Mind, Body and Culture: A Brief Introduction (1990)

Geoffrey Samuel

[This introduction to the ideas in my book Mind, Body and Culture was written for a Bag Lunch Seminar at the Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley on 10th December 1990. Detailed references can be found in the book.]



The title of this seminar, Mind, Body and Culture, is also the title of my book, which appeared earlier this year [i.e. 1990] with Cambridge University Press, and which originated as a kind of byproduct of my work on Buddhism and society in Tibet. (I am completing a separate book on religion in Tibetan societies, to be published by the Smithsonian Institution in its ethnographic series.)[1]

In this seminar I shall give an overview of some of the central ideas of Mind, Body and Culture. Only some, because the book deals with a wide range of issues including the inadequacies of interpretive approaches in anthropology, the opposition between agency and structure, the mind-body problem, the nature of shamanism, ideology and state power, and the validity of sociobiology and of evolutionary approaches to culture in general. Today, as signalled in the flyer which most of you will have seen, I shall talk about a subset of these concerns, centering on the issue of the validity of non-Western modes of knowledge. I shall keep my remarks fairly brief so as to leave plenty of time for discussion.

Much of the debate between cultural relativists and their opponents has by now acquired a sterile and uninspired air. In part because the two sides so often seem to be talking past each other. All-too-familiar critiques of positivism, empiricism and Eurocentrism are countered by accusations that the relativists hold that there is no significant difference between the beliefs of the Trobriand Islanders and those of modern science, or that all cultures are morally equal. Etc.

However there is a core of significance remaining in this debate, and at least one issue raised within it is of real concern to many anthropologists who have worked among peoples who have substantially non-Western understandings of the world. Those of us who have spent time working in such cultures often find ourselves being led to an appreciation that the assumptions of the people we are living with, assumptions which may include, for example, the existence of sorcery or of witchcraft, the agency of spirits or of dead ancestors, or the action of karma, while radically different from those of our own cultural background and academic training, nevertheless have an integrity and a degree of conviction which derives from their forming part of a viable and indeed often admirable way of life. We find ourselves taking part in modes of being which seem to fit poorly or not at all into the structures of Western rationality. Without simply `going native' and substituting non-Western understandings for our own Western ways of operating and knowing, we may want to be able to concede to these non-Western modes of being a validity beyond that which Western science seems to permit.

The problem here is not simply a matter of a poor fit with modern science, although it is here that the issue is most acute because of the high status of scientific knowledge within Western society. If we are simply presented with beliefs in sorcery or witchcraft in isolation, in the way that they tend to be encountered in the classroom or library, they do not have much persuasive effect. In the field, however, we experience them not as isolated theoretical constructs but as part of a total fabric of social relationships of which we form a part. The people around us are constantly using these concepts, acting in accordance with them and making sense of their life in terms of them. What kind of credence do we give to the modes of knowledge which make up the reality of the people with whom we work? It hardly seems satisfactory to dismiss as nonsensical a set of understandings which we have seen as functioning and working all around us, and which may in some respects seem to work better than the equivalent modes of knowledge within our own society. However it is difficult to accept as factual a body of knowledge which conflicts, often drastically, with the basic assumptions of our own cultural background.

The problem can be shelved by granting these non-Western concepts a kind of conditional validity while we are in the field, a kind of "as if" quality, and putting them aside when we leave. Many anthropologists do, or claim that they do, just that. However the suspicion remains that the issue cannot be dealt with so simply.


Some Classical Solutions: Evans-Pritchard, Horton, Turner

One classic response to this situation is exemplified in Edward Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Evans-Pritchard argues that the Zande witchcraft beliefs may form a self-consistent system of ideas, but they are wrong; the truth-content of the system is zero. At best, indigenous ideas may be conceded the status of pseudo-science or of bad science, which was more or less the position taken by Robin Horton in a well-known article dating from 1967, `African traditional thought and Western science'. Horton's work has some interesting features, among them his recognition that the language of African gods and spirits is a genuine explanatory language with significant truth-content, and his suggestion that this language is concerned more with understanding human relationships than with understanding natural phenomena.

This argument was taken much further and argued in much greater detail at around the same time in the early works of Victor Turner (the most significant here is perhaps The Drums of Affliction, 1968). Turner treated African spirit-beliefs as, in effect, good science, but operating in different terms and with different concerns to our own. Ndembu spirit-beliefs form the basis of a kind of social therapy through which the psychological balance of the village and of its individual members is monitored and, where necessary, transformed through rituals which act on the mind, body and emotions of the participants.

