Anthropology of human rights

Leonardo Marchettoni

1. Human rights: consensus omnium gentium?

There are good reasons to maintain that the twentieth century was, among other things, the "age of rights," to borrow the well-known title of a collection of essays by Norberto Bobbio, L'età dei diritti. The twentieth century, in spite of two world wars, the atrocity of the death camps and racial persecution, the rekindling of ethnic hatred towards the end of the century, is also the period during which there was a steady acceleration in the process of positivizing, generalizing, and above all internationalizing human rights. As to whether the spread and intensification of the debate over human rights can be interpreted, as Bobbio claims, (1) as a signum prognosticum in the Kantian sense of moral progress in mankind, this is a question to which I would be less inclined to respond affirmatively. In any case, apart from how one may want to interpret the phenomenon, it is a fact that the language of human rights has spread far and wide throughout the twentieth century. Moreover, the validity of this language has been certified in official documents: human rights were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of 1948, ratified by almost all countries; conventions have been approved for the safeguarding of rights binding the signatory nations; basic rights have been embodied in contemporary democratic constitutions.

It may seem paradoxical that this process of extending and positivizing rights should take place in an era in which the illusion that an absolute basis for human rights could be discovered has faded to the point of extinction. This situation was lucidly acknowledged by Bobbio when he recognized that the semantic vagueness of rights, the historical changeability of their content, and their structural heterogeneity were obstacles to any attempt at founding them. (2) On the other hand, Bobbio goes on to say that, with the undersigning of the majority of world governments of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, interest has waned drastically in the problem of fundamentals. Indeed, one might well say that the Declaration "represents a manifestation of the only proof by which a value system can be considered humanly founded and thus recognized: and this proof is the unanimous consensus as to its validity". (3) Still, this consensus omnium gentium cannot be taken for granted. The United Nations in 1948 excluded the countries that had been defeated in World War II; furthermore, almost the whole of Africa and most of Asia were represented by colonial states, albeit this latter problem could be considered overcome by the later adhesion of the new post-colonial states. Regardless of these problems, however, there would be ground for doubting the efficacy of the consensus omnium gentium justification.

The main question has to do with the weight carried by cultural differences in the process of the expansion of rights. Since the language of human rights has evolved in the West, the conception of the human person underlying the formulation of rights could not but reflect the philosophical-political assumptions of Western individualism. For this reason it cannot be acritically supposed that the civil, political, and social values that form the premise for the doctrine of human rights will be compatible with extra-European cultural contexts. Seen in this light, one can appreciate the importance of the polemics that flared up during the second United-Nations conference on human rights, which was held in Vienna in June 1993. In that official meeting delegates from most of the Latin-American and Asian countries opposed the thesis maintained by European and North-American countries as to the universality and indivisibility of fundamental rights; they held that the declaration of rights had a marked Western bias and laid claim to the existence of a class of specifically Asian values (discipline, order, social cohesion), that were incompatible with universalistic individualism and took precedence over Western values. (4)

Since the Vienna conference the theme of Asian values has grown in importance in the international debate over human rights. The outlines of Asian opposition to the Western value system have become more precise, especially following declarations by politicians such as Lee Kuan Yew, the famous philosopher-leader from Singapore, and Mahathir Bin Moahammad, the Mali Prime Minister. Beyond the complex stratification of political, economic, and ideological motives, it seems to me that the polemics over Asian values is symptomatic of a radical difficulty for human rights theory. The formulation of human rights presumes universality, since rights are attributed to a subject on the basis of his status as human being. These rights cannot be other than universal, because otherwise they would lose their connotation as rights of mankind. Nor does this fact contrast with the particularity of their historical origins, since universality is a logical property that should not be confused with factual assertions on the historical and political origin of single rights. (5). Still, the universalistic formulation of human rights cannot erase the fact that, in any case, both the theory of rights and the very language necessary to express it are products of a specific cultural tradition, the Western one. This raises the question of the extent to which the concept of human rights and the complex philosophical-political assumptions about human nature underlying these rights can even be understood by individuals who belong to different cultural traditions. This is the subject I intend to explore.

From how it has been formulated, the issue might seem factual and not normative. After all, the question posed does not deal with the ethical or political necessity of a world-wide safeguard for fundamental rights, which would involve the epistemological problem of cultural relativism and communication among cultures. Nevertheless, such an approach would certainly be simplistic. To ask whether certain assumptions regarding the human person can be understood within diverse cultural traditions means as well to pose the question of whether certain Western values can be acknowledged outside the West. At stake is not only the problem of translating a legal concept from one language to another; it is above all a matter of determining what position human rights are to occupy in Asiatic or African cultural systems. Once this point of view has been adopted, it becomes important, in my judgment, to find out what contributions cultural anthropology can make to reflection on the universality of rights.

