Geertz, the ‘Anthropological Understanding,’ and Persons

(As promised in an earlier post on Clifford Geertz, I will be posting a few reactions here to his essays in Local Knowledge.) 

In ‘”From The Native’s Point of View”: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding’, (from Local Knowledge: Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, Basic Books, New York, 1983, pp 59), Clifford Geertz writes,

The concept of person is…an excellent vehicle by which to examine this whole question of how to go about poking into another people’s turn of mind. In the first place, some sort of concept of this kind, one feels reasonably safe in saying, exists in recognizable form within all social groups. Various notions of what persons are may be, from our point of view, more than a little odd. People may be conceived to dart about nervously at night, shaped like fireflies. Essential elements of their psyche, like hatred, may be thought to be lodged in granular black bodies within their livers, discoverable upon autopsy. They may share their fates with doppelganger beasts, so that when the beast sickens or dies they sicken or die too. But at least some conception of what a human individual is, as opposed to a rock, an animal, a rainstorm, or a god, is…universal. Yet, at the same time, as these offhand examples suggest, the actual conceptions involved vary, often quite sharply, from one group to the next. 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 a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.

Indeed, this notion of a person often seems a ‘rather peculiar idea’ even without the contrasting notions of persons in ‘other’ cultures. For instance, as I suggested in a post here on the ethics of care, which conceives of persons in more relational terms, most puzzles about personhood ascription arise precisely because of our limited view of persons as unitary entities. The puzzles I have in mind are the so-called ‘borderline’ cases: new-born infants, comatose patients, and the like. They very often do not meet some or many of a conventional cluster of attributes associated with persons: rationality, consciousness, free-will, autonomy, moral sensibilities, other-directedness and so on. But our intuitions suggest to most that these entities are persons, worthy of our attention, and wait for it, care. The difficulty in these cases arises because the entity in question is considered in isolation from a surrounding social, inter-personal, and emotional context. Viewed in this light, and evaluated against a check-list of conditions, which make our putative persons resemble nothing as much as the rational, freely-acting agent so beloved of market theory, these entities fail the personhood test spectacularly. But of course.

The ‘anthropological understanding’ that Geertz highlights is crucial because it affords us a means of inspecting, evaluating, and comparing the varied conceptualizations of persons that cultures, separated by time, place, language and history, can afford us. These notions should help clarify, and even more importantly, inform ours: ‘person’ is not a static concept, it has a history, one subject to influences precisely like the ones Geertz pointed us to.

Note: The journal citation for Geertz’s essay is: “From the Native’s Point of View”: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding, Clifford Geertz, Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences , Vol. 28, No. 1 (Oct., 1974), pp. 26-45

2 thoughts on “Geertz, the ‘Anthropological Understanding,’ and Persons

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