Anthropology and Philosophy II


The School of Athens (fresco by Raphael, 1510-11). Public domain image from

Anyone who’s taken time to ponder why–why are states of affairs the way they are, why did they come to be, why do we wonder about what they will become?–realizes that this is hardly a simple problem.

With characteristic clarity, Aristotle acknowledged that causality is complicated, but he asserted that it is straightforward. In Posterior Analytics (Book II, Chapter XI in Bouchier’s English translation; Aristotle 2008) he classifies causes into four categories:

To know a thing is to know its cause; and the Causes, each of which may be used as a middle term in demonstration, are (1) The substantial or Formal cause; (2) The necessary conditions of a thing, or Material cause; (3) That which gave the first impulse to a thing, or Efficient cause; (4) That for the sake of which a thing is done, or Final cause.

This is one of Aristotle’s best-known passages. It characterizes what causes a thing to be in or part of a particular state of affairs. But what does Aristotle mean by the “middle term in demonstration”?

At the beginning of the second book of Posterior Analytics (the title reminding us of an important part of scientific inquiry, having to do with knowledge gained by analyzing observations and relevant prior knowledge in light of that prior knowledge), Aristotle is especially concise and clear about what can be asked scientifically. What can be reasonably expected to be learned through observation and analysis? Aristotle says that you can learn about a thing’s existence, its cause, and its nature. And if you want to demonstrate (that is, explain with a sufficient and necessary logical argument) that a phenomenon or thing actually exists and has certain aspects to its nature–well, its causes serve as the “middle terms” that tie definitional premises about the thing in question to a conclusive affirmation about its existence and nature.

For Aristotle, deducing the causes of a phenomenon--such as why the sun sometimes gets dark during the day--involves developing abstract representations of essential qualities of things; then those abstractions can be used to evaluate apparent similarities in the nature of things that have very different scales or contexts. Abstraction further supports the construction of syllogisms to deduce predictions about the less well-known thing being compared. This is achieved by constructing syllogisms of the form: A is similar to B; A has property C; therefore B is predicted to have property C. If celestial and navigational observation suggest that the earth and heavenly bodies have properties of spheres--with the sphere being an abstract representation of a real thing with a single, continuously curved surface and a roughly similar diameter in all orientations through its center ... and if round things on earth cast shadows when illuminated from a single light source, could the darkened sun be caused by a shadow or optical occlusion phenomenon, similar to ones we observe on earth? Deductive reasoning about cause helps to support an affirmative answer.

In short, Aristotle is talking about how causal analysis helps us to establish a logically superior conceptual understanding of phenomena–that is, phenomena that are otherwise hardly comprehensible from immediate experience. For instance, whether an eclipse–defined not simply as the darkening of the moon or sun, perhaps believed based on cultural tradition to be caused by divine actions–is actually an eclipse as such, in which the earth stands directly between the moon and sun or the moon between the earth and sun for a period of time.

REASONING-ABOUT-CAUSE AS A POLITICAL ACT … or Why Do Agents Affect–and are Affected by–States of Affairs?

One big deal about Aristotle’s analytical use of causality–remember, it’s quite specifically in the service of scientifically demonstrating a phenomenon or thing’s existence–is the potential democratizing effect on access to knowledge about the world. It is a method to learn and develop individual discipline, for the purpose of differentiating knowledge claims based arbitrarily on authority versus those based on independent observation and analysis. The political implications of encouraging all of us to use logical reasoning as a lifelong tool for learning and evaluating knowledge claims should be clear. Socrates’s forthright, dramatic stand in favor of reason is an early instance of critical thinking as political resistance, something that figures more persistently–albeit in more cautious, often veiled or ambivalent expressions–in Enlightenment and early Romantic European discourse on knowledge and reason, from Descartes and Galileo to Hegel.

And here, we see something that is a fundamentally anthropological concern. How is learning and thought constituted as an embodied cultural practice–one that structures and is structured by actual, historically contingent social networks? Reasoned demonstrations of why things are the way they are … well, these are rarely private monologues. They are social acts. As such, they may reveal conflicts of interest for individuals, factions or institutions in any human social network. This is because reasoned inquiry into the causes of things serves the purpose of gaining new knowledge, new understanding. For example, the conclusion of a demonstration about a newly identified social phenomenon might suggest that prevailing relationships and interests are inefficient or unfair. Perhaps more commonly, traditionally held beliefs about cause may be shown to be logically inconsistent with scientifically well-established phenomena. Reason is always political. In fact, an even more complex aspect of the politics of reason and knowledge is that reason itself may become abstracted and represented as a social value associated with an ideology of political order, the content of which otherwise has little to do with reason. The prestige of the scientist or philosopher–or the philosopher king–may be used or abused. Here, the metonymic link between reason and its asserted social value can obscure the fact that reason takes time, cooperation, and hard work. Thus, reason as a politically valued symbol can transform an argument from reason into an ideological cover or a challenge to authority.

