By Jason Jarrell
There is a type of powerful interaction that can occur between the mind of the observer and the artifacts and traditions of cultures both ancient and living. In this moment, the observer actually experiences the realization of the cosmological concept embodied in the object or tradition under analysis. This is different from the usual outcome of anthropology as it is usually practiced today, where the artifacts and mythologies of the world are simply catalogued and then attributed to some construct of the categorical western mind, such as “culture” or “tribe”. Realization is itself a form of experience, and the two usually travel united. The “transcendence” of Transcendental Anthropology is therefore the realization and experience of the meaning of a symbol, myth, or belief. The creative step, which follows realization, is an attempt to somehow communicate the resulting insights into some form of art, usually literature.
One of the greatest American Transcendental Anthropologists was Alfred Hallowell, although his work is today subsumed under the category of “Psychological Anthropology” in academia. Hallowell’s brilliant, insightful work on the Algonquian tribes represents one of the essential building blocks of modern American anthropology. But what is often missed is that the source of Hallowell’s brilliance was not in his method of observation, but rather his ability to subjectively experience the world and its inhabitants as the Indians did, and therefore to understand the very empirical elements behind their world view.
A Transcendental Anthropologist needs no degree, although those who view the indigenous world through this lens usually do hold some official credentials. There is no expensive permission slip for engaging in the process, and the only necessary prerequisites are a desire for experience and a will to communicate. What makes a Transcendental Anthropologist stand out is usually their propensity for groundbreaking work. Non-anthropologists have also approached the fold. The stay can be brief or it can become a lifelong pursuit for casual explorers, who are often driven by some creative need. Their output, too, can and often does capture powerful insights.
To summarize, as an experience, Transcendental Anthropology is a moment when the worldview of an ancient or existing culture is taken on by the anthropologist. Stepping in to the paradigm represented by a particular set of cultural artifacts and mythology, the observer may obtain a type of first hand understanding by analyzing the cosmology from within. As a process, Transcendental Anthropology encompasses the act of articulating the insights the observer has gained from experiencing the cosmology under study.
In some ways, this type of anthropological inquiry becomes a form of shamanism: the researcher “visits” the world or perspective of the subject and then attempts to articulate or communicate what he (or she) has learned for the enhancement of human knowledge and awareness. The Transcendental Anthropologist visits the Olympus of cosmology and attempts to bottle some of the eternal, archetypal fire which burns there and return with it to the world of mortals.