On combining natural and social histories into one and the same process

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Rita Astuti. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.023


On combining natural and social histories into one and the same process

Rita ASTUTI, London School of Economics and Political Science

Comment on Keane, Webb. 2016. Ethical life: Its natural and social histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ethical life (Keane 2016) is a challenging and complex book.

It is challenging because of what Keane sets out to do: to combine disciplinary approaches that have a long history of battling or ignoring each other; to draw on evidence from psychology and history and anthropology; to line up side by side on the same page human cognitive propensities and details of the history of feminism or of the abolition of slavery. Needless to say, building bridges across philosophical, empirical, and methodological divides is challenging, and the endeavor may well prompt hostile reactions in some quarters; but I would hope that Keane’s influential intervention will be listened to and that it will help redefine the terms of current anthropological debates. As I see it, this is not just a book about ethics; it is a book that invites anthropologists to combine natural and social histories in the study of all human phenomena.

The book is complex because, when it comes to it, such combination is not all that straightforward. As Keane rightly points out, one cannot just step from natural to social history, leaping “directly from genetics to social movements, say, or from game theory to theology” (2016: 5). Rather, Keane takes the reader through a number of “outward” (135) and incremental steps—from the individual to the social, from the evanescent to the enduring, from the unconscious to the explicit—along a trajectory clearly laid out in the structure of the book: starting with “natures” (the section devoted to psychology), moving on to “interactions” (the section devoted [450]to the mechanics of face-to-face interaction), and ending up with “histories” (the section devoted to instances of ethical change). It is not altogether surprising that the movement across these different levels of analysis, temporal frames, and kinds of causality makes for a complex narrative. And there is no doubt in my mind that readers who embrace this complexity will be rewarded, if nothing else by Keane’s impressive scholarship and theoretical ambition.

My enthusiasm for the intellectual project that animates Ethical life should be obvious. This being so, I shall now cast a critical eye on the way Keane implements it. I will suggest that, when all is said and done, natural and social histories continue to feature in his analysis as separate processes, which make contact with one another in various ways but which are not constitutive of each other. I will substantiate this point by looking at Keane’s engagement with developmental psychology and at his use of the concept of affordance.

Developmental psychology

The book opens with a chapter entitled “Psychologies of Ethics,” a large proportion of which is devoted to findings from developmental psychology. Keane reviews the results of a range of studies on infants’ sense of right and wrong, on their pro-social behaviors (pointing, sharing attention, imitating, helping, obeying and enforcing shared rules), on their Theory of Mind (mind reading, intention seeking), on their empathic abilities, and on their biases toward in-group members. The interest of such studies is that infants, being as young as they are, have had little experience of the cultural and historical environment that surrounds them. They are therefore windows into the “foundations” of ethical life: into the capacities, propensities, and inclinations that human beings are born with. And although Keane shies away from asserting that these foundations are the result of human evolution (see 2016: 33–35), it is hard to imagine where else their origins would lie. Regardless, what is clear is that for Keane the cognitive and emotional abilities of infants stand for one of the two histories of ethical life: the natural one.

Prompted by Keane’s own disclaimer (2016: 40), anthropological readers are likely to object that developmental psychologists cannot draw conclusions about foundational characteristics of human psychology from studies undertaken with infants of a particular social and cultural extraction; even allowing for their young age, one should not exclude the possibility that the environment has had a formative influence on them. While I have some sympathy for a constructive (rather than dismissive) version of this objection, this is not the line of argument I wish to pursue here. Rather, I want to take issue with the way Keane uses the developmental data in the rest of the book, as he moves “outward” to explore the social history of ethical life. Put bluntly, despite his stated aim at integration, Keane ends up leaving the natural history behind—at the beginning of the book, as it were—instead of making it part of the historical process.

Granted, throughout the book Keane refers back to the capacities and propensities of young children. For example, he often reminds the reader that key aspects of ethical life, as adults engage in social interaction, are “grounded in” or “built on” one or the other of the infants’ capacities discussed in the chapter on psychology. But [451]these natural capacities are external and static tools: they are deployed to make social history—there is thus a point of contact between the natural and the social—but they are not part of that history. Making them so would mean acknowledging—and finding methodological and conceptual ways of analyzing—the dynamic way in which human psychology enables, constrains, and is transformed by the historical process.

To put this another way, the project of combining natural and social histories requires investigating the causal relationship between the two—the difference that human psychology makes to the development of social history and the difference that social history makes to the development of human psychology—thus ultimately showing that the two are part of one and the same process. As I have shown in my own work in Madagascar (Astuti 2001, 2011; Astuti, Solomon, and Carey 2004; Astuti and Harris 2008), the study of child development provides the clearest perspective on this causal relationship, since it is in the course of development that we can see the child’s evolved dispositions being used to shape, and being transformed by, the social environment she is born into.

I am sure that Keane would agree that the “psychologies of ethics” can only ever develop in the full flow of social life, through interactions with other people—and indeed he says as much at various points in the book. But once he has reviewed the developmental findings and has established the psychological foundations of ethical life, he leaves these foundations untouched by the historical process, standing outside of it rather than being a constitutive and reactive part of it. That this is the place of psychology in Ethical life becomes even clearer if we turn to Keane’s use of the concept of affordance.


A lot of the work of connecting up natural and social histories is done through this concept. Keane uses affordance as a way “to grant the reality of certain properties that humans possess”—properties of their psychology, for example—“without forcing us to conclude that these properties necessarily determine the results in every case” (2016: 27)—specifically, the nature of people’s ethical lives at particular points in history. Affordance is thus a nondeterministic thinking tool, which nonetheless builds on the premise that human beings and the world they inhabit share properties that are “real.” What human beings make of such characteristics, however, is underdetermined and depends on the specific cultural, social, and historical circumstances in which they find themselves.

