Taoism and anthropology

The ancient philosophy of Taoism could be a blueprint for a humanistic anthropology. 

She will never be as popular as Katy Perry but The late writer Ursula K Le Guin was a well known Taoist. Her quasi anthropological fantasy worlds were rooted in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism. Together with Sinologist JP Seaton she composed her own rendition of the Tao Te Ching (the sacred text of Taoism) from Classical Chinese. Ideas of harmony and balance that were as fundamental as the laws of physics infuse her worlds.

Indeed in one of her great novels “The Disposessed” the physicist Shevek discovers a general field theory based on Cetian rather than Terran physics. This technology gives rise to the ansible communication device, nearly as fast as light flight and in later short stories the mysterious time displacement “churten” technology. 

Handled by Le Guin Taoist principles have a weight and texture that is really real and tangible. Her Hainish universe of a galactic civilisation that has imploded on itself is a metaphor for the human colonisation of earth and the huge abysses that exist in history which in the Hainish universe are gulfs of time and distance measured in parsecs.

It isn’t about the sci fi equivalent of iPods and All Le Guin’s quasi-anthropological explorations didn’t spring up out of nothing. Le Guin’s father Alfred Kroeber was a famous founding father of American anthropology. He worked at the Museum at Berkeley and studied the persecuted and dying Californian tribes. He famously cared for Ishi the last Yaqui Indian to walk out of the wild, the last survivor of his tribe.

Kroeber was from a German family that migrated to New York where they lived in an elegant brownstone (the concept of an adequate home is woven through Le Guin’s work). The family was steeped in Central European culture and folklore and mid 19th century humanistic values. If you read the family biographies and Le Guin’s own essays you learn that her father was a Renaissance person. He read Rilke and Homer and the Bhagavad Gita. Although Le Guin insisted her father was very much a scientist she also said her father would read from the Tao Te Ching frequently, even daily, so much so that it needed red binding tape to hold it together.

Anthropologists study the meaning of the human world. Le Guin calls the Tao Te Ching “ a pure apprehension of the mystery of which we are a part”. Like the Golden Bough or the Bhagvad Gita the Tao Te Ching is a patterning book that lets our mind and heart speculate on the meaning of things, deep things. The apparent unity within the complexity. It’s not double blind randomised trials but it’s anthropology as a poetry from a time when anthropologists knew the poets to be true voices. Too often now academics are narrow and over specialised never reading anything non technical or humanistic, never reading around the edges. It all goes into a green-jello bowl of data (meaningless).

Although not all anthropology is influenced by Taoism ethnography as a whole  can be read as a set of grand variations on a theme. Each ethnography could be a home world in the Hainish galaxy. Indeed some ethnographers foster this idea of self containment which is partially constructed.

I guess Marxist or other anthropologists could react violently to the inherent spiritualism within a Taoist reading of anthropology. It’s like Christianity but without a deity. I am just arguing for an anthropological voice that is closer in register to poetry, that believes somewhat in the folktales it collects rather than pretending to be a quantifiable system of science.

I guess the danger is that anthropology gets labelled as “story time for adults” but whilst pretending to be a science or pretending to be more scientific than it is it’s in danger of saying nothing weighty about the human condition. It doesn’t have the confidence to affirm the best of what has been thought or said from Dante to Rabia to Dostoevsky. So whilst an anthropologists is more likely to be picking up a croissant in a monogrammed bag rather than an autographed copy of Le Guin there is still value in exploring Taoism. 

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