Rorty and Geertz on ethnocentrism

by Dave Maier

If someone accuses you of “ethnocentrism,” they’re probably saying that you come off as arrogant or dogmatic in rejecting other cultures’ practices as illegitimate or inferior. Richard Rorty, however, applies that term to himself, and indeed takes it to be a central part of his own view. Since he’s not, I take it, thereby confessing to arrogance or dogmatism, he must be using the term idiosyncratically. Even so, Rorty’s conception has drawn criticism not only from the usual suspects but also from perhaps the most prominent critic of “ethnocentrism” in its usual sense: anthropologist Clifford Geertz, a thinker with whom, given their shared liberalism (generally speaking), as well as their shared intellectual inheritance from Wittgenstein, we might expect Rorty to agree.

Photo credit: Steve Pyke

So what’s going on here? As noted, Rorty’s ethnocentrism (I’m going to stop putting the word in quotes now) plays a central role in his philosophy. In particular, he tells us, it’s the conceptual link between his “antirepresentationalist” view of inquiry, on the one hand, and his (somewhat self-mockingly dubbed) “postmodern bourgeois liberalism” on the other:

“[A]n antirepresentationalist view of inquiry leaves one without a skyhook with which to escape from the ethnocentrism produced by acculturation, but […] the liberal culture of recent times has found a strategy for avoiding the disadvantage of ethnocentrism. This is to be open to encounters with other actual and possible cultures, and to make this openness central to its self-image. This culture is an ethnos which prides itself on its suspicion of ethnocentrism – on its ability to increase the freedom and openness of encounters, rather than on its possession of truth.” (Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, p. 2)

That Rorty’s ethnocentrism isn’t just some free-floating doctrine (which shouldn’t be surprising, given his lack of interest in coming up with philosophical theories which (simply) “get reality right”) means two things. First, we’ll need to see what it’s doing in order to see what it is. Second, we won’t be able to dislodge it and replace it with something better unless our suggested replacement isn’t simply a better explanation of, say, belief and inquiry, but also fits just as well with the rest of what we say as Rorty’s ethnocentrism does with the rest of his thought. This may require giving up some of those other things as well – for better or worse. (Was anyone actually happy with “postmodern bourgeois liberalism”?)

In any case, it is perhaps surprising – not to mention confusing – that there are so many distinct views jockeying for position here, differentiated not simply by their content but also by the various possible and actual attitudes toward their perceived consequences: resignation, celebration, alarm. This post will try to get them straight, and also to see how the latter ones result from different ways of rejecting the earlier ones, which are (now not surprisingly) somewhat more simplistic in comparison.

1. Absolutism

This is clearly a form of ethnocentrism: one’s own is the best or correct culture, and (unlike other cultures) has the (correct) philosophical grounding to prove it. This view has the virtue of making cross-cultural judgment (moral or otherwise) straightforwardly intelligible, theoretically speaking, and it is a natural reaction to the head-scratchingly divergent practices of Those Other People – at least when they are safely distant from us. This is especially true if we used to be Like That in some way, but then we discovered Reason or Science or some other thing which made us #1. As the reference to philosophical grounding suggests, though, this cannot be Rorty’s own version of ethnocentrism. (It remains to be seen whether that’s enough to render the latter acceptable.) What Rorty and Geertz agree that we should not allow, lest we get stuck in the endless oscillation between absolutism and relativism, is absolutism’s traditional claim that it alone provides a conceptual basis for cross-cultural judgment, and thus that to reject relativism is ipso facto to be an absolutist and vice versa.

2. Relativism

There are a number of different versions of cultural relativism, but just as in other contexts, as noted, relativism is a recoil from absolutism (and vice versa). Ours can’t be the “correct” culture because all cultures are on a par: none can criticize any of the others, because the purported philosophical grounding for criticism is suspect at best, and in fact – say the relativists themselves, anyway – we have philosophical grounding for relativism too. One can be led to relativism either by thinking of cultural diversity in abstraction (where we deal only with Culture A and Culture B rather than actual living cultures), or by seeing one or another particular alien culture up close – close enough, that is, to see both the similarity in difference and the sheer alienness either of which can reveal absolutist judgments as facile dogmatism (when they are). This is why anthropologists are often accused, rightly or wrongly, of relativism (as Geertz has been), and why “ethnocentrism” is such a bad word in that context.

