Knowing human moral knowledge to be true: an essay on intellectual conviction


941 SWKT Anthropology Department, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602-5522 USA,


The question addressed in this article is how people come to know the foundational axioms of their moral systems as true and correct. Drawing on my fieldwork among the Himba of northwestern Namibia, I argue that the most potent form of intellectual conviction is not generated through the external manipulations of ritual, but through a deeply internal experience in which moral knowledge coalesces with a subjectively perceived experience of timeless universality.

Culture is not life in its entirety, but just the moment of security, strength, and clarity.

José Ortega y Gasset

In mid-1991, a man called Vita, a Himba cattle-herder living in northwestern Namibia, sent his son to ask me to examine his young daughter who was suffering from an ear infection that had spread to her jaw and chin. It was an unusual illness, Vita said, because his other children had had this before, but it had always begun to clear within seven or eight days. Twice that many days had passed, and instead of the expected recovery, the sickness appeared to be worsening. I suggested that he take the toddler to the nearest clinic (about a day's walk), and Vita put his wife and daughter on a donkey and departed. After several days at the clinic, the infection was under control and the girl was improving. Because of the unusual nature of the illness, Vita felt that he ought to contact a diviner to ascertain its cause. He sought out a man with a solid reputation who gave him a convincing diagnosis. A person whom Vita had known in the past, a man of about his own age, was angry and envious of him, and was using omiti (a malicious power) to harm Vita. Instead of harming Vita directly, this man sought to take the life of Vita's daughter, as this would cause him an immense amount of grief. Vita's wife was an unwitting participant in this because the omiti had entered the girl's body through her breast milk; thus she would have to cease breast-feeding immediately. Vita's ancestors were standing ready to deflect the course of the omiti if he would simply offer them a sacrifice. This Vita did, following the prescribed pattern of action, and his daughter made a full recovery.

I draw on this incident as it provides a concrete illustration of a Himba individual's strong commitment to the essential correctness of a particular body of knowledge. Then, as now, Vita was a man of only moderate cattle wealth, but he was widely known among his peers as a wise and intelligent person. His commitment to the correctness of Himba knowledge was emphatically not a matter of blind, unthinking conviction but was instead a matter of active, deliberate, anticipatory, and, to some degree, idiosyncratic thought. Yet how did Vita come to know the foundational ideas of Himba reality to be true? For that matter, how does anyone come to know1 that the fundamental tenets of his or her cosmology, world-view, and life way (‘traditional’, post-modern, scientific, or otherwise) are authentic and valid?

As anthropologists, our fieldwork brings us face to face with people who know all sorts of things to be true, things that we classify as lying far beyond our personal experience; still, a knowledge of the veracity of one's moral reality is something that all people require, since such knowledge constitutes a major core of one's identity. Such knowledge is also the source from which one derives that critical sense of constancy or anchorage amid the flux and flow of life. This is a constancy in the form of interpretative knowledge. That individual human beings claim to know particular understandings of the world to be true is clear and quite beyond dispute; so too is the fact (to which any fieldworking anthropologist can attest) that many people possess more than just a working apprehension of their reality, indeed, that many persons are convinced of its correctness. As Evans-Pritchard (1976: 18-32) observed among the Azande, no matter how much he refuted the tenets of Zande reality, their confidence in its truthfulness never waned. Zande conviction is no exception; rather, it underscores a general rule.

My intention here is to explore the nature of intellectual conviction, focusing in particular on the question of how people come to ‘know’ with conviction that particular conceptions about the world are true. I address this issue by seeking to identify the processes by which one may gain a subjective, yet thoroughly ‘convictive’ knowledge. The study of human knowledge, especially moral knowledge, has a longstanding tradition within anthropology. The rational or irrational nature of ‘primitive thinking’ was a topic of heated debate for Tyler, Frazer, Durkheim, and Lévy-Bruhl, and there is still much interest in this subject (e.g. Hallpike 1979; Hollis & Lukes 1982; Lévi-Strauss 1966; Overing 1985). Many fine portrayals of ‘collective thought’ and human experience – reflecting various theoretical perspectives (e.g. Barnes 1974; Beidelman 1986; Howell 1997; James 1988; Lienhardt 1961; Middleton 1960; Strathern 1995) – have given rise to a vast literature on the topic. That humans ‘know’ the truth of their fundamental propositions about the world is so widely assumed in ethnographic texts that it hardly warrants further mention. Yet how this ‘knowing’ actually occurs remains a surprisingly neglected topic. As Needham observes, intellectual and ideological commitment and conversion (which in his view are not to be exclusively connected to religion, since they are fully independent of the actual objects of thought) have received so little attention that the processes whereby they are generated remain ‘almost wholly obscure’ (1981: 80).

This is not to imply that people unthinkingly live and act according to (or against) cultural ideas which have somehow lodged themselves in their brains. On the contrary, most of these authors suggest that people arrive at particular convictions through experience, and that these conviction-generating experiences take two principal forms: one is ritual, and the other is the application of knowledge to practice. Borofsky takes this practical line in documenting how, in the creation of their own history, Pukapukans evaluate the veracity of oral accounts by considering a number of factors. These include the standing, reputation, and pedigree of the orators in question, and also the splendour of their display of knowledge, and their ease within a group. They also take note of how well the orator's ideas square with their own knowledge and experience, and, finally, to some extent, there is an element of personal intuition: a hunch or gut feeling (Borofsky 1987: 108-22). The practical explicitness of Borofsky contrasts with the more commonly used approach taken by Lambek in an essay on ideological certainty in the context of global knowledge impinging on local knowledge:

The profoundest moments of certainty may occur when embodied and objectified knowledge are mutually enhancing, exhilarating in the mystical peaks of the Sufi dance, or painful in the depths of anorexia. Most of the time we are caught in the flux between, in the uncertainties left us by the incommensurability of things but also in the space for movement this provides (1995: 276).

Lambek's description of the embodied agent gaining intellectual certainty – albeit on a temporary basis (which certainly reflects post-modern sentiments) – is founded in his endorsement of Rappaport's argument that ‘certainty is the product of acts of commitment in which the discursive and the non-discursive are conjoined’ (Lambek 1995: 276), the venue for which is ritual (Rappaport 1979: 173-221).

