In this way, anthropology, the most humanistic of social sciences, the most comparative of humanities, could be said to make a specialism out of non-specialism. Anthropology was an interdisciplinary discipline (if not a "virtual anti-discipline" [Hart 1990:10]), and only through its exercise of an 'intellectual poaching license' (Kluckhohn), through a seeming amateurish use of all manner of information could it expect to tackle the "vast intricacies" of the worlds of human cognition, sociation, construction and interaction (Bateson 1959:296). Moreover, in a world of rapid social change and globalizing trends, an interdisciplinary 'co-operation' (Riches 1986:viii) could only become increasingly appropriate.1 Another good reason for the anthropological practice of naivety, it seems to me, is that this brings us closer to the fellow human beings we wish to understand; in the process of alternating openness and closure the investigator partakes of a spontaneity and a making of meaning, naive in its subjectivity, which is basic to the human condition. It is this process that I wish primarily to treat in my talk today: the openness and what I shall call the randomness of the human mind, and the beauty, the artistic constructions of particular, closed worlds which it gives onto. Also I treat the importance of recognising this practice of naivety, of openness and closure, as being part-and-parcel of human being and individuality, and thus as worthy of protection, as being of significant moral worth. I shall range broadly in this paper, among biological, social-scientific and political discourses, in order to sketch an openness and a randomness to the individual mind, and to argue for their appreciation as the basis of an account not only of consciousness and of our human being-in-the-world, but also a political morality for the world.
An inspiration for my talk is Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), anthropologist, hospital ethnologist, and a father of cybernetics. Bateson insisted that there were "patterns" which connected symphonies, albatrosses and ecosystems (1980:16). Albeit that such things represented different logical types, 'abductive' thinking might identify important relations between them based on the common patterning of their internal structures and processes --and so give rise to "abductive systems" (1980:158). For Bateson, such systems of common patterns would then characterise great regions of both nature and human thought, even if the systems were mere abstractions whose validation was an aesthetic matter, a question not of quantities but of quality, of appreciating certain shapes and forms, and of esteeming certain relationships.
The exercise of my talk is, after Bateson, also an abductive one. I identify certain characteristics of the mind and map out what appear to me, aesthetically speaking, to be their possible consequences. In an argument of some six parts, I move between consciousness, ethnography and political philosophy; so that when I hear from John Stuart Mill (1972:123) that,
and from Edmund Leach (1976:5) that,
and from William Shakespeare (1965:a.V, s.IV, l.110) that:
I can argue, abductively, that the
appreciation and the estimation of a certain human openness, a randomness, connects up
their different sentiments into one aesthetic pattern.
Let me begin with the nature of conscious thought. Essential to modes of thought and to genetic evolution alike, according to Bateson, is a process he called "stochasticism" (1980:29). This involves the way in which the new is plucked from the random -- from original thinking and from experiments in behaviour -- by a non-random or selective process which chooses to maintain the new, at least in part, when it appears and cause it to survive longer than other random happenings; there is a cycle, in other words, between a kind of openness and a kind of closure. From a supply of randomly appearing new ideas and randomly appearing genetic mutations, new information is made by a process of selection; natural selection chooses between different genetic pathways, while conscious selection chooses between different ideational ones. The life of the mind, the life of the genome and the gene pool are characterised alike in this way by change, and change which feeds on the random.
Indeed, the vital part played in stochasticism by a random consciousness may be underscored. There can be no ongoing evolution in thought or behaviour without experimentation pursuant upon mental openness. For Bateson, such endless ideational exploration and change is the essence of human consciousness, with potential new versions of the world always being created and, through trial-and-error, being maintained or discarded.
Moreover, the random mutations of consciousness are pro-active not responsive. They precede rather than simply respond to extraneous, environmental demands. Human individuals are what Bateson referred to as distinct "energy sources" (1973:126), possessed of their own metabolisms. Hence, their brains can be home to mutations of thought which come from nothing and pertain to nowhere; until, that is, the latter are selected to figure in those mental maps or world-views by which individuals come to know the world as an orderly and meaningful place.2
In the years since Bateson wrote, portrayals of the human nervous system and the inhuman environment as intrinsically instable phenomena conjoined by human activity, have become more widespread (cf. Prigogine 1989). In particular, the notion of the brain as a 'Darwin machine' which creates order by selecting between random ideational mutations has been elaborated upon in the work of biologist Gerald Edelman (1989, 1992).3 Edelman's "neural Darwinism" (1989:xii) suggests a highly constructive, even aesthetic, view of human consciousness.
Conventional thinking about consciousness has tended to be either instructionist or programmatic, Edelman suggests. In the instructionist account, the features of consciousness are seen as being produced in response to the environment; in the programmatic account, those features are written into a computer-like programme in the brain, posited either as in-born or learned. Programmaticist thinking allows for the brain merely to rearrange what has been put in; instructionist expects a cause-and-effect relationship between environment and human activity. But no programme of informational input could deal with the inherent changeability of the conditions of life, claims Edelman, and no cause-and-effect explanation could account for such chance developments as our having five fingers not six or four; in particular, the human genome is too small and simple possibly to account for the brain's complexity. The model which Edelman prefers, therefore, is a Darwinian one, involving a biological and a developmental rather than a mechanistic orientation.
