Who Can Speak for Whom?


In this paper I want to argue against Hacking and thus Sahlins, in favor of Obeyesekere’s point that the so-called apotheosis of Captain Cook is a Western myth. I want to reiterate that Obeyesekere’s defense of Hawaiian rationality allows Hawaiians to speak for themselves, rejecting Sahlins’s interpretive emphasis on Hawaiian ritual (Hacking 208). I also want to suggest that Obeyesekere does not use the same binary assumptions as Levy-Bruhl that led him to call ‘natives’ primitives, contrary to Sahlins’s claims. Obeyesekere, instead, argues for western rationalism on behalf of the Hawaiians, rather than simply inverting Levy-Bruhl’s categories to apply the category ‘primitive’ to the Europeans and ‘thinking’ to the Hawaiians. As Hacking writes:

Here we have the odd spectacle of the “relativist,” Sahlins, saying that the imperial explorers had one right version of the world (to use Nelson Goodman’s language). In contrast, the rationalist, Obeyesekere, denies that the inventors of the very idea of reason had a right version, and gives to the “natives” a rather Western rationality (Hacking 208).

Thus my argument is that Obeyesekere’s implicit historical ethnographic interpretation that Hawaiians had a western rationality has merit because I share his assumption that human’s everywhere are reasonable. Hacking’s emphasis on Sahlins’s correct interpretation of Cook’s apotheosis is flawed by Sahlins’ under-emphasis of the pragmatic sense of the natives.


In the context of Sahlins’s overarching task which “is to understand precisely how an earlier web of ideas and practices adapts, internalizes, exploits, or re-sees the interaction with what was once alien and more powerful” (Hacking 211), I want to suggest that Obeyesekere’s defense of Hawaiian western rationality argues for a form of cultural universalism, which successfully problematizes Sahlins’s overarching project, a form of comparative history. Obeyesekere’s claim thus successfully argues against cultural relativism.


In his article Cook, Lono, Obeyesekere, and Sahlins, Borofsky asks “Is something approaching a common, cumulative understanding of others possible?” (Borofsky 255) Sahlins, the relativist, argues against this. Sahlins suggests that “The killing of Captain Cook was not premeditated by the Hawaiians.”… “But neither was it an accident, structurally speaking.”…”It was the [religious celebration of the] Makahiki in an historical form” [1981:24]. In Islands of History he added, “Cook’s death at Hawaiian hands just [after the Makahiki could] . . . . be described as [a] . . . ritual sequel: the historical metaphor of a mythical reality” (1985:105-6) (Borofsky 255). By contextualizing the killing of Captain Cook in Hawaiian mythology, Sahlins suggests that a common, cumulative understanding of others isn’t possible. Captain Cook’s killing was the result of specific Hawaiian traditions and not carried out for pragmatic reasons. In reaction to this interpretation, one Sahlins’s critic, Dening, questions the tightness of Hawaiian cultural structures (Borofsky 255), thus impugning the significance of Sahlins’s and Hacking’s interpretations.


On the contrary Obeyesekere affirmatively argues that the Hawaiians who encountered Cook acted pragmatically and that a common cumulative understanding of others is possible. Obeyesekere argues that Cook’s apotheosis was based on European mythmaking; he develops a case for Hawaiian practical rationality, and avoids focusing on Hawaiian rituals and symbols. Using the idea that the Hawaiians were pragmatic like other different groups at different times in history, Obeyesekere thus implicitly argues for a common cumulative understanding of others and suggests that Cook’s apotheosis is a western myth, produced by western authors. Hacking underestimates this argument by weighting Sahlins’s Hawaiian’s Makahiki ritual as significant and not questioning the relative looseness of Hawaiian cultural structures.


Borofsky asks: “How does one evaluate conflicting claims about someone else’s past?” (Borofsky 255) In response to Sahlins, Obeyesekere resolves this question in favor of pragmatism, by invoking a practical rationality for Hawaiians in the late 1700s.  Hacking writes: “This impassioned debate about “what actually happened” appears deceptively simple. Either 1) Hawaiians recognized Cook as a god, almost on arrival (Sahlins), or 2) they were not plain stupid and, after killing Cook found it politically convenient, given local power struggles, to deify him (Obeyesekere)” (Hacking 210).  Obeyesekere’s suggestion that Cook’s deification and then death is best interpreted pragmatically, an idea which has a similar meaning today and in 1778, provides a basis for evaluating conflicting claims about someone else’s past. Hacking’s polar delineation does disservice to their differing interpretations of the apotheosis by not recognizing that there could be multiple interpretations, i.e. 3) there is no way to fix on a definite interpretation, which is what Obeyesekere maintains (Borofsky 256).


Borofsky continues: “To what degree, for example, do the present cultural politics of identity demand a rethinking of anthropology’s ethnographic effort? (Borofsky 255) If one accepts Obeyesekere’s argument, the process of comparative cultural ethnography itself comes into question. While Obeyesekere’s argument has merit in diminishing problematic interpretations based on European myth-making predicated on inequalities based on cultural difference, it also challenges the common-sense concept of cultural differences.

Right or wrong, Sahlins’s ideas are deeply challenging. They make the question of the apotheosis of Captain Cook relatively small potatoes. Not small potatoes for the culture wars, however. Enter a brown man, Obeyesekere, who is a professor at Princeton but who grew up on a colonized island, Sri Lanka. He says that a white man, a professor at Chicago, is foisting white myths onto islanders and perpetuating the fantasy that natives first see Europeans as gods. That may be a delightful thought for the white man, but it quite ignores the good sense of the natives. If the Hawaiians ever deified Cook, Obeyesekere argues, they did so after he was dead, and then only for rational, pragmatic, and intelligible political reasons. Sahlins, holier than Obeyesekere, retorts that Obeyesekere is the imperialist. By treating Hawaiians as political players not so far off from rational choice theory, the Sri Lankan denies the islanders “their own voice” (as one used to say in connection with gender). We have the bizarre spectacle of a Buddhist working in the American academy using American pragmatism to silence Polynesian culture forever  (Hacking 211).

In critiquing Sahlins’s interpretation of Cook’s apotheosis, Obeyesekere thus articulates an American academic discourse to successfully challenge anthropological understandings of the ways specific webs of ideas articulate with cultural identities  

“adapts, internalizes, exploits, or re-sees the interaction with what was once alien and more powerful” (Sahlins 211). In his description Hacking, however, again doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of other possible interpretations.


Hacking: “I entered this fray with a bias toward Obeyesekere’s theses. Like him, I have a set of fairly strong “Enlightenment” universalist prejudices. Humans, everywhere, are what I call reasonable, even if every culture also harbors its dangerous lunatics. I left the debate with the conviction that despite retaining a preference for the principles that govern my prejudices, and despite a lot of side issues on which I align with Obeyesekere, Sahlins is right about the so-called apotheosis of Captain Cook. Or, strictly speaking, that is where I think the balance of probability lies, based on the evidence presented” (Hacking 212). Against Hacking, I want to suggest that Obeyesekere’s arguments that Hawaiian pragmatics and European myth-making shaped Cook’s apotheosis outweigh Sahlins’s interpretation of Hawaiian rites, based on the idea that people are and have been practically rational. Secondly I want to suggest that the possibility of any number of other interpretations inherent in this 200-year-old historical, ethnographic project, makes not only Sahlins’s arguments suspect (Borofsky 256), but also the possibility of any rigid interpretations of symbolic structures improbable. Obeyesekere thus contributes to problematizing the possibility of cultural relativism based on pragmatism and open-endedness of interpretation, a position not fully acknowledged by Hacking.


In conclusion this paper argues against Hacking’s support of Sahlins’s interpretation of Cook’s apotheosis as an expression of Hawaiian ‘culture’ and in favor of Obeyesekere’s universalist, pragmatic model, by privileging reason and the possibility of numerous other interpretations. It thus problematizes Hacking’s project of adjudication by suggesting that he either underrates or omits the significance of reason and open-ended interpretation. In asking Who Can Speak for Whom? Obeyesekere makes clear that the field is open to interpretation, in contrast to Hacking’s argument that in Captain Cook’s apotheosis Sahlins’s cultural relativism makes sense. Obeyesekere thus frees Hawaiian voices from the limitation of a single ethnographic interpretation as well as the yoke of cultural relativism.









Works Cited



Borofsky, Robert. `Cook, Lono, Obeyesekere, and Sahlins', Current Anthropology 38, 2 (April 1997): 255-82.


Hacking, Ian. 1999. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge: Harvard.







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