Anthropology through Buddhist Lenses: Interplays among the Self, the Other, and Buddhism
Soraj Hongladarom, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University
“Formerly, in effect, one believed in ‘the soul’ as one believed in grammar and the grammatical subject: one said, ‘I’ is the condition, ‘think’ is the predicate and is conditioned—to think is an activity for which one MUST suppose a subject as cause. The attempt was then made, with marvelous tenacity and subtlety, to see if one could not get out of this net,—to see if the opposite was not perhaps true: ‘think’ the condition, and ‘I the conditioned; ‘I,’ therefore, only a synthesis which has been MADE by thinking itself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter III, Section 54
Academic disciplines are similar to other things in that they are also subject to change; they are born, and then their lives may be long, or quite short lived. During the time of their lives they may prosper, attracting a lot of attention, research grants, graduate students, star professors, and so on, or their fortunes might not be as good, and they just linger on, living in a neglected corner of the university. Some disciplines even died; that is, they are abandoned by their practitioners who take up some new endeavors. Philology, for example, prospered for a while a century or so ago, but then hardly anybody is taking it up nowadays, and the discipline has almost entirely been replaced by modern linguistics. Most other disciplines, however, manage to adapt themselves and hang on. Philosophy is, or seems to be, a great survivor. It is recognized to be the oldest of all the disciplines. At first it contained many areas of study which would later branch off and form their own turf. Natural science, for example, was known as “natural philosophy” and thus was considered part of philosophy even in the time of Newton, and the general recognition that there was a separate discipline of natural science which was independent from philosophy did not take shape until early in the nineteenth century. Psychology branched off from philosophy some time around the turn of the twentieth century. Now moral philosophy or ethics threatens to do so, when some practitioners argue that the best method to study ethical behavior lies more in the social science rather than the traditional conceptual analysis method of philosophy. Nonetheless, philosophy hangs on, and seem even to prosper despite many pundits, including stellar names like Steven Hawking, who are announcing its demise.
However, this paper is rather about anthropology, or more accurately how anthropology and philosophy interact. Anthropology, as with most other disciplines, branched off from philosophy around the middle of the nineteenth century. The study of human beings had been a concern of philosophical reflection for as long as there was philosophy. Philosophers such as Kant wrote a book on the subject (Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View – Kant, 2006), but anthropology in the modern sense took off with the use of the scientific method. So the birth of modern anthropology was quite parallel to that of psychology. In both cases the traditional philosophical endeavor (studying human beings and the mind) was infused with the new scientific method, and there arose a consciousness that a new discipline was needed. Thus while traditional philosophy remained a staunchly humanistic discipline emphasizing documentary research, reading and interpreting of texts, and writing, the new disciplines tried out new ways of investigation, consisting of laboratory study, field research, analysis of bones and skulls, and so on. In short, empirical means of study were directly and fully employed in psychology and anthropology. Instead of reading ancient books, commenting on them and producing even more texts, modern anthropologists go out into the field and see for themselves what things are like. Of course they just cannot report just the bare fact that they see. They have to analyze and interpret the data collected and observed, trying to fit the data with the theoretical framework that they already subscribe or even use the data as a foil to challenge the commonly accepted frameworks. In any case, they have to start with the “bare facts.” This is simply not available in the old philosophical method.
What I would like to do in this paper is to reflect on the method of anthropology, and I would like to argue that insights gained from Buddhism could play a significant role in how anthropology should be studied. Since I am not an anthropologist and am not thoroughly familiar with the theoretical works that are in vogue among scholars in the field today, I will stay with the literature I know and the problems that I am more familiar with. However, I believe that the literature and the problems here would shed much light into anthropology itself. In this case I consider myself not unlike an anthropologist himself, who, as an outsider, claim to have a better look at the culture and way of life of an alien tribe better than what the members of the tribe describe themselves. By allowing a philosopher to have a look at anthropology, perhaps anthropologists might get some useful insights than what can be obtained by themselves looking back at what they do alone.
