The Western Illusion of Human Nature, Marshall Sahlins (2008)

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Marshall Sahlins is a challenge and a reward. He has a few short works in this great U of Chicago pamphlet series the “Prickly Paradigm Press” that he contributed late in his career. Sahlins, along with Eric Wolf, Sidney Mintz and Clifford Geertz were the anthropologists, all Americans, all died in past few years, that I was led to feast on as an anthropology student at UConn in the early 1980s. I always remember the word play sub-title of one of Sahlins’s Polynesia monographs “Historical Myth and Metaphorical Reality”– this history/anthropology mix of interpretive approach common to all four of these social/cultural theorists, less so with Geertz, made great impact on my interests to this day. This extended essay “Human Nature” is rewarding. Took valuable notes. As expected chock full of pithy powerful near aphorisms of scorn not quite disguising his deep concern about the balance of power in the conversation over the various “determinations” we humans point to about ourselves– he goes against the grain, against the instrumental power of the Genetic: “seeming ability to explain all manner of cultural forms by an innate disposition to competitive self-interest”; the Economic: “autonomous individuals devoted singularly to their own satisfactions by rational choice”; and the latest Evolutionary Psychology: “making an all purpose social science of the selfish gene.” As you would expect he backs this critique with a variety of ethnographic material– the cultural other.. but not exclusively by any means. Sahlins goes deep into the West itself– the classics, the christian, the enlightenment and manages a rigorous destabilizing of this “human nature.” From Kant: “Man is an animal that requires a master” but the case is hopeless “as the master himself is an animal that needs a master.” Enjoy!

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