Clifford Geertz by His Colleagues

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Clifford Geertz is the most influential American anthropologist of the past four decades. His writings have defined and given character to the intellectual agenda of a meaning-centered, nonreductive interpretive social science and have provoked much excitement and debate about the nature of human understanding.

As part of the American Anthropological Association's centennial celebration, the executive board sponsored a presidential session honoring Geertz. Clifford Geertz by His Colleagues compiles the twelve speeches given then by a distinguished panel of social scientists along with a concluding piece by Geertz in which he responds to each speaker and reflects on his own career. These edited speeches cover a broad range of topics, including Geertz's views on morality, cultural critique, interpretivism, time and change, Islam, and violence.

A fitting tribute to one of the great thinkers of our age, this collection will be enjoyed by anthropologists as well as students of psychology, history, and philosophy.

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Editorial Reviews

New Scientist

"We should be grateful that Clifford Geertz chose anthropology. Described as the single most influential anthropologist of recent times, he resisted reductionism and chose meaning-centred analysis. Clifford Geertz by His Colleagues is a great twist on the Festschrift: here, the tributes to him receive a reply from him."--Maggie McDonald, New Scientist

— Maggie McDonald

Charles Taylor
"Clifford Geertz is a central figure in the humanities in the last half century, whose work has transformed anthropology and social science in general. His interpretive turn has made it possible to grasp the particular, changing constellations of meaning which constitute human societies, and are often masked in the explanatory systems and over-arching generalizations of traditional social science. This work is of greater relevance than ever today, when very diverse societies are drawn ever tighter together, often in mutual incomprehension and conflict. This fascinating book, a conversation between Geertz and colleagues from different disciplines, draws out these and other implications of his remarkable corpus of work."
Richard Rorty
"Geertz's combination of great philosophical sophistication with an artist's eye for the significant little detail has made him one of the most influential intellectuals of recent times. This collection of essays will give the reader a good sense of his impact on a variety of academic disciplines."
New Scientist - Maggie McDonald
"We should be grateful that Clifford Geertz chose anthropology. Described as the single most influential anthropologist of recent times, he resisted reductionism and chose meaning-centred analysis. Clifford Geertz by His Colleagues is a great twist on the Festschrift: here, the tributes to him receive a reply from him."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226756103
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2005
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 145
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard A. Shweder is the William Claude Reavis Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including, most recently, Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology. Byron Good is professor of medical anthropology and chairman of the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard University. He is the author or editor of several books, including Medicine, Rationality, and Experience: An Anthropological Perspective.

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Read an Excerpt


The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-75610-3

Chapter One
Cliff Notes The Pluralisms of Clifford Geertz

For three decades Clifford Geertz has been the single most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States. Throughout his career he has put his vast intellectual and literary skills to work "ferreting out the singularities of other peoples' ways of life," cultivating a provocative variety of philosophical pluralism and promoting the idea that there is no fixed kernel to human nature. No "mind for all cultures." No "deep down homo." "If anthropology is obsessed with anything," he writes, "it is with how much difference difference makes" (2000, 197). He goes on to say, "If you want a good rule-of-thumb generalization from anthropology I would suggest the following: Any sentence that begins, 'All societies have ...' is either baseless or banal" (135).

In many ways Cliff Geertz's sense of style has exemplified (and given distinctive character) to his beliefs. He is a master of distinctions who recoils at typologies, grand theories, and universal generalizations and rejects abstractionism and reductionism as methods for the social sciences. He is a discriminating writer who feels very much at home taking the measure of some complex scene. "Rushing to judgment," he writes, "is more than a mistake, it's a crime" (2000, 45). He believes that ultimate reality (if he is willing to speak of "ultimate" things at all) is a complex continuum of overlapping likenesses and differences that should not be placed in neat boxes, and certainly not two boxes. And as everyone in this anthropological audience surely knows he is the mahatma of "thick description." "I don't do systems," he writes, and his preference for portraying "cases," and his antipathy for general laws and formal principles will be obvious to anyone familiar with his work.

