And Other Dangerous Anthropological Questions

by Hugh M. Lewis


The universe may well play dice with God.


There are identifiable more than twenty broadly generic and different classes and kinds of relativism or relativities, each subsuming multiple problems or distinct instances that may represent spurious, pseudo- or lese basic issues of relativistic understanding. A quick list of the categories include: scientific, historical, social, cultural, linguistic, dialogical, hermeneutic, textual, exegetical, literary, symbolic, religious, rational, psychological, cognitive, experiential, epistemological, philosophical, nonwestern, aesthetic, normative and, finally, miscellaneous. Each category may subsume several different problem areas that may only be relatable on the basis of being subsumed beneath a broad generic heading. For instance, the category of scientific relativism includes diverse issues of physical relativity, biological relativity, anthropological relativity, as well as issues in methodology, theory, philosophy, history and science as social praxis, and also including problematics of the relativity of spatial perception and temporal measurement.

From the consideration of so many different kinds of relativism and relativity, we are left to query a few main points. First, a rationalistic orientation by philosophers, scientists and other people interested in the question of relativism has largely precluded a more thorough examination of the issues involved, and has led to the conflation of relativism with an extreme version of determinism and thus to its dismissal as a tractable issue, when in fct there is nothing intrinisically inimical between a relativistic and rationalistic orientation, and though relativism and determinism are actually separate and even contraposed issues. As Melville Herskovits so aptly noted, and as Elvin Hatch so blithely ignored, relativism brings into doubt the possibility not of general or even universal knowledge, but only of absolute meaning.

Secondly, the on-going debate by anthropologists and others over whether or not there is such a thing as relativity is largely a misplaced concern, one that has resulted in the general obfuscation and neglect of more critical questions. The central question is not whether there is in fact such a thing as relativity or relativism, but exactly how relativity work and what are its relativistic implications for our understanding of reality. The rejection of relativism from its outright denial by rationalist Western-oriented philosophers steeped in their canons of Platonic idealism and Aristotelian logic, to severe criticism and resistance by pro-positivistic social scientists, has been so strong, that we must inquire, like Clifford Geertz, into the social and psychological reasons for such a reaction.

Thirdly, because so many different kinds of relativism appear to coexist in the same general sphere of understanding, the question must be posed as to whether these different forms share anything in common, and whether this constitutes a sufficient basis for claiming such a thing as a single form of general relativism, or whether we can speak of Relativism per se, without actually meaning many different kinds of relativism implicitly. There seems to be some basic features shared by many forms of relativism. These are concerns with relation, contextuality of knowledge, conditionality and interdependency, the horizons of knowledge and limits of understanding, paradox and dilemma, the poly-thesis and multidimensionality of meaning, emphasis upon difference and the unique, the particular, concerns with the intentionality, meta-logicality and reflexivity of human knowledge, holism, change, and the problematic of universality and infinity. Relativism entails the critical indeterminancy and fundamentally statistical probability of knowledge, and a basic problematic of theoretical complexity that has not yet been addressed.

The claim that something in the world is relative is by itself insufficient, but we must go on to specify precisely what it is that such a thing is relative to, and how, and it is in this demand for specification of our relativistic understanding. This inherent conditionality of our understanding constitutes both the principal virtue and primary problematic of relativistic understanding. There is no such thing as knowledge that is unconditional and, hence, non-relativistic. The basic paradox of relativistic understanding is that though there is no such thing as absolute knowledge in the world, even relativity is not absolutely so, such that the possibility of absolute knowledge, however remote, cannot be rejected by a relativistic orientation. From a rationalistic standpoint this kind of dilemma would make relativism seem inherently contradictory, hence unreasonable, and yet is is from just such a relativistic orientation that the possibility and tolerance for such paradox and contradiction emerges.

A general doctrine of relativism poses the problematic of an inherent constraint and insuperable conditionality about human knowledge in the world. Beyond the boundaries of our fields of inquiry and domains of knowledge lies the encircling horizon of our own ignorance and a vast, potentially boundless, domain of the "Unknown." Relativism then becomes a way of approaching and expanding the boundaries of our own knowledge by means of identifying and critically questioning what remains only half-known upon the margins of our worldview. From the standpoint of a non-dogmatic scientific approach that is primarily concerned with expansion and verification of our understanding and knowledge in the world, such a relativistic attitude is prerequisite orientation.

