Modernity: Dilemma and Direction

by Clifford Geertz

The question of where the "general" went in "general education" and how one might contrive to get it back so as to avoid raising up a race of highly trained barbarians, [Max] Weber's "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart," is one that haunts anyone who thinks seriously about the intellectual life these days. But most of the discussions that arise around it seem to me condemned to a certain sterility, an endless oscillation of equally defensible but rather academical positions, because they take as their starting point the notion that what should be restored (or should not be restored) is some kind of diffuse humanism, one "revised," as Max Black has put it somewhere, so as to be "relevant to our own pressing problems, rather than those of Athenian gentlemen or Renaissance courtiers." However attractive such a program may be (and I, myself, don't wholly find it so) it is a simple impossibility.

The hallmark of modern consciousness, as I have been insisting to the point of obsession, is its enormous multiplicity. For our time and forward, the image of a general orientation, perspective, Weltanschauung [a shared world-view], growing out of humanistic studies (or, for that matter, out of scientific ones) and shaping the direction of culture is a chimera. Not only is the class basis for such a unitary "humanism" completely absent, gone with a lot of other things like adequate bathtubs and comfortable taxis, but, even more important, the agreement on the foundations of scholarly authority, old books and older manners, has disappeared. If the sort of ethnography of thought work I have here projected is in fact carried out, it will, I am sure, but strengthen this conclusion. It will deepen even further our sense of the radical variousness of the way we think now, because it will extend our perception of that variousness beyond the merely professional realms of subject matter, method, technique, scholarly tradition, and the like, to the larger framework of our moral existence. The conception of a "new humanism," of forging some general "the best that is being thought and said" ideology and working it into the curriculum, will then seem not merely implausible but utopian altogether. Possibly, indeed, a bit worrisome.

But if a more accurate perception of how deeply into our lives the specificities of our vocations penetrate, how little those vocations are simply a trade we ply and how much a world we inhabit, dissolves the hope that some new form of culture general de l'esprit can turn their force, it need not leave us resigned to anarchy, grantsmanship, and the higher solipsism. The problem of the integration of cultural life becomes one of making it possible for people inhabiting different worlds to have a genuine, and reciprocal, impact upon one another. If it is true that insofar as there is a general consciousness it consists of the interplay of a disorderly crowd of not wholly commensurable visions, then the vitality of that consciousness depends upon creating the conditions under which such interplay will occur. And for that, the first step is surely to accept the depth of the differences; the second is to understand what these differences are; and the third to construct some sort of vocabulary in which they can be publicly formulated -- one in which econometricians, epigraphers, cytochemists, and iconologists can give a credible account of themselves to one another.

[Source: Clifford Geertz, "The Way We Think Now: Ethnography of Modern Thought" in his Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1983), 160-61.]

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Author: Gene R. Thursby, Associate Professor, University of Florida
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Version 4.1 (Revised 28 March 1997)
© 1996-97 by Gene R. Thursby
~~ non nobis solum~~