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Needham’s review of Paul Veyne’s ‘Did the Greeks believe in their myths?’

This post is a continuation of my thoughts in my previous post

Now to Needham’s review of Veyne’s book. The review is short, and much is taken up with flattering comments on Veyne’s style, but overall the conclusion is negative—he characterises the argument as ‘erratic and inconsistent’. On my reading, Needham makes three substantive points, which I shall deal with one by one here in order of importance.

(1) The only criticism that really has bite is that Veyne is vague about what the key terms in his analysis—belief and truth—mean to him. Partly on the basis of Veyne’s previous work, Needham reads Did the Greeks…? as an exercise in epistemological relativism, and makes a version of the usual objection to the paradoxes of relativism: if truth is always to be defined in local terms, in relation to historically specific programmes of truth, as Veyne would have it, then what exactly does Veyne mean when he says, absolutely, and not qualified by any context, that truth is plural?

Needham writes:

As it turns out, Veyne actually concentrates not on belief but on truth, but only to place himself in a further difficulty. He concedes that ‘truth’ too means so many things, yet he passes over the variety of theories of truth and, in the end, commits himself consistently to none. The nearest he gets to a steady acceptance is to say that truths and interests, which are both limited and arbitrary, are ‘two different terms for the same thing’.

Needham is right to call Veyne out for not clarifying his terms, and attributing this weakness to strong epistemological relativism is not an unreasonable interpretation. However, I believe another reading is possible.

Veyne details the variety of ‘regimes of belief’ in terms of different truth conditions and specific practices, such as the use of footnotes in academic writing, with which they are associated. These things are the specific form that believing has, historically taken. But it is still possible to speak of believing in the abstract, as the category to which all these concrete modes of belief belong. What is it that makes the ordinary ancient Greek’s vague and lethargic belief in gods and heroes an instance of the same class of phenomenon as the mediaeval lawyer’s insistence on footnotes, and the modern newspaper reader’s suspicion of bias? They are all specifications of the practical and social relationship between thinker and what the thinker accepts as truth. To put it more pithily, belief is about a relationship to a body of truth.

I admit, it’s not clear from Veyne’s text that this is what he means by belief and truth, but it’s a reading that makes sense of his concrete claims, and saves his general conclusions from Needham’s anti-relativist criticism. Needham is right that Veyne is unclear on this score, and clarifying the meaning of the general category of belief, and of the general category of truth on which it depends will be an important task for any ethnographic approach to belief.

(2) He complains that Veyne, in seeking to understand belief, did not take into account the attempts of philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Hume, Kant, and so on to do the same thing.

These writers were engaged in what Veyne describes as an exercise of ‘the constitutive imagination’. Like the ancient and modern historians whom Veyne describes, they were engaged in shaping programmes of truth, legitimising some ‘regimes of belief’ and delegitimising others. They were not in the business of describing the plural programmes of truth of others, and they would only have had a place in the book alongside the mediaeval jurists and modern journalists that Veyne—as case studies of the kind of second-order belief theory and practice that Veyne is interested in describing.

In other words, Veyne is writing at a higher level of generalisation or abstraction than Kant et al., and for a different purpose. The philosophers’ question would not have been ‘Did the Greeks believe in their myths’, but the logically posterior question, ‘Were the Greeks right to (dis)believe in their myths?’, which is only meaningful once it is established whether or not (or to what extent, in what senses) they did, in fact, believe.

(3) Finally, Needham chides Veyne for not taking account of ‘sceptical anthropology’. He argues that ethnographers have succeeded in explaining the kinds god-language that Veyne’s question raises, but without resorting to the notion of belief. He concludes that these writers,

confirm that it is not ‘pointless’, as Veyne proposes, to try to determine the true thought of other peoples, but that we shall not do so if we attribute our thoughts to them.

No page references are given in the review, but thanks to Google, it is possible to trace the passage in Veyne’s book to which Needham refers. Needham suggests that Veyne says it’s pointless ‘…to determine the true thought of other peoples thought’. The ‘pointless’ here is taken out of context and is quite misleading. In fact, Veyne was not saying it was hopeless to try to understand ‘other people’s’ thought, but that when faced with contradictory forms of thought, one must recognise the plurality rather than trying to explain it away. The full passage reads as follows:

Struggling to determine ‘the’ true thought of these people is pointless, and it is equally unproductive to attempt to resolve these contradictory thoughts by attributing one to popular religion and the other to the beliefs of the privileged social classes. (Veyne 1988:89)

The sceptical approach that Needham recommends begins by setting aside the question of belief. It may have found other explanations for religious language, and they may be illuminating, but this approach cannot even recognise the plurality of modes of belief that Veyne draws our attention to and makes it his business to describe and understand.

