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Section: [2]
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Section 2

JD: At Oxford you read philosophy?

EAG: I read PPE [Politics, Philosophy, and Economics]. Within PPE my main interest was philosophy - although in fact I did a lot of economics, because Balliol worked on a sort of stratification of subjects. Really bright people were encouraged to do philosophy, which was still held to be the apex of everything. But if you happened not to be so bright you were encouraged to do economics, which was held to require lesser skills, and I was slated to take economics. The college didn't think all that highly of me. Nevertheless, my interest was more in philosophy than economics, which I never liked. So I acquired a degree at Oxford, and given the way the British educational system worked in those days - with the patronage of Balliol and a First and so on, you could walk into a university job - I had two years of assistantship in philosophy at Edinburgh, followed by a job at the London School of Economics.

Those were the outward aspects. The inward aspect was that at that time the orthodoxy best described as linguistic philosophy, inspired by Wittgenstein, was crystallizing and seemed to me totally and utterly misguided. Wittgenstein's basic idea was that there is no general solution to issues other than the custom of the community. Communities are ultimate. He didn't put it this way, but that was what it amounted to. And this doesn't make sense in a world in which communities are not stable and are not clearly isolated from each other. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein managed to sell this idea, and it was enthusiastically adopted as an unquestionable revelation. It is very hard nowadays for people to understand what the atmosphere was like then. This wasthe Revelation. It wasn't doubted. But it was quite obvious to me it was wrong. It was obvious to me the moment I came across it, although initially, if your entire environment, and all the bright people in it, hold something to be true, you assume you must be wrong, not understanding it properly, and they must be right. And so I explored it further and finally came to the conclusion that I did understand it right, and it was rubbish, which indeed it is.

JD: So what happens between then and 1958, when you have written Words and Things [1959] and have gone to LSE and started fieldwork in North Africa?

EAG: Well, my position in the sociology department was very strange, because when I joined it the person who dominated it was [Morris] Ginsburg. He greatly admired philosophy and thought philosophy and sociology were very close to each other, and he employed me because I was a philosopher. Even though he was technically a professor of sociology, he wouldn't employ his own students, so I benefited from this, and he assumed that anybody in philosophy would be an evolutionary Hobhousean like himself. It took him some time to discover that I wasn't.

Ginsberg was very clearly committed. First of all, he was utterly coherent. Secondly, he was very, very sincere intellectually, in that when he went for a walk on Hampstead Heath or when he was writing articles he was thinking exactly the same thoughts - there was no bifurcation between professional and personal life. The only trouble with Ginsberg was that he was totally unoriginal and lacked any sharpness. He simply reproduced the kind of evolutionary rationalistic vision which had already been formulated by Hobhouse and which incidentally was a kind of extrapolation of his own personal life: starting in Poland and ending up as a fairly influential professor at LSE. He evolved, he had an idea of a great chain of being where the lowest form of life was the drunk Polish anti-Semitic peasant and the next stage was the Polish gentry, a bit better, or the Staedtl, better still. And then he came to England, first to University College under Dawes Hicks, who was quite rational (not all that rational - he still had some anti-Semitic prejudices, it seems) and finally ended up at LSE with Hobhouse, who was so rational that rationality came out of his ears. And so Ginsberg extrapolated this, and on his view the whole of humanity moved to ever greater rationality, from drunk Polish peasant to T.L. Hobhouse and a Hampstead garden. And anyway that was Ginsberg, but there was some inconsistency in it: he was an evolutionist who thought the world was getting better and better, except that in his own lifetime it started going bad because those people ceased to be evolutionists. By the time he was old, they were Parsonians and Marxists, and he couldn't understand at all why the world went this way. It annoyed him but did not affect his views.

JD: How did you begin your connections with anthropology?

