Selected Minor Works: Are Twins Birds?

What Philosophy Can Learn from Anthropology

Justin E. H. Smith


Books Consulted or Discussed in this Essay

Scott Atran, The Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Barbara Duden, Der Frauenleib als öffentlicher Ort. Vom Missbrauch des Begriffs Leben (Munich, 1994).

Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

Ernest Gellner,  Anthropology and Politics: Revolutions in the Sacred Grove (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995).

Maurice Godelier, Métamorphoses de la parenté (Paris: Seuil, 2004).

G. E. R. Lloyd, Magic, Reason and Experience: Studies in the Origins and Development of Greek Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (Harper & Row, 1983).

Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

Colin Scott, The Semiotics of Material Life among the Wemindji Cree Hunters (McGill University Thesis, 1983).

S. J. Tambiah, Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality (Cambridge, 1984).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan, 1968).


I have gradually become convinced that historians of philosophy –my colleagues, and by training myself– are going about a cluster of very interesting questions in entirely the wrong way.  These questions, I think, may be much more adequately answered from within the discipline we call ‘anthropology’.

Arbus_twins_2According to one widespread account, modernity came into being as a consequence of the sacrifice of nature.  The Scientific Revolution literally killed nature by transforming it from a living and holistic system of interconnected entities, human and non-human alike, acting intentionally in accordance with their natures, into a dead system of atomic particles being moved about, without intrinsic purposes, but only as a result of extrinsic physical forces.  This new scientific cosmology would also bring with it, the story goes, a new philosophical anthropology, as humans came to see themselves as radically separate from, and opposed to, a natural world in which they as thinking intelligent agents could have no part.  The world, which now operated according to entirely different laws than those that governed our own thinking, was ‘disenchanted’, as Max Weber would later put it, literally gutted of any cosmological significance –where cosmology is understood as some model of the interrelatedness of the heavens, the earth, animals, humans, super-human spiritual entities, and perhaps also God– and reduced simply to extended particles endowed with mass, figure, and motion. 

It is in broad outline this transformation that Carolyn Merchant bemoaned in her influential 1980 book, The Death of Nature, and it is this transformation that much recent ecological thinking aspires to undo.  One way out of the perceived dead-end of mechanistic thinking about nature has been to argue that mechanism is in fact inadequate to the task of scientifically explaining the systems in question. The study of certain implications of post-Einsteinian physics, or of certain problems of complexity in ecological systems, are examples of this.  Another way out of the dead-end has been to turn attention to models of nature generated by cultures that never explicitly adopted the basic assumptions of the scientific revolution that so transformed the West.  Indigenous science, in short, has presented itself to some as a possible source of lessons for thinking about nature that may help to correct some of the shortcomings of the mechanistic model we inherited from the 17th century.

But the legacy of the Scientific Revolution is of course, by now, everywhere, and it takes a strong and nostalgic imagination to see indigenous cultures as if they had preserved their ways intact since the pre-contact era.  As Marshall Sahlins writes: “Certain things of European provenance — not only horses, tobacco, bush knives, or cloth but even Chistianity — are still locally perceived as ‘traditional’ culture.” Living as we are long after the initial contact, 1492 and all that, it is very difficult –even in the light of excellent work by historical anthropologists– to separate the elements of an indigenous culture that pertain to it deeply, as a sort of cultural constant, from the elements of that culture that emerged adaptively in response to new, externally imposed circumstances.   There is also no shortage of compelling arguments to the effect that performing such a separation is either impossible or disrespectful to the contemporary indigenous culture’s effort to carve out a place for itself in the modern world.   

Thus development, or cultural adaptation to new realities, renders the project of Western self-criticism much more difficult than it may have appeared in the days when Montaigne could call upon the ‘Cannibals’ to measure the degree of conventionality of his own culture’s norms.  What thus  often happens when lessons are sought from indigenous cultures is that the difference between world-views is grossly exaggerated, with the indigenous world-view highly romanticized as one that is fully ‘in touch’ with the natural world, and with the scientific world-view facilely condemned as being the opposite of this, ‘out of touch’. 

