Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Culture and Practical Reason

Culture and Practical Reason

by Marshall Sahlins

See All Formats & Editions

"The main thrust of this book is to deliver a major critique of materialist and rationalist explanations of social and cultural forms, but the in the process Sahlins has given us a much stronger statement of the centrality of symbols in human affairs than have many of our 'practicing' symbolic anthropologists. He demonstrates that symbols enter all phases of social


"The main thrust of this book is to deliver a major critique of materialist and rationalist explanations of social and cultural forms, but the in the process Sahlins has given us a much stronger statement of the centrality of symbols in human affairs than have many of our 'practicing' symbolic anthropologists. He demonstrates that symbols enter all phases of social life: those which we tend to regard as strictly pragmatic, or based on concerns with material need or advantage, as well as those which we tend to view as purely symbolic, such as ideology, ritual, myth, moral codes, and the like. . . ."—Robert McKinley, Reviews in Anthropology

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
3 MB

Read an Excerpt

Culture and Practical Reason

By Marshall Sahlins

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1976 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-16179-2


Marxism and Two Structuralisms

The question that first inspired this book was whether the materialist conception of history and culture, as Marx formulated it theoretically, could be transferred without friction to the comprehension of tribal societies. Since it appeared to me that it could not, the question became, What is the real nature of the difficulty?

I hasten to add that the reference is to the materialist system as it is stated methodologically in passages of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology, the "Theses on Feuerbach," A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the Grundrisse, Capital, and other works of Marx which will be cited hereafter. The general social theory set forth in these studies is commonly referred to as "historical materialism." It is well known that Marx never used the term "historical materialism" (or "dialectical materialism") to describe his philosophy. The need for such labels arose later—and this may be symptomatic of the problem that will concern us. Serious students of Marx have claimed that he failed to systematize adequately the practices he actually used in the more concrete analyses of history and of capitalist society. Accordingly, the present work might be thought of as a response on two levels to the disparity, since it takes an epistemological gap between practice and concept as an occasion to reflect on the adequacy of material praxis to account for the cultural order.

Such reflection necessarily develops into an internal critique of anthropological theory as well. Still, I believe that the encounter with tribal and peasant societies has generated something novel and authentic in anthropology, especially in its concept of culture, and I am moved to defend it. It would be a dismal—although conceivable—comment on our supposed "science" if the materialist interpretation as Marx developed it in the mid-nineteenth century could be applied without problem to the tribal world. A hundred years of thought and fieldwork, all that mental and physical discomfort, would have been largely for nothing—an immense detour into the uncharted hinterlands of mankind that merely brought us back to the starting point. Nothing we learned about human culture in the villages of the Indians, the Africans, or the Polynesians would have contained any real surprises. On the contrary, anthropology, handmaiden to imperialism, beyond its contributions to the spread of Western ideology and polity, would reveal itself as a grand intellectual distraction, bourgeois society scratching its head.

That could be. On the other hand, the received materialism has had its difficulties with anthropological knowledge. To determine the source of the problem would be of the highest service to anthropological and Marxist theory alike. For by the very fact that anthropology is the creature of a bourgeois society whose supposed superior virtues it does not credit, its greatest aim must be the same as that of a critical materialism: "to help men out of their self-made prison of uncomprehended economic determinism" (Schmidt 1971, p. 41). That is the spirit of this book.

The resistance of tribal society to materialist theory has had many expressions. There were clear anticipations of the problem in the works of Marx and Engels: caution about the pertinence of the material dialectic where the means of production do not confront the producers as reified and alienated forces; circumspection about the formative powers of the economic base relative to "natural" bonds of "blood"; observation of the immutability of archaic village communities (see especially Marx 1964; 1967 [1867], 1:358; Engels 1972 [1891]; Marx and Engels 1936, pp. 405–6). So that now for every claim of the universality of the materialist interpretation there is a counterclaim of its relativity. For every assertion of its applicability to all of history (Althusser and Balibar 1970; Terray 1972) there is a reservation of its specificity to the growth and decline of capitalism (Petrovic 1967; Schmidt 1971). The disagreement is over the theoretical status of historical materialism as the science of history or—the owl of Minerva taking wing at dusk—the critical self-awareness of late capitalist society.

