Summary of the Main Points of “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man” – Clifford Geertz
(summary by Vago Damitio)
In this essay, Clifford Geertz goes to great efforts to make the point that the concept of culture is the definition of man. On page 52 he states this most clearly with the following “ …culture provides the link between what men are intrinsically capable of becoming and what they actually , one by one, in fact become.“
While the title points clearly to this conclusion, Geertz takes his time with the argument and presents a compelling and interesting case along the way to the conclusion. He begins with a refresher course through cultural anthropology, starting with Levi Strauss and his conclusion that science is not simply the reduction of the complex to the simple. Instead it is, especially in anthropology (Geertz argues) quite the opposite. Geertz goes on to quote whitehead with “Seek complexity and order it”. The point of this and other evaluations of well known anthropologists work and most famous maxims is toeventually lead the reader to the central concept Geertz wishes to present as quoted above.
Geertz explores the history of studying the nature of man pointing out that the enlightenment concept of man with a capital M being a complete animal seeking culture led to the racist concepts of that period and the times that followed (pp35) . Near the close of his introduction Geertz brings the reader to his first important benchmark that
“…men unmodified by the customs of particular places do not, in fact, exist…”.
In part II of his essay, Geertz begins with the popular analogy of man and his culture as the form of an onion. Culture is like each successive layer imposed on the perfected animal, man. Geertz points out several problems with this idea, foremost of which is the lack of true human universals and second is that such universals cannot be attached to biological, psychological, or social organizations. (pp38) Geertz points out the futility of the searchand then proposes several criteria which must be addressed prior to even thinking of such a search. 1) substantial universals 2) grounded in a particular discipline 3) can be defended as core elements. After this he shows why this criteria cannot be met. His point in all of this is that this is not the correct way to search for the true nature of man. Peeling back the layers does not necessarily reveal a core. This , he points out on page 43 is in essence, a search for the lowest common denominator.
Pat III is the conclusion of his arguments against and summary of historical thought. He begins this section with a refutation of Benedicts conclusions in Patterns of Culture and points out that the true key to understanding is to look for “…systemic relationships among diverse phenomena, not for substantive identities among similar ones.” He argues that while we are each born capable of living varied lives in varied cultures, we invariably end up living just one life, our own, within our individual unique culture. Geertz argues that rather than culture being like the layers of an onion, it is more of a cohesive substance which holds us from breaking into a chaotic mess. Geertz claims that culture is the central ingredient in what makes us human rather than a later added addition. ( pp47) This is summed up well on page 49 where he states “…without men, no culture, certainly; but equally and more significantly, without culture, no men.”
Part IV is the wrap up in Geertz’s argument. In this section he brings specific examples from his own work with the Javanese to shore up his logical argument thus far. He points out that to understand culture and man we must study not just types of groups but also types of individuals within those groups. It is thus that he supports his title.