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Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics [Paperback]

Clifford Geertz
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 22 2001

Clifford Geertz, one of the most influential thinkers of our time, here discusses some of the most urgent issues facing intellectuals today. In this collection of personal and revealing essays, he explores the nature of his anthropological work in relation to a broader public, serving as the foremost spokesperson of his generation of scholars, those who came of age after World War II. His reflections are written in a style that both entertains and disconcerts, as they engage us in topics ranging from moral relativism to the relationship between cultural and psychological differences, from the diversity and tension among activist faiths to "ethnic conflict" in today's politics.

Geertz, who once considered a career in philosophy, begins by explaining how he got swept into the revolutionary movement of symbolic anthropology. At that point, his work began to encompass not only the ethnography of groups in Southeast Asia and North Africa, but also the study of how meaning is made in all cultures--or, to use his phrase, to explore the "frames of meaning" in which people everywhere live out their lives. His philosophical orientation helped him to establish the role of anthropology within broader intellectual circles and led him to address the work of such leading thinkers as Charles Taylor, Thomas Kuhn, William James, and Jerome Bruner. In this volume, Geertz comments on their work as he explores questions in political philosophy, psychology, and religion that have intrigued him throughout his career but that now hold particular relevance in light of postmodernist thinking and multiculturalism. Available Light offers insightful discussions of concepts such as nation, identity, country, and self, with a reminder that like symbols in general, their meanings are not categorically fixed but grow and change through time and place.

This book treats the reader to an analysis of the American intellectual climate by someone who did much to shape it. One can read Available Light both for its revelation of public culture in its dynamic, evolving forms and for the story it tells about the remarkable adventures of an innovator during the "golden years" of American academia.


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From Amazon

Whither the social sciences? It sometimes seems as if this diverse and fluid field is permanently at def com 3: defining and defending its borders, skirmishing with science, all while the tenured generals snipe at each other. These manoeuvres sometimes pass over possibly the most important question of all: what is at stake in the study of society and culture? This question is central to anthropology, characterized as it is by the self-reflexive intimacy between its philosophy and methodology. Clifford Geertz--one of the architects of the modern discipline at least since his influential 1973 book, The Interpretation of Cultures--thankfully offers a lucid, enlightening and wonderfully readable series of 11 essays, which consider the history, philosophy and future of not just anthropology but the social sciences, in a style sure to appeal to both academics and lay readers. As a title, Available Light is an apt and playful reflection on the position of the anthropologist, who can only experience what are always only partial truths in the light available at the moment of encounter. Its subtitle, Anthropological Reflections upon Philosophical Topics indicates the extent to which the vocations have moved closer not only as they share many of the same questions, but as philosophers have come to believe that the answers to those great questions of meaning--to the degree that there can be any--are to be found in the fine detail of lived life.

