Academic journal article American Jewish History

Between Consent and Descent: Horace M. Kallen and Psychophysical Inheritance

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Between Consent and Descent: Horace M. Kallen and Psychophysical Inheritance

Article excerpt

In 1915, Horace M. Kallen (188Z-1974) first advanced an idea that would become known as "cultural pluralism," a counter-narrative to the reigning "melting pot" ideology, in his well-known essay "Democracy Versus the Melting Pot." That essay was such an important public declaration of the arrival of secular Jewish ethnic identity in America that it continues to serve as a sounding board to which theoreticians of ethnicity respond.' Although Kallen helped to lay the conceptual foundation for what would later come to be called "ethnicity," he nevertheless appears to have embraced notions of biological determinism that were rooted in the race science of the day. His concept of ethnicity (or, in the parlance of 1910s, "nationality") during this formative period is typically viewed as having passed its expiration date because notions of ethnicity now eschew biological association. (2) The centrality of biological determinism to Kallen's thinking is brought into focus through a rather memorable passage in "Democracy Versus the Melting Pot": "What is inalienable in the life of mankind is its intrinsic positive quality--its psychophysical inheritance. Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent: They cannot change their grandfathers." (3) Many commentators have pointed to this phrase as illustrative of how Jewish ethnicity was, for him, "an immutable category." (4) This contention seems to find support from Kallen's additional assertion that "Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, in order to cease being Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, would have to cease to be. The selfhood which is inalienable in them, and for the realization of which they require 'inalienable' liberty, is ancestrally determined, and the happiness which they pursue has its form implied in ancestral endowment." (5) Thus, to be a Jew, a Pole, or an "Anglo-Saxon" is not a choice. Birth marks the individual with an indelible ethnic imprint that cannot be sloughed off.

"Ethnicity" expresses an idea that had been slowly crystallizing since the 1910s, when Franz Boas and other cultural anthropologists began to argue for a fundamental distinction between race and culture. The Chicago school of sociology, which also accepted the notion that ethnic groups were cultural entities, argued that America should tolerate these cultural groupings in America, in part because they would eventually assimilate and lose their distinctiveness. The Turnerian historians similarly argued that the experience of the wilderness erodes old-world ties. These thinkers conceptualized ethnic groups not as races but as cultures, and they are today credited for having originated the field of American ethnic and immigration studies. (6) They opposed the racial theorists who maintained that ethnic groups were races, biologically and psychologically distinct. While the former groups of thinkers were associated with tolerant attitude towards ethnic groups, the latter group spearheaded an anti-immigration movement that led to the passage of restrictive immigration legislation. Distinct from these schools of thought, Kallen walked a middle path between the opposing camps. He adopted an approach that, much like Sander Gilman writes of Freud's approach, "transcended the limitations of the debates about biological determinism and yet remained framed by them." (7) That approach can only be properly appreciated by framing Kallen's thought in social psychological terms.

Considering Kallen's thought from the perspective of the history of psychology offers a fresh vantage from which to explore one of Kallen's most obscure and contentious claims, dubbed the "grandfather" thesis by Noam Pianko. (8) Building on Pianko's insight that Kallen's view of Jewish nationality (read, ethnicity) was linked to a transnational Zionist discourse that engaged with British internationalists, and building on Glenda Sluga's insight that World War I-era discourse concerning nationality was intimately connected to transnational psychological discourse, this article argues that Kallen's view in 1915 of a Jewish "psychophysical inheritance" was embedded within a synchronic transnational discourse that connected nationality to psychology. …

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