Maureen Therese Anderson manders at
Tue Mar 9 08:38:47 PST 1999

Rakesh wrote:

> Haven't read the original texts in the debate between Sahlins and
>Obeysekere about whether the Hawaiians mistook Captain Cook for their god
>Lono (?). But in the reviews I did read of the debate--IC Jarvie's in The
>Philosophy of Social Science and Keith Windschuttle's in his book about how
>literary critics are murdering history--Sahlins doesn't seem to have come
>out the clear winner.

Sure. I was only summarizing one side of the argument--sorry if I implied he'd scored a knock-out! But my impression has been that their peers have pretty solidly given this round to Sahlins. It was his serve, after all.

>"MS asks why, if Ob's argument is that the natives should have been able to
>determine from self-evident sensory perception that Captain Cook was
>"human, just like them," then why stop there? Hawaiians view many
>"natural" things, including foods which they themselves produce and
>consume, as containing the spirit of various gods. How, with eyes and
>stomachs, could Hawaiians possibly have believe that? (And how is this
>different from belief in transubstantiation, which sense-endowed Europeans
>believe in, even though they can see the bread and wine right in front of
>them? etc.)"
>Is this Obeysekere's argument for why the native Hawaiians did not consider
>Cook to be Lono or is this Sahlin's construction of his argument? Would
>Obeysekere accept it?

This was my sound-bite about Sahlin's argument about Obeyesekere's argument.

I don't think Ob. claimed (or that MS claimed he had) that the Hawaiians simply sized up Cook and said, Come, human stranger just like us, join our New Year's festival... But Ob. was clear that his incredulity hangs on a notion of universal practical rationality (itself based on biologically based cognition and perception). He was also unambiguous that this made him incredulous about Cook's reception before knowing anything specific about Hawaiian culture or society. He did argue this via many concrete "improbabilities," but I don't remember the specifics. I think along the lines of whether a "foreigner who didn't look like them, speak their language," was likely to be perceived as a divinity to the Hawaiians, etc.

I mentioned the transubstantiation analogy (which I _think_ MS does in this book as well), partly because of the surface Hawaiian parallels. But also because it conjures Locke's essays (and others) about the Papists, who, being irrationally indoctrinated since birth, actually believe in it "even against the evidence of their own senses," etc. Papist beliefs, as with other "custom" (teachers, and of course those proverbial nannies with their old wives tales) being the obstacles impeding men's right use of the senses...

I don't know where Ob. draws his line between the common sense and the "custom." Which was part of MS's point I think. Ob. differentiates between two separate principles, universal common sense and culture, both of which he sees as "mixed" in every society. Sahlins said Ob. provides no theoretical principle for distinguishing when one or the other of disposition ever comes into play--and which (again Sahlins) becomes de facto bourgeois "common sense."

I've wondered what Obeyesekere's rebuttal was, or if he ever offered one. If I find out I'll let you know.


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