Turner, however, for all the insight displayed in his analyses (I regard Drums of Affliction as one of the high points of modern anthropology), was aware that his position did not quite add up in logical terms. His basically social-structural mode of analysis could not really coexist with the more or less Freudian psychology to which he tried to marry it in his books of the late 1960s, and he spent much of the last years of his life looking for a more satisfactory approach. There are several ways to discuss the difficulty here, but it arises from an attempt to justify Ndembu psychology by treating it as a variant of Western psychology, while its presuppositions in fact undercut those upon which virtually all Western psychologies are based.

To pose the problem in a simple and schematic form, are Ndembu ritual symbols social or individual? Turner would like to treat them as both at the same time, but the terms in which his analysis are phrased are essentially those of an individual psychology, and no amount of communitas is going to make the Ndembu into a population whose psychic content is uniform throughout. All Ndembu mothers are not the same person, but for Nkang'a to work properly in separating mother from daughter they would ideally need to be. The same difficulty emerges in a slightly different form if we ask whether the symbols used by the Ndembu diviner provide the basis for a valid scientific analysis of the psychic contents of his clients. If so, we somehow have to reconcile these symbols, which operate at a social level, with the different and essentially individualistic and trans-cultural language of Turner's own analysis.

In other words (and here I am summarizing an argument which I give at considerably greater length in my book), Turner's attempt to validate non-Western forms of knowledge within a Western scientific framework ultimately proves to be incoherent as Western science, and this incoherence results precisely from the conflict between Ndembu and Western modes of knowledge. This is by no means only Turner's problem; I think it is indicative of what happens generally when we attempt to map non-Western modes of knowledge onto Western categories.

Nevertheless, Turner's work does enable us to see non-Western modes of being as having their own validity, and it suggests the possibility of, for example, comparing the effectiveness of non-Western and Western modes of knowledge in pragmatic terms without becoming involved in futile debates about whether the spirits of the ancestors are really there. Much the same may be said about some of the analyses of traditional systems of thought as maintaining ecological balance, such as Roy Rappaport's Pigs for the Ancestors or Gerardo Reichl-Dolmatoff's work on the Tukano Indians. We might imagine that it would be possible to construct a genuinely non-positivistic social science within which Ndembu psychology and Freudian psychology, Tukano spirit-beliefs and Western ecology, are seen as alternative but partial modes of understanding of a situation more complex than either can fully describe.


Dismissing the Problem: Anthropology as Anti-Science

To construct such a scientific framework is not an easy proposition, however, and it is hardly surprising that the cultural anthropologists of the 1970s and 1980s, who were involved in other kinds of battles with reductionist scientific approaches such as sociobiology and cultural materialism, did not seem to have had much interest in the project. The most frequent response to the accusation of scientific incoherence is exemplified in Clifford Geertz's later work and in much of the hermeneutic and deconstructionist trend in recent anthropology. This was to treat the question of scientific validity as irrelevant to anthropology. Anthropology is concerned only with the interpretation of one culture for another, it is a humanistic discipline, it makes no claim to scientific correctness or coherence, and in any case we all know that science's claims to objective knowledge are looking pretty shaky these days, so what's so special about being scientific? Science is just another of those `grand narratives' by which the state, patriarchy, etc., imposes its wicked will upon innocent human beings, so that to be non-scientific can in its way be seen as a way of occupying the moral high ground.

There is something to be said for this position, especially when you look at some of the things that have been done to our planet and its inhabitants in the name of science. However, I don't think that it is either entirely satisfactory or really necessary to dismiss science in so cavalier a fashion. (And I suspect that most of the people who take this position concede scientific knowledge a much greater validity in practice than the hermeneutic dismissal would imply that they should. In other words, while they may consult their local herbalist or New Age practitioner for a minor ailment - perhaps I should insert a plug for Tibetan medicine at this point - they will submit themselves meekly enough to the authority of Western medical science when faced by serious illness or injury.)

A major problem with the anti-scientific position, too, is that while anthropology as a science may have something useful to say to the decision-makers within our societies, anthropology as cultural hermeneutics has no basis on which it can say anything to anybody. One of the more interesting features of the great sociobiology debate was that the sociobiologists, while never constituting more than a fairly small minority within anthropology, were taken remarkably seriously by non-anthropologists both inside and outside the academy. They were, after all, scientists. This is the point at which the hermeneuticists's claim to occupy the moral high ground begins to look rather shaky. The rejection of science may allow a certain purity, but it is at the cost of being powerless.