In Darwin's theory of selection, diversity was the key: the diversity of species, the diversity of individuals. Even tiny variations between populations and organisms could affect their viability. However, these variant characteristics occurred initially by chance. The environment did not directly shape the form of living things; rather, there was favouring of the best-adapted from pre-existing variants.4 Like Darwin's, Edelman's theory stresses how there is a diversity inherent to the individual organism and generated independently of the environment and how it is changing. Edelman's further notion is that selection, on a different time-scale, also operates within the individual body. So that while gene-pools might mutate across generations, the immune system in the individual organism adapts the body (allows new antibodies to be selected for) on a timescale of hours and minutes. The brain, meanwhile, provides new ideas, to be selected for by our consciousness, in milli-seconds. Ideas originally appear randomly, independent of their usefulness, and are selected for, there and then, by an experimenting human being; possibly zillions of germs of ideas compete for space in what will become a final version of how we think the world is.
In this way, experimenting with a multitude of different ideas, and different generations of ideas, the brain figures, plans and solves problems in an environment, surmising self and world and plotting action. Variant forms of ideation cause behaviours which then interact with the environment. Some variants are found to be more successful than others and are therefore 'learned' and retained for future use. Human beings thus come to acquire complex skills through their individual activity in the world -- and without having to conceive of this as a matter of environmental determinism or hereditary pre-programming.
Indeed, since the world is not organised into neat pieces of information merely waiting for human retrieval, what the brain is doing in interacting with an environment is actually structuring its life-world. The environments in which human beings find themselves are open-ended and ambiguous, and their order, their codification into distinct, bounded and labelled things and relations, derives from human organisms engaged in acts of perceiving. Thus, far from passive receivers of information from the world, human brains are active generators and constructors of it, creating and recreating their own conditions of existence. The evolution of brains (and bodies) and their environments are dialectically conjoined, the order, or closure, of the latter originating in the former's openness.5
Finally, human brains are individual and diverse, both in terms of the brain's biological structure and the conscious experience it gives onto. "It is clear", as Edelman puts it, "that [neurologically] each individual person is like no other" (1992:171). Genes may fix the gross architecture of the brain but microstructurally our cellular wiring is soft, adaptable and undedicated.6 Cells are not assigned tasks or representations in advance, and connexions between cells (giving onto different ideas and behaviours) are matters of experiential decision. Hence, no two human brains are alike and, motivated by its own system of 'values', of what has worked successfully for it in the past, each brain reacts to the world in its own way.7 Moreover, even if these systems of values were known, it would still not be possible to prescribe that individual's future behaviour because the human imagination delivers a constancy of surprise. Through the randomness of the brain's activity, always throwing up ideational mutations, each human being, each day, imagines anew.8 Thinking, saying and doing things we have never done or said or thought before, our ideational processes cause us to be free even from our own pasts.
Consciousness is a process occurring distinctively in each
individual, Edelman concludes, dependent, in each case, on a "unique history and
embodiment" of open-mindedness (1992:139). Might not these facts then espouse a
certain morality, he ponders, each individual's consciousness being precious precisely
because of its uniqueness and its mortal embodiment? In proposing a model of consciousness
where individuality and environment are emergent and dialectically linked phenomena -- a
vision, incidentally, not that far removed from the 'philosophy of instability' recently
advocated by another Nobel-Laureate, physicist Igor Prigogine--9
Edelman questions whether the unique potential of an individual's creativity-in-the-world
might not possess an intrinsic value.
If this is the nature of our conscious being-in-the-world, or at least a viable version of it, then its social-scientific appreciation has been distinctly muted (cf. Cohen & Rapport 1995). Descriptively and methodologically, the random workings of the human mind, its openness, experimentation and closure, has been a marginal interest.
Of course, there have been exceptions. George Kelly based a theory of consciousness on a portrayal of human individuals as "incipient experimenters" (1969:144); "by disposition as well as by right", he argued, the individual could be conceived of as a proto-scientist who "enquires by confronting himself with events of his own [personal construction]" (1970:269).10 Robin Horton (1977) described the openness which he saw as characterizing the mindset of social modernity and the 'rule of science', questioning established theoretical tenets and positing contrary hypotheses in a language of argumentation and experiment.11 Finally, Kenelm Burridge claimed that in the form of "metanoia" or a 'change of mind', every individual had the potential to transcend what was normative and, opening up "a dialectic between what is and what might be" in a sociocultural environment, structure new perceptions of morality and truth (1979:76,215).12 Such thoughts, as I say, are exceptional. To the extent that questions of random individuality do enter mainstream social-scientific debate it is usually only to be relativised and critiqued.13 Nevertheless, it is this line of thought -- individuals as scientists by right and disposition, open to argument and invention, inevitably creating anew -- which rings true to me in terms of my own research. I also feel it has distinct moral and aesthetic ramifications which cannot be ignored. Let me deal with my own experience first.
Individual Mind, Part III: An Ethnography of the Random.
I want to use this brief exchange as an illustration of how the random mind is responsible for creating a meaningful human world.
