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

Virginia Held on ‘An Ethics of Care’

Yesterday Professor Virginia Held delivered the annual Sprague and Taylor Lecture at the Philosophy Department at Brooklyn College.

On a personal note, it gave me great pleasure to welcome Professor Held to Brooklyn College. My association with her goes back some twenty years, when I first began my graduate studies in philosophy as a non-matriculate student at the CUNY Graduate Center. My first class was ‘Social and Political Philosophy,’ taught by Professor Held. On her reading list, I saw four unfamiliar names: Carole Pateman, Susan Okin, Catherine MacKinnon and Patricia Smith. Who were these, I wondered, and what did they have to do with the ‘public-private distinction’ (the subtitle Virginia had added to ‘Social and Political Philosophy’)? As we were introduced to the syllabus, Professor Held skillfully handled some questions: Why were these readings on the list? Why not the usual suspects? I was impressed, of course, by her deft location of feminist philosophy in our canon and its importance in exploring the public-private distinction, but I was even more impressed by the grace and firmness that she displayed in dealing with contentious student interlocutors. During that semester, I had my intellectual horizons considerably expanded; after I had written my term paper on Marx and Feuerbach’s views on religion, Professor Held wrote a recommendation letter for me that secured my admission to the doctoral program. Thus was my professional career in philosophy launched. Twenty years on, now a professor at Brooklyn College, I was delighted to welcome the scholar that kicked it all off for me.

Virginia’s lecture was titled “Why Care”; it attempted to highlight the significance of developing frameworks for moral decision-making based on an ethics of care. The abstract for her recently released The Ethics of Care (Oxford University Press, 2005) notes:

Where…moral theories as Kantian morality and utilitarianism demand impartiality above all, the ethics of care understands the moral import of ties to families and groups. It evaluates such ties, differing from virtue ethics by focusing on caring relations rather than the virtues of individuals. [Held] proposes how values such as justice, equality, and individual rights can “fit together” with values such as care, trust, mutual consideration, and solidarity….[Held] shows how the ethics of care is more promising than other moral theories for advice on how limited or expansive markets should be, showing how values other than market ones should have priority in such activities as childcare, health care, education, and in cultural activities. Finally, [Held] connects the ethics of care with the rising interest in civil society, and with limits on what law and rights are thought able to accomplish.

In her talk, Virginia drew out some of the implications of such an ethics: for instance, the value it would ascribe to the maintenance of many significant personal relationships (such as mothering, which currently is paid a great deal of lip service by our politicians but is devalued by their actions and legislation) or more abstractly, the reconfiguration it might cause in our current notions of personhood, which consider persons to be highly individualistic, unitary, autonomous, rational entities, but which an ethics of care might understand as more relational objects.

This last part is of great intellectual interest to me; I intend to write on it in this space. Soon enough.