“Anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities”
If we are to apply our evolutionary advantage as a species, we must recognize that humanity is both the observer and participant in the evolutionary process of life on the planet Earth. This is the power of the Anthropological perspective. Anthropology, as a science, seeks to understand how we have become the dominant biological organism on the planet. Anthropology, as humanity, seeks to understand how we view ourselves as individuals and as individuals living in societies through time.
The most humanistic of the sciences means that as human beings we attempt to understand the workings of the universe that we have inherited, through human eyes. We seek this understanding by describing the elements that we experience through our human senses. From these observations, we construct mental models of the universe we discover; and in the process, we discovered a “STRUCTURE” for the universe.
As the most scientific of the humanities, we seek to understand the dynamic of these structures through our observations and, in the process, ascribe “FUNCTION” to the elements. In FUNCTION, we discover Purpose and Meaning. However, over time and space, we discover as humans, that these elements can be combined into different patterns. We also observe that our idea of Function is relative to our experience with a given Structure. We embody our experience in the Meanings we assign to structures and their elements. We label this as “CULTURE.” A hallmark of anthropology is Cultural relativity, i.e. the meanings of structures and events are relative to the observer’s experience.
As organic beings, we have a unique ability to be self-reflective. We share our reflections with others through Language. Language is a meta-phenomenon that encodes our experience into a set of signs and symbols that shares “Meaning”. We express our discoveries, experiences, and feelings through the physical signs and symbols we create and share with others. Humans experience not only discover the “purpose” of structural elements, but also the part(s) they play in creating and maintaining the larger structures of which they are a part. We, as humans, discover and seek “MEANING” to the purpose. As a self-reflective species, we seek our meanings from explanation about how these structures apply to us, personally, collectively (a part of society), and as a species (among all species).
“Meaning” expresses “purpose” in a relativistic way. It explains the links we find in nature in terms of “cause to effect”. It provides the answer to the old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the woods, does it matter if no one hears it?” From the Human perspective, the answer is “No.” If we cannot, or do not experience, the event, for us the event does not exist. The experience is not existential, only an ideational possibility. Scientifically, an ideational explanation of a experience without physical evidence is a hypothesis, a belief based on a “best guess.” Again, an example of CULTURAL RELATIVITY.
The recognition of Cultural Relativity is one of the greatest discoveries of Anthropology. While often underplayed in public discourse, it gives us an advantage over other disciplines by recognizing the role of ethnocentrism as a part of the human condition. Like all organisms, biologically we recognize our own species. But, as a self-reflective animal, we separate ourselves as a clad or society from others sharing our environment by attributing meanings and purposes to the other in relations to us.
While this feature of human life is so evident today, why is it that the anthropological perspective has emerged in the last three centuries in the human mind only? This is the questions that I will be addressing in future installments of this blog.