The right to ignore: An epistemic defense of the nature/culture divide

In Joyce Richard (ed.), Handbook of Evolution and Philosophy. Routledge. pp. 210-224 (2017)
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This paper addresses whether the often-bemoaned loss of unity of knowledge about humans, which results from the disciplinary fragmentation of science, is something to be overcome. The fragmentation of being human rests on a couple of distinctions, such as the nature-culture divide. Since antiquity the distinction between nature (roughly, what we inherit biologically) and culture (roughly, what is acquired by social interaction) has been a commonplace in science and society. Recently, the nature/culture divide has come under attack in various ways, in philosophy as well as in cultural anthropology. Regarding the latter, for instance, the divide was quintessential in its beginnings as an academic dis-cipline, when Alfred L. Kroeber, one of the first professional anthropologists in the US, rallied for (what I call) the right to ignore—in his case, human nature—by adopting a separationist epistemic stance. A separationist stance will be understood as an epistemic research heuristic that defends the right to ignore a specif-ic phenomenon (e.g., human nature) or a specific causal factor in an explanation typical for a disciplinary field. I will use Kroeber’s case as an example for making a general point against a bias towards integration (synthesis bias, as I call it) that is exemplified, for instance, by defenders of evolutionary psychology. I will claim that, in principle, a separationist stance is as good as an integrationist stance since both can be equally fruitful. With this argument from fruitful sepa-ration in place, not just the separationist stance but also the nature/culture di-vide can be defended against its critics.

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Maria Kronfeldner
Central European University


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