Counterpoints Essay - Critical Context

Rodney Needham

Critical Context

Counterpoints is an elaboration of the author’s Reconnaissances (1980), a collection of three essays delivered at the University of Toronto in 1978. The central essay, “Analogical Classification,” is a presentation of Needham’s diagram of proportional analogy, but leaves open the question of the nature of opposition. As in his other works, such as Belief, Language, and Experience (1972), Circumstantial Deliveries (1981), and Against the Tranquility of Axioms (1983), Needham challenges the conventional wisdom of narrow ethnographic projects that tend to emphasize differences among cultures rather than commonalities. As an exponent of comparativism, Needham believes that empirical analysis can further the understanding of not only “opposition” but also other ideas such as “belief” and “analogy,” leading perhaps to an understanding of the universal prevalence of dual symbolic classification in human society. Needham says that the tendency to produce dual classificatory schemes is innate in human beings and that comparativism can bring such a proclivity to light. Such comparativism is in the tradition, if not the substance, of the founder of modern sociology, Emile Durkheim. In addition, Needham has modified the structuralism of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to suit his own British empiricist tradition; thus, Needham’s interpretation of opposition not only uses philosophical and linguistic insights but also is heavily dependent on field research findings.

Critics argue that Needham has reached a dead end in his analysis, in his apparent refusal to embrace the comparativism of modern cognitive science and artificial intelligence, and what these sciences may say about the makeup of the mind or brain.

Nevertheless, through hundreds of articles published in anthropological journals and in his many books, Rodney Needham has called into question simplistic anthropological relativism and has maintained that “a conceptual scheme, expressing constant semantic values and accompanied by characteristic imagery, can be securely established on a global scale; also that the significant structure thus determined can be a reliable instrument in the interpretation of further ethnographical cases.”