Lionel Tiger does not like Clifford Geertz

Wall Street Journal - November 7, 2006

‘Fuzz. Fuzz . . . It Was Covered in Fuzz.’ By LIONEL TIGER

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz of the Institute of Advanced Studies
at Princeton passed away last week. His name will be generally — if
often hazily — familiar to literate people who will, however, be
unlikely to appreciate the considerable impact he had on our
intellectual world. Unhappily, in my opinion (and not only mine), his
influence and impact were real but fundamentally unfortunate in the
social sciences. He was a major contributor to the willfully fuzzy
illogic which continues to plague the social sciences.

From his exceptionally prominent and privileged position of
patronage and influence at the Institute, Prof. Geertz sought to
integrate anthropology with the humanities. This had the dolorous
result of turning much of what well-meaning anthropologists do into a
lame and confused form of literary scholarship. And worse, he widened
the strange gap between the social and natural sciences. (What? Is
social behavior not as natural as yogurt?) He abetted this pointless
isolation just when, among other accomplishments, there were new
results of breaking the DNA codes, new understanding of the inner
complexity of the brain, and a decisively rich appreciation of the
complex social lives of other animals and our evolutionary ancestors.

Before he was appointed to the Institute in l970, I had a call from
an assistant to its director asking my opinion about appointing
Clifford Geertz the first major social scientist at that very special
institution. At the time, Prof. Geertz was writing sensibly and
intelligently about the connections between biological and social
disciplines. I was enthusiastic about his future there and his
broader influence, too, in reuniting the social with the biological

I was wrong. So wrong.

Once in his Institute catbird seat, he abandoned his earlier
refreshing and synthetic perspective and focused on the links between
writing and behavior. He sternly advocated that anthropologists turn
to “thick description” (an unfortunately apt term) rather than the
terse empirical accounts of ethnographers committed to facts rather
than elegant rendition. Meanwhile, he continued to write imposing and
influential works on the difficulty of bridging the gaps between the
consciousness of individuals and between different societies. He
emphasized words about acts rather than the acts themselves. His
complex and assertive books and essays helped secure his broad
reputation as perhaps the leading anthropological thinker of 20th
Century Part Two, even if hardly anyone knew exactly why. More than
that, he became one of the not-so-secret nominators for the MacArthur
Foundation and, along with the annual appointments he could make to
the Institute each year, this diligent academic capo rewarded his
intellectual followers. He became the anthropological enforcer for
the New York Review of Books and, like Steven Jay Gould in biology,
intricately upheld a conventional world view which provided
intimidating intellectual cover for politically correct thoughts and

Prof. Geertz influenced the intellectual life of his time because he
argued for the comforting and evasive simplification that there could
be no facts about social life, only negotiable representations of
singular private experiences and social positions. Fuzz. Fuzz. All
was imprecise, arguable. There was no glisten to reality; it was
covered in fuzz. In anthropology, the holy intellectual trinity of
race/class/gender became the imperative explanatory tools to explain
and understand anything; their use was oxygenated by political
righteousness and the scientific result was near-paralysis of the
American Anthropological Association. At the Institute in Princeton
he fought losing battle after losing battle over future appointments
with colleagues such as physicists, mathematicians, and economists.
They evidently saw little crisp explanatory promise in the
belligerent if elegant imprecision he insisted was the most one could
expect from the intellectual life earnestly lived.

Notwithstanding his honors and splendid jobs, he remained eager to be
the writer he aspired to be as an undergraduate at Antioch College.
Evidently an especially painful professional experience was a New
York Times review by Stanford historian Paul Robinson of one of his
books, which admired the effort but finally asserted that Geertzian
prose was spangly flim-flam, with no real there there. His death,
like any other, is mystifyingly sad. But it will be the beginning of
an exploration of just what was it about his life and our times that
sustained such a static gloomy icon.

Mr. Tiger is the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers

One Response to “Lionel Tiger does not like Clifford Geertz”

  1. Clifford Geertz Attacked by Tiger « Boas Blog Says:

    […] Via Doug Henwood’s Blog and the Freakonomics Blog comes this tacky post-mortem polemic written by Charles Darwin (!) Professor of Anthropology Lionel Tiger for the Wall Street Journal. How interesting that it was published in WSJ. I’ll try to get more reactions tommorow when I have my anthro classes. Filed under: Media, Economics, New York, Anthropology, Academia, North America, New York City, Social Science, United States of America, Humanities, Cultural Anthropology, Institutions, Representation, Funny-sounding Headlines, Biological Determinism   |   […]

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