This is something that certainly remains outside the scope of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, but it is something that we need to apply reason to. If we do want to take responsibility for our rights in a democratic society, then:

As the ancient Greeks might say, this self-critical, recursive reasoning about reason is vital to eudaemonia, or maintaining and renewing a personal process of flourishing in our (highly social) lives. And it is one of the important–but perhaps underappreciated–contributions of later 20th Century sociocultural theory from the anthropological and sociological traditions in Europe and the United States. For sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens and cultural anthropologists like Sherry Ortner and Marshalll Sahlins, such critical and reflexive application of reason to analyzing social relationships, identities, and power involves taking a step back. It involves starting from the premise that our social lives are shaped by constant, real-time feedback between embodied experience and action. And in everyday embodied experience and action, the appropriation of “reason” (for example) as a symbolic abstraction–a metonymic allusion to a tangle of further symbols and beliefs about morality, right, and social order–is almost inevitable. At a basic level, simplified symbolic associations are so important for calibrating our social position and actions, that it takes great effort and socially institutionalized discipline to make time and space to apply proper reason to a social problem or dilemma. We are very strongly influenced by the metaphorically and metonymically connected symbolic structures that facilitate social action and judgment (of us and others). And if we want to stay in the social game and influence social states of affairs, we have to use the prevailing symbolic strategies available to us. All too often, we just don’t have time for reasoned persuasion as a relevant social strategy.

The continuous, real-time nature of experience, thought, and action structures and is structured by socially produced, systemic tangles of symbols and symbolic associations. As each of us is constantly involved in constructing our past and our memories, while also contributing socially to constructing our futures, the continuous symbolic process of social judgment and action can simply make it very hard to create time, space, institutions, and relationships to support reasoned judgment.

Thus, if we want to understand why things happen, we need to work together to develop educational strategies and structures to support open-mindedness, learning, research, and the application of reason. This gives clearer expression to what is more often referred to as critical thinking.

And here, a relevant anthropological perspective is that the very real-time, complicated practice of human social life makes it especially easy to use partial symbolic abstractions to construct attractive appeals to authority … or to construct reasonable sounding explanations, demonstrations, judgments, and calls to action. (One of my high school congressional debate teammates always began every speech I heard him make with: “There’s a difference between good sound reasons and reasons that sound good.”) A coordinated effort to foster critical thinking and open-mindedness must therefore involve a careful balance. Learning and reasoning has to involve rigorous and vigorous training, mutual criticism and self-criticism. And certainly proper rest in between such structured engagement.

And all the while, part of such a curricular approach would have to involve constructive support for avoiding slipping into using the disciplinary structure itself as a tool for control, facilitating unreasoned appeals to authority or order or convenience. Part of the curricular approach has to involve structured time to learn from such slippages. As the diagram to the left indicates, EACH OF US is involved in a complicated, embodied, continuous-time process of constructing the past and memory, even as we think, feel, and act to contribute to constructing the future.

Anthropology has a privileged position here, by virtue of its broad, interdisciplinary and cross-cultural subject matter. Yet, Anthropology has hardly made progress on the objective of improving the challenging, simultaneously communal and self-critical work of reasoning about complicated phenomena. There has been plenty of vigorous and productive high-level academic research, writing, and debate. But the scope of the problems tackled in individual debates has often been narrow, with much redundancy, as separate groups of specialists have tackled similar problems while using distinct–and socially distinguishing–terminology and intellectual references. In the process, little effort has been given to working collectively and effectively on how Anthropology’s holistic content can contribute not only to the often-too-narrow application of reason in our research, but also to the teaching and fostering of reason and critical thinking in liberal arts education in general.

Confronting the Problems with the Aristotelian Causality Framework

James Hutton's famous angular unconformity, exposed below the Jedburgh-Newcastle Road in Scotland. John Clerk's original engraving and Kevin Montgomery's 2003 photograph available from, uploaded by user David souza.

I have taken some time to go into this foundational concern about how and why we approach the problem of causality in the the first place because Anthropology’s emphasis on the continuous real-time, symbolically structured and structuring nature of social experience, judgment, and action points us toward a key contemporary philosophical issue, one that we should all care about. We need to understand why Aristotle’s view of causality–clear as it may be–only offers limited … well, significantly limited insight.

