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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: The Royal Academy of Sciences May 22, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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An imagined visit by King Louis XIV to the Royal Academy of Sciences, 1671.

OK, Hump-Day History got a bit lost the last couple weeks, but to restore some momentum, we present a special Friday edition.  I hope American readers have a fine long Memorial Day weekend.

The organization of scientific work and its communication necessarily involves the reconciliation of tensions between the inherent elitism of advanced inquiry and the aspirations of inquirers to produce universally valid knowledge, as well as between the individualism of personal initiative and the collectivism of rational agreement.  Cultures of inquiry and invention have a wide variety of choices of how to enact such reconciliations, and their choices often create a conceptual resonance between scientific practice and the culture and politics beyond the community.  This was clearly and influentially the case with the Royal Academy of Sciences, established in Paris in 1666 under the authority of absolutist monarch Louis XIV.

When the Academy was established, it represented a culmination of a decades-long proliferation of circles dedicated to the discussion of philosophical and cultural issues.  In the middle of the seventeenth century, the interests of these circles crossed freely between art and rhetoric, general scholarship, the philosophical reformism of people like René Descartes (Jacques Rohault’s, 1618-1672, “Cartesian Wednesdays” in particular), and, of course, the then-recent vogue for experimental natural philosophy often associated with Francis Bacon (and exemplified by the “Academy” run by Melchisédech Thévenot, c.1620-1692).

The short-lived Accademia del Cimento in Florence (est. 1657), and the Royal Society in London (est. 1660), suggested the possibility that centralizing inquiry (more…)

Primer: Charles Fourier and the Gravity of the Passions in the Wake of Revolution April 30, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Charles Fourier (1772-1837) was the son of successful cloth merchant whose fortune was lost in the Revolution. Fourier himself was almost executed in the Terror. Like Maistre, his philosophy was a response to the failure of the revolutionary project as well as an inquiry into the universality of reason and the problem of the good society. Fourier’s solution to the problem of the ‘good society’ was indeed novel: the ideal state would be brought about by the supremacy of the natural passions. This was an inversion of the traditional order between the regulative capacity of reason and the sublimation of sentiment. Society was to be regulated, in Fourier’s view, not through reason, but through the harmony of natural passion and action.

In 1808, Fourier published the Theory of the Four Movements and the General Destinies, (Cambridge ed.) which presented his vision of the universal history of humanity, the cosmos, and the prospects for a new order. Fourier presented his study as an inquiry into “the General System of Nature.” Such an inquiry was not only prudent but necessary as true happiness was impossible without a complete understanding of the General System. Fourier believed the first branch of the theory, the material, to be “unveiled” by Newton and Leibniz (3.) Fourier cautioned his reader in the preface , “It should be borne in mind that because the discovery announced is more important than all the scientific work done since the human race began, civilized people should concern themselves with one debate only: whether or not I have really discovered the Theory of the Four Movements.” If the answer was in the affirmative then “all economic and moral theories need to be thrown away” and preparations were to begin for the transition “from social chaos to universal harmony” (4.) Fourier’s universal history had thirty-two stages, all ordained by God, which began in savagery and which led, through the phase of civilization, to the subsequent stage of ‘socialism,’ and finally, Harmony. This highest stage would last for 70,000 years, after which humanity would descend back into the savage state and the world would cease to be. (more…)