Philosophical and Empirical Anthropology
Anthropology as Philosophy with People In It
Well-known Anthropologist Tim Ingold says, “Anthropology, for me, is a philosophy with the people in it.” That’s what anthropologists are called to do, weave philosophy, or any theory for that matter, into what we are seeing on the ground in contexts of the people we live with.
I read Ernst Cassirer for the first time in 1993 when I was reading about the Post-Kantian basis of Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology. This included a deep dive into Husserl and Heidegger’s Phenomenology and the interpretive theory of Paul Ricoeur and Hans Georg Gadamer.
I ventured further into Philosophical Anthropology exploring the work of David Bidey who in his “Theoretical Anthropology” brings a meta-perspective to the larger discipline of Anthropology and what it says about mankind on a universal level.
In modern-day anthropology people like Cassirier and Bidney are often considered “Dated” because they are not referenced in contemporary Anthropological Reading and quoting circles. It’s not that people aren’t aware of them, or that people never quote them, but we have other sources as our launching-off point that are rooted in theoretically informed empiricism.
Ideal Vs The Real
Empiricism is an approach to the world that believes that understanding is born from a reflection on the data and experience found in the world. This is in contrast to the idealism that believes in pre-given truths that are to be revealed through interior reflection.
The archetypal Idealist was Plato with his doctrine of Ideal Forms that create a template for everything in the world. Nietzsche fliped Plato on his head pointing out that it’s in the lived world where truths are to be found (or interpreted), not in some abstract realm of pure thought.
That said, naive empiricism is as blind as naive idealism. Believing you can know the world through observing data without questioning your lens and assumptions is as one-sided as believing that abstract contemplation on ideals reveals the truth. This is the age-old battle for the ideal and the real, and if I’ve learned one thing from the Madhamkiya middle way philosophy of Buddhism, it’s that things are never 100% one way or the other.
That said, I come down on the side of the real over the ideal in my orientation for good reason. Lofty abstracted ideals and notions often fail when pressure tested by life. Furthermore, data-based knowledge of the world (inner or outer) and how it operates through thoughtfully informed empiricism is good practice for course-correcting human conceptual silicon.
Conceptual Silicon is the false consciousness human minds generate when unmoored from life experience, or when bias overwhelms anomalous data that questions one’s dogmas. For instance, the Ptolemic — Aristotelean view of the world where Earth was the Center of the Solar System was dogma in Europe for 100s of years until Galileo’s empirical studies. This was one giant form of Conceptual Silicon and it's these types of Conceptual dogmas that are one of the main problems science wrestles with.
From Orientalism to Phrenology, Philosophical Anthropology has a long history of projection and falsehood woven of Colonial, Imperialist, and LogoCentric assumptions rooted in the Western Imagination. Anthropologists’ great call to Philosophers, Psychologists(or any discipline that bases its perspective on local knowledge rooted in tacit assumptions) is to get “out of the building” and out into the world to learn something outside your comfort zones.
As Anthropologist Joseph Heinrich has shown us, a large portion of Academic Psychology has been based on “WEIRD” people: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. To make universalizing statements from such a stance is to reify a particular form of Conceptual Silicon. Empiracal anthropology is here to challenge these dogmas with global, cross-cultural, historical, and contextually rich empiricism. You’ve got to stretch beyond your own Horizon’s of Understanding to learn something new and potentially transformative.
The further that world is from your own current Horizon of Understanding, the more likely you’ll see something that shocks your assumptions and awakens you to new ways of seeing and being in the world. We are here to make the strange familiar, the familiar, strange, and ultimately to promote change based on breaking down assumptions about how the world operates.
ArmChair Philosophical Anthropology Vs Field-Based Anthropology
Thus the big difference between pure philosophy and social science is that we have to ground theory in empirical data. The ideas of Cassirer, Bidney, or any Philosophical Anthropology, are useful to get us to think about big questions and issues, but we ultimately need to ground this in our field research.
