Tag Archives: philosophy

Hegel on Physiognomy and Phrenology

(Chinese translation 中文翻譯)

For those of you who actually read Hegel’s Phenomenology in its entirety it will not come as news that there is a chapter on physiognomy & phrenology, but if you are like me and never made it that far on your first try, discovering his unique approach to criticizing these pseudosciences for the first time is quite an eye opener. I have been listening to Jay Bernstein’s two-semester course on the Phenomenology ever since Ann Stoler mentioned it in her conversation with Rex and I absolutely love it. In his lecture on this chapter Bernstein draws on Alasdair MacIntyre’s essay “Hegel on faces and skulls” which can be found in the book Hegel on Action and I thought Savage Minds readers would be interested in a summary of MacIntyre’s argument, especially since he makes an important comparison to the kind of neuroscience reductionism which is still so popular today. (And which is the whole raison d’être for the wonderful Neuroskeptic blog.)

Illustration in a 19th-century book about physiognomy
Illustration in a 19th-century book about physiognomy
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The Anthropology of Freedom, Pt. 5

All The Freedoms
(Freedoms, all of them)

I’ll stop with this one, I promise. But it is in some ways where I should begin. That freedom is an interesting problematic obviously has little to do with whether or not anthropologists can wield it as a concept (that’s just me deferring to the putative audience here). Rather it is a simple empirical fact that freedom–both as slogan and as a thing–is relentlessly present in global society–and especially in the domains of high tech science and engineering. The ideological use of the slogan to brand just about anything is (should be) fair game for many different scholars of contemporary discourse (see e.g. Wendy Chun’s work). But as a starting point, consider only the image to the right, which collects 9 pages of logos that use “freedom” to sell something.

These uses come from both the left and the right, and they have a certain visual consistency to them: images of upheld arms, liberated birds, broken chains are nearly ubiquitous. When a logo emphasizes a flag, a gun or an eagle it is more obviously right-leaning, when it uses a sans-serif font, the color green, or a raised fist, it is more likely a left-leaning cause. Revealingly, the same experiment with the word “liberty” is much more uniform in the use of red, white and blue, the statue of liberty (especially her spiky hat… what is that called anyways?) and only occasionally a broken bell. This analysis could all be done much more expertly, I’m certain, though it hasn’t really been. (Though I can’t resist mentioning a smorgasbord of a book by Svetlana Boym which is obliquely engaged in such a project of cultural and visual analysis).

But what such an analysis tells us is that freedom has a particular ideological role in the process of our collective deliberations and arguments in the global media-scape. In it’s most cynical version, Continue reading

The Anthropology of Freedom, pt. 4

I Prefer the Anthropology of Morels of course.  (Much more excellent photo of Morels by: Odalaigh at  http://www.flickr.com/photos/odalaigh/2515458601/)
I Prefer the Anthropology of Morels of course. (Much more excellent photo of Morels by: Odalaigh at http://www.flickr.com/photos/odalaigh/2515458601/)
Recent comments on this series have raised a bunch of great issues that I would love to explore. Conveniently, one of them is the question Rex raised about “Anthropologies Of...” I honestly didn’t mean to signal “The Anthropology of Freedom” as a proposal so much as a query. Because anthropology is so relentlessly ecumenical in its topics and approaches, it should be illuminating to think about what anthropology does not study (or does not allow the study of, in some proscriptive sense, like working for the military). There are some things that we are just silent on, and my hunch is that exploring some of these might sometimes be more illuminating than trying to say what it is anthropology does do. The question of an “Anthropology of Freedom” is at least diagnostic in this sense, if not programmatic. And to be clear, I am not in a programmatic mood here.

But that being said, there are in fact a lot of other “Anthropologies of…” which border very closely on anthropology of freedom, and I want to dwell (at too much length) on one of them here: the anthropology of ethics. There is another one going by the label of an “Anthropology of the Will” which will have to wait until whoever has the book checked out returns it to the library, cause there is no way I will pay $55 for it, thank you very much Stanford University Press. There is also the “Anthropology of Happiness” which insofar as freedom is a means rather than an end might be something anthropologists do study. I’m much too pessimistic for that.

But the anthropology of ethics has finally arrived. This year has seen the publication of two books: Ordinary Ethics, (a semi-reasonable $30, $21.99 on Amazon) ed. by Michael Lambeck, and James Faubion’s An Anthropology of Ethics (ditto). The former is a great collection of essays that includes both anthropologists and philosophers (and includes one from Faubion), the latter is likely to appeal to me, Rex, and like 5 other people, which says nothing about how awesome it is, but rather, indicates a perhaps perverse pleasure in being inside James Faubion’s brain. Nonetheless, both of them lay out some problems and concepts for an anthropology of ethics in rigorous and satisfying ways.

