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Seances in Anthropology

Giambattista Vico - Lucian of Samosata Wiki

By Marshall Sahlins

“Every people wishes to change the dictator; every dictator wants to change the people.”(1)

Esposito: “… all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour.” Bananas Woody Allen

The most recent issue of the London Review of Books carries the statement of Marshall Sahlins (Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology emeritus at the University of Chicago) explaining his resignation from the US National Academy of Sciences.(2)

He adduces two primary grounds for this. The first is his objection to the use of anthropology in military research. The second reason is the admission to membership, by the NAS, of Napoleon Chagnon, a renowned anthropologist and well-known exponent of evolutionary biology in anthropological research.

It’s impossible not to admire this act of principle by an eminent scholar; impossible also not to miss the air of sadness and fatigue which informs his statement. Sahlins has been motivated, over the span of some forty years, by a deeply committed liberalism. His bête noir have been racism, militarism, and oppression in every form. For decades Sahlins’ pole star has been to use anthropology as a defense against the victimization of all people, both ‘natives’ and ourselves. At this point in his career Sahlins must be deeply saddened by the advance and, indeed, the triumph of a militarism and a capitalism of a deeply savage kind and by the corrupt American politics which gives aid and comfort to them both.

It is, however, deeply to be regretted that Sahlins appears to see Napoleon Chagnon as the champion of these worst tendencies in our national life. Sahlins’ ennui seems intensified by the half-conscious realization that evolutionary biology as an explanatory factor in human behavior seems to have triumphed everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except in the secret and cloud-covered redoubts of the cultural anthropologists for whom he speaks. His fatigue is particularly on display in this statement in the LRB. He makes embarrassing statements and we are embarrassed for him. A major scholar like Sahlins deserved a better old age than this.

At one point I had the curious sensation of falling through the typeface and landing on the pages of an entirely different text. It happened while I was reading this passage:

“[this claim] goes back at least to the early 18th century, to the principle of ‘the reciprocity of the made and the true’ as formulated by Giambattista Vico: what humans have constructed they can know truly, as opposed to natural things that are the work of God and are his alone to know.”

Giambattista Vico Wikimedia, Public Domain.

The book on which I felt myself landing was, of course, Isaiah Berlin’s Vico & Herder(3). Even now, Sir Isaiah’s efforts notwithstanding, Giambattista Vico is not as well known as he ought to be. This is a great misfortune for us because Vico’s accomplishment was to formulate the principal criticisms of Descartes and, whether we fancy ourselves Cartesians or not, by standing Cartesianism on its head, Vico is still of critical importance. I will try to recapitulate his principal position. Descartes defined true knowledge as proceeding from simple and incontrovertible ideas which could be built on and assembled into more complex statements about subjects which could be definitely measured and described. Such things alone could yield knowledge. For Descartes the chaotic world of what we would now call the humane arts, history, sociology, psychology (the world of actual human life and experience) was nothing but meaningless and unrepeatable chaos and confusion, shot through with irrational emotion and drives. For Descartes nothing in that world was worthy of serious investigation – how could the irrational yield knowledge? Vico took the opposite view. He held that it is only the world of human experience of which we can have real knowledge. This is because the world of human experience as expressed primarily in historical knowledge is created by us and we can only know that which we have ourselves created. What knowledge can we have of rocks, tables, plants? We did not make these things – God did. God alone has knowledge of the non-human world. He not only made these things He also made the ‘stuff’ from which they are made. For us to pretend to understand those things is an absurdity. For the world of human affairs, on the other hand, it is different. We made that world – it was created out of the free play and invention of our own human minds. For that reason we are able to ‘know’ it – it is our only reality(4). Vico proposes here that the only source of true knowledge is the sympathetic recreation of past worlds in the minds of educated gentlemen.

It is this that Sahlins is getting at in his statement. He has taken refuge in Vico’s ideas as the ultimate justification for cultural anthropology and he has relegated Chagnon and others of his ilk to the outer darkness of (what he considers to be) a barbaric and inhuman anthropological Cartesianism.

“…the 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.”

Vico, in the ignorant backwater of Naples of the early 18th century, was only imperfectly aware of the vast differences that separate the various cultures of the world. It seemed self-evident to him that understanding of the world (which he seems to have conceived of as Roman and Italian history) was accessible through the sympathetic recreation in thought of the average educated (Neapolitan or Roman) gentleman (preferably a member of either the Neapolitan aristocracy or the Neapolitan Academy). In that context Vico’s ideas make a modicum of sense.

In his statement, however, Marshall Sahlins has claimed much more than Vico ever dreamed of. Sahlins claims that that method of ‘sympathetic recreation’(5) as outlined by Vico is the principal epistemological approach and justification everywhere in any real anthropology and that it does not matter what culture is being ‘sympathetically recreated’. Our experience as human beings, per Vico, allows an anthropologist unique access to the thoughts and motivations of even the most unique or distant cultures (no matter how separated from us in time and space) and that this access is of a privileged kind which the methods of evolutionary biology can never hope to equal. As a ‘demonstration’ of Viconian method Sahlins concludes with an incautious anecdote about cannibalism taken from Fiji in the 1920s. He purports to understand and explain this event – indeed cannibalism as a whole - and concludes with these words:

“This cannibalism is becoming logical, and logic is something going on inside ourselves. A custom that at first seemed strange and remote has been assimilated and internalised, as our own good sense.”

