Sahlins and Lévi-Strauss

Sahlins takes us back to the idea of the human sciences in the London Review of Books v35 n9, May 9, 2013

Marshall Sahlins, renowned anthropologist at the University of Chicago, has been on a campaign recently to give some backbone to ethical practitioners of the soft sciences.  Well, not “soft,” but, let’s just say, “less hard.” He continues this campaign in a small piece for May 9th LRB.

In February, he left the National Academy of Sciences, when the Academy elected to its membership the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. Chagnon is the author of several questionable studies of tribes and their allegedly aggressive, combative, individualistic behavior, and recently defended his work in an autobiography, Noble Savages. Sahlins has been attacking the book in reviews and vehemently stating the case against it in interviews.

He also mentions that he left the Academy because of its funding of certain studies that collaborated with the US military, which were designed to eventually assist the latter’s warmaking capabilities. It has been reported that this is “an issue that has nothing to do with Chagnon,” but in this piece Sahlins eloquently affirms that the two issues are rather intimately connected,

insofar as Chagnon’s sociobiology of the selfish gene and the American global project of making the world safe for self-interest would impose cognate versions of Western individualism on the rest of humanity.

Sahlin’s continual commitment both intellectually and practically to the welfare of indigenous peoples across the planet makes this connection vivid enough.

The rest of the piece explains the relevance of the once popular idea of the “human sciences” to the uproar that his resignation has caused. There have been two reactions: first, that his actions expose some sort of rift among anthropologists, between those who believe that there is some settled way of going about research (Sahlins), and those that do not (Chagnon); second, that there is no rift at all, that we can clearly specify the nature of anthropology’s mission, because Chagnon’s work is simply bad. Sahlins is surely sympathetic to his supporters who attack Chagnon with the latter argument, of course. And he recognizes that if his actions are interpreted to say that there is a certain settled method by which good research is done that Chagnon fails to address, this can work even against Chagnon to forward an idea of anthropology in which work like Chagnon’s might be more well received.  Chagnon can claim that there is ideological bias in the accepted methods of anthropology, which are used to invalidate his work. But he is skeptical about saying that Chagnon’s work simply is bad, or not good enough, objectively.

He does this because he thinks laying so much stress on the objective nature of the research (which Chagnon seems to have just not involved himself in) is missing what is most important about anthropological research. He wants to say that anthropologists, instead of addressing brute objects, practice a science that is actually able to address the nature of other peoples, and advocate for them.  Anthropology is a human science.

Sahlins uses the phrase popular in mid-century France among linguists, anthropologists, philosophers, and scholars of literature to describe a program of research, study, and policymaking that would combine together the efforts of the sciences and direct them towards more typically humanist concerns, under the rubric of a method and philosophy called structuralism, pioneered by linguists and by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In this effort it was to be very much unlike the resurgent humanism in the United States, battling fiercely with the intense post-war boom in the scientific study of behavior (in psychology, anthropology, sociology), and the rather strange divide between the “two cultures” of the moral sciences (including literature) and those of the laboratory in Britain.  Indeed, this mode of study never quite caught on in the US, and certain people still wish it would have.  But this was never to be, as the idea of the human sciences itself was subjected to deconstruction in the very conference that was supposed to introduce it to the US.  Jacques Derrida at a whopper of a conference at Johns Hopkins University in 1964 made the human sciences the main subject of an essay that question ed the premises of its policies–so that what came to be called post-structuralism basically came into being before structuralism itself ever could make its way onto our shores.

This was so in the humanities, but Sahlins makes the case that it is also so in the sciences too.  So, in terms less abstract, we might say that the inhuman sciences had their day in America before the human ones ever did: the study of literature, history, artworks, bodies of belief, behaviors in terms of the silences, events, materials, technologies, objects in which they allegedly inhered or out of which they were produced, and which never needed human involvement to be involved in human activities, though they indeed can matter to us (a pun which was used over and over again).  Or the study of the events, materials, technologies, objects themselves in terms of probabilities, calculations, random quantum effects.

This is why the case for the idea of a human sciences can follow the reflections here–why, after all these years, the virtues of the idea of the human sciences can be reasserted.  They were, in essence, passed over, both here, and, through American influence, abroad, and the effect has been to make our sense of knowledge revolve not around understanding things in terms that make sense to humans, in terms that are familiar to us, but in terms that are distinctly foreign to us.

For knowledge about humans as objects (Sahlins says) shows us that knowledge about brute objects may not always be as powerful.  And here is where he quotes Lévi-Strauss:

Indeed, inasmuch as these peoples [that anthropology studies] are meaningfully making their modes of life, and inasmuch as we share the same capacities of symbolic invention and understanding, we have the possibility of knowing the cultures of others in ways that are in some respects more powerful than the ways natural scientists know physical objects. [A]s Lévi-Strauss put it for his own discipline, “Of all the sciences, anthropology is without a doubt unique in making the most intimate subjectivity into a means of objective demonstration.”

It would take too long to show in detail just how Lévi-Strauss himself would put this, but there are two new books of his out now that surely should: The Other Face of the Moon, and Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World, both newly translated and published this year by Harvard University Press.  The first is a collection of his writings on Japan, the second a series of lectures he gave.  But the message boils down to this: what is important about science, in short, is less what the knowledge comes from than where it comes from.  And what structuralist anthropology shows us is that it can indeed come from anywhere our sympathies are extended objectively.  Sahlins explains:

Natural science starts out with what is familiar and ends with something altogether remote; human science works the other way around. One may well begin with something so distant or unpleasant to us as cannibalism in the Fiji Islands in the 19th century, yet end up finding it “logical” – which is, after all, a mental state of our own.

He puts it differently a little later, repeating the statement of Lévi-Strauss:

Since cultural practices are meaningfully constructed, and since we too are symbolising beings, we have the privilege of knowing others by reproducing in the operations of our own mind the ways they are culturally organised. The method and content of investigation are one: the most intimate subjectivity becomes the means of objective demonstration.

Too much stress on the inhuman sciences, Sahlins says, by contrast tends to make us think that it can come only from things we don’t already know, indeed only from things that we find strange or odd, so that knowledge itself has to make us feel foreign to ourselves for it to count as knowledge:

[T]he more the natural scientist discovers about things, say the table at which I am working, the less such things are like anything in human thought or experience.

And the same could be said about the literature student, concerned with talking about otherness, or trying to make a text allow us to “think otherwise” about a subject.

The appeal, however, of the inhuman sciences is also evident: instead of a science that needs argues the human is objective, here is one in which the objective just turns out to be human–no arguments necessary.  Whether though this can ever be an understanding that is fundamentally sympathetic in the way that Lévi-Strauss’ most definitely was, however, is a serious question, and one of the things that Sahlins is essentially protesting against is a rather unsympathetic intellectual culture, so concerned with the relevance of discoveries and its ability to forward the discipline that it becomes fundamentally unconcerned about what it studies and why–namely, other people, for the purpose of enriching our own understanding as people.  And indeed, many of the research programs in the humanities, for all that they pretend to be post-post-structural, still retain this inhuman focus.  Yet structuralism has certain affinities with the holistic methods involved in the study of networks and complex systems in the sciences and social sciences, though the principles behind the latter are fundamentally different, so there maybe is a place for it in the future.