It should be said that the “anthropology of ethics” referenced here probably means many things Continue reading

The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 3

“The time is now ripe for anthropologists to consider the concept of freedom and the empirical manifestations of freedom in culture. What more significant and urgent task is there for the anthropologist than that of launching a concerted inquiry into the nature of freedom and its place and basis in nature and the cultural process? Such an inquiry would provide in time a charter for belief in those values and principles indispensable to the process of advancing culture and to the ideal of a democratic world order dedicated to the development of human potentialities to their maximum perfection.” (preface to The Concept of Freedom in Anthropology ed. David Bidney, 1963 p. 6)

Freedom Hof-style
You and me both, pal.

Thus did David Bidney valiantly launch the investigation into freedom by anthropologists only to immediately then admit: “I realize that hard-headed, realistic anthropologists, including some of the participants in this symposium, would not find themselves in agreement with this anthropologic dream. There is danger, they will protest, that you are reifying Freedom into an absolute entity, just as culture once was. Freedom they will object is a non-scientific, political slogan which betrays its ethnocentric, Western and American origin…”

Freedom, as concept, still evokes this suspicion. That it is “nothing more” than a political slogan; or that it masks the reality of domination, oppression, slavery and power. As well it should given how promiscuously it is exploited.Or, as Edmund Leach so characteristically puts it in his contribution to the same volume: “To prate of Freedom as if it were a separable virtue is the luxurious pursuit of aristocrats and of the more comfortable members of modern affluent society. It has been so since the beginning.” (77)

What Leach expresses here, in part, is the descriptivist bias of anthropology of the time, and specifically of political anthropology: that the goal is comparative analysis without a priori reference to any normative political ideals. This, I think probably resonates with most anthropologists, who would be much less likely to be interested in Freedom as a concept that delimits a certain relationship between action and governance, more more likely to see it as a slogan that has been used as a warrant in colonial, imperial and global economic endeavors; as a tool used to transform existing arrangements in its own name (and secretly in the interests of a global elite). At a first cut this is undeniably so if one simply listens to the way the word is used in the news, and by politicians especially.

Indeed, it is my probably hasty opinion that the whole of “political anthropology” (at least in it’s 1930s-1970s form) shares this bias, despite the fact that it would seem to be this domain to which one would immediately turn for help in understanding the variations in the nature of Freedom. Instead, freedom is excluded from investigation insofar as it contaminates, confuses or otherwise confounds the exploration of objective political structures. Continue reading

The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 2

She is Freedom
She is Freedom

For philosophers, sociologists and historians, freedom is a concept exquisitely defined and heroically distinguished. There are the familiar distinctions like positive and negative liberty (Isaiah Berlin), there is the long tradition of thinking freedom togther with sovereignty, government and arbitrary power (sp. the newly reinvigorated “civic republican” tradition from Machiavelli to Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit); there is the question of free will and determinism (a core Kantian Antimony that generates both moral philosophy and philosophy of science debates seemingly without end); there is the question of freedom and the mind (the problem of the “contented slave” or the problem Boas raised in arguing that freedom is only subjective); the question of coersion, of autonomy, of equality and of the relationship to liberalism and economic organization. Within each of these domains one can find more and less refined discussions (amongst philosophers and political theorists primarily) oriented towards the refinement of both descriptive and normative presentations of freedom as a concept and as a political ideal. And then there is Sartre.

As I mentioned in the first post, anthropologists have been nearly silent on the problem, while philosophers, political theorists and historians have not. There are shelves and shelves of books in my library with titles like A Theory of Freedom, Dimensions of Freedom, Freedom and Rights, Liberalism and Freedom, Political Freedom, etc. There are readers and edited volumes and special issues of journals to beat the band. In history there is Orlando Patterson and Eric Foner, and a 15 volume series called The Making of Modern Freedom that includes books on Freedom from the medieval era to the present, and includes books on China, Asia, Africa, slavery, migration and fiscal crises (!).

If anthropologists find the concept of freedom distasteful, how then do they organize their concern with things and issues related to what political philosophers or historians approach via freedom? What concepts stand in, challenge or reframe that of freedom? Here is a long list (which could no doubt be longer):

agency, authority, bare life, biopower, biopolitics, citizenship, civil society, colonialism, consent, contract, development, domination, empire, exclusion, governance, governmentality, human rights, humanitarianism, interests, interest theory, in/justice, kingship, neoliberalism, obligation, oppression, precarity, resistance, secularism/secularity, security, social control, sovereignty, suffering, territoriality and violence.