In the following pages I shall seek, first of all, to formulate the terms of the question somewhat more accurately than has been done. Following this, I shall attempt a critical survey of the debate over Asian values and a review of the arguments in favor of universalism and ethnocentrism. Following this, I shall seek to review the recent history of cultural anthropology. My hope is that this different point of observation may enrich the discussion of rights with fresh perspectives.

2. Asian values versus Western universalism

According to Lee Kuan Yew, the peoples of Asia have little doubt that a society with communitarian values, in which the interests of society take precedence over those of individuals, is preferable to American individualism. (6) Analyzing Lee's position, one can single out two main arguments for Asian values. First of all, he is saying that in Asia traditional Confucian values, such as discipline, order, and social cohesion, are felt to take precedence over political freedom. For this reason moderately authoritarian regimes or limited forms of democracy are suitable for Asiatic societies. The advantages of these political systems lie in their superior capacity to defend traditional values, as well as, and here we touch upon the second point, in their greater suitability for promoting economic success. In fact, the strong economic growth in countries of the Far East is explained by the superiority of Asiatic culture; the success-making virtues of the Confucian tradition - order, discipline, family responsibility, group spirit - stand in contrast with the indolent, lax individualism responsible for Western decline.

Behind the vaunted assurance of these proclamations there are, without doubt, political and social motivations, as Joanne Bauer and Daniel Bell have acknowledged. (7) The attitude of the governments of the Far East towards human rights can be read as a form of reaction to Western pressure for the enforcing of international norms governing rights and, at the same time, as a way of legitimizing their own existing political models. By laying stress on the shared Confucian mould of Asiatic cultures, the intent is to construct a post-colonial identity to oppose to the cultural, political, and economic colonializing of the US. However, even admitting that a claim to political autonomy is behind this position, the affirmation by Asians that they assign a priority to values that contrast with those of the West cannot, for this reason alone, be judged to be baseless. That this difficulty has been taken seriously is borne out eloquently by the growing number of critical statements by both Western and Eastern authors. (8)

The issue of the existence of Asian values can be criticized from various points of view. One approach is to search directly through the corpus of Oriental religious traditions for evidence of the presence, along with the values stressed by the theoreticians of Asian values, of principles compatible with the safeguarding of rights. (9) Amartya Sen has gone this road, maintaining that one can find, in the Buddhist tradition, theorizations that show a full awareness of the importance of tolerance and individual freedom. (10) Indian and Chinese cultures both contain the same constituent elements of the idea of individual freedom that are to be found in the European tradition - elements that contemporary authoritarian regimes seek to obscure. Sen concludes by asserting the 'de facto' universality of rights. In his opinion, our ideas about political and civil rights took on their present form in relatively recent times, and it would be hard to see them as a 'traditional' intervention by Western cultures. (11) Arguments like those expressed by Sen with reference to Buddhist tradition have been advanced by Norani Othman in relation to the Islamic religion. According to Othman the Quran notion of fitnah, which defines a common human ontology, is evidence that the egalitarian principles of Western tradition are not foreign to the culture of Islam. Othman, not unlike Sen, lays stress on the political motivations behind the current interpretation of religious precepts: the sexual discrimination practiced in the modern Islamic nations of South-East Asia is due to the prevalence of the most conservative Muslim factions, which follow the orthodoxy laid down by Mid-East Islamic countries. (12)

I feel that such arguments do not prove much. Without casting any doubt on their exegetical correctness, the fact remains that the issue at hand is not about what content can be found in the traditional Asiatic religious texts. What counts are the values that are felt to be operative in a given historical moment, the relations and hierarchies that are established among these values, and how these same values orient social action. Even if one accepts the idea that individualistic and 'liberal' traditions exist within Chinese and Indian cultures, their presence is not a sufficient reason for thinking that Asians share the same patrimony of values the West does. This difficulty is acknowledged by authors such as William de Bary and Joseph Chan in the case of the Confucian civilization in China. (13) According to de Bary to search among Confucius' Analects, Buddhist sutras, or the maxims of the ancient Indian legislator Asoka for evidence of values similar to those expressed in human rights is off target. Indeed, these formulations may well illustrate traditional ideals or values, but they cannot, of themselves, be taken as evidence of the historical reality of present-day China or the events of the twentieth century where the contemporary debate over human rights is situated. (14)

For de Bary the widespread conviction that the concept of radical individualism is foreign to Confucianism cannot be completely rejected, provided one acknowledge that the opposition has to do above all with the contemporary age and is far less significant if it is referred to the pre-modern West which was still marked by a strong communitarian spirit. On the other hand, it would be wrong to suppose that in Confucianism the value of the individual rested solely on his relation to the community and his capacity to carry out the social role imposed upon him. In fact, from the pages of Confucius there emerges a doctrine of the dignity of the human person that de Bary calls Confucian personalism, and it has features that distinguish it from Western individualism. (15) At the same time, there are other aspects of Confucian doctrine - a certain precedence of the moral coercion of ritual over law, the limitations imposed on women by ritual - that are incompatible with an effective enforcement of the norms in defense of rights. For this reason the historical experience of Confucianism cannot be seen as radically contradictory to the Western, human-rights tradition; it is just that some of the rights listed in the Universal Declaration are reconcilable and some are not. (16)

