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humanistic psychology and our discontents
When Abe Maslow was a young man, cultural relativism was the cutting edge of social science. The originator of the concept, Franz Boas, chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University, was a towering figure. An outspoken opponent of racism and anti-Semitism, "Papa Franz" fought to put anthropology on a more scientific basis. He became a mentor to talented Jews and women, giving them a chance to further their careers at a time when the doors of academia were largely closed to them. For better or worse, he also personified the belief that the true intellectual must be a cosmopolitan, upholding the interests of science and universal humanitarian principles over parochial concerns such as loyalty to community or country.
Born in 1858, Boas grew up in Germany, where he studied science, philosophy and geography before signing up for an Arctic surveying expedition in 1883. During the course of this adventure, he lived among the Eskimos of Baffin Island, learned their language, and came away convinced that "although the character of their life is so rude as compared to civilized life, the Eskimo is a man as we are; that his feelings, his virtues, and his shortcomings are based in human nature, like ours."
Eighteen months afterthis return home from the Arctic, Boas emigrated to the United States, where he joined his uncle Dr. Abraham Jacobi, a prominent New York City pediatrician. Settling at last on the field of anthropology, he finished his doctorate and did fieldwork among the Indians of the Pacific Northwest. Boas was far from the first white scholar to admire primitive peoples and appreciate the often tragic consequences of their contacts with contemporary civilization. What set Boas apart from other researchers was less his attitude toward other cultures than a grudge against his own. He came from a family that regarded social revolution almost as a duty. Dr. Jacobi, in an earlier life, had been a friend of Marx and Engels and had served time in jail for his part in the Revolution of 1848. Boas himself explained:
My parents had broken through the shackles of dogma.... Thus, I was spared the struggle against religious dogma that besets the lives of so many young people.... The psychological origins of the implicit belief in the authority of tradition, which was so foreign to my mind and which shocked me at an earlier time, became a problem that engaged my thoughts for many years. In fact, my 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.
When Boas joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1896, American anthropology was controlled by the Darwinists—more accurately known as cultural evolutionists because their school of thought actually predated Darwin. The cultural evolutionists sought to explain the social and biological forces underlying historical trends. Typical of the school was Henry Lewis Morgan, who saw societies as evolving from a state of savagery (nomadism) through barbarism (agriculture, with the clan as the primary social unit) and on to civilization (marked by the development of writing, codified laws and monogamy). Central to the evolutionist way of thinking was the belief that civilization was progressing toward ever more humane forms of social organization. Almost inevitably, it glorified Anglo-Saxon culture and values as the acme of human accomplishment so far.
Cultural evolutionism certainly had its shortcomings. Like so much social science theory, it was a thick stew concocted out of meager scraps of fact and large helpings of dubious supposition. At the time, the science of genetics was in its infancy, which didn't prevent the proponents of cultural evolutionism from making sweeping statements about race and heredity, whose importance they greatly overestimated. At times their rhetoric was blatantly racist, especially when they got involved in political debates like the controversy over immigration from Central and Southern Europe that happened to be raging during Boas's early years at Columbia. Those of us who attended school during the 1950s may recall using outdated textbooks that reprinted William Z. Ripley's comparison of the long-headed (and, thus, presumably superior) Nordics, the round-skulled Alpines, and the positively beetle-browed Mediterranean type. Darwinist biologist H. S. Jennings warned that interracial marriage could lead to physically deformed offspring, and the popularizer Madison Grant, a lawyer by training, published a remarkably bigoted screed called Passing of the Great Race, which went so far as to suggest that Jesus Christ may have been of Nordic stock.
As a Jew and a Central European, Boas took such claims personally. But he seems to have been at least as incensed by the spirit of Anglo-Saxon triumphalism that animated so many of his colleagues, men he considered second-rate provincials at best. He took on the evolutionists by advancing the equally extreme position that culture was purely a social construct, which owed nothing whatsoever to differences in race or heredity. The debate between the evolutionists and Boas is often discussed in terms of the nature vs. nurture conundrum. An evolutionist would argue, for example, that factors like the social status of women or the centrality of the family unit are influenced by biological differences between the sexes. The Boasian would counter that only environmental factors matter, and he would not be surprised to discover individual cultures in which women hold power and parents feel no particular attachment to their own children.
