This site runs best with JavaScript enabled.

The Interpretation of Cultures

by Clifford Geertz

Last tended to April 22, 2020

Geertz argues that Western, empirical science over-complicates the idea of "Human Nature" by disastrously oversimplifying it.

Many thinkers have poured many decades into books and debates and articles and arguments hacking the essential concept of mankind down to a set of simple, universal maxims - "man is selfish," "man needs god," "man is a slave his own bodily needs."

Our failure to find The One True Nature, separated from any specific culture, should be an important clue.
There is no such thing.

Much of Clause Levi-Strauss' work argued that scientific explanation does not consist (as we have been led to imag­ine) in the reduction of the complex to the simple.

Scientific advancement commonly consists in a progressive complication of what once seemed a beautifully simple set of notions but now seems an unbearably simplistic one

Whitehead once offered to the natural sciences the maxim "Seek simplicity and distrust it"; to the social sciences he might well have offered "Seek complexity and order it."

The rise of a scientific concept of culture amounted to, or at least was connected with, the overthrow of the view of "Human Nature" dominant in the Enlightenment

We have replaced it with a view that is not only more complicated, but enormously less clear. The attempt to clarify it, to reconstruct an intelligible account of what man is, has underlain scientific thinking about culture ever since. Having sought complexity and, on a scale grander than they ever imag­ined, found it, anthropologists became entangled in a tortuous effort to order it.

The Enlightenment view of man was that he was wholly of a piece with nature and shared in the general uniformity of composition which natural science, under Bacon's urging and Newton's guidance, had discovered there.

The notion that men are men under whatever guise and against whatever backdrop.

  • The great, vast variety of differences among men, in be­liefs and values, in customs and institutions, both over time and from place to place, is essentially without significance in defining his nature. It consists of mere accretions, distortions even, overlaying and obscur­ing what is truly human-the constant, the general, the universal-in man.
  • The trouble with this kind of view is that the image of a constant human nature inde­pendent of time, place, and circumstance, of studies and professions, transient fashions and temporary opinions, may be an illusion
  • What man is may be so entangled with where he is, who he is, and what he believes that it is inseparable from them
Want to share?

Join the newsletter

For weekly notes on visual thinking, ethical technology, and cultural anthropology.

Maggie Appleton © 2021