The Two Wings of the Bird

This is a presentation at the Society of Ethnobiology annual meeting, Berkeley, March 2007.  It argues for using “scientific” and “humanistic” methods of description and analysis together, as part of a single agenda.  The great anthropologists of the past did this.  The current “wars” between science and humanistic approaches are counterproductive.

Paper, Society of Ethnobiology, Annual Conference, Berkeley, 2007


E. N. Anderson
Dept. of Anthropology
University of Washington

Apparently, there still exists in some quarters a rivalry between “scientific” and “humanistic” anthropologists and anthropologies.  This being the case, it is appropriate to restate the classic Boasian, and more broadly Neo-Kantian, framework from which ethnobiology emerged.  This theoretical perspective sees scientific and humanistic scholarship as equally necessary and basic to understanding people; the quest for knowledge is one.  The cultures we study do not make this particular separation.  I have compared scientific and humanistic analyses to the two wings of a bird; the bird cannot fly without both working together, but neither one is the bird itself.  Examples from Northwest Coast cultures provide not only evidence for this, but new and different ways of looking at the enterprise of understanding.

“There is only your own pair of wings and the pathless sky.

Bird, o my bird, listen to me, do not close your wings.”

Rabindranath Tagore

Coming to the University of Washington, I was rather surprised to find that the students felt a real tension between the more scientific and the more humanistic sides of the discipline there.  At my previous home in the University of California, Riverside, we did not have this problem, because so many of us incorporated both approaches in our work.  Even those who were clearly on the scientific side or clearly on the humanistic side worked together, feeling that they needed each other.  This seems not to be always the case at UW.  It certainly is not the case at several other departments, which have split in two over the issue.  I understand (via the gossip mill) that most of them actually split because of personal vendettas, but the science-humanities war was the excuse given to university administrators.  More widely, in the academic world, we hear of “the two cultures” (Snow 1964), and “science wars” (Anderson 2000), and much else.

This made me think about my own training, and why I am continually mystified by this separation.  During my student days, I was exposed to various theoretical approaches, all of which I found valuable, but the overarching view in those days was the classic Boasian one.  Boas and his students used scientific and humanistic approaches together, and saw them as one single integrated pursuit for truth and understanding.  Other social scientists of the time—Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and others—may not have been quite so eclectic, but they too used statistics, scientific data, literary and textual materials, and creative interpretation with glorious abandon, seeing no problem in doing so.

I have often compared scientific and humanistic scholarship to the two wings of a bird.  Without both wings working together, the bird doesn’t fly.  But the wings are not the bird; the bird’s self is embodied in its heart and brain and guts as well as its wings.  The wings are necessary, but do not define the bird.

The most articulate spokesman for this view among my teachers was Dell Hymes.  He was a poet, a poetic translator, an interpreter, and a literary analyst.  He was also an solidly scientific linguist who was unexcelled in rigor and thoroughness.  He stressed to us students that one simply had to do both.  Traditional oral performance is about emotion, poetry, visionary experience, and deep inner passions, and you have to understand that, emotionally and intuitively as well as cognitively.  But you can’t understand it without being absolutely fluent in the language and absolutely meticulous about recording and using every bit of data you can find, and this requires a solid grounding in linguistic science (see Hymes 1981, 2003).

This was a Boasian point, articulated (though never well laid out) in many of Boas’ writings (see e.g. Boas 1917, 1928; see also Lewis 2001a, 2001b).  Boas measured bones, analyzed languages, collected material culture, translated oral traditions, and interpreted art.  Most of my teachers would have agreed, to varying degrees, with Boas’ and Hymes’ eclectic approach.  Certainly, the ones that influenced me most (including B. N. Colby and George Foster) did exactly that in their work.  Some were more on the “science” end (Brent Berlin, for instance), some more humanist (John Rowe stands out), but I remember no special tension or bias.

I think the division really began with my generation of students.  Some were getting into fairly rigorous, theory-driven modeling, deriving their models and overarching theory from cognitive psychology or from economics.  This work could get exceedingly scientific, and often scientistic.  There was more than a little modeling-for-modeling’s-sake, and a great show of computer skill.  “Math envy” and “physics envy” were in the air.  This work came in large part from my area of specialization—cultural ecology and ethnobiology—and I knew many of the founding fathers and mothers.