No doubt confirmatory experience of the kinds described by Borofsky and Lambek may play a role in the generation of convictive knowledge. But it must also be recognized that in applying knowledge or principles to practice (as in the experience of Vita), a significant percentage of cases will fail to achieve the desired result. And what then? Do people lose heart and abandon ‘time-honoured’ principles? Most ethnography, my own included, indicates that a significant number of non-confirmatory counter-experiences need not necessarily undermine a particular belief or conviction (a point that Kuhn makes [1964: 52-65] in regard to cases of scientific experiments yielding unexpected and unwanted results). Thus conviction that is rooted solely in the external manipulations of ritual or in the experience of lived reality (which may not yield anything more than a simple majority of positive experiences, as opposed to negative or disproving ones) surely cannot be a mechanism for the generation of really strong and enduring convictions.

I acknowledge that human beings are not uniformly strong in their convictions, that moral realities can be changed, and that multiple pathways to differing intensities of conviction can and do exist. Yet I still argue that the strongest form of ‘knowing’ that the ethereal ideas of a human imaginary world are true and authentic takes the form of a common experiential context for which Gell uses the term ‘epiphany’ (1992: 314) – a term more-or-less identical to standard philosophical definitions of intuition (see Audi 1995: 382). Following Kierkegaard's work on human knowing, for gell epiphanies are the most potent form of subjective knowledge. They arise in both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances

during which the world suddenly appears reordered and revalued … [not because of] disturbances in the logic that governs ordinary experience … but from our reveries of the real, the rational, the practical, which are full of surprises … [and allow us] to be in a position to see what there is to be seen (Gell 1992: 314).

I contend that no other way of coming to ‘know’ something to be the case is as powerfully convictive as that of the common epiphany. I also see this as something that is experienced universally.

Working within the ethnographic context of the Himba of northwestern Namibia, I argue that in general discourse and thought people routinely express – implicitly or explicitly – a knowledge of certain ideas as being true, and that in discourse and action people demonstrate commitment (often genuine) to the correctness of those ideas. Further, I argue that the human mind universally generates specific conceptions or senses of time – in particular, one for which Cassirer (1944) deploys the term universality – which lie at the heart of the experience of human knowing.

Himba overview, moral world and expressions of knowing

The Himba are a pastoral, Herero-speaking people numbering about 16,000 and residing in the northwestern corner of Namibia and adjacent portions of Angola. Their region, Kaokoland, is a rugged territory of some 20,000 square kilometres. To the east, Kaokoland reaches an elevation of about 1,500 metres and gently declines through mountain ranges and the Namib Desert to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The landscape of central Kaokoland, where I did my fieldwork, is hilly and broken, with mountains and low-rising hills creating latitudinal valleys of perhaps 15 kilometres in length and about half that distance in width. Valley floors are semi-arid savannah and scrub woodland, with widely criss-crossing seasonal rivers. Many sheep, and even larger numbers of goats, are herded, though Himba men think of themselves primarily as cattle-herders. They graze their stock in rainy- and dry-season pastures, and, after the rains have restored the grasses around the permanent valley homesteads, the livestock return from dry-season grazing, leaving again for mountain pastures once the valley grasses have been exhausted. Maize is intensively cultivated during the rainy season, and, though nutritionally the most important food in their diet, it occupies a lowly status within a food hierarchy of meat, milk, and maize (see Crandall 1992).

Himba recognize full double unilineal descent and the two lines of descent establish social, economic, and moral/ritual identity. Matrilineal descent confers rights to an inheritance of the majority of wealth in livestock and all non-consecrated, non-sacred possessions, as well as long-ranging kinship ties within the whole of Himba society, even branching out to several neighbouring peoples with whom they share matriclans (Herero, Hakavona, Ngambwe). Patrilineal kinship is sharply focused in terms of exclusion and belonging to corporate patrilineal segments. Membership in a patri-segment grants one access to God (Mukuru), to patri-ancestors specific to oneself (who bless and curse one), to manhood, to womanhood, to a mature position within the conceived order of things, and to sacred cattle and other ritually charged objects (see Crandall 1998). Milk from sacred cattle may only be drunk by direct patrilineal descendants of the men represented by the cattle, and even then only after the fire-keeper has ceremonially removed any potential harm. Himba patriclans have restrictions against eating the flesh of domestic livestock whose horns or lack of horns, or whose colour or colour combinations, mark the beasts as tabooed. Nearly every patriclan prohibits the consumption of particular body parts – the heart, lungs, and so on (see Malan 1973: 93-5).

In Otutati, the area where I began doing fieldwork in 1990, about forty-five homesteads lay dispersed within a radius of 7 or 8 kilometres. Until his death in 1994, Otutati was the seat of the great headman, Wamesepa Ngombe, whose livestock numbered in the thousands. Many of the people of the area lived from his flocks and herds, and his homestead – which included a number of satellite homesteads – housed dozens of his patri-kinsmen, and an almost equal number of his matrikin, many of whom have since moved away because of difficulties with his matrilineal successor.

Wamesepa's homestead had the circular layout that is typical among the Himba, with livestock enclosures at the centre and an ancestral fire affording the protection of God and the ancestors (see Crandall 1996) situated several paces to the east of the enclosure. As the eldest living male of his patri-segment, Wamesepa acted as fire-keeper, and represented the members of his patri-segment before God and the ancestors by speaking with the latter every five or six days. Though there was a heavy concentration of Wamesepa's kinsmen following rules of patrilocal or secondary matrilocal residence (that is, brothers living together in the homestead of their MB and using the latter's flocks and herds), land was not then, nor is it now, controlled by descent corporations. Dating back to at least the 1940s, at a time when the region was under South African governance, Kaokoland was divided into wards with elected headmen, and there continues to be freedom of movement and land-use provided that the men of a ward see no problems arising from a newcomer's use of the ward's natural resources.

