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


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!

The Mental and the Material (1984) Maurice Godelier

The Mental and the MaterialBig questions in anthropology, economics, history– Primacy of… ideas and/or behavior; universals and/or particulars; social relations and/or social consciousness; or as he handily phrases the problematic of the Mental and the Material. References from the classic fieldwork ethnography’s of the 20th century among “others”– hunter-gatherering, pastoral nomads, peasants ,slave societies in contemporary, medieval, and ancient worlds. Is the formal analytic framework of the “market” developed by Smith, Ricardo et al, accepted and critiqued by Marx useful for understanding all modes of production and social formation? Great intro to work of Karl Polanyi (1880-1960 or so) who , along with a generation of students answered the question with a substantial and loud NO. Great history of economic thought and debate.


Materialist Conceptions.

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”
Friedrich Engels’ at the Grave of Karl Marx
Highgate Cemetery, London. March 1883

I’m fortunate to have studied cultural anthropology in the early 1980s when the third floor of UConn’s Manchester Hall doubled as a hideout for the editorial committee of the journal Dialectical Anthropology. Professor’s Chance, Cook, Faris, and Magubane competed with each other to offer courses with titles like “The Materialist Conception of… just about everything.”

base-superstructureFriedrich Engels was one of the first anthropologists of the new urban industrial modernity. He authored his Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) as a participant-observer of his family factories in Manchester. Forty years later, soon after the death of his friend Marx, he published The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). This book began by using notes Marx had taken from American ethnologist Lewis H. Morgan’s classic work on kinship Ancient Society (1877). Engels extended the work of both by theorizing the matrilineal clan, not the patriarchal family, as the original domestic institution in human society. “Daddy Knows Best” was born on the hip of private property in land. [see: mode of production; productive forces and relations of production].