Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Ethics of Franz Boas


Dr. Alice C. Linsley

Cultural anthropology and paleoanthropology focus on humans, both modern and archaic (before 300,000 years ago). Interpretations of anthropological data vary depending on one's ideological inclinations and personal experiences. Field studies throughout the discipline's history often reveal the attitudes of the investigators. 

Ruth Benedict (1887 – 1948) viewed a culture as having a cohesive construct of intellectual, religious, and aesthetic elements. She understood that "No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking." She believed that science and the humanities were equally valuable in understanding human diversity which she valued. She wrote, "The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences."

Benedict was a student of the distinguished anthropologist Franz Uri Boas (1858 – 1942), a German-American anthropologist who has been called the "Father of American Anthropology." His work is associated with the movements known as historical particularism and cultural relativism. Among his contributions to anthropology was Boas' rejection of evolutionary approaches to the study of culture. He influenced the work of Margaret Meade, May Edel, and even the French Structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

F. Pöhl wrote (2008), "In many ways Boas was influenced by Kant, but in his field research Kant's ethical position remained eclipsed; Boas' practice in the field did not respect humans as an end in itself. Rather, Boas subscribed to an ethical utilitarianism and sustained a strong separation of science and ethics." (From here.)

Boas also held a strong separation between his anthropological work and religion. It is not known if he read Kant's 1793 Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, but he probably did as there are clear connections between Kant and anthropology in mid-20th-century and early-21st-century scholarship. 

Though Jewish himself, Boas did not believe there to be a Jewish cultural identity. Instead, he stressed human plasticity and insisted that people not be “classified” in groups. This position is questioned by this writer whose research on the Hebrew ruler-priest caste suggests that Jewish cultural norms express a tradition they have received from their genetic ancestors going back to at least 2400 BC. 

In 1941, Lévi-Strauss became a visiting professor at the New School for Social Research in New York, with help from the Rockefeller Foundation. He called it “the most fruitful period of my life,” spending time in the reading room of the New York Public Library and befriending the Franz Boas.

The conversations between Lévi-Strauss and Boas would have involved a fascinating exchange. Both came to believe that the behavior of humans is shaped by their kin and culture. Certainly, Lévi-Strauss' structuralism would find a friendlier audience among many of Boas' students.

The concept of culture as developed by Boas provided largely became the basis of its modern anthropological meaning. In developing his argument against racist theories such as mental deficiencies of primitive peoples, Boas set out to show human behavior, regardless of race or stage of societal development, is determined by the society's unique historical development. He noted that culture is also shaped by received traditions which the people often credit to their ancestors. Since the received traditions vary greatly and all humans view life through the lens of their own culture, a culture cannot be posed as better or worse than any other. This is the meaning of Boas' cultural relativity.

Boas poked holes in E. B. Tylor's theories that religion evolved in stages from animism to polytheism to monotheism. Tylor attempted to trace this evolution of religion to support his theory. The relationship between "primitive" societies and "civilized" societies was a key theme in 19th century anthropological literature. The influence of this older humanist-evolutionist idea of culture was waning, and as Boas advanced the idea of culture as a primary determinant of behavior.