Think Piece

Empire of Abstraction: British Social Anthropology in the “Dependencies”

By Nile A. Davies

It would seem to be no more than a truism that no material can be successfully manipulated until its properties are known, whether it be a chemical compound or a society of human beings; and from that it would appear to follow that the science whose material is human society should be called upon when nothing else than the complete transformation of a society is in question.

Lucy Mair, “Colonial Administration as a Science” (1933)

On March 24th 1945, the British scientific journal Nature breathlessly reported that £120,000,000 of research funds (the equivalent of over 5 billion USD today) would be made available by the passing of the Colonial Development and Welfare Bill: a momentous commitment to the expansion of colonial study “which should be of interest to administrators, scientific men and technologists, and all who are concerned with the welfare and advancement of the British Colonial possessions.” The material conditions of colonial research would significantly determine the scope and energies of empirical labor in the social sciences. Specifically, ideas of colonial welfare drew conspicuously on the authority of experts in Social Anthropology—in its varying professional and institutional forms—to apprehend the flux and metamorphosis of human relations in a new international order.

Such extraordinary expenditures reflected broad desires throughout the previous decade for a science of administration—a means with which to know and understand a field of possibilities in an age of global “interpenetration” in colonized societies which, in their particularity, could not be addressed by “the application of general principles, however humanitarian.”[1] As data pertaining to the “forces and spirit of native institutions” were increasingly called upon for the maintenance of social cohesion, there emerged an imperative for the cultivation of “specially trained investigators [devoted to] comprehensive studies in the light of a sociological knowledge of the life of a community.”

Table of Contents from Lucy Mair, Welfare in the British Colonies (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1944).

The history of colonial welfare recalls the contours of “governmentality,” the term coined by Michel Foucault to describe how power is secured through forms of expertise and intervention, attending to “the welfare of the population, the improvement of its condition, the increase of its wealth, longevity, health, etc.”[2] Drawn into the enterprise of administration, the design and formulation of social and economic research by anthropologists became increasingly associated with the high moral purpose of colonial reform. But, as Joanna Lewis notes, such a remit encompassed an impossibly wide range of aims and instruments for control: “animating civil society against social collapse; devising urban remedies for the incapacitated and the destitute; correcting the deviant” (75). Beset by the threat of rapid social change and indigenous nationalisms, the potential of the worldview offered up by intimate knowledge of the social structure suggested a means by which history itself might be forestalled. Well poised to anticipate the unforeseeable in a world of collapsing regimes, the great enthusiasm for structural functionalism in particular—akin to the field of international relations and its entanglements with empire—derived from its popular image as a tool of divination, seeming to equate the kinds of total social knowledge claimed by its practitioners with a scientifically derived vision of the future.

Formalizing the central importance of social analysis to the task of government, in 1944, the Colonial Social Science Research Council (CSSRC) was formed in order to advise the Secretary of State of the Colonies regarding “schemes of a sociological or anthropological nature.” Among the founding members of the council was Raymond Firth, the esteemed ethnologist of Polynesian society whose thesis (on the “Wealth and Work of the Maori”) had been supervised by Bronislaw Malinowski, pater familias of the discipline as it took form around the life and work of those who attended his seminar at the London School of Economics. But for professional academics striving for dominance amidst the competition of so-called “practical men,” the expansion of new territories for research raised serious questions about the value and legitimacy of knowledge production. As Benoît de L’Estoile has noted, the struggle for “a monopoly of competence on non-western social phenomena” generated new factions in the milieu of colonial expertise between academics and administrators, whose mutual engagements “in the field” marked divergent relationships to the value of colonial study as a means for the production of social theory.[3]

Front matter of Raymond Firth, Human Types (London: Nelson and Sons, 1938). Image by John Krygier via A Series of Series.

At the same time, increasing demand and material support for the study of the world-system had allowed a new generation of social and natural scientists to turn their attention towards the field from the metropole. For its part, the Royal Anthropological Institute awarded the Wellcome Medal each year “for the best research essay on the application of anthropological methods to the problems of native peoples, particularly those arising from intercourse between native peoples, or between primitive natives and civilised races.” Lucy Mair, another former student of Malinowski’s (cited at the beginning of this essay) received the award in 1935. This “immaterial” value of the colonies for the prospect of scholarship was shared by Lord Hailey, Chairman of the Colonial Research Committee. As he suggested in the preamble to the mammoth administrative compendium, An African Survey (1938):

A considerable part of the activity of the intellectual world is expended today in the study of social institutions, systems of law, and political developments which can now only be examined in retrospect. But Africa presents itself as a living laboratory in which the reward of study may prove to be not only the satisfaction of an intellectual impulse, but an effective addition of the welfare of the people. (xxiv)

Hailey’s romantic claims about the ends of imperial study proved to be prophetic for the postwar period, and spoke to the experimental approach in which such schemes were elaborated. While the natural sciences held out the promise of material riches to be “exploited” in an empire of neglect, anthropologists similarly stood to profit from their engagements in a social order that was shifting beyond recognition. Beyond the preservative impulse of ethnographic practice in the early 20th century, fixed on salvaging the “primitive” from the threshold of extinction, the contingencies of a collapsing empire presented the opportunity for colonial science to fulfil a gamut of ethical duties as the ideological arm of an administration that governed the flow of capital itself. As Hailey would later note in 1943:

No one can dispute the value of the humanitarian impulse which has in the past so often provided a corrective to practices which might have prejudiced the interests of native peoples. But we can no longer afford to regard policy as mainly an exercise in applied ethics. We now have a definite objective before us—the ideal of colonial self-government—and all our thinking on social and economic problems must be directed to organising the life of colonial communities to fit them for that end. […] It is in the light of this consideration that we must seek to determine the position of the capitalist and the proper function of capital.