Issues of relativity, relativism and relativistic understanding address more basic issues about the nature and structure of a reality that remains inescapably human from our observer's and subjective experiencer's standpoint, providing as well critical insight into how our understanding of reality may be intrinsically organized. Thus such questions are critical to an "anthropology of knowledge" that asks how humankind has constructed its own realities.


Consideration of the possibilities of a general relativism must eventually resolve the so-called Worldview Problem--the attempt to explain systematically the interconnections between cognition, language and culture, as well as the traditional "Mind/body" dichotomy that has been so basic a question to Western philosophy and psychology.

Science has demonstrated basic differences in brain function between males and females as well as with mentally ill versus "normal" subjects, and yet we must simultaneously account for a central held tenet of the psychic (and linguistic) if not cultural unity of humankind. We have posited and generally accept the existence deep or basic structures of the brain that underlie and predeterminer behavior and that are similar to all normal human beings, and yet we still have to account for the role that linguistic variation plays in structuring human consciousness, and that primary cultural acquisition must play in the relativity permanent early formation of basic character and personality traits, in both individual and cultural differences. Evidence from the few extant cases of severe childhood cultural deprivation strongly support the hypothesis of early critical stages of cognitive brain development in language structure and basic behaviors, that is critically linked to cultural acquisition, and which if deprived from an effective environment, results in the irreversible retardation of the individual.

The problematics of disentangling the roles of language, culture and cognition in how we see the world, and of the relationship between the mind and the brain, leads to the conjecture that the different elements are themselves inseparably fused into basic constituent components, that are not only encoded in the structure of mind, but are imprinted in the functional patterning and cerebral organization of the brain.

To suggest that these components might be "symbolon" disguises the possibility that symbolism is the principal mode of expression of these elements, and that this external symbolic expression is itself a vital and necessary constituent part of these components. It is via this externalized modality of psychic expression that a doorway, or "window" is provided onto the world, and that by this doorway change is introduced into the internal world of the mind's eye. Such internalized modification always takes the form of the fusion of new elements with previous ones, and a reinterpretation of the whole that introduces a sense of order and coherence to the internalized vision of the world.

The mind's eye can be said to internally map the external world upon the brain. The brain becomes the biological substratum upon which is imprinted the mind, and by extension, the externalized elements of culture. This imprinting can be said to occur both upon the levels of primary and secondary process. While the brain is universal, human mind is relative to the cultural and linguistic context in which it finds its expression.

The mind from this standpoint cannot exist in isolation. It exists only within the cultural context of its own construction and externalization. It is the synergistic sum of the functioning of the brain within its cultural environment. The brain, without such an effective environment, cannot realize its fullest capacity of development.

From this standpoint we cannot clearly separate things or causes or relations that are cultural, linguistic or cognitive. Culture, language or cognition cannot exist decontextualized and independent of one another, and as symbolic forms of expression they are simultaneously and inextricably composed of all three elements, though replacement of elements by new, alien elements occurs in the reconstruction of basic symbolic forms. Thus such forms are continuously modified and reshaped to fit the changing cultural conditions of the external world in which they are adapted. The adaptive significance of this process in anthropogenesis hardly needs further elaboration.

It is possible, though, that symbols and their elements form distinctive complexes in certain areas of the mind-brain, and these complexes may in turn come to compose entire, nonexclusive and yet distinguishable domains. In this regard, it is suggestive to consider the reflexive role that relativism may play in our ability to aperceptively recognize and distinguish some of the boundaries between such areas of mind--primarily because the relativity of understanding become the most clearly apparent along the margins of such domains. It is upon the receding horizons of such regions of mind that the certainty and unquestionable firmness of our knowledge gives way to unknown possibilities. Relativistic recognition becomes then the awareness of the limitations of our realities.


