In an essay in The Interpretation Of Cultures (Basic Books Classics) , Geertz sorts through the problems of defining “man.” He doesn’t want to erase difference in abstract universality, nor fall into relativism. Most attempts to define man he finds unsatisfying: The effort to construct an archetype is only an approximation; the Enlightenment stripped away culture to see man in his natural state; anthropologists try to discern the consensus amid the bewildering diversity.

The problem is always that “differences among individuals and among groups of individuals are rendered secondary.” Individuality becomes eccentricity, and “living detail is drowned in dead stereotype” (51).

Geertz doesn’t want to choose, and he uses the concept of culture as “a set of symbolic devices for controlling behavior, extrasomatic sources of information” to cut through the issues:

“Becoming human is becoming individual, and we become individual under the guidance of cultural patterns, historically created systems of meaning in terms of which we give form, order, point, and direction to our lives.” These cultural systems are particular: “not just ‘marriage’ but a particular set of notions about what men and women are like, how spouses should treat one another, or who should properly marry whom; not just ‘religion’ but belief in the wheel of karma, the observance of a month of fasting, or the practice of cattle sacrifice.”

Humans have innate capacities, but defining humans in terms of innate capacities ignores the concrete variety of actual life. And these concrete realities are shaped by cultural patterns. Man cannot be defined either by innate capabilities or actual behaviors, but “by the link between them, by the way in which the first is transformed into the second, his generic potentialities focused into his specific performances. It is in man’s career , in its characteristic course, that we can discern, however dimly, his nature” (52).

Geertz is very helpful here, and perhaps he does as well as one can without explicit recourse to something like theology. Absent theology, it is not clear how he avoids what he wants to avoid, Ruth Benedict’s conclusion that “anything that one group is inclined toward doing is worthy of respect by another” (44).

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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