What was this “proper function” of capital? In an address at Chatham House in April 1944, Bernard Bourdillon, then Governor of Nigeria, described the affective indifference, the ideological exhaustion of a precarious empire whose deprivation under the doctrine of laissez-faire could only suggest the great deception of the civilizing mandate itself. In the thrall of liberal torpor, the fate of Britain’s so-called “dependencies” had long been characterized by the slow violence of a debilitating austerity, borne out by starvation and disease in insolvent colonies, unable to develop their (often plentiful) resources in the absence of revenues. The receipt of financial assistance by the poorest colonies to balance their ailing budgets reflected the management of the population at its minimum, confined within the vicious cycle of deficiency: “regarded as poor relations, who could not, in all decency, be allowed to starve, but whose first duty was to earn a bare subsistence, and to relieve their reluctant benefactors of what was regarded as a wholly unprofitable obligation.”

O.G.R Williams to J.C Meggitt, “Housing conditions for poorer classes in and around Freetown” (C.S.O. M/54/34, 1939). Photograph by author.

As the tide of decolonization became an inescapable reality, desires for a deliberate strategy towards the improvement of social conditions both at home and abroad sought to recuperate the notion of mutual benefit between colony and metropole. The move to restore the ethical entanglements of a “People’s Empire,” long left out of mind, suggested the refraction of a burgeoning conception of the welfare state in Britain, whose origins in The Beveridge Report—published in 1942—turned towards the cause of “abolishing” society’s major ills: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. In spite of an apparent commitment to universalism—in the establishment of a National Health Service in 1946, and state insurance for unemployment and pensions, for example—the report would garner criticism for privileging the model of the male breadwinner at the expense of working wives, whilst otherwise reflecting a palliative approach to poverty that failed to address its root causes. While ideas of domestic welfare shared many of the rhetorical devices that characterized the project of colonial reform (with improvements in public health, education and living standards chief among them), save for a single glancing reference, the Beveridge Report made no mention of the colonies or their place within this expansive and much-feted vision for postwar society.

On the contrary, the long road to economic solvency and the raising of living standards was understood to lie within colonial societies themselves, however enervated or held in abeyance by preceding policies. British plans for the autonomy of the overseas territories centered on the rhetoric of extraction under the general directive for colonized societies to exploit their own resources—as Bourdillon would note, “including that most important of all natural resources, the capacity of the people themselves.” Increased investment from the metropole would in turn provide for the welfare of colonial subjects in the event of their independence through the generation of something that might be called “human capital”, and by turning towards the earth itself as a repository of untapped value. The appointment of experts in the fields of imperial geology, agronomy and forestry turned the labors of scientific discovery towards a political economy of “growth” for the mitigation of social inequalities on a planetary scale.

But the professional and institutional entanglements of anthropologists to the field inextricably linked them to a social system of subjection that they could not fully claim to disavow. Senior anthropologists in particular appeared to retain a kind of primitivism, neglecting in their studies the administrative issues of growing urban centers for “tribal” or “village studies.” By the end of the 1940s, the earlier promise and possibility of Anthropology’s relationship to the colonial endeavor was increasingly questioned by its most prominent practitioners. At a special public meeting of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1949, Firth spoke alongside the Oxford anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard about the growing tensions and demands of professional practice in a period in which the vast majority of anthropological research was supported by state funds. “After long and shameful neglect by the British people and Government,” he declared, “it is now realised that it is impossible to govern colonial peoples without knowledge of their ways of life.” (179) And yet, Firth and Evans-Pritchard observed the anxieties in certain academic circles of what such a union would mean for the production of knowledge: “lest the colonial tail wag the anthropological dog—lest basic scientific problems be overlooked in favour of those of more pressing practical interest.” (138)

Buildings of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), founded in 1948 as the East African Institute of Social Research. Photograph via MISR.

Even before the conclusion of the Second World War, the experiences of fascism had proved to be a cautionary tale in which both the value and peril of social theory lay in its uses within a broader marketplace of applied science as an instrument of power-knowledge, capable of being wielded by states and their governments. Myopic fears of the “race war” to ensue from the collapse of white settler societies found their reflection in research agendas and the funding of applied studies. With an eye on neighboring Kenya, Audrey Richards—another of Malinowski’s “charmed circle”—became director of Uganda’s East African Institute of Social Research in 1950, a center established at Makerere College for the purpose of accumulating “anthropological and economic data on the peoples and problems of East Africa.”

This was also the scene of a burgeoning inquiry into “race relations.” In 1948, Firth’s student Kenneth Little published Negroes in Britain, a study of urban segregation and the fraught sentiments of “community” in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, infamously portrayed by the Daily Express in 1936: “Half-Caste Girl: she presents a city with one of its big problems.” (49) Its streets would endure in the cultural imagination as a focal point of salacious reporting on the colonies of “coloured juveniles” born in the poor “slums” of seaport towns across the British Isles. Working class migrants in Cardiff’s Loudoun Square were captured in the pages of the left-leaning weekly, Picture Post byits staffphotographer Bert Hardy, whose efforts to represent the human face of residents in the “deeply-depressed quarter” are a complex amalgam of pity and social conscience documentary, recalling the iconic depictions of American poverty by photographers attached to the Farm Security Administration in the era of the New Deal. Meanwhile, the American sociologist St Clair Drake, who with Horace R. Clayton Jr. had co-authored the voluminous study Black Metropolis in 1945, had conducted research in Tiger Bay for his 1954 University of Chicago dissertation and responded directly to some of the claims made in Little’s study. Subjects of empire, he avowed, whether in Britain or its extremities, were united by their fate to be subjects of the survey and the study, misrepresented, slandered or otherwise examined with disciplinary instruments and the logics of reform and government.

