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Symbolism and literalism in anthropology


We have considered two strategies for using native utterances as evidence for assigning native beliefs. We have shown that each of these two strategies (literalism and symbolism) can avoid the logical difficulties mentioned in section 1 — so long, at least, as we employ an account of the logical form of belief sentences developed by Burdick. We have also considered the methodological principles which provide the basis for translational practice. Based on our consideration of these principles, we then argued that we must prefer the literalist strategy for attributing beliefs. Only the literalist strategy enables us to provide a recursive account of the significance of native utterances, and only the literalist strategy enables us to maximize the truth of our claims about native beliefs.

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This paper was written mainly by D'Agostino, who supplied the background in philosophy of anthropology, with the assistance of Burdick, chiefly on matters relating to philosophy of language. We are extremely grateful to Susan Haack for substantial help with significant improvements. We also wish to thank J. J. C. Smart and Stanley Benn for comments.

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D'agostino, F.B., Burdick, H.R. Symbolism and literalism in anthropology. Synthese 52, 233–265 (1982).

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  • Logical Form
  • Methodological Principle
  • Logical Difficulty
  • Literalist Strategy
  • Native Utterance