In summary, then, Needham’s critical review does not persuade me that Veyne’s way of understanding belief is not a really critical piece in understanding human thought, though Needham is right to say that Veyne is vague about his key terms. They’re still arguing in my head and Veyne is still winning.



Needham, Rodney. ‘Reviewed Work: Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination. by Paul Veyne, transl. Paula Wissing’. Man (New Series), Vol. 25, No. 1 (Mar., 1990), pp. 157-158.

Veyne, Paul. Did the Greeks believe in their myths?: An essay on the constitutive imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Announcing: Ignorance Studies Listserv

see, hear, speak no evil, Chris Walkington


I’ve set up a JISCMail mailing list for discussion of the social scientific study of ignorance. The list will be publicly archived. To subscribe or contribute, click HERE.

Get in touch with me if you have any questions.

(The image above is ‘see, hear, speak no evil’ by Chris Walkington, and was the cover image we used for Anthropology of Ignorance.)

Speaking Ethically Across Borders Conference: Registration Open!

Registration is now open for the conference:

Speaking Ethically Across Borders: Interdisciplinary Approaches
8-10 January 2014
CRASSH, University of Cambridge

With lectures by: Michael Lambek (Toronto) and Simon Coleman (Toronto).

Including papers by: Michael Lempert (Michigan), John Marenbon (Cambridge), Carlo Severi (EHESS), Hallvard Lillehammer (Birbeck).
***For registration and further details: http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/25021 ***
***The Facebook page can be viewed here: https://www.facebook.com/events/341661642641952/ ***
Convenors: Jonathan Mair (jonathan.mair@manchester.ac.uk) and Nicholas Evans (ne228@cam.ac.uk)


Recent years have seen a dramatic growth in the study of ethics among social anthropologists. Much of this growth has been due to the assimilation into anthropological thinking of virtue ethics building on two streams of theoretical work: that of Foucault, and that of virtue ethicists working in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition. Proponents of the virtue-ethics approach in anthropology argue that a focus on self-cultivation as a process allows for sufficient attention to be paid to self-conscious reflection. Reflection and the freedom it entails, they argue, are essential aspects of ethical life that traditional social scientific approaches to ethics – Durkheimian approaches – simply ignore.

There appears to remain an area of ethical experience, however, that neither approach can easily accommodate. Since virtue ethics sees ethical judgment as the result of cultivation within a self-conscious ethical tradition, it can no more account for ethical judgment outside of or between traditions than the Durkheimian approach can. Yet history is full of situations in which multiple, self-conscious ethical traditions meet, and in which people try to judge each other, persuade each other, or draw lessons from each other across the borders that separate those traditions. These situations are what we call ‘speaking ethically across borders’, and this is the phenomenon that the conference will aim to explore.

In these situations, are people limited to using values with which they are already familiar to interpret and judge other values? Or can they genuinely learn from alternative ethical systems? If so, on what conditions does this process depend? Is the capacity for or disposition towards a cosmopolitan attitude to ethics itself a culturally specific norm or a virtue to be perfected, or is it a necessary aspect of ethical thought? Ethnographically speaking, how have people in fact used the intellectual resources provided by one ethical tradition to judge others? How have they sought to borrow from other traditions, or to persuade followers of other traditions to adopt novel values and practices? What meta-ethics have specific traditions proposed to govern the relationship of members of the tradition to the mores of other traditions?

Sponsored by: Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH); The Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge; St. John’s College, Cambridge; King’s College, Cambridge.

Cultures of Belief — post-print version of article

As promised, here’s a post-print version of my Cultures of Belief article, which was published in Anthropological Theory.


The text is identical to the journal version, but the formatting is different — this is the version I’m allowed to distribute according to the publishing agreement. If you have access to the journal, for example through a library, you can see a prettier version here.


Cultures of Belief – New paper out in Anthropological Theory

I’ve just had a new paper out in Anthropological Theory — this is behind a paywall, I’ll make a post-print version available through this website soon for those who don’t have access to the journal through an academic library.