Cliff Geertz's critics are many. Almost everyone initially gets sidetracked by the visibility and distinctiveness of his writing style, which is like Cyrano de Bergerac's nose. It is conspicuous, it is spectacular, but it is best to just ignore it, for the sake of getting on with a discussion of his ideas, which is what we hope to do in this symposium. Reading Clifford Geertz is the perfect antidote to obscurantism in the social sciences, which is a very good thing for those of us who have been educated, inspired, or challenged by his writings. It is even good for those who care to be constructive critics or to interrogate various aspects of his work.

Looking beyond reactions to style, it seems fair to say that among Geertz's critics the lumpers in the social sciences feel frustrated by him because he is a splitter who is not so easy to dismiss. He argues that knowledge is "local" and most social science generalizations restricted in scope, for which he has no regrets. Geertz writes, "I have never been able to understand why such comments as 'your conclusions, such as they are, only cover two million people [Bali], or fifteen million [Morocco], or sixty-five million [Java], and only over some years or centuries' are supposed to be criticisms" (2000, 137). Nevertheless, the universalizers mistakenly think he is a radical relativist. The positivists mistakenly think he is anti-science. And the skeptical postmodernists (by which I mean those scholars who really are subjectivists, nihilists, and radical relativists, which Clifford Geertz is not), think he is an old-fashioned American anthropologist who still believes there is some good work to be done with the idea of "culture" (by which I mean human conceptions of what is good, true, beautiful, and efficient made manifest, and thereby expressed, in practice).

But I am a fan. And one reason I admire his work so much is because I believe Cliff Geertz is one of the world's most significant proponents of cultural, moral, and scientific pluralism (which is not the same as radical relativism and is certainly not the same as being "anti-science").

If I had to identity some of the big philosophical or theoretical themes in his writings I would name four. Theme 1: Diversity is inherent in the human condition. Theme 2: There is no universal essence to human nature that strongly determines human behavior. Theme 3: Across time and space (history and culture) human nature is continuously transformed by the never-ending attempt of particular groups of human beings-Balinese, Moroccans, Northern European Protestants-to understand themselves and to create a social world that makes manifest their self-understandings. Theme 4: Securing universal agreement about what is good, true, beautiful, or efficient in life is rarely possible across cultures and, even more importantly, the ecumenical impulse to value uniformity (for example, convergence in belief) over variety and to overlook, devalue, or even eradicate "difference" is not a good thing. Culture is not icing, he writes. Biology is not cake. Differences are not necessarily shallow. Likeness is not necessarily deep (See Shweder 2000 for a similar but more expansive summary of Geertz's contribution to the social sciences).

Cliff Geertz has written that relativism "disables judgment" while absolutism "removes it from history." He has strongly intimated that finding a middle path between relativism and absolutism is what culture theory ought to be about. For my own very specific substantive contribution to this symposium I want to briefly focus on a not very small question concerning judgments about morality (good and bad, right and wrong) and on the issue of cultural critique. In particular I want to ask, is it possible to offer moral evaluations of the social practices of different societies without imposing one's own parochial or ethnocentric conception of things on others? If the answer is yes, precisely how is that to be done? If the answer is no, precisely why is that so? In other words, what exactly is Cliff Geertz's implied third choice between relativism and absolutism; and what exactly does it look like (what shape does it take) when one is asked to judge whether, for example, such customary practices as polygamy, arranged marriage, adolescent circumcision, physical punishment, animal sacrifice, and so forth are good or bad, right or wrong?

In his well-known essay "Anti Anti-Relativism," Cliff Geertz offers this quote from Montaigne: "Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice ... for we have no other criterion of reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country we live in." "That notion," Geertz then remarks, "whatever its problems, and however more delicately expressed, is not likely to go entirely away unless anthropology does" (2000, 45). He goes on to say, "What the relativists, so-called, want us to worry about is provincialism-the danger that our perceptions will be dulled, our intellects constricted, and our sympathies narrowed by the over-learned and overvalued acceptances of our own society" (45).

In the light of that remark it seems reasonable to raise the question: when it comes to evaluating the social norms of others what does the sharpening of our perceptions, the expanding of our intellects, and the widening of our sympathies actually amount to, and doesn't that process of sharpening, expanding, and widening imply that there is more to a moral judgment than Montaigne imagined? And if there is more, doesn't that process of informed evaluation take us beyond the country we live in, making it possible for us to achieve a nonethnocentric understanding of the degree of moral value of the customs of other societies. Doesn't the process of cultural critique mean that it is possible (perhaps difficult, but possible) to separate the provincial aspects from the nonprovincial aspects of ones own moral judgments?

