Saturday, June 6, 2009

Stars on bellies or bellies under stars?

I'm nearly finished with Walter Burkert's Creation of the Sacred (available here at the Gifford Lectures site!), and I found a brief review of it by a secular scholar of the Bible and the ancient Near East, Alan Lenzi. In the discussion of Lenzi's review, I followed a link to a short essay by James Lett on the distinction in anthropological methodology between emic and etic knowledge. According to Lett:

"The neologisms 'emic' and 'etic,' which were derived from an analogy with the terms 'phonemic' and 'phonetic,' were coined by the linguistic anthropologist Kenneth Pike (1954). He suggests that there are two perspectives that can be employed in the study of a society’s cultural system, just as there are two perspectives that can be used in the study of a language’s sound system. In both cases, it is possible to take the point of view of either the insider or the outsider.

"As Pike defines it, the emic perspective focuses on the intrinsic cultural distinctions that are meaningful to the members of a given society…. The native members of a culture are the sole judges of the validity of an emic description, just as the native speakers of a language are the sole judges of the accuracy of a phonemic identification.

"The etic perspective, again according to Pike, relies upon the extrinsic concepts and categories that have meaning for scientific observers…. Scientists are the sole judges of the validity of an etic account, just as linguists are the sole judges of the accuracy of a phonetic transcription. …

"… [T]he terms 'emic' and 'etic' should be seen as adjectives modifying the implicit noun 'knowledge.' Accordingly, the distinction between emics and etics has everything to do with the nature of the knowledge that is claimed and nothing to do with the source of that knowledge (i.e., the manner by which it was obtained)."

I think it is safe to say that the emic-etic distinction is not too unlike the distinction between objective and subjective in philosophy. As Lenzi argues on his blog, although "objectivity is impossible," yet an etic anthropological methodology is of great value as we "attempt to find ways that help us overcome known biases, like our own cultural baggage when it comes to some contemporary religions." Then, however, a commenter on Lenzi's blog objected, "I want to leave room for a caution that moving towards 'objectivity' can leave distortions of the very things we're trying to understand. If we were to talk to a living practitioner of an ancient religion (via a time machine) and point out that we don't shudder before the ancient gods the practitioner might very well respond by saying that if we don't shudder before them than we don't really understand them." Whereupon Lenzi replied, "[A]n insider's take on their own religion is [sic] data to be interpreted[,] not an authority to be believed. An insider doesn't determine my methodology. I do."

Fair enough, I guess.

Until I read the following by Lett:

"The validation of emic knowledge thus be- comes a matter of consensus--namely, the consensus of native informants, who must agree that the construct matches the shared perceptions that are characteristic of their culture. … Etic constructs are accounts, descriptions, and analyses expressed in terms of the conceptual schemes and categories that are regarded as meaningful and appropriate by the community of scientific observers. An etic construct is correctly termed 'etic' if and only if it is in accord with the epistemological principles deemed appropriate by science (i.e., etic constructs must be precise, logical, comprehensive, replicable, falsifiable, and observer independent). The validation of etic knowledge thus becomes a matter of logical and empirical analysis--in particular, the logical analysis of whether the construct meets the standards of falsifiability, comprehensiveness, and logical consistency, and then the empirical analysis of whether or not the concept has been falsified and/or replicated."

Immediately I wondered, "Are not the insider-outsider boundaries themselves etically defined? In which case, does not the etic stance preempt and subjugate whatever claims are made emically? And are not the etic methodological criteria themselves emically defined (viz., by the scientific 'insiders')? In which case, do not the etic criteria themselves begin dissolving into just another set of emic claims?"

Such questions do not, admittedly, amount to a formal, or even coherent, objection anything Lett or Lenzi claim. Nonetheless, I am dubious about how Lenzi can coherently maintain his methodologically etic approach to an intrinsically emic phenomenon, namely, religion. Indeed, Lenzi states in his blogger profile that he is a secular biblical scholar that "approach[es] the Bible and religion as products of human culture that can be fully interpreted and explained without recourse to theological assertions." Fair enough––although, what "secular" means in modern and postmodern discourse is already rife with theological baggage. Confer, for instance, Michael J. Buckley's twin books on the origins of atheism, Charles Taylor's recent book on the secular age, Alister McGrath's book on the twilight of atheism, David Bentley Hart's latest book on the delusions of modern atheism, as well as Alasdair McGrath's various books on religion, ethics, tradition, and secular modernity.

But I'll ignore that lexicographical snag for the moment.