EAG: I wanted to find out more about the real world. It was not merely mistaken philosophy, but any philosophy on its own was too abstract, and I wanted some intellectual activity with an empirical content. When I came to LSE it was quite an ideal place in which to observe the social sciences, and I fairly quickly came to the conclusion that social anthropology was the most interesting, and certainly also the one to which I was temperamentally the most suited. The other social sciences were not so attractive. I mean, there was economics, which was a mixture of second-rate mathematics and very bad sociology. Sociology was a tired and weary evolutionism, with the younger people torn between their Marxism and their scientific Parsonism, talking verbiage. Politics was switching from Laski's showmanship to Oakeshott's neo-Burkean romanticism. The thing about anthropology was a combination of a contact with reality, interesting ideas, and a community of scholars producing comparable work and taking notice of each other. It really was a scholarly community. Those were the days when the companions of the prophet Malinowski were fully and securely in charge. Some of them hated each other; nevertheless, they were an intellectual community aware of each other's work, and I found this exciting and enjoyable. And although, formulated in the cold and abstract, Malinowski's synchronicism seems quite untenable, for the practical purposes of good fieldwork it was dead right. And I found this exciting, and I was very grateful to be a tolerated outsider, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it very much. I went to Raymond Firth's and Isaac Schapera's seminars and learnt a very great deal from both. I'm also enormously indebted to Raymond Firth and Paul Stirling, who jointly supervised my thesis. And the paradox, the joke, is, having escaped from philosophy to anthropology partly, certainly not totally but partly, to escape from linguistic philosophy, I find in my old age that the thing I was escaping from is now almost dominating anthropology: the hermeneutic plague, as I call it, which is partly inspired by Wittgenstein, has become very influential recently in anthropology. I think it's as misguided in anthropology as it was in philosophy. It is ironic that it seems to be following me.

JD: How did you get to the Atlas and to Zawiya Ahansal?

EAG: There are one or two cases in my life where I anticipated things correctly. One of them was the coming of Stalinism in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. The other thing I foresaw, I think with greater clarity than some of my compatriots, was that the solution of the Jewish national predicament by the establishment of the state of Israel would lead to a dramatic, tragic, perhaps insoluble confrontation with the Muslim world. The least one could do was try to understand that world. I can add one further element: during those post-war years I turned to mountaineering, and I first went to the Atlas partly as an ethnographic exploration but also to climb mountains. I was never any good as a mountaineer, but I enjoyed it enormously, and in the summer of 1954 I had the option of either joining an overseas expedition to the Himalayas with an LSE climbing expedition or going to the Atlas. What I think swung the decision was this particular long-term interest in the Muslim world and co-existence with it.

JD: You went several times to Zawiya Ahansal?

EAG: Eight times at least. I would go there around the seasons. The longest trip was six months, when I had an Easter and summer vacation with an intervening term of leave.

JD: In Saints of the Atlas [1969] you have a section at the end called "Methods" which consists of a list of places you visited and how long you spent there.

EAG: It was merely to give the reader information about what the claims of the book were based on. A point about the Ihansalen is that they are a saintly lineage which of its nature has to become dispersed, because it gets located in the interstices between the lay tribes. And I had to say how much of the information was based on direct observation, of what length, and so on. Most of the time I spent in Zawiya Ahansal itself, frequently visiting the three other Ahansal settlements, which are within easy walking distance, and more rarely visiting all the other Ahansal settlements that I came to know about. I think I visited most of them - certainly not all of them, because you would constantly discover small ones as you went along.

JD: What did you do when you lived in Zawiya Ahansal?

EAG: Well, I did the conventional thing - a complete census. I had everyone on my list, and I had a complete kinship map of every Ahansali and then, more schematically, of the interrelationship between them and other Ahansal centres, and so on. I just did the conventional thing. I started just in time, of course. The major Franco-Moroccan conflict over independence was just about beginning. During my first visit there a big bomb blew up in Casablanca market, killing quite a few people. This was the beginning of the armed conflict. And of course this had its repercussions, initially indirect ones, in the mountains. The old conflicts which are inherent in the saintly organisation - the conflicts for leadership between holy families which they can't fight out physically because of their obligatory pacifism - acquired this new sort of rationale. Some of the families went nationalist, and some of them put their money on the French.