Geertz's own empirical pursuit of the role of ideas in behaviour has lead him through Javanese religion, Balinese states and Moroccan bazaars, modernisation, Islam, kinship, law, art and ethnicity--all drawn upon in these essays. He also ruminates upon the moral anxieties of fieldwork, in chapters such as "Thinking as a Moral Act", "Anti Anti-Relativism"--with its stinging punchline "if we wanted home truths, we should have stayed at home"-- and "The Uses of Diversity", opening up issues pertinent to all intellectual pursuits. He goes on to establish the role of anthropology within broader intellectual and philosophical circles by addressing the work of Charles Taylor, Thomas Kuhn, William James and Jerome Bruner. For anyone involved or interested in the social sciences, Geertz offers a powerful sense of the importance and value of such study: "the impact of the social sciences upon our lives will finally be determined more by what sort of moral experience they turn out to embody than by their merely technical effects or by how much money they are permitted to spend." --Christine Buttery --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In cadenced prose, noted anthropologist Geertz examines his own life, education and work and the ways in which the fields of anthropology and philosophy might benefit each other, in a collection of essays reprinted from such journals as the Antioch Review and Common Knowledge. His recollections of the intellectual excitement in post-War World II colleges, filled with people on the brink of a new life and paid for by the G.I. Bill, reveal an intriguing facet of American intellectual history as well as the author's roots as an anthropologist. His now-famous fieldwork in Java in 1952 becomes a point of departure for other intellectual explorations. Geertz can be quite provocative--in discussing the ethical dimensions of anthropology, he concludes that "thought is conduct and is to be morally judged as such." He is also exacting, as when he claims that "anthropologists will simply have to make something of subtler differences, and their writing will grow more shrewd." His most challenging arguments for contemporary thinkers come at the end, when he discusses the impact of postmodernism on various disciplines and whether cohesive identities are possible in our world. Carefully teasing out how the study of cultural "differences" and "similarities" can work--"the trick is to get them to illuminate one another"--Geertz once again makes an important contribution to how we think and live in the world today. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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4.7 out of 5 stars
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5.0 out of 5 stars A book to ponder on May 15 2001
Format:Hardcover
This I found an interesting compilation of essays to someone reflecting on the role of anthropology as a discipline. Also includes among other subjects essays on anti-anti-relativism (!), the world order after the Cold War (that is today) and the late Thomas Kuhn, famous for his thinking in the philosophy of science. For anybody with an interest in philosophy, natural sciences and/or politics this is a fine book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Geertz at his best, Available Light July 3 2000
By Rod B
Format:Hardcover
Any student of culture in the "social studies" sense who has picked up a new book and found inside a "kindred spirit," as I did 40 years ago with Albert Camus and, more recently, with Clifford Geertz, has a treat in store with Geertz' most recent, perhaps last, offering: Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (Princeton UP, 2000).
Right from the Preface, this flight is "Go for orbit." While seemingly bidding farewell to us, and this "vast inelegance" (attributed by Geertz to Stevens), Geertz lifts one's thoughts to uncommon heights using broad, galloping strokes in particular detail, kept on track with parenthetical interjections, self-depricating personal and professional reminders, and living proofs that long sentences need not be incomprehensible.
Although it is hard to know whether Available Light would have had the same impact, had I not spent the last two years updating my 1960s cultural anthropology education, I believe it would have helped to read it first, rather than last, before reading Interpretation of Cultures, Local Knowledge, Works & Lives, and After the Fact, as well as many non-Geertz offerings.
Had Available Light come to hand before I read 3 interesting, helpful, but turgid, volumes on ethnographic field work and methodology, in preparation for a retirement project I'm planning, I would surely have struggled less with any of the three. With 3 fundamental field work questions in a single sentence, Geertz made it all clear, the remainder being mostly "techniques" which those 3 books richly supplied. Where were you, Clifford, when I needed you?
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4.0 out of 5 stars Great collection June 27 2000
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This was a pretty good compilation of essays, both popular and lesser known. Very worthwhile!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
64 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Geertz at his best, Available Light July 3 2000
By Rod B - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Any student of culture in the "social studies" sense who has picked up a new book and found inside a "kindred spirit," as I did 40 years ago with Albert Camus and, more recently, with Clifford Geertz, has a treat in store with Geertz' most recent, perhaps last, offering: Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (Princeton UP, 2000).
Right from the Preface, this flight is "Go for orbit." While seemingly bidding farewell to us, and this "vast inelegance" (attributed by Geertz to Stevens), Geertz lifts one's thoughts to uncommon heights using broad, galloping strokes in particular detail, kept on track with parenthetical interjections, self-depricating personal and professional reminders, and living proofs that long sentences need not be incomprehensible.
Although it is hard to know whether Available Light would have had the same impact, had I not spent the last two years updating my 1960s cultural anthropology education, I believe it would have helped to read it first, rather than last, before reading Interpretation of Cultures, Local Knowledge, Works & Lives, and After the Fact, as well as many non-Geertz offerings.
Had Available Light come to hand before I read 3 interesting, helpful, but turgid, volumes on ethnographic field work and methodology, in preparation for a retirement project I'm planning, I would surely have struggled less with any of the three. With 3 fundamental field work questions in a single sentence, Geertz made it all clear, the remainder being mostly "techniques" which those 3 books richly supplied. Where were you, Clifford, when I needed you?
Even more, had Available Light come to hand earlier in my self-tutorial sojourn, I would surely have struggled less with such basic concepts as "culture," "religion," and "semiotics." We who lay no great claim to extraordinary intellectual prowess can use Geertz' succinct definitional descriptions to collect, organize and parse the cacophony of competing definitions, perspectives, and outright agendas surrounding each such key anthropological concept.
Finally, the writing! You will rarely find such clear, lucid writing. It is a trait, I find, not unique to Geertz, but Geertz does it better than most. It is not simple writing - on the contrary! - but clear; few short sentences, as precision so often requires modulating interjection. Available Light could find valuable use by English and journalism students just for study of writing clarity!
If I have a gripe, it's only shared by Geertz with so many Harvard-trained so-called scholars, a propensity for uncommon vocabulary - not big words, mind you, but such uncommon ones that I, schooled so many decades ago, still race for the dictionary (where, incidentally, many do not occur). My working vocabulary is enormous, so I suspect "airs" when I encounter too many unknown words, even when they turn out to be well-suited to their context, and particularly when there is an equally-suitable, better-known synonym available.
One rejoinder: Early in Available Light, Geertz notes, he has not actually taught in many years. On the contrary, Professor Geertz, on the contrary! (Rod Borlase)
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interdisciplinary Pursuits July 18 2009
By Etienne ROLLAND-PIEGUE - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
To engage in a meaningful dialogue with another discipline, and to reap the benefits of interdisciplinary work, it is essential to keep a firm grounding in the research tradition and scientific methods of one particular area of study. In Available Lights, Clifford Geertz often crosses boundaries and demonstrates an amazing command of other fields of research. His Anthropological Reflexions not only cover philosophical topics, but also address other disciplines such as psychology, political science, history, epistemology, and the natural sciences. But Clifford Geertz is a scholar who is quite secure about his disciplinary identity: "I am an ethnographer, and a writer about ethnography, from beginning to end; and I don't do systems."