On the other hand, some of my fellow students were much more narrowly interested in interpretive approaches.  Much of this latter tendency, especially in my undergraduate venue (Harvard), came directly or indirectly from the work of Talcott Parsons.  Parsonians focused on “values” and interpretive approaches, and broad mentalistic programs of study.  Clifford Geertz, the arch-interpretivist, was somewhat ahead of me as a student under Douglas Oliver’s direction.  (I never met Geertz, but I knew his colleagues in Oliver’s projects.)  I followed Oliver into cultural ecology and political economy, but Geertz’ influence came from the Social Relations program, which Parsons led along with Clyde Kluckhohn and the psychologist Henry Murray.  I guess it’s nice to have been in at the birth of all this, but not so nice when one considers what was born.  (Parsonian sociologists were relatively spared from becoming polarized.  For example, Randall Collins, a student under Parsons in those days, integrates rigorous science and literary texts with Boas-like eclecticism; see Collins 2001.  Even so, sociologists have complained to me about science-vs-humanities wars in their own departments.)

All this took place in a framework of opposing philosophies.  (To avoid flooding the reference list, let me merely refer you to Martin and McIntyre 1994, an anthology that includes selections from everything you might want on these matters).  The scientists were influenced, directly or indirectly, by positivism—not so much Ernst Mach’s original, rather Kantian, program as the more rigorous and empirical logical positivism of Karl Popper (2002) and Hans Reichenbach (1954).  This turned on verification and disproof.  A theory generated hypotheses.  These could be confirmed—verified—by independent research teams, or it could be disproved.  A theory, as Popper memorably taught, could rarely be verified in toto; it could only be disproved, shot down by fatal flaws.  A theory that could not be proved or disproved was without information content and basically worthless.  Popper rather unfairly logged Marxism and Freudian psychology in that category.  (Since then, many scholars have disproved large chunks of those theories, proved other parts; see e.g. Elster 1984 for Marxism, Grunbaum 1984 for Freudianism.  Conversely, few if any comprehensive theories can be disproved by one key experiment, as Popper had hoped.  Popper’s test has not worn well [Kitcher 1993].)  Positivism had been growing in importance since the 1930s, and influenced social scientists to varying but often profound degrees, peaking in the 1950s.

Positivism in its anthropological form tended to take two directions.  First was a highly theory-conscious, model-building one.  It rarely satisfied Popper’s criteria. The models were generally too vague or local to test.  Second was a naïve empiricism—”just the facts, ma’am,” in the words of a famous radio program of the time.  This form was supposed to generate objective truth, free from context or interpretation.  Mach and Popper would have gritted their teeth over this, but it was widely held possible, especially in physical anthropology and archaeology.

The interpretivist tradition came from German idealist philosophy.  It was enormously influenced by literature and by literary criticism.  Parsons’ close associate Henry Murray and his psychological colleagues and followers (such as Erik Erikson and Edwin Shneidman) were more apt to quote writers like Herman Melville than scientific psychologists.  Parsons’ closest anthropological colleague was Clyde Kluckhohn, who was moving in a strongly idealist and interpretive direction.  Tragically, his career was cut short by an early heart attack.  However, his effect on the students of that period was enormous.

Meanwhile, already in the 1960s, the French influence was emerging.  It brought European philosophical traditions like phenomenology to American shores.  The real triumph of French philosophes over German idealists came in the 1970s and 1980s, when deconstruction and poststructuralism hit social science with nuclear-bomb effect.  (This was not always true in the homeland, which had its own science wars.  One French colleague whom I asked about Jacques Derrida and the postmodernists replied: “Oh, they’re philosophes. We don’t pay any attention to them.”)  Structuralism and Foucault-style historical theory were popular at first, but they seemed to the next generation to be too positivist.  They attended to data and confirmation.  They depended on rigorous analysis, or at least on the appearance of it.

With Derrida and his ilk, all that blew away.  All was text and interpretation; there were no free-standing, objective facts.  An extreme and not-very-close reading of Michel Foucault convinced many that “knowledge” and knowledge-based instutitions consisted of arbitrary beliefs and systems cynically forced on people by rulers as a part of ruling.  All this played into the hands of the wilder youth at Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, and other elite private schools.

Rarely pointed out is the intensely right-wing ideology behind deconstruction and textualism (as well as those inordinately free readings of Foucault—no right-winger himself).  It derives from the extremist right-wingers Nietzsche, Heidegger, Ricoeur, and de Man.  Many of its adherents in America considered themselves “progressive,” but their theory, combined with their positions as sheltered, tenured academics in elite centers of white privilege, “deconstructed” this claim quite thoroughly.

Of course, the various traditions vaguely lumped as “postmodern” or “poststructural” include many other streams, including more credibly progressive theories such as Bourdieu’s. The postmodernism that caught on at the elite private schools, however, were the most regressive and right-wing, a point made frequently in the French academic media but rarely in American ones.

Marxism was a minority influence throughout this period, but rather a wash as far as “science wars” were concerned, since self-designated Marxists existed in both camps.

This might seem odd, since Marx called for a “science of history.”  However, it introduces us to a key point:  the lost, neglected viewpoint that had given way to positivism and empiricism on the one hand, idealism and deconstruction on the other.

That viewpoint, shared by major early figures in social science, was mainstream Kantian and neo-Kantian thought.  Kant, in the late 18th century, had dealt with Hume’s critique of empirical knowledge, by rebuilding knowledge from the inside out.  Kant acknowledged that we have only our own experience.  We may not even be able to say (with Descartes) “I think, therefore I am,” but at least we can say there is some kind of experience happening.  At the bare minimum, we sense space, time, personhood and interaction.  I need not go into Kant’s complex and arcane philosophy any further; suffice it to say that he based it on personal experience of the world, and, notably, on people’s experience of each other.

Anthropologists rarely realize that Kant launched their discipline by writing the first book explicitly about it:  Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1978; German original 1798).  This book seems more like social psychology than anthropology to the modern reader, but it includes the seeds of both fields.

Many streams flowed from the Kantian spring.  At one extreme was one influenced by Hegel and Herder, which led to German idealism and ultimately to Parsons.  At another was the hard-headed, fact-based stream that led to Ernst Mach’s concern with measuring, recording, and verifying experience.  Still another was the combination of Kantian phenomenology with Hegelian dialectics that became Marxism.

Still other, more central streams preserved Kant’s focus on experience of the world and of other people.  These led to modern social science.  A critical intermediary was the neo-Kantian program centered in Germany in the mid- to late 19th century (Patterson 2001).  The important thinkers from my point of view in the present paper were Boas, Durkheim, Weber, and Wilhelm Dilthey.  The last of these is little known in the United States, and generally misrepresented as just another German idealist.  He was not; he was the pioneer of modern interaction research (see Dilthey 1985).  His student George Herbert Mead introduced it to the United States.  Mead’s work led to modern social psychology and to the sociology of Erving Goffman and, more recently, Randall Collins (2001).

Leaving Durkheim, Weber and Dilthey for another occasion, let us return to Boas.  Boas absorbed a neo-Kantian interest in culture, a term just coming into its own.  Boas’ teacher, Adolf Bastian, was a politically liberal-to-radical ethnologist, and an eclectic student of all things human.  Bastian elaborated the need to record all cultural detail, as important expressions of the human spirit.  From Bastian and from linguists such as Georg Steinthal, Boas acquired a sense that communication is the basis of culture, society, and indeed human life.  No interaction occurs without communication, obviously.  More to the point, no human experience is unaffected by other people.  Culture grows from interaction, and takes on a life of its own, instantiated in the rules and patterns that humans live by.  These rules can be economic or social or artistic.  Understanding humanity involves understanding the cultural patterns by which humans know how to fish, make spearpoints, talk, tell stories, create art, marry, raise children, live and die.  Later, Ruth Benedict and Claude Lévi-Strauss were to try in very different ways to find simple underlying patterns in cultures, but Boas never went to that extreme; he was willing to look at the patterns that emerged clearly in the data at hand.  Part of the reason for this was that Boas saw the patterns as mere instantiations of the communication taking place in interactions. The communication itself was what mattered.  This is why Boas devoted so much of his attention to training his students in linguistics and in recording vast masses of texts on every possible subject.

Now, if what you are studying is human experience, and you believe that experience takes place in interpersonal contexts and via communication, you will naturally focus on that, and thus you will have to look at the whole spectrum from economics to poetry.

Of the great foundational social scientists, only Boas focused on communication as the start-point for analyzing all human action.  De Saussure (another neo-Kantian) was equally concerned with it, but never strayed from tightly focused study of language.  Dilthey focused on interaction per se, not on its mechanism.  Marx had a similar breadth of vision, but he focused on production, not communication, as the real basis of society.  (Incidentally, note the critical point that Marxian theory foregrounds production, while neoclassical economics foregrounds distribution and consumption.)  Durkheim and Weber shared Marx’ concern with interaction, but stayed at a more abstract level, looking at the social institutions that resulted from it.

Even social scientists who did not share Boas’ neo-Kantian framework adopted his holistic vision.  Thus, my colleague Alan Fix, though a highly “scientific” biological anthropologist, advocates four-field unity, works with cultural anthropologists and linguists and archaeologists, and integrates all into his studies of migration and how it affects genetics (Fix 1999).  This Boasian physical anthropology contrasts sharply with the narrowly “biological” work done by some others.  Similarly, my archaeological colleagues have worked in areas that integrate art, biology, and linguistics.

Comparing this to the positivist and postmodernist visions, we see these latter ones as limited and limiting.  Positivists are necessarily stuck in the areas for which clear, objective data are believably findable:  agriculture, stoneworking, housebuilding, bone-counting, and the like.  They really cannot deal in any very deep way with the arts or with religious ideology.  Moreover, they are subject to the criticism that even the most carefully recorded data points do not speak for themselves.  Somebody has to cut them from their matrix, count them, arrange them, and put them together into a table or model or story.  This all too often involves introducing hidden biases.  The checkered history of racism proves this, as Boas pointed out in great detail (Boas 1940; Boas was averse to “talking theory,” so the theoretical sophistication of his attacks on racism have been missed until recently).

Postmodernists, if they take their own rhetoric seriously, are trapped in a solipsistic world where they cannot assert anything as true—they can only give their views and interpretations, inevitably limited.  Naturally, such views are biased.

Only some postmodernists go so far as to deny all truth.  Most stop somewhat short of this.  Some deploy “truths” in their own service, but maintain their opponents have mere socially-constructed discourse.  Other postmodernists try to be aware of their biases, and suit the bias to the cloth, so to speak—losing objectivity in defense of whatever group of people they advocate at the moment.  Less extreme postmodernists are not under such handicaps, but are prone to work in areas where interpretation is prior.  They analyze religion, arts, political rhetoric.  They do not usually do much with material culture or subsistence or production; when they do, they often pick up positivist or neo-Kantian methods for analyzing same.

Postmodernists tend to claim that all is “discourse” or rhetoric.  This leads them to denying the real objective importance of environmental deterioration, and even of illness and starvation.

Hence the rapid propagation of departmental splits and “science wars” in the last 30 years.

Obviously, I think the time is long overdue for us to go back to Boas.  I personally would not advocate his foregrounding of communication.  I prefer a more eclectic approach that involves foregrounding interaction (with Dilthey), production and political economy (with Marx), social institutions (with Durkheim, Weber, and modern institutional economists), and basic human nature (with the evolutionary psychologists).  The last of these is not a neo-Kantian point, though Kant himself addressed it at length in his anthropology.

A focus on interaction with the world, and consequent accommodation to reality in spite of information-processing biases and cultural blinders, would be adequate, but phenomenology—especially in Kay Milton’s form—adds the key focus on personal experience.  Analysis begins with the subject’s total experience of the world.  This involves factual knowledge, emotional response, interpersonal interaction, cultural enrichment, and the deeper currents of personhood and humanity that integrate these into a whole life and into whole interacting lives.

This leads me to another major personal statement.  Another idea that was strongly put to us in my undergraduate days was “the method of multiple working hypotheses” (Chamberlin 1965/1890).  This technique of research involves going into the field, or lab, with a wide range of theories and hypotheses.  All can be tested to see which fits best.  All theories can contribute some ideas.  All hypotheses may have something to offer.  Even wrong theories may have some useful parts.  Jon Turner, as hard-headed and scientific a sociologist as the world has seen, has even salvaged some correct and useful parts of Freudian theory—that old nemesis of Popper (Turner 2006.)  Even wrong hypotheses may suggest right directions.  Hippocratic-Galenic humoral medicine is wrong, but it systematized a huge mass of empirically correct observations, laying the ground for correct theorizing later (Anderson 1996.)

I have learned over the years that theories are like tools.  They are for use, not for zealotism.  The bigger one’s tool kit, the more one can do.  Loyalty to one theory, and refusal to consider others, is like loyalty to one tool—as if one would use a screwdriver to hammer a nail, slice bread, and jack up a car.  Theory fundamentalism, today, seems to lodge mostly among postmodernists and a few old-style Marxists.  (Even many Marxists are now pretty eclectic.)  After teaching this metaphor for 40 years, I was delighted to find that Michel Foucault uses exactly the same image: he advocates using “theory as a toolkit” (Foucault 1980:145).

I find the classic theories of social science deserve their reputation.  The works of Morgan, Boas, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and the others really are as much better than, say, mine as their fame and citation rates suggest.  By contrast, much—though far from all—of what passes for “theory” in contemporary anthropology is either restatement of their ideas or vapid jargon-slinging.

Within ecological anthropology, I feel a need to use all the labels.  I am an ethnobiologist, cultural ecologist, political ecologist, historical ecologist, environmental anthropologist, environmentalist, conservationist, landscape anthropologist, and anything else you want to raise.  I do all that, for the simple reason that it is all one thing.  Doing “only” ethnobiology is not doing ethnobiology.  If you don’t look at the recent work in political ecology, historical ecology, landscape, conservation biology, and the rest, you just aren’t doing your job.  I have also found that—yet again—the classic foundational theories of social science—and of biology, with Darwin first and foremost, of course—are the ones I use in my ethnobiology and political ecology work.  I use ethnobiological methods all the time, and cultural and political ecology theory, but I keep returning to the classics.  I have been asked about special theories of environmental anthropology.  Yes, there are such theories, but they bud from and depend on the great foundational theories.

That said, there is a major problem with mere eclecticism.  It dose not give a definite standpoint, a criterion of adequacy, or an overarching orientation on which to hang the theories and hypotheses one uses.  It does not suggest a methodology.  It does not provide criteria for truth.  It does not provide criteria for determining what is important.

Therefore, there really is a need for an overarching viewpoint, or theoretic, that not only allows but encourages a broad approach that looks at everything and analyzes everything in appropriate ways.  To me, the best such viewpoint is the mainstream Kantian phenomenology that extends from Boas to such modern writers—uninfluenced by Boas, I may say—as Kay Milton (2002) and David Abram (1996).  Phenomenology does two important things:  first, it focuses on human experience; second, it looks at the full range and scope of human experience.  It does not privilege matter over people.  It does not privilege literary or textual experience over everyday, pragmatic dealings with plants and animals.

Empiricism and garden-variety positivism do not work; they cannot handle art, literature, or the subtleties of religion and belief.  They cannot handle discourse and Foucaultian power-knowledge.  Politics, economics, and other single fields do not work; they deal with only one small part of experience, and often not with experience itself, but with its down-the-line products.  Marxism and other materialisms do not work; their predictions fail.  All these theoretical fields have great value, but do not provide a covering field or overarching framework.

More broadly, the search for truth is vitally important.  The positivists wanted certainty, ideally perfect pure truth.  That is not for this world.  The postmodernists, seeing that perfect pure truth was unattainable, dismissed all truth claims and all concern for accuracy, and created a world where any rhetorical nonsense was equally valid.  This does not help the world.

We will never know absolute perfect pure truth, but the closer we get to it, the better for everybody.  Truth, objectivity, and rationality are process goals, like peace, justice, and health.  We can never reach the goal of perfection in these areas, but any approach to them is an improvement, and any move away from them is disturbing.

Let us briefly consider an application of this to the Northwest Coast.  This is the area most identified with Boas.  He did a good deal of field work there, but came increasingly to prefer training people on the ground to do their own ethnography; eventually he sought out Native American and other indigenous and minority students for his Ph.D. program.  In any case, he, his students, and his field correspondents recorded an incredible range of materials, from recipes and toolmaking knowledge to art, music, and literature.

This has been described as garbage-can ethnography, but in the context of neo-Kantian concepts of culture (Patterson 2001), it was perfectly sensible.  Boas wanted to record the interactive world of the Northwest Coast peoples.  Culture emerges from interaction.  It is the knowledge that is learned and shared.  This perception directs us to look at the communication process.  Boas saw that as basic.  He thus studied language first and foremost, and secondarily the other modes of communication—most notably, the arts.  Then he would focus on what is communicated, and that meant, first of all, myths and tales:  the linguistic forms that are preserved, standardized, and culturally reproduced for generations. He was also interested in the ordinary everyday knowledge that was communicated—all that lore about cooking and toolmaking—but, typically, he was more interested in it for the linguistic value of the texts he collected than for the interest of the knowledge itself.  This deficiency was remedied by other ethnographers, then and since.

Boas did not do much interpretation or analysis.  Unlike phenomenologists, he did not say much about the Northwest Coast experience of the world.  He let the texts do the work.  Those provide magnificent insights into human experience.  The best discussion of that is not by an anthropologist, but by the eminent Candian poet Robert Bringhurst, in his discussion of the Haida texts collected by John Swanton under Boas’ direction (Bringhurst 2000; Ghaandl 2001; Skaay 2001).

From this we learn that Northwest Coast cultures cut up knowledge and the world in a very different way from modern anthropologists.  I have described elsewhere the unity of “scientific” and “religious” knowledge of animals, plants, and natural features.  No one has ever known their natural environment better than the Northwest Coast peoples.  Every detail of natural history was known.  Often, animal and plant natural history was better known than it is to biologists today.  This was part of a system that included equally detailed knowledge about spiritual dimensions of animal life—what biologists would dismiss as magical and supernatural.  To the First Nations, such knowledge did not make a natural/supernatural distinction; all was part of the pool.  What I want to stress in the present paper is the direct, intense emotional and aesthetic involvement that people had in the natural world.  Animals, plants and mountains were members of society—other-than-human, but as much a part of local social life as the humans.  As such, humans’ relationships with them were highly emotionally charged, and ritually and religiously constructed.  This was naturally expressed in art and music.  (The music is less well known than the visual art, but recordings exist.)  In some cases, a whole house front was painted with a powerfully stylized portrayal of a bear or similar significant animal, and members of the household entered through it (Malin 1999).

These beliefs shaped behavior (Anderson 1996; Duff 1996).  Animals such as river otters were widely regarded as spiritually powerful and dangerous, and were feared and avoided.  Some animals were cleansing; the Sto:lo and their neighbors believed that fishers had magical purifying powers, and cured the sick by passing stuffed fishers over them.  More generally, reverence and respect to animals led to conservation, or at least careful hunting.  People returned salmon bones to the rivers as a sign of respect; the bones served to fertilize the water, maintaining productivity in the streams.  Presumably, people had observed that salmon declined without the bone-return.  The people assumed a spiritual rather than mineral-nutrient reason.

We cannot draw lines between “science” and “religion,” “science” and “art,” or “science” and “morality” here.  Even the attempt would lead to distortion of what is actually one knowledge system.  We cannot understand the biologically verifiable knowledge without understanding the art and its conventions.  Similarly, we cannot make sense of the art without knowing enough about the animals to see why they were portrayed in certain ways and not in others.

This all came from a passionate, deep involvement with the natural world.  Society did not stop at the border of Homo sapiens.  Other persons were nonhuman but fully part of society, as close as one’s neighbors and sometimes one’s close kin.  They were “others” in the full sense of Emmanuel Levinas—fellow persons that make us what we are, constitute our very selves, and are thus infinitely important to us (Levinas 1969).

This intense, complex, hard-to-define feeling combines interest, love, excitement, challenge, physical stress, aesthetic involvement, cool rational assessment, economic involvement.  Most Americans today experience it only in their love of their families.  Some of us are lucky enough to experience it in our careers.  Few experience it in relation to nature.

One handicap that modern westerners have in understanding such systems is that the moderns are used to thinking of religious knowledge as frozen in old books and highly resistant to change.  Science, in contrast, is ever changing.  We thus have a major problem understanding “religious” systems in which interest in the world leads to rapid learning and adapting.  This has led to a false view of traditional ecological knowledge that makes it seem static.  Recent studies that emphasize the dynamic character of such systems, as well as the holistic character, are useful correctives (Anderson 2005; Gonzalez 2001; Menzies 2006).

Not only would we fail to understand Northwest Coast knowledge systems without all this; we would fail to see why they are worth maintaining and using today—as they most certainly are (on these issues see Menzies 2006).

The same is true, in the broadest sort of sense, for the Yucatec Maya of Quintana Roo.  They have a similar belief system.  It is distantly related to the Northwest Coast and other North American knowledge systems.  They share such concepts as the idea that taking many animals in rapid succession is disrespectful of the animal spirits and thus leads to failure of game.

Again, emotional involvement with the landscape is critical.  The Maya do not have the rich aesthetic culture of the Northwest, but they react to the forest and the fields.  My coworker Don Felix Medina Tzuc says “Me encanta la selva, me encantan los arboles”—”the forest enchants me, the trees enchant me.”  All Maya households have flowers, and many front gardens are riots of color and variety.  Growing flowers, fruit trees, and even ordinary food crops is the Yucatec Maya answer to Northwest Coast art.  Maya are endlessly fascinated by the forest, its birds, its insects, its very soil.  They have an intense, complex phenomenological relationship with it, not well captured by English words like “love” or “interest.”  The nearest American equivalent seems to be the intense feelings that Americans have about jobs they really love, particularly jobs involving hard physical work.  The farmers and cowboys I knew in my youth would have understood the Maya perfectly, but typical suburban Americans might not.

Such emotion-states find their collective representation in religions that do not separate factual, empirical knowledge from beliefs about supernatural entities and forces.

This is true of Maya religion as of that of the Northwest Coast.  Five centuries of Catholic teaching have not eliminated the Lords of the Forest, Lords of the Field, Rain Gods, and Guardians of the Game.  In many traditional communities, such beliefs are as strong as ever.  These form Durkheimian representations of society, but also of individuals’ total involvement in forests and fields.

Australian aboriginal ecology similarly unites intellectual enterprises that westerners try to separate into empirical, religious, aesthetic, and social.  So did the ancient Irish, whose cosmology is reflected in medieval epics.  So did the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese of the old days; the worldview reflected in the poems of Han Shan and Ryokan is of this sort.

In these cases, and in all other cases of traditional small-scale societies known to me, neither positivist nor postmodern analyses can even begin to describe, let alone account for or explain, what we see on the ground.  The nexus point where knowledge translates into action is precisely where empirical knowledge and intense emotionality and belief are integrated into one.  This is natural, given what we know of the human brain; the anterior cingulate cortex integrates these things, allowing plans to form (Damasio 1994).

People respond to reality by learning what they can of it, but they have to integrate that with cultural belief systems, local group conformity, and other social currents and practices.  This means that their knowledge includes hard-headed and empirically extremely accurate knowledge of local landscapes and biotas.  It also includes Durkheimian religiosity, Foucauldian delusions, and much else.  Most interesting of all, as Boas and his students realized, it includes emotional and aesthetic force produced in interactions with other humans and with the natural world.

A full phenomenological account of experience and feeling, like Milton’s (2002), is not necessary.  However, following Boas, we have to provide at least the materials for such analysis.


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Anderson, E. N.  1996.  Ecologies of the Heart.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

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