Meanwhile, within the anthropological academy proper, historical materialism has not been an unqualified success. Of course, there are ideological resistances, but there are also serious criticisms. This chapter takes up some main issues in certain recent debates between Marxism and the two anthropological structuralisms, British and French. But first, a few ground rules for such discussion.

It would be sheer "terrorism" on the Marxist side to dismiss these anthropological arguments as bourgeois idealism (cf. Sartre 1963). But it would be just as uninformative for anthropology to adopt the same terrorism in reverse, writing off the Marxist challenge as a "vulgar economic determinism," a naive "reflectionist" understanding of the relations between economic base and political-ideological superstructures. There are enough concrete examples in Marx, not to mention the well-known explications in Engels's correspondence, to justify leaving such criticisms aside. The issue joined in the debate with British structuralism is a real one: the relevance of the Marxist analytic frame to a society that does not know an organizational distinction between base and superstructure; that is, where the two are formally the same structure. In turn, this morphological or institutionalist problem is only an aspect of the deeper issue in the controversy between Marxism and French structuralism.

"Controversy" may not be the correct word. In some instances there is an uneasy accommodation. The love-hate affair raging between structuralists and Marxists testifies to the accuracy of Luc de Heusch's ethnographic report from the Latin Quarter to the effect that the French intelligentsia is the most nervous in Europe. Still, the usual modes by which the two are opposed, the synchrony of structuralism to the diachrony of Marxism, the idealism of the former to the materialism of the latter, make it difficult to understand why they should even contemplate a synthesis. True that some militants reject structuralism out of hand for its apparent quietism. But Lévi-Strauss says he is a Marxist, in some sense (1965, p. 61; 1966, p. 130), even as Godelier finds Marx was a structuralist (1972). Moreover, this attraction of opposites has an analogue in anthropology proper, in the fascination Lévi-Strauss holds for Anglo-Saxon ethnologists, despite their habitual hard-headed empiricism. What structuralism seems to offer, even beyond a conception of the continuity in history that Marx recognized for certain precapitalist societies, is an explicit statement of the culture in the praxis, the symbolic order in the material activity.

This too Marx was among the first to recognize. But to adopt a distinction of Althusser's, to recognize an important fact, to see it, is not the same as developing the concept of it. Marx's general formulations of cultural theory would subordinate the societal logic of production to the instrumental logic of work, and withal transpose the symbolic coordinates of social being into the consequence of that being. The relation between productive action in the world and the symbolic organization of experience—this is the issue between Marxism and French structuralism; as it is also the issue in the provincial debates of anthropology over practical and cultural reason. The disagreement is over the adequacy of praxis to constitute the human order.

The following discussion seeks to establish the framework of this disagreement, and of all its corollaries, equally fundamental, concerning the relations between structure and event, culture and nature, ideology and economy. Perhaps the importance of the question, as well as the difficulties Marxism and structuralism discover in escaping from each other, is summed up by the observation that the Marxist vision of a socialist future, the mastery by society of society's mastery over nature, is very similar to the idea that Lévi-Strauss and Boas before him have entertained of the primitive past. What is more, is this not the essential anthropological understanding of culture itself?

Marxism and British Structuralism: The Worsley-Fortes Controversy

When Peter Worsley (1956) subjected Meyer Fortes's studies of the Tallensi (especially 1945, 1949) to a Marxist critique, he adopted a strategy that seemed more analytic than dialectic. "It is necessary," he wrote, "to break a kinship system, which is a unitary system of relations between persons, into its component purposive systems of different kind (economic, procreative, ritual, etc.) and to examine the relations between these systems" (1956, p. 64; emphasis mine). Yet here there is an even more striking departure from the received materialism. The analytic dissection Worsley performs on the Tallensi lineage system is rather the opposite of the procedure Marx used to demystify Western capitalism. Worsley is obliged to dismember an apparent unity in order to posit hidden relationships among its parts; for Marx, the problem was to discover the unity among parts—the economy, law, the state—which presented themselves as distinct and autonomous.

