Reason and Culture: The Universal and the Particular Revisited.

(IN American Anthropologist 86 (4): 960-965, 1984)

Bob Scholte. University of Amsterdam.


Certain issues in cultural anthropology are fundamental and perennial. The nature and scope of reason, its universality and relativity, is one of them. This becomes even more evident if we include directly related problems: questions of cross-cultural transla¬tion, ethnographic interpretation, and ethnological explanation. These are also the cen¬tral issues raised in Rationality and Relativism. Before reviewing their theoretical significance and the different options taken by the contributors to this stimulating volume, let me try to place the issues in a historical perspective.

The editors informative introduction takes us a long way in this regard though not far enough in my estimation After distinguishing between three related issues — moral, perceptual and conceptual relativism — the editors announce the central focus of their book conceptual relativism or, conversely the truth of reason They locate the question of rationality on several historical levels Most broadly as an issue that has preoccupied us since the Enlightenment and the Romantic reaction. The editors might, however, have gone further. The preoccupation with rationality actually dates from our disen¬chantment with myth as an explanatory model. We would thus have to go back as far as Plato. He first defined the nature of academic knowledge and abstract rationality a definition wrought, with anthropological implications (see Diamond 1974).

The volume’s constant reference to rationality in terms of science also demands a reference to the twin philosophers who indirectly inspire most of the, contributors to the book (for it is lopsided in favor of rationalism): René Descartes and Roger Bacon. They are not discussed anywhere in the book (though both are mentioned incidently) Instead the editors favor a narrower historical framework Even Marx Weber, and Durkheim are passed over in favor of contemporary developments One could argue of course that space is limited But the omission has significant consequences These absentee “fathers” of the social sciences (like Vico before them and explicitly, in reaction to Descartes) agonized over the possibilities; and limitations of reason, rationality, rationalization, and so on — especially in relation to scientific and technological values and their sociological em¬bodiment and normative implications. This critical dimension is lacking, not only in the introduction, but in the book as a whole. To put it another way, the contributors to Ra[961]tionality and Relativism are eminently reasonable, but hardly empassioned. That has ad-vantages and disadvantages. The issues are well argued and the positions taken, sober. But I never got the sense that the contributors really go to the actual root of the matter, “ that is, sufficiently radicalized the problem of rationality in order to see it for what it is: an Occidental obsession. Yet one would expect critical anthropologists and reflexive philosophers to do precisely that.

The historical weight is placed on contemporary and multidisciplinary developments surrounding the rationality debate. The semiotic dimension, for instance, is given its due (at least as far as the Anglo American variants are concerned). The philosophy of language since Wittgenstein, including Quine’s indeterminancy thesis, are crucial and find their anthropological analogue in the Sapir Whorf hypothesis. Even more directly related to the intellectual historical tradition in which this volume must be placed is Peter Winch’s (1958) historic reassessment of Evans Pritchard’s interpretation of Azande magic.

Interestingly enough, two important contemporary links are not mentioned: one, the y rationalism of Levi Strauss and the structuralist movement generally; and, two, the re¬cent interest in rationality and anthropology exhibited by members of the so called Frankfurter Schüle (see Habermas 1982; Wellmer 1980). Especially the latter connec¬tion would have necessitated a discussion of critical and normative issues, including the legitimacy and implications of a developmental and evolutionary perspective on rational¬ity (in the volume under review, only Sperber refers to both structural anthropology and developmental psychology, but he seems unaware of recent German literature on the topic).

The editors also correctly point out that the rationality debate in cultural anthropology is intimately tied to recent developments in the philosophy and sociology of science (see Phillips 1977). In philosophy proper, they mention Rorty’s recent work (1980) and his skepticism with regard to the rational foundation of scientific knowledge. Another philo¬sophical tradition that might have been included, incidently, is the hermeneutical one, especially since questions of translation and understanding are central to that tradition. Moreover, the importance of hermeneutics to the social sciences has been amply docu¬mented recently (see, e.g., Rabinow and Sullivan 1979).

The most radical sociological challenge to scientific rationality is said to derive from the so called “strong programme” in the sociology of science. I personally find the strong programme far less relativistic or antiscientific than Hollis and Lukes (see, for example, Bloor’s concluding paragraphs in Knowledge and Social Imagery [Bloor 1976]) and I would also have given far more weight to Paul Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn than the editors or the contributors do (see Scholte 1983). But it is nevertheless a significant step forward to have an entire volume devoted to crucial anthropological issues that pays pro¬per attention to the pivotal contributions of the sociology and philosophy of science. The book is worth the trouble on that score alone.

