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Available Light

Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics

Clifford Geertz
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Available Light
    Book Description:

    Clifford Geertz, one of the most influential thinkers of our time, here discusses some of the most urgent issues facing intellectuals today. In this collection of personal and revealing essays, he explores the nature of his anthropological work in relation to a broader public, serving as the foremost spokesperson of his generation of scholars, those who came of age after World War II. His reflections are written in a style that both entertains and disconcerts, as they engage us in topics ranging from moral relativism to the relationship between cultural and psychological differences, from the diversity and tension among activist faiths to "ethnic conflict" in today's politics.

    Geertz, who once considered a career in philosophy, begins by explaining how he got swept into the revolutionary movement of symbolic anthropology. At that point, his work began to encompass not only the ethnography of groups in Southeast Asia and North Africa, but also the study of how meaning is made in all cultures--or, to use his phrase, to explore the "frames of meaning" in which people everywhere live out their lives. His philosophical orientation helped him to establish the role of anthropology within broader intellectual circles and led him to address the work of such leading thinkers as Charles Taylor, Thomas Kuhn, William James, and Jerome Bruner. In this volume, Geertz comments on their work as he explores questions in political philosophy, psychology, and religion that have intrigued him throughout his career but that now hold particular relevance in light of postmodernist thinking and multiculturalism.Available Lightoffers insightful discussions of concepts such as nation, identity, country, and self, with a reminder that like symbols in general, their meanings are not categorically fixed but grow and change through time and place.

    This book treats the reader to an analysis of the American intellectual climate by someone who did much to shape it. One can read Available Light both for its revelation of public culture in its dynamic, evolving forms and for the story it tells about the remarkable adventures of an innovator during the "golden years" of American academia.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2340-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-2)
  5. I Passage and Accident: A Life of Learning
    (pp. 3-20)

    It is a shaking business to stand up in public toward the end of an improvised life and call it learned. I didn’t realize, when I started out, after an isolate childhood, to see what might be going on elsewhere in the world, that there would be a final exam. I suppose that what I have been doing all these years is piling up learning. But, at the time, it seemed to me that I was trying to figure out what to do next, and hold off a reckoning: reviewing the situation, scouting out the possibilities, evading the consequences, thinking...

  6. II Thinking as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of Anthropological Fieldwork in the New States
    (pp. 21-41)

    When I try to sum up what, above all else, I have learned from grappling with the sprawling prolixities of John Dewey’s work, what I come up with is the succinct and chilling doctrine that thought is conduct and is to be morally judged as such. It is not the notion that thinking is a serious matter that seems to be distinctive of this last of the New England philosophers; all intellectuals regard mental productions with some esteem. It is the argument that the reason thinking is serious is that it is a social act, and that one is therefore...

  7. III Anti Anti-Relativism
    (pp. 42-67)

    A scholar can hardly be better employed than in destroying a fear. The one I want to go after is cultural relativism. Not the thing itself, which I think merely there, like Transylvania, but the dread of it, which I think unfounded. It is unfounded because the moral and intellectual consequences that are commonly supposed to flow from relativism—subjectivism, nihilism, incoherence, Machiavellianism, ethical idiocy, esthetic blindness, and so on—do not in fact do so and the promised rewards of escaping its clutches, mostly having to do with pasteurized knowledge, are illusory.

    To be more specific, I want not...

  8. IV The Uses of Diversity
    (pp. 68-88)

    Anthropology, myfröhliche Wissenschaft, has been fatally involved over the whole course of its history (a long one, if you start it with Herodotus; rather short, if you start it with Tylor) with the vast variety of ways in which men and women have tried to live their lives. At some points, it has sought to deal with that variety by capturing it in some universalizing net of theory: evolutionary stages, pan-human ideas or practices, or transcendental forms (structures, archetypes, subterranean grammars). At others, it has stressed particularity, idiosyncrasy, incommensurability—cabbages and kings. But recently it has found itself faced...

