As Wide as the World Is Wise

Reinventing Philosophical Anthropology

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Michael Jackson
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , September
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Recalling his ethnographic fieldwork in Aboriginal Australia and West Africa, Michael Jackson draws attention to his encounters with clarity, compassion, and a vivid existentialism that brings the reader into various lifeworlds. In so doing, Jackson revives Hannah Arendt’s focus on vita activa (active life)—rather than vita contemplativa (contemplative life)—to bring philosophy and anthropology together in As Wide as the World is Wise: Reinventing Philosophical Anthropology, where he makes the argument “for treating thought as an emergent property of relationships rather than as a singular property of the individual mind” (11, emphasis original). It is in the commonalities of human experience, and with thought serving as a mode of critique, says Jackson, that “the task of philosophical anthropology is to re-cognize that oneself and the other are of a kind—humankind—regardless of any specific morality, law, or concept of human rights. This challenge implies an ethics before ethics whose quintessential expression is love—one’s capacity to set one’s ego aside in order to enter into the situation someone else, to see the world from his or her standpoint” (19, emphasis original).

Teasing out binaries named for each chapter, such as identity and difference, being and thought, center and periphery, Jackson makes clear that his interest is “on the transitive, the contingent, the fugitive, the fragmentary, and the fleeting rather than substantives as such” (22). By analyzing modes of experience Jackson argues, ultimately, for the pragmatic value of both anthropology and philosophy: the former offering a basis of critique for the latter by showing that theoretical knowledge, particularly philosophy, is but “one of many adaptive strategies that human beings have devised for working out a modus vivendi with other human beings and with the extrahuman world that envelops them” (26).

Philosophy and anthropology, as methods of inquiry and fields of thought, appear to be diametrically opposed. Philosophy has advanced as a discipline, not only in terms of the increasingly diverse subjects of speculation and contemplation, but also as a system of abstraction, seeking to analyze and clarify with mathematical precision questions pertaining to what we know and how we know it, with an aim also of offering insight into scientific worldviews. One would be forgiven for thinking of philosophy as the antithesis of anthropology, relying, as it were, on a type of distanced method of critique which favors the universal over the particular, the objective rather than the subjective, or the global as opposed to the local.

Anthropology, meanwhile, perhaps more than any other discipline in academia, has become especially self-aware in both theory and praxis. Armed with this awareness, the anthropologist seeks to maintain a critical lens when studying a new culture, locale, individual, or practice, yet simultaneously remain attuned to the way in which he or she is also influenced by that encounter. While one’s presence in such an encounter almost certainly changes the dynamic to some degree, current anthropological methods attempt to account for this, with ethnography insisting that understanding comes not by distancing oneself from the world, but by actively engaging with it.

Indeed, Jackson argues throughout the book that in most human communities the measure of the worth of any knowledge is its social value. Ethnography reveals the practical significance of this social value according to diverse worldviews—including Western metaphysics, with its origins in practical, worldly activity. Where philosophers question the basis for belief and experience, ethnographers seek to explicate their social functions, such that even the intellectual emphasis on “meaning” in life as a vital wellspring of being should be seen as “no more or less significant than mobility, love, family solidarity, health, wealth, energy, or union with the divine—all of which figure as paths for attaining well-being” (136). As Jackson reminds us, the quest for life is common to all cultures: “Life, from these perspectives, involves a perpetual oscillation between engaging with the world and seeking distance, respite, or release from it” (204). On this view, knowledge is a vita activa insofar as it enables one to generate the wherewithal for life, offering a way of being that privileges neither the philosopher’s cave nor the ethnographer’s open field. Instead, Jackson invites us to understand the ways in which “ideas emerge, spread, metamorphose, and die out in the same way that other traits do, and all are as potentially vital to our continuing existence as the tools we use, the genes we carry, the families we create, the homes we build, the clothes we wear, the land we farm, and the minerals we mine” (ibid).

At the heart of Jackson’s project is the option of opening oneself to different modalities and accepting or even embracing the ways in which one’s position, beliefs, or practices as a scholar may also be reshaped. If we are to have any ethical mandate, according to Jackson, it is to occupy the penumbral regions between illumination and shadow, seeking to understand the other only ever provisionally—and never statically—in the negotiation that takes place between subject and object, global and local. Experiencing the world through such a perspective attunes us to diverse social realities while bringing us back to the linchpin of life: relationship is key.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yusuf Lenfest is a doctoral student in Religion at the University of Southern California.

Date of Review: 
October 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 


Michael Jackson is Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of the prize-winning Paths Toward a Clearing (1989) and At Home in the World (2000). His most recent Columbia University Press books include As Wide as the World Is Wise: Reinventing Philosophical Anthropology (2016) and Harmattan: A Philosophical Fiction (2015). He is also the author of The Wherewithal of Life: Ethics, Migration, and the Question of Well-being (2013); Between One and One Another (2012); and Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology (2012).


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