Note that this list concerns terms also familiar to North Atlantic political philosophy, which is to say, this is not a list of “indigenous” or ethnographically derived concepts of/related to freedom. That would constitute yet another distinct question (and a separate post, to follow).

Most of the concepts in that list are closer to the empirical than the theoretical, and I suspect this is why they are preferred to manifestly abstract ideal like freedom. Humanitarianism for instance, has seen a wealth of great work over the last couple of decades for the concrete reason that it is a practice, a domain of law, a set of international economic imperatives as a well as an ideal. Precarity nicely captures a particular economic condition and the effects that has on well-being, etc.

Perhaps most central to the anthropologist’s suspicion around freedom is its inherently individualist bent. Continue reading

The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 1

It should come as a surprise that, as James Laidlaw says, “freedom is a concept about which anthropology has had strikingly little to say.” I’ve been thinking about the problem since giving a paper last year at the AAA on “Digital Liberalism” and the problem of Freedom as it relates to liberalism and technology. I’ve decided to break my radio silence at SM and post a series about Freedom, now that the fireworks are over, in part to see what reaction it provokes here, if any.

Why does Google think this is the universal image for freedom?

In fact the number of works that directly address freedom as either an anthropological problem for investigation, or a tool for making sense of ethnographic data, can be held in one hand. There are lots of other concepts that are similar to or related to freedom (enough that I defer to a second post on the subject), but as for the problem of freedom, a term which has more ideological and rhetorical use and abuse today than any other, anthropologists have been largely silent.

Contrast this with the fields of political theory, philosophy and history where one could be buried alive several times over with the number of detailed treatises on the problem of freedom? Why this dearth, this differential unconcern?

It should also come as a surprise that the dean of English language anthropology, that Polish-born fieldworker, scientist of culture and diarist extraordinaire, grandfather Malinowski ended his career, and his time in this world, at work on a book about Freedom, Freedom and Civilization. Continue reading

Hume and the “Western” Notion of “Self”

One of my best experiences as an undergraduate was a year-long philosophy seminar in which we did a close-reading of Hume’s work. So, in honor of Hume’s 300th anniversary I thought I’d read an article on Hume and anthropology. The article I picked was “What is the Western Concept of the Self? on Forgetting David Hume” by D. W. Murray.

Murray’s argument is fairly simple and straightforward – in a good way. In a way reminiscent of Hume’s own writing. Murray argues that anthropologists have constructed a “monolithic” vision of “Hegemonic Western Tradition,” which they then contrast with their own work. In particular, he is concerned with anthropological writing about the “Western” notion of a “transcendent self” against which the rest of the world’s cultures are judged.

To counter this, Murray looks at David Hume as an example of a very different Western notion of the self. Hume saw the idea of a “continuous self” as “fantastic.” For “there was nothing beneath the ideas to connect them…”
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Anthropology Is…


Rex recently asked for “anthropology creeds” but for the life of me I can’t write one. So instead I’ll write about why I think the task is impossible. An anti-creed if you like.

In short, I think that anthropology, like Christmas, or the island on Lost, is whatever you want it to be. Every discipline in academia also exists as a mirror-self within anthropology: economics, semiotics, medicine, political-science, genetics, religion, history…etc., all have their counterparts in anthropology. And not just one counterpart either. Just looking at economic anthropology, one can take a myriad of different approaches to the subject all of which are called anthropology. Just about the only approach not called anthropology would be that used by economists… and even there I’m sure you can find some anthropologists whose work isn’t too different from what you would find in an economics journal.

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Hard Problems in Anthropology

In 1990 [1900], the renowned mathematician David Hilbert laid down a challenge to future generations: 23 hand-picked mathematical problems, all difficult, all important, and all unsolved. Since then, countless mathematicians around the world have struggled to solve the 23 ‘Hilbert Problems’ (ten have been resolved; eleven are partly solved or simply cannot be solved; and two remain at large). Most important, the pursuit of the solutions had a profound and fundamental influence on the roadmap for 20th century mathematics, testament to Hilbert’s foresight.

So begins an announcement about a Harvard symposium aimed at identifying a similar list of problems for the social sciences. I thought it might be interesting to poll our readers about their own ideas for a list of “hard problems in anthropology.” Does it make sense to compile such a list? What would you put on the list? What would it mean for cultural anthropologists to “solve” a problem.Are there any such problems from a previous era that we’ve already solved?

Off the top of my head, I can think of two typical anthropological “problems.” Each posing different challenges to a Hilbertesque approach to defining a list of such problems.