Amidst revolutionary struggle and the rise of African nationalist movements, other scholarship emerging from this milieu appeared to display certain deficiencies in vision emanating from the colonial situation—the professional certitude and patronizing racism with which social scientists made and mythologized their objects. In 1955, the geographer Frank Debenham—another senior figure in the CSSRC’s council—published Nyasaland: Land of the Lake as part of The Corona Library, a series of “authoritative and readable” surveys sponsored by the Colonial Office.Writing in his review of Debenham’s book in the Journal of Negro Education, the historian Rayford Logan observed the bewildering disconnect between the well-documented experiences of civil discord under white-minority rule in the territory and the world as it was rendered in print:

[Debenham] seriously states: “We need not call the African lazy, since there is little obligation to work hard, but we must certainly call him lucky” (p. 104). He opposes a rigid policy of restricting freehold land for Europeans. His over-all view blandly disregards the discontent among the Africans in Nyasaland: “If only Nyasaland people are left to themselves and not incited from elsewhere there should be contentment under the new regime very soon, a return in fact to the situation of a few years ago when there was complete amity as a whole between black and white, and there were all the essentials for a real partnership satisfactory to both colours.”

In hindsight, these problems of perception appear to have become evident—if not exactly solvable—even to those most apparently endowed with the greatest faculties of interpretation and insight into the arcane mechanisms of the social world. Michael Banton, a student of Kenneth Little’s and the first editor of the journal Sociology, recalled his professional errata in the 2005 article “Finding, and Correcting, My Mistakes”. Writing candidly of his earliest forays into colonial research, he described the evolution and decline of structural functionalism, which was “founded upon a view of action as using scarce means to attain given ends but had in my, perhaps faulty, perception become a top-down theory of the social system.” Such reflections suggest the disenchantments of an analytical framework which threatened to occlude as much as it sought to understand, in which whole worlds went unnoticed or misread. More than 50 years after his earliest studies in the “coloured quarter” of London’s East End and Freetown, the capital of British West Africa, Banton still appeared—against all good intentions—stumped: “There were failings that should be accounted blind spots rather than mistakes…. Why was my vision blinkered?”

[1] Mair, Lucy. “Colonial Administration as a Science.” Journal of the Royal African Society 32, no. 129 (1933): 367.

[2] Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991 [1978], p.100.

[3] Pels, Peter. “Global ‘experts’ and ‘African’ Minds: Tanganyika Anthropology as Public and Secret Service, 1925-61.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17, no. 4 (2011): 788-810.

Nile A. Davies is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. His dissertation examines the  politics and sentiments of reconstruction and the aftermaths of “disaster” in postwar Sierra Leone.

Featured Image: Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in the 1950s. Photograph by Bert Hardy, via WalesOnline.

Intellectual history

Catalogue Now!: Professional Anthropology and Making the Northeast United States

By guest contributor Morgan L. Green

Mid-twentieth-century anthropology was in crisis. Already influenced by World War II, anthropologists in the 1960s encountered a variety of dramatic changes. The scientific method and the pressure to be “objective” dominated as institutions like the National Science Foundation, ushering in a new wave of research standards. Anthropologists, who had been collecting interviews in the field (among other things), needed to prove their usefulness as the American government demanded clear answers about the world around them. The field was also growing exponentially, in part due to the GI bill and the returning veterans who often sought to better understand the places where they had served. The result: an increasingly large discipline trying to find a balance between understanding culture and receiving funding for long-term projects. Anthropologists stood at a crossroads in redefining their discipline.

This began what Matti Bunzl has described as a profound reorientation of the epistemological and political contours of the discipline in the 1960s. In 1968, James J. Hester described the new methods of “salvage anthropology.” Hester wrote specifically about how archeologists could extract information from sites before they were redeveloped as power plants or reservoirs, for instance. However, American cultural anthropologists quickly adapted this to apply to human subjects. In the Americas, Native people became prime subjects of this salvage mindset, imagined to be on the verge of disappearance. This perceived threat of loss was in many ways a revitalization of a Jacksonian racial theory that assumed the inevitable disappearance of Native people, articulated as an attempt to “save” or “preserve” Indigenous cultures. The 1960s ushered in a growing moral rhetoric that it was the duty of anthropologists to preserve the vanishing knowledge of Native peoples in the Americas. 

Despite their “crisis,” anthropologists continued to return to established sources of knowledge that non-Natives deemed “authentic.” Unlike archeology, within the salvage mindset of cultural anthropology, cultural practice and history were embodied in Native people. Whether they listened to informants to understand linguistic components or observed community relationships, anthropologists mapped ideas of authenticity onto the bodies of Native people. The intimacy of contact, of connecting, listening, and observing Indigenous people had long been established in the twentieth century as an important method, perhaps most clearly reflected in Frank Speck. By the 1960s and 1970s, while cultural anthropology remained wedded to the importance of contact, Native people had to exist in particular ways to be recognized as Native, valuable or worthy of preservation. 

Emerging from this moment was a massive contribution to anthropological canon: The Handbook of North American Indians. Talks began in the late 1960s, but official work began roughly in 1970 with William Sturtevant at the helm.Originally planned as a twenty-volume series, The Handbook was an attempt to catalogue at an encyclopedic level the diverse histories of tribal groups across the United States with. Each volume would act as a large-scale reference work of 500 to 750 pages summarizing what was known of the anthropology and history of Native peoples north of Mesoamerica (William C. Sturtevant, “Preliminary Note for Contributors” [1970], Elisabeth Tooker Papers, American Philosophical Society). The ultimate goal was to present a concise and exhaustive survey of Indigenous peoples in North America that would be accessible to both anthropologists and educated non-anthropologists. I want to focus here on the Northeast volume published in 1978, directed by William Sturtevant and Bruce G. Trigger, not only because it was the first published volume (the whole project faced considerable delays), but because it provides a glimpse into the contradictions and political implications of non-Native anthropological production.  

Partial series of The Handbook on North American Indians 

Faced with myriad troubles, ranging from missed deadlines to massive rewrites, The Handbook limped along until November 1972. Many of those contracted specifically for the Northeast Volume were gathered for the annual Conference on Iroquois Research, originating in 1945, to discuss the state of anthropology and hear work related to the Iroquois. This particular conference, however, was a kind of watershed moment for Bruce Trigger. Seizing this moment Trigger organized a meeting at the conference to establish the Iroquois as the centerpiece of The Handbook. The enmeshment of the Iroquois conference with the production of the Northeast volume suggests that the content of The Handbook would not be as broad as promised. This became even more clear when Elisabeth Tooker from Temple University was recruited to coordinate the Iroquois chapters, a move that would help secure her promotion. Following 1972, The Handbook began looking more like a professional opportunity for Iroquoianists rather than an encyclopedic reference of the myriad of Indigenous nations who called the Northeast home. 

