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Franz Boas took pains to carefully
examine the scientific basis for concepts of race, culture and civilization
throughout his professional life. In his first full-length book on the subject,
The Mind of Primitive Man, (1911), he
mobilized arguments about the plasticity of human responses to the environment
and the psychological origins of customs in support of both cultural pluralism
and assimilation as solutions to contemporary social problems. Based on
comments about “the fetters of tradition” that bind individuals, I explore the
tensions woven throughout the text- between relativism and rationalism, assimilation
and celebration of other cultures that were also important to personal identity-
and consider how far he was able to resolve them.


Towards the end of his
career, Boas wrote his Credo for the
Nation (1938), where he described what he saw as his guiding personal
responsibility. He states that his parents had “broken through the shackles of religious dogma” and
consequently his “whole outlook upon social life is determined by the question:
how can we recognize the shackles that
tradition has laid upon us? For when we recognize them, we are also able to
break them.”1
In the 1911 edition of The Mind of
Primitive Man, a revealing comment shows that he long before held a similar
professional opinion about individuals in general: “While in primitive
civilization the traditional material is doubted and examined by only a very
few individuals, the number of thinkers who try to free themselves from the fetters of tradition increases as
civilization advances.”2

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In this paper, I deconstruct
this quote to explain Boas’ contrasting proposals for cultural relativism and a
form of
rationalismNK1 . Then, elaborating on arguments first proposed by
Leonard Glick and George Stocking Jr. about Boas’ more politicised articles, I examine
how far these positions might be reflected in different aspects of Boas’
personal identity in his scientific writing. By elucidating how his professional
arguments for
individuals NK2 and personal project both hinge on freeing oneself
from the “fetters of tradition”3,
we can understand how these two philosophical positions manifest themselves in
Boas’ proposed solutions of tolerance and assimilation of other races and how
this relates his own personal experience.


Two rationalisms


distinguishes two type of rationalisations – secondary rationalisations and
critical rationalisations.


The power of “traditional
material”- such as customs and taboos- is explained by Boas’ psychological
theory for their origins NK3 in both primitive and civilised societies in the Mind of Primitive Man. He says “a candid
examination of our own minds convinces us that the average man, in by far the
majority of cases, does not determine his actions by reasoning but that he
first acts, and then justifies or explains his acts by such secondary considerations as are current
among us.”4


He provides examples of food
taboos in both civilized and primitive societies which are different responses
to the environmental stimulus, where actions viewed as rational from one
viewpoint are perceived as irrational from the other. In civilized society, he
explains, there are taboos against eating caterpillars, dogs and other humans.

To Boas, because we account for our distaste through three distinct
explanations (disgust, habits of the animals and immorality), there can be no
unified genuinely rational reason for why these foods are seen as taboo.5
Similarly, different secondary rationalistic explanations for food taboos have
developed in primitive cultures for long forgotten emotional reasons which have
now become unconscious. Boas gives the example of the “fish taboo of some of
our Southwestern tribes which may be due to the fact that the tribes lived
for a long time in a region where no fish as available, and that the
impossibility of obtaining fish developed into the custom of not eating fish.”6


So Boas had established that
secondary rationalisations of perceptions and activities with an emotional
origin are a feature of both primitive and civilized societies. Boas’
conclusion here is that we cannot prioritise either our food taboo tradition
over that of the Southwestern tribes as both are rooted in different, but now equally
irrational, emotional origins. This leads to a Boas’ influential normative tenet
which his students later established as the foundations for a cultural
relativism: “It is somewhat difficult for us to recognize that the value which
we attribute to our own civilization is due to the fact that we participate in
this civilization, and that it has been controlling all our actions since the
time of our birth ; but it is certainly conceivable that there may be other
civilizations, based perhaps on different traditions and on a different
equilibrium of emotion and reason, which are of no less value than ours,
although it may be impossible for us to appreciate their values without having
grown up under their influence.”7