At an abstract level, the Himba moral world coheres quite well. There is a degree of idiosyncratic understanding, but these all have a definite ‘family resemblance’. At the level of individual experience, sometimes the moral world coheres well, while at other times experience raises difficult contradictions. Mukuru (God), the most powerful being in the universe, presides over the world and occasionally intervenes in human affairs. He is credited with being ‘only good, that he only blesses and never curses his children.’ But he is a distant god with many things to oversee and has given the ancestors powers to interpose in the lives of their living kinsmen. Ancestors both curse and bless their kinsmen. They do not do so capriciously, though there is some uncertainty about what the distinction might actually be between a capricious and an uncapricious act on the part of the ancestors. It is agreed however that it is the duty of one's ancestors to uphold strict relations between living and deceased, and to correct those who are negligent in their duties (see Crandall 1991). But in the course of thirteen years of fieldwork I have found that a significant change has been taking place in people's understanding of suffering and illness. Where once the burden of responsibility was held to rest primarily with the suffering person, misfortune is now increasingly accounted for in terms of the actions of a jealous ‘other.’ Himba receive their explanations of misfortune in the form of divinations performed by non-Himba practitioners. I am therefore uncertain as to whether it is the diviners themselves who are responsible for this shift in local notions of accountability. It may be instead that the diviners are actually participants in a much wider trend towards this kind of world-view. Himba still regard their ancestors as the protectors of their living descendants, though there has been a slight weakening of this idea; but since the world contains omiti, various wandering spirits, and other powers that exist as part of nature, human beings require their help in subduing them. Such forces are considered to be inferior to the powers of the ancestors, which, in turn, are subordinate to the power of Mukuru.

Since their everyday lived reality is informed by worries about the malicious use of omiti (medicine) by envious ‘others’ to strike one with illness, as well as fears of ancestral cursings for infractions of the moral code, Himba routinely follow important prescriptions and proscriptions. Bodily products (hair, nail-parings, faeces, umbilical cords, placentas) are disposed of in secret, lest they be used to strike one with mortal illness. The names of one's own patri-ancestors are never spoken; nor are the words for male and female genitalia. Specific areas of one's homestead are deemed sacred and must be respected; correct procedures for consuming meat and milk from ancestral cattle must be precisely followed. Graveyards should be avoided, and there are codes of linguistic and bodily respect for parents and elders to be followed. Ritual cleansing must be performed following attendance at funerals, as well as on the birth of twins, and after contact with a bride during the period when she has been released from the protection of her father's ancestors but not yet joined to that of her husband. These are only a few examples from a much lengthier catalogue of moral practices that bespeak a common moral knowledge requiring practical commitment – though simply following these injunctions hardly ensures an uncomplicated moral experience.

Towards the end of the year 1990, a man named Masutwa took his wife to a regional clinic because she had been suffering from a persistent eye infection. Her eye was healed, but once she returned Masutwa hired a diviner to advise him on how to settle the problem. The diviner slaughtered and disembowelled a goat, and from his reading of the intestines determined the ultimate cause of the infection: the use of omiti by a man who was envious of Masutwa's prosperous and untroubled life. Masutwa was instructed to seek the ancestors’ help through the enactment of a sacrifice and his wife was then completely healed.

Both of these stories involved simple and straightforward experiences which show very clearly how uncertainty about the source of unusual illness is normally dealt with, that is, through a process of putting existing knowledge into practice. But according to my informal survey data, positive results are experienced in many but not all cases; every Himba I know well has had many counter-experiences, situations in which prescriptions were followed without a satisfactory result. Contrary experiences may result in troubling paradoxes in moral understanding which are seldom resolved at the level of personal experience. Consider the following examples.

In 1991, a recently married Himba woman named Penguka suffered from a recurring illness. Diviners variously determined both ancestors and omiti to be the cause, but none of their suggested treatments helped. Eventually, she was diagnosed by an Angolan woman as suffering from an ondundu spirit, these being spirits whom Himba believe to have come to Kaokoland with the Hakavona, an Angolan people living as a tiny minority among the Himba. Several days after Penguka's exorcism, I listened as a group of men informally discussed the incident. They agreed the spirits were real, that they had been brought to the Himba by non-Himba, that it was possible for a woman to make herself vulnerable to possession, and that non-Himba diviners profited handsomely because of the spirits, but the primary dilemma centred on why if was necessary for a Hakavona exorcist to perform this task, that is, why Mukuru and the ancestors seemed unable to do it.

‘I don’t understand why Mukuru and our ancestors can’t drive them from us. Are the Hakavona healers more powerful than our fathers?’

‘I think Mukuru could drive out the spirits if he wished to,’ [Kavetonwa] responded. ‘But it seems he does not. And this, for me, is the true question: Why should Mukuru refuse to help us?

‘… I must say, I have no true answer to this question, only a thought. … I’ve known Francisco [a Hakavona man] for many years and I think he's a good man. Many of his kinsmen are also good people, but their spirits are evil, their intentions are evil, unlike the intentions of our fathers. I think we must be careful not to adopt Hakavona customs; let them live their lives and let us live our lives. It's when we turn from our ways to pursue the ways of the Hakavona or Vombo that we have trouble. When we follow their ways, we cannot rely on our ways to release us from that trouble’ (Crandall 2000: 183-5).

When an adult dies, no matter how ancient or debilitated, it is always the work of omiti. Once the funeral and burial are complete, a close relative or family friend contacts a diviner of sound repute to determine who it is that was responsible for the death. It is not necessary to confront the responsible person, though this sometimes happens, but it is essential that the deceased's relatives, especially patrilineal relatives, know the culprit's identity; otherwise, the deceased will torment his or her kinsmen until this is done.

In 1998, the mother of a highly respected headman called Wandisa died under tragic circumstances. As the old woman retired to her hut, she brought a few coals indoors and placed them on the hearth. During the night, the roof caught fire and she perished in the flames. Wandisa was deeply troubled by his mother's death and asked his FBS and FZS to look into the matter. They hired a highly respected diviner whose revelation was so disturbing that they sought another practitioner. The second diviner arrived independently at the same conclusion as the first: Wandisa had used omiti to strike his mother dead. The divination made no sense to the FBS, and while the dozens of other people who knew about the revelations did not express any doubts about the revelatory process itself, they were deeply perplexed about the content of these particular divinations, since they contradicted everything they knew and had experienced in their dealings with Wandisa over many years. On my most recent visit to the Himba in 2003, the matter remained unfathomable, and the local community is divided between those who accept and those who do not accept the diviners’ words.

