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Professor Obeyesekere completed a B.A. in English (1955) at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, followed by an M.A. (1958) and Ph.D (1964) at the University of Washington. Before his appointment to Princeton, Obeyesekere held teaching positions at the University of Ceylon, the University of Washington, the University of California, San Diego.
Debate with Sahlins
In the 1990s he entered into a well-known intellectual debate with Marshall Sahlins over the rationality of indigenous peoples. The debate was carried out through an examination of the details of Captain James Cook's death in the Hawaiian Islands in 1779. At the heart of the debate was how to understand the rationality of indigenous people. Obeyesekere insisted that indigenous people thought in essentially the same way as Westerners and was concerned that any argument otherwise would paint them as "irrational" and "uncivilized". In contrast Sahlins argued that each culture may have different types of rationality that make sense of the world by focusing on different patterns and explain them within specific cultural narratives, and that assuming that all cultures lead to a single rational view is a form of eurocentrism.
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- Moore, Jerry D. 2009. "Marshall Sahlins: Culture Matters" in Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists, Walnut Creek, California: Altamira. pp. 365-385