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  • Slowing Down on the Path to Knowledge
  • Paul Stoller
Michael D. Jackson, As Wide as the World is Wise: Reinventing Philosophical Anthropology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 272 pp.
Michael D. Jackson, The Work of Art: Rethinking the Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 256 pp.

Elders among the Songhay people of the Republics of Niger and Mali long ago taught me an important lesson: it takes a great deal of time to learn important things. As a young and impatient student, I asked too many questions and pushed my teachers about the deep truths of Songhay culture.

They politely refused.

They told me that my mind was too young to learn important things. They said that the mind stretches with time-in-the-world. When age and collective experience have ripened a person's mind, he or she is then ready to receive the wise truths of the ancestors. What can a young mind, they would ask rhetorically, comprehend about being a human being? Although their orientation to learning frustrated me at first, I gradually became more and more appreciative of their slow epistemology. In time, I came to understand more [End Page 393] fully the wisdom of taking a slower approach to anthropology, an approach that provides ample time for the maturation of knowledge.

When considering the corpus of Michael Jackson's anthropological work, the benefits of a slow and sustained approach to anthropology become powerfully obvious. You could suggest that Jackson practices a fast anthropology. He has, after all, published more books (poetry, ethnographies, memoirs, and collections of essays) than I can count. These books are wonderfully varied in scope and subject and are written with the precision and craft of a poet. And yet, if you follow the development of Jackson's thought, it becomes clear—at least to me—that a slow approach to the acquisition of knowledge has shaped his thinking about the human condition.


We live in complex and unstable times. There are no quick-fix answers to the political, social, and intellectual problems of the current era. Given the multiplex whys and wherefores of contemporary life, is it still possible to make sense of the human condition? What knowledge can anthropologists contribute to this ever-important question? Can anthropological wisdom chart a path that leads to a life well-lived? Can it provide us with a roadmap toward well-being in the world? In Jackson's latest books—one on reinventing philosophical anthropology and one on the power of art in shaping the contours of social life—the author explores these vexing questions with perspicacity. Indeed, these are the big questions that define human being-in-the world.

In As Wide as the World is Wise, Jackson elegantly explores the spaces between things—murky spaces in which human beings are always already, to borrow from Jacques Derrida, situated. These are spaces that escape brute categorization. They are spaces that are defiantly non-concrete. For his epigraph, Jackson quotes Jacques Derrida.

The logocentrism of Greek metaphysics will always be haunted…by the "absolutely other" to the extent that the Logos can never englobe everything. There is always something which escapes, something different, something other and opaque which refuses to be totalized into a homogeneous identity.

(Derrida 1984:117) [End Page 394]

In this wonderfully crafted work, Jackson is our guide to those existential spaces that are different and opaque. After more than 40 years of fieldwork in West Africa and Australia, after a lifetime of reading, reflection, and writing about living-in-the-world, Jackson has produced a work that describes how his experience directed him to follow the sinuous, nontotalizing path between things—between the one and the many, between identity and difference, between ourselves and others, between the personal and the professional, between belief and experience, between being and thought, between fate and freewill, between center and periphery. As Wide as the World is Wise, then, is a book that explores the imaginative spaces between anthropology and philosophy.

This work is rich, deep, and textured. It showcases Jackson's erudition and his skill as a writer. Given the limitations of space, I cannot dive...


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pp. 393-399
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