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Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology

Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology

by Michael Jackson

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Michael Jackson’s Lifeworlds is a masterful collection of essays, the culmination of a career aimed at understanding the relationship between anthropology and philosophy. Seeking the truths that are found in the interstices between examiner and examined, world and word, and body and mind, and taking inspiration from James, Dewey, Arendt, Husserl,


Michael Jackson’s Lifeworlds is a masterful collection of essays, the culmination of a career aimed at understanding the relationship between anthropology and philosophy. Seeking the truths that are found in the interstices between examiner and examined, world and word, and body and mind, and taking inspiration from James, Dewey, Arendt, Husserl, Sartre, Camus, and, especially, Merleau-Ponty, Jackson creates in these chapters a distinctive anthropological pursuit of existential inquiry. More important, he buttresses this philosophical approach with committed empirical research.
Traveling from the Kuranko in Sierra Leone to the Maori in New Zealand to the Warlpiri in Australia, Jackson argues that anthropological subjects continually negotiate—imaginatively, practically, and politically—their relations with the forces surrounding them and the resources they find in themselves or in solidarity with significant others. At the same time that they mirror facets of the larger world, they also help shape it. Stitching the themes, peoples, and locales of these essays into a sustained argument for a philosophical anthropology that focuses on the places between, Jackson offers a pragmatic understanding of how people act to make their lives more viable, to grasp the elusive, to counteract external powers, and to turn abstract possibilities into embodied truths.

Editorial Reviews

Veena Das

 “Lifeworlds is an extraordinary book, remarkable for its depth, scholarship, and lightness of touch. It puts the whole question of anthropology’s relation to philosophy in a new light. The framing of these essays by the first and last chapter as well as the experience of reading them as a series with the rippling effect of themes that are developed through different kinds of stories and through different voices makes one realize that Michael Jackson is not only a great ethnologist, he is also a major theoretician of anthropological knowledge. Not many people could have taken up such profound issues while wearing their scholarship so lightly.” 

Arthur Kleinman

“Michael Jackson is an extremely productive ethnographer, a serious reader of phenomenological and existential philosophy, and a remarkable writer at a level that one rarely sees in anthropology. Lifeworlds, unsurprisingly, is no exception. The several essays included here fit into an impressive whole that set out a compelling case for a type of ethnography of which Jackson is one of the masters. The writing is strong and the critical reflections impressive. This book defines an approach to anthropology that is resonant enough to challenge the leading models of our time.”
Robert Desjarlais

Lifeworlds comprises a stellar set of essays that advances a convincing testament to the value and pressing need for an existential anthropology. I know of no other text that advances such a statement in such rich and informed terms. The writing is lively and engaging throughout, and the scholarship on which the text rests is strong and well informed. Michael Jackson, one of the leading and most innovative anthropologists today, draws on a wealth of anthropological, literary, and philosophical resources to make his case on the matter. Part anthropological inquiry, part philosophy, Lifeworlds stands out in the ranks of anthropological tomes published of late.”
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“This book offers a salutary reminder that the worth of a text is measured by the extent to which it is true to its author and to that of which he or she writes. That one of our number can write so well, and with such evident sincerity, should warm the hearts of all of us.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Essays in Existential Anthropology
By Michael Jackson

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92364-2

Chapter One

The Scope of Existential Anthropology

You should not try to find whether an idea is just or correct. You should look for a completely different idea, elsewhere, in another area, so that something passes between the two which is neither one nor the other. GILLES DELEUZE, DIALOGUES

Like other human sciences, anthropology has drawn inspiration from many disciplines and sought to build its identity through association with them. But the positivism that anthropology hoped to derive from the natural sciences proved to be as elusive as the authenticity it sought from the humanities. Moreover, though lip service was paid to the models and methods of biology, ecology, psychology, fluid mechanics, structural linguistics, topology, quantum mechanics, mathematics, economics, and general systems theory, anthropologists seldom deployed these analytically or systematically. Rather, they were adopted as images and metaphors. Thus, society was said to function like a living organism, regulate energy like a machine, to be structured like language, organized like a corporation, comparable to a person, or open to interpretation like a text.