It is against this background that I suggest that we might look again at the possibility of constructing an overall theoretical framework which is scientific (in the sense of providing for internal consistency and claims of correspondence to the real world) but also allows for the genuine coexistence of culturally different modes of being and understanding.


Constructing the Framework: Creating Some Space

Part of our difficulty in building such a framework lies in the fact that we do not have enough theoretical space to move in. There are too many assumptions already littering up the field. To return to the example of Turner's work, Western psychology, with its cross-cultural assumptions about the individual human being, and Durkheimian sociology, with its tendency to see the group as paramount and the individual as shaped by it, cannot be reconciled in the same theoretical space without letting something go. My suggestion is that we let both society and the individual go, and see what is left. In my book I discuss this move in terms of an analogy with the way in which Erwin Schrödinger introduces the general relativistic approach to space-time in his book Space-Time Structure.

In Schrödinger's book, he begins by saying: let's forget about space and time as we currently know them and simply have a totally unstructured `manifold' in which everything is there but we know nothing at all about how everything is interconnected. Now let us see what the minimum assumptions are that we need to make to account for our observed data about space and time. He then proceeds by gradually imposing a limited set of mathematical constraints upon the social manifold, which form the basis of the structure of space-time according to general relativity.

In this particular seminar, I'm going to leave space and time more or less alone, but I suggest that we forget about societies and individuals (and also about minds and bodies), and look instead at a kind of generic `social manifold' as the basis for our understanding of human social life.


The Social Manifold and the Flow of Relatedness

What this social manifold consists of is best described, given the limited time we have available, through imagery. One place to start is Clifford Geertz's observation that `man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun'. These webs need however to be supplemented with a time-dimension of some kind, in particular because it is through time that they change and transform and in time that they are used and manipulated by human actors.

I think of the result (of adding a time-dimension to a collection of webs of significance, that is) as something like a river, whose content at any point is made up of various kinds of connectedness or relatedness which exist between human beings (and also between human beings and their natural environment). These are the structures of meaning and feeling within which we live, structures which operate within our minds and bodies (or rather within the unified field of mind and body) but which also exist outside them and give the `social' dimension its momentary appearance of coherence and form. Over time (along the flow of the river) they gradually grow, maintain themselves, transform and eventually die and are replaced by other structures. These processes correspond to the growth and disappearance of kinship systems, religions, movements in the arts, and modes of understanding the universe, scientific and non-scientific. If we think of the social manifold in these terms, we can see it as very much what Gregory Bateson referred to as the `ecology of mind'. The substance of the river is also perhaps what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as the `habitus,' although I think that Bourdieu never really confronted the issue of precisely where the habitus was located.


Analyzing the Flow: The Modal States

If this is our social manifold, the next step is to find some kind of provisional description of the structures which grow and function within it, a description which does not assume any kind of fixed social group or any fixed model of the human individual. The term I use for these structures is `modal states,' a term whose main justification is that it is the best that I could think of at the time. It does however suggest the idea of a system which switches between various states over time. That system may be composed of an individual human being, or of a small or large group of human beings within their physical and biological environment. I refer to the general theoretical framework itself as the multimodal framework; in the book it's called MMF for short. There is an explicit contrast in the book with what I refer to as bimodal frameworks. I have two anthropological examples of such frameworks, which play a substantial role in my exposition. They are provided by the writings of Maurice Bloch and Dan Sperber in the early 1970s. Bloch and Sperber see human consciousness as switching between two modes, one rational or common-sensical and the other symbolic or ideological. I see it as switching between a much larger number of modes, each of which is symbolically structured but allows for rational thought within that strucure.

I emphasize that the modal states are not really (or rather are only secondarily) states of human beings. (One of the problems in the work of Bloch and Sperber is that they reacted aganst Durkheimian functionalism into an equally unviable individualism.) The states exist (to the extent that an analytic construct has existence) within the social manifold, and the human population of the manifold may be seen as deriving from the states 2Iirather than vice versa. One of the main points of this multimodal approach is to avoid assuming any kind of universally existent human nature as a basis on which culture is imposed. (You can perhaps see that one of the things I am doing is to take culture as far as possible into the definition of what human beings are as a counterbalance to the cruder versions of evolutionary biology and sociobiology. The last chapter of my book follows this up, and explores the implications of the multimodal framework for evolutionary models of culture.)