Relativity of values, beliefs, language and worldview seems to contradict the idea of a "psychic unity of humankind" or of a universal structure of mind that is similar for all people. The hypothesis of a deep structure for language, mind and cognitive process has always presented an important and insuperable paradox. Intuitively there must be some biological basis to language, thought, and conceptualization and collective representation, and this biological substratum of mind must be the same for all people. But such a notion runs aground in the surface complexities and the myriad apparent differences in symbolic expression of worldview or of human attitudes and behavioral response patterns. A firm faith in the notion might allow us to take a leap of faith and to dismiss out of hand the relevance of surface patterns of expression as but epiphenomenal by-products of the working structure of the mind. But we are still begging the question of what exactly, from a scientific standpoint, such a universal structure of Mind might be, and of how precisely it is biologically grounded, as well as the related questions of how much the surface variation of patterning constrains and is in turn constrained by this hypothetical "deep" structure. Though no one is likely to soon have any definite or detailed answer to this important question in the understanding of human reality, an honest assessment and thinking through of the issues and evidence at hand are not impossible to attempt, and may even prove quite productive.

It is a common misconception of the problem of relativism and of universal rationality to assume from the outset that the two notions are inherently inimical and mutually contradictory--that the adoption of one set of ideas necessarily entails the rejection of the opposite set. It is of utmost importance in understanding both the problematic of worldview and of relativity that the two sets of ideas are in fact not only mutually complementary, but may even necessarily entail one another in a larger frame of reference. How is this possible? The same deep structure of mind may undergo an infinite variety of shapes and yet retain the same basic structural features. These would be regionally defined topographies of mindscape that are quite unique and different from one another and yet may be mutually traversed and transfigured in terms of a basic universal rational structure of "Mind" in a hypothetical or ideal sense of possibility or potentiality.

It is important to distinguish in this regard different terms that are sometimes conflated or used interchangeably. Perception, conception and cognition are separate but interrelated processes. Under cognition we have imagination, mood, reason or ratiocination, rationality, common sense, knowing, counting, acquisition, communication, expression, dreaming, memory and in some ineffable sense, the emotions and feeling itself as phenomenological experience. It is important to distinguish what may be quite normative and evaluative processes of reasoning from more mathematically non-arbitrary processes of logicality and mechanical process of computation and counting. We must sooner or later come to terms with symbolization, pattern recognition, naming, reference and inference, language, collective representation, emotion and that always vague but ever powerful monstrosity of the human unconscious. Somehow e must account for complex processes of creativity, analysis and synthesis, as well as for possible rational structures of typology and topography, taxonomy and classification, as well as synaesthesia, intuition, alternative discrete or continuous states of consciousness, and possibly even extra-sensory perception or paranormal cognition.

If we gloss all these distinctions under a single heading of rationality we are taking a great deal for granted and yet so many complex processes are contained and co-occur simultaneously all within the cramped space of the average person's skull. Human psychology has its work cut out for it. And if this is not enough, then we might also want to consider the problematic of sociability, instinct, heretability, experience, intelligence and basic ability, special talent, individuality, identity, personality, psycho-somatic connection between the body and the mind, and yet such humility makes seem all the more absurd so many premature proclamations for the bottom line on human consciousness. Simple solutions or sophisticated confabulations of enormously complex problems betray our human intellectual hubris.

The general problem is not uncomplicated by basic theoretical and philosophical problems that are definitional and terminological. We might distinguish between rationalist and empiricist approaches, between a priori and noumenal presuppositions of rational ideals and solipsistic conceptions about trees falling in silent forests. We may distinguish between presentationalist and representationalist conceptions.


It becomes entirely plausible that when we speak of such things as mind, culture, brain and worldview, we are dealing with a level and "structure" of order the principles and patterning of which we do not yet understand in any formal sense, though all of us are everyday experts in all these areas in an implicit and functional manner. They imply a level of chaotic complexity of patterning that suggests an underlying sense of order and unity. Lacking a clear theoretical framework required to deal efficiently with such levels or order, we are compelled to fall back upon theoretical designs that are inherently inadequate to the job. This level of order is described by scientists as complex adaptive systems and is seen to recurrently underlie many naturally occurring patterns of order. They transcend by orders of magnitude nonlinear, chaotic systems that "are ones in which the shape of the whole is not easily predicted by looking at its parts." (Scientific American, October, 1992) that are nevertheless multiply underdetermined by a handful of basic "attractors" or choices of behavior and an unlimited number of variables. This level of order is referred to as "complexity" that is made up of an infinite number of possible variations derived from a limited set of relationships. They constitute open productive systems upon one level while remaining restrictively constrained upon another level. "Defining complexity more tightly becomes a problem in its own right..." (pg. 20)