Although the nature of anthropology is hard to pinpoint (it has to do with identity and difference, or with "how much difference difference makes"), Geertz is convinced that ethnographic fieldwork remains at the core of the discipline: field research is what anthropologists do that others don't. To discover who people think they are, what they think they are doing, and to what end they think they are doing it, it is necessary to gain a working familiarity with the frames of meaning within which they enact their lives. Recent attempts to reinvent the discipline by discarding fieldwork as an outdated ideology are met with skepticism: "There is very little in what the partisans of an anthropology in which fieldwork plays a much reduced or transformed role (...) have so far done that would suggest they represent the wave of the future." Therefore "deep hanging out", James Clifford's disparaging expression for fieldwork, is to be preferred to "nonimmersive, hit-and-run ethnography".

By staying close to the field, the ethnographer avoids a common pitfall: the attempt to "do systems", what the author labels "the-buck-stops-there approaches to social theory " or the "'it all comes down to' cast of mind". As he notes, there are very few laws or general rules in anthropology that aren't either false or trivial. At best, generalities are useful as heuristic devices, indicating the direction in which to probe deeper. Claude Levi-Strauss is a well-known example of an anthropologist who attempted to draw universal laws and general structures from his observations in the field, but Geertz disagrees with him on many points, epistemological as well as ethical. For Geertz, the renunciation of the authority that comes from "views from nowhere" ('I've seen reality and it's real') is not a loss, it's a gain. Direct and open acknowledgment of limits--this observer, in this time, at that place--is one of the things that most recommends this whole style of doing research.

But fieldwork poses many problems. First, as the author wryly notes, "we may be faced with a world in which there simply aren't any more headhunters, matrilinealists, or people who predict the weather from the entrails of a pig. Difference will doubtless remain--the French will never eat salted butter. But the good old days of widow burning and cannibalism are gone forever." Second, negotiating access to the field and establishing a meaningful relationship with a group of informants are no easy tasks. The relationship between an anthropologist and an informant rests on a set of partial fictions only half seen-through. For Geertz, "one of the psychological fringe benefits of anthropological research--at least I think it's a benefit--is that it teaches you how it feels to be thought of as a fool and used as an object, and how to endure it." Moral dilemmas abound, not least about how to cope with "a division of humanity into those who know and decide and those who are known and are decided for". This makes anthropology a moral discipline, in which "the results of thought inevitably reflect the quality of the kind of human situation in which they were obtained".

For an intellectual who confesses to be "shy of polemic", Clifford Geertz demonstrates an acute spirit and a sharp wit in discussing the work of researchers with whom he apparently disagrees: James Clifford's "hit-and-run ethnography", Claude Levi-Strauss' metaphor of cultures as intersecting trains peeking briefly into one another, critics who see in relativism an attack on "reason, freedom, footnotes, and civilization", or evolutionary biology's pretension to hegemony. But he also gives generous credit to scholars with whom he agrees, and he is ready to call his own self into question. For a septuagenarian, he is remarkably aware of the new challenges facing the discipline: the multipolar world and the redefinition of national or cultural identities, the new varieties of religious experience in the islamic world, the interactions between culture, mind, and the brain in explaining human behavior.

Clifford Geertz's prose is a model of the genre. His vocabulary is rich and evocative, his tone witty and humorous, his culture spans literary genres and historical periods. His review of Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions sets the standard for any aspiring book reviewer. As in his other essays, long list of poets make cursory appearances, from Robert Frost to Richard Wilbur, from Gerard Hopkins to Constantine Cavafy, but Clifford Geertz himself could be added to this list of literary masters.
3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Where was the editor? Aug. 3 2007
By Alexander I. Mcallister - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
There is a lot to gain by reading Geertz; his knowledge and insight are wonderful. However, I don't think I have ever read anyone that uses run-on-sentences to the extent that he does. To pull the message out of his writing is like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. I can't imagine how an editor allowed this verbal diarrhea to go unchecked. I can't tell if he is suffering from ADD or is simply pretentious. If you can get past all that, it is well worth reading.
3 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great collection June 27 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This was a pretty good compilation of essays, both popular and lesser known. Very worthwhile!
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