My guess is that Cliff Geertz, for a variety of reasons (some of them Wittgensteinian; some not), will be reluctant to theorize in the abstract about such questions. So in the little time that remains I aim to simply open a conversation, the ultimate purpose of which is to answer such questions. I would begin by inviting Cliff to say how his own position on moral judgment and cultural critique compares to the positions of two other famous anti-universalists from two other disciplines-the legal scholar Richard Posner and the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.

Posner, who is a United States appellate judge and senior lecturer at the University of Chicago, is also the most widely cited contemporary American legal scholar. Notably, he is a thoroughgoing anti-realist and a provocative moral relativist. When it comes to the study of moral judgments he fully appreciates the Geertzian generalization that "Any sentence that begins, 'All societies have ... is either baseless or banal.'" In his book The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory (1999) he (Posner) quotes approvingly from Geertz's essay "Anti Anti-Relativism" and has the following to say:

I shall be arguing first of all that morality is local, and that there are no interesting moral universals. There are tautological ones, such as "murder is wrong" where "murder" means "wrongful killing," or "bribery is wrong," where bribery means "wrongful paying." But what counts as murder, or as bribery, varies enormously from society to society. There are a handful of rudimentary principles of social cooperation-such as don't lie all the time or don't break promises without any reason or kill your relatives or neighbors indiscriminately-that may be common to all human societies, and if one wants to call these rudimentary principles the universal moral law, that is fine with me. But they are too abstract to be criterial. Meaningful moral realism is therefore out, and a form (not every form) of moral relativism is in. Relativism in turn invites an adaptationist conception of morality, in which morality is judged-nonmorally, in the way that a hammer might be judged well or poorly adapted to its goal of hammering nails into wood or plaster-by its contribution to the survival, or other ultimate goals, of a society or some group within it. Moral relativism implies that the expression "moral progress" must be used with great caution, because it is perspectival rather than objective; moral progress is in the eye of the beholder. (Posner 1999, 6)

In his book (an extension of his 1997 Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures at Harvard University) Judge Posner offers a sustained attack on moral realism. In his lectures he suggests that "many moral claims are just the gift wrapping of theoretically ungrounded (and ungroundable) preferences and aversions." He also argues that if any nonlocal moral facts exist at all they are completely useless for resolving any actual real world moral issue. He writes,

Every society, every subculture within a society, past or present, has had a moral code but a code shaped by the exigencies of life in that society or that subculture rather than by a glimpse of some overarching source of moral obligations. To the extent it is adaptive to those exigencies, the code cannot be criticized convincingly by outsiders. Infanticide is abhorred in our culture, but routine in societies that lack the resources to feed all children that are born. Slavery was routine when the victors in war could not afford to feed or free their captives, so that the alternative to enslaving them was killing them. Are infanticide and slavery "wrong" in these circumstances? It is provincial to say that "we are right about slavery, for example, and the Greeks wrong," so different was slavery in the ancient world from racial enslavement, as practiced, for example, in the United States until the end of the Civil War, and so different were the material conditions that nurtured these different forms of slavery. To call infanticide or slavery presumptively bad would be almost as provincial as unqualified condemnation. The inhabitants of an infanticidal or slave society would say with equal plausibility that infanticide or slavery is presumptively good, though they might allow that the presumption could be rebutted in peaceable, wealthy, technologically complex societies. (Posner 1999, 19)

Three features of Posner's position with regard to these and other cases are especially worthy of note. First, he describes himself as a moral relativist. As he stated in his Holmes Lectures he believes "that the criteria for pronouncing a moral claim valid are local, that is, are relative to the moral code of the particular culture in which the claim is advanced, so that we cannot call another 'immoral' unless we add 'by our lights.'"

Second, he allows that he is a moral subjectivist in the sense that he believes that there are no "reasonably concrete transcultural moral truths." In effect he argues that there is no independent or transcendent or objective domain of the right and the true (no "objective order of goodness") to which one might appeal, as the legitimate source for one's particular judgments about what is right or wrong, good or bad. (The discourse of "inalienable" or "natural" rights is, of course, by Posner's anti-realist account, thereby rendered either illusory or vacuous.)

