Bruce D. Scott (bds@ipp-garching.mpg.de)
9 May 1995 18:34:40 GMT

Obscurantism as defined by Harris:

"Obscurantism is a research strategy whose aim is to subvert the
possibility of achieving a science of human social life.
Obscurantists deny the applicability of scientific research principles
to the study of divergent and convergent sociocultural
phenomena. Their aim orientation is to increase rather than decrease
the semblance of disorder in the sociocultural realm and to cast doubt
on all existing scientific theories without providing plausible
scientific alternatives."

--Marvin Harris, Cultural Materialism, Random House, 1979, Ch 11.

Note that this is not a denigration of anthropology as a field (as in the
accusations some would smear me with), but a principled denunciation
by a serious anthropologist against polemicists who masquerade as
anthropologists and thereby damage the stature of their own field.

Gil Hardwick states:

|> I cannot speak for other anthropologists. My position as previously
|> stated is that aspects of human biology and physiology are already
|> well covered in biology and medicine. Other aspects of the human
|> condition are covered by agriculture, architecture, and so on and so
|> forth. You name it.
|> The specific questions of social organisation particularly concerning
|> the West are covered by sociology.
|> The more general questions on the nature of human society and human
|> culture are left to the domain of anthropology. It is anthropology
|> which takes up the slack in going out among what we refer to loosely
|> as The Other; that is, in Western terms the exotic, the marginal, the
|> autochthonous, the indigenous, and the traditional cultures of the
|> world.

This is his opinion and he is welcome to it. I have seen him wage this
war of separation between cultures concerning the West and those called The
Other before, and am not convinced by what I've seen of it. Why the
artificial separation? In all cultures there is the interaction between
what is done, what is said to be done, the reasons given for what is said
to be done, and the environmental and other noncultural constraints which
often influence what is done. This is as true for the West as a whole and
its subcultures, as it is for The Other, and _its_ subcultures. Splitting
these into "civilised" and "native" categories was done initially out of an
unjust condescension against primal cultures. Now the pendulum of one
culture is to swing back and split them into "The West" and "The Other", or
"technological" and "aboriginal", this time to "celebrate" Those Who Are
Not Us (do take care that "celebration" does not become "patronisation",
please). In my view, it is better to say "people are people" (like the
protest one often hears in soc.culture.native, "we are neither saints nor
devils, just people"), and simply arrive at an understanding of how people
organise themselves into societies without making value judgements about
this or that particular example. Don't forget, self-hate is the flip side
of racism; one does not exist without the other. In my mind, better to
drop both.

Gil further states:

|> That we assert our domain as included in the legitimate scientific
|> discourse on the nature of things surely cannot in any way at all be
|> viewed as opposing progress, assuming that we both mean by progress
|> is advance both in human knowledge and in human edification. Quite to
|> the contrary, I do suggest.

No-one serious denies this. Actually, as Harris notes, the problems begin
when people _demand_ it; i.e., that people in any field of study hold
themselves to a clear structure of logical thought. Most people, save a
few polemicists, have absolutely no trouble with this.

Gil further states:

|> That some anthropologists had failed to take the material environment
|> into account when writing up their field report on the particular
|> group of interest to them is valid but nevertheless insubstantial
|> criticism of their work. The environment was not considered such a
|> high priority then, in the sense that other work was deemed to be
|> more important to have completed first; any gaps merely filled by
|> further field research during the next generation.

I do agree with this; it is the clear distinction Harris makes between
those who concern themselves with only the "emics" but nevertheless propose
a clearly defined method of study on the one hand (for example, "cognitive
idealism"), and those who deliberately muddle the waters of scientific
study on the other ("obscurantism"). This latter camp includes people who
refute an avenue of study by asserting it is "racism in disguise" or some

Fazit: There is nothing wrong at all with refuting an avenue of study. But
it is not acceptable to do it with unscientific means.

Gil asks:

|> Can you offer here evidence substantiating your invoking of Harris'
|> accusations of obscurantism against his colleagues.

The hallmark case: Sahlins's deprecation of cultural materialism by
equating its "overall view" with "business on the scale of history", by
misrepresenting it as a conscious "profit and loss" mode of judgement.
Marshall Sahlins, "Culture as Protein and Profit", New York Review of
Books, November 23: 45-53; discussed in Marvin Harris, _ibid_, pp 332-340.

The point again: One can legitimately point out flaws in Harris's
arguments, but one is expected to use as the target something Harris
actually wrote, arguments he actually made. It is not legitimate to equate
his arguments with a strawman made of imaginary political programs and then
demolish that strawman.

Example of obscurantism: Denunciation of materialist thinking as supporting
the status quo in Western society, something to which Harris is actually
vehemently opposed.

Another example: Insinuating in multi-thread displays that I personally
have denigrated anthropology as an entire field, something which I did not
and do not do, and moreover which I myself denounced when I saw others do

And of course, the deprecation of Harris (and Wilson!) as a "paperback
writer after the fashion of Von Daniken".

Gil states:

|> And neither does it make the broad mainstream of world anthropology
|> obscurantist.

A final challenge to Gil: I challenge him to quote from an actual post,
without forgery, a single statement where I have denigrated anthropology as
an entire field. For I know well, no such quote exists.

Dr Bruce Scott The deadliest bullshit is
Max-Planck-Institut fuer Plasmaphysik odorless and transparent
bds@ipp-garching.mpg.de -- W Gibson