As authorship skewed toward Iroquoianists, The Handbook relied on already established connections between anthropologists and the Iroquois to serve as its foundation. While there were moments that challenged what was often extractive information gathering, collecting stories from Native peoples still continued to shape anthropological literature. The seventy-three chapters included linguistic studies, historical surveys of acculturation, and examinations of religion, to name a few topics.Despite the range, twenty-five chapters, or roughly 34% of The Handbook related to the Iroquois in some form. This distortion exposes one of the oversights in salvage anthropology, namely that assumptions about who and where Native people were corresponded to the work that anthropologists had already been doing throughout the twentieth century. Anthony F.C. Wallace, for example, assisted Tooker in her emerging work on the Iroquois, and William Fenton’s intimate relationships with interlocutors shaped chapters on the Mohawk. This is not to say that information was not important; rather, by the second half of the twentieth century many Northeastern Indigenous peoples were ignored as sources of knowledge because they had few intimate connections with non-native anthropologists and their cultures were thought to have not survived colonization. Wallace captured this sentiment at a session on culture and personality at Dartmouth College in 1968, using the Lenni-Lenape as an example, saying they were acculturated beyond recognition – unlike the Iroquois, he was quick to add. In this moment, non-Natives elevated their intellectual authority by determining who and where Native people were based on anthropological methods of cultural recognition and disciplinary security. In the process, Iroquoianists continued to shape anthropology in the Northeast, thereby preserving their professional opportunities. The Northeast volume was published in 1978 and the remaining volumes continue to be released.

Non-Native anthropology organized itself around gathering knowledge before an assumed rapidly approaching disappearance, which meant that the Native peoples within anthropology’s gaze were often those imagined to be less changed by colonization. Not only did this lead to the ignorance of many other Native peoples; this thinking ignored the historical realities of settler colonialism and the various survival strategies that Indigenous people, including the Iroquois, engaged in to navigate a rapidly changing world. The seventeenth-century Northeast was ground zero for a settler project that would quickly metastasize. Indigenous peoples in the Northeast have navigated, resisted, succumbed, and reimagined the relationship to Euro-American colonization for centuries. To make a lack of change the litmus test for Indigenous authenticity grossly misunderstood the continued power and resourcefulness of Native peoplesBearing this in mind, we must rethink the role of the archive and what we as scholars consider canonical. Holding onto, cataloguing, and the encyclopedic impulse of the archive(s) are all functions of desire; desire to possess, dictate, and stabilize subjects of study. This process, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminds us, brings with it multiple silences that can limit our understandings of history and its legacies.The anthropological archive contained in The Handbook, despite its claims of breadth, limited its scope while defining itself as a totalizing and objective source of knowledge. Taking this as one of many examples of settler knowledge production, we must remain critical of the very categories of analysis that shape our work. To not would be to risk a reproduction of that arm of settler colonialism that claims non-Native knowledges as objective and position settlers always already “experts” of the world and its histories. Paying attention to the epistemology of indigeneity allows us to produce work that enacts the decolonial strategies we theorize.

Morgan L. Green is a Ph.D candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research examines relationships between white settler, Indigenous, and African-American communities in Northeastern urban spaces, both literal and rhetorical, in the late 20thcentury.

Think Piece


By guest contributor Trish Ross

For the full companion article, see this Winter’s edition of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

“Human nature is the only science of man; and yet has been hitherto the most neglected.” Thus David Hume simultaneously lamented the past and hailed a bright future for the sciences humaines in the eighteenth century. Historians have, by and large, assumed the narrative eighteenth-century thinkers like Hume devised, tracing the development of the social sciences, and in particular, anthropology, to the Enlightenment and colonialism. (Popular pastiches like Steven Pinker’s purvey a whiggish knockoff of this narrative with little concern for precision and care.) But had the study of human nature really been neglected? If the study human nature was not ignored before the eighteenth century, and if it is the foundation of the human sciences, how might that change our historical narrative about the goals and the development of disciplines familiar to us?

Contrary to Hume’s claim, dozens of learned early modern humanists, physicians, theologians, and philosophers of all religious confessions produced a series of texts that show them laboring to study and understand what Hume charged past thinkers with disregarding: human nature. They often spoke explicitly of their topic as “natura humana.” Operating across what we retrospectively classify as distinct scientific, social scientific, and humanistic disciplines, they integrated empirical research and experimentation with intricate natural philosophy and complicated theologies in a wide-ranging attempt to understand human bodies and souls. Focusing on one of the names they gave their study is as revealing as the undertaking itself. They termed it “anthropologia.”

Magnus Hundt, Anthropologium (1501).

Long before the development of the eighteenth-century human sciences and before anthropology became a modern academic discipline, over thirty books appeared in Europe between 1500-1700 that include the word anthropologia in their titles, starting with the earliest so far identified: Magnus Hundt’s Anthropology, on the Dignity, Nature and Powers of a Human Being [and] the Elements, Parts, and Members of the Human Body (1501). Studying these texts and what their early modern authors meant by the term anthropologia requires suspending impulses anachronistically to read our own disciplinary divisions into the past. Yet doing so offers insight into the ways in which sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religious and philosophical debates intersected with scientific developments and, as time went on, with reports about new lands and peoples from beyond Europe to encourage the development of what would become the modern human sciences.

At first glance, the content of these works bears little resemblance to anthropology as we think of it. Sixteenth-century texts with the term covered everything from detailed anatomies to discussions of the soul inspired by the long tradition of commenting on Aristotle’s De anima to a humanist dialogue about gender to descriptions of the history and customs of peoples. Around the beginning of the seventeenth century, the term started to be used primarily to describe studies of the body (anatomy and physiognomy) and the soul (philosophical and theological anthropology). The German physician Johannes Magirus’s Anthropologia (1603), a fulsome commentary on the more famous Philip Melanchthon’s works on natural philosophy and the soul, was a turning point. After Magirus’s book appeared, anthropologia texts by philosophers, physicians, and theologians came off the presses in greater numbers. Thereafter anthropologia, as a multi-faceted study addressing the physical, religious, and moral aspects of human nature, provided grounds from which eighteenth-century (and later) human sciences developed.