Anthropology also sought definition in delimitation. In the same way that societies protect their identities and territories by excluding persons and proclivities that are perceived as threats, so discursive regimes seek definition by discounting experiences that allegedly lie outside their purview. In the establishment of anthropology as a science of the social or the cultural, entire domains of human experience were occluded or assigned to other disciplines, most notably the lived body, the life of the senses, ethics and the imagination, the emotions, materiality and technology. Subjectivity was conflated with roles, rules, routines, and rituals. Individual variations were seen as deviations from the norm. Contingency was played down. Collective representations determined the real. Experience was deduced from creeds, charters, and cosmologies. And just as the natural sciences created the appearance of objectivity through specialized, analytical language, so the social sciences cultivated an image of objectivity by reducing persons to functions and identities: individuals filled roles, fulfilled obligations, followed rules, performed rituals, and internalized beliefs. As such, persons were depicted one-dimensionally, their lives little more than allegories and instantiations of political, historical, or social processes. To all intents and purposes, society alone defined the good, and human beings were slaves to this transcendent ideality.

That these sociological reductions could gain currency undoubtedly reflected a Western tradition of the scholar as hierophant or seer—someone possessing extraordinary powers of understanding, an expert able to solve problems and explain mysteries by reference to factors or forces beyond our ordinary or vernacular grasp. Invoking the supposedly higher powers of reason and logic, the intellectual saw his or her task as the discovery of hidden causes, motives, and meanings. Paul Ricoeur characterizes this tradition as a "school of suspicion." In the work of the three great "masters of suspicion"—Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—consciousness is mostly false consciousness. By implication, the truth about our thoughts, feelings, and actions is inaccessible to the conscious mind and can only be brought to light by experts in interpretation and deciphering. Although Henry Ellenberger traces this "unmasking trend" back to the seventeenth-century French moralists, it finds ubiquitous expression in the suspicion that "true reality is never the most obvious, and that the nature of truth is already indicated by the care it takes to remain elusive."

To what extent, however, was this quest for analytical coherence, narrative closure, or systematic knowledge a reflection of the intellectual's anxiety at the mysteries, confusions, and contingencies of life, or the need to acquire a professional facade with which to advance a career? Could language and thought ever fully capture, cover, or contain the wealth of human experience, or hope to mirror the thing-in-itself? Curiously enough, the critique of this alienated view of human existence came not from within the social sciences but from philosophy. In the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, the critical theory of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, the existenz philosophies of Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Hannah Arendt, the vitalist philosophy of Henri Bergson, and the existential-phenomenological thought of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty—to mention only those thinkers in relation to whom I developed my own lebensphilosophie—five themes prevail. First, the relational character of human existence that Heidegger called being-in-the-world (Dasein). As the hyphens suggest, our own world (eigenwelt) is inextricably tied up with the world of others (mitwelt) and the physical environment of which we are also vitally a part (umwelt). Husserl used the term "intersubjectivity" to capture the sense in which we, as individual subjects, live intentionally or in tension with others as well as with a world that comprises techniques, traditions, ideas, and nonhuman things. By implication, our relationships with the world of others and the world around are relations of inter-est, that is, they are modes of inter-existence, informed by a struggle for the wherewithal for life. We are, therefore, not stable or set pieces, with established and immutable essences, destinies, or identities; we are constantly changing, formed and reformed, in the course of our relationships with others and our struggle for whatever helps us sustain and find fulfillment in life. That these relationships are dynamic and problematic is self-evident: life resources—whether wealth or water, food or finery—are scarce, and what enriches one may cause the impoverishment of another, and what gives life to one may spell the death of another.

The term "intersubjectivity"—or what Hannah Arendt calls "the subjective in-between"—shifts our emphasis away from notions of the person, the self, or the subject as having a stable character and abiding essence, and invites us to explore the subtle negotiations and alterations of subjective experience as we interact with one another, intervocally or dialogically (in conversation or confrontation), intercorporeally (in dancing, moving, fighting, or competing), and introceptively (in getting what we call a sense of the other's intentions, frame of mind, or worldview). But several important provisos must be made. First, intersubjectivity is not a synonym for empathy or fellow feeling, since it covers relations that are harmonious and disharmonious, peaceable and violent. Second, intersubjectivity may be used of relations between persons and things, since things are often imagined to be social actors, with minds of their own, and persons are often treated as though they were mere things. Third, intersubjectivity implies both fixed and fluid aspects, which is to say that one's sense of participation in the lives of others never completely eclipses a sense of oneself as an autonomous subject. In William James's terms, consciousness constantly oscillates between intransitive and transitive extremes, like a bird that is sometimes perched or nesting, and sometimes on the wing. A theory of consciousness that singled out the intransitive and downplayed the transitive—or vice versa—would be as absurd as a theory of birds that emphasized perching or nesting and failed to mention flight. Fourth, the intersubjective must be considered in relation to the intrapsychic, since we cannot fully understand the nature of social interactions without understanding what is going on in an actor's mind—that is to say, intrapsychically. If we are to have a science of relationality, we therefore need to complement a sociological perspective with a psychological one. We need to consider the co-presence of a sense of ourselves as singular and a sense of ourselves as social, of ourselves as having an enduring form and as being susceptible to transformation.