These examples illustrate that in thought, word, and deed, Himba express a deep and enduring conviction about the validity of their worldview and its core axioms, even in the face of troubling experiences for which their moral reasoning offers no adequate guidance. Himba routinely ask one another how or why they know something to be the case when practical information must be confirmed. But receiving answers to the question of how one knows something to be the case in relation to foundational knowledge is difficult because such matters are normally regarded as private. Clearly articulated expressions of the hows and whys of knowing are not part of everyday Himba conversation, though in personal narratives Himba do recount experiences involving Mukuru, ancestors, and powerful medicines.

Himba respond to questions about the surety of one's knowledge of foundational posits (ancestors, omiti, moral or behavioural axioms) with phrases such as ‘this is what we think’, ‘my father told me of these things’, ‘this is what we’re taught’, and, ‘this is how we’ve always done it’– simple appeals to a common sense founded in the authority of the antique and the habitual. But the habitual character of Himba interaction with Mukuru, ancestors, omiti, and so on, through routinized observances lacks any obvious, forceful intellectual engagement.

A sense of certainty about the truth of one's foundational knowledge, as I encountered it among the Himba (and as I also believe it to exist in many if not most other contexts), is not something that derives solely from the testing of that knowledge against the experiences of everyday life, but must also be anchored in a deeply subjective conviction of that knowledge's correctness. Indeed, the tenacity with which many Himba cling to their foundational ideas is remarkable, especially since every Himba adult whom I know well has experienced the silence of the ancestors on many occasions yet continues to know that ancestors respond affirmatively when sincerely petitioned for help. This is not attributable to the impression that one's own experience is somehow out of step with common experience. ‘I say, sometimes my ancestors have helped me,’ a middle-aged man named Mbitjitwa told me, ‘other times they have not. I don’t understand the difference – why they should now, but not then. I’ve heard this from others as well.’

Consider the following phrases (gathered in the course of collecting life histories) that evince a species of knowing that is not generated from the practice of everyday life:

(From a middle-aged woman reflecting on her husband's illness and death of the previous year, 1995.) ‘At last I was able to see (tara) things clearly and know my fathers’ [ancestors’] will.’

(From an older man named Kavitonwa speaking of his knowledge of why it is dangerous for Himba to become involved with Angolan spirit possession cults that rely on diviners rather than ancestors for healing, 1996.) ‘Because the ancestors have made it clear to me … my otjiuru [head, mind, seat of cognition] finally knew what it meant.’

(From Watumba, a woman in late middle age, explaining the basis of her knowledge that Mukuru and the ancestors are real, 1991.) ‘It was spoken in my ears and inside my body, it was strong, it was powerful, and then I knew (tjiwa) Mukuru and the ancestors watch over me.’

(Wakamburwa, a mother of four children, explaining how she came to know of the ancestors’ protection, 1990.) ‘Mukuru whispered it in my mind, I don’t know how, but my thoughts were clear and this is how I learned. I had known it from others, but not of myself.’

At the very least, these admittedly anecdotal phrases suggest different ways of speaking about the basis of knowing; but in fact I contend that they also refer to differences in the ways in which knowledge is known to be true and authentic. To give substance to this contention, I offer three examples drawn from personal narratives in which the speaker recounts how he or she came to know the truth of some tenet of the imagined moral world.

From Kavetonwa Muhenje, 1991. In this narrative Kavetonwa, a very elderly man, recounts a conversation with his father about why he had designated Wamesepa Ngombe, rather than one of his own sons, to succeed him as headman. Kavetonwa's father told his son that a headman must be a muhona, a superior man, a man who possesses many of the attributes which Himba ascribe to Mukuru (god), and that he, Kavetonwa, at this point in his life, was about as far as one could be from a superior man. Here, Kavetonwa explains how he came to finally understand his father's words.

‘I followed him back to the homestead without exchanging a word, confused, mulling over in my mind the things he’d said. It was a long time, though, before I understood his intentions. When this happened I was young and inexperienced, but now I’m an old man and somewhat wise to the ways of human beings, and I tend to see things as my father saw them. It took me a long time to begin to understand the world the way my father did. My heart wasn’t ready because I wasn’t a very good man back then. Even after I’d grown and changed, I only accepted my father's words with reluctance. He died, and then I began helping Wamesepa [the successor] as a counsellor. By then I was no longer bitter about things and could even see the value of my father's wisdom. But it wasn’t until he placed a true understanding in my heart that I knew his decisions were the will of the fathers [ancestors] and Mukuru. For me, this was like two different days. The first day I couldn’t really understand, but the second day my heart understood things properly, I could clearly see the meaning of my father's words and I knew they were correct. It was a very strong understanding that was placed in my heart.’

From Watuwamo, 1990. Here, Watuwamo, a middle-aged woman, explains how difficult it was for her as a second wife to show proper respect to her husband's first wife, especially since Watuwamo's marriage was arranged and enacted without the knowledge of the first wife, but how she finally came to terms with it all.

‘I am my husband's second wife … His first wife never gave him children; after a time, he decided to take another wife … We went to my father's fire and then began the journey to my husband's homestead. When we arrived there, there was no greeting, and it looked as if nothing had been made ready for us to go to my husband's fire. When we entered the homestead, my husband's first wife did not greet me. She looked angry … This women never showed me any respect. When gossip came back to me, she always spoke of me with contempt – as one might speak of a very naughty adolescent.

I gave birth to our first child, a son, and still she showed me no respect … I never spoke a mean word against her, except sometimes privately with my husband, and I began to think, “What's this? Why must I show respect to a woman who abuses me and speaks shameful things about me to other people?” I just wondered why I should continue doing what I had been taught, when all of that seemed to do nothing to lift this woman's heart … Even though I was outwardly respectful, inside my head I was angry and disrespectful. I wanted to abuse her the way she had been abusing me all these years. It was now the rainy season and I was working in my garden, just hoeing the weeds away from the young stalks of maize. It was then Mukuru whispered in my ears that I must still show this woman respect, even greater respect. It was not something I heard with my ears but something I heard only with my head and my heart. It was very strong, and I could not dismiss it as my own thoughts – because they were not thoughts I wanted to hear. My heart told me it was right, and I began showing my husband's first wife even greater respect … we’re on good terms now; it's no longer difficult to speak to her, and I think her respect for me is genuine.’