Joseph Chan comes to similar conclusions. (17) His main argument is that, although many key elements of Confucianism are compatible with the idea of human rights, the Confucian understanding of what is meant by civil liberties differs from the one prevalent in Western liberalism. In certain cases the Asians tend to restrict the scope of rights. For instance, their defense of freedom of expression is based on instrumental motives rather than intrinsic reasons: the right to freely manifest one's thoughts is the means whereby society can correct ethically challengeable attitudes, identify deviants, or summon rulers to their responsibilities. What this means, Chan claims, is that the Confucian perspective would not seem to acknowledge the right of subjects to speak their mind independently of the social nature of the interests that are promoted. On the other hand, in other parts of Confucian doctrine the instrument of rights is used in quite the opposite way, broadening its scope, as in the case of the rights of old people.

In my opinion, de Bary and Chan's reflections bring us closer to a more realistic formulation of the terms of the problem. Cultures are neither static nor monolithic; they are not blocks separated one from the other, (18) and one cannot go on interpreting their traditions 'from outside,' without seeking for a sympathetic position. Above all, it must be remembered that the language of rights has become a stable part of the vocabulary of Asian peoples and that rights are acknowledged in the constitutional documents of Far-Eastern countries. Nor can the differences to be found in the application and content of rights, related to specific aspects of local cultures, be labeled a priori and definitively as deviations from a fixed standard. Only if we accept the idea that extra-European cultures make their own creative use of the instrument of law can the law continue to act as a strong vector for intercultural dialogue. (19) In this sense, the notion of "homeomorphic equivalent" may be of use, as introduced by Raimundo Panikkar in his well-known essay on the universality of human rights, published in 1982. (20)

Panikkar starts by acknowledging the Western origins of the language of rights, inseparable from the postulates of a universal human nature, understandable by reason, and distinct from other realms of reality. These anthropological premises cannot be kept if one adopts the traditional Indian perspective, with its notion of dharma, which roots the individual in the web of relations in which all the beings of the cosmos are present. The universalization of the concept of human rights, which implies the universalization of the culture that has given rise to it, also risks becoming substantially an imposition on a global scale. The only practical alternative to this, according to Panikkar, is a dialogical hermeneutics that engages in an encounter between the language of rights and its homeomorphic equivalents in other cultures. The legitimacy and coherence of each normative apparatus cannot be evaluated apart from the cultural and social context in which it arises; therefore, the Indian author concludes that the crossed fertilization among cultures is a human imperative of our times. (21)

Panikkar's theses on the urgency of a strengthening of intercultural exchange have been taken up in part by Charles Taylor in a recent contribution on the theme. (22) Taylor shares Panikkar's opinion that the Western tradition of rights rests on assumptions on human nature that cannot be readily accepted by all societies. For this reason, a genuine, unforced international consensus on human rights can take place only through a threefold distinction among norms, legal systems, and underlying philosophical justifications. Any attempt to export, along with the norms, also the philosophical-political premises of individual freedom would be counterproductive, in that it would prevent reciprocal understanding of differing moral universes. Taylor's intent is to show that it is possible and necessary to reach a sort of Rawlsian consensus through an intersection, that is to say, a general consensus on norms reached by following different routes as far as the strategies of justification are concerned. For example, in the case of Theravada Buddhism, the norm that imposes respect of the human person is not based on a doctrine of the dignity of the human being but relies on the affirmation of the basic value of non-violence, ahimsa. (23) Moreover, Taylor suggests that the protection of rights can take place also in other forms besides legal forms. While the concept of law has a long tradition in Western societies and the institutions entrusted with its enforcement have often played a crucial role in guaranteeing rights, in the recent history of Thailand human rights have been guaranteed by a sovereign who drew on the immense moral prestige of his dynasty to put a stop to a military dictatorship and restore constitutional law. (24)

In a more general perspective, Taylor feels that the process of universalizing rights can be divided into two phases: in the first phase an agreement is reached on norms, even while there persists a deep sense of difference, a sense of estrangement, in the ideals, the notions of human excellence, the rhetorical figures, and the concrete points of reference by means of which these norms become an object of serious concern for us. (25) In this phase the agreement is not total, because differences subsist over the enforcement of various rights and their place in the legal order. For this reason, consensus must be continually renegotiated and is subject to the danger of breaking up. In a later moment, however, a second phase may be brought about, a mere possibility, in which there would be the beginning of a process of mutual learning, moving towards a 'blending of horizons,' to use Gadamer's words, where the moral universe of others becomes less extraneous. (26)

