Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Knowing Human Moral Knowledge to Be True: An Essay on Intellectual Conviction

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Knowing Human Moral Knowledge to Be True: An Essay on Intellectual Conviction

Article excerpt

   Culture is not life in its entirety, but just the moment of security,
   strength, and clarity.
   Jose Ortega y Gasset

In mid-1991, a man called Vita, a Himba cattle-herder living in northwestern Namibia, sent his son to ask me to examine his young daughter who was suffering from an ear infection that had spread to her jaw and chin. It was an unusual illness, Vita said, because his other children had had this before, but it had always begun to clear within seven or eight days. Twice that many days had passed, and instead of the expected recovery, the sickness appeared to be worsening. I suggested that he take the toddler to the nearest clinic (about a day's walk), and Vita put his wife and daughter on a donkey and departed. After several days at the clinic, the infection was under control and the girl was improving. Because of the unusual nature of the illness, Vita felt that he ought to contact a diviner to ascertain its cause. He sought out a man with a solid reputation who gave him a convincing diagnosis. A person whom Vita had known in the past, a man of about his own age, was angry and envious of him, and was using omiti (a malicious power) to harm Vita. Instead of harming Vita directly, this man sought to take the life of Vita's daughter, as this would cause him an immense amount of grief. Vita's wife was an unwitting participant in this because the omiti had entered the girl's body through her breast milk; thus she would have to cease breast-feeding immediately. Vita's ancestors were standing ready to deflect the course of the omiti if he would simply offer them a sacrifice. This Vita did, following the prescribed pattern of action, and his daughter made a full recovery.

I draw on this incident as it provides a concrete illustration of a Himba individual's strong commitment to the essential correctness of a particular body of knowledge. Then, as now, Vita was a man of only moderate cattle wealth, but he was widely known among his peers as a wise and intelligent person. His commitment to the correctness of Himba knowledge was emphatically not a matter of blind, unthinking conviction but was instead a matter of active, deliberate, anticipatory, and, to some degree, idiosyncratic thought. Yet how did Vita come to know the foundational ideas of Himba reality to be true? For that matter, how does anyone come to know (1) that the fundamental tenets of his or her cosmology, world-view, and life way ('traditional', post-modern, scientific, or otherwise) are authentic and valid?

As anthropologists, our fieldwork brings us face to face with people who know all sorts of things to be true, things that we classify as lying far beyond our personal experience; still, a knowledge of the veracity of one's moral reality is something that all people require, since such knowledge constitutes a major core of one's identity. Such knowledge is also the source from which one derives that critical sense of constancy or anchorage amid the flux and flow of life. This is a constancy in the form of interpretative knowledge. That individual human beings claim to know particular understandings of the world to be true is clear and quite beyond dispute; so too is the fact (to which any fieldworking anthropologist can attest) that many people possess more than just a working apprehension of their reality, indeed, that many persons are convinced of its correctness. As Evans-Pritchard (1976: 18-32) observed among the Azande, no matter how much he refuted the tenets of Zande reality, their confidence in its truthfulness never waned. Zande conviction is no exception; rather, it underscores a general rule.

My intention here is to explore the nature of intellectual conviction, focusing in particular on the question of how people come to 'know' with conviction that particular conceptions about the world are true. I address this issue by seeking to identify the processes by which one may gain a subjective, yet thoroughly 'convictive' knowledge. …

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