Anthropology as post-hermeneutics

Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole, by Lawrence Weiner, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1991).

by Peter Versteeg

A third response to Matthias Teeuwen’s contribution to Standplaats Wereld of 13-2-2017, titled “Is Anthropology the most Humanistic of the Sciences and the most Scientific of the Humanities?“.

The first thing that came to my mind in the discussion about the scientific/humanistic nature of anthropology is the awareness that cultural anthropology is a label which for political and historical reasons has kept together a number of sub-disciplines, some having a substantial family resemblance but others sharing hardly any characteristics at all. A categorical understanding would immediately show a difference between humanities-anthropology and social science-anthropology. And then there is also a cross-cutting continuum of methodological positions, ranging from a kind of qualitative ‘measuring’ to ‘story-telling’, which indicates a similar kind of categorization. Salman seems to me an example of trying to be in both positions at the same time. What we, in the end, share as anthropologists is a common package of methods called fieldwork.

Clearly, seen from the viewpoint of academic organizational politics, there is no discussion at all. I am very much in favor of humanities anthropology because I identify with that particular niche -high-fiving with religious studies, philosophy and cultural studies all at once. But it would be too easy to leave it at that. What struck me in Teeuwen’s article was the attempt to find anthropology’s humanities nature in the hermeneutical approach. Teeuwen urges anthropology to employ hermeneutics as it allows us to engage in a dialogical understanding between knowing subjects – researcher and researched – within a shared context.

Interestingly, he mentions hermeneutics as an art of understanding that emphasizes affective engagement with a text – which can be anything the researcher defines as a text – rather than rational reductionism. However, Teeuwen does not mention the particular approach that distinguishes hermeneutics from other interpretive methods, i.e. the principle of the hermeneutic circle, or knowing the whole through the parts and vice versa.

The idea is that by looking at the parts of a phenomenon, we are able to understand the whole (its logic, its mechanics, its meaning). The whole, in turn, makes sense of the parts by showing their place and role in the whole. Whole and part can only be understood with reference to the other. We may recognize this approach in the work of some anthropologists, most explicitly in the work of Clifford Geertz, which has even been identified as hermeneutic anthropology. A clear example is Geertz’ famous article on the Balinese cockfight.

Without downplaying the importance of a great anthropological thinker, anthropology has moved on (without really moving further, I would say, but that’s a different story) and has by and large left the hermeneutic-textual approach of culture behind. However, its legacy – fragment-whole thinking – is still with us and the problem at stake here is the whole. How can we know that we arrive at the whole by looking at fragments? How can we know if there is a whole at all? Is it possible to define it and mark it off? To paraphrase Judith N. Shklar, only divinely revealed Scriptures meet these conditions, because only a divine Author could provide rhyme and reason for a discrete whole of His own making. In other words, the method itself seems to have collapsed because any assumption about the whole is intrinsically unstable.

Nevertheless, creating wholes is our core business as human beings, and anthropologists should keep their eyes on the way in which we are constantly tempted to build totalizing illusions of a religious, commonsensical or scientific nature. We, too, have to reject our taken for granted holistic adagio to become utterly intrigued by it at the same time. Yet a post-hermeneutic (and post-holistic) anthropology obviously has many hermeneutic traits. For example, the ‘breakdown’ is an apt way to describe the lack of fit between insider and outsider viewpoints. Exactly because they are incompatible they can lead to a deeper understanding of both interpretations, through a dialogue of experiences. We find different words for shared realities and sometimes different words reveal something else about these realities. They can put our understanding in a different perspective, thereby expanding our interpretation. Eventually, in fieldwork and writing some horizons will become shared – without the necessity of becoming part of a whole.

Peter Versteeg is lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, VU Amsterdam.

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