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Anthropology As Ethics

Anthropology As Ethics: Nondualism and the Conduct of Sacrifice

T.M.S. Evens
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 418
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  • Book Info
    Anthropology As Ethics
    Book Description:

    Anthropology as Ethicsis concerned with rethinking anthropology by rethinking the nature of reality. It develops the ontological implications of a defining thesis of the Manchester School: that all social orders exhibit basically conflicting underlying principles. Drawing especially on Continental social thought, including Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Dumont, Bourdieu and others, and on pre-modern sources such as the Hebrew bible, the Nuer, the Dinka, and the Azande, the book mounts a radical study of the ontology of self and other in relation to dualism and nondualism. It demonstrates how the self-other dichotomy disguises fundamental ambiguity or nondualism, thus obscuring the essentially ethical, dilemmatic, and sacrificial nature of all social life. It also proposes a reason other than dualist, nihilist, and instrumental, one in which logic is seen as both inimical to and continuous with value. Without embracing absolutism, the book makes ambiguity and paradox the foundation of an ethical response to the pervasive anti-foundationalism of much postmodern thought.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-006-7
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Organization and Key Usages
    (pp. xix-xxiv)
  6. Introduction: Nondualism, Ontology, and Anthropology
    (pp. 1-14)

    I offer here ontological reflections for the practice of anthropology. These reflections center around two key theses: first, that when it is seen from the ontological perspective of nondualism instead of dualism, the distinctively human condition is, above and beyond all else, a condition of choice and a question of ‘ethics’; and, second, that in its defining and intrinsically revolutionary quest to understand others or otherness, to break the bonds of the self, anthropology has been profoundly hampered (if also epistemologically motivated) by its logico-philosophical foundations in Western dualism.

    In effect, I want to demonstrate the limits of ontological dualism...

  7. Part I The Ethnographic Self:: The Socio-political Pathology of Modernity

    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 15-16)

      Part 1 argues that dualism constitutes the central principle on which reason qua reason ultimately depends, and that as a consequence reason of this received sort—the rationality peculiarly associated with the Enlightenment and invented by the ancient Greeks—disposes an exclusionism so final as to allow and even cultivate, when it informs political relations, the likes of the Holocaust. In order to bring into relief the phenomenological and existential bearing of this abstract thesis about rationality, I tie it to the conduct of sacrifice in general and Judeo-Christian mythic tradition in particular. Arguing that being human is fundamentally construable...

    • Chapter 1 Anthropology and the Synthetic a Priori: Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty
      (pp. 17-46)

      Before I develop and flesh out the implications and entailments of the ideas expressed in the introduction, I wish to do more to bring into relief their ontological purport. I can do this by putting them in a language more familiar to the expression of universals, namely, philosophy. There is no shortage today of postmodernist critiques maintaining that this (basically Greek) language is essentially culture-bound and, insofar as it continues to present itself as otherwise, has come to its end. However, the endeavor to express in philosophical terms the ontological reflections in question here—nondualist reflections—serves to bring out...

    • Chapter 2 Blind Faith and the Binding of Isaac—the Akedah
      (pp. 47-75)

      In this chapter I examine certain a priori or primordial features of Western thought, in effect, aspects of the reality that this thought takes for granted. I do so by scrutinizing closely a story at the center of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This story, the Akedah or binding of Isaac (chapter 22 of the book of Genesis), has the theme of sacrifice. I intend to show that while it is instructive and positive in vital respects, this story bears at heart a terrible and consequential malevolence, what I have come to think of as a profound stupidity. Despite all the various...

    • Chapter 3 Excursus I: Sacrifice as Human Existence
      (pp. 76-82)

      I have sought to address the profoundly vexing questions raised by God’s murderous command to Abraham and Abraham’s astonishing response. In my view, although it projects a malevolently mistaken, even stupid, picture of the prescriptive importance of absolute faith for human life (which is not to say that we can do without faith), the story features, fruitfully and with penetrating balance, the vital importance of an economy of sacrifice for human beings. But even should one find this reading productive, one might still wonder why the story couches these lessons in terms of sacrifice. That is to say, the questions...

