Practical epistemology

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sun, 20 Nov 1994 11:04:17 JST

Dear Colleagues,

A while back, John Stevens and I began talking about what I call either
"practical epistemology" or "less-than-perfect methodology." We slipped away
from anthro-L to carry on our conversation in private. I have asked, and
received, John's permission to make our discussions public again, with an
eye to hearing from others with different points of view. Our recent
discussions have centered on David Scott's critiques of Bruce Kapferer's
_Celebration of Demons_. I now remark, as follows:

I've spent the morning reading over the papers by David Scott you
sent me. Here are some early impressions. On first readings, the
ones I find most interesting are "The Cultural Poetics of Eyesight..."
and "Conversion and Demonism: Colonial Christian Discourse..." Why?
Both get beyond the snide and labored "nya nya nya nya nya nyaaa..."
of statements like "Anthropology as an authoritative discourse of
cultural difference in other words needs to be self-reflexively
cognizant that its knowledges are always produced through, and
inscribed within, relations of power." The former tells me that
Kapferer who claims to be writing a phenomenological analysis has
neglected a key fact in the way the Sinhalese talk about yaktovil.
They don't see the problem as one in which demons penetrate the
walls of a guarded self and evict the owner (the justification for
calling the process "possession." Instead, they see the demons as
casting a baleful gaze that upsets the balance of a self conceived as
a mixture of humours, a different bouillabaise altogether. The latter,
once it gets beyond its pretentious beginning, makes some useful
points about not seeing the British-Sinhalese colonial encounter in
ahistorical, essentialist terms and the virtues of recognizing that
18th-century rationalists and 19th century evangelicals coming at
the same phenomenon with different assumptions and agendas saw
things in different ways.

The question for me is whether, in addition, anything is added to my
understanding by the kind of sentence quoted above. If Scott had
written, instead, "Anthropologists need to be aware that we do our
work in particular political situations and use ideas with political
implications because these may distort our understanding of what is
going on," my response would have been, "Yes, of course." It would
also have been, "So what's new?" But that's more because I've been
put off by his look-at-me-I'm-so-with-it-stupid language than
because I disagree with what he says.

More seriously, I am not at all happy with formulas like "colonial
power produced a discourse." Did British friqates produce a
discourse? Did planters knocking back "stingahs" in their clubs
produce a discourse? From what follows, I take it that assorted
people, at first some military officers and and later some
missionaries, pursued their hobbies and in the process may have
influenced (or merely reflected) policy decisions vis-a-vis British
administration. But how this happened and precisely what was
involved remains to be demonstrated. Can (and here I'll be
pretentious, too, and cite the noble Gadamer) "power" be separated
from the "discourse" which embodies it in a way that makes it
coherent to say that one produces the other instead of vice-versa?

More seriously, still, suppose that we proclaim, as Scott so often
does, that we have "unmasked" the relationships of power involved
in anthropological encounters. Suppose, further, that we are right.
What particular relevance does this have to how we evaluate
anthropologist's statements? Putting aside the silly notion that
ideas are inherently tainted by the moral character of those who
hold them--since might is sometimes right as well as frequently
wrong--what, in fact, are we left with?

The "eyesight" business makes a good example. Competing
interpretations are offered. The adherent of one points to a "fact" (a
jointly observable something that all who care can agree is
"objectively" there) which seems to embarass the other. The other
has set himself up for this by claiming to speak "from the native's
point of view" when the natives speak in other terms. Are his
theories "wrong"? At the level of the "native point of view" this
would certainly seem to be the case (score one for Scott). Are they
still wrong if--bracketing the native point of view--we ask how
good an account they give of the rites under study? I am not yet
prepared to say. Scott hasn't worked out in detail the implications
of "gaze" vs "possession" when it comes to interpreting the rites in

I recall a famous example from Birt _The Metaphysical Foundations
of Modern Science_. When Copernicus put the sun in the center of the
solar system he was, it appears, motivated by mystical neoPlatonic
ideas that now seem utterly irrelevant to the truth or falsity of his
claims. As a predictor of planetary motion, his theory was NO MORE
ACCURATE than Ptolemy's. Worse still it predicted stellar parallax,
a phenomenon that COULD NOT BE OBSERVED until more than a
century later when sufficiently powerful telescopes were developed.
On empirical grounds, it should have been rejected.

Now clearly interpreting other people's behavior and predicting planetary
motions are different sorts of enterprises. Still, I have never been able to
see why one involves fundamentally different abilities than the other.
Both require an ability to suspend judgment, listen carefully to what
others have said about the object of study, then move to some mutually
agreeable grounds on what will count as evidence for whichever position
we choose to take. The "native story" must certainly be paid attention to and
given consideration every bit as serious as that accorded the outside
observer's. That it should be given an unquestioned and automatic priority
seems to me naive.

Cheers, John