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Cosmology and “Synoptic” Intellectual History September 23, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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The influence of anthropological ideas on historiography is widely acknowledged, if too often boiled down to a slogan: “approach history as a stranger,” or “know the past on its own terms.”  On this blog, Chris Donohue has been revisiting the problems informing the interpretive approaches of Malinowski’s “functionalism” and Lévi-Strauss’ “structuralism”.  By grounding ritualistic behaviors in issues of social cohesion and cognitive strategy, these approaches bring sense to activities that, on their surface, seem arbitrary.  Applied to familiar societies, they also form part of a trend stretching over a century that makes our own social behaviors seem less explicitly rational, if not altogether less rational.  For historians of science, this is of great interest, because it helps reanalyze scientific practice in ways removed from overt scientific reasoning.

Moving beyond scientific practice as simply a particular mode of reasoning was part and parcel of the Great Escape from the philosophy of science.  But I’d now like to move beyond the limitations of abandoning philosophy, to concentrate more on the generative ideas in the same historiographical period (roughly, the fabled ’80s), which have ceased to be articulated now that that period’s gains have themselves been boiled down to basic slogans.

The most important anthropological concept that has vaporized into the atmosphere is the cognitive cosmology, an idea which holds that every society, or really every individual, necessarily creates their own sense of what is in the world and how the world works, which allows people to cope with their surroundings.  I’d like to very roughly sketch out a preliminary sense of how this idea worked in the historiography. (more…)

Primer: Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Problem of Mind July 26, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Claude Lévi-Strauss (b.1908-), according to the well-known anthropologist, the “functionalist” and  student of Bronislaw Malinowski, Edmund Ronald Leach, is the most famous representative of the first of dual traditions of social anthropology.  The founder of the first tradition was the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941).  According to Leach, Frazer was a man “of monumental learning who had no first-hand acquaintance with the lives of primitive people about whom he wrote.”  (Claude-Levi Strauss, 1)  Rather than study a culture in minute detail, Frazer wished to understand the primitive consciousness on a world-historical scale.  The progenitor of the second tradition was Bronislaw Malinowski who “spent most of his academic life analyzing the results of research which he had himself had personally conducted over a period of four years in a single small village in far off Melanesia.”  Malinowski was far more interested in how an individual communities social systems “functioned” than in developing a grand narrative of the primitive consciousness.  Although not in the “style” of Frazer, Levi-Strauss is more concerned with the discovery of true “facts” about a general “human mind.”  He is less concerned, according to Leach, with the “organization of any particular society or class of societies.”  For Leach, this difference is “fundamental.”

Leach, while disagreeing with much of Levi-Strauss’ work, nonetheless had a sound understanding of Levi-Strauss’ argument.  According to Leach, structuralism begins with the biological faculties, quite similar to the philosophical anthropology of Hans Jonas and Arnold Gehlen in Germany, articulated around the same time.   The phenomenon perceived by the human mind, “have the characteristics which we attribute to them because of the way our senses operate and the way the human brain is designed to order and interpret the stimuli which are fed into it.”  As man is consistently (more…)

Primer: Malinowski and the Problem of Culture April 9, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Bronisław Kasper Malinowski (1884-1942) was the founder of the branch of Social Anthropology known as functionalism.  Functionalism maintains that every aspect of the culture of a people, past or present, serves a purpose for the long-term maintenance of that society.   Malinowski inaugurated a new standard for field-work, and served as an exemplar of ethnographic observation and inference for a generation of anthropologists.  As a theoretician and as a individual, opinion of Malinowski remains sharply polarized.


The British social anthropologist, Audrey I. Richards, as related in Jerry D. Moore’s Visions of Culture (2008), observed that Malinowski’s concept of culture was “one of his most stimulating contributions to the anthropological thought of his day.”  Conversely, the anthropologist Edmund Leach opposed Malinowski’s contributions to ethnographic fieldwork to his dubious theoretical formulations.  Leach noted that while Malinowski altered “the whole mode and purpose of ethnographic inquiry” he also made “numerous theoretical pronouncements of a general, abstract,sociological kind.”  Malinowski’s conception of “Culture” amounted to a “platitudinous bore.”  According to Malinowski’s former student, Raymond Firth, Malinowski the man was either loved or hated, lauded as an artist or derided as a “pretentious Messiah of the credulous.” (more…)