Science or Humanity?

by Hugh M. Lewis


Do we really need to finally answer the question anthropologists seem to so strongly need to ask--namely is anthropology more of the sciences or of the humanities. Eric Wolf wrote that Anthropology was of between both--the devil and the dragon so to speak. A more sober attitude might perhaps view this question as perhaps the two horns of a spurious dilemma which anthropological knowledge poses for our world. Another view might see the social sciences as forming a Third Culture in the style of C. P. Snow's classic distinction. Franz Boas thought of anthropology as both a universalizing science and a particularizing kind of cosmography.

Some have argued that Anthropology is paradigmatic in the Kuhnian sense of the term, others that it is "non-paradigmatic," and still others that it is "poly-paradigmatic" or "pre-paradigmatic" or else "quasi-paradigmatic." The last decade has witnessed the flare up of new debates within American Academic Anthropology, especially as this question is regarded by recent critical and "post-" theorists and reflexive anthropologists who have come to review more critically the functional and perhaps class-based foundations of anthropological knowledge within a larger world order.

It is difficult, to say the least, to approach anthropological knowledge in exactly the same manner that a physicist or even a biologist might be said to approach her/his data, with the same degree of scientific neutrality and hence objectivity. The problematics of understanding human reality inevitably poses for us the paradox of the humanness of our understanding in ways which are not so directly obvious in other fields of the natural sciences. This is especially so when such anthropological knowledge resolves itself centrally upon the reality of another human being (and therefore, by implication, of our own humanness) in the world.

Those who want to see anthropology in a positivistic sense as a hard science of facts neglect the facticity of their own definitions of the data. They seek a comparative, universal conception of general anthropological knowledge that will yield basic laws of human history, culture, behavior, values and mind. They decry those who renounce this scientific role of science as at worst an anti-scientific threat to the very order and progress of anthropological knowledge, and at best unproductive and unprogressive in any constructive, uncritical sense. The self-styled anti-anthropologists and humanistic anthropologists disclaim any final version of anthropology, or even the possibility for the emergence of any progressive paradigm of anthropology from the marketplace of ideas. These anthropologists are regarded as promulgating the Celebration of the Difference and a delight in disorder in a somewhat Dionysian manner. They regard the strength of anthropology to come from the diversity and multiplicity of ideas and perspectives that emerge out of its on-going dialectic, and this diversity along is the justification for anthropological research. The superimposition of uniformity or unity of theory upon anthropological knowledge is bound to be spurious and ideologically self-serving and therefore anti-intellectually dangerous. For them anthropological patterns, like historical patterning of which it is a part, is a never-ending and unpredictable unfolding of infinite variations and possibilities upon common themes. The most that can be had is a regionally limited sense of order, one conditional to prevailing circumstances.

It is important not to overlook the part played by the often cutthroat competition for funding and power within departmental contexts in the drawing of the battle-lines about this basic question. The user usually pays, and in a post-Republican, pro-biological unanthropological era, only the user pays.

So must we answer this seemingly most important question? Perhaps, but maybe not in the way that would seem very satisfactory for either those who prefer to take sides or for those who wish to occupy some kind of conciliatory middle-ground. First, we might say that such a question is but one basic facet of an on-going dialectic that has always informed anthropological knowledge--one that Roy Wagner referred to as "collectivizing/relativizing." But it doesn't seem enough to merely talk about the dialectic while keeping one foot inside and the other outside of the terms of the debate. We might further argue that this dialectic is part of an even more basic, larger dialectic which has informed all of Western knowledge, and perhaps human knowledge in general--thus the question confers and important anthropological dimension to the knowledge of anthropology, and the anthropology of knowledge in general. Furthermore, we might speculate whether or not this basic dialectic which seems to inform Western-styled consciousness, if not human consciousness in general, itself is based upon some kind of basic contradiction or conflict which might underlie such consciousness.

I suggest that elements of the current debate are historically situated in the contemporary "Modern" epoch of humankind, and in certain fundamental ways reflect basic contradictions and conflicts which confront the contemporary "World-View" as this has become globally defined. We must not overlook the place with World War II had in the situating of a Whitian version of General Cultural Evolution based upon the augmentation of energy. Similarly, the role of the U.S. in Vietnam, and during the Post-Vietnam era, as an imperialist Rome in a unidimensional Capitalistic World System, cannot be overlooked in the cry for the multiplicity of voices, and the bringing home of the third world empire to the domestic United States does not just fortuitously parallel the call for greater reflexivity in a more domestically oriented American Anthropology. And if Anthropology can be construed as a mode of representation dealing with the incorporation and collectivization of diversity in the world, it can also be seen as a complementary mode of reflection which shows to us indirectly our own most pressing preoccupations and concerns, even our calls to greater reflexivity and multiplicity of voices in the world are a part of this mode of information that further augments the very integrative processes which such orientations critique.

We cannot escape the hermeneutic circle posed by the historical situation of our anthropological problematics except to look for more general patterns of our dialectics which transcend the vital issues of the moment and which unite our concerns and contradictions with those of other periods and places.

