John Emerson’s recent Idocentrism post about analytic philosophy reminds me of why I went into the social sciences in the first place (after flirting with the idea of being a philosophy major):
I think that at least some philosophers should reverse the priority that analytic philosophers give to rigor over comprehensiveness. Rather than reducing problems to a size which can be successfully handled with rigor and certainty, I think that philosophers should try as best possible to handle large questions in their entirety. And these should be actual, real questions in all their thickness, and not questions about formalized models or imaginary hypothetical questions.
I can’t really think of a better way of stating what I think the strength is of anthropology over, say, economics or certain strands of sociology. I’ve tried to say this before, but John’s phrase “large questions in their entirety” really appeals to me.
At the same time, even in anthropology careers are usually predicated on one’s ability to carve out a narrow part of the world or intellectual spectrum on which you can plant your intellectual flag. Only later on (it seems) are you allowed to branch out and write books on the “large questions.” While books on the large questions may be some of the best known anthropology work, I’m not sure it constitutes the vast bulk of what is produced. This is perhaps true of all disciplines. The people who tackle such large questions are often people with unusual career paths, and not infrequently function outside academic institutions altogether. This is also one reason I like blogging and the internet. I think it opens up a space in which academics can take on such large questions. Hopefully that will eventually feed back into the very structure of our academic institutions. CKelty’s recent post about “anthropology on demand” gives me some hope that this is happening.