On dichotomies

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Carlo Ginzburg. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.017


On dichotomies

Carlo GINZBURG, University of California, Los Angeles, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa

Comment on Sahlins, Marshall. 2017. “The original political society.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (2): 91–128.

E. P. Thompson once famously referred to the “enormous condescension of posterity” shared by so many historians (1963: 13). In a similar vein, Marshall Sahlins evokes, and rejects, the patronizing attitude of those anthropologists who “demystify the apparent illusions of the Others. . . . To put it in Chicagoese, we may say we know better than them” (p. 121). I agree with both, but only to a certain extent. The point they make is, either for historians or for anthropologists, the beginning of the game, not the end of it. We should also emphasize, I will argue, the role played in research by the etic/emic dichotomy: a topic which I had the privilege to discuss with Marshall in a private conversation, and which I am glad to develop here.1

The dichotomy is obviously familiar to anthropologists and linguists; much less so, unfortunately, to historians (the tribe to which I belong). The way in which Kenneth Pike (1967), anthropologist and linguist, articulated the dichotomy is certainly fruitful—but also, in my view, a bit simplistic. To identify the scientific approach with the observer’s etic level (as Pike did) misses a more tortuous, complex trajectory. Professional observers like historians and anthropologists start from etic questions, which are inevitably anachronistic or ethnocentric, but can, if duly reworked, open up the possibility to rescue from the actors some emic answers. This endless dialogue between the emic and etic levels is appropriately embodied by the title and subtitle of the journal in which Marshall Sahlins has published [140]his challenging piece: HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. Hau, the Maori word which is at the center of Sahlins’ splendid analysis of Marcel Mauss’ Essay on the gift, put us firmly on emic ground (Sahlins 1974; see also Ginzburg 2010: 1317–18). But the journal’s subtitle—Journal of Ethnographic Theory—puts us unabashedly on the etic side. The interplay of the two levels, and the subtle awareness of their intricate relationship, has been a lasting feature of Sahlins’ outstanding œuvre.

This awareness occasionaly surfaces also in the present essay: for instance, in the remarks on the Urapmin term translated as “law” (p. 112). But, if I am not mistaken, the essence of the “Copernican revolution” that is needed, according to Sahlins, by “the sciences of society and culture” (p. 117) would amount to focusing exclusively on the emic level: a world in which all-powerful “metapersons” (as Sahlins labels them) dominate people’s life. This would not be merely an attempt to rescue “the natives’ point of view,” since some of the ethnographers quoted by Sahlins insist on the empirical dimension of the interaction with the metapersons.

A similar point was made a long time ago by Sergei Shirokogoroff, in his massive work Psychomental complex of the Tungus (1935): a genuine relativistic endeavor. (Pascal’s ironical remark on the relativity of human laws was inscribed, on the contrary, in the etic awareness of the immutable l.aw of God.) But to label Sahlins a relativist would be utterly misleading. The etic dimension of a category like “metaperson” is undeniable. Sahlins is deliberately developing a remark made by Marcel Mauss on the spirits as “the real owners of the goods and things of this world” (p. 114). But behind Mauss, Hobbes. In his essay “The spirit of the gift” (1974), Sahlins had already read Mauss through a filter provided by Hobbes. The Leviathan is literally a metaperson, his gigantic body being constituted by a myriad of individuals. As I argued elsewhere, the front page of Hobbes’ Leviathan took inspiration from a striking sentence by Tacitus, which had already attracted the attention of Bacon: fingebant simul credebantque (they made it and simultaneously believed in it). Was Hobbes, following Tacitus, trying to unveil the origins of religion? Yes and no. Leviathan, “the mortal God,” is not a religious entity: in his hands he holds both the sword and the pastoral. As an embodiment of the state, Leviathan “keeps in awe” the individuals who created him. “Awe,” an ambiguous word evoking both a sacred and a secular terror, suddenly emerged in a passage of Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides: that is, the description of the plague in Athens. But the word “awe” was not Thucydidean; it was Hobbesian—the first germ of his later philosophy (Ginzburg [2008] 2017).