It might be said that because complexity is infinitely determined, its determinative factors cancel each other out as they approach infinity and thus are essentially underdetermined systems that nevertheless exhibit a coherent pattern and sense of historical unfolding. Such systems go beyond being merely "self-organizing systems approaching criticality" because they are continuously adapting, rather than being nonadaptive reactions to critical events and thresholds. They are composed of agents that, though simple, gather information from the environment around them, "sifting out relevant details from random noise. The agents then compress that information into models or schemata that they use to anticipate and react to changes in their environment. Over time, they modify those schemata to reflect new information." (page 20)

Might we speculate upon the possible characteristics of complexity and its implications for our understanding of relativism, worldview, mind, brain and culture. Gregory Bateson, in his work Mind and Nature (1979), defines stochastic as "a sequence of events which combines a random component with a selective process so that only certain outcomes of the random are allowed to endure." (pg. 253) He outlines a theory of the necessary stochastic unity and complementariness of the system of mind and nature, and distinguishes a dialectic relationship between form and process, such that "as form is to process, so is tautology to description." (pg. 210)

It is not too much to suggest that complexity is constituted by emergent self-sustaining, cybernetic systems that adjust to, incorporate, and seek to overcome constraints encountered in a randomly changing environment. Because such systems are cybernetic, they can be described as complexly dialectical. Many mutually conditioning elements that constrain one another and jointly undergo change. Richard Shweder applies such a conception of complexity to his study of "cultural psychology" that deals with the interpenetration of identities of "subject-dependent objects (intentional worlds) and object-dependent subjects (intentional persons)" (1991: page 100) and in which the declared aim " is to develop an interpretive framework in which nothing really real is by fundamental nature fixed, universal, transcendent (deep, interior) and abstract; and in which local things can be deeply embedded, but only for a while...."

Because such systems incorporate a "constrained randomness" into their structure, their emergent patterning cannot be predicted in any precise way. But it is by their very virtue of such incorporation of random change that such systems remain adaptively self-sustaining. Such systems are seen to be able to incorporate and thus tolerate a certain threshold of contradiction. They do not have to be fully coherent systems in any traditional sense of the term to remain viably functional. Rather, they comprise an organization of difference and an anti-chaotic order upon the verge of disorder. Because they incorporate such contradiction, they can be seen from strictly rationalistic points of view to be inimically paradoxical and antinomial. But it is seen to be the very flexibility of underdetermined structure that confers upon it both an adaptive long-term stability and a fundamental sense of relativity.

Human reality is inextricably complex. It is a complexity that is inexorably reflected in anthropological understanding. To seek too strict a rational parsimony in our anthropological science is perhaps at best a misguided following of the lead of the physical sciences, and at worst a pro-positivistic dogmatism that is counterproductive and fundamentally anti-intellectual. The presumption of relativism does not inherently preclude the possibility of generality of theory or privilege the emphasis upon the particular to the exclusion of the general. Relativism only demands that we precisely define the limits and conditions of our knowledge, and through such definition lies the resolution of the paradox that it poses for our understanding of human reality.

Diversity of surface patterning may belie an underlying universal structure of order, while surface similarity may be the epiphenomenon of completely independent and different underlying structures of order. There remains nothing inherently inimical between a relativistic orientation and the presupposition of a rational universality.

A systematic theory of general relativism that goes beyond mere pronouncements of faith might provide the necessary formal handle upon our understanding of such anthropological and naturally occurring complexity in the world. Such an elaboration of theory can be seen in terms of a relational logic that defines everything in terms of its possible sets of relations with other things, with each thing having a dual identity as both an element in a larger system of relations and as a variable set of relationships itself. A theory of interference patterning, and an anthropological understanding of human-made projective systems, that in turn may lead to a systematic anthropological theory of meaning, symbolism, mind and its relationship to the brain, as well as to the Worldview Problem.

Relativism not only poses for us the problem of basic anthropological paradox, but it also asks questions of us and about our world in such a way that, if we are better anthropologically attuned, we might then search and fine the kinds of answers we have been looking for in the first place.


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05