Anthropology is a conflicted discipline, perpetually in search of ways to escape its condition, perpetually failing to find them. Committed, since its beginnings, to a global view of human life—social, cultural, biological, and historical at once—it keeps falling into its parts, complaining about the fact, and trying desperately, and unsuccessfully, to project some sort of new unity to replace the unity it imagines itself once to have had, but now, through the faithlessness of present practitioners, to have mindlessly cast away. The watchword is “holism,” cried out at professional meetings and in general calls to arms (of which there are a very large number) in professional journals and monographs. The reality, in the research actually done and the works actually published, is enormous diversity.

And argument, endless argument. The tensions between the major subdivisions of the field, physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and cultural (or social) anthropology, have been reasonably well managed by the usual mechanisms of differentiation and specialization, in which each subfield has become a fairly autonomous discipline. This has not happened without plaintive invocations of ancestral polymaths—there were giants in those days—who supposedly “did everything.” But the fissures within cultural anthropology as such, the heart of the discipline, have proved increasingly prominent and less easy to contain. The division into sharply opposed schools of thought—into overall approaches conceived not as methodological alternatives but as dug-in world views, moralities, and political positionings—has grown to the point where clashes are more common than conclusions and the possibility of a general consensus on anything fundamental seems remote. The wringing of hands this brings on, and the sense of loss, is considerable, and doubtless heartfelt; but it is very likely misplaced. Anthropology generally, and cultural anthropology in particular, draws the greater part of its vitality from the controversies that animate it. It is not much destined for secured positions and settled issues.

The recent debate, much celebrated in the intellectual press and on the academic circuit, between Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins, two of the senior and most combat-ready figures in the field, is over how we are to understand the death of that Pacific Columbus, Captain James Cook, at the hands of the Hawaiians in 1779. (Columbus “discovered” America while looking for India; Cook, three centuries later, “discovered” the Sandwich Islands—and before them, encountered Australia and New Zealand—while looking for the Northwest Passage.) Angry, eloquent, and uncompromising—as well as, on occasion, bitterly funny—they push into view some of the most central and most divisive issues in anthropological study. After one reads these two having at one another up, down, and sideways for five hundred lapel-grabbing pages or so, whatever happened to Cook, and why, seems a good deal less important, and probably less determinable, than the questions they raise about how it is we are to go about making sense of the acts and emotions of distant peoples in remote times. What does “knowing” about “others” properly consist in? Is it possible? Is it good?

At the risk of a certain degree of oversimplification (but not much: neither of these warriors is given to shaded views), we can say that Sahlins is a thoroughgoing advocate of the view that there are distinct cultures, each with a “total cultural system of human action,” and that they are to be understood along structuralist lines. Obeyesekere is a thoroughgoing advocate of the view that people’s actions and beliefs have particular, practical functions in their lives and that those functions and beliefs should be understood along psychological lines.1

Sahlins’s original argument, which has changed little, if at all, since he first set it forth two decades ago, is that Cook stumbled onto the beach in Hawaii (that is, the “big island” of Hawai’i proper) at the time of a great, four-month-long ceremony called the Makahiki celebrating the annual rebirth of nature, in which the central event was the arrival from his home above the sea of the god Lono, symbolized in a giant tapa cloth and birdskin image paraded clockwise about the island for a month.

The Hawaiians divided the lunar year into two periods. One was the Makahiki time when peace, the indigenous Kuali’i priests, and the fertility god, Lono, shaped their existence, and the king was immobilized. During the rest of the year, after Lono, his birdskin image turned backward, had left again, came a time of warfare when the immigrant Nahulu priests, and the virility god, Ku, were dominant, and the king was active. Cook, who arrived from the right direction and in the right manner, was taken by the Hawaiians, or at least by the various priests involved, to be Lono come in the flesh, and he was consecrated as such by means of elaborate rites in the great temple of the island.


Then, for his own reasons, but again in accidental accordance with the calendar governing the Makahiki, he departed to the horizon from which he had come. Shortly after setting sail, however, a sprung mast forced him to return to the beach for repairs. This out-of-pattern move was interpreted by the Hawaiians as a cosmological disordering, one that presaged, if it were allowed to go forward, a social and political upheaval—a “structural crisis when all the social relations…change their signs.” It led, rather quickly, to Cook’s messy end: he was stabbed and clubbed to death amid hundreds of swarming Hawaiians after he came irritably ashore, firing his pistol impulsively about. Consecrated as a god by arriving in the right way at the right time, he was killed as a god—sacrificed to keep the structure intact and unreversed—because he returned to Hawaii in the wrong way at the wrong time: a historical accident caught up in a cultural form.