Wanet is a small rural valley in hill-farming country, and Cedar High is a family farm with a dairy herd and a flock of sheep; it is home to Doris and Fred Harvey, and their children, Keith (19) and Karen (15), Jessica (12), and Craig (9). All were born in Wanet, and have in fact lived there all their lives (apart from a spell in the Navy for Fred). At present, however, the Harveys find their lives somewhat unsettled, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the process of counter-urbanisation underway in Britain, especially affecting rural beauty-spots such as Wanet, and involving an influx of (often elderly) newcomers from the city, has meant that the character, the work and age profiles of the dale are changing quite considerably and rapidly. Of Wanet's 650 inhabitants, some 200 are recent incomers who have removed here to retire or start a new life. Furthermore, Wanet has become a centre of the tourist trade, and in the summers in particular, the 200 inhabitants of Wanet village can be outnumbered by visitors: fell-walkers, campers, caravaners, pot-holers, second-home owners and day-trippers.
Secondly, the older Harvey children, Keith and Karen, will both soon be of an age to leave home and seek their own livelihoods; planning for this is proving to be a worrying procedure. And thirdly, Fred and Doris are in the process of expanding their farm, its acreage and its livestock. This has recently entailed them building a new cow-shed and grass silo, having to hire more occasional labour, and bidding for land in competition with neighbours equally keen to expand their operations (and take advantage of economies of scale). In short, uncertainties mark the relations between the Harveys and their farming neighbours, the Harveys and their new non-farming neighbours, and Fred and Doris Harvey and their adolescent children. Sometimes Doris and Fred doubt they will cope; always they engage in a testing of strategies, financial, social and parental.
This is the broad context of the above conversation. I joined the Harveys on Cedar High Farm in the early-1980s, as a live-in farm lad (an apprentice temporarily absent from college in order to learn the practice of hill-farming). When the conversation took place, I had been resident on the farm for some three months. Overall I knew the Harvey family well for some eleven months, and it is on this basis that I offer the following interpretation of their utterances. I might say too that the pattern of events which the conversation constructs was by no means unique in the life of the farm (cf. Rapport 1997a).
The main orchestrator of the event, the person responsible for its delineation and meaning, is Doris. Doris wants to make sense so as to prove to herself that the world continues to be an orderly, intelligible place, and to show her competency to her children. As adult and mother she must be knowledgeable about the local environment and be seen to be by her (respectful) children. By making sense she can hope to anticipate the future and so keep protecting herself, her children and her family farm: their reputations, their livelihoods and their relationships. In order to make sense, Doris gives the world structure. She 'makes' events, she 'makes' people, and she 'makes' connexions among these. And in order to do this, she draws up eventful scenarios, she construes events' simultaneity, she intuits the reactions of others, and she projects behaviours into the future, acting upon her anticipations.
Furthermore, I suggest that the particular events Doris construes concerning herself, her children, her farm, her Wanet neighbours and the wider world, are random, as are the connexions she draws between them. And yet, her intuitions and projections are viable ones which make perfect sense; her random constructions amount to a version of the world which viably and sensibly maintains Doris's views of herself and others, and the relationships which are significant to her.
The order of happenings is as follows. Karen offhandedly reports an odd phonecall to Doris; she had not made much sense of it or taken it too seriously. Doris, however, always feeling the need to inject more responsibility into her daughter's attitude to life, takes it seriously enough to ponder its wider significance. As she does so, Keith returns from checking farm stock in a field some miles distant which the Harveys have recently begun to rent as pasture: Paddock. Keith recounts how he again found stray sheep in the field (belonging to Ken Baines, who farms adjacent to Paddock) which he dogged for a while and punished. Doris sees the event of the phonecall and the event of the dogging as roughly simultaneous and thus connected. She intuits that Ken Baines is envious of the way that the Harveys seem to be expanding their farm and acquiring land up and down the dale to pasture their stock. Therefore, on seeing Keith's heavy-handed behaviour, Baines makes an anonymous phonecall and leaves a sarcastic message. From these two events, Doris now constructs 'a catastrophe'. This catastrophe provides an occasion to override Karen's feeling that the voice on the phone was an urban one, and also Keith's judgement that Ken Baines would not behave like this even if he did see the dogging (which he could not have). Further, the catastrophe occasions a lecturing of the children on the danger of antagonising neighbours in Wanet because so much of one's successful livelihood is bound up with their goodwill. The catastrophe affords a rehearsing of the insecurities that lie in wait beyond a solidary family and considerate neighbours.
The next day, I ask Karen if there are any developments in the saga. And she is as casual as ever in her reply:
That she is offhand shows how lightly her mother, Doris, is by now also treating the matter. Indeed, it is something of a coup, Doris later tells me, that a bank-manager, a city-slicker, phones them and leaves a jokey message about the Harvey's possible business expansions. It shows the confidence with which he regards the Harveys' business prospects, and the joking relationship he is now prepared to share with an upwardly mobile family.
In short, from random perceptions of Karen's -- half-remembering the content of a phonecall, assuming her mother would know the details by hearing the gist -- Doris constructs a scenario out of her own random perceptions -- concerning people, events, relationships, their connexions and implications -- which then becomes an object of attention of the family as a whole and takes forward that relationship in a random way. Patterns of randomness connect individual consciousness with that of the family as a whole. Finally, the perceptual denouement is tacked on randomly to prior constructions of orderly scenarios in such a way as to make them irrelevant but still leave them intact -- for possible use on future occasions.