The concept of affordance comes from psychology, where it was initially developed to give a situated account of visual perception. The central idea was that the way objects are perceived depends on what they offer to the perceiver as affordances, given the perceiver’s own properties. So, in a classic example quoted by Keane (from Gibson 1977), an object that rests on the ground and has a rigid and level surface that is raised approximately at the height of the human knees, will afford sitting on to a human perceiver. But if you are a small child (or a giant or a gorilla), the very same object will afford something else: for example, climbing (or spinning or throwing).

As noted, affordance is made to do a lot of analytical work. On the one hand, the concept supports Keane’s argument that ethics is a ubiquitous and pervasive aspect [452]of everyday life. This is because the reality of everyday life provides an endless number of affordances for ethical evaluations: for example, when people engage in conversation, they have to take turns and they sometimes misunderstand what the other person says, thus needing to repair the conversational flow. All of this is just a fact of life (even if of a culturally inflected life); and one that lends itself to (i.e., can become an affordance for) ethical judgment: we feel diminished if we are constantly interrupted and judge the interlocutor to be arrogant or sexist; we are irritated by the misunderstandings of our accent and find those who keep correcting us to be ungenerous and condescending; and so on. The point is that, as we move through life with other people, we encounter a limitless number of experiences that we can use to make ethical evaluations.

On the other hand, the concept of affordance is used to bring history into the analysis of ethical life. This is because for any one affordance provided by the minutiae of social interactions, what ethical judgment one makes, if at all, will depend on a host of personal, cultural, and historical circumstances. To illustrate, Keane draws on the work of Herzog (1998), who documents the transformation in the meaning of the word condescension: because of historical transformations in the social and ethical fabric of society, what was a virtue in early nineteenth-century England has become a sin in the present. In other words, from one historical moment to the other, the ethical evaluation afforded by a superior reaching out to an inferior has been radically transformed. In this respect, as I said, affordance is a nondeterministic conceptual tool, used to account for the inherent open-endedness of human history.

As mentioned at the outset, the concept of affordance is also used to link up social and natural histories. The clearest example of how this works is found in Chapter 3, where Keane elaborates on an argument he had started elsewhere (Keane 2008) in response to a collection of essays on the so-called “opacity of mind doctrine”—the doctrine espoused in a range of societies in the Pacific region, which states that people cannot know what is in the minds of others (Robbins and Rumsey 2008). Keane’s argument goes like this: all human beings have inner thoughts and have experience of their own intentionality; all of them impute inner thoughts and intentions to others. In other words, mind reading and intention seeking are universal properties of human psychology. However, depending on the specific social arrangements of particular societies, these universal properties might get recruited as ethical affordances. In the case of “opacity of mind” societies (e.g., Stasch 2008), the concern about the alienating effect that other people can have on oneself (e.g., through the love or grief they can cause) and the desire to maintain egalitarian autonomy (as evidenced, among other things, by their living apart from each other) lead people to deny that they can read the minds of others because impinging on their thoughts and intentions would amount to alienating their personal integrity. In this way, Theory of Mind, a pan-human psychological ability, is taken up as an ethical affordance by certain groups of people as a result of inhabiting specific social worlds.

This argument has the merit of drawing the attention of anthropologists to the all important and often forgotten distinction between Theory of Mind, a largely automatic function of human psychology, and the explicit reflections, ethical or otherwise, that humans generate about it as they live their lives together (see Astuti 2012; Bloch 2006, 2007). However, it also reveals the limitations of the concept [453]of affordance. True, by deploying this concept Keane is able to put both human psychology and human history on the same page, which is more than can be said of most anthropological analyses. However, by casting human psychology as an affordance, Keane places it outside of, and separate from, social history. But this is not where psychology should be.

There are two complementary ways in which psychology is part of and inside social history: it constrains it, by making certain outcomes more likely than others—more “catchy,” to use Sperber’s epidemiological language (Sperber 1985, 1996)—and it is transformed by it, at least to some extent—something that should be determined empirically. Take the example of Theory of Mind. On the one hand, as implicitly recognized by Keane, transmitting and sustaining the “opacity of mind doctrine” requires a certain effort: children have to be coaxed into abiding to it; adults have to stop themselves from speculating out loud about the mental states of others. In other words, “denying a universal propensity for intention seeking” (2016: 130) is hard work (epidemiologically speaking). On the other hand, as I have argued elsewhere (Astuti 2012), it is implausible that people who live in societies where the “opacity of mind doctrine” prevails will have their mind reading impaired by the doctrine (which is what Keane also suggests when he talks about “unknowing knowing” [2016: 128], or about “the empathic denial of something they are in fact doing” [131]). This is because mind reading happens automatically, outside of one’s conscious awareness. Still, we should not rule out an interaction between Theory of Mind and the social practices that surround it, and we should be prepared to test empirically whether and to what extent this interaction occurs (see Bloch 2011 for a similar argument about the interactions between all the levels of the self / “blob”). An investigation of this kind is likely to reveal a two-way interaction between natural and social histories, thus demonstrating that they are really part of one and the same process.


It is hard to do justice to a book as dense with insights and rich with scholarship as Ethical life. Still, for me, the book’s most exciting contribution is to have taken human psychology seriously—quite simply, to have posited that there cannot be a study of human ethical life (and, by extension, of anything else that anthropologists might want to study) without knowing about the psychology that makes it possible. As others learn this lesson from Keane’s book, they might also keep in mind that human psychology is not external to the social and historical processes—a foundation, an affordance—but is one of its active and reactive ingredients. And they might end up writing books that are even more challenging and complex than this one.


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Rita Astuti
Department of Anthropology
London School of Economics
Houghton Street
London WC2A 2AE