Part of this has to do with the structure and process of gaining new knowledge. A given demonstration that uses Aristotelian causality to explain why a thing exists may be especially logically tight and apparently compelling. But neither the conclusions nor even the premises are necessarily true. Only a few generations after Aristotle died, Ptolemy’s great work on the movements and distances among the heavenly bodies offered highly logical demonstrations of the spatial relationships among the Earth, Sun, and Moon. He got the part about their having spherical shapes right. But his observations were consistent with his premises and arguments about cause, leading him to conclude that the Sun revolved around the Earth…

In more recent European history, the Enlightenment scientist James Hutton correctly deduced that there must be some massive physical force, generated by a heat source from within the earth, causing land-mass uplift. Hutton saw uplift as counterbalancing the destructive natural process of erosion. Moreover, using this logically derived hypothesis (albeit one that we will see was emotionally cherished for other reasons), Hutton famously identified geological evidence supporting demonstration via causality. The well-known (to geologists and their students) angular unconformity that he identified on a Scottish hillside showed horizontally layered, normal gravity-lain sedimentary rock deposits ON TOP OF what appeared to be vertically oriented layers of rock. For Hutton, the lower vertically-layered rock component–clearly older according to the law of stratigraphic superposition–could be explained by some ancient physical episode of continental uplift, fracturing, and tilt. After this period of uplift, a period of erosion likely occurred, smoothing out the exposed, tilted, and now naturally cross-sectioned rock layers. And after this period of erosion, there was a period of deposition again, forming the more recent layers of sedimentary rock. In the final part of the geological cycle, Hutton reasoned, a new phase of erosion formed the valley we see today, the walls of which revealed the rock layers that could be argued as evidence for his cyclical theory overall.

As Stephen Jay Gould explains–in what is my favorite Stephen Jay Gould essay, “Hutton’s Purpose” (Gould 1983)–Hutton got something very important wrong. This, despite the well-documented and explained processes of uplift that scientifically vindicate Hutton’s 18th Century intelligent guesses. (Indeed, geologists have now been able to predict and observe massive, slow-moving convection cells in the Earth’s mantel. These drive occasional upwellings of magma and swellings of large continental regions, leading to dome formation. More notably, the deep-earth convection cells drive plate tectonics, resulting in cycles of seafloor spreading, occasional collisions between the massive plates that comprise the earth’s outer crust, and subduction of one plate under another. All of these can contribute to massive uplift, volcanic activity, the kind of tilted layers that Hutton observed, and even more fundamentally, the formation of continents over 10’s or 100’s of millions of years.) So, to understand what Hutton got wrong, we have to consider a bit more that he did right. He didn’t use induction. That is, he didn’t derive his notion of uplift from his specific empirical observations on the curious hillside rock exposure, which he identified as a previously unrecognized geological phenomenon now known as an angular unconformity. Rather, he used prior logical reason to work out the hypothesis that there must be a geological process of uplift that counterbalances erosion over thousands or perhaps even millions of years. And he saw field observation as a way to test his deductions.

But where things went wrong was in his application of Aristotelian causal categories. Remember that Aristotle classified causes into Formal (or Substantial), Material (Necessary Conditions), Efficient (Initial Conditions), and Final. Hutton already knew a lot about what rock exposures in cliffs and hillsides were like (their form and substance). Close observation provided insight into much of the material and efficient cause of rock formation; sedimentary deposition and erosion were readily inferred or even observable in other contexts, so it wasn’t hard to explain a good deal of why you get rocks forming and then later on exposed by erosion. With this background knowledge, deduction allowed him to fill in a critical gap in the logical explanation. If erosion was visible everywhere, why wouldn’t the Earth’s land surface have gradually disappeared long ago? For it otherwise looked like physical conditions favored a net loss of land mass to erosion over time. Hence the hypothesized principle of uplift, which filled out the efficient cause resulting in the material phenomenon of what had been horizontally-lain sedimentary rocks tilted on their side. This certainly isn’t the kind of example that you’d want to begin with in discussing Aristotle’s causality framework in Philosophy 101. But still, it’s pretty clear. As Gould argues, things go off the rails when Hutton begins arguing about Final Cause. It becomes clear that Hutton shares with many other 18th Century Enlightenment thinkers a neoclassical assumption that nature is–by definition–a balanced system, established by divine wisdom. Thus, for Hutton, God’s creation is the Final Cause of his angular unconformity. The Divinely created machine-like Earth system is part of a balanced, cyclical, and very gradual process of creating bedrock (uplift) and soil (erosion) to support and sustain in harmony all the plants, animals, and people that God also initially created (again, back to Final and Efficient Causes).

