On Clifford Geertz: Field Notes from the Classroom

As an anthropologist, philosopher, political scientist, literary critic, and all-around, all-star intellectual, Clifford Geertz helped a vast public make sense of the human condition. But for nearly everyone in that public, his ideas operated like gravity—invisibly, as attraction at a distance. They worked differently up close, especially in the classroom, where they bounced off the walls in all directions, lighting up subjects in unpredictable patterns. I would like to testify to Cliff’s prowess as a teacher.

We taught together, on and off, for twenty-five years. Our course, an undergraduate seminar at Princeton University, sported a name that once sounded sexy: “History 406: The History of Mentalities.” I began to teach it solo in 1974, when the French variety of histoire des mentalités—the study of collective attitudes and worldviews as developed by Robert Mandrou, Georges Duby, Philippe Ariès, Michel Vovelle, and other historians—looked like the hottest thing off the Left Bank. At the same time, I encountered Cliff, who had arrived in Princeton in 1970 as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and taught in its new School of Social Science, founded in 1973. He asked me what historians meant by mentalities. After I stammered out some kind of reply, he said, “Sounds like anthropology.” A year later, we were teaching the course together, and it turned into a seminar on history and anthropology.

The love affair between history and anthropology heated up wonderfully in the 1970s. The two disciplines seemed to be made for each other: what historians studied at a far remove in time, anthropologists examined far away in space. The “what” in question was the je ne sais quoi called culture. Cliff knew what he meant by the term, but he did not go in for definitions. Conceptual clarity was what he urged on the students, not a party line.

He made his own position clear, however, so clear that many of the students found themselves adopting a semiotic view of culture even if they had not heard of semiotics. That is, they sharpened their awareness of how people construe the world through signs, not merely by means of verbal clues but also by reference to objects from everyday life—the adjustment of veiling to signal degrees of deference in the western desert of Egypt, the designing of houses to align symmetry between man and beast in northeast Thailand, the hunting of cassowaries (an ostrich-like bird) as a journey into the afterlife in the Central Highlands of New Guinea, the eating of pangolins (scaly anteaters) to produce fertility in the Congo….

Once, long before Cliff became famous even beyond the range of The New York Review of Books, I overheard one undergraduate say solemnly to another in the men’s room of Firestone Library, “I’m not a Freudian. I’m a Geertzian.” When I mentioned this to Cliff, he just laughed. He never tried to found a school. He wanted to help students crack open distant mental worlds and wander around …

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