There are additional issues more specifically related to the recent history of cultural anthropology, especially in Great Britain. Notwithstanding Kuper’s inexplicable neglect of the rationality debate in his recently updated history of the British school (Kuper 1983), that debate has been like a breath of fresh air in the stuffy academic drawing rooms of the structural-functional establishment. It all started, as I have said, with Evans Pritchard’s interpretation of Azande magic and Winch’s important critique. Subsequent reassessments appeared in two important books (Wilson 1970; Horton and Finnegan 1973) as well as numerous articles in Philosophy of the Social Sciences and the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, Though several important participants in the earlier debates did not contribute to Rationality and Relativism (most notably Winch), most of them are back to defend or to explicate their positions further. In other [962] words, the present volume is most profitably read and assessed with the previous material in mind.

What, precisely, is being debated in Rationality and Relativism and what are the different positions taken by the respective contributors? The editor’s introduction lucidly summarizes both the central issues and the differing viewpoints. Three questions provide the key to the volumes content: “Does the rich and extensive evidence of apparently irrational beliefs … require us to accept relativism in any strong form?”; “In identifying beliefs, must we indeed can we discriminate between those which are true and rational and those which, in varying ways, are not?”; and, “If so, does the kind of explanation to be sought vary with the category of belief explained or does it remain uniform an ‘symmetrical’ throughout?” (p. 12).

The answers given to these questions indicate one’s affinity to rationalism or relativism The rationalist would answer ‘no” to the first, “yes” to the second, and he or she would favor the first of the two alternatives offered in question three. The relativist, on the other hand, would answer “yes” to the first, “no” to the second, and he or she would prefer the second alternative in question three. Put in another way, the rationalist believes that universal standards of reason exist and that they may be context free and thus irreducibly) true. Therefore, translation, interpretation, and explanation are in fact possible and in principle true. The relativist, in contrast, believes that all standards of reason are in the final analysis local and conventional and thus context dependent and reducible to identifiable sociocultural circumstances. Therefore, translation, interpretation, and explanation are in fact partial and in principle problematic.

Let me briefly summarize the reasons given and the arguments made by the rationalists and the relativists respectively. Let me repeat that Rationality and Relativism is by-and-large a volume for and by rationalists (both editors adhere to this position, albeit in dif¬ferent degrees). I have therefore given the relativists a fairer treatment and a greater voice in my summary than they receive in the book itself. I should add, in all fairness, that 1, too, am a (reluctant) relativist.

There are essentially two types of argument for both positions. Let’s call them epis¬temological and substantive. The latter tries to give to rationalism or relativism a specific content: a set of biological, historical, and cultural characteristics. The former give procedural reasons why the one or the other position is plausible, desirable, or necessary in order to do anthropology.

With regard to the epistemological argument, the rationalist makes in excellent case at least on the surface. Hollis, for example, argues that a priori rational assump¬tions are required if we hope to do any anthropology at all. That is, unless a communica¬tive bridgehead is posited between ourselves and others, no translation, interpretation, or explanation would be possible. If, in other words, the anthropologist’s rationality would be radically incommensurable with native rationality, understanding of whatever kind would be precluded. As a result, ethnography would be impossible (Sperber, pp. 149 180), as would the resultant ethnology (Gellner, pp. 181 200). One might, in fact, be forced to deny the native any rationality whatsoever (Newton Smith, pp. 106 122) and relativism, which preaches charity and humanism, would in actual practice be neither. It would instead be incoherent (Lukes, pp. 261-305) and self subverting (Newton Smith).

From a relativist point of view, the epistemological dangers of rationalism far outweigh its superficial benefits. For when we ask the rationalist to define the exact nature of this a priori and necessary bridgehead, we are either given no definition at all (Hollis, pp. 67 86) or one that begs the question; for example, “If the natives reason logically, at all, then they reason as we do” (Hollis 1970:239). Even worse, as I shall show, the definitions of “universal” reason that are proposed are either ethnocentric or totally abstract. Better [963] to assume, as does the relativist, that rationality is multiple and diverse and that all forms of logic are, in the final analysis, socio-logical or ethno-logical (Barnes and Bloor, pp. 21-47, or see Scholte 1980).

If the relativist is right, incommensurability must be accepted as the likely state of affairs in cultural anthropology. Perfect translation and exhaustive explanation are impossible in the light of actual practice and concrete experience (Barnes and Bloor). Com¬munication and understanding, to the extent that they may be said to take place at all, ire conditioned and conditional achievements. In fact, in a certain sense, anthropology is not about the “other” at all; it is more properly about “us” — a metaphorical extension of our own cultural resources (see Barnes 1974:183). Anthropology has in the course of its history denied the other rational faculties or it has claimed for the other a superior rationality. But the crucial point remains constant: we are the ones who define what the other is or is not.

It follows that the charity and humanism that the rationalist now claims for himself and denies to the relativist is in reality neither benevolent nor humane. It is at most noblesse oblige. Moreover, noblesse oblige motivated by self-interest, that is, generated a professional desire to enter into a dialogue with the other. A dialogue, furthermore, initiated by us and defined in terms of our own needs and purposes. Actually it is more a monologue.