These positions have the virtue of simplicity, and indeed this is as far as a lot of people get; but both Rorty and Geertz put them aside as straightforwardly unacceptable, and in fact as driving the dialectic for that very reason: as other views approach one or the other of these conceptual poles, this leads to a recoil back in the other direction. The next go-round leads to some subtler though not necessarily thereby more satisfactory attempts.

3. “Wet liberalism”

As Rorty describes this position, it is an explicit recoil from absolutism, one which, while conceptually distinct from relativism (offering, for example, no theoretical arguments for cultures’ being “on a par” – and indeed struggling with the “problem” of cross-cultural judgment rather than simply denying that such a thing is possible or even makes sense), tends to spiral down toward same as if passing beyond the event horizon of a black hole. When such people find themselves making (*gasp*) invidious judgments (usually moral) about other cultures, they worry that they are acting just as those horrible dogmatic absolutists do, and look for a way to pull back. When we do this, as Rorty puts it (he likes to use the first person plural), “[w]e begin to lose any capacity for moral indignation, any capacity to feel contempt. Our sense of selfhood dissolves. We can no longer feel pride in being bourgeois liberals [that is, the “dry” kind], in being part of a great tradition, a citizen of no mean culture. We have become so open-minded that our brains have fallen out.” And at this point, we are in danger of being crushed by the massive gravitational field of the relativistic singularity.

Recoiling from this position (and of course somehow avoiding the absolutist singularity at the other end) is the intent of Rorty’s version of ethnocentrism, which in this context (i.e. contra Geertz’s gripe) he also calls “anti-anti-ethnocentrism” – a nod to Geertz’s attempt to thread his own needle in his famous article “Anti Anti-relativism”.

That’s next; but first let me address a natural objection. One might wonder about Rorty’s worry that wet liberals “lose the capacity for moral indignation,” given that they often tend to seem pretty indignant about what they regard as morally unacceptable absolutist condemnation of mere otherness. That’s not inherent to the position though, which, while indeed struggling to resolve two opposed urges, is not, as this objection suggests, simply flatly hypocritical – just as the moral dogmatism of individual absolutists need not refute that theoretical position either.

4. Rortyan ethnocentrism

Geertz’s article “The Uses of Diversity” criticizes both Rorty and Claude Levi-Strauss for similarly ethnocentric tendencies, as manifested in a recoil from wet liberalism (although of course Levi-Strauss doesn’t call it that), so some of his locutions come from his discussion of the latter thinker; still, the main point remains the same. Even if it manages to keep its distance from the absolutist variety, this kind of ethnocentrism makes cross-cultural understanding that much more difficult if not impossible. Not only that, the very forces which make judgment necessary – and wet liberalism (or “the desperate tolerance of UNESCO cosmopolitanism,” as Geertz calls it) too close to relativism to be any help, thus making ethnocentrism seem newly attractive – make even more essential to such judgment the nuts-and-bolts cross-cultural understanding it necessarily undermines.

Perhaps Geertz is being a bit unfair in roping these two very distinct thinkers together; we will give Rorty another shot in a minute. In any case, what bothers Geertz in both is that the unifying force of a commitment to one’s own culture, undiluted by relativistic or even wet-liberal qualms, requires – if not the full-throated condemnation of the dogmatic absolutist – a “deafness to the appeal of other values.” Indeed it is the virtuous abandonment of absolutist projects which can lead to this sort of “relax-and-enjoy-it approach to one’s imprisonment in one’s own cultural tradition.” The bone of contention here, that is, is whether such self-inflicted “deafness” really does amount to an abandonment of the hard task of understanding.

It was about here, in any case, that I started to become a bit confused. Sometimes it seems that Geertz refers indiscriminately to not only a “relax-and-enjoy-it ethnocentrism” but also an “easy tolerance” which seems more characteristic of wet liberalism than of Geertz’s more properly ethnocentric target. Which position, for example, is intended by the slogan “we are we and they are they,” or the image of enclosed railway carriages on parallel or divergent tracks? As it happens, this may not matter, as both positions seem to share what Geertz is really objecting to here: their “easy” avoidance of what is in fact, for him, an unavoidably difficult project: that of understanding, as part of the same interconnected world as oneself, the cultures one either (merely) celebrates, on the one hand, or (merely) looks to for invidious comparison, on the other.