James Drake, Anthropologia Nova (1707).

Anthropologia and its vernacular variants continued to be used in this way to denote the study of anatomy and the soul up to and even through the eighteenth century, such as in James Drake’s Anthropologia nova (1707). Out of this usage grew eighteenth-century French “anthropological medicine,” described by Stephen Gaukroger and Elizabeth Williams, with its focus on the body-soul nexus and its concern with moral questions and human nature.

Moreover, anthropologia developed out of and fortified a tendency to understand human bodies as disclosing moral or theological truths, as well as out of post-Reformation debates about the extent of sin’s effects on human souls and bodies. Some took this to what seem to us perhaps amusing extremes, such as the Lutheran theologian Christoph Irenaeus, who argued that sin is the reason defecation smells. In its study of bodies and souls with a view to understanding what they revealed about human nature, anthropologia was related to the flourishing early modern practice of physiognomy, widely tied by scholars to early theories of race and and social order. This search for truths about human nature, stripped of their inherited natural philosophical and theological roots, in turn encouraged the development of anthropology.

Kant, Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (1799)

Early modern “anthropologists” used this interest in the truths discernible from body and soul to ground arguments about natural law, and theories about the proper order of the world and differences between types of people on the study of bodies and souls. In this way, their longstanding interest in and study of human nature and souls eventually was combined with debates about the capacities of peoples encountered in the Americas and Asia, speculation about whether and how these people and Europeans descended from common ancestors, and widely popular travel literature to inform influential arguments about human nature and diversity as well as the first attempts to theorize race. This is the heart of the connection between anthropologia, natural law, and ethnography that developed among German intellectuals, leading up to Kant’s important lectures on anthropology. By 1808, the Englishman Thomas Jarrold utilized the term for a book on racial differentiation entitled, Anthropologia: or Dissertations on the Form and Colour of Man.

Notwithstanding Hume’s proud boast about founding the study of human nature, eighteenth-century studies of it grew out of a tradition of thought about it, summed up in words sometimes strikingly familiar to us today.  Intra-disciplinary divides between histories of the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century science on the one hand, and early modern natural philosophy, medicine, and religion on the other have hitherto obscured the way in which earlier studies bearing the name “anthropologia” evolved into later ones. Taking this early modern study seriously in (literally) its own terms highlights how questions raised by physicians, natural philosophers, and theologians in recondite and seemingly repetitive Latin treatises and disputations gave rise to a discipline that is more familiar to us in range and content. Though not coterminous with the later sciences humaines, recovering this earlier effort by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European scholars to understand human nature by drawing on religious and scientific thought can deepen our understanding of what shaped the development of the human sciences, including what their eighteenth-century successors rejected from the past and what they quietly retained. Anthropologia reveals how disciplines we use to study ourselves developed from an all-but-forgotten natural philosophical and religious discourse that was slowly secularized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Trish Ross is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, Australia.

Intellectual history

Paris’s New Musée de l’Homme: Then, Now, Tomorrow

by guest contributor Anna Toledano

Autobiography is an art form that only few have mastered. The newly reopened permanent exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris does a remarkable job of writing the book on our entire species. The museum tells the tale of what makes humanity unique through universal themes such as reproduction, death, and language using its rich collections, which featured in both the storied, racist Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (1882–1936) and the first iteration of the Musée de l’Homme opened in 1938. The curators are sensitive to equity among different cultural groups and the breadth of the human experience, although the interpretation suffers from a tinge of human exceptionalism.

Phrenological busts repurposed to show the failings of such methodology (author photo)
Phrenological busts repurposed to show the failings of such methodology (author photo)
Alice L. Conklin deftly describes in her book In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (Cornell, 2013) the role that the historic museum played in the establishment of traditional French colonial, racist anthropology. See Alice L. Conklin’s and Christine Laurière’s essays in the museum catalog for a more in-depth look at the historical context for the reimagined permanent exhibition. While the social missteps of the former institution are carefully avoided today, the message of the modern museum is strongly tied to its historical legacy. (Consider the repurposing of busts that once spread the edicts of phrenology: today curators use them to show that such methodology is not science.) This legacy is characterized by the words of Paul Rivet, the glorified father of the museum, that “Humanity is one and indivisible, not only in terms of space, but also in terms of time.” The challenge to make culture timeless, but not frozen in time is one that all anthropological museums face. The museum in Paris tackles the additional challenge of showing that it is no longer frozen in time either.
Objects from the historical collections feature in displays (author photo)
Objects from the historical collections feature in displays (author photo)

The curators structure our collective biography in the Galerie de l’Homme into three parts: “Who are we?” “Where do we come from?” “Where are we going?” This chronological narrative leads visitors through displays featuring pieces from the historic collection, such as skeletons and ceremonial clothing, as well as model reconstructions of classic sites such as the footsteps at Laetoli. The strength of the exhibitry comes not from the well-done model of a half-eaten mammoth, but from the objects from the original collection. The historic medical moulages are a highlight, although the objects are placed in darkened kiosks (perhaps due to both preservation concerns and shock value). The real fossil skulls of our evolutionary ancestors excavated in the rich caves of France are breathtaking. The inclusion of animal specimens from the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle gives context to the place of humans within the history of evolution. This 2015 renovation is part of a larger set of relatively recent overhauls of permanent exhibitions at the MNHN; the Musée de l’Homme has been associated with the MNHN since the early twentieth century. A feature on domestication and our bond with dogs is heartwarming, but the principal focus on hunting only elevates our position relative to the other creatures on display.