To all of this highly carpentered and suspiciously seamless argument, Obeyesekere gives a resounding “no!”—more apparently for moral and political reasons than for empirical ones. It is, he says, demeaning to the Hawaiians (and to him, personally, as “a Sri Lankan native and an anthropologist working in an American university”), in that it depicts them as childish, irrational savages so intoxicated with their signs and portents as to be incapable of seeing what is before their eyes, a man like any other, and incapable of reacting to him with simple practicality and ordinary common sense.

Sahlins’s account is said to be ethnocentric, in that it foists upon the Hawaiians the European notion that the technological superiority of Europeans leads astonished primitives, when first encountering them, to regard them as supernatural beings. And—this is what really smarts, especially to someone like Sahlins, who, like almost all anthropologists, Obeyesekere included, sees himself as a tribune for his subjects, their Public Defender in a world that has pushed them aside as hapless and negligible—Sahlins’s argument is said to be neo-imperialist: an attempt to silence the “real voices” of the Hawaiians, and, indeed, of “natives” in general, and replace them with the voices of the very people who first conquered them, then exploited them, and now, in the scholarly, book-writing phase of the great oppression known as colonialism, occlude them.

About Sahlins’s account and its claims to be based on fact, Obeyesekere writes,

I question this “fact,” which I show was created in the European imagination of the eighteenth century and after and was based on antecedent “myth models” pertaining to the redoubtable explorer cum civilizer who is a god to the “natives.” To put it bluntly, I doubt that the natives created their European god; the Europeans created him for them. This “European god” is a myth of conquest, imperialism, and civilization—a triad that cannot be easily separated.

The ensuing paper war between the two anthropologists can be followed both in Obeyesekere’s rambling, beat-the-snake-with-whatever-stick-is-handy brief for the prosecution (he invokes Sri Lankan terrorism, Cortés among the Aztecs, Heart of Darkness, and something called “symbolic psychomimesis”) and in Sahlins’s more smoothed and pertinacious “and-another-thing” case for the defense. (A third of Sahlins’s book consists of seventeen appendices of spectacular particularity, including “Priests and Genealogies,” “Calendrical Politics,” “Atua in the Marquesas and Elsewhere,” “Kamakau’s Gods,” “Lono at Hikiau.”) On both sides there is a great outpouring of facts, supposed facts, and possible facts that touches on virtually everything that is known, or thought to be known, about Cook’s misadventure and the conditions surrounding it.

Sahlins has something of a natural advantage in this data slinging, because, as a longstanding Oceanist of great repute, he has written extensively on Polynesian ethnohistory generally and that of Hawaii particularly. Obeyesekere’s work has been almost entirely concerned with Sri Lanka, and he has built up his knowledge of the subject at hand by means of three or four years of reading to a purpose as well as by undertaking a brief “pilgrimage to Hawai’i to check my version against that of scholars of Hawaiian history and culture.”

But since both scholars are relying on essentially the same limited corpus of primary materials—ships’ logs, sailors’ journals, written-down oral histories, missionary accounts, some drawings and engravings, some letters—this is not, in itself, a decisive difference. It is just one that puts more of a burden of proof on Obeyesekere—whose way with arguments tends to be rather relaxed methodologically—than he seems to appreciate. (“I find it awfully hard to accept,” “one could as easily argue,” “it…seems reasonable to assume,” “it is hard to believe,” “I find this account…extremely plausible,” and other such appeals to the supposed obviousness of the very things that are in dispute punctuate his text from beginning to end.) If this were the college debate it sometimes sounds like, Sahlins, wittier, more focused, and better informed, would win hands down.


But it is not such a debate. Despite the scientistic rhetoric on both sides about the “search for truth,” and the crafted and rather unnecessary scholarly insults (Obeyesekere says, apropos of nothing, that Sahlins lacks “deep ethical concern,” while Sahlins says, apropos of that, that Obeyesekere is a literary “terrorist”), and the endless parading of fine detail that only a lawyer could love, the matters that divide them are not, at bottom, mere questions of fact. Even were they able to agree on how the Hawaiians regarded Cook, and he them—and they are not really so far apart on that as they pretend—they would still be in total opposition with respect to just about everything of importance in anthropology. What divides them, and a good part of the profession with them, is their understanding of cultural difference: what it is, what produces it, what maintains it, and how deeply it goes. For Sahlins, it is substance; for Obeyesekere, it is surface.