The heart of my worry is this: if an insider does not actually dictate to an outside observer the limits and aims of the latter's methodology, what prevents the subjects under anthropological study, qua critical outsiders relative to the anthropologist(s) observing them, from viewing those scientists as just one more clump of provincial insiders? Insofar as etic inquiry is itself a communal, human endeavor, it is an emic activity, and therefore stands in need, or at least is wide open to, an external, etic framework for being properly understood. Otherwise, whatever the scientific insiders claim about their work is only so much emic handwaving. To rephrase Lenzi, an anthropologist's opinions on his own field of inquiry are data to be interpreted, not an authority to be believed. An insider, whether scientist or peasant, doesn't determine my methodology. I do. Is this, then, not a more academic case of Sneetches arguing about who should or should not have stars on their bellies?
I hardly want to argue for thoroughgoing relativism, but Lenzi's methodological objectivism seems all too confident and none too self-critical. Once more, skeptics are not consistently skeptical. My objection, further, is not merely a "clever" semantic ploy. Rather, I think the problems underlying Lenzi's, if I may, "etic chauvinism" are related to the much more interesting and perilous problem of the long-standing secular myth of objective reductionism.

One of my favorite philosophers, Derek Melser, himself a secularist, has written persuasively about the ineluctable incoherence of a strictly objective science in an ineluctably human world. In my review of his book, The Act of Thinking, I claimed that, according to Melser, thought is not a proper object of scientific scrutiny or explanation, since detecting-- let alone understanding and explaining-- human action requires empathy, that is, requires the concomitant action of being willing-and-able-to "enter into" the action being perceived. Indeed, Melser argues, it is impossible by definition to have scientific knowledge of human actions. Science requires repeatable objectivity not influenced by human subjectivity, whereas as action-theory requires empathy and personal subjectivity. A science of language and behavior are strictly impossible, since understanding language––i.e., knowing what's going on when certain sounds are emitted––requires cooperative use of it with the speaker being viewed. But since science by definition limits itself to an objective, non-participatory "view," a purely scientific observer is asymptotically removed from "what it takes" to understand language. And, for a Melserist, if one cannot understand and mimetically simulate what is happening when one observes what-is-happening, then one can't reasonably explain what is happening. The more objective science becomes, the less traction or right it has for "getting" the language events and treating them as meaningful (i.e., intentional); and the more involved science becomes in the meaning and use of language, the less objective it is.

In his notebook for 2007, Melser claims "Psychology, cognitive science, linguistics qua science, evolutionary psychology, etc., and perhaps all the putative social sciences should go by the board. The problem is that, to the extent one adopts a truly objective, scientific attitude, to that extent the necessary empathic component is excluded." Then in a draft of a later essay, "Verbal Communication: from pedagogy to make-believe" (2008), Melser writes even more forcefully along the same lines:

"…people's actions are not suitable for scientific scrutiny on the grounds that empathy is required for the observation and identification of actions and this empathising is incompatible with scientific objectivity (Melser 2004, Chapter 11). … In order to understand what an action is, what it is to 'do' something, one needs to empathise, to activate one's status as a personal agent – and this is something the objective scientist is not allowed to do. His job is to observe things and events in an entirely detached and impersonal way. Being unable to objectively define one's subject matter should be a significant setback for the would-be scientist of empathy.

"However, even if the proscription on scientists' empathising is ignored (as it seems to be in the social sciences generally) there is a more acute problem, or a more acute version of the same problem, inherent in the study of verbal communication. … A pretence exists only to the extent that the parties to it maintain it. Consider two standard means of getting someone on the other side of the paddock to come and stand beside you: making the 'come here' gesture, or bawling Come here! … The pretence, to which both speaker and hearer are parties, is that the arm movement or the speech is the action, 'the hearer's going to stand beside the speaker.' Within this pretending game, what the speaker is therefore doing is 'demonstrating' the hearer's approaching him, as a means of soliciting it.

"For the would-be scientific observer of the transaction there is a problem though. If he stays outside the game and tries to observe it objectively he sees the arm movement and the speech qua somatic event and/or sound, but the speaker’s 'demonstration of the hearer's approach' will not appear to view. If one is not party to a pretence, it ceases to 'exist'. And the hearer's subsequent approach will be inexplicable. On the other hand, if he throws objectivity to the four winds and participates in the pretence, the arm movement and the speech qua physical events will effectively disappear off his radar. They will be replaced by the speaker’s pretended 'demonstrating the approach of the hearer'. Either way, only one aspect of the transaction will be observable at any one time.

"It is only when one alternates in and out of the game … that we seem to see the speech or gestures and the activities they conjure juxtaposed. Our everyday concepts of 'word' and 'language' presuppose just this sort of rapid alternation – seeing speech as a physical phenomenon, then responding to it as one would in an actual communication session. … But who is going to allow 'rapidly alternating between objectively observing something and playing a pretending-game with respect to it' as a scientific procedure?"

