Anthropology and Philosophy I


In the coming couple of weeks, I will be presenting a series of posts on the fundamental, yet very complicated, relationship between Anthropology and Philosophy. The relationship between these two disciplines–one with quite a young intellectual and political history and the other quite ancient–is important. It’s important in part because Anthropology has good reason to depend on Philosophy. It is Philosophy that has established key premises about knowing ourselves and the world. And especially in cultural anthropology and anthropological archaeology, we grapple with major themes of 19th and 20th century philosophical inquiry: meaning, the nature of power and agency in society, and the materiality of being. At the same time, Anthropology’s influence on Philosophy has been fitful but occasionally significant. This is especially the case where the ethnographic documentation of cultural and linguistic diversity has informed arguments about symbolic communication, ethical judgment, and behaviors as embodied practices. The interdisciplinary relationship is complex and sometimes difficult, though. Anthropological observation and analysis has historically needed philosophy more than the other way around. And as the later 20th Century was a period of academic disciplinary specialization–often cascading into fragmentation–much research and writing in these respective disciplines tackled virtually the same phenomena, labeling them with different terms. In short, the later 20th Century intellectual fragmentation that has occurred within Anthropology has also made tenuous and haphazard those connections between Anthropology and Philosophy. And with a deep interest and abiding hope for a “biocultural synthesis” within Anthropology–a consensus-seeking point of departure that views ethnological approaches to symbolic structures, practice, and power as complementary with multi-scalar models of change in biological systems–I suggest that we could benefit from an honest and careful consideration of what each discipline has–and continues–to offer the other. Such a consideration can illuminate new, more effective and relevant ways of inquiring and understanding ourselves and the world.

The next post will deal with general problems and approaches to causality: why do things exist, happen, change … why do we care … and assuming there’s a compelling case for caring about “why questions,” how do we go about defining and answering interesting ones? This post is important, in part because it draws Classical philosophical concepts and arguments from the beginning. How should we consider Aristotle’s discussions of cause, form, chance, necessity, and system? I will compare Aristotle’s quite static or equilibrium paradigm for why things and events are and occur with the more dynamic, fluid view of modern systems approaches, informed as they are not only by mathematics, but also by interdisciplinary inquiry, from biology to economics and physics. This approach underscores key modern scientific insights into complex systems that often show unpredictable, often stochastically behaving patterns over time. In turn, the dynamic systems conceptual foundation allows us to look very critically at approaches to causality in biological anthropology as well as cultural anthropology and archaeology. The non-nested hierarchical dynamic system constitutes a profoundly powerful conceptual tool for analysis, comparison, and explanation of what seem to be incommensurate observational frameworks and phenomena that have hindered biocultural synthesis in Anthropology for decades.

Please do not hesitate to e-mail me with thoughts or questions about this broad but important topic.