Darwin-L Message Log 7:35 (March 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

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<7:35>From TOMASO@utxvms.cc.utexas.edu  Sun Mar 13 12:38:49 1994

Date: Sun, 13 Mar 1994 12:38:36 -0600 (CST)
From: TOMASO@utxvms.cc.utexas.edu
Subject: Re: DARWIN-L digest 166
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

This reply is about Straussian structuralism, time, and social evolutionism.
My apologies to those that have posted on historical and structural linguistics
recently.  I am a bit backed up in reading my Email.

Sally Thomason wrote:

>  So it isn't true, for historical linguistics, that structuralism
>was antithetical; structural linguistics has provided many useful
>ways of attacking the problem of unraveling linguistic history,
>though nothing as exciting as Saussure's Laryngeal Theory.

I agree that structuralism was never antithetical to historical linguistics.
However, historical linguistics is a presentist methodology, where present
realities are used to retrodict past ones.  One of the differences between
historical linguistics and historicism, in my mind, is that historical
linguistics seems to work, generally, without _a priori_ assumptions about the
past cultural context from which a language derives (or which it constructs).
Historical linguistics, then, is not historicist linguistics. Historicism
itself is also somewhat antithetical to social evolutionism. The kind of histor
icism that good Levi-Straussian structural analysis might lead to would be
just as free from assumptions about the trajectory of cultural change as
historical particularism attempts to be.

Margaret Winters wrote:

>re-/mis-interpretations of
>the Cours have given rise to the strict division between the two
>approaches carried to the point of claiming total irrelevance of
>diachronic data to "the best kind" of synchronic analyses.

I, for one, would like to hear more about this perspective.  Intuitively,
agree with Winters' conclusions, but I am not sure how I got there.

On Levi-Strauss, Fred Gleach wrote:

>the theory was explicitly
>based in an effort to understand historical processes *through* the study
>of structure.

Again, I was not suggesting that Strauss intended to be anti-historical, but
anti-social evolutionary.  One of the problems of his kind of interest in
diachronics is the 'presentism' of it.  His data derive almost exclusively
from the present, and the mental framework employed in his analysis does not
really seek evidence for a cultural context within which his reconstructed
'data' concerning the past might have existed.  Historicism requires an attempt
to work from the past context to the present, not the reverse.  Hence,
Strauss' methods can not be considered historicist.  I am not writing this
as a condemnation of structuralism generally, but as an attempt to clarify
the distinctions between historicism, evolutionism and structuralism, which,
I believe, are central to this discussion.  For, I completely agree with
Gleach's later observation that:

>"post-structuralism" in today's anthropology too often means a pose of
>complete rejection rather than a building on those ideas.  As Marshall
>Sahlins has suggested, there are a lot of people standing on L-S's
>shoulders and shitting on his head.

As a compliment to this, I would add that many of the 'post-structuralists'
end up doing structuralism without making the structuralist bases of their
arguments explicit.  This, I believe, is a serious problem for anthropo-
logists that claim to be more 'reflexive' than those of the past.

Gleach also adds that:
>The structuralism of L-S can be better
>seen as a reaction to the ahistorical (even anti-historical) functionalism
>of Malinowski than to evolutionary ideas.

I would not dispute this.

I reccommended, and continue to reccommend Fabian's _Time and the Other_
which deals explicitly with these topics, and in a way that I can not
duplicate here without resorting to excessive quotations.  His central
point regarding L-S, however, is that Strauss' methods, designed, in part,
to overcome the problems of fragmentary or nonexistent history, end up
reifying time distance between the anthropologist and his or her subjects
simply because time itself is bracketed off (though L-S seems to waiver
significantly on this).  By the way, Fabian's book is not exactly 'post-
structuralist' - it is rather a broad criticism of anthropological practice
and writing.  His main argument is that intersubjectivity is the key
missing element in anthropological writing, and that this is bound up in
anthropology's problematic treatment of time and the other.

The original point was that structuralist analysis is not what the
social evolutionists used, implicitly or explicitly, to construct data
and theory.  I don't think that this point needs much more elaboration.
I wonder, however, what structuralism's reaction to historicism (which is,
at least, related to the evolutionists' approach) might tell us about
evolutionist thinking.  Is it true that L-S simply blew-off evolutionary
arguments by discrediting the temporal continuity that evolutionists and
historicists attempted to construct?  Or, does structuralism actually
assume temporal continuity in its efforts to get at diachronic relations?
And which is more convincing - diachronic relations authored with little
more than present data and hindsight as guidance, or an historicist
explanation with emic and etic foundations laid down by an observer that
continually distances him or herself in time?  These, I hope, will be
perceived as an honest question.

Matt Tomaso
Department of Anthropology
University of Texas at Austin


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