by Gene Callahan

I’ve been reading the anthropologist Clifford Geertz‘s book, The Interpretation of Cultures, this week. I had read a little Geertz when doing my master’s at LSE, and liked him then, and I like him even more now. For instance, Hayek, Oakeshott, Polanyi, Wittgenstein, MacIntyre and others have all noted how the Enlightenment goal of freeing reason from all allegiance to traditions, customs, habits and so on is not an ideal we should approach as closely as possible but an impossibility, and an impossibility that, if held as a goal, only creates mischief. Here is Geertz making much the same point:

‘Undirected by culture patterns — organized systems of significant symbols — man’s behavior would be virtually ungovernable, a mere chaos of pointless acts and exploding emotions, his experience virtually shapeless’ (46).

Geertz also drew on the work of some of my favorite philosophers, including Whitehead, Cassirer, and Langer.

5 thoughts on “Geertz

  1. I don’t know very much about Clifford Geertz directly but I do have a very vivid memory of some discussions about him in graduate school. One of my roommates at the time was in the Anthropology Department at Chicago. When I would complain about the mathematical method in economics and talk about Hayek, Mises and verstehen, he would tell me that Geertz was a voice similar to Mises and Hayek in anthropology.

  2. Mario, I think your roommate was correct: in the broad classification of social scientists we learned at LSE, Mises, Hayek, and Geertz are all “hermeneutic” social scientists — all concerned with interpreting the meaning an action has to the actor herself, and insistent that the action cannot be properly understood other than by taking that meaning into account.

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