The states thus have their existence within the social manifold. We can however speak of individual modal states, group modal states and cultural modal states as derivatives from the underlying modal states of the manifold, and it may help to make matters more real if I list some of the attributes associated with the individual modal states [there is an overhead on which these are listed]:

The individual modal state

(1) has a cognitive function. It splits up or interprets the individual's stream of existence in characteristic ways, so that certain features of the external environment are consciously perceived and others are not;
(2) is associated with a set of images or symbols, in part shared within a given cultural context, by which the state is referenced or evoked;
(3) corresponds to specific moods, motivations, feelings and emotions;
(4) corresponds to a particular decision structure. Within it the individual will respond in certain ways to certain events, will subjectively find certain goals attractive and others unattractive;
(5) corresponds to a particular subjective sense of self and a particular way in which the individual perceives of his or her relationship to other individuals and other aspects of the environment;
(6) corresponds to certain physiological correlates, such as posture, muscle tension, blood pressure and the like;
(7) allows for transitions to certain other states, and in some cases the creation and elaboration of new states.


It is important also to remember that the `states' of individuals are fluid and changing, as indeed are those of the manifold itself. The states should not be reified. They are an attempt to grasp and to describe a fluid and complex situation rather than an assertion about how things actually are. At the same time, they are meant to help suggest that concepts such as the individual, society or culture are equally provisional and inadequate and should not be reified and treated as factual, as happens all the time.

Given all this, we can now use the framework I have outlined as the basis for a brief discussion of two issues already signalled in my presentation. These are (i) the validity of other cultures, and (ii) the nature of shamanism and its relationship to state power.


Cultural Realities within the Multimodal Framework

By now, the lines along which I deal with the conflict between Western reality and the reality of non-Western societies may be evident, at least in outline. Neither culture forms a monolithic unit. Both consist of repertoires of ways of knowing, ways of operating, ways of getting on in the universe, which are internalized in idiosyncratic ways by the people living among them. As Westerners living in a non-Western society, we may gradually build up our own equivalents to the locally-prevailing modal states in order to be able to function effectively. All modal states contain a cognitive component with some degree of correspondence to reality, leaving aside the psychotic or the otherwise totally non-functional, whom we can regard as unable to develop adequate personal renderings of the local modal states. Nevertheless, I assume that reality is more complex than any modal state is capable of comprehending. (In one of the papers in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson gives some interesting reasons why this may have to be the case.)

Scientific frameworks are a kind of crystallization or solidification into formal, usually written, shape, of the cognitive components of modal states. They are a subset of kinds of crystallization; rituals, modes of etiquette, and language itself are other kinds, and these crystallizations act back upon and help to shape the modal states themselves.

As an epistemological framework, this may be characterized as neo-Kantian. It seems, as far as I can tell, to be one of the more viable philosophical positions around, although a philosopher of science might want to tie down the kinds of assertions about reality being made in the modal states in more detail.[2] At any rate, it seems to allow us to see different cultural modes of knowing as partial, incomplete, but to a certain degree valid, without committing us to asserting either that Western science is right and the others are at best bad approximations to it, or all modes of knowledge are equally valid. However, it depends upon a drastic relativizing of basic Western assumptions, such as those relating to the nature of the human individual, or to the distinction between subjective and objective (which makes no real sense in this framework).

You may also notice that I ground scientific knowledge as firmly as possible within the cognitive aspects of the modal states. The cognitive component of the modal state is part of the total functioning of human beings, an attribute of body and mind, physiology and emotion as well as cognition, and it is tied to orientations towards certain kinds of action. This is deliberate, and it serves a number of functions. It enables one to argue that science is not `objective knowledge,' but is as deeply situated within the total flow as everything else. It is also linked to a view of human creativity which emerges most clearly in the treatment of shamanism in Mind, Body and Culture, and I shall discuss this topic briefly for my conclusion.