Here’s a quotation from Geertz’s article which captures this (the insight, or one like it, is credited to Arthur Danto). Note the parallel criticisms of both objectionable positions.

It is the asymmetries … between what we believe or feel and what others do, that make it possible to locate where we are now in the world, how it feels to be there, and where we might or might not want to go. To obscure those gaps and those asymmetries by relegating them to a realm of repressible or ignorable difference, mere unlikeness, which is what ethnocentrism does and is designed to do (UNESCO universalism obscures them—Levi-Strauss is quite right about that—by denying their reality altogether), is to cut us off from such knowledge and such possibility: the possibility of quite literally, and quite thoroughly, changing our minds. [p. 78]

This criticism needs to hold, I would imagine, even if we have no intention of changing our minds, or we lose the whole point of the ethnocentric move, which is to shore up our own sense of cultural identity in the face of diversity. But let’s let Rorty have another shot.

5. Rorty’s own characterization of his ethnocentrism

This isn’t exactly another view distinct from (4), so I’m not sure it deserves a new heading, but whatever. Unlike Levi-Strauss’s view, Rorty’s “postmodern bourgeois liberalism” (or “PBL”; which, again, is not the same as “wet” liberalism – the latter is merely a danger for PBLs who are still stuck in relativism’s orbit) is not simply “ours” but includes as an essential part of it an openness to other cultures of the sort Geertz’s described target lacks. Any culture can manifest a broadly ethnocentric attitude simply by conceiving of itself as superior to others (however it may think of that judgment as “grounded”), but only PBL can be ethnocentric in Rorty’s sense. “We PBLs” commit ourselves to full participation in our own culture as opposed to others precisely in rejecting the (old-style) ethnocentrist dogmatism anathema to cosmopolitan liberals. The content of our commitment holds its potentially problematic form in check, and vice versa, thus providing the stable middle ground we were looking for.

Rorty rightly thinks many critics miss this, and much of his defense of both ethnocentrism and PBL centers on this as well as the related conceptual twist that it is the very rejection of philosophical grounding in favor of an open-ended commitment to fruitful engagement with others that plays the justificatory role that that grounding was supposed to play in the first place. As he puts it,“Anti-anti-ethnocentrism is not an attempt to change our culture, to block the windows [to other cultures, following Geertz’s image] up again. Rather, it is an attempt to cope with the phenomenon of wet liberalism by correcting our culture’s habit of giving its desire for windows a philosophical foundation.” This is unavoidably connected, as we noted at the beginning, with the epistemological anti-foundationalism of Rorty’s antirepresentationalist account of inquiry; but let’s just leave it at that for now.

I need quote no more of Rorty’s defense to show that he takes the “openness to encounters with other cultures” essential to his position to satisfy Geertz’s demand that cultures not cut themselves off from each other on pain of failure to understand. One might still object, however, that an abstract “openness” to cross-cultural engagement falls rather short of, and might still be in conflict with, actual cross-cultural understanding. Just to get a taste of what Geertz is looking for – and we really to have to leave it at that for now – let’s look at the peroration of Geertz’s plea. The world in which we now live, he thinks, is not a variety of divergent landscapes, but instead a collage, the inextricable internal interrelatedness of which necessitates a far more difficult engagement between cultural forms than vague gestures at “openness” can provide. “We must learn to grasp,” he says, “what we cannot embrace.”

It is not necessary to choose, indeed it is necessary not to choose, between cosmopolitanism without content and parochialism without tears. Neither are of use for living in a collage. […] To live in a collage one must in the first place render oneself capable of sorting out its elements, determining what they are (which usually involves determining where they come from and what they amounted to when they were there) and how, practically, they relate to one another, without at the same time blurring one’s own sense of one’s own location and one’s own identity within it. […] The difficulty in this is enormous, as it has always been. Comprehending that which is, in some manner of form, alien to us and likely to remain so, without either smoothing it over with vacant murmurs of common humanity, disarming it with to-each-his-own indifferentism, or dismissing it as charming, lovely even, but inconsequent, is a skill we have arduously to learn[.] (Available Light, p. 87)