September 7, 2011

What Is Anthropology? Notes On My Incomplete, Provisional Answer

It has often and confidently been asserted, that man's origin can never be known. Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. - Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences. - Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)

The task of the anthropologist is to get as near as possible to what actually happens, but to place it and to think about it in a context of humanity in general. - Meyer Fortes (1906-1983), Introduction to the Segmentary Lineage System Reconsidered

We're getting closer to our nature. - Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

What is Anthropology?
A basic definition of anthropology.

Brand Anthropology:  New and Improved, With Extra Diversity! by Greg Downey, Neuroanthropology:  Understanding the Encultured Brain and Body, January 28, 2011:  "Anthropologists need to invest more in getting our version of what we do before the public eye rather than let ourselves be defined by others. If we look closer, what we find in a lot of the critiques are caricatures of us put forward by other people: indigenous ‘advocates’ who attack anthropologists, cultural studies scholars who try to make game of us, and the out-of-touch who assume that, if they don’t know what’s happening, there must not be anything happening in our field.  We often don’t take strong stands against these caricatures, or we take nuanced opposition to them that doesn’t do much to abate the more powerful rhetorical thrust of the criticism."

Anthropology and Publicity by Daniel Lende, Neuroanthropology, December 30, 2010:  "To have a public voice, anthropologists must respond to public debates. We have to engage what people are talking about, and make ourselves part of that conversation."


A basic definition of "culture," the core concept of anthropology.

Philosophical Anthropology

Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in philosophical propositions, but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries. - Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. - Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography
The routine of custom tends to deaden even scientific inquiry; it stands in the way of discovery and of the active scientific worker. For discovery and inquiry are synonymous as an occupation. Science is a pursuit, not a coming into possession of the immutable; new theories as points of view are more prized than discoveries that quantitatively increase the store on hand. - John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy
I wanted to find some intellectual or aesthetic framework that would let me--in a thrilling phrase I came across in Yeats--"hold reality and justice in a single vision."...I wanted a way to be both an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity--a nerdy recluse and a fighter for justice. - Richard Rorty, Trotsky and the Wild Orchids
In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.' I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms. - Stephen Jay Gould, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes
The theory of knowledge which I wish to propose is a largely Darwinian theory of the growth of knowledge. From the amoeba to Einstein, the growth of knowledge is always the same: we try to solve our problems, and to obtain, by a process of elimination, something approaching adequacy in our tentative solutions. - Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach
Religion is still parasitic in the interstices of our knowledge which have not yet been filled. Like bed-bugs in the cracks of walls and furniture, miracles lurk in the lacunae of science. The scientist plasters up these cracks in our knowledge; the more militant Rationalist swats the bugs in the open. Both have their proper sphere and they should realize that they are allies. - John Haldane, Science and Life: Essays of a Rationalist
I am too much of a sceptic to deny the possibility of anything. - Thomas Huxley, Life and Letters


A basic definition.

Australopithecus afarensis
3.9-2.9 million years ago
Model reconstruction of a human ancestor based on fossil bone analysis.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons


The Anthropology of Morality - How Should We Behave?

"The principle, the fundamental proposition on whose contents all moral philosphers are really agreed - neminem laede, immo omnes, quantum potes, juva (Hurt no one; rather, help all as much as you can.) - that is really the proposition for which all moralists endeavor to find the rational foundation ... the real basis of ethics for which one has been looking for thousands of years as for the philosopher's stone." - Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), German philosopher (quoted in Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil:  A Philosophy for the Future)

Here's my take on "real basis of ethics" Schopenhauer refers to:  Secular Truth And Morality: Being Virtuous, Happy And At Peace Without God And Religion

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