More specifically, this chapter proposes a fresh look at anthropology as an academic discipline through the lens provided by Buddhist thought. What is unique in Buddhism is that it denies the objective existence of the self, arguing instead that what is commonly known as the self is a construction, in much the same way as a rainbow is a construction made by the mind out of light which is reflected by the water droplets. As there is in objective reality no such thing as a rainbow, so is the self, according to Buddhist thought. I propose this view of the self (and by extension the other) as a theoretical underpinning that could inform how we understand the basic way anthropology deals with the self and the other. Corollary to this is the distinction, often made by philosophers when they approach anything anthropological, between the descriptive and the normative. In a naïve sense, the descriptive is aligned with the other and the normative with the self. This can be seen when one, taking the cultural relativist stance, declines to judge the value systems of the other, taking instead a descriptive stance. On the contrary, one who studies the other tends to assume that one’s own point of view or theoretical framework is normatively correct. According to a key tenet in Buddhist philosophy, the Doctrine of Emptiness (sūnyatā), the boundary between the self and other is also a construct, implying that there is always self in the other and the other in the self. As a result the Doctrine seems to call all boundaries and reifications into deep conceptual confusion. But it is my contention that this is a beneficial confusion, one which stirs up old ways of thinking and potentially comes up with a new way of looking at how cultural phenomena should be studied. When the line between the self and the other becomes confused, then one does become the other while at the same time remaining oneself. This should be beneficial to anthropology.
We begin by reflecting on the two terms that all anthropologists are familiar with, ‘emic’ and ‘etic.’ As is well known, Kenneth Pike (1967) coined the term, referring to point of view originating from within the culture that the anthropologist is studying, and the one that the anthropologist herself uses in order to describe the culture in question, respectively. According to Pike, who is a linguist, the term ‘emic’ comes from ‘phonemic,’ which refers to sounds of a language in so far as the sounds represent meaningful units within the language itself. On the contrary, ‘etic’ comes from ‘phonetic,’ and is a scientific and objective description of the sound itself without referring to the meaning within any language. Thus, in English the phonetic sounds [p] and [ph] are phonemically the same, meaning that both are parts of the same English phoneme. The [p] is unaspirated; in English one would normally hear that when a typical English speaker says words such as ‘Spanish’ or ‘spend’ or ‘sprite’. On the other hand, in words such as ‘perky’ or ‘Peter’ the typical English speaker would start the syllable with the aspirated [ph] sound. However, if one says ‘perky’ using the unaspirated [p] sound, the English speaker would still recognize the same word (with the same meaning), although she may think that the speaker may be a foreigner. This is totally different in another language such as Thai, where the [p] and the [ph] are phonemically distinguished. That is, they represent different units of meaningful sounds in the language. Thus the word [paa] in Thai means ‘to throw’, but the word [phaa] means ‘to lead’. The words give totally different meanings depending on whether [p] sound is aspirated or not. Thus what Pike is after in his characterization of the etic and the emic is that the former describes the outer aspects of an object or an event, while the latter describes the inner ones. In other words, the former deal with those aspects that are couched in the language that is used to describe, whereas the latter deals with those aspects that are couched in the language used by the natives themselves.
A logician is thus reminded of the distinction between the object language and the metalanguage when a logical system describes another system of language within the former system. A definition that is well known among logicians and philosophers of language is the definition of ‘truth’ proposed by Alfred Tarski (1983). According to him, a statement S in a language L is true if and only if the content of S obtains. For example, suppose S is the statement “The sun rises in the east.” Tarski’s definition would have it that the statement “The sun rises in the east” is true in English if and only if the sun rises in the east. So since it is indeed the case that the sun rises in the east, then the statement or the proposition (we don’t need to go into the details of how the two are similar or different in this paper. I am using the two words interchangeably) “The sun rises in the east.” is true. Do this for every statement in a language then you get a definition of ‘true.’ In other words, for any proposition, p, ‘p’ is true in L if and only if p. Here the metalanguage is the language we used to make the definition itself, in this case English, and the object language is the language that we would like to describe and find truth conditions for (which happens also to be English). In the same manner, we can also say that the statement “Die Sonne geht im Osten auf” is true in German if and only if the sun rises in the east. Here we find more clearly the different between the metalanguage (English) and the object language (German).
