I imagine that most of the people who read blogs such as this one have developed their own ways of consuming digital media. One of the things that I like to do is listen to podcasts while walking to campus each morning. One of the podcasts I usually like very much is called Philosophy Bites, but the episode that came up in my playlist today left me somewhere between chaffed and flabbergasted.
It featured a scholar named John Mikhail who, modeling his approach after Chomsky’s work on universal grammar (because, you know, it was so successful) suggests that there’s a sort of pre-political, innate moral grammar that all humans share.
Now, the “chaffed” part comes from all the work that he does not discuss in making this claim: Foucault’s work on the emergence of “the human” out of a very particular political formulation, Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on the history of moral philosophy, Lynn Hunt’s (among many many others) work on the history of human rights, in fact most anthropologists‘ work on human rights discourse that I’m aware of–most of which illustrates not only the degree to which such notions depend on particular conceptions of what it means to be human, but also the ways in which these notions of human-ness are themselves tied to particular discursive and economic structures that are quite clearly “political” and less than “universal”.
Fine. Scholars rely on different bodies of knowledge. That’s part of what make contemporary universities so interesting. But the flabbergasted part comes from what he does discuss as evidence: namely, the fact that “everybody seems to agree more or less agree on human rights” (again, what can this truth claim even mean in the era of Guantanamo Bay?! What mode of life and thought makes it even utterable?) as well as “growing anthropological evidence”. What is he talking about here? I literally have no clue. I would be surprised if someone could point out to be any member of the American Anthropological Association whose work would support the existence of a universal human grammar. I will offer a free dinner to anyone who can show me even one domain where the preponderance of anthropological evidence would support the idea. In fact the American Anthropological Association’s Committee for Human Rights issued an official proclamation in 1999 which reads:
Human rights is not a static concept. Our understanding of human rights is constantly evolving as we come to know more about the human condition.
So there’s that, for what it’s worth. I actually think that’s it’s probably a more fruitful question to ask just what in the heck he means by “anthropological” because, whatever he does mean by it doesn’t seem to include, you know, the work of anthropologists.
Again, I just found out about this guy, so I haven’t yet been able to see what he cites for such a claim (or if, for that matter). I suppose if I were a real scholar that’s what I’d do next…
A List of Scholarly Citations Linked To in this Post (really, this is only the tip of the iceberg)
Thomas J. Csordas (2009). Growing up Charismatic: Morality and Spirituality among Children in a Religious Community Ethos, 37 (4), 414-440 D
Michael Dunn,, Simon J. Greenhill,, Stephen C. Levinson, & Russell D. Gray (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals Nature, 473, 79-82 DOI: 10.1038/nature09923
Didier Fassin (2008). Beyond good and evil? Questioning the anthropological discomfort with morals Anthropological Theory, 8 (4), 333-344 DOI: 10.1177/1463499608096642
MARK GOODALE (2006). Ethical Theory as Social Practice American Anthropologist, 108 (1), 25-37 DOI: 10.1525/aa.2006.108.1.25
Sally Engle Merry (2003). Human Rights Law and the Demonization of Culture (And Anthropology Along the Way) PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 26 (1), 55-76 DOI: 10.1525/pol.2003.26.1.55
Michael Lambek (2008). Value and virtue Anthropological Theory, 8 (2) DOI: 10.1177/1463499608090788
Saba Mahmood (2001). Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival Cultural Anthropology, 16 (2), 202-236 DOI: 10.1525/can.2001.16.2.202
ANNELISE RILES (2006). Anthropology, Human Rights, and Legal Knowledge: Culture in the Iron Cage American Anthropologist, 108 (1), 52-65 DOI: 10.1525/aa.2006.108.1.52
DAROMIR RUDNYCKYJ (2009). SPIRITUAL ECONOMIES: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia Cultural Anthropology, 24 (1), 104-141 DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2009.00028.x