Altogether, the incident illustrates how, in Bateson's words (1951:212): "man lives by those propositions whose validity is a function of his belief in them". Rather than any objective quality to something being true or false, what is 'the truth' in human affairs amounts to an "internal relation", a perceived fit between ideas and events (cf. Winch 1970:123). Moreover the Harvey's various truth-propositions amount to a bricolage, a variegated tapestry, of much that appears original and new; they run counter to much of what precedes them, I would argue, even in the perceptions of the same persons, and counter to others' perceptions 'at the same time' too (cf. Rapport 1986; 1993:122ff.). They are a product of Doris's and her children's imagination, ultimately of their will. And they have consequences, they make a difference to them; since Doris and her family perceive the events as real, as true, so their consequences are real and true.14
The incident may seem a trivial one, but, I argue, it is a human commonplace. I am reminded of Augustine of Hippo's more famous hearing of the child chanting "Take and read" and interpreting it as a calling by God to the Holy Scriptures. Equally, Doris's "Rent Canada" is valuable in her life and true; where 'value' lies in being able to perceive an orderly world and in having one's expectations and anticipations prove accurate, one's interpretations are consequential. There is original human agency involved in remembering the past in such a way as to connect it with present and future. In short, Doris and her children see what they desire to see, and desire to see what they do. Through the workings of the random mind, the world comes to make sense, with people, events and practical effects.
The adaptive value of the random mind and its construction and codification of the world was something to which Edelman drew our attention, and now I have been emphasising the value to Doris and the Harveys of their being able to maintain intelligent codifications of their world in Wanet. Bateson, in fact, described the process of codifying the world and of evaluating it as aspects of the same central phenomenon of human being. Both were concerned with "man plus environment", and together they amounted to an attempt to establish a desired but "otherwise improbable congruence between ideas and events" in the environment (1951:179). Bateson went so far as to posit a dialectical relation between the two processes such that what was desired was partially determinate of what was perceived, and what was perceived partially determinate of what was desired. Human action, he concluded, could be understood as a 'middle term' in which perception, value and desire met (1951:176-7).15
That such connexions exist (between human perception of what is good and true, human action and desire) can surely be dubbed a Nietzschean insight (cf. Nehamas 1985). In itself the world of human being has no essential character, Nietzsche claimed, no objectivity, no underlying structure or grammar or system of laws and regularities. With the 'death of God' as hero and author, the world can no longer be seen subject to a single, overarching interpretation --God's will or intention-- nor to an 'immaculate perception'. At the same time, the world allows for any number of interpretations to be made of it; in fact, the world must be so interpreted for sense to accrue to human life and for the world to be made livable. Each interpretation, notwithstanding, will simply be one among many, and no particular interpretation will be able to claim completeness, to account for all the world's possible 'facts'. The world "has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings" (Nietzsche 1968:481); and hence, "to all eternity chaos" (Nietzsche 1960:109).
In Nietzsche's perspectivism, two basic notions come
together: one, an individual agency which translates into an open-ended multiplicity of
versions of the world; and two, the beauty of the human freedom to create the world. As
Hervey puts it (1993:7), "an explicit aesthetic link" and a "quality of
beauty" conjoins what seem the purely 'logical' and the 'poetic'. At the centre of
this phenomenon is the individual actor, he or she who makes an arbitrary existence into a
work of art. As Nietzsche explained: "The individual is something quite new which
creates new things, something absolute; all his acts are entirely his own"
(1968:767). Possessing a discrete consciousness, the individual perforce interprets in his
own way and derives the value of his acts from himself; so that even his interpretation of
an inherited formula is personal, even his creation of his own being.16
Moreover, Nietzsche felt that since God was dead, the creative imagination, and our
conscious appreciation of it, should now come into its own. We could exult in the play of
experimentation and free ourselves from the constrictions of seeking the One Truth. We
could value the experiencing of an endless multiplicity of meanings and celebrate a
pluralism of subjective viewpoints. We could find beauty in the inexorable openness of
Let me recap. It is from the randomness of the individual mind that ideas, images and models of worldly order derive. The mind applies random ideas to an environment, valuing those which bring it rewards, and building up, maintaining and developing a world-view (or views). It is in this way that both the individual comes to consciousness and the world becomes and continues to be meaningful. Moreover, we can find value, even beauty, in our capacity to make the world orderly and meaningful; indeed, these processes of individual meaning-making are perhaps intrinsically valuable and beautiful. Finally, if the possibility of individuals' random expression and experimentation were circumscribed in some way, then the human potential always to make sense of life and find it beautiful would be threatened too.
This seems to me the key building block of a public morality founded upon openness --upon enabling individuals to reach their potentials of random creativity-- and upon eschewing all kinds of revelational, totalizing or deterministic ideology, and a priori closure. From an aesthetic appreciation of the random mind can be derived a moral perspective, and an argument concerning the ethical treatment of individual experimentation and its social nurturance; here is the random mind as possessing of moral value.