The question then, with its relativistic trappings boiled away, becomes not whether anthropology is or is not a science or a humanity (a question that by itself we cannot hope to answer but within the context of our own historical situation), but rather how anthropology has and has not been a science and how anthropology has and has not been a humanity, and how it has always been both, neither and either simultaneously.

The unity I seek to answer this question with is not so much the notion of the "psychic unity of humankind" but rather the "unity of the human spirit and reason in anthropological knowledge and inquiry." As much as we may chide Christopher Columbus and his kind for the "Discovery of the New World" I suggest that we should not see so much contrast with his spirit of exploration and our own spirit of anthropological inquiry, and as much as we might ridicule the Medieval worldview who saw antipods and humans with tails and other anthropomorphic beasts upon the corners of a flat earth, this worldview was so different in function than our own anthropological worldview that has divided the world between literates and primitives, the "Dani" here, the "!Kung" there, etc. In the light of our emancipated science, we might see our view of the world as somewhat more free of ignorance and superstition than those medieval map-makers, but by what absolute standard shall we measure the level of our own ignorance and bias. If we are ignorant about are world, then we do not know about it, and if we know about it, then we cannot be ignorant. Perhaps it can be claimed that we have grown, in our civilization, a bit older and wiser than that adolescent vision of the world which covered Medieval Europe in a shroud of darkness, but not enough to justify our treatment of our anthropological ancestors with disdain and ridicule for their ideas. Their legacy of ignorance and brutality has been our inheritance, and if today we cannot look beyond the first pages of their histories to view the native in an untouched state, if we cannot be certain what exactly what existed before the devastation wrought by the Western discovery of the New World, then we have no one else to blame but ourselves, because we cannot be too sure we are serving the interests of humankind in any wiser or superior fashion than our ancestors did.

In other words, whatever our contemporary intellectual hubris, about the only thing we can really be sure of is that we are probably no less historically situated by the hermeneutic horizon of our anthropological knowledge than were our anthropological ancestors, and if nothing else, this should be a sobering reminder about the limits of anthropological knowledge, whether scientific or humanistic.

Standing behind the question posed as to whether or not anthropology is a science or a humanity, is a more basic question as to the human status of anthropological knowledge in the world, and the basic contradictions of human reality which underlie and constrain this status in vital ways. Is anthropological knowledge about human reality amenable to scientific methods of study, or is it, in the complexity of its pattern, fundamentally resistant, if not completely immune, to such analysis, and thus best served by looser if not less rigorous approaches. But such a question, when rephrased, still belies a more basic issue of the boundaries that separate domains of knowledge in the world. The differences in inquiry between physics and philosophy, or biology and history, or art and anthropology, may be somewhat more substantial and significant than those traditional differences posed between "The Two Cultures."

The fundamental question then becomes, not whether anthropological knowledge is "scientific or humanistic" but whether anthropological knowledge occupies its own distinctive domain in the intellectual landscape, one which is not a sub-domain of a larger field of inquiry, and if so, then what are the boundaries and the provenience of this domain in relation to other domains of inquiry.

What then, is the status of anthropological knowledge in the world? It is as anthropology relates to the status of human reality itself that we must seek our answer. In other words, it is to be found in our own, shared attitudes towards human reality, whether we seek a wide vision of the field or a narrow point of view, whether we seek an unchanging, static conception of our reality or one which is dynamic and subject to continuous variation. And in a very fundamental personal way, it belies our own attitudes and orientation towards reality--whether we seek a world composed of difference or defined by common identity.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that this basic orientation, and the fundamental contradiction between identity and difference which it belies, may be at least in part conditioned by our own historical situation in relation to a wider world--who we seek as the source of our funds, our inspiration, our guidance and our beliefs.

What is recognizable is a call for the rehabilitation of the anthropological attitude and orientation in relation to humankind, such that it can no longer serve, whether naively or deliberately, the interests of impersonal and inhumane powers, and can be used in the advocacy and promotion of the rights and interests of people. We see applied forms of this in individual cases, such as the Native North American land claims filed against the federal government, or the support by anthropologist of native groups of the Amazon to discourage encroachment by Brazilian development interests. But for these few positive examples there are numerous counterexamples of anthropologists playing as pawns of power.

The real danger to the future of anthropology in the world will finally be decided in terms of its general relevance to the world, not in terms of the marketability of its suggestions or its ability to attract the highest-paid brains in academia, but simply in terms of the general relevance of its ideas--its capacity to cross intellectual boundaries as facilely as it crosses cultural boundaries, and to retrieve from such crossing perspectives which transcend the dialectics of its own historical boundaries. The risk anthropology runs is of falling into the very academic banality and mediocrity that is a symptom of its dependency upon external supports and props.

But the kind of rehabilitation of anthropological perspective desired does not have to play the role of applied or advocacy anthropology, but it must be something more than the mere reflection of its own implications in the struggles for power in the world. We can legitimately speak of a kind of reformed anthropology which knowledge is neither exclusively of science or of the humanities, but is self-sufficiently anthropological in orientation. Such an anthropology must seek to step beyond the boundaries of its own hermeneutic horizon, and to define itself independently of the research prerogatives and priorities implicit within a publish or perish or user-pays imperative. It is a kind of anthropology that can and must provide itself enough room in the world to grow into its own. 



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