Another Answer to the Question “What is Anthropology?”

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By Matthias Teeuwen            As a student of cultural anthropology you are invariably confronted with the question: what is anthropology? It can briefly be answered by pointing to the etymology of the word: άνθρωπος (human; man) + λόγος (word; reason) = anthropology, the study of humans. However, this simple definition of anthropology soon gets swamped in the sheer diversity within anthropology: social anthropology, cultural anthropology, anthropology of crises, anthropology of religion, medical anthropology, digital anthropology, anthropology of the city, anthropology of music, etc….

Here I propose an understanding of what anthropology is based on the juxtaposition with philosophy, and with philosophy I mean that branch of philosophy that regards humans: philosophical anthropology. Anthropology and philosophy seem to share an engagement with the limits of the human:[1] What is human and what is not? Or, stated differently: what is the result of nurture and what is the result of nature?

Anthropology and philosophy have the same interest: the human subject. They ask the same questions. The first is: Can you truly understand the ‘other’? In anthropology this is known as the ‘problem of otherness’ and in philosophy the ‘multiple worlds problem’. It comes down to this: are there grounds on which comparison and mutual understanding are possible or do (groups of) humans live in worlds that are incommensurable with each other?

The second question is: How should life be lived? This question is more and more addressed by anthropologists in the field of moral anthropology but has always implicitly been present in ethnography because ethnography presents different ways to live life thereby suggesting the possibility of changing one’s own way of life. In philosophy questions concerning the way life should be lived are as old as the discipline itself and are addressed in the subfield of ethics.

And the third question is: how do people know things? Here the two fields converge on epistemological issues including not only the aforementioned ‘problem of otherness’ (can we assume a shared understanding of reality? Can we assume that reality is in the same way intelligible to different people?), but also debates on what constitutes rational thinking (such as the debates Lévi-Strauss engaged in).

The difference between the two disciplines is also the reason why I am studying anthropology rather than philosophy. The difference is this: anthropologists employ ethnography rather than thought experiments. Anthropologists actually go ‘out there’ to seek out different ways of living and to encounter different ways of being. Ethnography – and the encounters implicit to ethnography – raise the questions mentioned above and provide detailed and textured descriptions that can shed light on possible answers to those questions. I will not go as far as William James in stating that ‘a large acquaintance with particulars often makes us wiser than the possession of abstract formulas’[2] but I do underscore the importance of knowing particular, real-life examples and cases in order to come to a more universal understanding of humans.

So in engaging in each of the questions mentioned above anthropologists have a valuable contribution to make. Regarding the ‘problem of otherness’: Anthropologists have a host of experiences of intimacy and alterity which can be tapped in order to come to a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play in encounters with ‘others’. Regarding the question about morality: anthropologists are in a unique position to study the gap between morality and the ways life is actually lived in a given context revealing the measure of imperiousness of morality and its role in daily life. Finally, regarding the way people think: the experiences anthropologists have in learning a new social reality and dealing with people who may or may not think in different ways provide cases in learning and epistemology in general.

Seeing anthropology and philosophy together helps place anthropology in the wider endeavour of understanding what it means to be human. By no means am I suggesting that anthropology be a sub discipline of philosophy, only providing data and relying on the capacity of philosophy to process that data. Anthropology also possesses that capacity. What makes anthropology unique is that it stays true to the complexity of reality around us because it is committed to ‘being there’ in this complex reality.

Matthias Teeuwen is student of cultural anthropology and theology at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. His research interests include religion, language, and the philosophy of science.

[1] From The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, 2014.

[2] From The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1917.

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2 thoughts on “Another Answer to the Question “What is Anthropology?”

  1. Ton Salman 14/12/2016 / 21:12

    What a beautiful piece! A reflection that takes us beyond Ingold’s (attributed to him) famous dictum that “anthropology is philosophy with the people in”. I’ve always loved that phrase, but I have to admit it is alluding to something rather than clarifying. This text suggests ( and I think correctly so) that philosophy tends to speak of (and claiming to represent) humankind as such, without having had the encounter with human unruly-ness. This is where anthropology is a much needed corrective: whatever philosophical explanation or “ex cathedra” needs the interruption and disruption by the messiness, cacophonia and deviations of that other human being, that wouldn’t share your assumptions… (and mayby, anthropology needs the impulse from philosophy: to think beyond the polyphony…)
    Having been trained in both disciplines, I loved it to read these thoughts.
    Thank you, Matthias,

  2. Freek Colombijn 24/12/2016 / 10:06

    Dear Matthias,
    In just a few words you make a simple, but very important point. Anthropology is first and foremost an empirical study. Was it Clifford Geertz who formulated the most essential research question: “Just tell me what the hell is going on out there?”. My own research is also driven by empirical curiosity about something I have literally seen and not by an idea I have thought out behind my desk.
    Freek Colombijn

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