Back to Front Thinking

I said I was going to say more about that Washington Post article and skepticism. So here’s some more.

It has to do with the first three paragraphs, which set up some of the recurring ideas in the article.

The Native Americans were not making her job any easier. “This is a very discouraging job, ethnologically speaking,” she began a letter to a friend. She went on to paint a picture that is almost a parody of bad anthropology: The natives just aren’t very interesting, or reliable, or trustworthy…there is “no way of checking whether they are telling the truth”…She cross-examines, bullies and all but calls her “informants” liars…

There. What on earth is he talking about? I would really like to know. I’m not an anthropologist, but I know a few, and I’ve read some anthropology (as who hasn’t), and I would have thought – I could have sworn – that the difficulties Mead cites are just utter commonplaces in the field. There is no way of checking whether one’s subjects and informants are telling the truth. Duh! That’s what makes anthropology difficult, isn’t it, that’s why anthropologists have to learn unfamiliar languages and spend years in the field and why even then they aren’t necessarily sure or even very confident that they’ve got everything right. Is that not both obvious and well-known? (And as I mentioned, isn’t that, amusingly enough, the very problem with Mead’s first field work that Derek Freeman wrote a [much contested] book about? Yes, it is. She didn’t check her informants, she didn’t learn the language at all thoroughly, and she lived with non-Samoans because she [understandably, but unfortunately for her work] didn’t want to live in crowded quarters and eat unappealing food. And she didn’t treat her own findings with nearly enough caution and skepticism in the light of all these limitations.) So why does Kennicott call Mead’s utterly unsurprising comments in a letter to a friend ‘almost a parody of bad anthropology’? Unless he’s claiming that anthropology is itself inherently bad, precisely because of these epistemic issues – in which case it should be all one word: badanthropology. That is a claim that gets made, of course, and anthropologists and the discipline as a whole do notoriously have bad consciences about the whole thing, for understandable reasons. (I don’t particularly want an anthropologist to come wandering in here and stand making notes on the way I type and the way I drink coffee and the way I emit a barely-audible whine when I’m trying to think.) But if his claim is that anthropology that takes such problems as unreliable sources into account is bad while anthropology that ignores them is good – that’s a different kind of claim. He’d need to define bad and good, for a start. Perhaps by ‘bad’ he means disrespectful, colonialist, unkind. It seems pretty clear that he does. But the trouble is, bad anthropology really ought to mean something more like anthropology that doesn’t do its job properly – anthropology that’s bad at doing anthropology, that’s bad as anthropology, as bad carpentry means carpentry that falls apart as opposed to carpentry that is unkind or impolite. Any branch of inquiry – history, biology, forensics – that does an inept job of finding out what it’s trying to find out is thus bad at its job. Other kinds of bad need to be specified and spelled out.

Kennicott didn’t bother to do that. Why. Because he assumes it’s self-evident? Yes, probably, judging by the way he assumes it’s self-evident that the National Gallery ought not to talk about an artist’s way of painting instead of his opinions on race. And if so, that’s one place more skepticism and careful thinking is needed: in awareness that what one takes to be self-evident may not be.

But another and perhaps more important place is in the basic idea behind what he says – that skepticism about what people tell other people about themselves is reprehensible. That idea seems to me to be a blueprint for the very woolliest of wooly thinking. I mean to say – does the poor guy really think that people never tell other people lies about themselves? Or that they never shade the truth a little, or that they never hold anything back, or that they are never wrong about themselves? If so – well. His life must be one long series of big surprises. (And he really ought to read some Goffman and Trivers, among other people.)

But maybe he doesn’t actually believe it, maybe it’s just that he has made a principled decision to believe it, or to try to believe it, or to behave as if he believes it. For moral and political reasons. What he says does seem to imply that.

Once any outsider starts thinking like an anthropologist, it’s hard not to start asking those bullying Margaret Mead questions. How do you know the natives are telling the truth? Is something sacred just because they say it’s sacred? How do you know that they’re not snowing you with all that talk of the Creator and the power of place and all the happy animism that runs through the general discourse of native life? If you believe that only native voices can get at the truth of native people, you must take it all in at face value. Truth is what individual people say about themselves, beyond refute and suspicion — which is perhaps the most powerful, and radical, challenge that Postmodern thought has proposed.

‘If you believe that only native voices can get at the truth of native people, you must take it all in at face value.’ No. The conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise – he’s talking about two different things there. Come on, dude, pull yourself together. It can be perfectly true that only I can get at the truth about me, that only X can get at the truth about X, and still not be at all true that I am going to tell you or anyone else that truth. Look, I’ll demonstrate. I’m thinking about a piece of fruit. Only I can know what piece of fruit it is. And I’m not going to tell you. See how easy that is? It was an orange. No it wasn’t, I lied – it was a mango. But was it? There again, see how easy that is?

But even if the conclusion did follow, other questions would remain – such as whether one should decide such questions on moral and political grounds rather than epistemic ones. It is B&W’s position that moral and political grounds are the wrong ones for deciding factual claims. Kennicott is a pretty good object lesson in why – in what happens when one decides factual questions in advance of investigation and evidence. He simply decided that Mead was somehow bad and bullying to say that her informants might not be telling her the truth, while offering not so much as a breath of evidence to show us that they were. He obviously has no idea whether they were or not (how would he?), and yet he tells us it’s bad to think and say that they might not be. Thus he rules out caution and skepticism in advance. And that’s where that kind of a priori thinking gets you.

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