The parallel between the metalanguage/object language and the etic/emic distinctions is as follows. Pike would like the etic/emic distinction to do the work of distinguishing between points of view from outside and from inside. For example, when an anthropologist observes a behavior of a native tribe and ask for explanation from a member of the tribe; suppose further than she knows the language of the tribe, the description and explanation of the behavior offered by the member then belongs to the emic. But when the anthropologist translates the explanation back to her academic audience she uses the etic stance. The emic is the behavior seen from the inside, and the etic is the opposite. Thus the emic description belongs to the object language, and the etic one belongs to the metalanguage.
A problem with the emic and the etic is how to jump from the one to the other without loss. That is, when you have an emic description, or a set of statements in the native language, how can you translate that set into the language that someone from outside of the circle of the native speakers can understand it fully? The key word here is ‘fully.’ Is it possible to translate a sentence from a native language into another without any loss? This is only possible, according to the philosopher of language Donald Davidson (2001), if both languages share the same truth conditions such that whenever a statement in one language is true, a material and objective condition corresponding to that statement being true can be obtained and that condition becomes the condition that makes the statement in the other language true also, and the same goes for false statements. However, in cultural descriptions, or in a language of the natives, including ourselves, there are bound to be those statements that are imbued with meanings which are not transparent and do not refer directly to material conditions outside, but to certain beliefs and practices that are endemic to that culture. In that case Davidson’s truth condition as the basis of translatability does not seem to work. The situation is well known as the ‘hermeneutic circle’, where in order to translate a sentence from one language into another, one has to know all the words in the source language (since meanings are always interconnected), but in order to know all the words one has to know the meanings of each word in that language.
The problem, I believe, must be familiar to anthropologists. Faced with the practice and belief of an alien tribe, the task of the anthropologist is to describe those in a language that is understood by the global community, or at least the community of fellow anthropologists. But the problem of translatability and the hermeneutic circle always stand in a way. There must be a gap which is unbridgeable, so the task of the anthropologist is always, necessarily, an interpretive one, meaning that it is not a foregone conclusion that a description of one anthropologist must be identical with another description of the very same native belief and practice offered by another.
This interpretive nature appears to be in direct conflict with the scientific face of anthropology itself. After all, if a description is to be scientific, it should not matter who is doing the description. The description should or must be the same since it is the objective nature of the phenomenon that is being described, and the language used to describe is one and the same. So there is a fundamental tension within anthropology, and contributes not insignificantly to the contested nature of the discipline.
So how can Buddhist thought contribute to this? I believe the fundamental tension mentioned in the last paragraph is a symptom of a dichotomy between the inside and outside that is necessarily embedded in the very nature of anthropology itself. The distinctions between the emic and the etic, the object language and the metalanguage, and the source language and target language within the hermeneutic circle, all arise out of the more fundamental distinction between self and other. What we have in all these distinctions is the tension between the inner and the outer, the inside and the outside, and most fundamentally this reflects the basic distinction between the self and the other.
This is a very familiar picture that I believe are also well known to all anthropologists. According to Descartes, there is a fundamental distinction between the self, who perceives the world and is constituted by running conscious thoughts, and whatever is being cognized by the consciousness. Philosophers are deeply familiar with the distinction between the subject and the object, which is about the same thing as the self and the other. Descartes’ problem is how to jump from the realm of the subject, the cogito, to the realm of objective reality of rivers and trees. And he does this through an invocation of the benevolent God who by His nature cannot deceive him or anybody else for that matter. It is also well known that Descartes’s reliance on God is essentially an untenable one, and without God there is a big problem of how to bridge the subject and the object which continues until today.
