Clifford Geertz on Anti-Relativism

March 8, 2011

Still not blogging seriously, but I thought I’d put up a quick post to note a great short text I hadn’t come across before – Clifford Geertz’s 1984 article on “Anti Anti-Relativism”. A couple of quotes without commentary. From early in the piece:

What the relativists, so called, want us to worry about is provincialism – the danger that our perceptions will be dulled, our intellects constricted, and our sympathies narrowed by the overlearned and overvalued acceptances of our own society. What the anti-relativists, self-declared, want us to worry about, and worry and worry about, as though our very souls depended upon it, is a kind of spiritual entropy, a heat death of the mind, in which everything is as significant, thus as insignificant, as everything else…

As I have already suggested, I myself find provincialism altogether the more real concern so far as what actually goes on in the world…. The image of vast numbers of anthropology readers running around in so cosmopolitan a frame of mind as to have no views as to what is and isn’t true, or good, or beautiful, seems to me largely a fantasy.

And from the concluding remarks:

The objection to anti-relativism is not that it rejects an it’s-all-how-you-look-at-it approach to knowledge or a when-in-Rome approach to morality, but that it imagines that they can only be defeated by placing morality beyond culture and knowledge beyond both.

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6 Responses to “Clifford Geertz on Anti-Relativism”


  1. thanks – it’s a really great reference on this question; who would have thought then when delivered it would be so needed now, a quarter century later, but it is.

  2. duncan Says:

    thanks alphonse – yes, there’s been a real pushback, a reassertion of ‘universalism’. I liked this piece partly because the points are made clearly but also with an appropriate degree of making fun.


  3. yes its really very witty:

    I love when he says its not clear that “this portrait of peoples from Micronesia to the Middle east as angry moralizers deviously pursuing hedonistic interests will altogether still the suspicion that some ethnocentric bias yet clings to Spiro’s view of universal human nature”…

  4. duncan Says:

    Yes, that’s great. And the wit and ridicule are important: as you’ve said before, one of the ways this stuff operates is through the demand that it be taken seriously – even if we disagree, we have to admit (if we want to be conscientious and serious) that profound and challenging points are being made that resonate in the very depths of our civilisation’s soul, etc. So it’s important to draw attention not just to the wrongness, but also to the silliness.


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