This explains the power of “the
traditional material”. However, as in the title quote, what distinguishes
civilized societies as more advanced than primitive ones is the process of
reflection on received views (I call this critical
rationalisation). In civilised societies, a higher number of people “doubt and examine the traditional
material”.8 This
process is likened to the development of science from mythology where progress
in science consists in recognizing its traditional basis: “It is evident that the fewer the number of
traditional elements that enter into our reasoning, and the clearer we
endeavour to be in regard to the hypothetical part of our reasoning, the more
logical will be our conclusions.”9 In
the particular case of food taboos, this would manifest itself in our (as
members of the civilised society) doubting the rationality of why we don’t eat
dogs and perhaps changing our habits.10 Reflection
might reveal the retention of an aversion to cannibalism: this is both common
to most human tribes and based on a fundamental human ethical principle of not eating
one another.


Multiculturalism in a
civilised society, for Boas, will be achieved by the individual reflecting
critically on which of his values are rooted in our particular cultural idiom,
and which are common to humankind, and therefore rational. This methodology is characteristic
of the project of Boasian anthropology and the tone of The Mind of Primitive Man. The book’s commitment to scientific objective
language has the aim of removing the author, with all his culturally-contingent
baggage (even if it is not totally successful) from the text in order to
provide a reliable account of other cultures and nations – in the process, as
he advises in his Credo, extracting
the ethical standards which form a common basis across all cultures.11


Glick has suggested that
Boas’ argument here was contingent on his own cultural perspective. Drawing on
a more general history of German Jews from 1850-1900, he argues that the
specific values Boas holds up as universal and objective which are retained
when freeing ourselves from the “fetters of tradition” were shaped by Boas’
background to a greater extent than he acknowledged.12 Taking
up Glick, Arnold Krupat has argued that Boas’ values were reflective of a
general “cosmopolitan” identity he formed for himself: taking the 1848
revolutionary values of his parents, described by Glick as a commitment to the
“establishment of an open constitutional society, liberal in social and
political orientation, and favourable to the interest of the emerging bourgeoisie”13,
and turning them into his own specific cosmopolitanism, rooted in a global
ethical humanism which lets one escape one’s specific cultural paradigm while
maintaining some connection to it.14 Both
authors suggest Boas’ personal identity, either as a German Jew or a
cosmopolitan thinker, moulded his vocation. To me, Boas’ acknowledgement of a
hierarchy of societies in distinguishing cultures by their number of critical
thinkers to an extent betrays Boas’ liberal moral values, which may have
depended on his own culture in either Glick or Krupat’s sense.


Political Tension in Boas’ solution


We can detect a tension in
Boas’ proposed solution to the ‘race problem’ as set up above15.

Boas advocates both tolerance of other cultural values, while advocating the
absolute value of freedom and science- values which we have seen are strongly
rooted in Boas’ own cultural paradigm of liberal humanism. As Stocking notes:


political meaning of Boas’ scientific life is a transvalued and dichotomised
Kulturkampf: on the one hand, a struggle to preserve the cultural conditions of
the search for universal rational knowledge, and on the other, a struggle to
defend the validity of alternative cultural worlds.”16


If, as Boas considers them,
we take group instincts of antipathy towards other groups as a survival of
primitive emotional instincts, which we later rationalise, we can understand
this tension more clearly.17  This feeling of antipathy to others is common
to different groups and is not always racially motivated. He gives examples of the
shared prejudice of higher against lower castes in India and old upper class
fears of the lower classes in ancient Europe18.

In America, he argues this has manifested itself in a racially based ”
‘instinctive’ aversion to abnormal or ugly types in our own midst, or to habits
that do not conform to our sense of propriety”19
where Americans have later used a secondary rationalisation to explain
segregation through drawing a connection between different races and lower


We can understand this
specific secondary rationalisation of tribal instincts as a particular case of
the “traditional material” within our key quote, where it is rationalised by
drawing links between intelligence and race. “While in primitive civilization
the traditional material is doubted and examined by only a very few
individuals, the number of thinkers who try to free themselves from the fetters
of tradition increases as civilization advances. “20. Boas,
and the enlightened reader, are the thinkers in a civilised society, attempting
to free themselves from prejudice with careful consideration of anthropological
facts, as laid out in the first half of The
Mind of Primitive Man.