For Taylor the greatest obstacle to mutual understanding is the inability of Europe and the United States to see their cultures as "one among others." According to the Western mind the doctrine of human rights arises out of the eclipse of all previous ideas and values. Westerners maintain that the same path must be followed by extra-European peoples as well, who must give up their traditional system of values and embrace the universal principles of modernism. This way of thinking must be abandoned in favor of a more objective attitude toward history, that does not reduce history to a linear path toward progress but accommodates its twists and turns and side-tracks. Only if we are able to accept this lesson will we be prepared to have a sympathetic understanding of the spiritual paths of others converging toward a common goal. In contrast to prevailing opinion, the objective of a worldwide agreement will not be attained through a loss or negation of traditions but, on the contrary, through a creative immersion by different groups in their own spiritual patrimony, so as to arrive at the same goal through different ways. (27)

Although sometimes his rhetoric may grate a bit, Charles Taylor's theses do contain interesting stimuli for reflection. The first general conclusion we can draw from his work is that the problem of the universalizing of rights is substantially a problem of intercultural communication, i.e., the problem of the modes and limits through and within which it is possible to reach an understanding of concepts that are foreign to our cultural system and a recognition of different values from our own. Law has already become a means of exchange, not unlike economics, politics, and consumer goods, in the dialogue between East and West, and as such it is subject to a process of creative appropriation that adapts its content to local contexts, while preserving certain functional prerogatives. Nevertheless, in the case of law, this phenomenon of 'creolization' can meet with stronger resistance than for other objects. This is for the simple reason that law is intrinsically linked to a sphere of values. These values can vary in consistency or in their role in the legal system when the law is 'appropriated' by non Western cultures. However, this modification is not painless, since, as has been generally acknowledged from the time of Hare, moral values tend to expand, in the sense that they aspire to a universal, 'overwhelming' formulation. (28) In the case of law, there are good reasons to doubt that the recognition of the historical and geographical relativism of Western values that Taylor calls for can quickly lead to the hoped-for sympathetic understanding of the spiritual paths of others.

In spite of the by-now widespread conviction that rights cannot be founded, they still preserve all their special force, which comes from the fact that they are granted to people simply because of their status as human beings. Jack Donnelly holds for a form of 'weak cultural relativism'. In his view, to claim the existence of human rights is to claim that all human beings, for the mere fact that they are human, have rights. These rights are universal since they apply to all men. All men are equal: either one is a human being or one is not, and thus is possessed or not of the same human rights, equally. Moreover, these rights are inalienable: it is impossible to lose them, because it is impossible to cease to be a human being. (29)

It is not easy to flee the temptation of absolutizing one's own culture and the values it defends. All the more so, given the expansive and universalizing thrust of those values. Here lies the difficulty in seeing one's own culture as 'one among others.'

3. Trends in the recent history of cultural anthropology

According to Mondher Kilani, anthropology "is history insofar as it arose in the West, towards the end of the fifteenth century, as discourse speaking of others. It is thus a particular, modern modality of the historical relationship that the West since that time has maintained toward others." (30) Thus anthropology, as the study of difference, assumes its institutional object as the 'encounter with the Other.' (31) The need for a discipline to conceptualize alterity presupposes the existence of a mechanism that generates differences and similarities. This mechanism is furnished by culture to the degree that culture is where individuals engage in a two-fold process: 'acculturation' and 'humanization.' Acknowledgment of one's belonging to a given culture implies the forming of a specific idea of what a human being is, a certain conception of mankind, and therefore of what is not human and is to be identified as 'the Other.' (32) In this sense culture is elaborated as the focus on which two opposite vectors converge, respectively inclusive and exclusive forces.

If ethnocentrism is a common feature of all human societies, the question of the relation between discourse and the cultural context one belongs to is crucial to the possibility of anthropological knowledge. In fact, the paradox of anthropology is that it is a discipline that speaks of others and of our way of relating to them, but, in so doing, cannot do away with the original difference on which the very possibility and meaningfulness of discourse is based. The dichotomy between us and them is reproduced continually in the ambivalences of anthropological discourse, the repeated oscillations between the lure of identifying oneself with the eye of God or the 'view from nowhere' and the moments of awakening to the here and now and to the perspective of a cultural dialogue from 'below.' The very content of anthropology is vulnerable to mutation, a reduction of perspective, to where it is characterized, according to the epistemological premises selected, as a general knowledge of man or as the study of what it means to be human in specific social and cultural contexts.