    • Chapter 4 Counter-Sacrifice and Instrumental Reason—the Holocaust
      (pp. 83-106)

      Because culture abhors an ethical vacuum, instrumentalism as value cannot hold. A return to value-as-such—value that, while not exclusive of instrumentality, is sui generis and irreducible to instrumentalism—is therefore inevitable. This consideration, though, should give the proponents of an ethical approach no cause for complacency. The self-destructive movement of unbridled instrumental reason may be logically inevitable, but this condition dictates nothing about the tenure of instrumental reason’s predominance or the magnitude of the dreadful moral and material consequences of its course of self-destruction.

      I aim to show here, for one thing, the ‘suicidal’ telos of unqualified instrumental reason,...

    • Chapter 5 Bourdieu’s Anti-dualism and “Generalized Materialism”
      (pp. 107-130)

      My concept of primordial choice virtually entails the idea of practice. Indeed, as it designates a process of selection that is less than perfectly witting, individual, and free, primordial choosing really is just another name for practice. In recent decades, no social scientist has done more to develop a theory of practice than Pierre Bourdieu. Like his, my concept is intended as a master wrench in the inordinately difficult task of dislodging the bedrock dualism that afflicts anthropological and social theory. But while I have learned from Bourdieu’s penetrating and influential theory,¹ my concept deviates from his significantly, for, consistent...

    • Chapter 6 Habermas’s Anti-dualism and “Communicative Rationality”
      (pp. 131-150)

      Jürgen Habermas’s magisterial sociology takes ‘rationality’ beyond considerations of instrumental action and power, straight on the road to ethics. Also a grand exercise in practical reason, it nonetheless differs roundly from Bourdieu’s sociology of practice. Whereas Bourdieu finds the answer to rationality proper and subject-object dualism in a bodily, historical, and political process (the habitus), and stresses the remedial force of scientific sociology, Habermas engages essentially the same problem by appeal to what he regards as the pragmatic universal conditions of linguistic communication, and argues for a rationality keyed to ethical consensus instead of power.¹ Put grossly, with no attempt...

  8. Part II The Ethnographic Other:: The Ethical Openness of Archaic Understanding

    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 151-152)

      In part 2, I turn to a primary and abiding anthropological site of otherness, namely, the question of mythological or ‘atheoretical’ thought. Like many other scholarly disciplines, anthropology has been characterized by a felt need to systematically excludemythosin favor oflogos. This character is of course patently evident in respect of the anthropologists known as the nineteenth-century evolutionists. But it remained in effect, differently but no less predicatively, in the most prominent anthropology of the twentieth century. In their concern to refute their predecessors, these twentieth-century anthropologists were keen to save traditional thought from the charge of irrationality....

    • Chapter 7 Technological Efficacy, Mythic Rationality, and Non-contradiction
      (pp. 153-161)

      My principal focus now is a likely objection to a certain distinction. The distinction is a kind of rationality, which I call mythic, and which stands in logical contrast to the instrumental kind. The objection pertains to the evident indifference of mythic rationality to the law of non-contradiction. I regard mythic rationality as a form of normative rationality; it is, to use Weber’s familiar term, a value-rationality (Wertrationalität). As such it concerns itself primarily with deciding ends rather than means. Ultimately, I aim to show that mythic rationality’s relative indifference to the logical law of non-contradiction is, when seen from...

    • Chapter 8 Epistemic Efficacy, Mythic Rationality, and Non-contradiction
      (pp. 162-175)

      I turn here to the second tough objection that my argument about the superiority of normative rationality is bound to provoke, namely, the paralogical nature of such rationality. My response falls into three main parts. First, I argue that in its operation, mythic rationality does not exactly exclude the law of non-contradiction; instead, by way of nondualism and hierarchical encompassment, mythic rationality relativizes that law. Second, I contend that mythic rationality is principally a ‘logic’ of life rather than thought as such, and therefore must be understood above all in terms of what I call practice. And third, I seek...

    • Chapter 9 Contradiction and Choice among the Dinka and in Genesis
      (pp. 176-196)

      In response to the anthropological problem of rationality, I have argued that what, from the point of view of theory, can be construed as indifference to the law of non-contradiction amounts to an act of resistance and a dynamic of choice, when seen from the standpoint of practice. That is to say, what classical anthropology was inclined to perceive as backward and irrational discloses instead the essentially ethical nature of human existence. In light of this contention, the finding of logical indifference is thus shown to be less a figment of the anthropological imagination than a profoundly shortsighted conclusion. In...