This has begun to sound Emersonian. Ralph Waldo Emerson was himself much admired by Nietzsche,17 while the American Transcendentalist was a great admirer of what he called the 'sacred integrity' of the individual mind (1950:168). For Emerson, the growth and expression of the latter, realising its potential, was beautiful per se, but in such individual authenticity there was also the value of a thoroughly democratic advance. Life amounted to a series of surprises, subjectively perceived, and the world to a procession of facts flowing outward from individual selves. Moreover, it was "the thought of genius" to recognise the value of always opening oneself up to imagination and possibility (1877:60). For, openness gave onto new hopes, thoughts, moralities, generalizations and classifications which represented "a new influx of divinity into the world" (1981:233) and a "highway of health and benefit to mankind" (1981:109). Thus, while individuals inevitably lived their own lives, the distinctiveness of each was a safeguard to all. Individual lives did not necessarily give onto everyone doing and saying great things, but the right of each to "say and do one's own things" was a sacred one; the moral status of self-governance was something that "every individual deserve[d] just by being" (Kateb 1991:188).
I find these stirring words, but let me pass over further Emersonian resonances in order briefly to introduce a liberal social philosophy with which Nietzsche might have felt more chagrined at being associated, that of Karl Popper. By juxtaposing Popper against Nietzsche, I would outline an abductive system which connects individual perspectivism with scientific reality --however naive the prospect.18 In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper argued for human life to be understood as primarily a process of solving problems (and hence making meaning) in changing environments. What such "problem-solving" entailed was conscious attempts to extend an understanding of experience by the use of creative imagination then subjected to critical control (1975:242). Whether expressed in an idiom of Art or Science, through means rational or irrational, empirical or intuitive, a constancy of experimentation engaged with the presently unknown and constructed order anew. Hence, it was the essential character of "all human thought" to be "revolutionary" (1980:396).19 What problem-solving achieved was an approach "nearer to the truth" (1980:376). Even though we may never know with certainty what was true, we could know, absolutely, what was not true: we could differentiate between competing theories and learn from mistakes. This was a process of scientific advance but also of moral improvement, for humanity could improve upon its relation to itself and its environment, and thereby hope to lessen suffering.
For Popper, the scientific and the moral best came together in a particular type of society which he called "open", and which was best represented, of late, by Western liberal democracies. An 'open society' ideally made every source of knowledge admissible --imagination, tradition, reason and observation-- while none was held to be authoritative in the estimation of future action, and none was immune from criticism.20 What characterised these societies, above all, was this attitude of 'criticism' whereby a diversity of often incompatible world-views was openly expressed and conflicting aims pursued. For when it was recognized that everything was actually open to imaginative construction, experimentation and change, any truth was expected to be partial.21
The first championing of open society, in the West, Popper located in Ancient Greece. This represented one of the "deepest revolutions" through which humankind could pass, and the means by which one may expect a growing measure of humane and enlightened life (Popper 1980:175).22 Other instances exist outside the Western tradition, according to Overing (1975); here too one may find open associations of freely experimenting individuals, respecting one another's rights within an institutional framework of mutual recognition. It was the essential pluralism of this situation, for Popper (its randomness, in my terminology), that gave not only onto freedom but also onto human dignity.23
Individual Mind, Part VI:The Morality of Randomness
What I would argue is that the (Popperian) science of an individual critical consciousness underlies the (Nietzschean) perspectivism or relativism of its artistic manifestations. In other words, there is a universal individual creativity which undergirds (explains and sources) the particularities of cultural expression. Cultures, societies, communities, the beauty and artistry of their conceptions of the world, derive from the randomness of the individual mind, its open expression and later systematisation.
Moreover, if the random mind of the individual is responsible for creating the diversity of cultural worlds, then the anthropologist has the moral responsibility to proclaim the value of the former as a prerequisite of the latter. It is the anthropological responsibility to explain that individuals make communities and create traditions: also to champion those social environments in which such individuality is recognised and respected, and to declaim against those which bury individual worth under a weight of so-called traditional or revelational or institutional knowledge and practice.
There is much in Nietzsche and Popper, however, with which anthropology as presently, conventionally, constituted might take exception. For, in reproaching itself for practices in the past which furthered the aims of imperialism, colonialism and essentialism, the discipline has tendencies today to seek expiation by way of a cultural relativism which denies the possibility of a critical or aesthetic evolutionism, and decries an universalistic morality.26
There are, of course, rogue voices. Chief among these, until recently, was that of Ernest Gellner (e.g. 1995). For Gellner, to adopt a relativistic stance wherein a ranking or evolution in kinds and ways of knowing is to be regarded as wicked, is a travesty of cultural reality and a dereliction of social responsibility. Formulating a morality beyond culture is today of overriding importance (however difficult), while inscribing a knowledge beyond culture is not only possible but probably the most basic "fact of our lives" (1993:54).