Descartes’ predicament stems from his belief that there is an ego, his own self, which governs all the running episodes of his conscious thoughts. Nietzsche sees this very clearly when he argues against Descartes’ cogito argument in Beyond Good and Evil in the passage quoted at the beginning of this paper that one cannot conclude the existence of an objectively enduring self from the fact that one is aware of all the running episodes of conscious thoughts that appear “before one’s eyes,” so to speak. The fact that I wrote “one is aware …” and “before one’s eyes” does not have to imply that there is actually a one who is an objectively enduring self in the sense required by Descartes. This is a very important insight from Buddhist philosophy. According to Buddhist philosophy, the self as is typically understood, an objectively enduring, metaphysically inherent entity, just does not exist on its own. This is known as the Doctrine of the Non-Self (sūnyatā). The self only appears to exist, just as a rainbow only appears to exist since it arises out of certain reflections created by sunlight and water droplets. So we can say that there are only sunlight and water droplets, but no rainbows. Certainly rainbows appear before our eyes, but then they are only appearances. In the same way, according to Buddhist philosophy, the self only appears to exist. At this level of analysis only our bodily and mental constitutions do exist, but not the self. The self only appears to exist when we become self conscious and refer to ourselves using the first-person pronoun. And when we refer to ourselves using the pronoun, what is being referred appears to exist only to the extent that enables the talk or the language use to go on. When I say to the nurse at a clinic, for example, that I weigh 86 kilograms, I refer to my physical body, but when I say “I am thinking of myself on top of a mountain,” I am perhaps referring to an event in my brain which is interpreted as having this particular meaning. According to Buddhist belief there is no enduring, objectively existing self. Just as the rainbow is not an enduring, objectively existing entity, so too is the self.
When the self itself is problematic, the distinction between the self and whatever is not the self is problematic too. Thus the whole edifice that gives rise to the conundrum in anthropology alluded to earlier becomes problematic. A positive outcome of all this is that, when the line between the self and the other cannot be clearly drawn, there is a sense in which everything become the self and for that matter everything also becomes the other. The line between the subject and the object, usually thought of as absolute, begins to crumble, with the result that the line between the emic and etic, and so on also crumbles. This crumbling down is positive because it frees us, both philosophers and anthropologists, from the binary mindset that locks us in the vision that there always has to be the inner and the outer, the inside and the outside, and so on. When the self can be anywhere and everywhere, the inner and the emic can also be anywhere and everywhere. A description of the belief and practice system of a group of people, then, does not have to depend on a conception of objectivity that characterizes the scientific worldview. The very concept of objectivity itself depends on this dichotomy between the subject and the object; when the dichotomy crumbles, so is the concept that is dependent on it.
However, what crumbles down is only the concept of objectivity as it is dependent on the subject/object distinction. This is an important point because if we are not careful, then we could slide down the slippery slope toward epistemological nihilism where no knowledge is possible. The outcome that we can find “objectivity” everywhere is positive simply because there is a sense in which we can find knowledge from everywhere, and not only when it crosses the subject and object divide. In describing the belief and practice of a native tribe, for example, we don’t need to get inside their minds and try to describe what we found in the scientific language found in academic journals. That is not fully possible anywhere as we have seen. Instead the inside of their minds is not exactly speaking on the inside; since there is absolutely speaking no inside nor outside, then what we used to believe to reside inside could be found also on the outside. Here we have to be always aware that language itself is deceiving us all the time. Even if we are now saying that there is no outside and inside, we still have to use words such as ‘outside’ or ‘inside’ (or ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ or other dichotomic words) in order even to make sense to one another. However, if we are always conscious of the fact that the self and the other are but our own constructions for convenience’s sake and do not exist in absolute reality (in the same way as the rainbow does not exist in absolute reality), then we could still use the words ‘self’ or the first person pronoun to do the things we use these words to do, while, as I argue, avoiding the problem of bridging the gap between the subject and the object.
