Common Sense as a Cultural System

By Geertz, Clifford | The Antioch Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Common Sense as a Cultural System


Geertz, Clifford, The Antioch Review


Very early on in that album of notional games and abrupt metaphors he called Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein compares language to a city:

Do not be troubled by the fact that [some reduced languages he has just invented for didactic purposes] consist only of imperatives. If you want to say that they are therefore incomplete, ask yourself whether our language is complete--whether it was before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were annexed to it, for these ate, so to speak, the suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be seen as an old city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of modern sections with straight regular streets and uniform houses. [Note: L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (N.Y., 1953), p. 8. I have slightly altered the Anscombe translation.]

If we extend this image to culture, we can say that anthropologists have traditionally taken the old city for their province, wandering about its haphazard alleys trying to work up some rough sort of map of it, and have only lately begun to wonder how the suburbs, which seem to be crowding in more closely all the time, got built, what connection they have to the old city (did they grow out of it? has their creation changed it? will they finally swallow it up altogether?), and what life in such symmetrical places could possibly be like. The difference between the sorts of societies anthropologists have traditionally studied, traditional ones, and the sorts they normally inhabit, modern ones, has commonly been put in terms of primitivity. But it might rather be put in terms of the degree to which there has grown up around the ancient tangle of received practices, accepted beliefs, habitual judgments, and untaught emotions those squared off and straightened out systems of thought and action--physics, counterpoint, existentialism, Christianity, engineering, jurisprudence, Marxism--that are so prominent a feature of our own landscape that we can't imagine a world in which they, or something resembling them, do not exist.

We know, of course, that there is little chemistry and less calculus in Tikopia or Timbuctoo, and that Bolshevism, vanishing-point perspective, doctrines of hypostatic union, and disquisitions on the mind-body problem are not exactly universally distributed phenomena. Yet we are reluctant, and anthropologists are especially reluctant, to draw from such facts the conclusion that science, ideology, art, religion, or philosophy, or at least the impulses they serve, are not the common property of all mankind.

And out of that reluctance has grown a whole tradition of argument designed to prove that "simpler" peoples do so have a sense for the divine, a dispassionate interest in knowledge, a feel for legal form, or a for-itself-alone appreciation of beauty, even if these things are not immured in the neat, compartmentalized realms of culture so familiar to us. Thus Durkheim found elementary forms of religious life among the Australian aborigines, Boas a spontaneous sense of design on the Northwest Coast, Levi-Strauss a "concrete" science in the Amazon, Griaule a symbolic ontology in a West African tribe, and Gluckman an implicit jus commune in an East African one. Nothing in the suburbs that was not first in the old city.

Yet, though all this has had a certain success, in that hardly anyone now conceives of primitives, insofar as they use the term at all any more, as simple pragmatists groping for physical well-being through a fog of superstition, it hasn't stilled the essential question: wherein lies the difference--for even the most passionate defenders of the proposition that every people has its own sort of depth (and I am one of them), admit that there is a difference--between the worked-up shapes of studied, and the rough-cast ones of colloquial, culture. …

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