July 9, 2010
Is there a more formidable intellect less personally foreboding than anthropologist FRANZ BOAS (1858-1942)? Born into a secular Jewish family in Westphalia, Germany, Boas studied math, physics, philosophy, anatomy and even something called “pyschophysics” before geographer Theophald Fischer at Kiel University set him on another path. In 1883 Boas sailed to Baffin Island in the Canadian arctic, where he spent a year among the Inuit. Further studies in Germany and fieldwork among the Kwakiutl in British Columbia led to Boas’ 1887 decision to settle in the United States, where he continued a wide-raging course — teaching, museum work, numerous trips back to the Pacific Northwest. One result of this erudition and experience is that when the chance arose, as it did at Columbia University in 1896, Boas was uniquely qualified to define the entire field of American anthropology, including linguistics and folklore. As might be expected, Boas’ writings are highly complex — a necessary corrective to reductionist theories of human development — but some key points include his rejection of racial hierarchies, an intellectual insistence on cultural relativism, and a strong inclination towards the infinite questions of history rather than the generalization and “laws” of physical science. Reaction to Boasian thought has varied over the years but the work — and his great legacy of humanist activism — remains vital. There was almost more. Shortly after the anthropologist’s death, New York City Councilman Pete Cacchione, Communist from Brooklyn, proposed renaming Riverside Park in Manhattan in Boas’ honor, an idea Parks Commissioner Robert Moses rejected as “impractical.”
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