Re: Biological = trivial?

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 14 Aug 1996 09:29:04 +0900

McCreery writes,
>>There is also the fundamental question of whether a "consistent concept" is
>>what we ought to be looking for. Suppose, instead, that we assumed, as
>>Victor Turner did on largely Marxist and Freudian grounds, that all aspects
>>of human behavior are shot through with conflict and contradiction. Could
>>we be chasing a red herring?

Tanner replies,

>Religion may empically shot through with contradiction. But there is a
>different use of "Religion' when it is used to generalize about different
>ideas and practices cross-culturally. In such a case we can decide to forego
>any contradication of our own as far as possible, by using the term
>descriptively in a consistent way. Applying it without being contradictory
>does not mean we are unable to include within the term ideas which
>themselves may be contradictory.
Sure. But I'd like to take this as an opportunity to pull together thoughts
on several different threads. All are characterized by a search for
definitions, where definition seems to mean a set of sufficient conditions.
The typical response when someone offers a definition of X (call it
"religion," "tribe," "ethnies," whatever) in terms of conditions x1,
x2....xn, is for someone else to point out an instance of something they
would consider necessary for something to be called "X," which is not
covered by the definition offered, which is then taken to be a
demonstration that the original definition fails. QED.

Mike Salovesh has just done a wonderful job of pointing out how pointless
this process is in discussing efforts to define sociology vs. social
anthropology. Better still, he has demonstrated a markedly better way to go
about things: starting with observed similarities, noting observed
differences, attempting to explain the differences, feeding back the result
to the original observation of similarities, which may now have to be

Isn't this, one may ask, that business of definition all over again? No, it
isn't. Why? Because there is no assumption built into the "observed
similarities" that these observations will constitute sufficient conditions
for some "object" that appears universally with the same "essential"

My remarks about seeking a consistent concept for religion would probably
have been better phrased "a *single* consistent concept." My own assumption
would be that behavior observably similar to that we learn to identify as
religion in our own cultural context is quite widespread, but that
"religion" is, like Wittgenstein's "game" a label for a chain of family
resemblances that link examples of behavior that at the extremes of the
chain may turn out to be very different indeed. Our task, however, is not
to chop off one end of the chain or another, but instead to examine the
links in the chain to discover how we get from one end to the other.

We also need to be mindful of the fact that the chain itself may only be
one link in a network of intersecting chains, which go off in different
directions. Why it is that we, like other human beings, have a powerful
tendency to want to wall off certain sections of the net and call them
definitions is something that needs to be explained, not simply taken for

The similarity between these remarks and Tom Kavanagh and John Stevens
talking about ethnic identities, or Danny Yee and Nick Gessler talking
about the way that neural networks work, or Patsy Evans' synthetic
definition of culture is deliberate. It is also congenial with Tanner's
statement that he doesn't want to start with a hard-and-fast definition of
religion. These are what I would label "useful" similarities--in contrast
to logic-chopping definitions, which (pun intended) leave missing links all
over the place.

P.S. Suggestion for a useful piece of research. I'd do it myself but have
some other projects that take priority just now. Suppose that we were to
take Kroeber and Kluckhohn's list of definitions of "culture", flesh it out
with more current attempts, and map them onto a multidimensional space in
which all the criteria ever offered provide the dimensions. First' we'd
graph how definitions cluster. Then, if we added a time dimension and
spread the map out along it, we might discover some very interesting things
about how anthropology's self-definition has evolved. Just a thought. Any
takers out there?

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo