Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2009

Thinking Philosophically in Anthropology: Approaches to the Self, Morality and Cosmopolitanism

Lecturer: Professor in Social Anthropology Lisette Josephides,
Queen’s University Belfast, UK

Main disciplines: Anthropology, Philosophy, Political Science, Social Theory

Dates: 3 - 7 August 2009
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 30 participants

The main objective of this seminar is to engage in a critical examination of research in the philosophy of anthropology. Beginning with the philosophical roots of anthropology, the seminar will show that the subject matter of anthropology is inherently philosophical. Yet philosophy and anthropology often stand in an awkward relationship. One aims to explain difference by resorting to a degree of cultural relativism, while the other strives for universality and transcendentalism. But in recent years many anthropologists have turned to philosophy, and this research direction provides many of the readings for this seminar. A substantial proportion of the readings comes from philosophy, while a few readings come from psychology. Thus the seminar is interdisciplinary, both in its subject matter and reading matter.

The key ideas to be discussed stem from the incompatibilities between the concepts of human nature, universalism and foundationalism on the one side, and anthropology’s much vaunted cultural particularism on the other. The seminar will consider accounts from anthropology and philosophy, sometimes given explicitly and sometimes implicitly, of what makes us human, from historical, moral and cross-cultural perspectives. The discussion will proceed through such topics as: the self in philosophy and anthropology, bound with morality because being a self with a life-project is a moral act or condition; cosmopolitanism as an ethical horizon, concerned with relations with foreignness and the ‘other’ but also the self; phenomenology and existential anthropology as theory and as method for anthropology. Finally, a question will be posed about the future of anthropology, caught in the snares of its most recent research in the realms of the imagination, hope, desire, ethics and accountability.

The seminar is directed at students of the humanities and social sciences, especially anthropology, philosophy, psychology and cultural studies. It brings together different kinds of literature and scholarly traditions and shows how anthropology and philosophy in particular can benefit from an intellectual exchange.

Essential readings are starred and will be made available in advance in a course compendium. Please read them before the seminar. The non-starred items are sometimes extensive. You are not expected you to read them all, but a judicious reading of some of them will repay your effort. Some readings will be listed under more than one lecture where relevant.

Participants is expected to obtain and read the following book in advance:



Lecture 1: The Philosophical Roots of Anthropology
This lecture will trace the philosophical roots of anthropological thought in the ideas of the Enlightenment. Using the writings of philosophers, it will show that the subject matter of anthropology is inherently philosophical.


Lecture 2: Philosophy and Anthropology Today: an awkward relationship?
By replacing a universalist and transcendentalist philosophy with the study of actual social practice, anthropologists have obtained insights into the existential and social intricacies of specifically situated human knowledge. At the same time, a focus on communal worldviews has distracted from the perspective of social actors as individual agents and thinkers. Anthropology, developed as a comparative enterprise with the aim of understanding culture and cultural difference, put both the universal and the individual off limits, producing an ideology of cultural relativism which tended to localise and parochialise the knowledge it produced as well as the knowledge of the people it studied. The lecture follows this historical and epistemological trajectory, then focuses on writings that have attempted to overcome these shortcomings.



Lecture 3: Thinking as a Moral Act
Drawing on the work of philosopher Dewey, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that ‘thought is conduct and is to be morally judged as such’, and furthermore that ‘the results of thought inevitably reflect the quality of the kind of human situation in which they were obtained’. Beginning with ideas of social science as a moral force and ethnography as an ethical enterprise, the lecture will examine Geertz’s twin claim, the source of both authority and responsibility, with respect to anthropological research. In the process, the vulnerability of ethnographic fieldwork and writing, fraught with contradictions, will highlight the fictions that must be maintained in any social setting if social life is to be possible.



Lecture 4: Human Nature, Cognitive Relativism, or Empirical Universalism?
This lecture examines ideas of human nature as dividing philosophical and anthropological thought. For philosophers ideas about human nature constituted enlightened humanity, enabling universal and foundational claims. But how can anthropologists studying particular cultures extend their findings to make general claims? Maurice Bloch, arguing against cognitive relativism, charges anthropologists with cowardice in their attitude to human nature. The lecture will explore the limits of cultural difference and ask where, if at all, it is possible to find a common humanity.



