Tuesday 27 November 2018

The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man, by Clifford Geertz (1973)

Attempts to locate man amid the body of his customs have taken several directions, adopted diverse tactics ; but they have all, or virtually all, proceeded in terms of a single overall intellectual strategy: what I will call, so as to have a stick to beat it with, the "stratigraphic" conception of the relations between biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors in human l ife.

In this conception, man is a composite of "levels," each superimposed upon those beneath it and underpinning those above it. As one analyzes man, one peels off layer after layer, each such layer being complete and irreducible in itself, revealing another, quite different sort of layer underneath. Strip off the motley forms of culture and one finds the structural and functional regularities of social organization. Peel off these in turn and one finds the underlying psychological factors-"basic needs" or what-have-you-that support and make them possible. Peel off psychological factors and one is left with the biological foundations-anatomical, physiological, neurological -- of the whole edifice of human life.
The attraction of this sort of conceptualization, aside from the fact that it guaranteed the established academic disciplines their independence and sovereignty, was that it seemed to make it possible to have one's cake and eat it. One did not have to assert that man's culture was all there was to him in order to claim that it was, nonetheless, an essential and irreducible, even a paramount ingredient in his nature. Cultural facts could be interpreted against the background of noncultural facts without dissolving them into that background or dissolving that background into them. Man was a hierarchically stratified animal, a sort of evolutionary deposit, in whose definition each level-organic, psychological, social, and cultural-had an assigned and incontestable place. To see what he really was, we had to superimpose findings from the various relevant sciences - anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology - upon one another like so many patterns in a moire; and when that was done, the cardinal importance of the cultural level, the only one distinctive to man, would naturally appear, as would what it had to tell us, in its own right, about what he really was. For the eighteenth century image of man as the naked reasoner that appeared when he took his cultural costumes off, the anthropology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries substituted the image of man as the transfigured animal that appeared when he put them on.
Geertz (1973:38)

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- Excerpts taken from Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures. Selected Essays. NY: Basic Books, download
- photograph of Clifford James Geertz (1926-2006) via