An Interview with Ken Irvine

Conducted by Paul O'Brien

Ken Irvine needs little introduction to anyone who has been at Mount San Antonio College for any length of time; besides being the Sociology/ Philosophy/ Anthropology Chair, he is currently concluding his 32nd year as a faculty member at MSAC. He holds Master's degrees in both Psychology and Anthropology, and has been extremely active in a myriad of committees and organizations, most designed to enhance the educational process.

But despite his "paper" profile, he strikes one as a humble, quiet, yet incredibly approachable man. Having spoken with him informally on a few occasions, I realized that Mr. Irvine had some intelligent, but perhaps lesser known ideas about the world and the nature of humanity. I thought it would be very suitable that he be interviewed for Plato's Cave to share some of these his unique and thought-provoking ideas.

O'BRIEN: Through your experiences in Anthropology, have any of the things you've learned extended beyond academic study and into your personal view of the world?

IRVINE: I would have to say, in some ways, probably not because I think even before I went into Anthropology, I was somewhat of a Cultural Pluralist. I never really accepted when I attended, say, Christian Churches, that Christianity was, for example, the only religion. I thought that other religions were probably valid too.

So when I got into Anthropology, it just kind of verified my sense that we should treat other cultures and other people as valid, and that we should not be superior or practice discrimination, or be racist.

So, studying Anthropology was like coming home. It's like finding a safe haven where people actually are saying and doing the kinds of things that you all along thought you believed in. Maybe you thought yourself as weird and unusual, and then you find a group of people that have similar ideas.

O'BRIEN: So perhaps that's why Anthropology attracted you; it followed through with the views you already held.

IRVINE: Sure. In the long run, that's what was attractive. In the short run, it was attractive because I came here as a Psychology teacher and I had taught Psych 1A 50 times in my first three years, and I thought, "I'm going to go Cuckoo if I keep teaching this same course over and over again. A chance to move into some Anthropology courses came up, and I took it.

O'BRIEN: Just for the sake of clarification, how do you define your Cultural Pluralism?

IRVINE: Well, I think Pluralism is when you have a society in which ethnic groups are equal, and all ethnic groups have the right to retain their own identity. If that kind of society is going to function, every ethnic group has equal access to the resources of society. There can be no one ethnic group that is held up as the model to which everybody else should assimilate.

O'BRIEN: What about the issue of, let's say, religion? Whereas as you've been raised under one religion, you've been exposed to many other religions, and some of them are very different. Some of them are extremely different, other than just a different form of a benevolent deity; some are extremely varied and oppositional in their notions and beliefs of what reality is all about. How do reconcile those opposing viewpoints?

IRVINE: Well, when I was 18, 19, or 20, I worried about "the truth," and so that was a problem. I don't think anymore that there's anything called "the truth," and so I don't see that as much of a problem. I think that religions reflect cultures, so people who are born and raised in a particular culture, their religion is appropriate to them.

So, it doesn't bother to me to say that Lakota Indian religion is different than Episcopalianism, which is what I am, because they are different traditions. I could not become a Lakota, because that's not my background. My background is of a Scot/ English/ Protestant background, and so Anglicanism appeals to my cultural values. But those cultural values do not necessarily need to be imposed on some other group of people.

O'BRIEN: So there are relative laws that apply to each ethnic group?

IRVINE: Well, I wouldn't say "laws." I would just say "practices" that are a product of a unique history that each cultural group has.

O'BRIEN: Do you think the idea that there is an absolute truth, and that's one own society happens to be the one most in alignment with that absolute truth, is a destructive mentality? Or is it simply an ignorant one?

IRVINE: I think it's a destructive mentality because then it leads to the need to show other people how they can be alignment with that truth. Then that leads to, at least, in mild forms of some kind of proselytization, going out and trying to convert other people. In its extreme form it is to decide that some people are so far out of alignment with the "absolute truth," they should be exterminated.

O'BRIEN: Do you think there is such a thing as absolute truth?

IRVINE: I don't think so. If there is, I don't think we can discover it, because everything that we observe is too relative to our position and our particular cultural background, from which we cannot free ourselves.

O'BRIEN: How can Philosophy adapt to that? Let's take the Atheist/ Christian debate we had a week ago today, where they were discussing the nature of a Christian God and the Bible; was that and is that a cultural activity, do you think, or can it be in some ways a legitimate philosophical endeavor?

IRVINE: I think certain kinds of debates are a Western cultural form, like setting up arguments and trying to defeat your opponent. So it's not surprising that we do this. I think out of those debates, you can learn ideas, but I think that the debate you talked about is a little bit dated.

O'BRIEN: Dated? What do you mean?

IRVINE: Atheism versus a traditional concept of God, as held by some Christians; that has been debated for so long with the same arguments, I'm not sure we can learn much from that kind of debate, unless we've got people on the cutting edge of Theology and Philosophy and they are bringing new insights to that debate.

O'BRIEN: Do you subscribe to religion, then, based on your culture?


O'BRIEN: Does it sacrifice your faith or the quality of your religion knowing that it probably doesn't, or may not at all, reflect any reality? Does that sacrifice anything on a personal level?

IRVINE: I think it reflects my reality, and it reflects my cultural background and tradition. It's true for me, and my interpretation of it is true for me. But I belong to a religious tradition that puts a lot of emphasis on individual freedom and personal interpretation. I could not belong to a religion that stressed authority and obedience.

O'BRIEN: I would think that some people who are religious wouldhave a hard time believing so fervently in their own religion if they thought that other beliefs, that opposed their own, were just as right or wrong, real or unreal as their own. Many people believe that there HAS to be something absolute in what they believe in, or they can't have a foundation for that faith. Are you saying you've personally reconciled this based on your beliefs about culture?

IRVINE: I would answer it this way; I think there are many different cognitive styles. I think one cognitive style is to be open and flexible, and not to put ideas in rigid, logic-tight compartments. Another cognitive style is to have a more closed system where you need to put ideas into either/ or, logic-tight compartments and you have a need for certainty. I recognize people that have this style, and so they do migrate towards religions that give them simple answers to complex questions, and they're satisfied with that. To me, to be in a religion that gives simple answers to complex questions, I would not find to be personally satisfying. I would probably leave, or not even be member in the first place.

O'BRIEN: Do you think it's possible for a person to be objective enough, distance themselves enough from their own culture, to be able to look back at their own culture?

IRVINE: I used to think so, and I used to think you could be objective enough about your own culture that when you studied other cultures, you would not put them in Western categories. But there's been so much written in the last twenty years in Cultural Anthropology about how we can't do that, citing all the errors where we've done this in the past. For example, Anthropology invented the concept of primitive culture so then they could make conclusions about Western culture, especially Western progress.

I just don't think you can remove yourself from your own cultural categories. Logical Positivism through the scientific method used to suggest a way, until we got to the point where we realized that that kind of objectivication in science is mythical and could not really be practiced. Science is a social practice; it comes with built-in categories from its culture.

O'BRIEN: So this extends, obviously, beyond just culture and religion; science becomes a part of it...

IRVINE: All knowledge...

O'BRIEN: It often seems to many scholars and students that education is very much a process of assessing and analyzing life and knowledge in general in a hope to gain a greater understanding of it. This seems to suggest, your opinion, that it's almost like a game we're playing...

IRVINE: Do you mean that truth contests are games?

O'BRIEN: Right, exactly.

IRVINE: If the game is not a frivolous past-time, but a serious activity. So when a student takes a course in a discipline, what they're learning are the rules of the game in that particular discipline; they're not learning absolute truth. They're learning what the truth games are in a discipline called Anthropology or Biology or Philosophy, and if it's a general education course, they also have a chance to be exposed to the fact that it is a game, that there are these rules, and that there are other games out there. But the players in a particular game take it very, very seriously...

O'BRIEN: So the game is serious...

IRVINE: Sure; it's life or death in some cases...