From Kuwiya, 1990. Here Kuwiya, a man in his mid-30s, recounts the aftermath of an adulterous affair he had while looking after his mother during her hospitalization in Windhoek, the capital city. Though adultery is known to be morally wrong (transgressors can actually be prosecuted in a headman's court and a heavy fine exacted), many Himba casually accept adultery as an unavoidable or even desirable fact of life.

‘When my mother was well, I took her home and then returned to Otutati. As soon as I walked into my homestead my heart became heavy, like a great stone. It hurt me, and my eyes looked with sadness at everything I did. Day after day, my heart and chest were heavy yet I couldn’t understand why. I kept asking myself, “What's this hurting me? Why must I feel so heavy?” But at last I understood: it was Mukuru. I had followed my mind instead of my heart … But I didn’t know how to make my heart light again …

‘Then one day I could endure no more and sent everyone away. I told my wives I was ill and they must tend the animals and take the children with them. After they had gone, I closed the door to my house and barred it from the inside. I stood like a man at the fire and asked Mukuru and my fathers to hear my words even though I was going about it the wrong way. I told them about my heavy heart – that I knew they were cursing me and why. I said I would never take another man's wife and asked them to lift the sickness from me. Many times I repeated myself, and when I finished, I opened the door and walked to the groves. As I walked along, I could feel my heart becoming lighter and lighter as the sickness was taken from me; and I thanked Mukuru. That is my story’ (Crandall 2000: 126-8).

The distinct mode of knowing described in these narratives is fundamentally different from that derived from the habitual, repetitive nature of social life – though this latter mode may also be present. Kuwiya, from the third narrative, later explained the process of knowing as follows:

‘It's not easy to explain this … because the way my mind thinks is not like a tree or a stone, it's not something I can see. My mind was thinking in one way … and then it changed and I was able to see my whole problem. Then I knew why what I did was wrong and that my fathers’ [ancestors’] anger was correct. Mukuru helped me to see something I’d never bothered to see before.’

This description of coming to know that something is true and valid follows a simple pattern that is discernable in many accounts that I have collected from Himba. A discussion or problem or experience provokes one to give thought to some matter, but not incessantly; the whole process may last for a period ranging from a few days to several months. The accounts also indicate that coming to know is not necessarily coterminous with thinking, and that knowing often occurs when the person's mind is not fully absorbed in the matter. Also, different people who know a certain thing to be the case may have different understandings of that particular thing. Finally, coming to know something to be the case in this manner is an infrequent occurrence in the life of any one person.

Knowing and subjective experience

The proposition that human moral and ethical knowledge can only be known to be true and valid through individual subjective experience will present few problems to those who are in sympathy with current theoretical perspectives favouring actor/agent-centred analysis. Yet there have been few if any attempts to explain precisely how such convictions are achieved and experienced. One is merely expected to assume that this is what does indeed take place. It might be tempting to follow Turner (1964: 4-20), Geertz (1973: 109-19), and Rappaport (1979: 173-219) in suggesting that the acquisition of convictive knowledge of one's moral reality is a process deriving largely or exclusively from the ritual arena, and especially from moments of ritual liminality. But I do not find this a convincing approach, especially as these authors offer little if any evidence in support of their claims. I suggest that the intellectually transformative capacities of ritual liminality are greatly exaggerated and function as a convenient anthropological fiction. Liminality may be the prime venue for dispensing moral knowledge, but ritual is a process of external manipulation, while subjective conviction is deeply internal. Only on the odd occasion are the two likely to coincide. This assertion is well expressed by a Maasai father who informs his son, after the latter's circumcision, that manhood is more than circumcision, ‘it is a heavy load on your shoulders and especially a burden on the mind’ (Saitoti 1986: 67). The man breaks off the conversation, sensing that his son cannot understand what he means; in the course of time, however, his words, along with the symbols of circumcision, do transform his son's understanding of life, but not within a ritual context. I suspect that this is more the rule than the exception and that if one is interested in the process of human knowing, one must look beyond ritual.

Evans-Pritchard's (1976) response to the claims made by an earlier generation of anthropologists (such as Frazer and Levy-Bruhl) about the pre-logical mentality of ‘primitives’ is that, although witchcraft, divinatory, and magical powers are patently unreal, Zande thought is none the less perfectly logical. By this he meant that, based on the fundamental assumptions about the world which Zande accept as true, their thinking, their reasoning, and the conclusions which they draw are logically consistent with those fundamental axioms (see also Favret-Saada 1980). His assessment finds no fault with the intellectual process of connecting foundational ideas to the events of everyday life and interpreting these events in light of those ideas; instead, he questions the final veracity of their foundational ideas. Thirty years later, Peter Winch (1970) challenged this claim by demanding legitimate and conclusive proof that there are no such things as witchcraft, benge oracles, and magic. Simply thinking (or ‘knowing internally’) that such things are nonsense does not constitute proper evidence that the fundamental tenets of Zande reality are false. For Winch, the core ideas upon which Zande reality (and thinking) stands are not capable of verification or falsification – they simply are.

I refer to this exchange because it captures a paramount feature of human knowledge: all human thought, knowledge, and thinking – regardless of domain – is ultimately grounded in a few basic assumptions, axioms, or propositions about the nature of reality and human life, whose final truth value may well be indeterminate (see Kuhn 1964). Notwithstanding Winch's contention, not only are fundamental propositions accepted and used as if they are veritably true, but people frequently make claims of knowing the ‘unknowable’ to be true. The Zande know witchcraft to be a fact, Himba know omiti exists, Evans-Pritchard knows the scientific world view to be true and legitimate, and Peter Winch appears to know his own theoretical stance to be correct. But how can people know the ‘unknowable’ to be true?