Third, he claims that he is not a strong moral skeptic. There are moral truths worth knowing and judgments worth making, he argues. But they are merely facts about what is judged right and wrong in one's own society, for example, the existing social norms, customs, and laws of one's own land. These local norms and laws are knowable, he argues, and he is quite prepared to make parochial judgments about what is right and wrong for members of his parish or community, and to enforce them.

What Posner is not prepared to do is pretend that his judgments about the practices of other societies are anything more than reactions based on feelings of personal disgust. Perhaps as a result of personal temperament or cultural taste he might feel revolted by some practice (such as infanticide or suttee) and even inclined to intervene to stop the practice with the power at his command. Nevertheless he argues, in keeping with his anti-realist approach, "moral emotions" (shame, guilt, disgust, indignation) have no universal concrete moral content or objective foundation or source in some transcendental domain of the moral good.

Fully consistent with his moral subjectivism, he also rejects that idea that there is a universal moral obligation to tolerate cultures that have social norms different from one's own. He comes close to saying that the experience of a negative-feeling state may result in the exercise of power to eradicate the practices of others, and that it is misguided to even ask whether such an intervention is justifiable or not. The moral domain by Richard Posner's account of moral relativism and subjectivism is simply a natural scene in which different groups, each with their own distinctive social norms and equipped (in varying degrees) with powers and resources to dominate the local or global scene, compete with each other to perpetuate their own way of life. Some will succeed better than others do. Some will adapt or surrender their social norms under pressure to do so. But none of this social norm competition or social norm replacement represents true moral progress, and there are no rational discussions or arguments to be had about what the outcome of the competition or conflict ought to be. Why? Because, according to Posner, there is no objective moral standard against which divergent claims about what is right and good can be assessed. All that matters is power and the struggle to carry forward one's way of life efficiently, and to survive in the competition with other groups.

Precisely how do Cliff Geertz's views on these issues differ from Posner's, if at all? The comparison of Geertz and Posner is instructive. If I understand him correctly, Cliff Geertz believes that is it possible to reject subjectivism and radical relativism while at the same time refusing to place anything (other than banalities) outside of culture. Yet if I understand Posner correctly, he advocates moral subjectivism and relativism precisely because (Geertz-like) he refuses to place anything other than banalities outside of culture. Posner thereby forces us to ask the following question: If, as Cliff Geertz suggests, there is so very little in the moral domain that transcends culture and history, how it is possible for others to be both different from us in their social norms yet entitled to have their social norms valued by us, or at least tolerated by us, at the same time? Posner's version of anti-universalism (and his refusal to endorse tolerance or any other moral values as real or objective goods) provokes us to consider the possibility that a fully theorized stance of moral pluralism in anthropology must take us beyond any particular culture and outside of history, for the sake of the theory's own systematic justification. If one rejects both subjectivism and relativism, as Clifford Geertz (in apparent contrast to Richard Posner) recommends, what does one put in its place? In the absence of any objective values or nonethnocentric moral goods what type of value judgments survive the corrosive force of moral skepticism?


Excerpted from CLIFFORD GEERTZ by HIS COLLEAGUES Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Richard A. Shweder and Byron Good
1. Cliff Notes: The Pluralisms of Clifford Geertz
Richard A. Shweder
2. Passing Judgment: Interpretation, Morality, and Cultural Assessment in the Work of Clifford Geertz
Lawrence Rosen
3. Celebrating Geertzian Interpretivism
Jerome Bruner
4. Coded Communications: Symbolic Psychological Anthropology
Robert A. LeVine
5. Geertz's Style: A Moral Matter
James A. Boon
6. Clifford Geertz on Time and Change
Natalie Zemon Davis
7. Happenstance and Patterns
Amelie Oksenberg Rorty
8. Geertz's Concept of Culture in Historical Context: How He Saved the Day and Maybe the Century
James Peacock
9. Clifford Geertz and Islam
Dale F. Eickelman
10. Deep Play, Violence, and Social Reconstruction
Michael M. J. Fischer
11. Speaking to Large Issues: The World, If It Is Not in Pieces
Ulf Hannerz
12. On the "Subject" of Culture: Subjectivity and Cultural Phenomenology in the Work of Clifford Geertz
Byron Good and Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good
13. Commentary
Clifford Geertz

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