Sahlins (2008: 5–15) duly stressed the lasting impact of Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides: most especially of the section on the strife at Corcyra, echoed by the description of the plague in Athens. In Hobbes’ “original political society,” religion was not regarded as a distinct sphere. His unforgettable description of the state of nature mingled a mental experiment, a political program, as well as echoes of travelers’ reports describing civilizations of the New World (on the last point, see Landucci [1962] 2014: esp. 119ff.). In all this, the demistifying element—fingebant simul credebantque, they made it and simultaneously believed in it—is fundamental. Is this approach, we may ask, necessarily associated with a patronizing attitude?

My answer is no, on the basis of a famous counterexample: Marc Bloch’s Les Rois thaumaturges (1924). The subject of the book is well known. Bloch analyzed a long-term belief associated with the legitimate kings of France and England: that [141]is, their alleged power to heal, with the touch of their hands, people suffering of scrofula, an illness affecting the glands of the neck. The title of the English translation, published in 1973, reads: The royal touch: Sacred monarchy and scrofula in England and France. The subtitle of the French original emphasized the distance between the observers’ and the actors’ categories: étude sur le caractère surnaturel attribué à la puissance royale, particulièrement en France et en Angleterre. On the one hand, Bloch effectively demystified that belief, which persisted throughout the long Middle Ages, unveiling its political motivations; on the other, he tried to explore, on the basis of scattered, indirect evidence, the reasons which pushed so many individuals to embark upon long, often dangerous journeys, hoping to be touched, and healed, by their sovereigns. To take the actors’ motivations and behavior as seriously as possible, trying to make a critical use of our own categories, as observers: the two perspectives are not mutually incompatible—if, and only if, the etic tries to learn from the emic, without pretending to obliterate itself.


Bloch, Marc. 1924. Les Rois thaumaturges: étude sur le caractère surnaturel attribué à la puissance royale, particulièrement en France et en Angleterre. Paris: Istra.

———. 1973. The royal touch: Sacred monarchy and scrofula in England and France. Translated by J. E. Anderson. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ginzburg, Carlo. (2008) 2017. “Reading Hobbes today.” In Fear reverence terror: Five essays in political iconography, 43–76. Calcutta: Seagull.

———. 2010. “Lectures de Mauss.” Annales: Histoire, Sciences sociales 65: 1303–20.

———. 2012. “Our words, and theirs: A reflection on the historian’s craft, today.” In Historical knowledge: In quest of theory, method and evidence, edited by Susanna Fellman and Marjatta Rahikainen, 97–119. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Landucci, Sergio. (1972) 2014. I filosofi e i selvaggi. Turin: Einaudi.

Pike, K. L. 1967. Language in relation to a unified theory of the structure of human behavior. Second revised edition. The Hague: Mouton & Co.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1974. “The spirit of the gift.” In Stone Age economics, 149–83. London: Tavistock.

———. 2008. The Western illusion of human nature. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Shirokogoroff, Sergei M. 1935. Psychomental complex of the Tungus. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner.

Thompson, E. P. 1963. The making of the English working class. Harmondsworth: Penguin.


Carlo GINZBURG has taught at the University of Bologna, at UCLA, and at the Scuola Normale di Pisa. His books, translated into more than twenty languages, include: The cheese and the worms (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); Clues, myths, and the historical method (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); The night battles (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983); The enigma of Piero della Francesca (Verso, 1985; new edn., 2000); Wooden eyes (Columbia University Press, 2001); History, rhetoric, and proof (University Press of New England, 1999); The judge and the historian (Verso, 2002); No island is an island (Columbia University Press, 2000); Threads and traces (University of California Press, 2012); and Fear reverence terror: Five essays in political iconography (Seagull, 2017).


Carlo Ginzburg
Department of History
University of California, Los Angeles
6265 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1473


1. The conversation, which took place in November 2015, was elicited by a paper of mine: “Our words, and theirs: A reflection on the historian’s craft, today” (Ginzburg 2012).[142]