To recognize this structural feature in the thought patterns of other peoples is simple, but it is something else altogether to turn it on ourselves and conclude that our own reality rests on fundamental axioms which are also indeterminate in nature, and for which no absolute or compelling truth value can be established. We too are deeply committed to ideas which we cannot prove to be true, either through reason or empirical evidence. Karl Popper unwittingly touched a raw nerve among scientists when he said, with reference to some of the leading Darwinists of his time, that even some of these distinguished scientists reduce the foundational axiom of Darwinism to a mere tautology, ‘that those organisms that leave the most offspring leave the most offspring’ (see Popper 1983: 242). For this observation, he was castigated by many Western Scientists because, as in any social group, its members found it hard to tolerate the idea that their most cherished theories rested on uncertain foundations.2 Tautologies may be logically meaningless and prove nothing, yet they function as core axioms that must be accepted as they are. Once accepted, axioms form powerful frameworks which people conceive to be self-evidently correct. Though interpretation is read into the nature of things – and into one's own experience – the thinking subject conceives it to be read out of the nature of things, as if the framework were somehow organically part of the world, immanently displayed for anyone to see. Once firmly ensconced, it is difficult to see one's framework as just another framework among many because it has become the only conceivable framework for one's experience, and one simply knows it to be true and binding. The irreducible and unverifiable nature of axioms means that the foundations of Darwinism are no stronger or weaker than Zande reality, though the finest current popularizers of Darwinism – Dawkins, Gould, Ridley, and Wilson – seem unperturbed by this. The often-evangelical tone of their writings admits of no doubt whatsoever; yet how can they be so certain, so self-assured about a paradigm whose axioms are unverifiable?3

In directing these queries specifically to the subject of human moral knowledge, I wish to draw upon several of Kierkegaard's mature themes – belief, subjectivity, inwardness, and the truth of subjectivity – to develop a context for understanding the process of human knowing, a process in which the level and strength of conviction, and the final experience of ‘certain knowledge’, grow increasingly intense as the act of ‘knowing’ passes from a predominantly social sphere to the province of the deeply internal and personal. It is my contention that, as the experience of knowing leaves behind the lingering traces of the social and moves steadily inward toward the personal and internal (the context of Gell's epiphany), the stronger becomes the internal conviction of truly knowing something to be the case. Though Kierkegaard developed his ideas at a time and context and for purposes very different from mine, I find his characterizations of different types of human knowing and their consequent effects to be both evocative and useful.

Emerging from his critiques (scattered throughout Philosophical fragments (1985) and Concluding unscientific postscript (1941)) of the most influential philosophers of his time, and most notably in his challenge to Hegel, is Kierkegaard's rejection of the notion of some metaphysical entity guiding every event in history towards a predetermined and necessary end. Kierkegaard's position (similar to Tolstoy's in War and peace) is that history is not a stream of necessary events which could not have happened otherwise, but a cumulative result of irreducibly contingent human choices, such that any particular event in history could have been otherwise had the individuals involved elected to take different decisions. Hence, the epistemological bedrock upon which the ‘truth’ of Hegel's entire system rests is fundamentally flawed (see Kierkegaard 1941: 102-5).

Since unfounded interpretations of historical facts are routinely accepted as ‘true’, Kierkegaard turns to the more perplexing issue of the actual basis of their acceptance. It is, he maintains, simple ‘belief’– by which he means ‘an expression of will’, the act of forcing (knowingly or unknowingly) an explanatory framework which one finds satisfying upon the facts, rather than deducing a truly rational inference. It is not a conclusion that one draws, but a resolution thrust upon the matter through an act of individual will which serves to exclude all doubts about the issue.

This rationally unverifiable form of knowing is not to be confused with the far stronger and ‘eminent’ form that leads to the final certainty of subjective truth which Kierkegaard associates with Christianity. While the former represents the way in which human beings typically gain an understanding of the world and of social life, and depicts an entirely normal and natural part of human consciousness, the stronger form is not only far more potent, but initially requires one to accept ideas which may seem incompatible with those that one has already accepted as being true. Indeed, the act of recognizing a stark incongruity stimulates the possibility of this stronger form of knowing.

As this idea is developed within Philosophical fragments, Kierkegaard finds the essential paradox of Christianity to be the question of how an eternal, timeless, all-powerful being took on the finitude of human form and set himself within the confines of historical time. If this paradox is recognized it cannot be accepted within the context of the weaker species of knowing. In one passage, Kierkegaard maintains that the people who witnessed the events of Christ's life are no more privileged than those living today in actually knowing the reality of the Incarnation to be true and incontrovertible. ‘The first and the last are essentially on the same plane, only that a later generation finds its occasion in the testimony of a contemporary generation, while the contemporary generation finds this occasion in its own immediate contemporaneity’ (Kierkegaard 1985: 131). Being a witness to the life of Christ – the historical facts of his existence – is very different from being convinced of his divine nature and purpose (similarly, merely participating in the events of social life or ritual is very different from knowing the moral tenets on which they are based to be absolutely true or untrue). Thus empirical exposure is no guarantee of moral knowledge: such evidence comes to seem true only after the ‘truth’ has been accepted through a powerful, deeply internal experience of suddenly knowing, which Kierkegaard glosses as ‘miracle.’

This potent actuating experience leads to a condition which Kierkegaard calls inwardness. Inwardness is not contemplation or introspection. Rather, it refers to the depth of commitment and the level of honesty and sincerity with which one lives, day in and day out, according to the knowledge that one now knows to be true. Actions and inner knowledge must square absolutely; otherwise there is no authentic person.

Coming to know something to be the case through an epiphanaic experience, coupled with inwardness, eventually leads to final subjective truth. Because moral knowledge and moral truth cannot be rationally or empirically proven or disproven, there is no objective or external basis for determining their truth value.

When the question of truth is raised subjectively, reflection is directed subjectively to the nature of the individual's relationship; only if the mode of this relationship is in the truth, is the individual in the truth even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true (Kierkegaard 1941: 178).

Kierkegaard illustrates his point by comparing the sincere, heartfelt prayer of a ‘heathen’ to his idol with the prayer of a Christian made to the true god with dishonest intent. Kierkegaard asserts that the heathen, praying with the ‘entire passion of the infinite’, is possessed of the ‘most truth’, while the Christian, praying with a ‘false spirit’, possesses very little. ‘The one prays in truth to God, though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol’ (1941: 180).