A second major theme in existential anthropology concerns the ambiguity of the term "subject," since the notion of an individual subject—self or other—entails a more abstract, discursive notion of subject, as in the phrases, "My subject is anthropology" or "I am a New Zealand subject." To cite Adorno, "Neither one can exist without the other, the particular only as determined and thus universal, the universal only as the determination of a particular and thus itself particular. Both of them are and are not. This is one of the strongest motives of a nonidealist dialectics." Accordingly, any social microcosm (e.g., a circle of friends, a family, a small community) has to be understood in relation to the cultural, linguistic, historical, geopolitical, or global macrocosm in which it is embedded. But neither the personal nor the political, the particular or the abstract, senses of "subjectivity" can be postulated as prior. They are mutually arising; each is the condition of the possibility of the other—which is why international relations, like abstract relations in philosophy, not only have recourse to metaphors of interpersonal life but are actually conducted in intersubjective terms, while interpersonal life is reciprocally shaped by the transpersonal and impersonal structures of the polis.

Third, our humanity is at once shared and singular. This paradox of plurality means that we both identify with others and differentiate ourselves from them. Although "the expression 'particular person' requires the concept of species simply in order to be meaningful," the particular person cannot be "disappeared" into a discursive category without violence. Identity connotes both idem (being identical or the same) and ipse (being self in contrast to other). Accordingly, human beings seek individuation and autonomy as much as they seek union and connection with others. As Otto Rank observed, we possess both a will to separate and a will to unite. Consequently, we continually find ourselves on the cusp of the impossible: "Man ... wants to lose his isolation and keep it at the same time. He can't stand the sense of separateness, and yet he can't allow the complete suffocation of his vitality. He wants to expand by merging with the powerful beyond that transcends him, yet he wants while merging with it to remain individual and aloof."

A fourth theme is that the meaning of any human life cannot be reduced to the conceptual language with which we render it intelligible or manageable. Against the grain of much European philosophy, being and thought are not assumed to be identical. As Dewey put it, "What is really 'in' experience extends much further than that which at any time is known." Adorno's negative dialectics echo the same idea: "Represented in the inmost cell of thought is that which is unlike thought." If I prefer the term "lifeworld" to "culture" or "society," it is because I want to capture this sense of a social field as a force field (kraftfeld), a constellation of both ideas and passions, moral norms and ethical dilemmas, the tried and true as well as the unprecedented, a field charged with vitality and animated by struggle. Even more urgently, Adorno's concept of nonidentity helps liberate anthropology from one of its most persistent fallacies, namely, the tendency to presuppose an isomorphic relation between words and world, or between experience and episteme. Even with the best will in the world, human beings seldom speak their minds or say exactly what is in their hearts. Rather, we express what is in our best interests, both personal and interpersonal. German critical theory and psychoanalysis caution us not to infer subjective experience directly from verbal accounts, collective representations, or conventional wisdom. Yet anthropologists often claim that a peoples' shared symbols and vernacular images are windows onto their inner experience, so that the claim that persons share their humanity with animal familiars or doubles, or that stones are animate, may be taken literally. But no one in his or her right mind experiences the extrahuman world as permanently human or intrinsically animate. It would be impossible to apply oneself to the everyday tasks of cooking food, raising children, or making a farm if one confused self and other, or experienced one's being as diffused into the being of the world at large. Among the Ojibwa, for example, there is an implicit category distinction in the language between animate and inanimate. Although stone, thunder, and objects such as kettles and pipes are grammatically animate and Ojibwa sometimes speak of stones as if they were persons, this does not mean that Ojibwa are animists "in the sense that they dogmatically attribute living souls to inanimate objects such as stone"; rather they recognize "potentialities for animation in certain classes of objects under certain circumstances. The Ojibwa do not perceives stones, in general, as animate, any more than we do." Among the Kuranko, it is axiomatic that will and consciousness are not limited to human beings, but distributed beyond the world of persons, and potentially found in totemic animals, fetishes, and even plants. The attributes of moral personhood (morgoye) may indeed be exemplified in the behavior of totemic animals, divinities, and the dead, while antisocial people may lose their personhood entirely, becoming like broken vessels or ruined houses. In other words, being is not necessarily limited to human being. But this is a human projection, a human understanding. And it is a potential state of affairs, not an actual or inevitable one. Thus, in chapter 5 I describe an ambitious but disappointed individual who invokes the power of his clan totem, the elephant, to imagine himself transformed into a person of real presence and power. This experiential transformation is episodic, illusory, and by no means common—despite its logical possibility, since Kuranko posit permeable boundaries between human and animal, town and bush, subject and object. But even Kuranko do not conflate epistemologies (that which is spelled out in knowledge claims about the nature of the world) and ontologies (ways in which people actually experience their being-in-the-world). As a Kuranko adage succinctly puts it, the word "fire" cannot burn down a house.