    • Chapter 10 Contradiction in Azande Oracular Practice and in Psychotherapeutic Interaction
      (pp. 197-214)

      In this chapter, taking up the case of yet another East African people, the Azande, I continue the demonstration of my thesis about the integral connection between the conditions of authentic choice and what is, in logic, contradiction. Whereas in the preceding chapter I focused largely on choice in itself, here I stress the question of choice in relation to moral accounting. As I did with the Dinka, I examine the Azande comparatively, setting their oracular procedures off against a modern, Western pseudo-psychotherapeutic interaction. My concern remains to relativize the law of non-contradiction by referring it to a notion of...

  9. Part III From Mythic to Value-Rationality:: Toward Ethical Gain

    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 215-216)

      In part 2, I argued that there is something fundamentally amiss about evaluating mythic rationality in terms of the law of non-contradiction. I have also maintained that what appears in this rationality to be outright willingness to tolerate contradictions is in fact the very situation of choice. In view of the comparative aim of this discussion, am I then obliged (ironically by reason) to conclude that we ought to abandon rationality qua rationality in favor of a return to myth per se? If, by insisting on a lawful scheme of things, rationality proper essentially subverts the process of moral selection,...

    • Chapter 11 Epistemic and Ethical Gain
      (pp. 217-240)

      In the duly celebrated first chapter ofThe Order of Things,Foucault (1970) offers a penetrating interpretation of Velasquez’s baroque masterpiece,Las Meninas. The interpretation meticulously describes and plumbs Velasquez’s graphic portrayal of himself portraying himself. Instead of trying to summarize Foucault’s round and close reading, I cite here a felicitous passage from a brief essay on Borges (and H. G. Wells), in which the author, Robert Philmus (1974: 2–3), relates Borges’s fascination with paradox toLas Meninas. The passage well and briefly describes the contents of the painting and also evokes the focus of Foucault’s interpretation:

      The self-consciousness...

    • Chapter 12 Transcending Dualism and Amplifying Choice
      (pp. 241-255)

      Logico-practical manifestations of contradiction such as genocide and alcoholic disease show that living the contradictions generated by dualism can be devastating. By excluding ambiguity, dualism constitutes the possibility of contradiction as such and correlatively of a world the truth of which corresponds to thought as such—that is, a rationalized world. In such a world, subject to the rule of thought considered as an organon in its own right with its own logic of necessity, non-contradiction is rendered lawful or nomic. Human existence taken as practice—as a tensile movement between thought and action, the creative but ordered movement I...

    • Chapter 13 Excursus II: What Good, Ethics?
      (pp. 256-272)

      This work is predicated on the paralogical thesis that the groundlessness of human nature founds that nature as ethics. That is to say, the groundlessness itself is the precondition of human or ethical existence. Paradoxically, then, since ethics can make no sense outside of a foundation, groundlessness may be said to constitute a foundation that is also not a foundation. Such a basically ambiguous foundation (ambiguity as foundational) raises the following acute perplexity, at least when it comes to ethics: how can a foundation that is not positively grounded guide decisions of value, that is, decisions that serve to create...

    • Chapter 14 Anthropology and the Generative Primacy of Moral Order
      (pp. 273-293)

      InTwo Kinds of Rationality(Evens 1995), I demonstrated that in Kibbutz Timem, the Israeli collective in which I did 20 months of field research, the idea of the generations constitutes a primordial choice. As such, this idea forms its own end and cannot be measured intelligibly in terms of rational choice. A primordial choice obtains exemplarily between cause and reason, and is thus irreducibly creative. Ultimately, therefore, it can be understood only in terms of itself. But the consideration that a primordial choice is finally inaccessible to the logic of instrumentalism should not be taken to mean that such...

  10. Conclusion: Emancipatory Selfhood and Value-Rationality
    (pp. 294-300)

    In this book I have argued on empirical, pragmatic, and ethical grounds for a nondualist ontology in which reality is regarded as basically ambiguous as between body and thought. Because it describes reality as precisely neither this nor that, ontology of this kind, strictly speaking, does not qualify as ontology at all—it is deontologized. Under this description of reality, human beings are caught so fast and definitively in the inbetween that they present the ambiguousness of reality in a painfully acute but wonderful form. Of course, if this ontological picture is sound, then everything, not just humans, must project,...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 301-363)
  12. References
    (pp. 364-375)
  13. Index
    (pp. 376-392)