INTRODUCTION: Cultural and Linguistic Anthropology and the Opacity of Other Minds

By Robbins, Joel; Rumsey, Alan | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

INTRODUCTION: Cultural and Linguistic Anthropology and the Opacity of Other Minds


Robbins, Joel, Rumsey, Alan, Anthropological Quarterly


The essays in this Social Thought and Commentary section are exercises in a tried and true anthropological trick, albeit one that these days is perhaps not so often performed. The trick involves taking some very focused, one might even say " small," bits of ethnography and using them to unsettle major doctrines of social thought. Among famous David and Goliath efforts along these lines, one thinks of Malinowski's deployment of the details of Trobriand social structure and personal life to cast doubt on the universality of the Oedipus complex, or, closer thematically to our focus here, of Michelle Rosaldo's Ilongot-based assault on speech act theory (to which we return below). Neither of these efforts even approached complete success in unseating the paradigms they took on-entrenched ideas die hard-but they did stimulate a lot of valuable social-theoretical debate. Our aim here is to try to do the same.

The focused bit of ethnography which all of the contributors to this special section have in hand is the assertion, widespread in the societies of the Pacific, that it is impossible or at least extremely difficult to know what other people think or feel. We have called this idea the doctrine of "the opacity of other minds." The opacity doctrine is not limited to the Pacific (as noted in several of the essays that follow), and it is likely that in most societies one can occasionally find people ruminating on how difficult it is to see into the hearts and minds of others. But the opacity doctrine is unusually well developed in many of the cultures of the Pacific, where it is not so much a matter of episodic personal reflection as it is a widely shared and taken-for-granted fact about the world, and one that shapes normative orders and everyday practice. In Pacific societies where the opacity doctrine is present, for example, people are often expected to refrain from speculating (at least publicly) about what others may be thinking, and penalties for gossip about other people's intentions are often very high (see Schieffelin, this collection). For related reasons, people tend to put little store in the veracity of what others say about their own thoughts, rarely expecting that they can take such reports as reliable guides to how those who make them will behave in the future. Many other examples of the way opacity ideas shape the course of daily life appear in the papers collected here. But these brief observations should be enough to carry the point that such ideas have real ramifications in the Pacific societies in which they appear.

If our privileged piece of data is quite focused, the social theoretical target at which we aim it is broader. It is the contention of our essays that Pacific opacity doctrines ought to force a rethinking of some fairly settled approaches to topics such as the nature of theories of mind, the role of intention in linguistic communication and social interaction more generally, and the importance of empathy in human encounters and in anthropological method. In all of these areas, Pacific assumptions about the impossibility of knowing the minds of others fundamentally contradict social scientific models that assume such knowledge is possible, and that further assume that gaining such knowledge stands universally as a regulating ideal for human beings in engagement with their fellows. Can our theories imagine that we might approach other people without assuming that we can know something about what goes on in their heads? Or that we might interpret their speech without explicitly making guesses about their intentions in producing it? Or that we can get along with others without assuming that we can replicate their thoughts and feelings within ourselves as a way of understanding how things are with them? Could we ever cooperate with each other without being able to mind-read on all these levels? At least as they talk about their lives, many people in the Pacific appear to answer yes to these questions. …

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