It’s not that Hutton was wise and reasonable when it came to geology but dogmatically religious about biology. In some ways, this was an iconoclastic theological–and thus, political–view. If God had created the world in such harmonious balance, then this other eschatological stuff about final judgment, the end of the world, and messianic bliss wasn’t theologically necessary. Nor was such authoritative, centralized, old-fashioned monarchic rule. It could be reasoned that Hutton’s scientific thinking was a threat to the prevailing ideological order, to church and state alike. And here, we have two incompatible but scientifically unverifiable premises about nature: on Hutton’s Enlightenment neoclassical side, nature is assumed to be a divinely established harmonious equilibrium system, created to sustain life, possibly in balance for all eternity. On the political-religious establishment side, nature and society need to be maintained in balance–at least until the final judgment and subsequent era of messianic rule–by arguably byzantine machinations and actions across a complex, incompletely nested hierarchy of family heads, local officials, state ministers, officers, advisors, church officials and leaders, and ultimately, the Holy Ghost (this is a fascinating issue that I will take up two posts from now, addressing the political philosophical research of Giorgio Agamben and how his ideas relate to anthropological ones). The important anthropological point in considering Aristotelian causality is that any given notion of Final Cause depends on culturally structured and structuring symbols, stories, and beliefs. For Aristotle and his intellectual descendants like Hutton, Leibniz, Linnaeus, and Smith, nature is a pretty straightforward balanced system with logically explicable rules. But certainly not everyone agreed with that, neither during Aristotle’s time, nor during Hutton’s. As Gould argues, we should cherish the fact that Hutton got what we now view as the right scientific conclusion … but from faulty premises: “[A]lthough theories may be winnowed and preserved empirically, their sources are as many as people and times and traditions and cultures are varied.” Gould continues:

Final cause inspired the greatest of all geological theories, but we may use it no longer for physical objects. This creative loss is part of Darwin’s legacy, a welcome and fruitful retreat from the arrogant idea that some divine power made everything on earth to ease and inform our lives. The extent of this loss struck me recently when I read a passage from the work of Edward Blyth, a leading creationist of Darwin’s time. He wrote of the beauty and wisdom “so well exemplified in the adaptation of the ptarmigan to the mountain top, and the mountain top to the habits of the ptarmigan.” And I realized that this little line expressed the full power of what Darwin had wrought—for while we may still speak of the ptarmigan adapting to the mountain, we may no longer regard the mountain as adapted to the ptarmigan. In this loss lies all the joy and terror of our current view of life.

What Gould means with this last sentence is that modern science has gone beyond the logic and rhetoric of demonstrating–via causal arguments–that a hypothesized phenomenon exists, but in doing so, it has placed doubt and uncertainty in the backdrop of every stage of inquiry.

The boring, practical implication is that we have to use research designs in which we deduce alternative, logically incompatible hypotheses and plan observations and analyses so that we can see which of the alternatives are supported and which can be falsified. In this structured feedback process–in which we carefully winnow what principles and models and explanations are consistent with one another and available observations … and which should be tweaked, refined, or simply considered falsified and thrown out–we gain a practical system of knowledge for more completely explaining how the world works and why it is the way it is. But there’s no logical room in scientific inquiry and explanation for Final Cause. Premises about final causes, at least on the scale of teleology in large-scale systems, cannot be tested. Basically, foundational premises about final causes lead to circular reasoning about why things are the way they are, as in: Nature exhibits signs of harmonious balance because, by definition, Nature IS balance. This may have been compelling for Aristotle, Adam Smith, James Hutton …

… But there are a lot of logical reasons and supporting scientific tests to suggest that nature is not in balance. Our scientific theories are most consistent and consistently predictive when equilibria–at least within the limits of universe we can observe–are modeled as fleeting, temporarily structured eddies in a complex chaotic flow.

Moreover, however compelling this may be to individual scientists as THE TRUTH, science proceeds by falsification, leaving us with a logical room for doubt, that we have it a little wrong … or perhaps even a lot wrong. If the scientist is honest with her or himself, the logical conclusion is that we’re devoting our careers and lives to an uncertain world-view. We may FEEL sure that scientific inquiry and open-mindedness is the way to go, but we can’t logically KNOW that.