Over the past twenty-five years or so, the post-everything era (post-modernism, structuralism, colonialism, positivism), the attempt to portray “how the ‘natives’ think” (or thought), or even what they are doing when they do what they do, has come in for a good deal of moral, political, and philosophical attack. The mere claim “to know better,” which it would seem any anthropologist would have at least implicitly to make, seems at least faintly illegitimate. To say something about the forms of life of Hawaiians (or anybody else) that Hawaiians do not themselves say opens one to the charge that one is writing out other peoples’ consciousness for them, scripting their souls. The days of simple “the Dangs believe, the Dangs don’t believe” anthropology seem truly over.

The reactions to this state of affairs—what Sahlins in one of his most recent essays calls “Goodbye to Tristes Tropes“—have been various, worried, and more than a little disarranged.2 Postmodernists have questioned whether ordered accounts of other ways of being in the world—accounts that offer monological, comprehensive, and all-too-coherent explanations—are credible at all, and whether we are not so imprisoned in our own modes of thought and perception as to be incapable of grasping, much less crediting, those of others. The politically driven scholars, intense and unhesitant, sure of their ground, have called for anthropological work that advances the fortunes of the peoples described, whatever those fortunes are taken to be, and for deliberate subversion of the power inequalities between “the West and the Rest.” There have been demands for the “contextualization” of particular societies in the “modern (‘capitalist,’ ‘bourgeois,’ ‘utilitarian’) world system,” as opposed to isolating them as, in another of Sahlins’s punning titles, “islands of history.” There have been demands for the restoration of a historical dimension to so-called “primitive” or “simple” cultures, so often portrayed as “cold,” unchanging, crystalline structures—human still-lifes. And there have been pleas for a re-emphasis on homely, pan-human common characteristics (we all reason, we all suffer, we all live in a world indifferent to our hopes), as against sharp and incommensurable contrasts in logic and sensibility between one people and another.

All these themes run through the quarrel between Obeyesekere and Sahlins, appearing and reappearing in different form in different connections—in intense debates over whether nineteenth-century Hawaiian accounts of their customs and traditions are usable for reconstructing the historical past or are too infected by the Christianizing prejudices of the missionaries who recorded them to be trusted; over whether Cook and his associates had learned enough Hawaiian to understand what the Hawaiians were saying to them; and over whether the structuralist approach has to assume the beliefs of the Hawaiians to have been uniform throughout the entire population, whose members are stereotypically presented, Obeyesekere’s charges, “as if [the Hawaiians] were acting out a cultural schema without reflection.” But in the end the arguments, opposed on every point, divide into a stark and simple, almost Manichaean, contrast.

For Obeyesekere, the Hawaiians are “pragmatic,” “calculating,” “strategizing” rationalists, rather like ourselves, indeed rather like everybody, save perhaps Sahlins; they “reflectively assess the implications of a problem in terms of practical criteria.” For Sahlins, they are distinct others, existing within a distinctive “schema,” a “total cultural system of human action,” “another cosmology,” thoroughly discontinuous with “modern, bourgeois rationality,” governed by a logic “that [has] the quality of not seeming necessary for us yet being sufficient for them.” “Different cultures,” he says, “different rationalities.”

Obeyesekere’s “practical rationality,” says Sahlins (he also calls it “pidgin anthropology” and “pop nativism”), shows that the utilitarian, instrumentalist “philosophy of Hobbes, Locke, Helvétius & Co. is still too much with us.” Sahlins’s “structural theory of history,” says Obeyesekere (he calls it “reified,” “superorganic,” “rigid,” and “pseudohistorical”), shows that what is still too much with us is the irrationalist model of primitive mentality—Lévy-Bruhl, Lévi-Strauss, Tzvetan Todorov’s group-think Aztecs, and the Freud of Totem and Taboo, who thought children, savages, and psychotics were of a piece.

What is at stake here is thus a question that has haunted anthropologists for over a hundred years, and haunts us even more now that we work in a decolonized world: What are we to make of cultural practices that seem to us odd and illogical? How odd are they? How illogical? In what precisely does reason lie? This is a question to be asked not only about eighteenth-century Hawaiians, parading noisily about with birdskin images, taking a coconut tree (“a man with his head in the ground and his testicles in the air”) to be the body of a god, and enfolding their lives in so elaborate a skein of sacrality and prohibition—the notorious tabu—that they sometimes can barely move. It is to be asked as well about eighteenth-century Englishmen, sailors and navigators, wandering womanless about the oceans in search of discoveries—arcadias, curiosities, anchorages, delicacies, and the North-west Passage—and of the inquisitive, aggressive society, the knowledge-is-glory world that, hoping, ultimately, for a temporal salvation, sent the Englishmen there.3