Many contemporary anthropologists have metabolized philosophy and field-tested it in their ethnographic work. Social Science thinkers Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, Paul Stoller, Michael Jackson, Thomas Csordas, and others are well-rooted in Post-Kantian Hermeneutic Phenomenology. They can parley with Husserl, Ricoeur, Hans Georg Gadamer, Merleau Ponty, and others that are relevant for their field research.
If you read them, many reference these philosophers but always concerning findings in the cultures they study. Cassirer's Philosophical Anthropology of man as Homo Symbolicum is valuable to get us to think larger but ultimately is based on second-hand library research, not field or lab research. Someone's grand statements about art, myth, or language coming from a particular Post-Kantian German academic positionality based on synthesizing what sources he had in his 1920s German university (As Cassier did) can’t necessarily make claims that are universally true outside that positionality.
Cassirer's idealist approach to language, art, and myth is different than an Empirically based one. In that case, an ethnographer spends a year looking at how art is made and is woven into the language and myths in a village. The ethnographer probes into the lived experience of people to understand what is thought felt and experienced about art and myth by the people in their daily lives.
This is what Gregory Bateson or Geertz did living in Bali for over a year. Their approach to knowledge creation and theorizing is different from that of Cassier who wrote his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms from a German Library. Geertz’s “On the Interpretation of Cultures” which gave us an understanding of culture made as “Webs of meaning and significance” was based on travel and significant time spent living with people in multiple cultures around the world.
30,000 vs. 5,000 Foot Scale
Also, there is the matter of scale.
Cassirer's 30,000-foot view of mankind is general, theoretical, library-based, interesting, provocative, but questionable that it can be applied universally outside his early 20th-century academic, European world. Modern Anthropology is a 5,000-foot view of mankind, particular, theoretical, fieldwork-based, and likely only generalizable if you rolled up a bunch of cases inductively into a higher-order theory.
In an ideal world, you need both the 30,000 foot and the 5,000-foot view to build a truly comprehensive human science. That said, I would rather have a bunch of well-grounded 5000-foot case studies, than sweeping statements at the 30,000-foot level rooted in unfounded bias. This essentially is the difference between armchair anthropologists who theorize about the world from second-hand sources and those who go into the world and learn directly from it.
I’m not saying Cassier isn’t valuable, or we shouldn’t read Philosophical Anthropology, but we also need to check what they say with what we are learning on the ground out in the world of real lived experience. Philosophical anthropology can help us ask bigger questions, or think on a larger scale, but to be a Social Science, these questions need to be pressure tested with Empiricism and a fully embodied experience of being in the world.
So at the end of the day, Cassier would be “Dated” for a modern anthropologist to build an argument on because he doesn’t approach things empirically( ie with field research outside a library). His writing, though beautifully synthesized, consisted of philosophizing about mankind relative to a bunch of secondary source materials pulled from his universities library. He didn’t have access to a global, cross-cultural sample of grounded ethnographic case studies rooted in empirical field research to make his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.
In conclusion, there is a big difference between Philosophical and Empiracly based Anthropology. One is based on secondary sources from a library. The other is based on the lived experience of someone who goes out into the world for over a year to gather primary data and then brings theory to bear on that material to see what insights it can provide. To make it scientific that person must be as willing to junk that theory altogether as much as to validate it.
This is essentially the difference between pure philosophy (like Cassier’s Post-Kantian philosophical anthropology of Symbolic Forms) and a philosophically-informed Social science like Interpretive/symbolic and phenomenological anthropology.
So for me, Cassirer (or other Post Kantian philosophers for that matter), are interesting the way pure mathematics is interesting. But it’s the raw dynamics of real living systems that I’m most intrigued by. I’m most interested in what happens when the ideal hits the real and what we learn about ourselves and the world as a result.
Mankind is vast, complex, and multidimensional. To truly understand him, you need to empathetically spend time with him in his life, listen, learn, observe and reflect.