Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 3, Number 2


Book Review: The Human Enterprise

Ted Presley
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas

The Human Enterprise: A Critical Introduction to Anthropological Theory, by James Lett. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1987.

An adequate study of the human condition presents missiologists with the same problems anthropologists have struggled with for decades. A careful review of the abundance of paradigms, some more questionable than others, indicates that social scientists need larger doses of philosophy in their academic training. In The Human Enterprise, James Lett demonstrates a thorough working knowledge of philosophy and anthropology. Although his book contains relatively few pages, the author manages to reach out to different fields of intellectual endeavors, analyzes multiple, complex concepts, and skillfully draws them together into a few syntheses which can be grasped and utilized by most readers.

Before he examines various anthropological paradigms, Lett focuses first on the thorny question of epistemology. How do we know what we know? No researcher enters into a project or study without some theory based on certain assumptions about "reality." To contend for a theoretical research reveals illusions of the worst kind. Following Max Weber, Lett suggests that social scientists recognize their own assumptions and demonstrate epistemological responsibility as they examine various foundations of knowledge. Lett describes two classes: 1. foundations of knowledge which are not self-correcting (revelation, faith, intuition and consensus gentium) and 2. founda-tions of knowledge which are self-correcting (sense experience, logic and authority). Contrary to phenomenologists, Lett aligns himself with the tradition of scientific inquiry which assumes that there is an objective reality out there which can be investigated. He insists that propositional knowledge about the world can be obtained. Following Pelto and Pelto, he advocates the scientific criterion of falsifiability and, following Thomas Kuhn's seminal work, asserts that only commensurable paradigms can be effectively compared or contrasted.

In section two of his book, Lett takes a look at the anthropological perspective regarding scientific inquiry into the human condition. He recognizes the two basic schools of thought among social scientists: the rationalist or positivist which holds to the idea of an objective social science and the relativist which does not. As a rationalist, Lett sees two major concerns of humans: "...the maintenance of human life and the maintenance of human identity" (49). The first concern "...includes those activities that may be subsumed under the headings of subsistence, reproduction, health, and so on...human physical needs (which) are universally satisfied by cultural means" (49). The second concern "...involves such activities as art, music, and ritual, and it encompasses such issues as the formation of personality and the formulation of work view" (49). While both concerns are inextricably linked, Lett contends that for heuristic purposes, a researcher can focus on a problem that emphasizes one concern or the other. Lett shows how the researcher's definition of culture reveals a set of assumptions and suggests that one should carefully consider emic and etic aspects of cultural analysis.

After laying a solid philosophical foundation, Lett focuses parts three and four of The Human Enterprise on various paradigms used by anthropologists. He elaborates on three: 1. Marvin Harris' cultural materialism, 2. Levy-Strauss' brand of structuralism, and 3. Clifford Geertz's approach to symbolic anthropology. Lett favors cultural materialism as the most scientific of all paradigms but faults it for omitting "...the one universal predisposition that is quintessentially human, namely the fact that human beings are meaning-seeking, symbol-using animals" (96). Of course, this concept serves as the starting point for symbolic anthropologists. But, according to Lett, the latter have failed to develop "...explicit theoretical and methodological guidelines" (117). He further says that Levy-Strauss' approach may be useful in the study and classification of myths but that structuralism "...does not constitute a scientifically responsible form of inquiry" (109) since it relies on intuition. Lett's part four demonstrates the effectiveness of his philosophically guided approach to inquiry into the human condition. He shows how anthropologist "A" criticizes "B" for not considering "A's" problem and for not using "A's" paradigm. Of course, "B" responds in similar fashion. Lett concludes that both should realize that they are talking past each other since one investigates matters concerned with the maintenance of human life while the other investigates matters concerned with the maintenance of human identity; of necessity, their paradigms are incommensurable. For examples, he looks at Harris' "sacred cow" and George Foster's "image of limited good."

  Lett's work is invaluable for missiologists. His omission of Marxian anthropology is a serious flaw but a careful reading of Roger Keesing's "Anthropology as Interpretive Quest" (Current Anthropology: April 1987) should help fill in some of the gaps. Lett recognizes that "Anthropology is not the key to the puzzle of life (but) the anthropological approach is a uniquely and exceptionally valuable approach to understanding important dimensions of human life" (155). Here, missiologists should remember that a thorough understanding of the people with whom they work is a prerequisite to effective ministry.

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