Boas: "An Anthropologist's
This essay was published
in 1938 in The Nation
147: 201-204. This is a selection from the part of it reprinted in George
Stocking's The Shaping of American Anthropology,
pp. 41-2, under the title: "The Background of my Early Thinking."
The background of my early thinking was a German home in which the
ideals of the revolution of 1848 were a living force. My father, liberal,
but not active in public affairs; my mother, idealistic, with a lively
interest in public matters, the founder about 1854 of the kindergarten
of my home town, devoted to science. My parents had broken through the
shackles of dogma. My father had retained an emotional affection for the
ceremonial of his parental home, without allowing it to influence his intellectual
freedom. Thus I was spared the struggle against religious dogma that besets
the lives of so many young people.
An early intense interest in nature and a burning
desire to see everything that I heard or read about dominated my youth....
My university studies were a compromise. On account
of my intense emotional interest in the phenomena of the world, I studied
geography; on account of my intellectual interest, I studied mathematics
and physics. In preparing my doctor's thesis I had to use photometric methods
to compare intensities of light. This led me to consider the quantitative
values of sensations. In the course of my investigation I learned to recognize
that there are domains of our experience in which the concepts of quantity,
of measures that can be added or subtracted like those with which I was
accustomed to operate, are not applicable.
My reading of the writings of philosophers stimulated
new lines of thought, and my previous interests became overshadowed by
a desire to understand the relation between the objective and the subjective
worlds. Opportunities to continue this line of study by means of psychological
investigations did not present themselves, and by a peculiar compromise,
presumably largely dictated by the desire to see the world, I decided to
make a journey to the Arctic for the purpose of adding to our knowledge
of unknown regions and of helping me to understand the reaction of the
human mind to natural environment. A year of life spent as an Eskimo among
Eskimos had a profound influence upon the development of my views, not
immediately, but because it led me away from my former interests and toward
the desire to understand what determines the behavior of human beings.
The first result of my attempts to explain human behavior as a result of
geographical environment was a thorough disappointment. The immediate influences
are patent, and the results of this study were so shallow that they did
not throw any light on the driving forces that mold behavior.
The psychological origin of the implicit belief
in the authority of tradition, which was so foreign to my mind and which
had 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.
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