These exaggerations stem, I think, from both a failure to take the role of development, as defined above, into consideration in thinking about comparative cosmology, as well as a general misunderstanding, both of the philosophical roots of the modern scientific or mechanistic model of nature, as well as of the extent to which this model is both continuous with those it follows upon in Western history, and overlapping with those in other parts of the world with which it has long co-existed.  The contrast between the West and the Rest, in sum, has generally been overstated, even if this contrast is not one with which we should hope to dispense altogether. 

The perceived immensity of the contrast turns on an overestimation of the difference between literal and metaphorical discourse, of the difference between absolutism and relativism, and of the uniqueness of scientific rationality among ways of conceptualizing the world.  Philosophers tend to assume that these differences can be investigated without stepping back from the culture that itself considers them important. It seems to me however that if philosophers wish either to critique or to defend and promote scientific rationality, they are going to have to dare to look closely, which is to say empirically, at the sort of practices with which it supposedly contrasts.  One way of stepping back from one’s own culture and getting a broader view is that of the historian, and this is why in my view historians of philosophy are already ahead of the curve among academic philosophers.  The past is a foreign country, and historians of philosophy are the worldly cousins of the small-town yokels doing strictly systematic philosophy.  Historians of ancient philosophy and science –unlike, for the most part, historians of the early modern period– have in general been ready to look at the origins of Western thought in context with an eye to just how much what has been called ‘the Greek miracle’ in fact overlapped with other, pre-Greek, supposedly merely mythological systems of thought in other eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures. 

For G. E. R. Lloyd, to cite one prominent example of this trend, to the extent that there was a ‘Greek miracle’ at all, this was a matter of a growing concern to distinguish between the different criteria for truth in different registers of speech, with an ultimate preference for the most literal register.  Thus Aristotle criticizes earlier philosophers, most often Empedocles, for saying things that may be, as he puts it, “acceptable for the purposes of poetry,” but not strictly speaking true.   Recently, Christian Wildberg has also argued that the fragment of Anaximander that has long been held up as the very first foray into natural philosophy in Western history was in fact a bit of poorly paraphrased poetry, referenced by Simplicius centuries after it was written.  That is, a supposed early attempt to explain the world as it actually is was in fact just another description of it, familiar from countless native traditions, in captivating, subjective images.  Eventually, anyway, at least one important component of the modern Scientific Revolution was already in place in ancient Greece: the distinction between literal and metaphorical claims, and the valorization of the former at the expense of the latter.  The former have the final say, whereas the latter are at best of use in certain local, circumscribed contexts.  In fact, it appears every culture makes some sort of distinction between different registers of speech that roughly maps onto this one; that of the Eastern James Bay Cree, for example, is between aatiyuuhkhaan and tipaachimunn, or myth and ‘tidings’, respectively.  But what appears to be novel in the Greek case is the exclusive identification of truth with the latter sort of speech.  That is, what Ernest Gellner called ‘the world of regular, morally neutral, magically unmanipulable fact’ came to be the only world to which true utterances pertained, while any other sort of utterance had to be either translated (demetaphorized), or discarded. 

The Scientific Revolution of the 17th century one-upped Aristotle by in turn denouncing many of his preferred descriptions of the world as mere poetry.  Thus Robert Boyle insisted in the 1660s that nature could not abhor a vacuum, since nature is not a person and so can’t abhor anything.  Yet not long after the minimalist program of mechanism was put into place, it started to come clear that perfect description of the natural world in terms of the mass, figure, and motion of fundamental particles was a pipe dream, and correlatively that there could be no description without some degree of what Aristotle would have wanted to relegate to poetry.  In such projects as botanical taxonomy, it was quickly recognized that grouping principles must be to some extent arbitrary, that is, based on morphological features of interest to us, rather than on some hidden affinities. It was just such hidden affinities that the new science had insisted on eradicating, so the only choice was either to stop describing nature altogether (at least beyond the level of the motion of particles– which may be the truest account but is seldom the most interesting one), or to acknowledge a degree of arbitrariness. 

