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Reduction, generation, and truth: a comparative approach to divinatory interpretation

Matthews, William ORCID: 0000-0002-1614-1428 (2022) Reduction, generation, and truth: a comparative approach to divinatory interpretation. Current Anthropology, 63 (3). 330 - 349. ISSN 0011-3204

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Identification Number: 10.1086/720266


The study of divination remains of central relevance to anthropology for what it reveals about the relationship between intuitive and reflective cognition. What marks divination out is the reflective elaboration of the role granted to intuitive associations in arriving at verdicts, which produces two distinct forms of divinatory interpretation. Generative interpretation, exemplified by Cuban Ifá, relies on maximizing the opportunity for intuitive association to render divinatory results relevant to clients’ circumstances. In contrast, reductive interpretation, exemplified by Chinese six lines prediction, minimizes the role of intuitive association by relying on highly formalized sets of fixed interpretive principles. Both approaches yield specific diagnoses but arrive at them by emphasizing different cognitive processes. A focus on the generative role of intuition has led some anthropologists of divination to argue that divinatory truth is properly understood as distinct from propositional or representational truth. Instead, anthropologists should take seriously diviners’ claims to produce representational knowledge, demonstrating that claims for the “alterity” of divinatory truth stem from a lack of due acknowledgment of the role of reflection in moving from polyvalent divinatory results to specific verdicts or of the possibility of reductive interpretation as a key feature of certain divination systems.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2022 The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
Divisions: Anthropology
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Date Deposited: 19 May 2022 11:36
Last Modified: 15 Sep 2023 17:11

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