What is embarrassing about this is that Sahlins never really engages Vico’s ideas. He simply assumes that Vico’s ‘method’ works and that it must lead to incontrovertibly ‘true’ results. In fact ‘sympathetic recreation' of human history and life through a kind of re-imagination - posing as an epistemology - is fraught with difficulties not the least of which is that different re-creators achieve contradictory results. Sahlins knows this (or, at least, he knew this at one time). How else to explain his famous feud with Gananath Obeyesekere over whether Captain Cook had been considered a god by the ancient Hawaiians?(6) Here two very knowledgeable ‘sympathetic recreators’ reached diametrically opposite conclusions. What is particularly striking about that particular controversy is that Sahlins used that occasion to stress that, contra Obeyesekere, individual societies were unique and that they could not be assimilated to the rules of Western rationalism. Perhaps Sahlins believes that ‘sympathetic recreation’ in the way proposed by Vico gives unique access not just to the innermost thoughts and desires of westerners but also to any culture whatsoever – that ‘sympathetic recreation’ is omnicompetent. But for the outside observer Vico/Sahlin’s method works only because Sahlins says it does. When he learned of Sahlins resignation from the National Academy of Sciences Napoleon Chagnon said this:

“Sahlins was elected to the NAS in 1991, but he had published his Use and Abuse of Biology in 1976, which should have made clear to the members of the NAS how antiscientific Sahlins was.”

Chagnon’s e-mail on this occasion was rude. On the evidence, however, one cannot deny that he is correct.

A profound anger divides these two men; it is a sad irony that Sahlins was on Chagnon’s Ph.D. committee. I think it not too harsh to say that Sahlins regards Chagnon as the devil – a demonic force ripping out the heart of anthropology and performing bloody rites with it in order to propitiate the forces of Exploitation and Oppression. From Sahlin’s point of view it is all too simple. War is learned. Oppression is learned. Destruction of other cultures is learned. What is learned can be unlearned; we can take other paths than those which lead to the destruction of other people and the theft of their resources. Sahlins has made Chagnon a spokesman for the view that our warlike and destructive nature is encoded in our genes and that there is no redemption for humanity. Chagnon hasn’t said anything remotely like this but what does that matter?

In fact, the opposite is true. Every dictator, for example, dreams of remolding humanity – eliminating the inconvenient aspects of human nature and replacing them with a dream of the dictator’s own. Every dictator sees humanity as a blank slate that can be filled with other customs, other needs, other dreams. Old and primeval habits can be replaced with a phony and ahistoric nationalism or some impossible kind of equality or racial triumph or religious purity or some primeval social/economic arrangement. For the dictator people can be regimented and thus improved. But what if people were not manipulable? What if they couldn’t be reprogrammed with mad new cultures? What if resistance to tyranny was (in some sense which I am not prepared to define) built-in? Or even in our genes? (7) If that were true Chagnon would be on the side of the angels and Sahlins would be the shill for a 'new and improved' humanity.

If human beings do have some innate resistant nature then that might be our best hope.

(1) I cannot remember the source of this quotation. Perhaps my readers can point me to it.

(2) ‘Human Science’, Marshall Sahlins, London Review of Books 35:9 (9 May 2013), 29. On-line here:

(3) Vico & Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, Isaiah Berlin, Viking Press, New York, 1976. Republished in Three Critics of the Enlightenment Vico, Hamann, Herder. Henry Hardy, ed. Princeton University Press, 2000. Isaiah Berlin is a wonderful source for the scholarship on Vico as it was at the end of the twentieth century and as an introduction to Vico for English speakers he may never be bettered. Still, I would be remiss not to mention to my readers the lovely and poetical introductory paragraphs on Vico in Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, New York Review Books, 2003, 5-8.

(4) Here I have abridged important and subtle arguments. I recommend interested readers to the sources in (3).

(5) ‘Sympathetic Recreation’ is my phrase for what Sahlins proposes as an epistemological method. I keep it in quotes because I want to draw the reader’s attention to its essentially artificial and undefinable (by me at least) nature. Perhaps ‘sympathetic recreation’ is best defined as a kind of anthropological telepathy or even a séance.

(6) Marshall Sahlins. How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example. University Of Chicago Press, 1996. Gananath Obeyesekere. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton University Press, 1997.

(7) I owe this argument to John Alcock, The Triumph of Sociobiology, Oxford University Press, 2003, 153. Alcock credits in turn Noam Chomsky who is quoted in D. Symons, The Evolution of Human Sexuality, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 1979.

Sahlins, Marshall. “Seances in Anthropology.” 05-13-2013. <>.

vico/seances-in-anthropology.txt · Last modified: 2014/01/14 23:20 (external edit)