Relativistic anthropology has it that the world contains a mosaic of cultures, each with its own version of the universe and its own rights to that version, while the reality, for Gellner, is that neither such cultural equality nor such cultural autonomy, fixity or coherency exists. The reality of the world is that one form of knowledge --scientific-- possesses universal pertinence. Science represents a cognition which reaches beyond any one culture: an understanding of nature whose propositions and claims can be translated without loss of efficacy into any milieu, and a technology whose application provides a means of transforming the human condition globally. Hence, all societies endeavour to come to terms with it, even as this disrupts their traditional systems of cultural practice; either they make their peace with science or they react fundamentalistically against it. Instead of pretending that science does not exist, therefore, or denying its effects in some attempt at absolution, anthropologists, Gellner argues, should seek an answer as to how such scientific knowledge and order might be amalgamated with social and cultural multiplicity: how socio-cultural practices (of ritual and religion, of belonging and opposition, of tradition and community) can be retained as a necessary "theatre" even as civil and political process runs rather along technical and profane lines (1993:91).27
I am convinced by Gellner, in particular his distinguishing between the 'theatre' of cultural expression and the procedure of scientific knowledge. While effecting such a distinction cannot be easy or painless, it is a mistake for anthropology to deny the difference. A cognate mistake, indeed a 'travesty' and a 'dereliction', is for anthropology to describe and prescribe community --its relative cultural reality-- without admitting the universality of underlying individual consciousness and creativity; it is a mistake for anthropology to take cultural ideologies of collectivity, homogeneity, boundedness and distinctiveness at face value, and to further translate this into so-called rights of cultural difference. Anthropologists have tended to treat cultures and their communities as if they were things-in-themselves or sui generis. They have been content to generalise in terms of vulgar categorisations such as 'tribes', 'castes' and 'ethnic groups', 'social structures' and 'cultures', deriving individual identities inadequately (if at all) from supposedly deterministic ideological frameworks. Instead, anthropologists should show cultures and communities in their true light; they are neither organisms nor machines, objective structures nor 'social facts', but symbolical constructs, "worlds of meaning", which owe their continued existence to their continuing use and re-creation "in the minds of their members" (Cohen 1985:82).28 Likewise, instead of lending their advocational efforts and support to what have come to be known as 'third generation rights' --the supposed collective rights of cultures and communities to their distinct traditions and religions, to sovereignty and self-determination-- anthropologists could work towards an accommodation between such rights and the underlying rights of individuals (cf. Crawford 1988).
What can be argued is that individuals are more than their membership of and participation in cultural collectivities. For, it is individuals who make and maintain cultural worlds --remake them continuously through their random cognitions-- and it is individuals in interaction who make and maintain communities. The latter are less objectivities than the subjective realisations of those who symbolically articulate and animate them at particular times and places. Cultures and communities do not exist in themselves, do not possess their own energies, momentum or agency, and it is less than truthful and more than dangerous for anthropologists to maintain that they do --however these cultures and communities, and their members, may ideologically know themselves (cf. Rapport 1993:165ff.).29 Rhetorically, that is, cultures and communities may represent themselves --to themselves as well as to others-- as homogeneous and monolithic, as a priori, but this is an idiom only, a gesture in the direction of solidarity, boundedness and continuity. The reality is of heterogeneity and multiplicity: of cultures and communities as diverse symbolizations which exist by virtue of individuals' ongoing exchanges.
What kind of community, then, might an anthropological morality of the random individual mind point to? In a word, an open or 'voluntaristic' one (Phillips 1993:190). Attachment to a community should be seen to be a matter of individual choice not necessity or duty (an achievement not an ascription), and the existence of communities may be regarded as an expression of ongoing negotiation between individuals and not evidence of an organism choosing (and otherwise coercing) its member parts. Here is an assemblage of individual life-projects and trajectories in momentary construction of common ground.
Voluntariness amounts to anthropologists prescribing what philosopher Richard Rorty has described as 'an ironic appreciation' of cultures and communities (Rorty 1992:89-90). Individuals come first, both ontologically and morally, and all that cultures and communities contain --their traditions, customs and institutions (their 'priesthoods, secret societies, and schools' in Popper's distillation)-- depend for their continuation and their value on the voluntary, contractual adherence of individuals. Idioms and ideologies of cultural absoluteness may serve as convenient flags and badges of belonging, and may be instrumental as currencies of internal exchange, but anthropologists ought not to describe or prescribe them as anything more real, nor as having any ontological or contractual primacy.30 To the extent that cultures claim absolute legitimacy and revelational knowledge, absolute discreteness and difference from others, and to the extent that communities lay absolute claim to individual members' loyalty, thoughts, feelings and lives, these claims can only be respected and regarded ironically. To accept them unironically, whether as a culture-member or an anthropologist, is, in the words of contemporary Emersonian George Kateb, to risk the 'grotesque' (1984:351). For, absolutist claims pertain merely to what Gellner terms the 'theatre of culture', while the real science of individual consciousness, of the creativity of the individual mind, of individual rights to pursue their random potential, must be seen to undercut them.
Moreover, anthropologists should prescribe an ironic treatment of social practices and cultural ideologies such that their being grounded in individual interpretations is always kept in view. There is an anthropological duty, I would argue, to teach the reality of cultural diversity and closure in the world today. That this is, firstly, relative to a scientific universality, and secondly, derivative of individual creativity; it is individuals who remain the "anthropological concrete" (Auge 1995:111). Finally, then, anthropologists should practice an evaluation of societies and cultures according to the allowances made for individual consciousness and its open expression. This would be an appropriate way for anthropologists to contribute to an authentic 'decolonising of the human subject' (to borrow a phrase from Anthony Cohen (1994:192)).31 Certainly, under the rubric of a 'liberal' social anthropology,32 I should like to advocate a respect for individual mind as a basis for both an anthropological knowledge and a morality.