The rationalist argument becomes even less convincing when we turn to the substantive characteristics attributed to rationality. They are of three kinds: epistemological (as substantive attributes of genuine knowledge), historical (as stages in the development of human cognition), and cultural (as traits of rationally privileged societies). Let me examine and criticize them in turn.

For the rationalist, Western scientific method — however incomplete in fact — is in theory the ideal vehicle for the eventual achievement of true rationality (Hacking, pp. 8 66). Only scientific method rests on the required epistemological dualism of false and rue belief and on the necessary distinction between the context of discovery and the context of verification. Happily, the rationalist also finds that reality is actually constituted in accordance with the prerequisites of his method: fact exist independently (Hollis, pp. 7 86), thus guaranteeing an observational core (Newton-Smith, pp. 106 122) that permits detached understanding (Taylor, pp. 87 105). Even more fortunately, all this is said rest on irrefutable ontological grounds: innate dispositions (Horton, pp. 201 260), primary theories (Lukes, pp. 261 305), and neurological constants (Horton again). And that weren’t enough, we can always refer to the sine qua non of rationality in action: its universal payoff (Taylor) or, what amounts to the same thing, its success over time (Newton-Smith).

The relativist might counter in numerous ways, none of them very thoroughly represented in this volume. One could argue, for instance, that scientific method is merely one F several legitimate means of acquiring knowledge and that, as one among a number of changing symbolic forms, it is comparable to other symbolic forms (“symmetrical” in terms of the third question raised above). In that case the distinction between genesis and verification is simply ad hoc or post hoc, that is, descriptive of the belief system held rather than an a priori, inherent, or necessary property of rationality tout court.

Furthermore, reality as constituted by the rationalist confirms what the relativist has always maintained: that the factual depends on a theory of “facticity,” that what is considered an observational core is paradigmatically generated, and that detached understanding or context-free knowledge is in fact historically and culturally mediated (what the critical sociologist would call an Erkenntnisinteresse).

Finally, the relativist might argue that what is considered a biological constant is also culturally generated and potentially no less ethnocentric than the ideologies of payoff, [964] success, maximalization, self interest, or whatever. Upon critical reflection, biological constants have proven to be something else entirely: ideological constructs. Law and order in “nature” become scientific means to rationalize law and order in society (see Elias 1974). In any event, we should not fall back on would be neurological constants without radical contextual and thus anthropological critique. Even relativists, it must be said, are not always consistent in this regard. For example, both Wittgenstein and Winch anchor their arguments in the final analysis on a biological infrastructure.

The historical and cultural arguments of the rationalist are, from a relativist point of view, even more explicitly ethnocentric or, at the very least, distinctly evolutionistic. Horton, for example, continues a line of argument he had previously made to describe both the continuities and discontinuities between traditional and modern modes of thought (see Horton 1967). Despite the fact that his present position is more subtle and self-critical than his previous one, he does not measurably alter his conviction that the West has developed cognitive proclivities that the Rest did not. Whether we inoffensively phrase these developments in terms of “styles of thought” (like Hacking, pp. 48 66, or Horton himself) or more judgementally in terms of cumulative cognitive capacities (Gellner, pp 181-200), the crucial point is clear: rationalism entails evolutionism. The transition from traditional to modern thought is not only marked by technological success (Taylor), the scientific/rationalist Weltanschauung presupposes precisely those cultural traits that our own societies exhibit in such abundance: heterogeneity, competitiveness, critical monitoring, progress and order, regularity, predictability, and writing (Horton and Gellner).

The relativist might argue that the rationalist has resurrected familiar and question able dichotomies between “us” and “them dichotomies, moreover, that are never innocently descriptive but quite judgemental and self serving. Take writing as an example. Why should ordinary language and oral discourse be equated with “stone age metaphysics” (Horton, p. 236) while the written word the pillar of Judeo-Christian and Occidental logos be equated with open societies and critical reflection (Gellner, p. 194)? Written discourse, whatever its merits, is an ambiguous virtue (see Goody 1977). Unlike oral performance, writing is, after all, an abstract competence that cannot be directly challenged. Its author is hidden. It is in that sense less rather than more critical compared to oral discourse (see Ong 1982). Moreover, writing generates abstract categories that may in turn function as political means to order and co opt the concrete other (see Asad 1979; Said 1979). Lévi Strauss, an unlikely critic of rationalism, repeatedly emphasized this relation between power and writing, adding: “When we make an effort to understand, we destroy the object of our attachment, substituting another whose nature is quite different” (Levi Strauss 1955:394). In other words, rationality as epistemocide — the crucial issue that this otherwise stimulating volume leaves totally unilluminated.


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