The Hawaiians and the Enlightenment navigators are far away from us now in both time and space. At least that is true of the Hawaiians who lived in the Ku and Lono rhythm of existence. (Kamehameha II more or less ended that rhythm with his famous bonfire of the vanities in the nineteenth century, a real reversal of signs; and what he didn’t finish off by eating with women and throwing icons into the sea, Christianity, sugar cane, and the steamship did.) And it is also true of the navigators who forced their way into that rhythm of existence, bold, unknowing, and hellbent upon improvement. We look back at these two “peoples,” and at their legendary “first contact” encounter, through the haze of the modern order of life (or, now that the Euro-American empires and the “East-West” world divide have weakened or disappeared, that of the postmodern order). We look back on them, moreover, from our particular positions within that order. We make of them what we can, given who we are or have become. There is nothing fatal in this, either to truth or fairness. But it is inevitable, and foolish to pretend otherwise.

To their great credit, neither Obeyesekere nor Sahlins pretends otherwise. Both their personal positions and their professional agendas are up-front and visible. Obeyesekere argues that, as an authentic “native” (or “post-native”?), directly caught up in the current travails of an ex-colony wracked with induced violence, he is both immunized against Western self-deceptions and especially well-situated to see the eighteenth-century Pacific, both white and colored, as it really was. He dedicates his book to a murdered Sri Lankan taxi driver, who used to drive him about Colombo, as a memorial to “the thousands who have been killed all over the world…ordinary people, whose families haven’t even been given a chance to mourn.” He writes that “it is precisely out of [my] existential predicaments that my interest in Cook [and his “ire” over Sahlins and his work] developed and flowered.”

In response, Sahlins wonders, as well he might, how he and Cook have become “somehow responsible for the tragedy of Obeyesekere’s friend,” and whether the enlisting of such a tragedy in the service of a scholarly dispute is altogether appropriate. He says that, white and Western as he may be, he is rather less encumbered with ethnocentric prejudices than someone who, explicating “early Hawaiian concepts of White men by Sri Lankan beliefs and his own experience…gets farther and farther from the Hawaiian and closer and closer to the native Western folklore of divine vs. human, spiritual vs. material.”

The ultimate victims…are the Hawaiian people. Western empirical good sense replaces their own view of things, leaving them with a fictional history and a pidgin ethnography…. Traditional rituals are…dissolved; social cleavages on which Hawaiian history turned …are effaced…. Hawaiian people appear on stage as the dupes of European ideology. Deprived… of agency and culture, their history is reduced to a classic meaninglessness: they lived and they suffered—and then they died.

It is this curious reversal—the offended and injured “native subject” as Enlightenment universalist and the removed and ironical “stranger observer” as relativizing historicist—that gives this debate its extraordinary pathos and, in the end, threatens to turn it from a search for an elusive past into a private quarrel. Even if, following Obeyesekere, one is conscious of the necessity of taking full account of the fact that what we know of “first contact” Hawaii comes to us sifted through the perspectives of those who have told us about it, and that no one anywhere has ever lived in a world wholly removed from practical concerns, the reduction of that Hawaii to so much “European mythmaking” still seems more a product of unfocused resentment—ideological “ire”—than of evidence, reflection, and “common sense.”

And even if, following Sahlins, one sees the danger of losing forever the deep particularities of vanished peoples in vanished times by turning them into generalized reasoners driven by practical concerns, and recognizes that there are more ways to silence others than are imagined in post-colonial revisionism, there are still problems. The enclosure of such particularities in sharp-edged forms fitted tightly together like pieces in a picture puzzle still risks the charge of ethnographical jiggery and excessive cleverness.

Full of certainties and accusations, thoroughly consumed with scoring points, Obeyesekere and Sahlins have, for all that, together managed to pose, in a way they could never have done separately, fundamental theoretical questions; and they have raised critical methodological issues with respect to the delicate business of “other-knowing.” (Questions and issues on which I perhaps should at this point come clean and say that, for my part, I find Sahlins, the structuralist glitter surrounding his analyses aside, markedly the more persuasive. His descriptions are more circumstantial, his portrayal of both the Hawaiians and the British more deeply penetrating, and his grasp of the moral and political issues involved surer, less prey to the confusing noises of the confused present.)

Whether they have raised the level of anthropological disputation, in the long run a more important matter for a field in which there really are no answers to be found in the back of the book, depends on whether those who come after them—already a gathering company on each side—can sustain their intensity while containing their impulse to take offense and argue for victory; whether they can, amid nurtured rancor and piqued honor, keep the conversation going.

This Issue

November 30, 1995