The Intertwining of Culture and Nature: Franz Boas, John Dewey, and Dewey an Strands of American Anthropology

By Colón, Gabriel Alejandro Torres; Hobbs, Charles A. | Journal of the History of Ideas, January 2015 | Go to article overview

The Intertwining of Culture and Nature: Franz Boas, John Dewey, and Dewey an Strands of American Anthropology


Colón, Gabriel Alejandro Torres, Hobbs, Charles A., Journal of the History of Ideas


I. INTRODUCTION

Both anthropologists and philosophers have been concerned with understanding human experience, with the former studying similarities and differences among humans across space and evolutionary time, and the latter tackling questions spanning an array of affairs. Since the boundaries of both disciplines roughly correspond to the limits of human experience and imagination, it is somewhat surprising that there have not been more scholarly collaborations on the historical intersections of these modes of inquiry. After all, contemporary conversations have developed between influential figures in both disciplines.1

Historically, a quite striking association was that between Franz Boas (1858-1942) and John Dewey (1859-1952), a relationship that has remained largely unexamined.2 For over thirty years, Boas and Dewey were intellectual and political allies at Columbia University, and even taught a seminar together. Both had moved to New York from Chicago: Boas from the Field Museum in 1896; Dewey from the University of Chicago in 1904. Their collaboration lasted until Boas's dramatic death at the University Faculty Club in the presence of Columbia anthropologists Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Ralph Linton, as well as the guest of honor, Paul Rivet, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.3

In this essay, we present our initial findings on the intellectual connections between Boasian and Deweyan thought, by exploring the relationship between culture and nature both conceptually and historically. The relationship is foregrounded by the critical place of experience in both the Boasian and Deweyan projects. For Boas and early American anthropology, there was a scientific imperative to carefully record the experience of different peoples around the world. Boas's development of the culture concept brought methodological order to the understanding of meaningful experiences in different societies. Likewise, for Dewey and much of "classical" American philosophy, there was a reconceptualization of the very starting-point for inquiry, namely that it should be lived experience itself. From this phenomenological perspective, Boas and Dewey situated their work in opposition to traditional anthropological and philosophical models in which theory was the point of departure. As such, both were insisting on the primacy of experience in their respective disciplines and rejecting hierarchical approaches to inquiry.

There was an affinity between Boas and Dewey regarding to the primacy of experience within the broader contexts of Euro-American scholarly currents in this era. Barbara Herrnstein Smith explains that in the early twentieth century, and in certain quarters of the academy, intellectual life was marked by "a continued radical questioning of positivist, realist, and universalist views."4 There are examples of such critical interrogations of positivism in Boas's and Dewey's incarnations of American anthropology and American philosophy, respectively. Challenging positivism, of course, was not a straightforward intellectual task and involved a willingness to retain important strands of nineteenth-century positivist thought. Perhaps these early twentieth-century anthropological and philosophical reactions should be envisioned as refinements or subtle intimations of positivism. In particular, an engaged refinement of positivist thought can be seen in the manner by which Boas and Dewey dealt with various strands of evolutionary thought.

Herbert S. Lewis has made a compelling case about the analogous influence of Darwin on the early pragmatists and Boas. On one hand, pragmatists such as Dewey and William James (1842-1910) applied the concept of the tendency of organisms to adapt to nature to the tendency of humans to adapt to the history of their culture as well as to the behavior of other individuals.5 They viewed the aspect of variation as demonstrating "... that cultural materials had undergone a sort of 'trial by experience' through which behaviors that resulted in positive outcomes were 'selected. …

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