Whither the social sciences? It sometimes seems as if this diverse and fluid field is permanently at def com 3: defining and defending its borders, skirmishing with science, all while the tenured generals snipe at each other. These manoeuvres sometimes pass over possibly the most important question of all: what is at stake in the study of society and culture? This question is central to anthropology, characterized as it is by the self-reflexive intimacy between its philosophy and methodology. Clifford Geertz--one of the architects of the modern discipline at least since his influential 1973 book, The Interpretation of Cultures--thankfully offers a lucid, enlightening and wonderfully readable series of 11 essays, which consider the history, philosophy and future of not just anthropology but the social sciences, in a style sure to appeal to both academics and lay readers. As a title, Available Light is an apt and playful reflection on the position of the anthropologist, who can only experience what are always only partial truths in the light available at the moment of encounter. Its subtitle, Anthropological Reflections upon Philosophical Topics indicates the extent to which the vocations have moved closer not only as they share many of the same questions, but as philosophers have come to believe that the answers to those great questions of meaning--to the degree that there can be any--are to be found in the fine detail of lived life.
Geertz's own empirical pursuit of the role of ideas in behaviour has lead him through Javanese religion, Balinese states and Moroccan bazaars, modernisation, Islam, kinship, law, art and ethnicity--all drawn upon in these essays. He also ruminates upon the moral anxieties of fieldwork, in chapters such as "Thinking as a Moral Act", "Anti Anti-Relativism"--with its stinging punchline "if we wanted home truths, we should have stayed at home"-- and "The Uses of Diversity", opening up issues pertinent to all intellectual pursuits. He goes on to establish the role of anthropology within broader intellectual and philosophical circles by addressing the work of Charles Taylor, Thomas Kuhn, William James and Jerome Bruner. For anyone involved or interested in the social sciences, Geertz offers a powerful sense of the importance and value of such study: "the impact of the social sciences upon our lives will finally be determined more by what sort of moral experience they turn out to embody than by their merely technical effects or by how much money they are permitted to spend." --Christine Buttery [via]