Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Reading #39: Geertz and Defining Religion

Clifford Geertz.  The Interpretation of Cultures.  Basic Books, New York.  1973.

As interworked systems of construable signs (what, ignoring provincial usages, I would call symbols), culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly--that is thickly--described . . . Understanding a people's culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity (14).

A good interpretation of anything--a poem, a person, a history, a ritual, an institution, a society--takes us into the heart of that of which it is the interpretation.  When it does not do that, but leads us instead somewhere else--into an admiration of its own elegance, of its author's cleverness, or of the beautifies of Euclidean order--it may have its intrinsic charms; but it is something else than what the task at hand calls for (18).

Cultural analysis is (or should be) guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses, not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its boldness landscape (20).

For an anthropologist, the importance of religion lies in its capacity to serve, for an individual or for a group, as a source of general, yet distinctive, conceptions of the world, the self, and the relations between them, on the one hand--its model of aspect--and of rooted, no less distinctive "mental" dispositions--its model for aspect--on the other.  From these cultural functions flow, in turn, its social and psychological ones.  Religious concepts spread beyond their metaphysical contexts to provide a framework of general ideas in terms of which a wide range of experience--intellectual, emotional, moral--can be given meaningful form.  The Christian sees the Nazi movement against the background of The Fall which, though it does not, in a causal sense, explain it, places it in a moral, a cognitive, even an affective sense (123).

A perspective is a mode of seeing, in that extended sense of "see" in which it means "discern," "apprehend," "understand," or "grasp."  It is a particular way of looking at life, a particular manner of constructing the world, as when we speak of an historical perspective, a scientific perspective, an aesthetic perspective, a common-sense perspective, or even the bizarre perspective embodied in dreams and in hallucinations (110).

The view of man as a symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal, which has become increasingly popular both in the social sciences and in philosophy over the past several years, opens up a whole new approach not only to the analysis of religion as such, but to the understanding of the relations between religion and values.  The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and as pressing as the more familiar biological needs.  And, this being so, it seems unnecessary to continue to interpret symbolic activities--religion, art, ideology--as nothing but thinly disguised expressions of something other than what they seem to be: attempts to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand. (140)

A people's ethos is the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood; it is the underlying attitude toward themselves and their world that life reflects.  Their world view is their picture of the way things in sheer actuality are, their concept of nature, of self, of society.  It contains their most comprehensive ideas of order.  Religious belief and ritual confront and mutually confirm one another; the ethos is made intellectually reasonable by being shown to represent a way of life implied by the actual state of affairs which the world view describes, and the world view is made morally acceptable by being presented as an image of an actual state of affairs of which such a way of life is an authentic expression. . . .

Whatever else religion may be, it is in part an attempt (of an implicit and directly felt rather tan explicit and consciously thought-about sort) to conserve the fund of general meanings in terms of which each individual interprets his experience and organizes his conduct.  (127)