But perhaps the most important byproduct of the triumph of Boasian anthropology was that it stripped away the faith in the inevitability of progress that had done so much to fuel the optimism and energy of early-twentieth-century America. The Boasian school made no distinctions between "higher" and "lower" cultures. Nor did it attempt to explain why some civilizations flourish and expand while others remain localized or disappear altogether. What can't be explained often comes to seem illegitimate and even criminal, if only by default. And there are indications that this is what Boas himself believed. In an 1894 speech to the anthropology section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Boas portrayed Western civilization as a kind of cancer, uniquely destructive in its impact. Whereas in earlier times, meetings of cultures may have been relatively benign, Boas explained, the spread of "the culture represented by the modern white" had given the world little beyond the proliferation of lethal diseases and a flood of cheap, mass-produced goods. Moreover, "the rapid dissemination of Europeans over the whole world cut short all promising beginnings which had arisen in various regions."
The notion that cultural clashes were once benign would no doubt come as news to victims of the Mongol hordes, Viking raiding parties or the armies of Rameses the Great. Nor is it clear why "white" civilization, uniquely, should be held responsible for wiping out cultures that never existed but might, theoretically, have come into being. The suggestion that the spread of Western civilization had tragic implications was exactly the sort of broad, unscientific generalization that Boas objected to in the works of the Darwinists. One can't help noticing, however, that it provided a justification for the promotion of anthropological studies. Boas imbued his students with an urgent sense of mission. They must make haste to travel to the most remote parts of the globe and document threatened cultures in the hope of discovering "promising" solutions to the social problems that continued to vex Europeans and Americans.
Cultural relativism—the premise that standards of good and evil vary from one culture to the next—is to some degree a truism. Whether Franz Boas was also a moral relativist is debatable. A Neo-Kantian, Boas was educated in a tradition that upheld the existence of natural law, and he believed that human beings possessed a moral faculty called Herzensbildung, or structure of the heart, which gave them an innate awareness of right and wrong. Presumably, therefore, right and wrong existed as ideals, independent of culture.
However, as a matter of opinion, if not necessarily theory, Boas found some cultures more sympathetic than others. Although he could enter into the minds of Baffin Island Eskimos and Kwakiutl Indians, he seemed utterly incapable of empathizing with the culture of his adopted homeland. A socialist, an atheist and a pacifist, he was against almost everything his native-born colleagues held sacred, and he wasn't slow to take issue with the prevailing wisdom. He explained in one article that America's acquisition of colonies during the Spanish-American War had permanently soured him on the American dream. He publicly opposed the entry of the United States into World War I, and his ensuing battle with the president of Columbia University led to his decision to teach his undergraduate courses at the women's college, Barnard, instead of at Columbia College.
The evolutionists had a tendency to see race as the explanation for everything that had happened in history. Boas often took the opposite position, identifying the "racial snobbery" of Anglo-Americans as the root cause of social conflict—for instance, the conflict over immigration. In reality, this debate probably had less to do with arguments over the size of the Central European brain than with the use of imported labor to drive wages down and keep workers from organizing. Immigrants were filling low-wage jobs that might otherwise have gone to native-born workers, including blacks. Such economic and social considerations, however, rarely intruded on Boas's thoughts.
Boas was perhaps the first to promote black studies as a means to improving race relations. In a letter to Andrew Carnegie, he suggested creating an "African Institute" that would showcase the accomplishments of African civilization. Addressing the all-black 1906 graduating class of Atlanta University, he deprecated the strategies of education and self-help, telling the graduates that it was useless to court the approval of their "white neighbors," which would never be forthcoming. Instead, they should look for inspiration in the glories of the African past. His evocative description of the "old Negro kingdoms" of West Africa made a deep impression on one of his listeners, W. E. B. Du Bois, who later wrote, "I was too astonished to speak. All of this I had never heard."
The dueling scar on Boas's cheek, a souvenir of his student days in Germany, testified to his combative nature. He thought of himself as a perennial outsider, the victim of both anti-German and anti-Jewish prejudice. In fact, he was rather well connected. His uncle, Dr. Jacobi, had married a daughter of publisher George Putnam, and as a result Boas was related by marriage to the influential director of Harvard's Peabody Museum. Adept at academic politics, Boas succeeded in placing his students in influential positions in universities and professional organizations. Many of his clashes with colleagues had less to do with theory than with battles over academic turf. Others were the result of his famous temper. Boas was one of those humanitarians who always seem to be angry at somebody. After World War I, when a young graduate student, Ralph Linton, made the mistake of appearing in uniform to apply for a job, Boas treated him so rudely that Linton never forgave him. In 1918, Boas wrote to the Nation announcing that he planned to vote Socialist as a protest against the Espionage Act, which, he complained, had destroyed freedom of speech and created a climate of fear. A year later, in a letter to the same publication, he denounced four American anthropologists as spies and called for them to be drummed out of the profession because they had, allegedly, shared information about conditions in Mexico with the U.S. government.