If one is serious about the definition of anthropology as the study of difference, taking into account the double meaning, subjective and objective, of the genitive, it is possible to decide to follow the course of these oscillations and thus to mark a trail in the recent history of cultural anthropology that leads through the identification of certain epistemological models of interaction with the other. In this sense the first option to be taken into account, corresponding to the lowest point of the oscillation, is that of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism arose in the United States, in opposition to the pretensions of positivistic evolutionism to lay down the law and generalize, and is associated with a student of Franz Boas', Melville Jean Herskovits. According to Herskovits the multiple aspects of culture - the production and distribution of goods, social and political organization, religious values, crafts, arts - are present in every human group but assume specific features in every single people; every society is unique, and it is this specificity that allows one to state that evaluations are possible only on the basis of values and principles present within the object to be evaluated. (33) Thus the relativist approach contains a critique of rationalism and all theories that include a universalistic conception of human nature, in favor of a privileging of the cultural dimension as the depository of meaning and value.

It is evident that cultural relativism, if assumed coherently, is self-contradictory: in the very moment in which it asserts the need to contextualize all discourses within their specific cultural horizon, it generates a meta-discourse which it claims is absolutely valid. (34) In Clifford Geertz's view, if verbal forms, the layout of camping sites, or the ritual for poisoning chickens all somehow produce specific modes of mental functioning, it becomes very hard to see how individuals confined in one culture could possibly penetrate the thought processes of individuals confined in another one. (35) Moreover, in this way relativism ends up by coinciding with its opposite, i.e, with an epistemological position that claims to have embodied elements of human nature that are invariable and universal.

This position within twentieth-century anthropology is exemplified essentially by the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss and his followers. Lévi-Strauss, adopting the perspective of structural linguistics, hypothesizes the existence of transcendental structures that are not coincident with abstractions from constants and variables in empirical systems but are themselves conditions for the recognition of these variants and occurrences. In other words, the structures spring from an inborn capacity, which may be called the 'unconscious,' or the 'human spirit,' or 'symbolic thought,' which is common to all men in all ages and regions of the world, and allows them to communicate by means of conventional signs. Hence, the structure is not a concrete reality that can be observed directly but exists alongside a complex of transformations in which every local system is logically inserted, thus serving to cover all the possible logics of transformation of each system. (36)

According to Lévi-Strauss, if one wants to study human cultures scientifically, one must research their common unconscious structures. This assumption implies setting aside investigation of the diachronic succession of events in favor of a reflection, structural analysis, that focuses on synchronic systems of relations underlying cultures different from one's own. (37) Structural analysis proceeds through phases in the construction of simplified models of observed facts and the elaboration of transformational rules that govern transition among different models, so as to bring to the structure to light, i.e., the system of relations among the elements of single models. (38)

Relativism and structuralism, albeit irreconcilably opposed, end up by sharing the claim to holding the truth about human nature. For the relativist this truth consists in restricting meaning and value within the insurmountable confines of conceptual patterns of belongingness, and of the mental processes and cultural products that correspond to them; for the structuralist, on the contrary, this truth consists in the fundamental unity of human thought as process, which is manifested, albeit cryptically, in its heterogeneous products.

Both these positions are untenable; neither of them furnishes us with a trustworthy theoretical framework for dealing with the problem of intercultural communication. If one accepts relativism, one is brought to conclude that there is no alternative to the plurality of values, and the very possibility of a constructive communication among diverse cultures tends to evaporate. On the other hand, from the standpoint of the structuralist, since it is possible to glean traces of a unitary matrix underlying even the differences, cultural multiplicity is reduced to an appearance below which one spies the self-representation of Western Reason. My impression is that what is needed is an anthropological approach that is closer to individual communication and above all opens a space for encounters on meanings and values. A promising candidate can perhaps be found in Clifford Geertz's interpretive anthropology.

At the heart of Geertz's work there are disparate influences and suggestions from a number of disciplinary fields: semiotics, sociology (above all Goffman), philosophy (Gadamer and Wittgenstein), literary criticism. Geertz takes up Boas' individualizing and particularistic approach and frames it in a broader conception of ethnological practice as textual interpretation. The methodological option of particularism is based on a conviction that generalities have little to teach us; rather, what is needed is to concentrate on the differences and intrinsic variability of man. Indeed, the subject is no "neuter" being but is constantly situated in an historical dimension, placed inside a way of living, a culture, and a body of knowledge. In Geertz's opinion, there is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture. Men without a culture would be incurable monstrosities with few useful instincts, even fewer recognizable sentiments, and no intellect at all: desperate mental cases. (39)

Geertz, following Goffman, assumes that thought and cultural phenomena are public in character. From this follows a contextual and plural conception of the subject in which central importance is acquired by the notion of meaning and in which anthropological practice is not seen as consisting in the gathering of facts that lend themselves to a succession of systemizations and generalizations but in an interpretive science whose proper object is ethnographic texts.

