Monday, 8 August 2005

The Spurious Claim that Anthropological Reports are More Certain than Arithmetic Facts

Quite often these days, there emerges from the close and sordid pages of an academic journal an anthropological report that tells of a distant, little-known tribe whose members do not know how to do arithmetic or how to count above two. In radically “sceptical” quarters, this is greeted with gleeful credulity, embraced as further proof – aha! – of the relativity of knowledge. An enfant of the terrible kind will perk up and say, “Seven plus nine equals sixteen only by social convention, and thus it does not constitute a universal truth”. Hoping we miss the tautology of this statement, he will regale us with the anthropological tale where this simple arithmetic reportedly does not hold true, and tells us that it is only we in our cultural arrogance that would foist our arithmetic faith on another culture.
.....Yet though he claims to doubt that an arithmetic fact such as seven plus nine equals sixteen is a universal truth, he holds no doubt in his empirical “fact” that there is a culture as described that holds a differing view, notwithstanding the evidently more uncertain grounds whence this “fact” was derived. If he can doubt the legitimacy of arithmetical or logical facts, what explains his faith in anthropological reports that are, after all, on epistemically less certain grounds? With all his doubts, how did he accept this “fact”? If this were not indication enough of intellectual bankruptcy, consider the conclusion that he drew from this anthropological “fact”:

Not every part of humanity knows how to do arithmetic,
Arithmetic ‘facts’ are not universally true

It takes no great brain to spot that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The conclusion that logically follows is: Arithmetic know-how is not universal. An established anthropological fact this may be, but then I don’t know that it is – I am told so by some anthropologists, but given the past commitment of some anthropologists to using their field not as a means of gaining knowledge of other cultures, but rather as a political tool in the cultivation of their own, I remain sceptical of the claim. Of course, I know that arithmetic know-how is not universal in one sense: amoebas, for instance, cannot add up, and British school-children have great difficulties, but then I doubt these are what the chaps have in mind when they use the phrase “universally true”. So what is meant, then?
.....Note the implicit criterion in the argument that for something to be true, it must be universally believed or known to be true, and thus conversely, that something is false if it is not universally believed or known to be true. I suppose, therefore, that what is meant by “universally true” is “universally believed or known to be true”. And yet time and again, the phrase “universally true’ is foisted into an argument, where properly the term “universally believed” or “universally known” should stand. This is in an effort to support the belief that truth is relative to culture and so forth, and yet it is merely a sophistic restatement of that belief. At the risk of labouring the point, consider the following reformulation of the illogicality: Because x is not known among culture A, it is not universally true. The proper conclusion should read: it is not universally known, which states merely that there is ignorance of the facts somewhere, but not that the facts are not known elsewhere.
.....We have then, on top of a spurious argument, the curious idea that a thing is false precisely because not everyone believes in it, and that a thing is true only if everyone believes in it. Well, I can tell you now that not everyone believes that anthropologists are intelligent, well-adjusted persons who seek honestly to clarify our understanding of the world.


dearieme said...

"... anthropologists are intelligent, well-adjusted persons who seek honestly to clarify our understanding of the world": not the school of Boas, anyway.

An old friend of mine went to teach in a Good University in the late 50s. He was astonished to find that the scientists had high morale (that's scientists in the broadest sense - including mathematicians, engineers, medics, vets...)whereas the arts/social science types were down in the dumps - what are we for? Why is it worth teaching our disciplines? And so on. Who on earth will they persuade of their value with that sort of self-indulgent twaddle?

Deogolwulf said...

Exactly. This pyrrhonism is a typically bratish response to the success of others (in this case scientists), and reflects a crisis of self-esteem. (I suspect it really does come down to: if we can't win, then we're not going to play the game.)