Lecture 5: Being Human Historically, Morally and Cross-culturally
This lecture extends the theme of the previous lecture into the realm of morality. It considers how people from different cultural backgrounds with different moral practices can learn to understand each other’s values and perspectives.



Lecture 6: The Self in Philosophy and Anthropology
The construction of the self, this lecture argues, follows a similar process everywhere in the world. Using a combination of anthropological, philosophical and psychological sources, the exposition traces an ‘archaeology of the self’ followed by a ‘modern history of the self’, which adds cultural particularity, and ‘the everyday self’ showing the practices and strategies of everyday life. Anthropologists have treated the self as an individual with a life-project, as a relational person, and as created in narrative. The lecture will examine the processes of self-formation and self-differentiation through several case studies and theoretical analyses. An important insight is that the reflection by which we know our own self involves self-externalization rather than self-introspection, and therefore that the process of knowing others is not essentially different from the process of knowing one’s self.



Lecture 7 and 8: Cosmopolitanism as a Historical, Political and Moral Condition
The lectures examine cosmopolitanism as a concept and as a political reality. Starting from the Cynics and the Stoics of the ancient world and the cosmopolis of the early modern European period, which was seen as integrating the order of nature and the order of society, the investigation moves to the concept of foreignness and the meaning of refusing integration. While examining the historical emergence of an ideology connecting the self with global society, the lecture also grounds the discussion in self theory as a prerequisite for cosmopolitanism. Theoretical and ethnographic readings are combined, with some case studies focusing on the concepts of morality and empathy while others describe ‘actually existing cosmopolitanism’. The special contribution of anthropology to cosmopolitan studies is sought in its studies of local, rooted and grassroots cosmopolitanisms, xenophobia and xenophilia, empathy and morality, and finally in the anthropologists’ position as cosmopolitans themselves.




Case studies


Additional readings


Lecture 9: Phenomenology as a Method for Anthropology
a. Heidegger: friend or foe? The case for epistemology and ethics as part of ontology.

The first part of this lecture will be given in a different format from other lectures, and somewhat polemically, as the lecturer’s original argument developed on the basis of a reading of Heidegger. There is no additional reading for this reason, but lecture 10 makes up for it with a heftier reading list. Rabinow’s chapter, already read for lecture 3, can be consulted again as a demonstration of the transformation of logos into ethos.

b. The second part of the lecture will consider phenomenology and existential anthropology as methods for anthropological fieldwork and writing.



Lecture 10: Anthropology as the Philosophy of the Human Condition
If the twentieth century began ‘under the scheme of man as programme, and no longer as given’ (Badiou), what then of human nature and universalism? This lecture begins with a review of the journey from Todorov’s ‘well-tempered humanism’ to Badiou’s stark choices between ‘radical humanism’ (Sartre) and ‘radical anti-humanism’ (Nietzsche / Foucault). Badiou writes disparagingly of current ethical concerns as forms of stultifying ‘political correctness’, a radical humanism stemming from anthropology. Mindful of this critique, the lecture examines anthropology’s recent ethical concerns with audit and accountability, and compares them with concurrent research directions in the fields of the imagination as hope and the freeing of the human spirit. What, finally, makes us human and in what direction is the study of anthropology taking us?



Some key texts repaying detailed reading:


Students wanting to earn 10 ECTS credits are required to submit one course essay of 5000 to 6000 words. In order to make the essays as relevant as possible to their research, students should study the seminar outline and provide in advance an abstract of the topic of their essay. The lecturer will make every attempt to discuss essay plans individually with students.


The lecturer
Lisette Josephides (Professor in Anthropology, Queen’s University Belfast) was a philosophy graduate before training as a social anthropologist at University College London. She conducted extensive fieldwork in Papua New Guinea and taught at the universities of Papua New Guinea, Minnesota, and the London School of Economics before taking up a post at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research interest in political and economic processes in ‘egalitarian’ Melanesian societies resulted in an analysis of gender relations as modelling and disguising relations of inequality (The Production of Inequality), while her 2008 book (Melanesian Odysseys: Negotiating the Self, Narrative and Modernity) combines analyses of narrative genres, theories of the self, and communicative practices within a changing moral and political universe. Her current research interests are in philosophical approaches in anthropology, especially phenomenology and moral philosophy, human rights, and emotions.

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