The anthropologist must deal directly with events and concrete social occasions, seeking to interpret the experiences of others from within, uncovering the meanings that social agents attribute to their actions. To open up to alterity does not mean neutral objectivity or self-forgetfulness. The ethnographer's work consists rather in finding resources in his own language for understanding phenomena without burdening them with his own prejudices. The anthropologist must use the meanings belonging to his own culture to reconstruct the ways in which subjects belonging to other cultures confer meaning on themselves. According to Geertz, the anthropologist and the native are bound within a hermeneutic circularity: the interpretations of each call up those of the other and cannot be understood in isolation. Thus, the ethnographer must engage in a patient 'to and fro' between the interpretations the natives give of their lives and the interpretations that the anthropologist can produce on the basis of their interpretations. However, this understanding requires a dialectic relation between our pre-understandings and the ways of living we are seeking to understand; in substance, the ethnologist must be able to express their 'vision' with our vocabulary. (40)

The centrality of hermeneutic circularity comes out clearly in Geertz's concept of translation, which he defines as interpretation of alterity. To translate is to be within the difference, to confront the translator's meaning with that of the translated. More generally, translating means learning another way of living, learning how to speak another language. Thus. anthropological work also consists in mediating between cultural categories and concepts that interact. In so doing, the ethnographer uses both concepts that are 'close to experience' - those that agents often use without being aware of it - and concepts that are 'far from experience' - those used by specialists to construct general categories. (41) It is essential, according to Geertz, that both these categories of concepts be present in order to find an intermediate spot between one's own experience and that of the Other. This intermediate spot, which Geertz sometimes refers to using Gadamer's expression 'fusion of horizons,' represents a comprehension of the role of both concepts and of their inter-relation. Above all, it indicates the place where a reliable report on meanings can be produced, a narration that is neither a description of the premises of the natives, confined to their mental horizons, an ethnography of witchcraft written by a witch, nor one that is systematically deaf to the special tones of their life, an ethnography of witchcraft written by an accountant. (42)

The epistemological model underlying Geertz's work may hark back to the internal realism of the later Putnam or Wittgenstein in his Philosophische Untersuchungen. Not unlike Putnam or Wittgenstein Geertz defends a weak form of conceptual relativism which does not result in a theorization of incommensurability but merely maintains, in Wittgenstein's terms, that the rules are non-constrictive and the grammar is radically incomplete. For Geertz thought is a question of exchanges in the symbolic forms available in the one or other community; (43) it is confined within the limits forged by the culture one belongs to; nevertheless, the possibility of translatability is claimed for extraneous concepts, a capacity of interpretation that is similar to the activity Wittgenstein spoke of, consisting in imagining different language games and ways of living. (44) For these reasons, Geertz's interpretive anthropology may be able to furnish support for Charles Taylor. Taylor, citing Gadamer, favored a process of fusion of horizons that would make the cultural universes of Westerners and Easterners less estranged, and interpretive anthropology would lay out the conceptual framework of the modalities within which communication between cultures could actually take place. Nevertheless, from another point of view, Geertz's conception of culture seems too static to adapt to the contemporary world, especially as regards present-day perception of phenomena such as the globalization and hybridization of cultures. (45) In the contemporary world, as Ulf Hannerz maintains, meaning cannot be considered as inherent in the practices of a single culture but must be traced through the flow of global interconnections. (46) It would seem as if Geertz, on the contrary, still conceives of cultures as if they were separate blocks, which it is possible to link by means of interpretive bridges but which remain in any case fundamentally isolated each from each. For Geertz, as for Wittgenstein, it is possible to imagine ways of living that are different from our own, applications of the rules of language that differ from the ones we have experience of, but what does not change is the communitarian background in which those ways of living and their applications are framed. In this way Geertz ultimately restores the cultural community to its position of logical and axiological priority.

Like all relativisms, Geertz's must single out a turning point that will let him speak of and possibly compare diverse conceptual approaches, and this turning point he finds in language, the hermeneutic activity of the anthropologist who, using 'close concepts' and 'distant concepts,' succeeds in occupying an intermediate space between his own experience and that of the other. I would suggest that this hypostasizing of language, which fatally coincides with the language of Western rationality, represents the last refuge for the us-and-them distinction. As has been noted by Ugo Fabietti and Francesco Remotti intellectual traditions are not the subject of anthropological analysis; even when Geertz maintains that he wants to take the point of view of the native, all he does is hark back to theoretical conceptions of the major traditions in order to cast light on the humblest, most recondite indigenous concepts. (47) Perhaps the culture does not lie in some elsewhere awaiting to be discovered: perhaps all it awaits is to be reinvented. If so, in this operation of creation and re-inventing, anthropology must not take a middle position as if it were a neutral science mediating what is already preconstituted. (48)

The alternative I propose is a radicalization of Geertz's concept of translation by moving it toward Davidson's theory of interpretation and the rejection of the dualism between conceptual and content-oriented approaches.