Let us imagine what would happen to an anthropologist when she encounters an unfamiliar practice of a native tribe. She has to understand the meanings behind it and report on it to the academic community using her own anthropological jargons. But the meanings of the native behind their practice could well be a reflection of her own view and reaction as well as her own understanding of the phenomenon after having studied and lived with the tribe for a period of time. This can be as objective as it can be because when the absolute boundary between the inner and outer is done away with, there is no barrier against her delving into the minds of the natives through introspectively looking at her own minds. This may sound very strange, but an analogy is in Buddhist thinking of how one can achieve full empathy with another through a basic understanding that one’s own mind and the mind of the other are in fact essentially interconnected. It is the conception of the distinction between the self and the other that creates a wall separating the two from each other. Thus, without the barrier, the anthropologist both become one with the native and detached from them at the same time. In this case the anthropologist interprets what is there inside her own mind, her own native understanding of the practice and then, as an anthropologist, broadcasts that understanding in the scientific language. Full empathy is a way in which a mind achieves a union with the mind of the other. Achieving empathy and union in this way is very important for the Buddhist, and the most important practices in Buddhism, such as meditations on loving-kindness and compassion and the powerful practice of “Giving and Taking” (tonglen), where the practitioner imagines that he soaks up all the sufferings of others while at the same time sending out his own happiness to all others, are designed just to prepare the practitioner toward achieving this union of oneself and others. The goal of the Buddhist practice is nothing but achieving this union, which is an aspect of becoming a Buddha. One then realizes that one is there in all the others, and that all the others are within oneself. In more practical terms this means that one shares all the feelings of joy, sorrow and happiness in others as if they were one’s own, and that one sends out one’s own feelings to others as if others belong to the same self as oneself too.
Thus, when the anthropologist studies the beliefs and practices of a native tribe, the goal would then be for her to become one with the native, thinking and acting like them. In this way the anthropologist shares in the feelings of joy, sorrow and others felt by the natives as if they were her own. Here the eventual goal is for the self or the mind of the anthropologist to dissolve into the selves and minds of the native. This may sound far-fetched, but the real meaning is quite down to earth. It means that the anthropologist empathize with the native, trying to think and feel just like they do. And since there is no boundary between self and other, when the anthropologist reports back to her academic community, she can just report on her own experiences and feelings, as if she were a native herself reporting to the academic community in their name. In this sense there is, absolutely speaking, no etic or emic, no object language or metalanguage, no representational scheme and reality; all dichotomies break down and appear only to be maintained because our language itself still works only when they appear to be upheld.
A typical scientific spirit, on the one hand, would emphasize that the observer has to detach herself from the object of her study. But this detachment only accentuates the gap between the self and the other that I have been trying to criticize. A Buddhism-inspired anthropology would, on the other hand, view the gap as only an illusion created by a faulty belief in the metaphysical reality of the self/other dichotomy. The scientist might object to my proposal here saying that it would destroy the objectivity of the report. After all, if the anthropologist imagines herself to be the native telling the latter’s story to the outside world, then what is the use of field research and all the points in research methodology courses that form a foundation of an anthropological education? However, dismantling the self/other dichotomy (and, of course, with it all the other dichotomies all of which depend on it) does not mean that there can be no standard of excellence in research. In Buddhism there is a clear standard of excellence for the practitioner, so that one can tell clearly how advanced one’s practice has been at any moment. One knows this by measuring how close or how far one’s condition at the moment is compared to the Goal, which of course is Liberation or nirvana. Thus in the text we find a difference between the Stream Enterers, or those who have just achieved the first step toward Realization, and the Arahats, who have destroyed all defilements and achieve the state of total extinguishing, meaning the Arahat will not return to samsara in any form, which is known as nirvana. The Goal, then, is nirvana; the Arahat has achieved it, but the Stream Enterer has not. In the text there are clear indications as to why the Stream Enterer is at the stage they are at; on the one hand, they are distinguished from the mere layperson in that they understand some important tenets in Buddhism and they have a correct understanding of the reason for practice, but on the other they still retain a number of defilements, including greed, anger and lack of more advanced understanding. The Buddhist path then could be laid out as a textbook where the more simple material are at the beginning for those who have just started, and then the material become more advanced and difficult as the student or the practitioner move on. Hence there is a clear indication of excellence. In anthropology there could be something along the same line. If the anthropologist reports to her academic peer without having sufficiently immersed herself in the native’s culture and only pretend to speak for them, or if she lacks the skills deemed necessary for an effective anthropologist, then she deserves to be censured. But if she does the reverse then obviously she deserves to be praised. Whether she is praised or censured by her academic peer does not have anything to do with the idea that the self/other dichotomy is taken to be merely an illusion.
