The Franz Boas Papers - Vol. 1

The Franz Boas Papers - Vol. 1

The Franz Boas Papers - Vol. 1

The Franz Boas Papers - Vol. 1

Synopsis

This inaugural volume of The Franz Boas Papers Documentary Edition series presents current scholarship from the various academic disciplines that were shaped and continue to be influenced by Franz Boas (1858–1942). Few of Boas's intellectual progeny span the range of his disciplinary and public engagements. In his later career, Boas moved beyond Native American studies to become a public intellectual and advocate for social justice, particularly with reference to racism against African Americans and Jews and discrimination against women in science. He was a passionate defender of academic freedom, rigorous scholarship, and anthropology as a humane calling.

The Franz Boas Papers, Volume 1 examines Boas's stature as a public intellectual in three crucial dimensions: theory, ethnography, and activism. The volume's contributors move across many of the disciplines within which Boas himself worked, bringing to bear their expertise in Native studies, anthropology, history, linguistics, folklore, ethnomusicology, museum studies, comparative literature, English, film studies, philosophy, and journalism. This volume demonstrates a contemporary urgency to reassessing Boas both within the field of anthropology and beyond.

Excerpt

The Mind of Primitive Man, originally published in 1911, still stands as the primary theoretical manifesto of Boas’s anthropology. Reassessment is overdue for at least two reasons: First, relational or abstract thought as a universal human capacity has come to be recognized as common sense in public as well as anthropological discourse and thus is dismissed as having ever been a theoretical position in need of articulation and defense. Second, postwar positivists in North America foregrounded descriptive ethnography of a nonmentalist variety and therefore insisted that Boas was atheoretical. “Mind” was as out of fashion as “primitive” was becoming. These self-confident empiricists dismissed Boas’s cultural relativism, which came into its own during his antiracist resistance to Nazi ideology, in favor of materialist and ecological perspectives that left no room for epistemological relativism in the sense of standpoint (a term Boas used alternately with point of view). Today this reading of Boas as atheoretical and his mentalism as nonempirical is more often applied in archaeology and physical anthropology than in the study of culture or society. Yet Boas’s argument in 1911 is grounded in the study of mental phenomena, with surprisingly little attention to the physical anthropology for which he was best known at the time of its writing.

The theoretical climate in anthropology since the 1960s, however, reopens the possibility of returning to questions of what Boas called “the native point of view,” which he understood to constitute the psychological aspect of culture and cultural experience. Anthropology, biology, geography, and psychology have all changed dramatically in the century since Boas wrote The Mind of Primitive Man. Therefore an exercise of deliberate historicism is required to make sense of his position today. Terms like primitive and civilized, reliance on “man” as generic human, and use of examples from European history without a clear statement about how they apply in the absence of written records prior to European contact all obscure the prescience with which Boas argued for a theory of mind that . . .

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