Of course, none of this is news to philosophers. Yet they have been all too reluctant, in light of this old news, to turn their attention to the empirical data as to how different cultural groups throughout the world go about arbitrarily carving that world up, in the hopes of arriving at some understanding of the universal parameters of all possible world-carvings. Philosophers, unlike anthropologists, remain too committed to the Greek miracle to be able to allow such evidence to interest to them.  In my own work on the intersection of philosophy with the experimental life sciences in the 16th and 17th centuries, I have been intent to show the way in which cultural and historical context imposed limits on the range of philosophical positions taken up in the early modern period, and also to show how folk-scientific beliefs continued to play a role in the most refined philosophical and scientific debates about such questions as the nature of animal generation and fetal development.  Let me expand a little bit on this latter example.

Throughout his career Descartes complained of his embryological efforts that he was unable to produce a comprehensive treatise because it is a subject that simply will not permit him to treat it “in the manner of the rest,” that is, in terms of the size, figure, and motion of particles.   Yet he held boldly to the possibility of someday explaining embryogenesis in just this way:  “I expect some will say disdainfully,” he writes “that it is ridiculous to attribute such an important phenomenon as human procreation to such minor causes.  But what greater causes could be required than the eternal laws of nature?  Do we need the direct intervention of a mind?  What mind?  God himself?  Why then are monsters born?”  Descartes’ commitment to embryology by minor causes was indeed widely disdained.  Thus John Ray writes in his Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of His Creation of 1692 that generation “is so admirable and unaccountable, that neither the Atheists nor Mechanick Philosophers have attempted to declare the manner and process of it; but have (as I noted before) very cautiously and prudently broke off their Systems of Natural Philosophy here, and left this Point untoucht; and those Accounts which some of them have attempted to give of the Formation of a few of the Parts, are so excessively absurd and ridiculous, that they need no other Confutation than ha, ha, he.”

We may be able to better appreciate Ray’s dismay by briefly considering the Cartesian embryological program from an anthropological perspective.  Maurice Godelier, in his recent Metamorphoses of Kinship, argues that there is no traditional culture, anywhere, that believes that a man and a woman are sufficient to produce a child. At some point, whether before conception or during gestation, a supernatural force must intervene in the natural process in order to obtain distinctly human offspring.  To cite one of many possible examples from the Christian tradition, in the 12th century Hildegard von Bingen describes the ‘quickening’ of the human fetus on the fortieth day after conception as follows:  “[The fetus is] the complete form of a man which, by the secret decree and hidden will of God, receives the spirit while in the mother’s womb, at the instant justly chosen by God, when there appears a sphere of fire, which has no resemblance to any trait of the human body, and which takes possession of the heart of this form.”

Whether it is a gift of God or a gift of the gods, Godelier argues, a human child’s parents are never capable on their own, through the mere contribution of their respective bodily fluids, of producing a human child.  As Descartes puts it: insofar as I am a thinking thing, I am not my parents’ child.  Among the Baruya of New Guinea for example, the life principle of the group must be passed on through the transmission of semen from older males to newly pubescent ones (through ritualized homosexual fellatio), and when the semen is ultimately transmitted to the Baruya woman it is not just a fluid coming from the father, but indeed a principle produced and sustained by the society as a whole, which in turn can only be explained in relation to the cosmos as a whole.  A hard-nosed analysis could not fail to note that Descartes’s invocation of the immaterial soul transmitted by a Christian God in his account of human reproduction is no less a retreat into the domain of myth, peopled, as Godelier puts it, by invisible entities. 

In this connection, beyond an approach to the history of philosophy that emphasizes the context of discovery, as many already renegade specialists in the history of philosophy now recommend, it may also be fruitful to approach the history of philosophy from the perspective of comparative ethnography. Such an approach would not, of course, be totally new.  Wittgenstein famously took an interest in the difference between life-worlds that made possible claims such as that of the Sudanese Nuer that “twins are birds.”  His interest resulted in a cross-pollination from philosophy to anthropology in the work of Clifford Geertz and others.  Nonetheless, even though a sort of Wittgensteinianism is nearly orthodoxy in much academic philosophy today, today’s academic philosophers, unlike Wittgenstein, almost certainly have nothing to say about Nuer cosmology.  For Wittgenstein as for anthropologists, the interesting task was never to refute the Nuer claim that twins are birds, but rather to seek to understand the conditions under which such a claim could be found compelling.  And it is, I think, exactly in such a spirit that one must approach the claims of the Western scientific as well as pre-scientific philosophical tradition, such as the Anaxagorean doctrine that “the semen is a drop of the brain,” the Aristotelian view that “the sun and man generate man,” or Descartes’ argument that human bodies come into being through “minor causes” alone, while human souls are implanted directly and supernaturally by God. 

