Book: Kind of a Throwback

Matthew Engelke, Think Like an Anthropologist, 2017.

I minored in anthropology in college, so this was a nice return. I haven’t read enough anthropology recently and would like to do more. Think Like an Anthropologist is a pretty typical popular-science book: written by an academic professional but for a general audience. It goes through a history of anthropology (something anthropologists in academia can’t get enough of talking about) and then orders itself by concepts. The chapters in order are: Culture, Civilization, Values, Value, Blood, Identity, Authority, Reason, and Nature. Each chapter examines the concept in different ways, especially by examining it in the context of how non-western cultures understand it.

My favorite thing about anthropology is more or less the point of the book. In a discussion of Amerindian cosmology, in which the primordial condition was “humanity,” and “animality” developed therefrom, Engelke explains, “one important thing it suggests is that the human-centered approach of anthropology, based on a clear set of distinctions between human and non-human, culture and nature, subject and object, and so on, is neither exhaustive nor the only way of thinking things through” (272). The great benefit of cultural anthropology is precisely this breakdown of categories. Perhaps moreso than any other field of human study, anthropology confirms (indeed helped create) the epistemological doctrine that no knowledge exists distinct from culture; indeed that the very categories used in the creation and ordering of knowledge are both cultural and malleable. Indeed, even the sentence I’ve just written to describe that fact is subject to its own point. Words like “categories,” “creation and ordering,” are steeped in cultural assumptions about what it means to know something.

I have an interest in free will. There was a point I want to mention in the book before finishing here. In a discussion of the origins of sociolinguistics, Engelke discusses the scholar and linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf: “Whorf–probably more than any other figure in the discipline–has driven home the point that language, thought and reality are closely interwoven. Language is not a clear window on to the world and thought is not a process that takes place independent of that world” (249).

There is an implication for a Christian conception of free will. In the Christian (and general Western) understanding, free will must be in some sense distinct from the world. It must be so in at least the following sense: it must not be subject to cause. That’s what makes it free. CS Lewis, in his Miracles, makes the traditional case: when faced with a choice, free will arises within the mind not from within the world but from somewhere else–or from nowhere at all–and then acts upon the world. Therefore every act of human free will is a miracle, because it does not obey physical laws of causality.

There is a contradiction here. I don’t pretend to have a solution, but these do not seem to be completely compatible unless we’re content with the idea that free will is paradoxical. Lewis’ free will certainly implies a certain objectivity: there is at least a partially non-cultural “window on to the world” in the form of our uncaused free will. If that sliver of ourselves is to be truly uncaused, then it cannot even be affected by our culture. Or maybe it can.

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