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Empirical Formalism

Abstract

The empirical status of formal systems of ideas is a crucial topic in the effort to establish a fully empirical anthropology. In anthropology, the dominant view of formal analysis, and the nature of formal structure, is derived from positivistic philosophy in general and logical positivism in particular. In this, "formal analysis" is identified with relationships that emerge from the imposition of arbitrary "analytic" categories on supposedly objective or external phenomena. The argument here is that this view is inherently flawed and such imposition is unnecessary. I describe an alternative and philosophically better grounded conception of form that sees it as non-arbitrary even though it is also necessarily conventional, and as something that can be elicited rather than something that must be imposed.

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