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Clifford Geertz

Available Light

Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics

Clifford Geertz:
Available Light:
Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics
Princeton – Oxford:
Princeton University Press,
xvii, 271 pages
ISBN 0-691-08956-6
book cover
Princeton University Press:
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»If we wish to be able capaciously to judge, as of course we must, we need to make ourselves able capaciously to see.«

Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz, born in 1926 and professor emeritus at Princeton University since 2000, is today one of the most influential cultural anthropologists known, and his work is appreciated far beyond the boundaries of his discipline. His semiotic definition of "culture" is found in numerous texts over the past three decades, not only in ethnology (and cultural anthropology), but also in sociology, history and other humanistic disciplines: »Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning.« 1

As countless references to anthropological literature can be found in the work, Available Light is primarily intended for Geertz's fellow academics. However, the connection to its author resides precisely at the point where two of his concepts with similarly fuzzily defined areas of knowledge intersect, which typically »are more than a little suspicious of one another« (ix): namely, that of empirical or ethnologic cultural anthropology and that of philosophy. The first, autobiographical chapter refers to a whole set of these connections and overlaps concerning this matter.

The eleven texts collected here, which, not counting his three "classic" works composed earlier, were all written in the 1990's; they use common polished formulae and over-the-top references to encourage all English-speaking writers of other disciplines to consider many provocative discussion points for philosophical reflection over cultural phenomena, as well as socio-scientific work with exotic cultures and the practical implications of intercultural relations.

The second chapter is thus concerned with the fundamental problem of so-called field research, the anthropological research methodology of choice, in which the investigator immerses himself in the "other" culture. Chapter eleven elaborates with considerations of this often-neglected theme of emotions in the context of cultural encounters. Chapter three is as much concerned with the faults of cultural relativism as with its criticism. Chapter four discusses, among other aspects, the effects of the degeneration of the social and cultural boundaries of research in empirical sciences, which has become more and more clear in present day. Chapters six to nine deal with contributions of Charles Taylor, Thomas Kuhn, William James and Jerome Brunner on the topics of encounter and knowledge of cultures.

The set of epistemological problems associated with cultural bias that is so important for the purpose of this work is the main theme of the fifth chapter. These problems are exhibited, above all, in the exciting polemics between Marshall Sahlins, a North American anthropologist and specialist in Pacific cultures, and his colleague Gananath Obeyesekere, who stems from Sri Lanka but is trained and educated mainly in the US. Both claim to illustrate the central aspects of the same culture of the "other", but come to opposing conclusions. (A concrete example would be an evaluation of the events hat led to the violent death of Captain Cook in Hawaii, 1779).

The closing chapter "The World in Pieces: Culture and Politics at the End of the Century" touches upon many of the same familiar subjects and places itself, as the title hints, in the realm of the current discussion regarding the so-called postmodernity.

»If we wish to be able capaciously to judge, as of course we must, we need to make ourselves able capaciously to see.« (87). Geertz's anthology contains a wealth of ideas and reflections regarding this dual task, which is as necessary in philosophy as it is in cultural anthropology.

Stefan Krotz


Clifford Geertz (1999): The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973, 5. go back
Translation from the German by Oana David.

polylog. Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 4 (2003).
Online: http://www.polylog.org/lit/4/sgcks-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
Author: Stefan Krotz, Mérida (Mexico)
© 2003 Author & polylog e.V.
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