step is surely to accept the depth of the differences; the second to understand what these differences are; and the third to construct some sort of vocabulary in which they can be publicly formulated--one in which econometricians, epigraphers, cytochemists, and iconologists can give a credible account of themselves to one another.


To show that this problem, the deep dissimilarity of mÈtier-formed minds, is not just in my head, the contrivance of an anthropologist drumming his trade, let me quote, in way of conclusion, two Op. Ed. items from the New York Times of a couple years back. The first is a letter, written by a young, and apparently quite brilliant, associate professor of mathematics at Rutgers, in response to a Times editorial concerning some of his work which the paper, in its usual style of sedate apocalypse, had entitled "Crisis in Mathematics." The "crisis," as the Times had it, was that two independent teams of researchers, one American, one Japanese, had produced two mutually contradictory proofs that were so long and complicated that reconciliation could not be effected. This was not quite correct, the letter writer, who, as a member of the American team, ought to know, said. As he felt it, at least, the crisis cut a great deal nearer the bone than mere methodology:

The issue [of the proofs] remained open for somewhat more than a year [he wrote]--which is not at all unusual when economists, biologists, or even physicists argue; the conflict drew attention precisely because such things are almost unheard of in mathematics. In any case [the Japanese team] found an error in their proof in July, 1974.

The problem, you see, is not that the proofs were too long and complicated--ours, for instance, took just thirteen pages. Rather because homotopy theory is an abstract field of no interest outside mathematics, only one worker bothered to verify the proofs independently. Partly for this reason, I have come to my own "Crisis in Mathematics." Precisely because there is no "maybe" in mathematics, and because pure mathematics has become so relentlessly detached from reality, I have decided that I cannot afford any more such victories. This fall I will enroll in medical school.

The other quotation is from a brief article that appeared, quite unrelated, a week or so later, entitled "What Physicists Do: Neaten Up the Cosmos," by a professor at the Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago. He is exercised by the fact that students, and beyond them the rest of us, consider physics to be "sharp, clear-cut and dried." Physics isn't like that, he says, with a certain asperity, and life isn't like that. He goes on to give some examples of the fact so far as physics is concerned--the standard ant on the standard expanding balloon, and so on--concluding:

Physics is like life; there's no perfection. It's never all sewed up. It's all a question of better, better yet, and how much time and interest do you really have in it. Is the universe really curved? It's not that cut and dried. Theories come and go. A theory isn't right and wrong. A theory has a sort of sociological position that changes as new information comes in."

Is Einstein's theory correct?" You can take a poll and have a look. Einstein is rather "in" right now. But who knows if it is "true?" I think there is a view that physics has a sort of pristineness, rightness, trueness that I don't see in physics at all. To me, physics is the activity you do between breakfast and supper. Nobody said anything about Truth. Perhaps Truth is "out." One thinks, "Well, this idea looks bad for or looks good for general relativity."

Physics is confusing; like life it would be so easy were it otherwise. It's a human activity and you have to make human judgments and accept human limitations.

This way of thinking implies a greater mental flexibility and a greater tolerance for uncertainty than we tend toward naturally, perhaps.

The point is not that there is metaphysical malaise in mathematics and homey cheerfulness in physics. One could produce the inverse impression by quoting the more familiar expressions by mathematicians of the tremendous aesthetic rewards of their work--with fishermen and musicians, they are perhaps the last true poets--and the more familiar ones by physicists of the dispiriting disorder of the charmed, colored, and quarked particle world, from which neatness, cosmic or otherwise, seems to have fled altogether. The point is that to practice an art in which there is no "maybe" or, contrariwise, one that lives by the creed of "perhaps" has an effect on one's general approach to things. It is not just a proposition in homotopy theory that is likely to seem the more aloof the more perfect, the more perfect the more aloof, or adherence to the doctrine of general relativity that is likely to look like a sociological position that changes as new information comes in. The reaction to these compelling facts of scholarly experience is, as I say, of course not uniform. Some individuals embrace a clean, well-lighted place, some are repelled by it; some are drawn toward the confusion of everyday, some long for escape from it. Nor would comparable quotations from Milton specialists or ethnomusicologists, if they could be induced to write honest letters to newspapers, fail to show similar intensities.


But of all this, we know very little. We know very little about what it is like, these days, to live a life centered around, or realized through, a particular sort of scholarly, or pedagogical, or creative activity. And until we know a great deal more, any attempt even to pose, much less to answer, large questions about the role of this or that sort of study in contemporary society--and contemporary education--is bound to break down into passionate generalities inherited from a past just about as unexamined in this regard as the present. It is that, not psychological experiment, neurological investigation, or computer modeling, against which an ethnographic approach to thought sets its face.




* This chapter originally given as a bicentennial address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.



The way we think now: toward an ethnography of modern thought, in: Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, vol. 35 no. 5 (1982), pp. 14-34

cf. Local knowledge: further essays in interpretive anthropology. New-York/N.Y./USA etc. 1983: Basic Books, pp. 147-163


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