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ethos question

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Bateson writes that ethos is a "culturally standardised system of organisation of the instincts and emotions of the individuals in a society." Was it possible to learn from Ishi the ethos of Yahi society?



Ethos of One?

Abigail Parker

It is essential to examine Bateson's own definition of ethos to understand how Ishi could have represented the Yahi ethos. As Bateson writes, an ethos depends on two players -- the individual and the society. In the case of Ishi, we only have access to one of the two, the individual. Bateson seems to be saying that ethos exists outside of behavior, helping to shape individual behavior based on situational constraints, much like we understand human culture as a superorganic entity, influencing behavioral practices. Although ethos can be a "real factor in shaping behavior" (120), it is not rigid and can be swayed by "sufficient force of personality" by one player (120). Therefore, we see that ethos is dependent on the participation of multiple players; it is a collaboration, not a virtuoso performance.


In addition, Bateson draws attention to the relationship of tradition and ethos, that both serve to reify the other as they grow in a complementary fashion. Traditions that are "alive" retain the connection to the ethos (121). With this in mind, it becomes evident that the original ethos of the Yahi that Ishi experienced would not be possible to ever know as he knew it. Because he was the sole living participant of the ethos, the ethos influencing his conduct would be constructed from his own discretion and interpretations of his own memories of the Yahi ethos. It's like having a conversation; without anyone else, it's just you talking to the empty room. The ethos of Yahi culture seen through Ishi could never show the original ethos. What Ishi would show, however, is equally as interesting as an individual's perception of an ethos when the cultural context has been changed.



Re: Ethos of One?

Erin Neill

I agree with Abigail in that one can learn something from Ishi about the Yahi ethos but that it is limited to Ishi’s perception and his ability to express it. Additionally, it is hard to believe that Ishi was able to maintain all parts of the cultural ethos he came from. Abigail points out that one person does not represent an ethos, rather multiple players are required. More importantly, ethos can be swayed by an individual’s personality. Ultimately, Ishi only offers a glimpse into what the Yahi ethos is. To truly understand it one would need to see Ishi interacting with other Yahi as Bateson’s example on p. 119 demonstrates, in order to understand the appropriate “system of emotional attitudes”. The ethos of Ishi’s “new” society likely influenced much of his behavior as well. Keeping that in mind makes it practically impossible to consider Ishi’s actions an entirely accurate portrayal of Yahi ethos. Without the cultural structure that Bateson mentions, a true and complete understanding of Yahi ethos is unlikely.


Re: Ethos of One?

Allison Moss

I also agree with Abigail that Yahi ethos cannot fully be shown from Ishi. It's true that one person's perceptions does not completely reveal the ethos of an entire community and culture. Further, Bateson writes briefly about changes in culture over time: "The processes of ethological change are still at work and if we could compare a college high table or an officers' mess of fifty years ago with those groups as they are today we should no doubt find very considerable changes" (120). Being the only person left from his community, Ishi was only able to provide a memory of Yahi ethos, frozen in time. He couldn't talk about changes that may have occured, but could reflect on what had happened in the past.



Ethos is the work of a group

Alexandra Gagne

Bateson emphasizes the importance of the small group when recognizing ethos. He states in the article “any group of people may establish among themselves an ethos which as soon as it is established becomes a very real factor in determining their conduct” (120). Therefore, the system created by this group determines the actions of the group. While Bateson does state that ethos is "culturally standardised system of organisation of the instincts and emotions of the individuals in a society,” he clearly believes that it can only be observed between individuals. It is not something that one can observe from a single person because there is no interaction between like-minded people. While Ishi may represent an individual’s perception of the Yahi culture, there is no one to compare his system of organization against. Ishi’s testimony as to what the traditions of this society were can only characterize one member’s interpretations of a group’s customs. The ethos that Bateson is referring to would have been impossible to observe from the last Yahi. The ethos of that society died when Ishi became the last member.


Ethos from Ishi?


I believe that it was not possible to learn Ethos of the yahi's from Ishi alone.

The definition of ethos that Bateson gave was "...instincts and emotions of the individualS" with a plural "S".. As Julia mentioned above, without another Yahi, we do not know if Ishi's behavior was a Yahi behavior or his own personal behavior. The examples that Bateson give are about groups of people. Also, as we saw in the movie, Ishi learned a lot of western culture while living in the city and adopted the western culture. He was actually the one trying to understand the western ethos.Observing how the westerners react, he might have thought that his ethos is different and might have hid it as it is inappropriate for the new society he is in. It would be hard to see a Yahi ethos in such a situation where Ishi is alone in another culture trying to adopt the culture. Even when Ishi went back to where he used to live, without another Yahi and being with all westerners, he would not have been able to act totally Yahi. There might be a possibility that Ishi understood the ethos difference and tried to tell it, and in that case, Kroeber might have been able to learn a bit of Yahi ethos. But, we also should consider that Ishi was living alone for a long time and his personal behavior might be stronger than the traditional Yahi ethos.. Thus, I believe that it was not able to learn the yahi ethos just from Ishi's behavior.



Ishi all alone...

Emma Roberts


I agree with what most everyone pointed out above, that Bateson's definition of ethos implies a group and their interactions with one another, and could not be relavent to an individual. Bateson consistently defines ethos using the terms "group" and "they". He addresses the importance of the group member's interactions with each other and how the ethos is created by those interactions, which through time become traditions. Group members exercise influence over each other and "have the ability to (swing) the group from one ethos to the other" according to Bateson. Ishi is therefore an incomplete analysis of the Yahi society because he has no one to interact with to help create he appropriate ethos of any given situation. Furthermore, Bateson says that "the system is a circular one" therefore Ishi's traditions and use of appropriate "ethos" for a given situation would have to carry on to the next generations. Bateson also acknowledges that there are "variations of ethos in different sections of the community". Ishi definately represents a very unique group within the Yahi society and that must be taken into account as well.



Ethos and Cultural Isolation

Chelsey Megli


I, too, agree with pretty much everyone above. Bateson rooted his argument in the idea of collective standards, and therefore viewed ethos as the result of such standards realized in human emotion and reaction. Ishi, as only one representative, gives an incomplete picture of the ethos of the Yahi because he is the sole individual. The insight gained from studying Ishi's perceived emotions and reaction is additionally incomplete because Ishi's cultural upbringing different so much from what would be considered the traditional, communal Yahi consciousness. He was very young at the insight of all of this violence, live his life with a group much smaller than the original community that was in constant fear of being discovered, and had to see the last of his kinsmen die. All these events would have had a significant impact on any individual and cause their future human interactions to be altered and their emotions significantly changed. These changes would not, however, be trusted to reflect any sort of standardized system that Bateson in searching for. Much can be learned from Ishi, but ethos, especially as laid out by Bateson, is not one of them.


Ethos from an unusual circumstance?


Ojaswi Kafle


I think one can learn only an aspect, if any, of the ethos of the Yahi society through Ishi. Each individual person has a different amount of knowledge about their culture (depending on the status, rank, experience of the individual). And although people from a specific culture may be very similar to each other, they are not identical in their thoughts, beliefs, and action. Therefore, an individual from a given culture cannot be a representative of all the different ways people live their lives in that society, especially when he is taken out of his cultural context. One must take into consideration the fact that Ishi had been a witness to the demise of his people, was taken out of his natural cultural environment and placed into a very different society. Although I do think it is possible to get a glimpse of Yahi society through Ishi, his unusual circumstances, along with the fact that he is merely an individual, hinders one from learning the true ethos of the Yahi society.


Ethos and Expectations


Lauren Deal

The way I understood Bateson's concept of ethos was very similar to the concept of genre or framing to which I am sure we were all introduced in anth4. It seems to me that ethos is the dynamic set of expecations through which social interaction is made possible. That is to say that ethos allows the participants to interpret and participate in culture. People must engage in and accept these shared expectations and in order to engage in culture and those who break with them will come face to face with their boundaries and miscommunication or perhaps even conflict will occur. Cultural boundarie thus emerge and are exposed when these expecations are not met or when ethos is disrupted. With this understanding in mind, I would like to disagree, to an extent, with what people have said above. I believe that it is possible to gain insight into Yahi ethos through Ishi even though he is the only individual remaining. While it is obvious that many of the nuances and complexties will be lost and that the perspective of the individual is not 100% representative of that of society as a whole, I do believe that Ishi's set of expectations for social interaction would have reflected the Yahi ethos. In other words, the situations and contexts in which Ishi was at odds with American society could reveal unique and valuable insight into the Yahi mind/world. For that reason, I would argue that we can learn a great deal about the Yahi ethos from Ishi.


Alexandra Gagne

Lauren, I liked the way you likened this idea to the framing discussed in Anth 4. This actually makes this concept a lot easier to understand. While your description of ethos makes sense to me, they way you apply it to Ishi does not seem to be consistent. If ethos is a "set of expectations through which social interaction is made possible," how could we see from a single person the true framework of a culture? I definitely agree that Ishi provided insight into the Yahi culture, but I still am not convinced that we could possibly understand the Yahi ethos without more people. His actions and behavior against an American backdrop most certainly highlighted cultural differences, but can we be certain that these were not personal?


Response: Joey Perry

I agree with everyone that it would not be possible to glimpse the ethos of Yahi culture through Ishi. It is impossible to determine if an individual is typical or out-of-the-ordinary with regards to their culture without having others from the same society to compare him to. Additionally, Ishi had been removed from his home-environment; interactions between an individual and his environment are a fundamental component of any culture and the environment assists in shaping the formation of that culture. Even upon returning Ishi to his environment, ethos would be impossible to determine without having other Yahi to interact with. Observing the interactions of members of society with one another would be an important consideration in assessing ethos . In viewing Ishi alone, no one could determine the vital foundations of Yahi culture, the components that form Yahi culture, nor even make sense of the Creation Myth Ishi had relayed to Kroeber, much less the entire ethos of the Yahi.


Other Structural Connections


Abigail Parker

I wonder if the idea that many of us are supporting here -- that ethos is something that exists as a result of multiple parties' interactions -- is compatible with Spencer's concept of culture as a superorganic entity. If ethos must result from multiple people, than it cannot fully be embodied in one person's perception of it (e.g. Ishi and the Yahi ethos). If ethos cannot exist inside an individual, it must exist outside, and therefore be a superorganic concept. What, if anything, would this imply about ethos, about evolutionary theory?


My guess would be that if ethos is a superorganic being, it opens up an interesting discussion as to the nature of how consciously traits and aspects of culture are chosen. As ethos is closely related to Benedict's concepts of cultural personality, the macro-level ethos cultures develop over time would reflect a conscious-level change, resulting ultimately in something resembling Apollonian or Dionysian societies. At this point, I'm just thinking aloud, but I think it's an interesting intersection where these structural concepts of culture meet.


RE: Other Structural Connections

Emma Roberts

I think what you said about how consciously traits and aspects of culture are chosen, Abigail, is very interesting. Bateson touches on this when he talks about how an influential individual may be able to shift the ethos of a conversation in a completely different, and even opposite, direction. It makes me think more about what we were all talking about earlier, that Ishi is not an example of ethos because he is an individual and lacks a group, but perhaps we could take another approach to this discussion and talk about the power of an individual to influence ethos?


Response to Ethos and Expectations

Savannah Fetterolf

In many of the responses above the authors use Bateson's examples of ethos as formed in the context of a specific group of players. With this strict definition in mind, it is obvious that Ishi would not be able to present an accurate image of the Yahi ethos since he was only one member of the group. Ishi's position as the last Yahi means that there was no way that Kroeber would have - by Bateson's definition - been able to provide an accurate description of the Yahi ethos. If, however, we took Bateson's definition of ethos and stretched it to fit a personal point of view of ethos as well, then Ishi would be able to present an image of what his idea of the Yahi ethos would have been. As Lauren implied, Ishi offered the best description of Yahi ethos since he was the last person to have lived in that context and that he, most likely, saw the world through a Yahi worldview. In this sense, perhaps, we can begin to understand why Kroeber valued Ishi as a source of information despite his strong beliefs against giving historical value to the individual (Profession 6).



Tyson Johnson

I agree with the comments that it would be difficult, if not impossible to learn about the "ethos" of Yahi society from only one man. Ishi could not represent a complete picture of his culture for numerous reasons. His upbringing was not consistent with traditional Yahi culture, as he was raised in hiding among a small group of people. Furthermore, Ishi could not demonstrate the way that social structures and interactions worked among members of Yahi society. Not only was he alone, he could offer little insight regarding other groups within his society. For example, it would be difficult to learn about the role of women in Yahi culture from Ishi as he could not provide an insider's perspective. Ishi's interaction with western culture also limited his ability to portray the ethos of his own culture. There is no way of knowing to what extent western culture affected his actions and beliefs.


Heddy Waters


I agree that Ethos cannot be obtained simply through one individual.  While considering this, I cannot help thinking about our debates in class on the ethnographer, and whether he or she can truly be objective or subjective.  I do not believe that he or she can break out of his or her cultural mode and opinions; s/he frequently goes in with an assumption and life experiences that dictate what he/she sees/feels/experiences.  The point I am trying to make is that every person experiences a situation differently. 

A culture is a web of meanings (to use Geertz’s description) and each person has a different web.  No two people experience a culture the same for it is wholly their subjective experience.  Similarly, one can get a general idea of Yahi culture from Ishi.  He was a man, which first dictates what he learned and focuses on.  Thus, the female viewpoint is lost (a huge part of any culture).  He was also part of a roaming tribe that hid from the ‘white man,’ which also highly affects his view of Yahi culture.  All of these unique experiences create subjective opinions and viewpoints.  Thus, no one person (Ishi) can fully describe an ethos.  Especially, if we cannot talk to him in, nor understand, his language.


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