  9. V The State of the Art
    (pp. 89-142)

    One of the advantages of anthropology as a scholarly enterprise is that no one, including its practitioners, quite knows exactly what it is. People who watch baboons copulate, people who rewrite myths in algebraic formulas, people who dig up Pleistocene skeletons, people who work out decimal point correlations between toilet training practices and theories of disease, people who decode Maya hieroglyphics, and people who classify kinship systems into typologies in which our own comes out as “Eskimo” all call themselves anthropologists. So do people who analyze African drum rhythms, arrange the whole of human history into evolutionary phases culminating in...

  10. VI The Strange Estrangement: Charles Taylor and the Natural Sciences
    (pp. 143-159)

    In the opening paragraphs of the introduction of hisPhilosophical Papers, Charles Taylor confesses himself to be in the grip of an obsession.¹ He is, he says, a hedgehog, a monomaniac endlessly polemicizing against a single idea—“the ambition to model the study of man on the natural sciences.” He calls this idea many things, most often “naturalism” or “the naturalistic world view,” and he sees it virtually everywhere in the human sciences. The invasion of those sciences by alien and inappropriate modes of thought has conduced toward the destruction of their distinctiveness, their autonomy, their effectiveness, and their relevance....

  11. VII The Legacy of Thomas Kuhn: The Right Text at the Right Time
    (pp. 160-166)

    The death of Thomas Kuhn—“Tom” to all who knew him, and considering his principled refusal to play the role of the intellectual celebrity he clearly was, an extraordinary number of people did— seems, like his professional life in general, on the way to being seen, in these days of pomos and culture wars, as but another appendix, footnote, or afterthought to hisThe Structure of Scientific Revolutions, written in the fifties and published in 1962.¹ Despite the fact that he produced a number of other important works, including the at least as original and rather more carefulThe Essential...

  12. VIII The Pinch of Destiny: Religion as Experience, Meaning, Identity, Power
    (pp. 167-186)

    When, in the last chapter ofThe Varieties of Religious Experience— the one he uneasily calls “Conclusions” and immediately affixes with a corrective postscript which he then promptly disavows— William James comes to look back at what he has been doing for nearly five hundred close-set pages, he confesses himself somewhat taken aback about how soulful it all has been. “In rereading my manuscript, I am almost appalled at the amount of emotionality which I find in it. . . . We have been literally bathed in sentiment.”¹ It has all been a matter, he says, of “secret selves” and...

  13. IX Imbalancing Act: Jerome Bruner’s Cultural Psychology
    (pp. 187-202)

    What does one say when one says “psychology”: James, Wundt, Binet, or Pavlov? Freud, Lashley, Skinner, or Vygotsky? Kohler, Lewin, Lévy-Bruhl, Bateson? Chomsky or Piaget? Daniel Dennett or Oliver Sacks? Herbert Simon? Since it got truly launched as a discipline and a profession in the last half of the nineteenth century, mainly by Germans, the self-proclaimed “science of the mind” has not just been troubled with a proliferation of theories, methods, arguments, and techniques. That was only to be expected. It has also been driven in wildly different directions by wildly different notions as to what it is, as we...

  14. X Culture, Mind, Brain / Brain, Mind, Culture
    (pp. 203-217)

    Between them, anthropology and psychology have chosen two of the more improbable objects around which to try to build a positive science: Culture and Mind,Kultur und Geist, Culture et Esprit. Both are inheritances of defunct philosophies, both have checkered histories of ideological inflation and rhetorical abuse, both have broad and multiple everyday usages that interfere with any effort to stabilize their meaning or turn them into natural kinds. They have been repeatedly condemned as mystical or metaphysical, repeatedly banished from the disciplined precincts of serious inquiry, repeatedly refused to go away.

    When they are coupled, the difficulties do not...

  15. XI The World in Pieces: Culture and Politics at the End of the Century
    (pp. 218-264)

    Political theory, which presents itself as addressing universal and abiding matters concerning power, obligation, justice, and government in general and unconditioned terms, the truth about things as at bottom they always and everywhere necessarily are, is in fact, and inevitably, a specific response to immediate circumstances. However cosmopolitan it may be in intent, it is, like religion, literature, historiography, or law, driven and animated by the demands of the moment: a guide to perplexities particular, pressing, local, and at hand.

    This is clear enough from its history, especially now that that history is at last coming to be written, by...

  16. Index
    (pp. 265-271)