Notes and References
2. Not only do individual thoughts come from nothing and pertain to nowhere, they also consist of nothing; for ideas are not things so much as perceptions of differences between things. And yet, in our world of human being, it is these no-things --ideas-- which cause the world to become a certain sort of place. Using terms borrowed from Jung, Bateson (1973:430) differentiates between the 'pleroma', the physical world of things (where events are caused by impacts, and where there are no inherent differences or distinctions), and the 'creatura', the mental world of ideas where effects are created by the appreciation of difference. While the hard sciences may be able to content themselves with 'real causes', for the human ones, 'to be is to be perceived', and this includes the human attribution of being to the pleroma as such (1958:96). In short, not only is there a physical determinism which characterises the universe, there is also a mental determinism immanent in that universe which human beings come to view and know.
4. Darwin's schema was 'bottom-up', a host of individuals in an environment creating their own characteristics and, hence, their own opportunities for progress. A 'top-down' schema would instead see categories in nature being fixed or given: a scalae naturae.
6. While the rough contours of the brain may be naturally determined, there is a variability in the brain whereby experiences are accommodated in individual fashions; there is also individual accommodation regarding which area of brain terrain claims which experiences (and how 'time-sharing' in multiple occupancy domains is arranged). There is a further individual flexibility in the brain whereby representations of events are retained by neuronal clusters in a particular vague way; so that bad handwriting, for example, can still be recognised as a member of a certain class of events. This all amounts to an enormous complexity of 'wiring' in the brain, which the human genome is too small and simple possibly to have pre-programmed. Cf. Flanagan: with its 100 billion nerve cells, and its possible million billion connexions (each amounting to a different idea or causing a different behaviour), "the brain is a supremely well connected system of processors capable of more distinct states, by several orders of magnitude, than any system ever known" (1992:60).
7. Nor is there any necessary identity between particular events in the environment, in the brain and in the mind: the same thought in different individuals can be differently wired in the brain (and lead to different associations, different drifts of thought, different meanings) and be differently affected by the same environmental happenings.
9. According to Prigogine (1989), the inherent instability of the world is something which, in the past, has been ideologically repressed (amid various reductionist claims of determinism and materialism). However, today, talk in natural science is of unpredictability, instability, and non-equilibrium: of the co-existence of order and disorder. Moreover, what order (and disorder) exists is created through the activity of natural organisms. More precisely, after the progressive alienations of humankind from the centre of creation effected by the history of science (of Galileo, Darwin and Freud), the opposite process is now observable. Human being is again central to the fundamental nature of the universe, an important participant in the ongoing construction of the world across time. "In effect, all human and social interaction and all literature is the expression of uncertainty about the future, and of a construction of the future" (1989:398). A constructed universe is riskier than a deterministic one, Prigogine feels, since it is one of choices, of narratives, of beauty and also of ethical responsibility. Notwithstanding, a reappraisal of the creativity inherent in the world and the place of human activity within nature offers a chance for natural science and social science to forge a closer relationship.
10. For Kelly, 'science' was the defining and ubiquitous human enterprise. What was true everywhere and for everyone was the endemic use of 'as if' models to build hypotheses and so transcend the obvious. Behaviour was determined not by external forces, then, but by a system of personal constructs which acted as an ongoing set of ad hoc guidelines; these apprehended events-in-the-world in ways which were not dictated or even necessarily guided by those events (past or future) as such. The initiative, moreover, remained with the individual.
11. For Horton, less convincingly, openness and experimentation pertain to particular developmental stages of societal complexity and evolution. Hence, while frames of mind in 'traditional' and 'modern' societies may be appreciated as equally theoretical, only the socially modern can be characterised as open, with value being granted to an awareness of alternatives. (It was for this reason that 90% of all the scientists who have ever lived were alive today).
12. For Burridge, the openness and experimentation of individuality could be differentiated from the conventionality of personhood. 'Persons' were those role-players who inhabited and reproduced a given social order; they embodied cultural categories which were prescribed by tradition. 'Individuals', meanwhile, existed in spite of socio-cultural conditions and conventions and created anew. Most people, Burridge felt, were, at different moments and to differing extents, both individuals and persons; everyone had the potential --the opportunity and the capacity-- to move between the two. It was a state of mind. Crucial to the notion of the individual, for Burridge, was the new apperception of truth. We became cognizant of the truth of things-in-the-world both through deliberate and systematic investigation (scientific deduction), and through phenomenological procedures by which truth rose up into our consciousness (visions, imaginings, dreams, meditations and trance). In both cases, it was mental process and experimentation which were responsible, not the material conditions themselves.
