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"I don't do systems": An interview with Clifford Geertz

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

I had the honor of interviewing Clifford Geertz at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, USA, on October 18, 2000. The interview focused on Geertz's theoretical conceptions, the tradition on which he draws, the critique he has encountered, and on interpretive anthropology's future development. Of particular interest was the clarification of his much-debated method, his definition of symbol and his famous definition of religion as a cultural system. Geertz emphasizes his attempt to exercise an applied pragmatic phenomenological and hermeneutical method without any general theory (or philosophy) of meaning, phenomenology, or culture. He maintains that he only has a conceptual framework inspired by different scholars, which nevertheless has consistent focus and perspective, i.e., meaning and symbol. In relationship to this, Geertz defines his symbol within the Peircean semiotic tradition. Therefore, the term symbol is understood as a sign (an index for example), which becomes a symbol via a cultural interpretation. Furthermore, his definition of religion as a cultural system is, in his view, a nonessentialistic definition and therefore is not—as Talal Asad claims—ethnocentric. Although it is Geertz's opinion that interpretive anthropology has been influenced by postmodernism, he predicts that interpretive anthropology's future development will be in reasonable continuity with its past. In my closing comments I tentatively suggest that Geertz may have a theory of interpretation because of his definition of the symbol, his unavoidable assumptions, and his unique method, which has the capacity of grasping the cultural specific in a general way.


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