However, Boas takes a
different stance towards the secondary rationalisations for the customs of primitive
civilisations. This is rooted in respect for the culturally contingent reaction
of another culture to the same stimuli. In the statement we should “we should
learn to look upon foreign races with greater sympathy”21 Boas
passes moral judgements on the White “race instinct”22, while
preaching respect for all instincts and traditions of primitive man and in
doing so, places the two societies on a hierarchy of capabilities for critical


However, this apparent contradiction
does not necessarily destroy the integrity of Boas’ argument. Part of the
strength and nuance of his position recognises that as one’s own outlook on
other cultures – boiling down to what we deem as acceptable or taboo – is so
fundamentally influenced by the norms and values of our own society that it is
so difficult to extricate ourselves from that in order to find an objective
standpoint. As a result, we are not placed to judge the norms and values of any
society apart from our own. Despite a strong emphasis on the plasticity of the individual,
reflected on a personal level in his immigrant experience and emphasised
through the studies that make up the first half of The Mind of Primitive Man, our personal histories still restrict
the norms and values we can understand and criticise.


These two poles set up in The Mind of Primitive Man, between
rationalism towards our own culture and relativism towards others, are
reflected in the two contrasting positions he took towards aspects of his own
identity. Boas’ position on Jews and Germans in America sharply diverges: the
former should assimilate, and the latter should assert their national identity.


Defining Jews out of existence?
Arguments for assimilation and ‘we’ and ‘our’


Boas’ personal conception as
a member of the American white community he addresses in The Mind of Primitive
Man is evidenced by his use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ throughout the text, both in
reference to “our race” (“we are also ready to claim superiority of our own
race over all others”23)
and “our culture” (“In their native land their cultural life is not as rich in
intellectual achievement as our own”).24 This
is evidence that Boas did not consider German and American physical types significantly
differentiated as distinct races- to him they are all part of a broader White
European race (Boas considered himself German)25.

Furthermore, this is evidence of his longstanding belief in the possibility of
cultural assimilation between similar types- and that he has successfully
assimilated into American culture. Describing the conditions of the ancient
European expansion, Boas clearly states that cultural assimilation was possible
because of the physical similarity of types, whereas this is difficult for the African
American due to the stark physical contrast between types. He says: “When an individual had been
assimilated in culture, he merged readily in the mass of the population and his
descendants soon forgot their foreign ancestry. Not so in our times. A member
of a foreign race always remains an outsider on account of his personal
appearance. The Negro, no matter how completely he may have adopted what is
best in our civilization is too often looked down upon as a member of an
inferior race.”26 Therefore,
as Boas had acknowledged, Boas’ personal sense of assimilation into America was
made possible because of his physical appearance as an ‘ambiguous white’.27
Practically, Boas advocates a similar solution based on inter-mixture for African
Americans, recognising that “a
decrease of strong contrasts in racial types is desirable because it helps to
weaken class-consciousness.”28

Glick cites Boas’ personal history as motivation for Boas’ opinions on
assimilation here. I have pointed out above that Boas considered his parents to
have overcome Jewish religious dogma in order to live by rational and humanist
values, which were subsequently absorbed into his racial philosophy and faith in
science. In the 1938 edition of The Mind
of Primitive Man, he writes “It is particularly interesting to note that in
the anti-Semitic movement in Germany of the time of 1880 it was not the Jew as
a member of an alien race who was subject to attack, but the Jew who was not
assimilated to German national life.”29  The implication for Boas here is that the
strategy of his parents- assimilation into German cultural life (so thus retaining
no distinct cultural type of their own)- was a powerful and practical solution
for a people that was of “highly mixed origin”30 and
therefore had no distinct physical type either. Boas certainly did not consider
himself to be culturally or physically distinct from the German Christian majority:
he never referred to himself as anything other than German, and carried out
studies to show that Jews could have no distinctly identifiable physical features.31 In
so far as Jews did have a distinct cultural identity, it was only the few features
pertaining to their religious traditions32.