Shamanism, Society and the State

The modal states cut across mind and body, individual and society, and as such they are difficult to conceptualize within the thought structure of our society, where the autonomous ego is a basic postulate and the mind-body dichotomy is reinforced by the assumption of an objective world outside our consciousness. They are not necessarily so difficult to conceptualize within non-Western societies, and many of these societies already have concepts and symbolic forms quite similar to the modal states. In particular, the language of gods and spirits in many societies can be understood more easily in terms of something like the modal-state framework than in terms of non-material supernatural entities external to the human individual. For example, a militaristic moodcould be seen as the activity of a `war-god' such as Mars or Shango withn a population. In my book, I restate aspects of Turner's Ndembu material in terms of the MMF. I suggest that the female and male puberty rituals, Nkang'a and Mukanda, may be understood as cultural devices to maintain and strengthen central modal states of Ndembu society, and that the various `rituals of affliction,' which are associated with different named modes in which ancestral spirits afflict the living, may be seen as ways of recognizing and countering imbalances in the modal-state structure of the Ndembu village community. The Ndembu diviner diagnoses these imbalances and either prescribes rituals to repair them or, where the situation has deteriorated beyond repair, legitimates the breakup of a village community through a diagnosis of sorcery.

The suggestion that specialists in some small-scale preliterate societies operate in a more or less explicit way with concepts resembling the modal state is developed in the book through several more case-studies, including the Semai and Temiar of highland peninsular Malaysia, the Australian Aborigines, and several African peoples. Such procedures generally involve rituals which emphasize the significance of the group over its members, and are aimed at creating and maintaining what I refer to in the book as a `sociocentric' sense of self. (I discovered a few weeks ago that Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock have also used the term `sociocentric' in relation to the Temiar and similar people - as far as I know this is a case of independent invention, but it's a nice coincidence.[3]) In Mind, Body and Culture, I use the word `shamanic' as a general term to refer to cultural processes of modal-state balancing and manipulation. This corresponds quite closely to several of the more common usages of the term `shamanic,' although in view of the variety of ways in which `shamanic,' `shamanism' etc. have been used in anthropology it might have been better to avoid the word `shamanic' altogether. (It is one of those words which, when used in a seminar, seems almost guaranteed to generate futile and unresolvable arguments about definitions - I hope it doesn't have that effect today.)

I interpret the shaman's encounter with the world of spirits, which can take any of a wide variety of forms when viewed cross-culturally, as among other things a way of legitimating the shaman's prescriptions by grounding them in another order of reality, that of the modal states, seen as a fundamental pattern behind everyday society.[4] Shamanic practitioners may be involved in anything from fine-tuning of the social relationships within a household at one extreme to a full-scale revitalization movement at the other. What these situations have in common, however, is that the shaman has a claim to authority which goes beyond his or her personal identity within the community. The shaman thus acts as the source of legitimate innovation and creativity within societies which claim to be highly conservative. Of course, the shaman's authority is not uncontested, since it is always possible for a particular shamanic revelation to be regarded as illegitimate and for the shaman to be accused of using his or her power for evil purposes.

The shaman thus exercises power and leadership, of a kind. Where other kinds of power and leadership exist within a society, shamanic leadership represents both a means of legitimation for non-shamanic leaders and a potential or actual threat to their position. It is this which explains the uneasy relationship between shamanism and state power. Within traditional Asian states, one typically finds that shamanic procedures have a limited existence, subordinate to the structures of state power; Stanley Tambiah's work on the forest saints and the cult of amulets in Thailand is a classic analysis of this kind of situation. Centralized states are happier with an alternative religious modality, that which I refer to as clerical. The cleric is by definition not an innovator, but someone whose primary function is to legitimate and reinforce the prevailing order. Thai monks are, by and large, clerics; it is only on the margins of Thai society that one finds monks and lay Buddhist practitioners who make claims to shamanic leadership, and historically such claims have been forcibly suppressed by the Thai state. The Thais also have spirit-mediums and small-scale shamanic practitioners at the village level, but these practitioners, while tolerated, are very much subordinate in status to the Buddhist clergy and represent no kind of threat to them.

Western academics are perhaps also, for the most part, clerics in the sense I have outlined. Among Buddhist societies, Tibet is a special case, since centralized power has been weak or non-existent through much of Tibetan history, and this explains why Tibetan lamas are much more shamanic than clerical in their mode of functioning. This, however, leads me onto the subject of another book, the one I am revising at present, so I shall stop at this point and invite comment on what I have said.



[1] [This appeared as Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1993).- G.S. 1998][Return]

[2] I have been influenced to some degree by evolutionary epistemologists such as Cliff Hooker, Kai Hahlweg and particularly Gonzalo Munevar.[Return]

[3] Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock, `The mindful body: a prolegomenon to future work in medical anthropology.' Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1 (n.s.)(1987):6-41[Return]

[4] The Australian Aboriginal `dreaming' is a classic example of such a concept.[Return]

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