Barbara Duden has argued provocatively that, prior to the era of anatomical study, and even perhaps prior to the era of radiography and ultrasound, the fetus belonged to the same class of entities as, e.g., spirits, creatures of legend, and the dead.  It was, that is, invisible, and not part of the world of ‘regular, morally neutral, magically unmanipulable facts’, and hence its subjection to countless superstitious and natural-magical practices.  Here we see that what counts as an invisible entity is not always clear; it is a shifting category.  Nature spirits, creatures of legend, the dead, are on the list of things that, generally speaking, are admitted by traditional societies and excluded by science. 

Claims such as “twins are birds” tend to appear as meaningful only when a broader cosmological context of entities both within and without empirical nature is taken into consideration.  When Colin Scott sums up the James Bay Cree world-view as “a cosmology of generalized sentience, communication, and response,” he sees these relations as encompassing both the entities familiar to the everyday empirical world, and those that lie beyond it.  These relations were once central to the Western tradition, too, in the form of teleology, sympathy, and natural magic, respectively: precisely the three ingredients of Renaissance natural philosophy sought to expurgate in the Scientific Revolution.  It was over the course of the 17th century that belief in nonmechanical links between things in the world –and indeed beyond the world as commonly understood today– came to be seen as superstitious, and it was not until the mid-20th century that philosophers started to see that their modern forebears may have been a bit too hasty.  Thus Wittgenstein’s judgment that Frazer is mistaken to hold that magical rites are “mistakes.”  What counts as a magical rite at all can only be determined against the background of the whole body of knowledge in a culture.  Presumably, the more ultrasound machines there are, the fewer magical potions will be brewed for pregnant women; yet in the absence of such machines, different criteria of rationality must be brought to bear.  This much was obvious to Wittgenstein, yet somehow never really took hold in philosophy departments, even avowedly Wittgensteinian ones. 

At stake is whether there is one standard of rationality –that of exclusive devotion to the neutral, magically unmanipulable fact– and whether this has been, historically, the exclusive mark of cultures that trace themselves back to Greece.  Aristotle, as I’ve said, wanted to replace all aatiyuuhkhaan with tipaachimunn.  Yet he also argued at times for the superiority of poetic truth to historical truth, of Homer to Herodotus.  Thus in the Poetics he says that the historian –the person who collects ‘tidings’– deals only with what is the case, whereas the poet deals with the entire range of the possible.  Aristotle thus seems suspended between the view that myth or poetry contains the more profound truth, and the view that only ‘tidings’ are the sort of speech that can be said to bear truth.  It is in this connection interesting to note that younger more acculturated Cree distinguish between myth and tidings in terms of truth-value, while the more traditional elders refuse to do so.  Scott emphasizes the ‘ecological efficacy’ of myth and ritual, and cites one interviewee who notes that aatiyuuhkhaan “teaches a lesson… often occurs to a hunter.”  It seems that both this Cree hunter and the Aristotle of the Poetics recognize that there is something, if not more true, then at least more interesting than the neutral, unmanipulable fact invoked by Gellner.  And it is interesting not just because it is pleasing to the imagination, or lets one lazily fantasize about supernatural entities, but because it instructs one as to how to act.

It may be that such instruction is felt to be needed principally in the absence of scientific knowledge –again, the more ultrasounds, the fewer magical potions– but this does not necessarily mean that it functions merely as a locum tenens until something better comes along.  I suspect that the two always coexist –concrete empirical facts on the one hand, and on the other rituals that would make no prima facie sense to an outsider– and that if one wants to understand a culture one has to look into the way in which they coexist.  This goes for the culture that happened to produce academic philosophy departments as much as for the hunter-gatherers.   I also suspect that academic philosophy will continue to misunderstand itself for as long as it continues to exaggerate the distance of the brains that produce it from the brains that have spun out the cultural forms of interest to anthropologists. 

(For precise references for works cited, please contact the author.)

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