Friday, July 11, 2008

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world's cultures. Rather than attempting to place the experience of others within the framework of such a conception, which is what the extolled "empathy" in fact usually comes down to, understanding them demands setting that conception aside and seeing their experiences within the framework of their own idea of what selfhood is.

- Clifford Geertz, "'From the Native's Point of View': On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding" 1974


MT said...

So he knows other cultures think differently from having become one with them? I'd like to have seen that happen. I wonder if this is what all that ancient Sanskrit about "Atman" was about--and then we have the Theosophists or whoever in English talks about "Universal Soul." Deep words are a dime a dozen though, and deducing an author's metaphysics from his or her theological blatherings must be dicey at best. I wouldn't trust the even the proverbial thousand-mile experience in alien moccasins. Bunch of good it did for Margret Mead.

helmut said...

Generally, even Geertz (especially since Geertz), that's the dilemma. You can't be the same. And if you somehow truly were, you would no longer have the critical, distant perspective. But your difference also radically limits that understanding of the culture you're studying. Some of the best anthropologists of recent times play with that intersection, turning it over, and over.