George Boas (August 28, 1891-March 17, 1980) was an American philosopher, well known for his wide variety of published works. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, George Boas received his B.A. and M.A. from Brown University in 1913. He then studied at Harvard for a year, and afterwards, at Columbia. Boas earned a Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1917, although his studies were interrupted by World War I, during which he served in French military combat units. During this time, he learned French and developed an interest in linguistics.
In 1921, his good friend and mentor A.O. Lovejoy recruited him to the Johns Hopkins University philosophy faculty, where he became popular for his History of Philosophy course. He adopted the "History of Ideas" approach founded by Lovejoy, rather than the more traditional presentation of "Schools of Philosophy." Together, Lovejoy and Boas made Johns Hopkins University a renowned center for this philosophical method.
During World War II, Boas took a leave of absence from Johns Hopkins to enlist as a lieutenant commander in the United States Naval Reserve. He was eventually promoted to the rank of commander. After the defeat of the Nazis, Boas became the ranking naval officer at General Eisenhower's Supreme Allied Headquarters in France. At the request of the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, he transferred to Brussels and played a crucial role in tracing, identifying and returning many pieces of art work that had been stolen or confiscated by the Germans.
Although Boas retired from teaching in 1956, he remained an active scholar. He became a Fellow at the Center for Humanities at Wesleyan University and held the prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Chair at the University of Pittsburgh. He also became a member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Academie Royale de Belgique. Boas was also awarded honorary degrees from various institutions.
Boas' learning was vast and his writing prolific. Between the 1930s and 1970s, he published several works that he himself acknowledged were heavily influenced by A.O. Lovejoy. Among his most prominent philosophical works are The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo (a translation of the original work), Dominant Themes in Modern Philosophy, The Inquiring Mind, and The Cult of Childhood.
In later life, Boas took a keen interest in art and art criticism, with one of his notable pieces of work on this subject being A Primer for Critics. In this book, Boas develops a vocabulary for those who want to critique art, either as the "process which terminates in the work of art," or "art as the product in which it terminates." The book concludes with a poignant, if pointed, reminder to potential critics that they are only observers and as such, cannot speak as moral or legal authorities on the subject. Boas believed this idea should be applied to all other areas of criticism in society.
In his book Dominant Themes of Modern Philosophy: A History, Boas looks at a number of European philosophers both familiar and unfamiliar, and presents their ideas and philosophies to the reader. His presentation of these philosophers and their beliefs is sympathetic, rather than disparaging, and is designed to inform readers and allow them to draw their own conclusions.
It has been commented that no American philosopher of the 20th century addressed as many subjects as Boas did, which is not surprising, considering his wide range of experiences in both world wars. His primary fields of specialization were general intellectual history, the history of philosophy, art criticism and aesthetics. George Boas married Simone Brangier, a sculptress, in 1921. They had two daughters. George Boas died on March 17, 1980.