Kierkegaard's account of deeply and convictively held subjective knowledge rooted in subjective internal experience displays a basic similarity to Himba descriptions of knowing (cited above) – an experience intimately connected with human time conception.

Universality and epiphany

Returning to Turner, Geertz, and Rappaport, it seems clear they are in part trying to explain how the transmission of moral knowledge can be made in a manner that invites conviction. That they locate that transmission in ritual is tantamount to asserting that a knowledge of fundamental axioms and a convictive appreciation of their import is not generated through day-to-day living. Convictive knowledge of fundamentals can be gained only when the mind is attuned to other things: the ‘fogs’, ‘moods’, and ‘motivations’ associated with profound and fundamental knowledge are not easily conveyed to a mind focused on the day to day. The symbolically laden contrivance, drama, and mystery of ritual will somehow incline one's mind towards a more serious reflection of things, but ultimately it is the mind that must be turned by external manipulation. Lambek (cited above) also makes the attempt to locate his ‘momentary certainty’ in external circumstances that impinge themselves upon the mind. But does the Sufi's dance guarantee this mental experience, or the anorexic binge? While I think they are right to locate knowing and certainty as deeply internal products of the mind, I remain unconvinced that manipulation of external circumstances can produce that inner result.

In a chapter titled, ‘The epidemiology of belief’ (1996: 77-97), Sperber pursues the question of how humans come to know something to be true by arguing that the impression of correct belief is generated by a mental process whereby reflective beliefs (potential secondary truths) are weighed against, and either validated or invalidated by, what he calls intuitive beliefs. Intuitive beliefs are

typically the product of spontaneous and unconscious perceptual and inferential processes; in order to hold these intuitive beliefs, one need not be aware of the fact that one holds them, and even less of the reasons for holding them … The mental vocabulary of intuitive beliefs is probably limited to … concepts referring to perceptually identifiable phenomena and innately pre-formed, unanalysed abstract concepts (of, say, norm, cause, substance, species, function, number, or truth). Intuitive beliefs are on the whole concrete and reliable in ordinary circumstances. Together they paint a kind of common-sense picture of the world (1996: 89).

Reflective beliefs (including fundamental propositions about the nature of the world) are thus impressions, ideas, and so on, set against intuitive beliefs; if they more or less square with the latter, they are accepted, if not, they are discarded in a process that need not be fully conscious. Reflective beliefs can be either strong and deep seated or rather superficial, and it appears that Sperber views the internal validation of a belief as a process separate from commitment, one that cannot be directed merely by the manipulation of an external setting.

I raise these issues to underscore my contention that context aside, Rappaport, Geertz, Turner, Lambek, and Sperber, among many others, recognize that knowing and certainty are internal processes that rely in part on innate functions of the mind. Though seldom considered, human time conception is fundamental in creating the distinct impression of certainty.

In his final distillation of the philosophy of the symbolic forms, An essay on man (1944), Cassirer singles out the human ability to grasp and use notions of universality (mediated through conceptions of time and space) – particularly, the ability to conceive of the universal applicability of ideas (or symbols) at all points in time and space – as the fundamental prerequisite to trafficking in symbols. I contend that the concept of universality is likewise essential to knowing something to be the case, for in its absence human language would not exist; neither would the various complex symbolic orders or imaginary worlds (mathematics, religion, science, ethics, and so on) within which all peoples live. And it is the human ability to create such ideas and ‘clothe’ them in a conception of time/space, such that we immediately assume them to be valid and applicable at all points in time and space, that allows us to live and think as we do. Though this ability develops almost imperceptibly as a young child gains language competence, it is not language itself but a capacity on which language is dependent. Cassirer addresses this issue by drawing on the experience of Helen Keller, an American woman who became famous in the early twentieth century for her struggle to overcome severe disability. His point is that this ability, once awakened, can initiate a dramatic transformation in human intellectual and communicative life. Keller had become both deaf and blind in early childhood. In the following excerpt, her teacher, Annie Sullivan, describes the moment when Keller finally grasped the universal applicability of words.

Helen has taken the second great step in her education. She has learned that everything has a name, and that the manual alphabet is the key to everything she wants to know … This morning, while she was washing, she wanted to know the name for ‘water’ … [Later on] I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled ‘w-a-t-e-r’ in Helen's free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold rushing water over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled ‘water’ several times. Then she dropped to the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and trellis and suddenly turning round she asked for my name (Cassirer 1944: 34).

Cassirer then comments on precisely what happened to Keller at that moment:

What was the child's real discovery at this moment? Helen Keller had previously learned to combine a certain thing or event with a certain sign of the manual alphabet … But a series of such associations, even if they are repeated and amplified, still does not imply an understanding of what human speech means. In order to arrive at such an understanding the child had to make a new and much more significant discovery. It had to understand that everything has a name– that the symbolic function is not restricted to particular cases but is a principle of universal applicability which encompasses the whole field of human thought. … The principle of symbolism, with its universality, validity, and general applicability, is the magic word, the Open Sesame! giving access to the specifically human world, to the world of human culture (1944: 34-5).

Prior to this occurrence, the words signed into Keller's hand were taken as discrete labels for things experienced at one particular point in time and space. Anytime w-a-t-e-r was signed into her palm it referred to the experience of water then and there – that particular event and none other. What she lacked was the ability to universalize, to conceive the symbol w-a-t-e-r as standing for water whenever and wherever it is encountered. But once Keller was able to grasp and use w-a-t-e-r as a universally applicable symbol referring to water in all its forms and at all points in time and space, her mind instantly applied ‘universality’ to all other words, thus demolishing a world of discrete and unconnected experiences and things, and replacing it with a world that was comprehensible, stable, predictable, and ordered by means of an organized set of universally applicable symbols. How this transformation in Keller's mind was effected is beyond knowing, but the result is clear. Universality is the fundamental mental attribute that allows one to take an idea and project it in generalized form across time, space, and social circumstance, in such a way that our minds convey the unequivocal impression of the idea's universal validity. It does not matter what the idea is – quantum mechanics, Marxism, Islam, human rights, etc.: for those who subscribe to these ideas, they function as core axioms whose fundamental truthfulness is conceived as being universally valid. Cassirer's contention is sound.