As is well known, Donald Davidson advances a semantic theory that culminates in a reduction of language to an intersection among tentative interpretive theories. Among other things, his theory implies that the differences between us and others are not fixed blocks deriving from different approaches but variations in content that can be understood through the use of the principle of charity, as it relates to our shared beliefs. For Davidson's interpreter, translation begins at home; understanding other cultures is, in general, no different from understanding the man who lives next door. For Davidson to think that there is a genre difference takes us off track, distracting us from making every effort to search, much more simply, for the world view of another. In fact, if we think that understanding requires some magic imaginative leap, we are no longer appealing to ourselves to discover a common round on which to make some kind of sense between ourselves and the other. (49)

4. Conclusions

In the first part of the present paper I have reformulated the problem of the universalizing of human rights as a problem of intercultural communication, which is to say, a problem involving the modes and limits within which it is possible to come to an understanding and an acknowledgment of concepts and values that are foreign to our own cultural system. In the second part I have sought to reconsider the problem of intercultural communication with the help of the most recent anthropological contributions. My purpose has been to find an epistemological model that could serve as a theoretical framework within which to evaluate the possibility of communicating between different cultures and translating concepts from one cultural environment to another. In this attempt I have given particular attention to Clifford Geertz's proposal of an interpretive anthropology centered on specific notions of meaning and translation. Geertz's approach certainly has the advantage of laying more weight on the understanding of meanings than on elaborating explicative generalizations; in this sense, it can be useful to determine the conditions necessary for an authentic intercultural dialogue. At the same time, it seems to me that a weakness in Geertz's anthropology is his overly static conception of culture, which is inadequate to the present-day conditions of a globalized world, in which meanings tend to lose their way in the flow of information from one end of the planet to the other.

In my opinion Geertz's interpretive theory of culture needs to be corrected in order to take this changed situation into account. An anthropology is needed that takes as its object the space in which the linguistic formulas, slogans, and images are constructed that flow through the information networks, what Hannerz calls 'global ecumene.' (50) In this sense, it may turn out to be opportune to invest in Davidson's concepts of radical interpretation, interpretive charity, and triangulation. To the degree in which it reaffirms the central role of the interpreter, with his values and meanings, and of his interactions with the other, repositioning the community in the background as a cultural system and a totality of sense, Davidson's theory of interpretation can serve as an important point of departure for an anthropology of our time.

If one wishes to reflect on the universalizing of human rights, on the significance of a process which, if only on a formal level, is already in course since fundamental rights are acknowledged everywhere, at least nominally, then it is necessary to investigate the forms of communication on a global level, taking cognizance of the fact that it is no longer possible, as it has been in the past, to rely on a strong concept of culture as a system and depository of meanings. Thus, to speak of cultures in the contemporary world risks turning out to be anachronistic since cultures tend to explode under the pressure of messages and images that accumulate on their outside, allowing the solitude of the individual to emerge, obliged to invent his own, exclusive path through the symbols and figures of modernity. However, at the same this void teeming with presences that surrounds the subject, this paradoxical isolation deriving from the crumbling away of cultural confines, may perhaps become the most suitable space for establishing a relationship with the other, and with the worlds and values of that other.

(Translated by Gordon Poole)


1. N. Bobbio, L'età dei diritti, Einaudi, Torino 1990, pp. 49-50.

2. Ibidem, pp. 5-14.

3. Ibidem, pp. 18-19.

4. On the Vienna's Conference see S.P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilization and the Remake of the World Order, Simon and Schuster, New York 1996.

5. On the historical origin of rights see L. Baccelli, Il particolarismo dei diritti, Carocci, Roma 1999.

6. Cited in J.R. Bauer, D.A. Bell, (eds.), The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999, p. 6.

7. J.R. Bauer, D.A. Bell, Introduction, in J.R. Bauer, D.A. Bell, (eds.), op. cit., pp. 3-4.

8. Bibliography on Asian values is constantly growing. For a first critical view of the problem see the collective volume edited by Joanne Bauer and Daniel Bell (cited above), and D: Bell, East meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2000.

9. On the relationship between rights and extra-European religions see L.S. Rouner, (ed.), Human Rights and the World's Religions, Notre Dame University Press, Notre Dame (Ind.) 1988 and N. Rouland, I fondamenti antropologici dei diritti dell'uomo, "Rivista internazionale di filosofia del diritto", IV/LXXV, 2 (1998).

