The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy (2014) edited by V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh. Durham: Duke University Press.
A brief summary of the text
This is a collection of essays by anthropologists who have used the work of philosophers more or less explicitly in their own work. In the introduction (Das et al. 2014), the editors set out the intentions of the book: not so much to set up an interdisciplinary dialogue, nor to map out the generalities of the relationship between the disciplines overall, but “to explore the attraction and the distance that mark the relation between anthropology and philosophy” (p1).
They maintain that they are not turning to philosophy “to provide ‘theory’, as if anthropology were somehow lacking this impulse” (p2). Philosophical concepts are “helpful inasmuch as they signal potential routes of ethnographic attentiveness but not as ‘theory moments’ that can be applied to ethnography” (p2). The essays reveal that “As such, it seems that for philosophy to have value in our world, it must learn to respond to the puzzles and pressures that an ethnographic engagement with the world brings to light” p2.
The group met on 02.03.17 and 16.03.17.
Participants: Karen Sykes, Piyush Pushkar, Ben Eyre, Marketa Dolezalova, Jenna Murray de Lopez.
All of us thoroughly enjoyed this collection. We each read different chapters that were relevant to our own work and thoughts, and agreed that the essays addressed very different themes. Since they were self-contained, it was difficult to speak across them. Therefore, our discussion tended to focus on one writer at a time. (In particular, we discussed the chapters by Clara Han (2014), Steven Caton (2014), Veena Das (2014) and Bhrigupati Singh (2014).) This fitted with the aim of the editors to explore the relationship between anthropology and philosophy speculatively and partially. They aimed to suggest potentialities rather than synoptic, authoritative patterns or a single tradition of using philosophy within anthropology.
However, the chapters did help the group to separate philosophy from anthropology. As one group member memorably put it, philosophy involved “thought gymnastics without bothering with the real world”, whereas anthropology “brings the two together and mashes them up”. Another group member related this back to an earlier essay by Geertz, in which he described a world which was difficult to describe and interpret ethnographically, a world full of incoherence, cacophony and noise. Anthropology could use philosophy to bring coherence to this noise.
For example, Das used Wittgenstein, Cavell and Austin heavily in her chapter. She took these thinkers into the field with her and put them into conversation with her research subjects, placing on the same intellectual plane. I do not mean this literally; she did not lift quotations directly from Wittgenstein and shout them at her friends in the slums of Delhi, in order to hear their replies. As one group member put it, social science can do more than than simply write what people think. The benefit of spending extended periods of time doing ethnographic fieldwork with people is that it affords the opportunity to think with people about things, and to think through things with people. As such, fieldwork itself is a kind of thinking that is fundamentally social. (As I write this blog, I think that this is a very interesting insight that may benefit from further attention.)
We found it important to recognise this way of using philosophy, as part of a broader recognition that there were social and political implications to bringing anthropology, ethnography and philosophy together. Das was very careful to state that she wanted to place her informants and these philosophers on the same intellectual plane. What she did not reflect on was that almost all of the philosophers discussed in this collection were ‘pale, male and stale’. The group reflected on the temptation to use references to established European male voices simply to legitimate one’s own voice in the academy. But with Das’s work, although she references these older philosophers, what the reader gets is very much Das’s own voice. Therefore the worry is partially allayed. Geertz came into the discussion again at this point, since he made a conscious decision to break the contemporary tradition of doing fieldwork in a place without written records (e.g. the highlands of Melanesia or the heart of the Amazon rainforest). Instead, he did fieldwork in Indonesia, where there were deep archives of written historical records. This afforded him the capacity to dwell within their own philosophical traditions, rather than relying on the Western canon.
In this attempt to use philosophy constructively rather than simply hitching one’s findings to a philosopher, we found Singh’s essay least convincing in the collection. He has Deleuze in mind as he revisits his findings from the field. Singh uses Deleuze to hold onto the contradictions in his findings rather than simply reducing them to a master/slave dialectic. The cynical question posed by the group was whether Deleuze was required for this kind of analysis, or whether Deleuze’s role here was simply to add weight to an otherwise fairly obvious point. The group decided that this would be unfair on an interesting essay by Singh, but the point spoke to more general concerns regarding the use of philosophers’ names to beef up and add greater legitimacy to papers in the – perhaps mistaken – belief that this was necessary to get published.
We agreed that the most successful chapters used philosophy to pose questions. This was related to, but slightly different from, the editors’ injunction to use philosophy to respond to puzzles from the field. However, both points share in their rejection of the role of philosophical theory as something to simply be tested by ethnographic methods, or to provide a template to fit one’s ethnographic findings into. As the editors write in the introduction, “As a starting point, we could perhaps accept that the philosopher’s anthropology and the anthropologist’s philosophy may mutually illuminate on some occasions but that it is also the friction between them that allows us to walk on our respective paths” (p3).
Caton, Steven C. 2014. “Henri Bergson in Highland Yemen.” Pp. 234–53 in The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, edited by V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh. Durham: Duke University Press.
Das, Veena. 2014. “Action, Expression, and Everyday Life: Recounting Household Events.” Pp. 279–305 in The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, edited by V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh. Durham: Duke University Press.
Das, Veena, Michael Jackson, Arthur Kleinman, and Bhrigupati Singh. 2014. “Introduction: Experiments between Anthropology and Philosophy: Affinities and Antagonisms.” in The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, edited by V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh. Durham: Duke University Press.
Han, Clara. 2014. “The Difficulty of Kindness: Boundaries, Time, and the Ordinary.” Pp. 71–93 in The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, edited by V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh. Durham: Duke University Press.
Singh, Bhrigupati. 2014. “How Concepts Make the World Look Different: Affirmative and Negative Genealogies of Thought.” Pp. 159–87 in The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, edited by V. Das, M. Jackson, A. Kleinman, and B. Singh. Durham: Duke University Press.