This difference in method is, I suggest, the theoretical counterpart of a difference in the cultural object. The materialist synthesis achieved by Marx was a triumph over the peculiar and deceiving appearance of bourgeois society. Lukács explains: "Economics, law and the state appear here as closed systems which control the whole of society by virtue of the perfection of their own power and by their own built-in laws." Historical materialism, Lukács concludes, "was an epoch-making achievement precisely because it was able to see that these apparently quite independent, hermetic and autonomous systems were really aspects of a comprehensive whole and that their apparent independence could be transcended" (Lukács 1971, p. 230). But the Tallensi, as Worsley describes them, present this problem in reverse:

We have seen that those persons to whom one stands, for example, in a particular political relationship are also the same persons to whom one stands in other relationships—moral, religious, educational etc. The ties linking individuals in Tale society are not ties of unitary interest alone; there is a complex network of interlocking ties which bind people together. This multiplicity of ties is mainly expressed in the idiom of kinship. Political relations between groups are similarly expressed in kinship terms, although the content of such relations is obviously of a different nature from the content of the relations between actual kin. Thus kinship is the framework of the whole social system: the many ties that link people together coincide with those of direct kinship, and this shapes the structures of the whole society. [1956, p. 63]

Worsley is thus compelled to find a diversity in the institutional unity—on the model of a method for discovering the unity in an institutional diversity. To get a clearer picture of this theoretical inversion, allow me to reproduce Marx's most famous statement of materialist principle:

The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, continued to serve as the leading thread in my studies may be briefly summed up as follows: In the social production which men carry on, they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. [Marx 1904 (1859), pp. 11–12]

Marx of course goes on to outline the dialectics of change: conflict between the developing material forces and the established relations of production, leading to social revolution, transformation of the economic base and, consequently, more or less rapid transformation of the "entire immense superstructure." Both dynamic and determination in the theory, diachronic movement and synchronic relationship, presuppose a differentiated cultural order. The society envisioned in materialist theory is divided into "component purposive systems"—economy, polity, ideology—each organized by specialized institutions (market, state, church, etc.). Marx's own formulation of historical materialism contains a definite structural a priori—but of a kind that anthropology has recognized as particular and historical.

For the absence of just that differentiation between base and superstructure presumed by the materialist conception is the hallmark of the "primitive" in the array of human cultures. The term has had no sensible use in anthropology except to designate a generalized structure. In the tribal cultures, economy, polity, ritual, and ideology do not appear as distinct "systems," nor can relationships be easily assigned to one or another of these functions. To put it positively, society is ordered by a single consistent system of relationships, having the properties we recognize as "kinship," which is deployed or mapped onto various planes of social action. Tribal groups and relations are "polyvalent" or "multifunctional": they order all the activities which in Western civilization are the subject of special institutional developments. Kinship, which in the West is one of these specializaitons, confined to the domestic corner of social life, is the design of a society such as that of the Tallensi. Yet kinship is "superstructure" from the perspective of classic materialism, even as it is base in the structure of tribal society. For the Tallensi, kinship relations between father and son, husband and wife, brother and brother, are the main relations of production. They are also jural-political and ritual relations. Religion is the ancestor cult, as polity is the lineage and production is the patriarchal compound.

Hence the necessity sensed by Worsley to fragment kinship into its "component systems." Thus assimilating the totality of one society to the divisions of another, Worsley undoes the work of history by a work of the mind. But the "material analytic" must then discount the kinship properties of economic relations and so reduce the famous "determination by the economic base" to an ecology of practical interest and a psychology of economic motive. For the anthropology of tribal societies, the important lesson must be that this argument from material necessity is not intellectually accidental. In part, the character of Worsley's critique was imposed by the theory prevailing in British anthropology. The species of materialism which understands kinship as the "idiom" of practicalities is, on the one hand, an adaptation to existing theoretical conditions within the discipline. Worsley's is the antithesis to the structuralist thesis developed by Radcliffe-Brown and forwarded by Fortes, and as pure negation it shares the premises of its theoretical opposite. Especially it retains that conception of social form as the "expression" of an underlying "principle" which was central to Radcliffe-Brown's work. It is content to substitute the principle of economic interest for that social solidarity, seeing the first as the "objective basis" of the second, but thus making of materialism another kind of sentimentality. This theoretical influence on Worsley's materialism I reserve for later discussion. The more important implication of the controversy with Fortes is an ontological one: what it says about the nature of the object in dispute, Tallensi society. If Worsley's materialism was in part constrained by the theoretical climate, it was on the other hand imposed by the Tallensi themselves. This same resolution of kinship to practical reason represents a logical transformation of historical materialism in the face of a generalized cultural order that it did not originally envision.


Excerpted from Culture and Practical Reason by Marshall Sahlins. Copyright © 1976 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. The author of numerous books, Sahlins is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews