practical epistemology

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 22 Oct 1994 12:52:55 JST

In a reply to an earlier note, John Stevens writes,

"Maybe Wittgenstein is a good place to start, but I must confess my knowledge of
his work is mostly secondhand. I'll try to think of other folks who exemplify
or countermand my own thoughts on epistemology. Hmmm. . ."

Lord have mercy, NO! Let's not talk about Wittgenstein.
Talking about Wittgenstein is an industry that already
suffers from overproduction. Waving the holy name about
was just a bit of showing off on my part. What interested
me in your original comment was the notion that a bunch
us might get some good out of looking closely at what
particular individuals (including ourselves) actually did in
particular situations in conducting their research and
coming to whatever conclusions they did. By carefully
examining how we/they did it, we might get beyond the
grand-slamming on a priori grounds that accounts for so
much *epistemological* discussion.

To get things started, let me throw a piece of my own
stuff on the table: my dissertation research.

When my wife Ruth and I arrived in Taiwan in the fall of
1969, it was my first trip out of North America. I was
interested in ritual, and my principal model for how to do
anthropology was Victor Turner, who, as I have written
before, stressed the need to collect three kinds of data:
(1) detailed observations; (2) local exegeses; and
(3) extended case studies to fill out the background.
Through a series of lucky events I got myself attached to
Tio Se-lian, a Taoist healer who operated a small temple
in the town where Ruth and I were living. By the time I
met Mr. Tio we had spent six months acquiring what I
would now call a fair intermediate speaking knowledge of
Taiwanese. By the time I left Taiwan in the summer of
1971 I had a huge amount of detailed observations, a
handful of local exegeses, and no extended case studies.
Why? Partly a matter of language skills and shyness. While
I could understand roughly what was going on around me,
many nuances escaped me. Also, my subject was a busy
man involved with people with real problems. I was
hesitant to intrude.

Two other factors are also important: First, the master-
disciple relationship I found myself involved in was NOT
one in which the master systematically teaches what he
knows and the disciple progresses step-by-step. It was,
instead, a situation in which the disciple hangs around,
watches what is going on, and, very occasionally, the
master offers a fragment of explanation. The disciple
must work out for himself whatever deeper knowledge he
seeks. To what he sees his master doing, he can add
observations of what other ritual specialists do (there are
lots of them around) or do some reading (we're talking
about a literate society, and even in a country town a
bookseller is sure to have a shelf of books on charms,
incantations, fortunetelling methods, etc.)

The second concerns the nature of the practice that I was
studying. My master was not the medicine man of a small
closed community. His temple was a walk-in storefront in
a town of 35,000 people with as many more living in
surrounding villages. And more often than not we were in
taxicabs racing all over central and northern Taiwan to
perform diagnoses and rituals wherever his referral
network led him.

The upshot of all this was that I wound up doing a study
diametrically opposed in many ways to the village studies
that had previously been the norm in China anthropology.
People who'd lived in villages had all learned a bit about a
many different things. What they had seen included some
rituals: one annual cycle of calendrical rites, and some
weddings, funerals and curing rites. While the rituals they
had seen were relatively few, they knew much more than I
did about the circumstances in which they came to be
performed. I had seen hundreds of rites, but had rarely
been in a position to do more than observe. I was, in
effect, behaving like a linguist who sits down to write a
grammar by working with a single, primary informant
(taking note of what others had to say as I happened to
come across them). Influenced by Maurice Freedman and
Arthur Wolf, most other China anthropologists who wrote
about rituals attempted to relate the presence or absence
of certain symbols (ancestor tablets, shrines and temples,
etc.) to features of social organization (settlement
history, land tenure, lineage organization, that sort of
thing). Influenced by Chomsky and Levi-Strauss, I
attempted to write a "grammar" of Taoist ritual. I had
much to say about the rules that govern syntagmatic
processes and paradigmatic choices and define possible
transformations of one rite into another. I avoided deep
discussions of situated meaning or social/political
implications, because, frankly, I didn't have the data to
support them.

When I started this note, I had in mind that it might make
a point about observer effects: In this case, the
anthropologist's largely passive, observervational stance
meant little or no impact on the situations he observed.
That is, of course, an an altogether different thing from
how his interests and preconceptions affected the way he
wrote up his data.

Looking back over the note, I would add another point I
think very much worth discussing. Much of what I have
read about "writing culture" seems to assume the classic
position of the anthropologist who is the only foreigner
with first-hand knowledge of the people s/he is writing
about and the focus of moral dilemmas because s/he dares
to speak for people who are seen as powerless to speak for
themselves. As someone who studies China and lives in
Japan, I am all too aware that I am only one of a growing
number of people who have studied the same "peoples"
(while not, of course, the same individuals); and not just
anthropologists, either. I am also deeply conscious of the
fact that my "peoples" include a host of articulate
spokesmen for a wide range of often conflicting points of
view; individuals who are often far more knowledgable,
far more eminent, and, yes, more published, than I will
ever be. For any subject that I might care to address, I
could chase relevant texts for more years than my life is
likely to include.

Having said too much already, I wait upon your comments.