A separate viewing experience for historic medical moulages (author photo)
A separate viewing experience for historic medical moulages (author photo)
Real skulls from our ancestors, such as Cro-Magnon man, excavated in France are a highlight (author photo)
Real skulls from our ancestors, such as Cro-Magnon man, excavated in France are a highlight (author photo)

The museum embodies its commitment to include all peoples not only within its narrative but also in the experience of the exhibition. A visually arresting wall of tongues, which visitors can pull to hear snippets of little-spoken languages from across the globe, caters to auditory learners. This section on linguistics is well-conceived in its emphasis on diversity as well as the intersectionality of multiple cultural identities, such as being an American and a Yiddish speaker. Videos for visual learners feature experts discussing how terminology matters, especially with regard to vestiges of colonialism. Through this lens, it is interesting that the majority of interpretation is only available in French. The main signage, as well as some audio testimony, is trilingual—French, English, and Spanish—but that is not the majority.

Visitors experience sounds of little-known languages from around the world by giving each tongue a yank (author photo)
Visitors experience sounds of little-known languages from around the world by giving each tongue a yank (author photo)

Touch screens with which visitors can call up a high-resolution photo as well as provenance information about any object in the richly filled cases are a victory for useful museum technology. The interactive label format is perfectly suited to the exhibitry. The options for English and Spanish are grayed out here, indicating the intention to add them, but for the moment they are noticeably lacking. The curators make a nod to accessibility by offering French Sign Language, but its purpose is unclear since all of the interpretation is communicated textually here.

The theme of intersectionality—critical to our modern understanding of culture—is happily at the forefront of the discussion upstairs of our future. Visitors play a globalization game on a touch table, matching photos of things like sushi to their place of origin (the California roll matches to the American West). Sensory learners can enjoy the scents of dishes of cuisines from the world over that all feature rice (but, in this visitor’s opinion, the synthetic smells weren’t all that appetizing).

A digital label, complete with a fantastic photo and a full description of the featured object (author photo)
A digital label, complete with a fantastic photo and a full description of the featured object (author photo)
Our interconnectedness comes to the fore at the end of the exhibit hall, where curators urge us to save our common planet in light of ever-pressing natural resource conservation and biodiversity crises. The success of our future is not one devoid of technology, though. We evolve alongside medical technologies such as antibiotics and artificial limbs, which the museum frames as a positive outcome. In a final interactive feature, visitors are invited to imagine the future of the human race in a photo booth; their videos are added to an ever-changing smart wall. The new participatory museum model, the future of audience-curated content in museum education, is structurally a perfect way to show our future.

In Chris Marker’s 1962 science fiction dystopian short film, La Jetée (The Jetty), the original Musée de l’Homme serves as the unchanging location to which Marker’s time traveler returns. The museum, filled with ageless specimens, is frozen and timeless. While the new Galerie de l’Homme honors this legacy, it stresses that time marches on and acknowledges that we are a living, breathing, changing species, much like the museum itself.

Anna Toledano is pursuing a PhD in history of science at Stanford University. A museum professional by training, her research focuses on natural history collecting in early modern Spain. Follow her on Twitter at @annatoledano.


Reflection without Retreat: Brooke Palmieri interviews Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft on “Thinking in Public” and the role intellectuals play in politics.

Interview conducted by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

The longer you stare at the words “public intellectual” the harder they are to decipher. They imply the application of thought to everyday life, they imply that the “intellectual” has something of value to give to a public.” But they are also so grand as to push their own ambitions into the realm of pure fantasy: who counts as an intellectual,” and how are they supposedly improving a public” with their opinions? At least, difficulty grappling with the gap between what a public intellectual is and ought to be is a symptom of reading Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s new book, Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Wurgaft shows just how young the word “intellectual” is— it arises as a description of a type of person in France during the Dreyfus Affair — yet it is powerful enough to influence our evaluation, and exaltation, of thinkers long dead and into the present. Wurgaft considers Strauss, Levinas, and Arendt’s relationship to the practice of philosophy in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, and their studies under Martin Heidegger. But in covering “the intellectual question” at the heart of their works, Thinking in Public is as much about how we write intellectual history as it is about how we might live as intellectual historians. He urges us not to take for granted the value, nor the authority, of “intellectuals”. Instead, the tension between theory and practice, philosophy and politics, must be constantly re-evaluated, and while Wurgaft shows how that process of re-evaluation is the premier question in the writings of Strauss, Levinas, and Arendt alike, Thinking in Public also reads as a provocation to scholars today, creating space to reflect on the value of public engagement in a world where ignoring it is no longer possible.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, author of Thinking in Public: Strauss, Arendt, Levinas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)

JHI: I don’t think you could bring the level of energy and thoroughness to “the intellectual question” that you do if there weren’t some personal ghosts haunting you on the subject of intellectual accountability. How did the topic of Thinking in Public come about? What is your investment in the subject?

BAW: Although I think of it as a traditional work of intellectual history, moving between close readings of texts, contextualization, and interpretation, Thinking in Public is also a counterintuitive book. Where many books about the figure of “the intellectual” advocate for the importance of such persons, or provide a theoretical account of their social or political role, Thinking in Public examines the meaning of discourse about “intellectuals,” especially for a generation of European Jewish thinkers for whom such figures had a particular resonance. Ever since it appeared during the Dreyfus Affair, the figure of “the intellectual” has served as a screen onto which we project our longings, including longings for the life of the mind to influence the political world. Thinking in Public is a book about how Leo Strauss, Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt understood the connections and gulfs between philosophy and politics, and it’s the first full-length comparative study of these three thinkers.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 20.47.45More personally, Thinking in Public is my first book-length work in intellectual history. Thus it’s the book of a writer trying to synthesize and respond to years of education, and to express a set of mature new thoughts. And of course I’m trying to deal with the conceptual errors of my younger self! I arrived at Berkeley to study intellectual history and modern Jewish thought, thinking of writing on the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), on whom I had written an undergraduate thesis at Swarthmore, with the wonderful guidance of Nathaniel Deutsch. At Berkeley, under the mentorship of Martin Jay, I emerged as a scholar of modern European intellectual history more primarily, but many of questions remained from my earlier work on Levinas, and my studies in modern Jewish history with John Efron. I started off wanting to write about efforts to “correct” philosophy in the wake of the Holocaust, which is certainly one way to summarize Levinas’s mature project, but I grew skeptical about Levinas on several levels. For one, his idea of “ethics as first philosophy” began to seem weak to me, and then there was his seeming elision between philosophy and politics – between the ideas of “totality” and “totalitarianism,” you might say. I reached for Arendt and Strauss because, like Levinas, they had studied with Martin Heidegger in their twenties, and, also like Levinas, they made either direct or indirect claims about the way the life of the mind was implicated in the political disasters of the twentieth century. I discovered that the figure of “the intellectual” served all three as a means by which to describe the relationship between philosophy and politics. And the impulse to describe that relationship stemmed not only from political crisis, but also from a sense that philosophy had somehow gone astray. The idea of comparing their views on intellectuals, on the predicaments of modern Jewish identity and history, and on the philosophy-politics dyad, flowed from there fairly naturally.

