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Why is Anthropology so Critical?

Portrait of Giambattista Vico by Francesco Solimena

By Matthias Teeuwen            I want to thank Ton Salman for his insightful take on the question whether anthropology is the most scientific of the humanities or the most humanistic of the sciences or both, it gave me food for thought. For one: how is it that anthropology is considered science? It seems that Ton sees the scientific aspect of anthropology in its critical function of looking past the representations and meanings of people and examining the empirical conditions in which they arose.

I very much agree with Ton on this point. But I think that this hybridity is easily misunderstood in the sense that the critical, scientific side of anthropology is emphasised at the neglect of the hermeneutical, humanistic side.

I turn to a dissertation given by Vico in 1708[1] where he juxtaposes the critical method with rhetoric. The critical method was devised by Descartes and states that there is one truth and that the only way to get there is by departing from unshakeable axioms following clear, logical steps. Descartes worldview is often called mechanic because it holds the presupposition that rational laws causally connect all things with each other much like the steps of an equation are necessarily connected to each other. The corollary of this is that you can come to a clear perception of reality by taking the proper deductive steps. While acknowledging the scientific progress brought about by the modern method Vico laments the fact that with it came the demise of rhetoric.

Rhetoric departs from the idea that there is one truth, many probabilities and countless untruths, in contrast to the modern method which focuses only on the truth and disregards all probable knowledge as unfounded and worthless. Rhetoric takes into account the unruly nature of culture and society and the unpredictability of human actions. It holds that you cannot access reality by distanced observation and careful deduction but that you have to deal with probabilities and ‘practical wisdom’ as opposed to certainties and ‘theoretical wisdom’. Practical wisdom consists of common sense: an intuitive judgment about what is proper in certain situations. It draws from ‘topica’, or common understandings, such as sayings, creeds or metaphors, in assessing societal matters.

At the heart, the dissertation is a plea for methodological pluralism as opposed to the methodological monism of the modern method. Vico states that students should first be educated with the ‘topica’ and then in the critical method instead of only the critical method. I compare it to Dutch grammar and all the bloody exceptions that “confirm the rule” as we say in Dutch. We learn grammar in order to make sense of language and communication. However, after some time we come across words that refuse to follow rules and are thereby exposed to the nature of grammar as constructed. But we still hang on to the rules because we see that they are not completely arbitrary even though they are not completely coherent either.

I think Vico exposes a deficit in the way anthropology is often done: there is too much of an emphasis on critical thinking and not enough on learning the ‘topica’ of the field. In the anthropological study of religion for example, it is often the case that anthropologists right away set about deconstructing the claims made by religions without first trying to enter into the world of these claims. I think that only after fully entering into the ‘topica’ of a given field can we unleash our critical selves.

So let me slightly rephrase my standpoint: I think anthropology has to become the most humanistic of sciences before becoming the most scientific of humanities.

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] Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744) gave the dissertation entitled De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione (“On the nature and goals of Modern Science”) as professor of rhetoric at the start of the academic year of the Royal academy of Naples.

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