The paper is titled ‘Cultures of ignorance’. In a nutshell, the argument is that academic students of religion have settled on a way of accounting for religious language and thought that distinguishes ordinary, everyday belief from religious belief. The former is understood to be literal and practical. The latter, by contrast, is taken to be indirect, metaphorical, symbolic, affective, moral and so on, and by implication not to be about propositional belief. Drawing on my own field research in northern China’s Inner Mongolia, I argue that there are ways of relating to a body of true knowledge that fit neither of these models. I argue that in order to understand what is going on in this situation and many others we need to develop an ethnographic sensibility to locally specific ‘cultures of belief’. To get this project off to a start, I suggest some initial building blocks for a general anthropology of belief, based on religious thought in ancient Greece, mediaeval Judaism, and contemporary US Evangelism.

Here’s the abstract:

In popular thought about the meaning of religion, as well as established debates in anthropology, religious belief is interpreted as either a commitment to a clear set of propositions, or as a non-literal, symbolic, ethical or social commitment. Anthropologists have tended to support the latter of these positions, so much so that this can now be seen as the ‘anthropological’ position; it is also characteristic of the view of scholars in related disciplines, such as religious studies. This article argues for a third possibility: that religious (and other) believers are often engaged in complex, reflexive practices that stipulate specific cognitive and non-cognitive relationships to propositional content. This is demonstrated with reference to contemporary Buddhism in Inner Mongolia, China. The author argues that the existence of such cultures of belief demonstrates there is a need for a systematic anthropological theory of belief and suggests some sources that may contribute to its formulation.


Mair, J., 2013. Cultures of belief. Anthropological Theory, 12(4), pp.448–466.

CRASSH Project: Speaking Ethically Across Borders

I am currently a research fellow at CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, at Cambridge University.

One of the things I’m working on is an interdisciplinary project on ‘Speaking Ethically Across Borders’. Right now I’m planning a reading group on the topic for next term. The outline is below, together with some sample readings. If anyone has any suggestions for good readings on this theme, from any discipline, please let me know by email or in the comments below. Thanks!

Incidentally, this is related to my last post: the conversations I am interested in for this project could be seen as self-conscious attempts to overcome potential conversations at cross-purposes.

Speaking ethically across borders

A conversation between Western Christendom and the Mongol Empire:
Pope Innocent IV sends a mission to Central Asia, carrying one of a series of letters that were exchanged between the pontiffs and the Mongol khans in the thirteenth century. (Source: Wikipedia)


GDAT 2012: Debating “neoliberalism”

GDAT 2012 panel and chair, 1 December
Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, University of Manchester, 1 December 2012. (L-R) James Laidlaw, Soumhya Venkatesan, Keir Martin, Jonathan Mair, Thomas Hylland Eriksen

On Saturday I had the pleasure of taking part in GDAT, an annual debate on anthropological theory hosted by Manchester University. GDAT, the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, was started in the late 80s by Tim Ingold, and has been organized and chaired more recently by Soumhya Venkatesan. This was the third GDAT I have attended and I think it’s a brilliant institution. People come from all over the country, and the discussion is always highly engaged and critical in the best sense.

This year’s motion was: The concept of neoliberalism has become an obstacle to the anthropological understanding of the twenty-first century. James Laidlaw was proposing, I seconded, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Keir Martin opposed.


Cultures of Ignorance: CFP, 17th World Congress of the IUAES, Manchester 2013

17th World Congress of the IUAES

Jenny Diggins (Sussex) and I have just issued the following call for papers for a panel on the anthropology of ignorance, to be held at the IUAES Congress in Manchester next summer. Feel free to get in touch if you’re considering submitting a proposal but want to discuss it first. 


Call for Papers at the IUAES Congress, at the University of Manchester, 5th-10th August 2013

Panel Title :  Cultures of Ignorance

Deadline for abstracts : 13th July 2012


US Discount flyer for Anthropology of Ignorance

A 20% discount flyer for The Anthropology of Ignorance valid for purchases from Palgrave USA (but not from the UK Palgrave—sorry!) can be downloaded using the link below:

High, Kelly, and Mair (eds.) 2012. The Anthropology of Ignorance: An Ethnographic Approach—flyer

The Anthropology of Ignorance

High, C., A. Kelly & J. Mair (2012). The Anthropology of Ignorance: An Ethnographic Approach

High, C., Kelly, A., Mair, J. (eds.) 2012. The Anthropology of Ignorance: An Ethnographic Approach. New York & Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

A new volume on the anthropology of ignorance, which I edited with Casey High and Ann Kelly, came out last week with Palgrave. I’m really pleased with the finished product, and that’s all down to the contributors who have produced some excellent chapters…and stuck to all the deadlines—many thanks to all of you!