Anthropology, Ecology, and Non-Nested Hierarchical Complex Systems

… The Aristotelian view of nature, existence, and causality in science has gotten trouble from all scientific and philosophical sides over the past 100 years or so. It’s not just that Aristotle’s classical focus on balance and constancy in nature blinded him to the question of how scientific inquiry is political, and may thus require us to conceive of society’s (and then what else’s?) very essence as dynamic AND, more specifically, a non-equilibrium phenomenon. And it’s not also just that there are profound logical problems with final cause premises being untestable and thus arbitrary. It’s really that we’re not even sure how to define things as such. Where does the essential substance, form, necessary conditions, efficient causes of Thing 1 end and Thing 2 begin? On the natural science side, physics and chemistry have developed compelling theoretical concepts and observations to support the conclusion that matter and energy themselves are simply not stable types of phenomena in all situations. In evolutionary biology, Darwin’s intelligent guess about the non-equlibrium, non-constant nature of change in plant and animal populations over the generations has been ever more strongly scientifically supported. In ecology, it may be more important to understand the evolution of resilient, adaptive systems, with feedback between niche and reproducing populations that generating flows of energy and matter, which can–in turn–remain stable for decades, centuries, millennia or longer. Genomics has shown that the ecological view needs to be scaled down to DNA as a complex replicating system whose chemical behavior interacts with local niche to create stable and resilient patterns over very short, intermediate, and very long timescales, although changes in DNA-niche relationships may be chaotic and exhibit rapid periods of substantial change. And perhaps just as fundamentally, humanistic disciplines as diverse as phenomenological philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, sociology, linguistics and biocultural anthropology have shown that types and boundaries we once thought were stable are in fact constantly shifting and to some extent arbitrary. This applies just as much to awareness and consciousness as it does to individual identity over the lifetime … and to social boundaries and linguistic categories.

So how do we characterize causality in really complex systems that consist of flows of energy and matter where even the boundaries, barriers, and filters affecting flows are themselves temporary, only stable to the extent that they affect and are affected by multiple flows connecting them to multiple other barriers? The cultural anthropologist Roy Rappaport offered a tentative but insightful suggestion, which he published in 1979–a time that was still early in the interdisciplinary effort to better understand complex non-equilibrium systems in general. Rappaport (1979:169) built his dynamic, formally cybernetic systems view on earlier discussions by Gregory Bateson, stating:

[T]he world is not constructed in linear fashion. We have already discussed the circular structure of cybernetic, that is, self-correcting, systems, and it is well known that ecosystems are roughly circular in plan, with materials being cycled and recycled through the soil, the air, and organisms of many species. Moreover, the circularity of both cybernetic and ecosystemic structure blurs the distinction between cause and effect, or rather suggests to us that simple linear notions of causality, which lead us to think of actors, objects upon which they act, and the transformation of such objects, are inadequate, for purposeful behavior seldom affects only a single object, […] but usually many other objects as well, often in complex and ramifying ways. Among those being affected in unforeseen and possibly unpleasant ways may be the actor himself.

It may be suggested, however, that linear, purposeful thought is adequate to the needs of simple hunters and gatherers, and not very destructive to the ecological systems in which they live, because both the scope and power of their activities are limited. It is when linear thought comes to guide the operations of an increasingly powerful technology over domains of ever increasing scope that disruption may become inevitable.

What Rappaport suggests is that in complex dynamic systems defined by feedback back and forth between multiple boundaries, the kind of causal explanation that is most important–and that is logically best able to contribute to fruitful comparisons of different kinds of systems, in order to identify common aspects of complex systems in general–is Aristotle’s notion of formal cause. Not Final Cause … but Formal Cause. In system context–with complex feedbacks of matter, energy, and information–formal causes may be traced and their variations understood across different temporal and spatial scales.

In a fundamental way, Aristotle did grasp the most immediate core of the matter. In Book I, Chapter II of Posterior Analytics, he states, “The Cause always possesses the quality which it impresses on a subject in a higher degree than that subject; thus, that for which we love anything is dear in a higher degree than the actual object of our love.” This is an illuminating metaphor, an intimately relevant example of a non-nested hierarchical filtering relationship. We are still struggling to acknowledge, communicate about, and live with the universe as a complex, non-equilibrium system that not only encompasses but also constitutes us.


Aristotle (2008-06-18). Works of Aristotle: Includes Politics, Categories, Metaphysics, Physics, The Poetics, Athenian Constitution and more (mobi) (Kindle Locations 12542-12545). MobileReference. Kindle Edition.

Gould, Stephen Jay (2010 [1983]). Hutton’s Purpose. In Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (Kindle Locations 1247-1248). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Rappaport, R. A. (1979). Ecology, Meaning, and Religion. North Atlantic Books.