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The radical humanist

Clifford Geertz turned anthropology away from sociology and towards humanism

By Adam Kuper   December 2006

Clifford Geertz, who died last month at the age of 80 of complications following heart surgery, was perhaps the most celebrated anthropologist of a distinguished generation that included Ernest Gellner and Mary Douglas. However, Gellner and Douglas always regarded themselves as social scientists. Geertz switched sides and became the prophet of a radical new humanism.

Geertz began his professional career as a graduate student in an interdisciplinary social science programme that Talcott Parsons had set up at Harvard. Parsons elected anthropology to be the handmaiden of sociology. It should treat the collective ideas and values that Parsons called culture. After…

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