Glick has said this is almost an attempt by Boas to define Jews out of
existence, which stands in marked contrast to his assertion of the value of a
distinct cultural identity for Germans.33


So far we have confined
ourselves to discussing how Boas saw his own identity as a fully assimilated
German-American and how this relates to his opinions about the position of Jews
and their assimilation into German culture. Although Glick argues that Boas’
bias is unconscious, Julia Liss goes one step further, using autobiographical
evidence to argue that in fact he
needed to emphasise his position as a legitimate member of the white race in
opposition to anti-Semitism and racism (as a German immigrant) he experienced
in a professional context34,
particularly as tensions with Germany were rising when The Mind of Primitive Man
was published in 1911. Contemporaries have remarked that Boas strong accent
clearly marked him out as a German amongst and drew suspicion in the run up to
and during both WWI and WWII35.

Frank has
noted that in 1919 Boas was forced to resign from the National Research
Council, and only allowed to teach female students at Columbia University’s
sister school Barnard College. Although this was mainly a reaction against Boas’
controversial American Association of Anthropology article denouncing the “Scientists
as Spies”, it has been suggested there were xenophobic attitudes at play36. NK4 Nevertheless, Boas
did not shy away from expressing his sympathy for Germany’s actions from the
supposedly neutral USA, during WWI, penning a letter to The New York Times in which he expressed sympathy for the German cause.

Here he put his principle of cultural relativism into practice. He argued that
the brand of nationalism being cultivated in Germany was no less toxic than the
American version, just with a different traditional basis.37
Again we see the tension between relativism and rationalism: there is a tension
between equally considering different forms of nationalism while imbuing on
both a judgement of their validity- declaring them toxic.38
Although practically advocating assimilation for African-Americans, Boas’ attitude
to the “Negro problem in the United States” also takes on a strong cultural
relativist bent: he highlights the achievements of their African culture in
Ch10 “Race Problems in the United States” as comparable to that of Europeans.


Boas’ use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ in
The Mind of Primitive Man reflects
not only his own dual identity, but also a professional choice. These
possessive adjectives acts as a literary tool for adopting a convincing and
amicable stance in the volume, dispelling reader speculation that his reasons
for publishing are racially motivated.  As
Glick says, Boas takes on the “perspective of an insider contemplating the
potential problems posed by the arrival of outsiders”39.

Despite Boas’ efforts to present his work as a dispassionate scientific exposé
of the evidence, including Gaussian distributions and tables40
to quantitatively support his claims, using collective pronouns to identify
himself within his readership perhaps reveals a worry that a tone of scientific
objectivity would not quite be convincing enough without the sense that your
presenter was the average white American. Crucial to this is clearly defining
his own position in contrast to the East and South European Hebrew immigrants
who represent “types distinct from our own”41,
despite having migrated to America barely 10 years earlier. This culminates in
a tone which is designed to be irrefutable: making it seem irrational that,
given the data, they would come to any other conclusions than that race,
language and mental capacities are uncorrelated.


Tensions are exposed
throughout The Mind of Primitive Man.

Boas’ dual identities of Jewish outsider and proud German are manifested in his
intellectual positions of critical rationalism and relativNK5 ism respectively. Ultimately he sees solutions to
multiculturalism in the two poles of assimilation and the celebration of
different cultures- the former for his Jewish identity, the latter for his
German. For African Americans he has an intermediate position: African culture
should be celebrated, but ultimately African Americans should assimilate in
American Society. Boas does not fully resolve the contradictions of these
conflicting dynamics, and often their formulation betrays the influence of his
own culturally contingent ideals that formed them. Despite not fully throwing
off the ‘fetters of his own tradition’, Boas’ distinctive identity as a German-Jewish
anthropologist in America was key to shaping the two streams of critical rationalism
and relativism NK6 which today underlie liberal debates about multiculturalism.

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