Beyond Explanation: Religious Dimensions In Cultural Anthropology

“Taylor’s . . .  central argument [that the discourse and impulses of cultural  anthropology have a religious dimension] are well made, and the  discussion of his two exemplars (Lévi-Strauss and Marvin Harris) is  instructive, though social scientists remain agnostic as to its final  destination. Taylor generates novel insights linking the writings of  these anthropologists to the implicit order of presuppositions that  underlies them – a notable instance being the place of Rousseau’s notion of pitie in Levi-Strauss’s vison.”   Jean Comaroff, The University of Chicago, American Anthropologist

“One of the best  things about Taylor’s book is that in order to reach his conclusion, he  presents masterful, detailed summaries of Harris’s and Lévi-Strauss’s  work. . . . I suspect both men would acknowledge the integrity and  insight of Taylor’s account of their motivations and concepts.”       John P. Crossley, The Christian Century

Taylor is equally at home in the literature of both disciplines; he  demonstrates methodological sophistication, unusual clarity of argument  and expression, and impressive constructive talents together with the  facility to carefully nuanced, well-balanced judgments. . . .His book  affords a model for evaluating religious dimensions in other social and  human sciences (Psychology, sociology, history, literary criticism,  linguistics, philosophy), and perhaps even the natural sciences. Nothing could be more crucial for the survival of theology in the postmodern  world.”  Peter C. Hodgson, Vanderbilt University

Beyond Explanation, Taylor’s first published book, did not treat liberating spirit as the central notion it became for his later theoretical work as theologian and activist. Nevertheless, a materialist understanding of liberatory spirit, as an interplay of antagonism, the arts and social movements, is evident in Taylor’s treatment of two controversial, influential, secular anthropologists, Claude Lévi-Strauss (College de France) and Marvin Harris (Columbia University, and the University of Florida).

As catalysts of two contrasting intellectual movements in twentieth-century anthropology – Lévi-Strauss in “structural anthropology” and Harris in “cultural materialism” – these anthropologists’ projects were pervaded by senses of antagonism. Lévi-Strauss lamented a “world on the wane” due to the West’s colonization of indigenous peoples, especially as he lived among them in the Mato Grosso, Brazil. He described this loss in his Tristes Tropiques (lit: “sad tropics”), and committed himself to a life-long “science” of displaying the mind of threatened peoples (“the savage mind,” as he referred to it, not without sarcasm).

Harris, too, carrying on work in Portuguese-dominated Mozambique became aware of the brutalities of political rule, and so published his study, Portugal’s African Wards, a critical evaluation of Portugal’s colonialism. In that work, he unfolded an interpretation of colonized labor, and of Karl Marx, which would evolve into his distinctive “cultural materialism.” The antagonisms that Lévi-Strauss and Harris encountered, Taylor argues, were limit-situations, “boundary situations” (Karl Jaspers) for their life and work, where fundamental questions about life, justice and love generated a quasi-religious, liberative spirit.

Lévi-Strauss and Harris, haunted by the antagonism s they sensed, turned to the arts in distinctive ways. Lévi-Strauss, during fieldwork and in publication, experimented with writing plays about the political loss, the “world on the wane,” and then gave himself to a massive “science,” his artful (some would say fantastic and idealist) collation of mythic fragments into his four-volume work, Mythologiques. In its final volume, while maintaining his secular commitments, he experimented with Jewish notions of “redemption” and especially Buddhist sensibilities – these, as partial responses to both the grandeur of the mutually co-arising and flowering mind of indigenous peoples and his remorse (com-passion/pitié) over its loss.

Harris’s art-form, on the other hand, was the combative polemic that he regularly staged on scenes of university life, along with carefully-honed arguments. The combative polemic was also creatively chiseled into writings of a more popular genre, bringing his theory into the theater of popular audiences.

The play of antagonism and art in their projects only tangentially engaged social movements, since both Lévi-Strauss and Harris were often at work in academic worlds. Still, social movements were integral to the animating spirit of their work. Even Lévi-Strauss, ensconced in the academic world, penned his famous final chapter in The Savage Mind (“History and Dialectic”) as a response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s call for support of the National Liberation Front in Algeria, in its struggle for independence from France.  Although Lévi-Strauss decried the brutalities of French colonialism and supported Algerian independence, he criticized Sartre (and by extension Frantz Fanon) for subsuming the “otherness” of Algerian peoples (the Kabyle, Chaoui, Mozabite and Tuareg) within a Western Marxist agenda that rarely respected indigenous peoples’ cultures and thought. Unfortunately, Lévi-Strauss’s criticism helped spur French intellectual silence on France’s brutality in Algeria.

Harris worked closer to movements of liberation. His work on Portugal was cited often in the Mozambican independence struggle, and leaders of its liberation front, FRELIMO, worked on his team as it researched labor conditions. Harris’s cultural materialism also entailed practices of resistance to the U.S. war in Vietnam, leading him to stand with the few Columbia professors who sided with students in the 1968 student uprising against the war.