As your question anticipates, Thinking in Public reflects the quirks of its author, in particular my love of puzzles, paradoxes and contradictions in the life of the mind. Because that’s precisely what the figure of “the intellectual” presents us with. Allowing myself to backtrack for a moment, one of the reasons I practice intellectual history is because I want to understand the way ideas change over time, and to understand the reasons for those changes. Often the ideas in question are crafted by philosophers or social theorists, but here “ideas” could refer to the conceptual infrastructure that guides and supports intellectual life, and the idea of a social type called “intellectuals” or, in the Anglophone world, “public intellectuals,” is one part of that infrastructure, just as institutions such as journals, magazines, and academic departments are practical forms of infrastructure. But some concepts produce more confusion than others, and discussions of “intellectuals” or “public intellectuals” strike me as quite complex and messy, and in a way that apparently attracted me.

Leo Strauss (1899-1973)

I didn’t want to write a book about intellectuals that would celebrate the social role of such persons, try to map their development historically, or tie a basically functionalist account of intellectuals to a basically functionalist account of public political life. Many such books already exist, and it seems to me that their real function is one of ideological contestation rather than scholarship—praising heroes or damning villains, depending on the politics of the author. I wanted to understand how a series of crises, ranging from the apparent weakness of liberal democracy in the Interwar years all the way through the rise of totalitarian governments through a growing awareness of the Holocaust, made philosophers and political theorists reconsider what it meant to practice their crafts, and even reconsider the substance of intellectual life itself.

JHI: There’s a lot to disentangle about the idea of an “intellectual.” In the book it emerges as a noun that is incredibly relational—giving a name and a location to clashes between philosophy and politics above all, but from there between the private and the public, the individual and society. You show how Arendt, Levinas, and Strauss alike think that philosophy and politics are “basically incompatible” on the one hand, but on the other, that incompatibility doesn’t stop them (especially Arendt) from embodying the role in certain circumstances. What do you think causes them to suspend their logic for the sake of action?

BAW: The book has two parts: in the first, I examine Strauss, Levinas and Arendt’s intellectual biographies with a special focus on their discussions of “intellectuals” and their shifting understandings of how philosophy relates to politics. Those are two very different issues, but sometimes complaints about “intellectuals” become surrogates for complaints about the fate of philosophy on the contemporary European scene – or the American one, because both Arendt and Strauss take refuge in the U.S. and ultimately take citizenship. In the second part, I compare their views, and also explore the senses in which their views were influenced by their varied receptions of modern Jewish history. So, on the one hand the book contributes to ongoing conversations about intellectuals, and on the other it’s definitely part of the sub-genres of books on German Jewish thought and on the wave of intellectual émigrés who reached America in the middle of the twentieth century. But I don’t want to appear to believe that there’s a “core” to Arendt, Levinas or Strauss. Intellectual historians may inevitably engage in synopsis and paraphrase as we conduct our work, but I think we need to be careful to show that a thinker’s views do change over time, and that most writers display the all-too-human feature of inconsistency.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

As you say, Hannah Arendt certainlydisplays some of the features we commonly associate with the “intellectual” or “public intellectual,” writing on everything from the rise of totalitarianism to the aftermath of the Holocaust to the Pentagon Papers. But what’s really interesting is that Arendt’s greatest apparent failures to understand her audiences, the times when she genuinely offended the sensibilities of people whose agreement she might have sought, occur in cases when she most badly wants to maintain her right to judge by the most stringent standards of detachment – you might say that these are cases in which she refuses to suspend her logic for the sake of action. And I don’t think she ever saw herself as abandoning her sense of the tension between philosophy and politics, when she wrote for wide audiences; after all, the philosophically-trained Arendt disavowed the identity of “philosopher” in her maturity. She seems to have thought that the sheer importance of the public events she wrote about, demanded the full severity of her method. She was no rhetorician, trying to craft her work to persuade her audience. Instead she invited them to think with her. I suppose this is one reason she’s been criticized as an elitist, but I find her insistence on principles very admirable.

But this leads me to one central theme in Thinking in Public: publicness and the figure of the intellectual don’t produce simple antipathy and rejection, for Arendt, Strauss and Levinas. There’s a real ambivalence, a push and pull. Even Leo Strauss, who took the idea of a philosophy-politics incompatibility further than either Arendt or Levinas, felt that he had to respond to the predicaments presented by publicness in the twentieth century; he just chose to do so as a scholar rather than as a writer for popular audiences. Incidentally, Thinking in Public’s main provocation may be to enthusiastic readers of Arendt and Strauss, because I argue that they shared a view of the incompatibility of the vita contemplativa and the vita activa (to use Arendt’s terms) usually attributed to Strauss; their real difference is that Strauss found a basically non-worldly version of philosophy worthy of endorsement, and Arendt did not.