Melser's claims are relevant to a scholar of religion in that, just as a linguist's proscription against subjectivity in favor of an objective, etic methodology effectively renders obtuse what he is observing, so, e.g., Lenzi's methodological insistence on divorcing religion from its intrinsic claims as a theological, mystical phenomenon likewise renders obtuse what he is exploring. The more he sees on the outside, the less he sees on the inside. The religionists under critical, secular scrutiny know this as well as a family knows how poorly a guest in their home could grasp the countless nuances of humor, respect, rhythm, etc. in the home merely by "watching them carefully and dispassionately." Knowing something best, we say in English, means "knowing it inside out."

Interestingly, two of the oldest and most intransigent definitions of humans are zoon logikon and homo religiosus, that is, "animal endowed with speech" and "religious man." Burkert himself suggests the strong links between language and religion in the human world by saying "Language itself, as a signifying system, seems to be in need of an 'ultimate signifier,' the absolute, god" (Creation of the Sacred, p. 27, n. 96). If we can't really grasp a language without entering it, and without allowing it to enter us––without "meaning" it and without allowing its intrinsic, dynamic sense-schema influencing our grasp of the world––can we, by analogy, really expect to "get" religion without entering it, and without receiving it––without really "meaning it" on some level, and without allowing its claims to influence our view of the world? Perhaps, but call me a skeptic.


Alan Lenzi said...

As I stated on my blog, you've mistaken my rather casual comments as a full philosophical justification. Moreover, you've imputed things to my thinking that simply cannot be inferred from what you have to go on there. And you seem to believe I am a rabid skeptic atheist or something. But you don't know what I think. I use the insider/outsider issue to help my students become more self-critical about their own prejudices. I also help them, eventually, to see that there really are no objective outsiders. Moreover, you seem to be dealing with a notion of "scientific" that I do not pretend to achieve. Etic knowledge in Religious Studies is partial. It cannot experience everything that an insider feels and experiences or even believes. But it does produce useful information for comparing religion with religion, phenomena with phenomena analogically (not in terms of objective identity).

Thinking about the insider/outsider issue for me and my students is a methodological reduction not an ontological one. It helps students see the difference between the approach that says "from my limited perspective, I understand this religious activity as X" and the assertion that says "from my (objective) perspective, I see this religious activity as nothing but X"---and thereby explain it AWAY.

I don't disagree with many of the points you've made about epistemology and the "scientific" nature of the social sciences. But it seems to me that you've erected my casual comments as a straw man to launch your philosophical musings. You might have inquired a little more before jumping to conclusions about what is going on inside my own head (I hope you feel the irony there).

I use the word "secular" in my blogger profile because of the subculture of Biblioblogging. That word is simply code for "I'm not a Christian." Most Bible bloggers are. So it helps readers know what to expect.

I used to be a Christian, in fact, I was for most of my life. I have a seminary degree and have experienced a broad range of Christian community/worship. I have spent long hours thinking about some of the epistemological problems you have brought up here so that I could create a coherent religious philosophy. I am no longer a Christian for reasons I won't go into. The point: I think I have both an emic and an etic point of view when it comes to understanding at least one of the ethical monotheisms. Does it count for something that I used to have "empathy" for religion?

The Cogitator said...

Professor Lenzi:

Thank you for responding. Thanks also for being direct without being snooty. I wasn't really trying to pick on or "target" you. Your review and the ensuing discussion genuinely sparked what I wrote. As I think you can see, I have a strong interest in the philosophy of science and epistmelogical "method". It's strange to me that I fairly consistently get branded as "philosophical" when I engage secular-atheist readers of this blog. To one I sound like a philosopher when I consider human cognition. Presumably I should just quietly skurp up what all the cog sci big wigs spoon out. To another, I sound like a mere philosopher when I critique materialist metaphysics in favor of Thomistotelian natural science. And now to you, I seem to be merely airing out my philosophical musings, but in fact I was attempting to mount a serious point about the limits of "objective" critical discourse. Is philosophical "ambling" really so taboo when engaging critics of religion? What would les philosophes say!

This is a blog, not a professional seminar or journal. Of course my post is going to infer a lot that is not there. We've interacted, now, only once. But I got clarification from you, and presented some points I wanted as well. Sorry, but again: blogger's prerogative. Do you feel I slandered you? I'm sorry if you feel that way. Should I run all future posts by you first? ;)

I'm relieved to see you don't hold to as radical a scientism as I feared. Even so, I think your response rather dodges the thrust of my post. To wit, you seem to write your position off as a mere classroom heuristic, but it seems evident that you have more invested in de-theologizing religion than a mere instructor of such a technique would. I hardly mean to pry or point a finger. I'm just saying, your own position as a self-confessed secularist (rabid or not is irrelevant to me), seems subject to serious worries vis-a-vis the limits of criticial objectivity.