13. For example: Kelly is criticised (e.g. Holland 1970:129-131) for privileging intentional (in order to) motives over deterministic (because) ones. This causes him to fail to distinguish between those cognitive constructs which are learned, given or imposed through socialisation (perhaps a majority) from those (special ones) individually developed; also to miss those predominant socio-psychological forces that make people kill, misunderstand and mystify one another. Horton's emphasis on the openness of science is threatened with redundancy after the seemingly trenchant debunking of latter-day histories and sociologies of science. For Kuhn, for instance, far from ranging freely and openly, science and its method operate within the constraining parameters of a paradigm socially imposed: an "entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community" (1970:175); a world of "theory, methods, and standards (1970:109). While for Schuetz (1953:37), a pre-established "perfect harmony" between the scientist's model of the environment and his method means that both are puppets, existing and acting according to his grace alone (cf. Goodman 1978:18). Burridge's claim for the universality of individuality, finally, is heavily critiqued for failing to accommodate the 'truism' that 'the individual is culturally constituted': "a fiction and an ideological construct" (Clifford 1982:185); "not a scientific category" (Davis 1996:3).
16. This was the great significance of the single creature for Nietzsche: that he or she constituted the entire phenomenon of human being (of becoming) in the course of his or her imagining, willing and desiring of the world.
18. N.B. Bateson's 'naive' claim (1973:263) that so foundational is the connexion between truth, beauty and morality that if people hold false opinions about their nature then they will be led into courses of action which are both immoral and ugly.
20. Ideally, every policy is treated as an hypothesis to be empirically tested and then corrected, every executive or administrative decision as a speculation to be subjected to rational-critical debate. Power is held for strictly limited purposes: for the maintenance of free institutions, and for intervening in social life --providing education, housing, health and so on-- so as to extend the range of individual choice. For Popper, only by recognising that nothing in life is more important than individuals, their self-respect and respect for others, may better standards, less injustice, be achieved for all.
21. It is not that the open society replaces one absolutism --religion-- with that of another --criticism. It recognises that there exists no general criterion of truth that can save humanity, and that criticism is neither infallible nor finally authoritative since it is human.
22. As Popper paints it, the distinction between such 'closed' and 'open' society seems a very stark one; nor is there any question, for him, as to which is superior. An open society which upholds equalitarian and individualistic principles, which affords every person the right and opportunity to model their life as they see fit (to the extent that this does not interfere with others'), and which encourages individual initiative and self-assertion, is the means of every advance in knowledge, reasonableness, mutuality, and chances of human survival.
23. Notwithstanding, open society has its detractors, and its strains, and always has had. For the realities of openness can be an atomistic social milieu of insecurity and change; authority and tradition are under threat from new solutions and individuals from alienation and anomy. Hence, the historical tradition running parallel to the open society --that of 'closed society'-- for those who find the price of experimentation and change too high. Reacting against the open society, all would prescribe a form of closure which arrests openness in favour of a coercive (Utopian) totalism. Popper sees ideologies of such 'tribalism' as beginning with Plato and extending through Marx to contemporary religious fundamentalisms. Here is a religious or mythic truth, owned by the society, which relations of authority, hierarchy, ritual and taboo set out to maintain. Submission to magical forces and a rigid conventionality substitute for rational attempts at human improvement, the continuation of the society and its truth being the value rather than the nurturance of the individual. Borrowing from Freud, however, in particular Civilisation and its Discontents, Popper argues that the desire to abdicate one's freedom, so as to escape the responsibility of having to make choices and decisions and of living with the consequences, represents a victory for the infantile side of human nature. Here, the critical diversity and play of individual mind are exchanged for uncritical certainties and monolithic social ends.
24. It is not clear that an alliance could not also be effected in terms of the meaning of scientific knowledge and its relation to religious and artistic ideology. Cf. Nietzsche (1994:24) on the capability of science to illuminate the world of ideas --our traditions of constructing the world-as-idea-- and "for moments at least", release us, "lift us (...) above the whole process". In fact, "the steady and arduous progress of science (...) will ultimately celebrate its greatest triumph in an ontogeny of thought".
25. Cf. Rorty's bringing together in a 'political synthesis' the private idealism of Nietzsche and the public pragmatism of John Stuart Mill, so as to equip himself with a vision of 'post-modern bourgeois liberalism' which is constituted at once by private love and by public justice (1986:534).
26. More precisely, in place of Nietzsche's Existentialism, an anthropologist might see 'interpretation', 'construction' and 'artistry' as cultural concepts of questionable universality, while the notion of society conceived of as a pluralism of sovereign subjective viewpoints to be a simplification. In place of Popper's Scientism, an anthropologist might see problem-solving as a cultural practice and claims for its universal, free-floating nature to be ethnocentric, while the classification of societies as either reactionary and tribal or successful and democratic to be a methodological and descriptive simplification.
27. Cf. Nietzsche (1994:33): religion and the arts may be "a flower of civilization" but they do not approach "the root of the world". Only through science does humankind "come to the true essence of the world and knowledge of it".
29. Cf. Rorty on the requisite confronting by the West of closed ('primitive' or 'tribal') and absolutist ideologies: "the cruelty and humiliation that paves the way for universal liberal democracy is a necessary evil, like the cruelty and humiliation involved in socialising a child" (personal communication, 4/vi/94).
31. Cf. Cohen in full: anthropologists "must make deliberate efforts to acknowledge the subtleties, inflections and varieties of individual consciousness which are concealed by the categorical masks which we have invented so adeptly. Otherwise, we will continue to deny people the right to be themselves, deny their rights to their own identities" (1994:185).
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