Fifth, human existence involves a dynamic relationship between how we are constituted and how we constitute ourselves, between what is already there in the world into which we are born and what emerges in the course of our lives within that world. That both anthropology and psychology are sciences of human relationships—intrapsychic as well as intersubjective—undermines the positivist claims sometimes made for them, since the meanings and experiences that emerge in the course of any human interaction, conversation, or life history go beyond the relata involved. Although we may identify such relata as individual persons, named groups, or specific events and consider them stable over time, our knowledge of them always reflects our changing relation to them. Werner Heisenberg called this the uncertainty principle. What we know of the world depends on how we interact with it. Our methods and personalities alter and partially constitute the nature of what we observe. "We can no longer speak of the behavior of the particle independently of the process of observation. As a final consequence, the natural laws formulated mathematically in quantum theory no longer deal with the elementary particles themselves but with our knowledge of them." Since what transpires in the transitional space between persons is always, in some sense, unpredictable and new, one can never reduce the meaning of a human life to the conditions of its possibility or to the retrospective account of that life that a person or group of persons may render as story, analysis or commentary. To echo Sartre, a person always makes something of what he or she is made. And this defines our freedom: "the small movement which makes a totally conditioned social being someone who does not render back completely what his conditioning has given him." Although we may identify certain factors in our history, our genes, our class, or our culture that determine the limits of our human potentiality, there are always turning points, fortuitous encounters, epigenetic factors, and fateful events that just as forcefully impact upon the ways in which latent possibilities are or are not realized.

Given these considerations, the focus of existential anthropology is the paradox of plurality and the ambiguity of intersubjective life. Although we exist as both singular beings and participants in wider fields of being that encompass other people, material things, and abstractions, our relations with ourselves and with others are uncertain, constantly changing, and subject to endless negotiation. Accordingly, calls for sinking our differences and fostering universal equality are utopian ideals. As Adorno notes, the realization of universality as a permanent and unitary state can only be accomplished through the violent ironing out of differences. By contrast, an emancipated society is one that achieves coexistence in difference.

Ethnographic Method and the Philosophical Turn

While philosophy continues to address Kant's question about what it means to be human, ethnography provides one of the most edifying methods for exploring Kant's preoccupation with the relation between what is given (a priori) and what is chosen in human life—what is predetermined by nature or nurture, what emerges from experience, and what lies within our power to decide, to know, to do, or to be. What separates us from Kant's anthropology, however, is a commitment to explore empirically the lived experience of actual people in everyday situations before venturing suggestions as to what human beings may have in common, irrespective of their personal, cultural, or religious circumstances. As Veena Das puts it, our goal is "not some kind of ascent into the transcendent but a descent into everyday life" that implies a refusal to place ourselves above others through the repression of their voices or views and the privileging of our own.

The history of anthropology's engagement with philosophy from the eighteenth century is yet to be written. But as Robert Orsi observes, in religious scholarship and intellectual history alike, "people's lives are always there, in one way or another. This is true even when the matters we are thinking about are huge and abstract.... There are always lives within our ideas."


Excerpted from Lifeworlds by Michael Jackson Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael Jackson is Distinguished Visiting Professor of World Religions at the Harvard Divinity School.

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