Winks and twitches <debate> <long>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 3 Apr 1996 07:09:28 +0900

Bob Graber writes,

"Geertz--and presumably Ryle--attach special importance to the
indistinguishability, objectively, of a wink from a twitch. I find
highly implausible, and have assumed Geertz was asserting it
mainly in
order to deepen the impression that the the world of meaning is
ultimately inaccessible to objective study; hence, all we can do is

I know that Bob is not alone in seeing Geertz' call for "thick
description" as leading to a focus on subjective interpretations of
meaning and, thus, away from objective science. Personally,
what I took from Geertz is precisely the opposite--an argument
that meaning is not subjective, hidden away in hearts and minds
and thus inaccessible to observation. It is, on the contrary, a
largely public matter of social conventions and codes and thus
accessible to observers, including anthropologists as well as other
scholars. A meaning is neither more or less a theoretical entity
than, say, quarks, strings, black holes, newly emerging species, or,
for that matter, Burckhardt's renaissance or Jameson's post-
modernism. Considered in isolation a twitch and a wink may be
physically similar. Whether the twitch is a genuine wink, an
actor's imitation of a wink, or reflex response to dust in the eye
depends on observable social circumstances.

As another example, which Ralph Holloway may want to
comment on, consider the vexed issue of trying to identify the
earliest stone tools. Is a hunk of rock with a chip knocked off one
side a tool? Its physical appearance suggests that it might be. The
clincher is evidence that it was used as a tool, e.g., association
with bones showing marks of cutting or scraping, or, more
simply, finding it in a place where there are no physically similar
stones, suggesting that someone carried it there.

All this is not to say, of course, that different forms of theory and
evidence may be required for the study of meanings from those
available in classical physics, economics, psychoanalysis, etc.
Geertz himself has been a great writer of prolegomena to this and
that which, to my mind, have never been sufficiently followed
up. (My American Ethnologist piece "Negotiating with Demons"
is one stab in this direction.) But, again, there is a tendency
to overstate the differences between "interpretation" and even the most
physical of sciences.

Here I offer one last example, which has always fascinated me.
The issue is temperature. Using a conventional thermometer, temperature can be
defined operationally as the height of a column of mercury. On the surface of a
star, our sun will do nicely, the thermometer in question cannot exist. It
will, if someone tries to put it there, be
instantly reduced to plasma. What then is the relation between
the temperature I read from my thermometer when I have a bit
of fever and the astronomer's assertion that the surface of the
sun is X thousand degrees Kelvin? Ah, yes, we have a theory...a
well defined body of social conventions with a lot of institutional
support. And how do we know what the theory means? That has
more to do with understanding winks than twitches.

John McCreery
April 3, 1996