10. A. Sen, Human Rights and Asian Values, Morgenthau Memorial Lecture, 1997.

11. Ibidem, p. 165.

12. N. Othman, Rights of Women in Modern Islamic State, in J.R. Bauer, D.A. Bell, (eds.), op. cit., pp. 169-191.

13. W.T. de Bary, Neo-Confucianism and Human Rights, in L.S. Rouner, (ed.), op. cit.; Id., Asian Values and Human Rights. A Confucian Communitarian Perspective, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1998; J. Chan, A Confucian Perspective on Human Rights for Contemporary China, in J.R. Bauer, D.A. Bell, (eds.), op. cit. On rights in China see also Chung-Sho-Lo, Human Rights in the Chinese Tradition, in UNESCO, Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations, Columbia Univerrsity Press, New York 1949, J.C. Hsiung, (ed.), Human Rights in the East Asian Perspective, Paragon House Publishers, New York 1985.

14. W.T. de Bary, Asian Values and Human Rights, cit., pp. 10-11.

15. Ibidem, pp. 17-30.

16. Ibidem, pp.15-16.

17. J. Chan, A Confucian Perspective on Human Rights for Contemporary China, cit., pp. 212-239.

18. See J. Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1988; J. Breidenbach, I. Zukrigl, Tanz der Kulturen. Kulturelle Identität in einer globalisierten Welt, Kunstmann, München 1998.

19. See. J. Breidenbach, I. Zukrigl, op. cit..

20. R. Panikkar, Is the Notion of Human Rights a Western Concept?, "Diogéne", 120 (1982).

21. Ibidem, p. 110.

22. C. Taylor, Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights, in J.R. Bauer, D.A. Bell, (eds.), op. cit.

23. Ibidem, pp. 133-136. On the foundation of rights in Buddhist perspective see also K.K. Inada, A Buddhist Response to the Nature of Human Rights, in C.E. Jr Welch, V.A. Leary, (eds.), Asian Perspectives on Human Rights, Westview Press, Boulder (Co.) 1990 and D. Keown, Are there 'Human Rights' in Buddhism?, "Journal of Buddhist Ethics", 2 (1995). Inada derives human rights from the notion of paticca-samuppaada, indicating the relational character of the processes of experience of every individual, whereas Keown connects fundamental rights and liberties with the Buddhist theory of virtue and human self-fulfillment. Moreover, Keown seems to follow the Rawls of Political Liberalism when he adds that the Universal Declaration and the other Conventions on rights do not give an overview of human good and that it's up to religious and philosophical doctrines to elaborate this overview. Fundamental rights should then be seen as preconditions in order to reach the objectives proposed by competing ideologies and religions.

24. C. Taylor, op. cit., pp. 132-133.

25. Ibidem, p. 136.

26. Ibidem.

27. Ibidem, p. 144.

28. R.M. Hare, The Language of Morals, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1952.

29. J. Donnelly, Human Rights and Asian Values: A Defense of "Western" Universalism, in J.R. Bauer, D.A. Bell, (eds.), op. cit., p. 61.

30. M. Kilani, L'invention de l'autre, Payot, Lausanne 1994.

31. U. Fabietti, R. Malighetti, V. Matera, Dal tribale al globale. Introduzione all'antropologia, Bruno Mondadori, Milano, 2000, p. 3.

32. Ibidem, p. 11. The polyvalence of culture in terms of inclusion and exclusion has been recognized also by human etology in terms of cultural pseudo-speciation. Cfr. I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Die Biologie des menschlichen Verhaltens. Grundriss der Humanethologie, Piper, München 1984.

33. M. J. Herskovits, Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism, Random House, New York 1972. Herskovits wrote down the document presented by the American Anthropological Association to the United Nations in 1947, immediately after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this document the Association recommended respect for the different cultures of different peoples and for the values professed by individuals.

34. Moreover the respect for the differences proposed by relativists can easily turn into a praise of separation and of the more excluding and racist differentialism. See T. Pitch, L'antropologia dei diritti umani, in A. Giasanti, G. Maggioni, (a cura di), I diritti nascosti. Approccio antropologico e prospettiva sociologica, Cortina, Milano 1995, pp. 181-184.

35. C. Geertz, Local Knowledge, Basic Books, New York 1983.

36. C. Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale, Plon, Paris 1958.

37. C. Lévi-Strauss, La pensée sauvage, Plon, Paris 1962.

38. C. Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale, cit.

39. C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, New York 1973.

40. C. Geertz, Local Knowledge, Basic Books, New York 1983.

41. Ibidem, p. 73.

42. Ibidem.

43. Ibidem, p. 194.

44. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, Blackwell, Oxford 1953.

45. See J. Clifford, op. cit..

46. See U. Hannerz, Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Organization of Meaning, Columbia University Press, New York 1992.

47. U. Fabietti, F. Remotti, C. Montaleone, L'antropologia culturale: dalle certezze ottocentesche alle sfide del mondo contemporaneo, in L. Geymonat, (a cura di), Storia del pensiero filosofico e scientifico, vol. XI, Garzanti, Milano 1996, p. 280.

48. Ibid.

49. D. Davidson, Intervista biografico teorica, "Iride", 15 (1995), pp. 330-331.

50. See U. Hannerz, op. cit.