Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Franz Boas and the American University: A Personal Account1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Franz Boas and the American University: A Personal Account1

Article excerpt

I BEGIN WITH A CONFESSION. Strictly speaking, I had no business being asked to be the Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology at Columbia. I knew very little about Boas from my graduate education at the University of Chicago and, even while teaching courses on the history of anthropology, had included only short sections of Boas on the syllabus. Partly this was because of my focus on Asia and Africa, the sites of British colonial history, and my interest in the relationship of anthropology to all that. And partly this was because of the disciplinary formation of anthropology at Chicago, which in any event I inhaled indirectly since I did my Ph.D. in the history department. I always cited Boas as especially useful as an illustration of the necessity of the connection between anthropology and history, but I must say that I never found Boas as useful in thinking through the issues confronting me in my own work as other classical figures in the field, ranging from Marcel Mauss to Louis Dumont, and from E. E. Evans Pritchard to Edmund Leach. Morgan, Maine, and Weber seemed of more relevance to the Indian case.

I had also been critical of the insistence on the four-field approach, an approach associated by many with Boas, for all students interested in being certified in anthropology. When I co-founded an interdepartmental Ph.D. program in anthropology and history at the University of Michigan, I had specifically fashioned the program to combine cultural or social anthropology with the kind of historical training done in history departments (rather than insisting, for example, that archaeology be the only form of historical practice prescribed for an anthropologist). I had thought of linguistics as less important than learning languages; it seemed necessary to stress the textual and archival skills of a historian more than the importance of analyzing grammar or linguistic structure. And I had felt that physical anthropology in particular should be a separate field of biological research and teaching, hardly necessary - let alone genuinely attainable - for the training of a historical anthropologist in the late twentieth century. So when I got the call to come to Columbia to chair and rebuild the anthropology department, and assume the Boas Professorship, I thought - though I fear many others thought this, too - why me? In fact, I soon came to see the ways in which fate had done me a great honor by bringing me into Boas's shadow, and how fortunate I had been to be given that historical opportunity in the larger context both of the discipline of anthropology and of the development of the arts and sciences at Columbia University. In my lecture this morning, I will give several examples of how I came to understand that this was so.

Boas came to anthropology from a background in physics and natural science, though he had a serious interest in Kantian philosophy as a graduate student, and was deeply influenced by the revolution in historical/historicist thinking in Germany during the middle years of the nineteenth century, especially due to the work of thinkers such as Ranke and Dilthey. His growing sense of the importance of empirical research, the problems with the tendency to seek general laws for all questions concerning human history, and his developing understanding of the differences between the natural and the human sciences in the years after he completed his Ph.D. in physics and began to shift to anthropological research, were neatly captured in his 1887 essay, "The Study of Geography." He insisted on a separation between natural science, where general laws were fundamental, and historical science, based on a specific understanding of phenomena on their own terms. After his Baffin Island expedition, he noted further that "[ethnological phenomena are the result of the physical and psychical character of men, and of its development under the influence of the surroundings." By surroundings he meant both geography and sociology, the relation of man to environment and of man to man. …

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