This is a short excerpt from Clifford Geertz's 1966 paper "The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of  Man", which was reprinted in his influential collection The Interpretation of Cultures.  It neatly sets a mid-20th century view of culture in opposition to the typical Enlightenment (1700's) view that the superficial diversity of culture masks an underlying - and readily discovered - universal uniformity: the homogeniety of humanity.

   Whitehead once offered to the natural sciences the maxim "Seek simplicity and distrust it"; to the social sciences he might well have offered "Seek complexity and order it."
   Certainly the study of culture has developed as though this maxim were being followed. The rise of a scientific concept of culture amounted to, or at least was connected with, the overthrow of the view of human nature dominant in the Enlightenment--a view that, whatever else may be said for or against it, was both clear and simple--and its replacement by a view not only more complicated but enormously less clear.  The attempt to clarify it, to reconstruct an intelligible account of what man is, has underlain scientific thinking about culture ever since. Having sought complexity and, on a scale grander than they ever imagined, found it, anthropologists became entangled in a tortuous effort to order it. And the end is not yet in sight.
   The Enlightenment view of man was, of course, that he was wholly of a piece with nature and shared in the general uniformity of composition which natural science, under Bacon's urging and Newton's guidance, had discovered there. There is, in brief, a human nature as regularly organized, as thoroughly invariant, and as marvelously simple as Newton's universe. Perhaps some of its laws are different, but there are laws; perhaps some of its immutability is obscured by the trappings of local fashion, but it is immutable.
   A quotation that Lovejoy... gives from an Enlightenment historian, Mascou, presents the position with the useful bluntness one often finds in a minor writer:
The stage setting (in different times and places) is, indeed, altered, the actors change their garb and their appearance; but their inward motions arise from the same desires and passions of men, and produce their effects in the vicissitudes of kingdoms and peoples.
   Now, this view is hardly one to be despised; nor, despite my easy references a moment ago to "overthrow," can it be said to have disappeared from contemporary anthropological thought. The notion that men are men under whatever guise and against whatever backdrop has not been replaced by "other mores, other beasts."
   Yet, cast as it was, the Enlightenment concept of the nature of human nature had some much less acceptable implications, the main one being that, to quote Lovejoy himself this time, "anything of which the intelligibility, verifiability, or actual affirmation is limited to men of a special age, race, temperment, tradition or condition is (in and of itself) without truth or value, or at all events without importance to a reasonable man." The great, vast variety of differences among men, in beliefs and values, in customs and institutions, both over time and from place to place, is essentially without significance in defining his nature.  It consists of mere accretions, distortions even, overlaying and obscuring what is truly human--the constant, the general, the
universal--in man.
   Thus, in a passage now notorious, Dr. Johnson saw Shakespeare's genius to lie in the fact that "his characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate upon but small numbors; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions."  And Racine regarded the success of his plays on classical themes as proof that "the taste of Paris...conforms to that of Athens: my spectators have been moved by the same things which, in other times, brought tears to the eyes of the most cultivated classes of Greece."
   The trouble with this kind of view, aside from the fact that it sounds comic coming from someone as profoundly English as Johnson or as French as Racine, is that the image of a constant human nature independent of time, place, and circumstances, of studies and professions, transient fashions and temporary opinions, may be an illusion, that what man is may be so entangled with where he is, who he is, and what he believes that it is inseparable from them.  It is precisely the consideration of such a possibility that led to the rise of the concept of culture and the decline of the uniformitarian view of man.  Whatever else modern anthropology asserts--and it seems to have asserted almost everything at one time or another--it is firm in the conviction that men unmodified by the customs of particular places do not in fact exist, have never existed, and most important, could not in the very nature of the case exist.  There is, there can be, no backstage were we can go to catch a glimpse of Mascou's actors as "real persons" lounging about in street clothes, disengaged from their profession, displaying with artless candor their spontaneous desires and unprompted passions. They may change their roles, their styles of acting, even the dramas in which they play; but--as Shakespeare himself of course remarked--they are always performing.
   This circumstance makes the drawing of a line between what is natural, universal, and constant in man and what is conventional, local, and variable extraordinarily difficult. In fact, it suggests that to draw such a line is to falsify the human situation, or at least to misrender it seriously.  ...[A]nthropology has attempted to find its way to a more viable concept of man, one in which culture, and the variability of culture, would be taken into account rather than written off as caprice and prejudice, and yet, at the same time, one in which the governing principle of the field, "the basic unity of mankind," would not be turned into an empty phrase.  To take the giant step away from a uniformitarian view of human nature is, so far as the study of man is concerned, to leave the Garden.  To entertain the idea that the diversity of custom across time and over space is not a mere matter of garb and appearance, of stage settings and comedic masques, is to entertain also the idea that humanity is as various in its essence as it is in its expression.  And with that reflection some well-fastened philosophical moorings are loosed and an uneasy drifting into perilous waters begins.

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