Moreover, the view I propose here does not qualify as a species of relativism. The issue of relativism is perhaps the most contentious one between philosophers and anthropologists. In Available Light, Clifford Geertz argues for what he calls “anti anti-relativism” (Geertz, 2001, pp. 42-67). That is, what he is against is not the philosophical viewpoint that sets itself up as the opposite to relativism (which some may call universalism), but the stance of some who rail against relativism, proclaiming that the latter will inevitably lead to nihilism or the loss of everything we have held dear. Basically what Geertz is after is those who make a strawman out of those who favor cultural relativism. Those who espouse relativism does not have to be nihilists or anti-establishment, nor do they entertain that child eating is an acceptable behavior, and so on. I will not enter into the details of Geertz’s argument in this essay, but would like merely to point out that Geertz himself appears to be sympathetic, through a reading of his argument against anti-relativism here, to the view that I am proposing. What he is particularly arguing against is the tendency by those who criticizes relativism of relying on concepts such as the “Human Nature” or the “Human Mind,” which while they may sound appealing nonetheless are very difficult to pin down. When one is hooked on the Human Nature, Geertz argues, one tends to view anything with which one is unfamiliar as a “deviancy.” An implication is of course that what is included in human nature is too varied to be put under one umbrella of “Human Nature” as if there is only one. Here Geertz does not talk about human biological functions, such as breathing and eating; those are not so interesting from the anthropologist’s point of view. Instead what is much more interesting is human culture, those beliefs and practices that are imbued with meaning, which makes it almost impossible to get any handle on scientifically. The strawman argument offered by those who criticize relativism, then, belongs to the same type as those who rely on a strict dichotomy between the self and the other, or the inner and outer. A strict scientific worldview where the observer detaches herself completely from what she studies cannot result in a finding that would be satisfactory as a piece of anthropological knowledge, if that knowledge focuses on asking questions about cultures and tries to understand those beliefs and practices that together comprise a culture. Philosophers usually would argue that my proposal here would result in relativism, as if relativism is always something bad that has to be avoided at all cost. But then the charge of being relativistic itself presupposes the kind of dichotomizing which I have argued to be ultimately untenable. If the Buddhist viewpoint is to be taken seriously, then the distinction between relativism and universalism also goes the same way as that between the etic and emic discussed above. Ultimately the relativism/universalism dichotomy also depends on the self/other dichotomy: What is agreeable to me is labelled ‘universal’ and those who emphasize the other too much are then labelled ‘relativist.’
The distinction between self and other, then, is fundamental to the distinctions that create a gap that look at first sight to be unbridgeable. However, when the self itself is deconstructed in the Buddhist sense, then the whole dichotomy breaks down. A consequence is that there is no longer an objectively existing gap that creates the problem any longer. The anthropologist is then free to pronounce the weightiness of her research findings without having to worry about the gap. The gap, furthermore, underpins the oft mentioned philosophical distinction between relativism and universalism. Without the distinction being seen as a serious one, there is then no need for the kind of “anti anti-relativism” that Geerts talks about in his paper. The dissolution of the self, then, appears to be a rather significant contribution of Buddhism in the methodology of anthropology.
Davidson, D. (2001). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Geertz, C. (2001). Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kant, I. (2006). Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. R. B. Louden and M. Kuehn, transl. Cambridge University Press.
Pike, K. L., ed. (1967). Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of Structure of Human Behavior. 2nd Ed. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton.
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