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Piercing the fog of ambiguities

Published on 27 April 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

I’ve been reading a prominent French social anthropologist, Alain TESTART. His critical analysis of the concept of “gift”[1] in anthropology is nothing short of exact. Reading the text is akin to intellectual Pilates. It challenges and stimulates: at the end one feels clever by reflection.


(Vestimentary ornament from Shizaishan. Yunnan, China – 150-50 BCE)

At the same time, I’ve been reading Christopher BOEHM[2] on the slow progress of hominids toward morals – what Philip KITCHER[3] felicitously calls an “ethical project” that has been going on for the last 100,000 years or so.

Looking from a vantage distance, this project is one of “disambiguation” – transforming general (and genetic) attitudes and unspoken antecedents into conscious social, hence moral rules. It is a process of discovery and description, of categorization and concretization. Maybe the myth of “original sin” symbolizes the slow and inadvertent passage from “is” to “ought” – when for the first time we reflect on behavior and define it in terms of rule.

It struck me, however, that the current categorizing as well analytical approach to rituals, ideas and events from a distant past, involves the risk of being an exercise in anachronism. Heraclitus’s dictum: “”Everything changes and nothing remains still … and … you cannot step twice into the same stream” does not just refer to experience, it also, nay, even more, refers to disambiguation. Once the fog of ambiguity is pierced or the horizon of the possible has been widened, there is no way to “relive” the antecedent status of uncertainty or “ignorance”.

There is a price to pay, of course for disambiguation: the outcome of any disambiguation is not “truth” but path-dependent and hence contingent. Aristotle would put it this way: a deduction is made from accepted opinions—as opposed to deductions from first and true sentences or principles.[4] Accepted, one may point out, means contingent. Accepted means “common sense”, or unexamined intuition; accepted means “self-evident”. “Self-evident” truths need not be explained and are inaccessible to the historian because they are unspoken.[5] Revisiting the situation in an effort to insert current “first or true” principles (according to our present lights) may give us the illusion of understanding the past. We are simply projecting our understanding on the past.

(Please note: disambiguation only leads to complexification – not necessarily truth. Any disambiguation from an “accepted” principle will exhaust itself, after a while. Should the process exhaust itself, a challenge to the accepted antecedent would be warranted. All deviation from “common sense” is counter-intuitive.)

We waste a lot of time and words, trying to ascertain precursors of political ideas – “human rights” come to mind. This, however, is nothing but “data mining” of the past: a process we practice in religion, where we trawl a hailed text for answers we “know” beforehand to be true. The past is not more “genuine” – it is just more ambiguous.

[1] Alain TESTART (2007): Critique du don. Études sur la circulation non marchande. Éditions Syllepse, Paris. I shall deal with this concept in a dedicated blog.

[2] Christopher BOEHM (2012): Moral origins. The evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame. Basic Books, New York.

[3] Philip KITCHER (2011): The ethical project. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

[4] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010): Aristotle’s rhetoric.

[5] On principles applying to the transmission of myths over time see : Elizabeth WAYLAND BARBER – Paul T. BARBER (2006): When they severed earth from sky. How the human mind shapes myth. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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