Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

The great Clifford Geertz died this week at 80. Geertz has been an inspiration for me. His lucid writing and rigorous scholarship are both less common than they should be in academia today. Geertz is most known for The Interpretation of Cultures, but I particularly like Available Light.

Although it sounds more jargon-y than his other terms, his idea of "anti-anti-relativism", is very important, I think.

A scholar can hardly be better employed than in destroying a fear. The one I want to go after is cultural relativism. Not the thing itself, which I think merely there, like Transylvania, but the dread of it, which I think unfounded. It is unfounded because the moral and intellectual consequences that are commonly supposed to flow from relativism—subjectivism, nihilism, incoherence, Machiavellianism, ethical idiocy, esthetic blindness, and so on—do not in fact do so and the promised rewards of escaping its clutches, mostly having to do with pasteurized knowledge, are illusory.

To be more specific, I want not to defend relativism, which is a drained term anyway, yesterday's battle cry, but to attack anti-relativism, which seems to me broadly on the rise and to represent a streamlined version of an antique mistake. Whatever cultural relativism may be or originally have been (and there is not one of its critics in a hundred who has got that right), it serves these days largely as a specter to scare us away from certain ways of thinking and toward others. And, as the ways of thinking away from which we are being driven seem to me to be more cogent than those toward which we are being propelled, and to lie at the heart of the anthropological heritage, I would like to do something about this. Casting out demons is a praxis we should practice as well as study.

In this age when cultural relatavism has so much power, Geertz's message is crucial.

Oddly, I blogged about Geertz the very first day I blogged.

Other links: WP obit; Two minutes on YouTube; Jeff W; Savage Minds (includes audio and video); Prod & Ponder; Concurring Opinions; Post-PhD Blues; Rakesh Khurana.

Previous: Pierre Vidal-Naquet; Brian Morris on academics and scholars; Les Back on the identitarian politics of multiculturalism; Whales, native Americans, environmentalists and cultural relativism.


Hello Bob!!,

I've got to your blog when trying to find out on the net whether Clifford Geertz is Jewish or not (it's something I need to know for my dissertation). I haven't been able to trace this so far, could you please help me with it? I'll have a look at this post again in case you post it. Thanks a lot.
bob said…
Well, I don't think so, coz I think I'd know if he was. Geertz is a common NE European Christian name (Germany, Denmark, Holland), and there have been Geertzs in the US deep into the 19th century. I think that the tz at the end indicates the origin of the surname was a patronymic (i.e. father was called Geer); surnames were not widely used in that part of the world until the Napoleonic period.

For more of BobFromBrockley's Jew/not a Jew service, go here .
Cristina said…
Hmm... Well you never know. There has certainly been much change in names and surnames surrounding the Jewish world. I guess that info would be out there somewhere if he was Jewish (it's something that for some reason comes out relatively easily). Anyway, I'll keep on searching. Thanks a lot for your help! :)
Oh, and nice blog, by the way!
I think you're right, he was an inspiration for to many persons in the Academia. I've been reading some essays about him, and they're amazing, actually we can share some information about Clifford, because he said, the relativism suggests that our own cognitive bias prevents us from observing something objectively with our own senses, and notational bias will apply to whatever we can allegedly measure without using our senses.

Waterloo Sunset said…
Damn, that is some impressive spamming software.

We need somebody to get in an argument with it...

Does anybody have Mikey Ezra's email address? :D
bob said…
Indeed! I will leave it there as a monument to the ingenuity of the spam machine. Still, always good to be told I'm right by Buy Generic Viagra...
bob said…
And very impressive that you spotted it WS!

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