To grasp the sense of time that is implicit in universality, and more importantly, in order for a person to come to know something to be fundamentally true and valid, it must be possible subjectively to perceive and experience a sense of time – universality – as occurring outside of the ordinary chronological flow. ‘Human experience of time is not uniform in velocity. Phenomenologically, most people experience time (at least some of the time!) as epochal, as a phasic flow rather than as a smooth linear progression, in which different periods of time may be qualitatively different from one another’ (McGrath & Kelly 1986: 147-8; emphasis added). In much the same vein, Sherover comments that during such an experience of time one is ‘not usually conscious of the continuing pulse of time’, though one may read into it one's past experience, present values, and future hopes (1989: 286). This is an experience of time that closely matches Gell's characterization of the epiphany as a moment of time

during which the world suddenly appears reordered and revalued. But these moments of rapture do not arise from disturbances in the logic that governs ordinary experience, including temporal experience, but from our reveries of the real, the rational, the practical, which are full of surprises. The aim is not, therefore, to transcend the logic of the everyday, familiar world, but simply to be in a position to see what there is to be seen (Gell 1992: 314).

The longer citations of Himba knowing described above seem to indicate an experience of a brief moment of detachment from the day-to-day flow of events, one that involves the ‘mind's eye’ grasping some piece of vital knowledge and understanding it, of rising to a position to see the world suddenly reordered and revalued. The epiphany, as Gell describes it, is a decidedly this-world experience, one largely divested of sentimental overtones, and independent of them. Yet it is hardly unfamiliar and nearly always connected with a sense of being lifted above the day-to-day world in order to see or understand something not previously seen or understood. Indeed, to reorder and revalue a world implies that one will see that world according to universal knowledge, with that knowledge being experienced as timelessly correct. Thus Gell's epiphany is a genuine experiential context within which ‘true’ universal knowledge can be known to be indisputable.

Following Kierkegaard, the confirmatory power of an epiphany lies in its unequivocal and deeply subjective manner of validating a concept – whether new or reconsidered. Scheler writes, in this regard, that what is ‘disclosed [or] (“revealed”)’ through an [epiphany] may be done so with such force and recognition of supremacy, it leaves no room for doubt in the mind of the receiver that not only he, but all other entities are contingent upon that ‘reality’ (1960: 163). Cassirer himself recalled how, in 1917,

just as he entered a street car to ride home, the conception of the symbolic forms flashed upon him; a few minutes later, when he reached his home, the whole plan of his new voluminous work was already in his mind, in essentially the form in which it was carried out in the subsequent ten years (Gawronsky 1949: 25).4

In addressing the question of whether judgement is truly superseded by intuitive experience, Oakeshott (1933: 21-4) describes the fervent power accompanying intuition, arguing that it conveys a sense of absoluteness to the experiencing mind such that all previous understandings are exhausted and the new one grasped through intuition is experienced as final. What Scheler and Oakeshott have written about the power of epiphanies is generally echoed by other authors (among others, DePaul & Ramsey 1998: 3-16, 45-58, 75-94, 241-70; Gadamer 1989: 346-62; Ricoeur 1969). Thus, Gell's ‘reordered and revalued’ world is not just any world, but the world. And the experience that is generated by the coalescence of timeless, universal knowledge and a timeless, universal context – the epiphany – is powerfully confirmatory, a potent, subjectively experienced authoritative feeling of absolute correctness (Brown 1996: 155-68).


That human knowledge is always situated in political, social, economic, technological, gendered, environmental, and historical contexts (Bonvillian 1995; Davson-Galle 1998; Foucault 1965; 1972; Meillassoux 1981; Warren 1991) is a pervasive theme in the social sciences; I have contended that human knowledge is likewise situated in temporal contexts or senses of time of the mind's own making. The direct consequence of this is that for human beings to know their moral knowledge as true and incontrovertible is something requiring an experience in which knowledge that is deemed to be universal and timeless in scope coalesces with the epiphanaic experience of timeless universality. This is a conclusion that must surely generate disquiet and even alarm; for if human time conception plays so profound a role in creating the impression of human knowing and human intellectual stability, it is also points to the fragility of final human knowledge in any field and to the uncertain nature of much of what we think we know.


  1.  1 Following Needham (1972) and Smith (1977; 1979), I have made little use of the words ‘belief’ and ‘believe’ in this article, not only because the distinction between knowledge and belief is a modern European idea – and most languages do not draw such a distinction – but also because in the domain of knowledge I wish to explore – human moral knowledge – it is all but impossible to distinguish what is truly ‘known’ from what is merely ‘believed’. In other words, there is really no such distinction.

  2.  2 All foundational axioms are ultimately tautological since they cannot be reduced to any other core idea. Tautological thinking is thus commonplace. During a conversation I had with a small group of Himba men and women, I asked how they knew that Mukuru truly existed. ‘Do you see the clouds with their rain? Have you ever felt the winds blow? No one could make such things to happen except Mukuru. They exist because Mukuru exists.’ Hence, because clouds, rain, and wind exist, Mukuru must exist. And because Mukuru exists, clouds, rain, and wind exist.

  3.  3 This applies equally to scientific and social theories in which the indeterminate nature of something or other features strongly, since it is the absoluteness of the indeterminacy that remains the fundamental constant.

  4.  4 Polanyi also discusses the role of intuition and epiphany in scientific ‘discovery’, particularly in relation to Kepler (Polanyi 1974: 6-8, 134-6, 142-8), Einstein (1974: 9-15), and Polya (1974: 130-1).

Savoir que la morale humaine est véridique : un essai sur les convictions intellectuelles


Dans cet article, l’auteur cherche à savoir comment les individus en viennent à savoir que les axiomes fondateurs de leur système moral sont véridiques et corrects. À partir de son travail de terrain chez les Himba du nord-ouest de la Namibie, il affirme que la forme la plus puissante de conviction intellectuelle ne naît pas de manipulations externes dans le cadre de rituels, mais d’une expérience profondément intériorisée au cours de laquelle le savoir moral fusionne avec l’expérience subjective d’une universalité intemporelle.