Selections from "The impact of the concept of Culture on the concept of Man." by Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz

"The impact of the concept of Culture on the concept of Man.".

in . Edited by . pp. . New York: Basic Books. 1973. (Initially published in 1966)


Thinking consists not of "happenings in the head" (though happenings there and elsewhere are necessary for it to occur) but of a traffic in what have been called, by G. H. Mead and others, significant symbols - words for the most part but also gestures, drawings, musical sounds, mechanical devices like clocks, or natural objects like jewels - anything, in fact, that is disengaged from its mere actuality and used to impose meaning upon experience. From the point of view of any particular individual, such symbols are largely given. He finds them already current in the community when he is born, and they remain, with some additions, subtractions, and partial alterations he may or may not have had a hand in, in circulation after he dies. While he lives he uses them, or some of them, sometimes deliberately and with care, most often spontaneously and with ease, but always with the same end in view: to put a construction upon the events through which he lives, to orient himself within "the ongoing course of experienced things," to adopt a vivid phrase of John Dewey's. (p. 45)

This, then, is the second face of our argument: 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. Culture, the accumulated totality of such patterns, is not just an ornament of human existence but - the principal basis of its specificity - an essential condition for it. (p. 45-6)

Without men, no culture, certainly; but equally, and more significantly, without culture, no men. (p. 49)

Note the word "dispositions" (to be picked up, without attribution I think, by Bourdieu--unless Bourdieu never read Geertz?)

Our ideas, our values, our acts, even our emotions, are, like our nervous system itself, cultural products - products manufactured, indeed, out of tendencies, capacities, and dispositions with which we were born, but manufactured nonetheless. (p. 50)

When seen as a set of symbolic devices for controlling behavior, extrasomatic sources of information, culture provides the link between what men are intrinsically capable of becoming and what they actually, one by one, in fact become. Becoming human is becoming individual, and we become individual under the guidance of cultural patterns, historically created systems of meaning in terms of which we give form, order, point, and direction to our lives. And the cultural patterns involved are not general but specific - not just "marriage" but a particular set of notions about what men and women are like, how spouses should treat one another, or who should properly marry whom; not just "religion" but belief in the wheel of karma, the observance of a month of fasting, or the practice of cattle sacrifice. Man is to be defined neither by his innate capacities alone, as the Enlightenment sought to do, nor by his actual behaviors alone, as much of contemporary social science seeks to do, but rather by the link between them, by the way in which the first is transformed into the second, his generic potentialities focused into his specific performances. It is in man's career, in its characteristic course, that we can discern, however dimly, his nature, and though culture is but one element in determining that course, it is hardly the least important. As culture shaped us as a single species - and is no doubt still shaping us - so too it shapes us as separate individuals. This, neither an unchanging subcultural self nor an established cross - cultural consensus, is what we really have in common. (p. 52)

To be human here is thus not to be Everyman; it is to be a particular kind of man, and of course men differ: "Other fields," the Javanese say, "other grasshoppers." Within the society, differences are recognized, too - the way a rice peasant becomes human and Javanese differs from the way a civil servant does. This is not a matter of tolerance and ethical relativism, for not all ways of being human are regarded as equally admirable by far; the way the local Chinese go about it is, for example, intensely dispraised. The point is that there are different ways; and to shift to the anthropologist's perspective now, it is in a systematic review and analysis of these - of the Plains Indian's bravura, the Hindu's obsessiveness, the Frenchman's rationalism, the Berber"s anarchism, the American's optimism (to list a series of tags I should not like to have to defend as such) - that we shall find out what it is, or can be, to be a man. (p. 53)

created on October 26, 2014