Robert Pirsig’s critique of anthropology

In Robert Pirsig‘s book, Lila (1991), the main character – a thinly veiled author alter ego named Phædrus – tries to write a book about the influence of native American values on broad American culture. Inspired by an anthropologist colleague at the university in Montana where he used to teach, Phædrus seeks to frame the book within the field of anthropology.

Yet he is stopped in his tracks when he realizes that “the whole field of anthropology was rigged and stacked in such a way that everything he had to say about Indians would be totally unacceptable.”

Phædrus imagined that the professionals’ refutation of his book would go something like this:

A thesis of this sort is colorful and interesting but it cannot be considered useful to anthropology without empirical support. Anthropology tries to be a science of man, not a collection of gossip and intuitions about man. It is not anthropology when someone with no training or experience spends one night on a reservation in a teepee full of Indians taking a hallucinogenic drug.

To pretend he has discovered something that hundreds of carefully trained methodical workers who have spent a lifetime in the field have missed, exhibits a certain ‘overconfidence’ that the discipline of anthropology tries to restrain.

It should be mentioned that such theses are not at all unusual in anthropology. In fact, during the early history of anthropology, they dominated the field. It was not until the beginning of this century, when Franz Boas and his co-workers started to ask seriously, ‘Which of this material is science and which is not?’ that speculative intuitive rubbish unsupported by any real facts was methodically weeded out of the field.

Every anthropologist at one time or another arrives at speculative theses about the cultures that he studies. It is part of the fascination that keeps him interested in the field. But every anthropologist is trained to keep these theses to himself until he is sure, from a study of actual facts and proofs, that he knows what he talking about.

Phædrus concludes that this state of affairs was brought about with the German mathematician and physicist Franz Boas’ superimposing of the criteria of the physical sciences upon cultural anthropology. In this way, Boas could show that not only were the theories of the so-called armchair anthropologists unsupported by science but that any anthropological theory was unsupported by science since it could not be proved by the rigorous methods of Boas’ own field of physics.

From this, Phædrus launches into a long critique of anthropological theory:

Patterns of culture do not operate in accordance with the laws of physics. How are you going to prove in terms of the laws of physics that a certain attitude exists within a culture? What is an attitude in terms of the laws of molecular interaction? What is a cultural value? How are you going to show scientifically that a certain culture has certain values?

You can’t.

Science has no values. Not officially. The whole field of anthropology was rigged and stacked so that nobody could prove anything of a general nature about anybody. No matter what you said, it could be shot down any time by any damn fool on the basis that it wasn’t scientific.
What theory existed was marked by bitter quarrels over differences that were not anthropological at all. They were almost never quarrels about accuracy of observation. They were quarrels about abstract meanings. It seemed almost as though the moment anyone said anything theoretical it was a signal for the commencement of an enormous dog fight over differences that could not be resolved with any amount of anthropological information.

The whole field seemed like a highway filled with angry drivers cursing each other and telling each other they didn’t know how to drive when the real trouble was the highway itself. The highway had been laid down as the scientific objective study of man in a manner that paralleled the physical sciences. The trouble was that man isn’t suited to this kind of scientific objective study. Objects of scientific study are supposed to hold still. They’re supposed to follow the laws of cause and effect in such a way that a given cause will always have a given effect, over and over again. Man doesn’t do this. Not even savages.

The result has been theoretical chaos.

Phædrus liked a description he read in a book called Theory in Anthropology by Robert Manners and David Kaplan of Brandeis University:

“Scattered throughout the anthropological litterature are a number of hunches, insights, hypotheses, and generalizations. They tend to remain scattered, inchoate, and unrelated to one another, so that they often get lost or are forgotten. The tendency has been for each generation of anthropologists to start afresh.

Theory building in cultural anthropology comes to resemble slash-and-burn agriculture where the natives return sporadically to old fields grown over by bush and slash and burn and plant for a few years.”

Phædrus could see the slash and burn everywhere he looked. Some anthropologists were saying a culture is the essence of anthropology. Some were saying there isn’t any such thing as a culture. Some were saying it’s all history, some said it’s all structure. Some said it’s all function. Some said it was all values. Some, following Boas’ scientific purity, said there were no values at all.

[…]

What many were trying to do, evidently, was get out of all these metaphysical quarrels by condemning all theory, by agreeing not to even talk about such theoretical reductionist things as what savages do in general. they restricted themselves to what their particular savages happened to do on Wednesday. That was scientifically safe all right – and scientifically useless.

The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote, “The very term ‘universal’ has a negative connotation in this field because it suggests the search for broad generalization that has virtually been declared unscientific by twentieth-century academic, particularistic American anthropology.”

Phædrus guessed anthropologists thought they had kept the field ‘scientifically pure’ by this method, but the purity was so constrictive it had all but strangled the field. If you can’t generalize from data there’s nothing else you can do with it either.

A science without generalization is no science at all. Imagine someone telling Einstein, “You can’t say ‘Emc2.’ It’s too general, too reductionist. We just want the facts of physics, not all this high-flown theory.”

Cuckoo. Yet that’s what they were saying in anthropology.

Data without generalization is just gossip. And as Phædrus continued on and on that seemed to be the status of what he was reading. It filled shelf after shelf with volumes after dusty volume about this savage and that savage, but as far as he could see, anthropology, the ‘science of man,’ had had almost no guiding effect on man’s activities in this scientific century.

Whacko science. They were trying to lift themselves by the bootstraps. You can’t have Box ‘A’ contain within itself Box ‘B’, which in turn contains Box ‘A’. That’s whacko. Yet here’s a ‘science’ which contains ‘man’ which contains ‘science’ which contains ‘man’ which contains ‘science’ – on and on.

[…]

That was the problem. The whole field of cultural anthropology is a house built on intellectual quicksand. As soon as you try to build the data into anything of theoretical weight it sinks and collapses. The field that one might have expected to be one of the most useful and productive of the sciences had gone under, not because the people in it were no good, or the subject was unimportant, but because the structure of scientific principles that it tries to rest on is inadequate to support it.

Certainly, Pirsig is simplifying the whole field of anthropology a good deal, and he is not taking into account the rather immense bout of epistemological insecurity that hit the whole discipline in the post-modern 1980s, which certainly meant leaving behind the ideal of selfless objectivity.

But the post modern turn within anthropology certainly didn’t help to make the discipline better at dealing with generalizations. And here Pirsig’s points certainly strikes home – at least for me. I remember starting out with anthropology and being frustrated again and again by the lack of daring in people’s conclusions. All of the hunches and novel ideas and unexpected connections were hidden away and forgotten under masses of data.

How can we get such wild ideas to the fore? How can we get a sense of daring and intuition back into anthropology and, perhaps, give it some of that guiding effect on the 21st century which it didn’t have on the 20th?

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