Clifford Geertz, Anthropologist Extraordinary, Dies at 80

Clifford Geertz
To describe Clifford Geertz, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who died on Monday, October 30, 2006, at the age of 80, merely as an anthropologist, is like describing Leonardo da Vinci just as a painter. Not only during his education—first at Antioch College, where he migrated from an early interest in English literature to a degree in philosophy, and then at Harvard University, where he studied sociology and anthropology—but also in his polymathic scholarship, Clifford Geertz displayed a remarkable ability for weaving together multiple skills, disciplines, perspectives, and philosophies. In an increasingly segmented postmodern world of narrow intellectual specializations, Geertz was a Renaissance scholar who developed a truly interdisciplinary way of looking at other cultures even as he questioned the possibilities of doing so objectively.

In richly textured “thick descriptions” (a concept he persuasively introduced into study of cultures) leavened with a stylish literary sensibility, Geertz drew upon history, anthropological field work of the classic kind, and insightful perceptions of the practices of everyday life (cockfights in Bali, religious rituals in Morocco) to turn out several seminal books that profoundly influenced and inspired generations—not only of anthropologists but of historians and other students of human culture.

A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, Geertz also wrote sharp and witty critiques of other scholars’ work that sometimes provoked angry responses from some authors and readers.

In one such review of a book by Ernst Gombrich, the art historian who had died in 2001 at the age of 92, Clifford Geertz wrote that in Gombrich’s death, “it seemed as though not just an individual career but a whole movement of thought and sensibility had come to an end.” An eloquent and succinct epitaph, so apt for Geertz himself.

—PS

Read a detailed obituary on the web site of the Institute for Advanced Study.

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