What I think would produce more light than heat at this point, is for you to help me grasp how the etic-emic distinction plays out among real anthropologists. Here's my worry: if the etic discourse has to select an emic target group, who defines the "authentic" boundaries of that emic group if not the emic insiders themselves? If so, then how etic can the anthropologists' analysis really be?

Keep up the good work,

Alan Lenzi said...

Philosophical ambling is fine with me. I enjoy it on occasion. I don't know what others in RS think, but I'm fine with thinking about the philosophical issues. When it becomes taboo, we'll all be in trouble. I'm not a professional philosopher, mind you. I'm a philologist and ancient historian, mostly, who likes to think (and has to teach) about religion, too. But I get along OK with philosophy.

You say, "This is a blog, not a professional seminar or journal." I say the same thing on my blog. I don't treat the blog as a place to do scholarship. I talk about scholarship; I mention what I'm doing. I have casual conversations, like the very brief insider/outsider thing that started this. The real issue for me in your post here was that you seemed to find much more in what I said there than I felt was warranted. That's all. You can claim blogger prerogative, but you could also consider that you simply read too much into what I was saying and didn't bother to ask for clarification. I think the word "secular" may have tripped some alarms for you.

The fact that you got the idea that I held to some kind of "radical scientism" seems so laughable to me. I'm happy to have relieved your mind.

No, I don't dodge the thrust of your post. I agreed with several points and I pointed out that indeed the insider/outsider issue is presented in my classroom as a heuristic, methodological tool. There are epistemological complications that I touch on, but I leave these aside for the most part in my Intro class. It's not the appropriate place to present all the complex issues.

I don't make an attempt to convert people to the dark side. That's unethical. I think you're worried about that. If so, just come to my class and listen. You'll see. I make it very clear to my students on day one that (social) science cannot disprove their faith.

In the scholarship of Religious Studies and Anthropology (though I can't speak to that as well since I'm not an Anthropologist), there is quite a bit of debate about the insider/outsider perspective. I'm not inclined to take the time to enter into that debate here with you. There are much better qualified individuals to guide you through that. (McCutcheon has a reader; here's a review).


Crude said...

For what it's worth, I think Cogitator's posts on this subject are valuable - even if Lenzi feels they don't accurately reflect his own (apparently, much more modest) views. The elusiveness of a truly "objective" point of view on these questions is important to be recognized, as is the seemingly inescapable influence of the subjective. And not everyone is as modest as Lenzi claims to be on this subject, certainly when it comes to blogs and other more casual sites.

So kudos, Cogitator, for another stellar post. Glad to see you back in the swing of things.

The Cogitator said...

Hello Crude,

Thank you for your props. ;) There's a funny irony in your use of "kudos" in this thread, since Burkert notes how that word originally meant a blessing of power from Zeus (cf. chapter 4, note 100)!

It's too bad Lenzi sounds like I'm out to hound him or something. I stand by my point that his penchant for etic analysis is creeping scientism.


Alan Lenzi said...

". . . as Lenzi claims . . . "

"creeping scientism" (despite the fact that I have denied it).

Both of these statements seem to doubt me: my sincerity or ability to understand my own intellectual position. If that's the case, it seems to me that both exalt the outsider's (your) understanding of the insider's (my) situation here. I happen to believe that such is the outsider's prerogative. Think what you must. But I think it is important to point out that you are doing to me precisely what you are worried I am doing to believers in my study of religion (but I'm up front about it).

The Cogitator said...

Prof. Lenzi:

I thought you had shaken the dust off your sandals at me. Nice to have you back. Why do you think "claims" is a bad/infalammatory word as Crude uses it? Perhaps "asserts" or "explains" would be more satisfactory? Crude's point is that even allowing for the fact that you are a moderate objectivist, plenty of academics trundle around with hardcore, aggressive objectivist delusions.

I wrote what I did about creeping scientism *prior to* reading your recent posts on your teaching methodology and agnosticism so I'm happy to retract that qualification. Like I say, I'm just glad to see scientism vanish whenever I can, even if in this case it was a mere mistaken patina of it that I gleaned from your review of Burkert and your blog's specs. Sorry to keep getting under your skin. Take 'er easy.


Alan Lenzi said...

The disembodied forum that is cyber-communication doesn't allow us to read each other fully. I wasn't tiffed in the last comment. I just came back to (sophomorically) jibe you guys a bit.

The Cogitator said...

Emoticons! Where were you when I needed you! ;)