Boas sounded very much like a cultural relativist when he publicly decried the "intolerant attitude" of Americans who failed to understand that the individual liberties they enjoyed might not be appropriate for other nations. The American, he wrote, "claims that the form of his own Government is the best, not only for himself but for all of mankind.... I have always been of the opinion that we have no right to impose our ideals on other nations, no matter how strange it may seem to us that they enjoy the kind of life they lead." However, such sentiments did not stop Boas from finding some forms of government more attuned to his universalist principles. In his later years, he signed so many pro-Soviet petitions that columnist Walter Winchell nicknamed him "Columbia's number one Commie."
Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict weren't necessarily Boas's most important pupils from the point of view of academic anthropology, but over the years they did the yeoman's work of popularizing his views, in the process adding a few psychosexual twists of their own.
A woman who planned to become famous even before she had decided on a profession, Margaret Mead became a public figure who for decades personified anthropology in the minds of most Americans. In her later years Mead transformed herself into a Druid-priestess figure who invariably wore earth-toned dresses, a flowing cape and Hobbit-like shoes. As an all-purpose expert, she held forth in the pages of the Ladies' Home Journal and other popular magazines on childrearing and sexuality, but also on UFOs (suggesting that aliens are keeping watch over us to make sure we don't set off a nuclear chain reaction) as well as astrology and telepathic communication with houseplants.
Mead understood very well that a scholar has influence in the public sphere only insofar as she is provocative and entertaining. When I heard her speak at Swarthmore College in the mid-1960s, she created a stir by suggesting that placing cameras on street corners and in public buildings would be an effective way to reduce crime; Samoan villagers didn't object to having their neighbors know their business, so why should we? Video surveillance was a novel idea at the time and it was impossible to tell whether Mead actually favored the plan, but she had certainly sized up her audience and knew that it would get their attention. During the informal discussion that followed, Mead perched on a sofa in the Commons Room, as serene as visiting royalty, while overexcited students huffed and puffed over their objections.
Ruth Fulton Benedict, by contrast, was a reclusive woman who saved her private thoughts for her journals. Born in 1887, Benedict claimed that her earliest memory was of being lifted up to view her dead father lying in his coffin. She was just twenty-one months old, and her father, Dr. Frederick Fulton, a homeopathic physician, had succumbed to a mysterious fever contracted during the course of his medical studies. His widow, Bertrice, was left the sole support of Ruth and her younger sister, Margery. While bringing up her daughters, Bertrice worked as a schoolteacher in St. Louis, the principal of a private academy in Minnesota, and a librarian in Buffalo, New York. According to Ruth, her mother never got over the loss of her husband and gave herself over to a "cult of grief." Whether or not this was so, Ruth herself was certainly preoccupied with death. In an autobiographical essay written in middle age, she describes her lifelong awareness of the contrast between her mother's reality of everyday cares and sadness on the one hand, and "the world of my father, which was the world of death and which was beautiful."
A withdrawn child, Ruth spent her free time with an imaginary playmate in a fantasy realm she called the Delicious Mountains. When she started school, her teachers recognized that she was partially deaf, perhaps as a result of contracting measles as an infant. In spire of her hearing impairment, Ruth excelled in the classroom. At home, however, she was subject to fearsome tantrums. Screaming and kicking at anything that got in her way, she would rage on until she was overcome by the urge to vomit, or until she wore herself out and cried herself to sleep. One day when she was eleven, her frantic mother forced her to swear on a Bible that she would never lose her temper again. Amazingly, the spells ended, though Ruth remained subject to mood swings and migraine headaches.
Excerpted from the road to MALPSYCHIA by JOYCE MILTON. Copyright © 2002 by Joyce Milton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Foreword: The Road to Eupsychia||1|
|1||The Rise of Relativism||11|
|5||Good Boy No More||127|
|7||The Man Question||205|
|8||The Malpsychian Classroom||235|
|9||The Deconstructed Self||267|