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Is Anthropology the most Humanistic of the Sciences and the most Scientific of the Humanities?

Still Life with Flagon, Glass, Jug and Bridle, by Johannes Torrentius, 1614

By Matthias Teeuwen       The epithet in the title, commonly attributed to Alfred Kroeber, is often used to classify anthropology in-between the sciences and the humanities. Apparently we anthropologists manage to, once again, place ourselves in a position of simultaneous intimacy and distance, this time with regard to science and the humanities. Now, the question is: Is this where anthropology belongs? Even though a position between science and the humanities sounds like a very fruitful one, I would like to argue that anthropology belongs more properly in the humanities.

The last couple of years I have been studying theology alongside anthropology. I set off to study theology with the idea that it would form a nice counterweight to anthropology. In the study of religion it would provide me with a view from within whereas anthropology gave a view from outside. On top of that it would form a nice antidote to the tedious relativism I encountered amongst anthropologists. But, more recently I have started to see a striking similarity between the two disciplines: they both deal with the “other” (albeit that theologians will argue that they deal with the “Other” with a capital “O”).

It is on this similarity that I base my argument that anthropology belongs to the humanities. And it is on the basis of this similarity that I call for more courses on hermeneutics in anthropology.

Hermeneutics is the art of understanding and it has its genesis within theology. Theology is concerned with how one can come to an understanding of God through interpreting the Bible. Before the Reformation interpretation was guided by tradition; after the Reformation it turned into an existential encounter of the individual with the text. This turn towards the subject continued in the Enlightenment Age. But this time it was the rational, autonomous subject who explains the Bible using critical, historical methods.

The problem was that these critical, historical methods, however valuable they were in determining the historical context of the text, often ended up stripping away the message of the text. In response to this, authors in the Romantic Age such as Coleridge called for a different way of reading texts: one that involved a “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (Biographia Literaria). The emotive, mystical side of understanding was emphasised in contrast to the reductive tendency of the historical critical method.

Parallel to these developments the subject of hermeneutics was broadened in order to include all understanding, be it of the Bible, Plato’s dialogues or the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. In fact, the hermeneutical method was developed as an alternative to the scientific method of the natural sciences. It was argued that interpretation requires a method of understanding and not a method of explanation because you cannot isolate the “other”, take it apart and explain its inner workings. The “other” is firmly part of life around us and can only be understood because we are firmly part of life. We are not distant, objective and fully autonomous observers of life; we are present, biased, and constantly influenced by the things around us (whether we like it or not).

In the twentieth century the art of hermeneutics was further shaped by Husserl’s phenomenology and Heidegger’s existentialism. The main insight of the first is that most of our knowledge of phenomena is intuitive and comes about before (systematic) reflection upon it. The main insight of the second is that since knowledge is intuitive, being is interpretative being.

Hans Georg Gadamer brought these insights and most of preceding hermeneutics into a synthesis. He argued that interpretation is never fully objective because we are conditioned by our traditions. Furthermore, he advocated dialogue in order to bridge the gap that the rationalism of the Enlightenment left between the knowing subject and the known object. This should, in time, lead to a fusion of horizons in which a measure of mutual understanding can be reached.

I argue that anthropology should also employ hermeneutics. The encounter with the “other” is a matter of understanding, not of explanation. It requires dialogue because the “other” is not an object under study but someone who speaks to us. In fact, we are not autonomous, rational subjects who define the phenomena; we are part of the phenomena and are influenced by them, whether we like it or not. This is hard and misunderstanding is always a danger, but even so, I think that at the heart, anthropology is a hermeneutic undertaking.

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. Yasmine Yasmine

    But, do you think an explicitly hermeneutic approach would work in field of biological anthropology?

    • standplaatswereld standplaatswereld

      Hi Yasmine, I’m not familiar with the field of biological anthropology. I wrote this with cultural anthropology in mind so I think it might not be applicable to biological anthropology.

      By the way: keep an eye on Standplaatswereld, some of my lecturers are working on responses to this blog that might give a different perspective on the issue.

      Regards, -Matthias

  2. […] By Ton Salman            In the following blog, Ton Salman reacts to Matthias Teeuwen’s contribution to Standplaats Wereld of 13-2-2017, titled “Is Anthropology the most Humanistic of the Social Sciences and the most Scientific of the Humanities…” […]

  3. […] By Younes Saramifar            In the following blog, Younes Saramifar responds 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?“. […]

  4. […] 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 […]

  5. Freek Colombijn Freek Colombijn

    Anthropology is a discipline with many subfields. I believe it really depends on what you are doing whether you can consider anthropology to be part of the humanities. I can also imagine an anthropology that focuses on quantitative measurements of, for instance, human-nature relationships (like Rappaport did on cycles of pig-raising and warfare in PNG, or my own endeavours into the anthropology of waste). So no categorical yes or no can be given to the question whether anthropology belongs t the humanities.

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