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Kari Palonen

This article is a thought experiment. It constructs ideal types of political representation in the sense of Max Weber. Inspired by Quentin Skinner and others, the aim is to give a rhetorical turn to contemporary debates on representation. The core idea is to claim an ‘elective affinity’ (Wahlverwandschaft, as Weber says following Goethe) between forms of representation and rhetorical genres of their justification. The four ideal types of political representation are designated as plebiscitary, diplomatic, advocatory, and parliamentary, corresponding to the epideictic, negotiating, forensic, and deliberative genres of rhetoric as the respective ways to plausibly appeal to the audience. I discuss historical approximations of each type of representation and apply the combination of representation and rhetorical genres to the understanding of the European Union’s unconventional system of ‘separation of powers’. I conclude with supporting parliamentary representation, based on dissensus and debate, with complements from other types.

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Between Two Truths

Time in Physics and Fiji

Naoki Kasuga

This article provides an ontological reconsideration of time, which anthropological theory has typically presumed as a given. It does so by ‘comparing’ two truth claims: that of native activists in Fiji, who worked to actualize their leader’s prediction and ‘His Time’, and that of physics, the sturdiest of the scientific disciplines. The aim of this thought experiment is to expand our understanding of natives’ claims but also to question our perception of time and how our technological environment preserves its reality. The article argues for an understanding where the levels of qualia and quanta cease to be disconnected, thereby confirming the significance of ontological approaches in anthropology today.

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Otherwise than Meaning

On the Generosity of Ritual

Don Seeman

The thought experiment ‘ritual in its own right’ implies a suspension of dominant interpretive paradigms in anthropological research. This essay begins by juxtaposing the foundational accounts of Weber and Geertz—both of whom associate ritual with the quest for meaning in suffering—with the phenomenological account of Emmanuel Levinas, who argues that suffering is inherently “useless” and therefore resistant to meaning’s claim. All three theorists are then juxtaposed with the Warsaw ghetto writings of a twentieth-century Jewish mystic, Kalonymos Shapira, whose work exemplifies the tension between meaningful and useless suffering in a real social setting. Shapira’s work bears comparison with Levinas’s, and lends support to the idea that our preoccupation with meaning may stem from a particular religious genealogy of social theory. Ritual can be analyzed as a ground of intersubjectivity or transcendence rather than meaning, which makes it more akin to medicine, in Levinas’s terms, than to theodicy.

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Twins Are Birds and a Whale Is a Fish, a Mammal, a Submarine

Revisiting 'Primitive Mentality' as a Question of Ontology

T. M. S. Evens

Refuting the rationalist implication that the Nuer statement “twins are birds“ is dumb, Evans-Pritchard held that the statement should be taken as a figure of speech. Against his interpretation, I argue that the Nuer, at the time of Evans-Pritchard's research, understood their statement to be true in an ordinary sense. In effect, my argument continues to suppose that the perception of the world implicit in the Nuer statement differs in a fundamental way from that of moderns. However, instead of having to conclude that the Nuer statement about twins and birds is indeed dumb (or that we have never been modern in any distinguishing sense), my argument develops an ontological thought-experiment that theorizes the relative validity of the Nuer perception.

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Richard Vokes

This article responds to Michael Herzfeld's call for anthropologists to develop a new form of 'reflexive comparison' by imaginatively casting the peoples of the African Great Lakes as part of Melanesia. Specifically, it explores how notions of personhood and sociality in this African setting might be understood through interpretative approaches developed in the New Melanesian Ethnography of the 1970s and 1980s. It finds that this sort of thought experiment yields key insights by focusing analytical attention upon concepts of shared vital substances, upon practices intended to control the flow of these substances, and upon the agency of non-human actors (especially cattle) in shaping these processes. An examination of these features suggests new perspectives on a range of ethnographic 'problems', from condom use to Rwanda's ubuhake cattle exchange.

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What Is It Like to Grow Old?

Ageing in Some Recent Women's Fiction

John Mepham

‘“Oh, Nathan, aging”, she cried, as we embraced each other, “aging, aging– it is so very strange.”’ It is difficult for younger people to imagine what it is like to be an ageing person, particularly because, as Hagar Shipley, the protagonist and narrator of Margaret Laurence’s novel The Stone Angel, says, ‘Things never look the same from the outside as they do from the inside.’ Fiction, which specialises in presenting how things look from the inside, can help us to imagine the many subjective experiences of ageing. Fictions are like thought experiments or hypotheses. They represent the particularised individual person in his or her oddity and complexity. But in doing this, they are, of course, representing imagined and verbally constructed characters, not describing real people. Fictional characters reflect the desires, anxieties and obsessions of their authors as well as representational conventions, which in the novels I discuss here are those of psychological realism. Novels are not social science, of course, so they have no statistical weight and no automatic claims to validity.

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Beverly Crawford

What follows is a fictitious scenario, a "thought experiment," meant to project a particular future for Germany if certain assumptions hold. Scenarios are hypotheses that rest on a set of assumptions and one or two "wild cards." They can reveal forces of change that might be otherwise hidden, discard those that are not plausible, and describe the future of trends that are relatively certain. Indeed, scenarios create a particular future in the same way that counterfactual methods create a different past. Counterfactual methods predict how events would have unfolded had a few elements of the story been changed, with a focus on varying conditions that seem important and that can be manipulated. For instance, to explore the effects of military factors on the likelihood of war, one might ask: "how would pre 1914 diplomacy have evolved if the leaders of Europe had not believed that conquest was easy?" Or to explore the importance of broad social and political factors in causing Nazi aggression: "How might the 1930s have unfolded had Hitler died in 1932?" The greater the impact of the posited changes, the more important the actual factors that were manipulated. Assuming that the structure of explanation and prediction are the same, scenario writing pursues a similar method. But, instead of seeking alternative explanations for the past, scenarios project relative certainties and then manipulate the important but uncertain factors, to create a plausible story about the future.