The first might be phrased as “What’s the matter with Kansas?” That is, why do people seem to act contrary to their own class interests? But even asking the problem causes problems. Larry Bartels famously asked: What’s the Matter With ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas?’, which undermined many of the premises of Frank’s book. The difficulties of defining “class interests” in the first place makes this question so much messier than a mathematical problem.

The second is more typical of contemporary anthropology and could be stated thus: “What are the cultural logics that make X actions thinkable, practicable, and desirable?” (Paraphrased from the introduction to Aihwa Ong’s Flexible Citizenship.) Having observed some phenomenon, anthropologists then collect the stories people tell about that problem and interpret them in light of our own understanding of how institutional and cultural practices shape such stories. Here the problem isn’t so much the question, but identifying under what conditions we might consider the problem “solved”? One can’t jump in the same river twice and so each anthropologist who asks such a question will very likely come up with different answers.

So what do our readers think? Does it make sense to compile such a list? If so, what would you put on it? And how would you define a problem as being “solved”? If not, might there be a better way to focus the efforts of cultural anthropology on a set of common problems?

(Hat tip to Ennis for the link.)

Transhumanism vs. Anthropology

In my ongoing quixotic attempt to highlight places where anthropology should be and isn’t, I thought I would bring up the issue of transhumanism, once more with feeling.
Over the years of being a participant-observer amongst geeks, I’ve repeatedly found myself amongst transhumanists. I’ve even written about it a bit, though only as a kind of limit case for certain understandings of history. The only good scholarly work on transhumanism I know of is by Richard Doyle (which is to be distinguished from scholarly work BY transhumanists, which is actually remarkably common if you cast a wide net). I’m a bit gun-shy from trying to engage experimental philosophers, but I’ve often wondered why there is so little interest from anthropologists in this brand of scientific-cum-theological thinking—or vice versa. It seems to me that crap like Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near is pretty bad press for this group—worse in any case than Ted William’s freezing his head, which is just the kind of creepy shit the press loves. There are a lot of interesting variations on transhumanism, from your basic immortality by downloading consciousness onto silicon, to more probable concerns with alteration of the human body through drugs, surgery, or bionic additions. This is just to say that like any ism, it’s pretty hard to pin down.

So I was happy to see that a publication I had never heard of before— “The Global Spiral: A Publication of the Metanexis Institute”— has published a series of articles by scholars in science studies, philosophy and literature (Andy Pickering, Don Ihde, Katherine Hayles and others) about transhumanism (volume 9, Issue 3). Unfortunately, they are all pretty un-anthropological in their approach, preferring to criticize transhumanism rather than engage it. I know why… extreme versions of transhumanism can be pretty unctuous, raising specters of race-purity, eugenics, bad technological determinism etc. However, I for one am pretty surprised by the continued growth of this “movement” (what makes it a movement?) and lately, I’ve started to think that it might well move into a more mainstream light as there are people like Nick Bostrom (an Oxford Ph.D.) and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies gaining attention and authority… Wait a minute, ethics and emerging technologies? Isn’t that what I study?!? Quick, freeze my head!
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Philosophers Discover Lost Tribe in Jungles of Free Will

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of responsibility, and this has necessarily entailed (determined even) my encounter with contemporary (mostly American) moral philosophy. It’s not a domain I would ever seek out, being much more comfortable in the idioms of social theory and continental philosophy, but it’s hardly alien. However, a funny thing happened on my way to the agora, which is that I discovered that a small selection of philosophers have recently gone “experimental.”

Apparently, making broad claims about “what a person would naturally think” have finally become so insupportable that even philosophers have started exploring the possibility of actually talking to people. Experiments measuring “folk beliefs” about whether our world is deterministic or not, or whether free will can exist if the world is deterministic, are intended to settle claims that begin “most people believe that…” Settling such claims is necessary in the domain of moral philosophy, because a concept like responsibility is fundamentally tied to what people do in “everyday” circumstances. If it is not possible to start from some kind of claim about whether (to say nothing of why) people make ascriptions of praise and blame in the same way, then, arguments about free will and moral responsibility start to seem like the proverbial and much-maligned mass and extension of angels living on pins.

Burning ArmchairEnter “X-Phi” — a contingent of young whippersnappers bent on making names for themselves by shaking up some methodological verities in their discipline, “trailing blogs of glory” (as K. A. Appiah deligtfully characterized it) and sporting a burning arm-chair as their logo. You can get a T-shirt, here. You can befriend Experimental Philosopher on myspace here (you’ll be in some rocking company). Or read about them in Slate.

Needless to say, and I speak on behalf of all of us here, This Rocks. Continue reading