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995)

But, along with Levinas, Arendt and Strauss understood that in the twentieth century publicness becomes a kind of unavoidable condition, in Heidegger’s terms something into which we find ourselves “thrown.” What I find especially suggestive is that all three thinkers find ways, ranging from Levinas’s “ethics as first philosophy” to Strauss’s picture of the philosopher in the city to Arendt’s late meditations on internal dialogue, to understand how certain kinds of interpersonal encounter are there at the very beginning, coeval with the practice of philosophy and in some cases prior to it. Philosophy may not be a sociable practice, but for all three it is always conditioned by the possibility of interpersonal encounter. Indeed, Strauss thought that political philosophy was developed in order to protect philosophy proper from the chaos and danger to which the political life of the city was vulnerable.

JHI: I realize you’re not trying to argue for the social importance of intellectuals. But, since you wrote Thinking in Public at a time when the humanities are under attack and regularly dismissed, do you think there’s a need to do more than retreat from public life? Wouldn’t that be a form of abjection? It might even mean abandoning the premise that the humanities improve us – and improve the publics through which they circulate.

BAW: I’m really glad you brought this up. I’m not suggesting retreat, I’m trying to describe some of the complexities of the inevitably public life of the mind. In the early twenty-first century attacks on the humanities occur, ironically enough, at a moment when the Internet makes our intellectual lives increasingly public, whether this is through magazines like the Los Angeles Review of Books (for which I often write, these days), or through the circulation of lectures via YouTube, or through all the other forms of intellectual life that make sophisticated scholarship available beyond the colleges and universities. We obviously have to fight to defend the humanities and social sciences within our educational institutions, and this entails public speech. But what kind? What sort of authority or legitimacy do we wish to claim for the humanities, and to which arguments about their power to improve us, via education, do we want to commit ourselves? That’s the kind of conversation Thinking in Public might point towards. After all, Arendt and Strauss both placed special stress on the civic importance of education, and Levinas spent much of his career as a school administrator.

JHI: Wittgenstein’s concept of “family affinities” is a lovely methodological alternative that you draw from to justify the selection of Arendt, Levinas and Strauss. Who do you have family affinities with?

BAW: You have me feeling even more self-conscious than usual! Bluntly put, “family resemblance,” Wittgenstein’s concept, may appeal to me because I have an anthropologist’s appreciation of the subfield of European intellectual history as a kinship network. That network has been shaped not only by the bonds (and the squabbles) between students and teachers, but by all kinds of other ties as well. It would be very funny to try to construct a kinship chart for the subfield, and maybe I will someday. I’m obviously Martin Jay’s student, and while he doesn’t try to shape his students into a “school” I was certainly influenced by the “paraphrastic” or “synoptic” style of intellectual history associated with him – see, for example, his wonderful essay “Two Cheers for Paraphrase: The Confessions of an Synoptic Intellectual Historian.” And I’ve been the beneficiary of a supportive network of his former students, who were becoming established in the field just as I was working on my doctorate.

But “resemblance” conjures more than direct relation, and your question reminds me of my debts outside my own field. This is a point that has been widely appreciated by others, but I’ve long thought most intellectual historians have an elective affinity for the figures they write about. Thus someone writing about economists or art historians or modernization theorists or phenomenologists needs not just technical vocabulary and inside knowledge of these fields, but also a sympathy for their subjects, even to the point of wishing, on some level, to be one of them. When I write about the history of philosophy it’s partly out of my conviction that philosophical questions and propositions are best understood in light of their times, and in light of the prejudices, fortunes and cultural surround of those who posed them. But it’s also because I want to try to pose those questions and propositions anew. My own short list of influences beyond intellectual history, people whose works influenced me greatly, would include Judith Butler (whom I was lucky to work with at Berkeley), Stanley Cavell, James Clifford, Stefan Helmreich (I’ve benefited from his guidance at MIT), and Steven Shapin.

JHI: What is your next project and do you see it relating to Thinking in Public?

BAW: My next or, I suppose, current project is about biotechnology and the future of food, but it’s also a work of intellectual history with a few connecting threads back to Thinking in Public. As I completed the dissertation out of which Thinking in Public eventually grew, I was intrigued by Arendt and Strauss’s shared antipathy towards the idea of progress, especially progress made possible by technology; in the Prologue to The Human Condition, which was published in 1958, Arendt is especially upset about dreams of transforming the human condition by, variously, leaving the Earth for a life on other worlds, or of modifying our own biology in order to transcend such fetters as the human lifespan. Such doubts about the idea of “progress” certainly aren’t unique to Arendt and they bear at least some comparison to criticisms of the idea of progress made by her co-generationists in the Frankfurt School. Both the idea of progress and its critique were striking for me as a graduate student in the Bay Area, which was ground zero for techno-utopianism as I was finishing my doctorate. I became interested in the history of science and technology, but graduate school didn’t afford much time for them.

But it was my good luck that, in 2013, after my first postdoctoral fellowship at the New School had ended, I received a grant from the National Science Foundation, intended for post-Ph.D. scholars who want to add the history and anthropology of science, or other science studies fields, to their areas of competency. The grant funded a second postdoctoral fellowship, in Anthropology at MIT, and it was an incredible gift to have those additional years of study. My new book project, drawing on several years of ethnographic work conducted during that fellowship, focused on precisely the ideas of progress that Arendt once criticized. I’m writing about contemporary efforts to grow meat in laboratories via cell culture techniques, an effort designed to fix the massive problems in our system of animal agriculture and meat production. The resulting book will weave together the anthropology and history of science, intellectual history and food studies, and I hope to make some contributions to the history of the future of food, as well as to the history of the philosophy of life – Arendt’s friend Hans Jonas will be a major figure for me in this book, as will Hans Blumenberg, for whom the categories of the “organism” and “the artifact,” and the tension between them, determine much about modern intellectual history. But if Thinking in Public is a traditional work of European intellectual history, I’m now interested in writing something that feels genuinely new in both method and content.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft lives in Oakland, and is a visiting researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he writes about laboratory-grown meat and the futures of food. A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he studied at Swarthmore College and did his graduate work in European intellectual history at Berkeley. In addition to his scholarly work, he regularly writes on contemporary food culture.  He is @benwurgaft on Twitter. The editors thank him for very kindly agreeing to be interviewed for the JHI Blog.