Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 22, 2017

A follow-up on the Enlightenment

Filed under: philosophy — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Was Franz Boas an “early intellectual debunker” of pseudo-science? Not exactly

When I check the WordPress dashboard of my blog each day, I am always curious to see who has linked to the Unrepentant Marxist. A couple of days ago, I discovered that Ross Wolfe had linked to my blog as part of his response to the Jacobin article by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss that made an amalgam between anti-Semitism and anti-Enlightenment philosophy, whose exponents ranged from William James to Martin Heidegger in scattergun fashion. For Frim and Fluss (what evocative Hobbit-like names), Marx was part of the “Enlightenment” tradition and once philosophers such as Nietzsche began to criticize that tradition, it opened a Pandora’s Box that led to fascism.

Much of Wolfe’s commentary is couched in the sort of language found in the grad school milieu of the Platypus club that expelled him for some reason a few years ago: “Even Ideologiekritik ought to be grounded in something more solid than Foucauldean discourse analysis or Derridean textual marginalia.” My mind tends to wander when I read this sort of thing.

I raced forward to see what Wolfe had to say about my article. Here it was:

Fluss and Frim are doubtless right that the Enlightenment is presently under attack by a host of both antimodernist and postmodernist ideologues, some even purporting to be from the Left (like the “unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect, who’s relinquished his previous support for Sokal in order to better crusade against the dastardly Vivek Chibber). A brilliant rebuttal to Proyect’s tendentious quotation of Kant’s anthropology, as well as the still more banal survey of Diderot, Voltaire, Holbach, Kant, and Hegel conducted over at Suburban Idiocies, is once again presented by Goldner: “Polling Enlightenment figures for their views on slavery and race is… is an extremely limited approach to the question, susceptible to the worst kind of anachronism. What was remarkable about the Enlightenment, in a world context, was not that some of its distinguished figures supported slavery and white supremacy but that significant numbers of them opposed both. Slavery as an institution flourished in the colorblind sixteenth-century Mediterranean slave pool. None of the participating societies, Christian or Muslim, European, Turkish, Arab or African, ever questioned it.”

I might try to defend myself against the charge of being an “antimodernist” if I knew what that meant. How does one take a position on “modernity”? Does that mean being a Luddite or wearing clothing made of hemp? Or using a typewriter instead of a Macbook? I really have no idea. In terms of me being a “postmodernist ideologue”, this makes about as much sense as describing someone like Jim Blaut a “postmodernist” because he would have polemicized against Chibber or anybody else espousing Political Marxism.

Goldner is never at a loss for words. The article cited by Wolfe contains 17,000 of them and there’s not much point in replying, even if I had the time. I am interested in the final paragraph, which is the real takeaway:

For many of these post-Enlightenment developments, the Enlightenment itself is of course not to be blamed. Many Social Darwinists, eugenicists, suffragettes, Progressives and socialists ca. 1900 undoubtedly identified with the Enlightenment and thought their ideas of “science”, including “scientific” demonstration of the innate inferiority of peoples of color, were an extension of the Enlightenment project, and the preceding discussion shows they in fact had their Enlightenment predecessors. Nevertheless, the early intellectual debunkers of this pseudo-science, such as Boas, were also heirs to the Enlightenment. When the Enlightenment is remembered today, it is not Bernier, Buffon and Blumenbach who first come to mind, but rather Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Kant (as philosopher, not as anthropologist)  and Paine, and one could do worse than to summarize their legacy as the debunking of mystification. The Enlightenment contributed to the Western theory of race, and the real separation of culture from biology was the work of post-Enlightenment figures such as Marx, and above all the real historical movement of the past century. Nevertheless, when the Enlightenment is attacked today by Christian, Jewish, Moslem and Hindu fundamentalists for separating religion and state, or by the new biologism of the New Right or the Afrocentrists for its universalism, or by the post-modernists as an ideology of and for “white European males”, it is the best of the Enlightenment, the “Liberté- Egalité- Fraternité” of the Parisian and Haitian masses in 1794, and the best post-Enlightenment heirs such as Marx, which are the real targets.  Such attacks remind us that, once critique is separated from the limitations of the Enlightenment outlined here, there is plenty of mystification still to be debunked.

The problem with all this is that falls within the purview of the history of ideas, which is exactly what I thought was a mistake. If Heidegger was a symbol of the consequences of anti-Enlightenment thinking, how do you explain his influence on his two students Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas who could never be confused with the alt-right that Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss were amalgamating with anti-Enlightenment thought?

Perhaps Goldner was not familiar enough with Franz Boas when he cited him as one of the “intellectual debunkers of this pseudo-science”. If you’ve spent any time studying the relationship between anthropologists and native peoples, you’d be hesitant to endorse him.

While at the Museum of Natural History, Boas decided that Eskimos were suitable objects for study, because they represented a kind of “living fossil” that demonstrated a connection to Ice Age hunters in Europe. So eager was he to have some useful specimens that he commissioned Robert Peary to bring back some back from an Arctic expedition on his ship “The Hope.” Some 30,000 New Yorkers paid 25 cents each in 1896 to view the six Eskimos that Peary retrieved from their home. Later on they were transported to the basement of the Museum in order to be studied. When a reporter asked Boas how they were kept busy, he replied:

Oh, we try to give them little things to keep them busy. Their work doesn’t amount to much, but they have made some carvings, and occupied themselves either indoors or around the place with any employment that suggested itself to them. They do not seem discontented.

Only 8 months after their arrival, four of the six Eskimos had died of tuberculosis. One returned to Greenland and the last, a young boy named Minik who was the son of Qisuk, one of the deceased, remained in the custody of William Wallace, the Superintendent of the Museum. When Minik learned that tribal customs required the bones of ancestors be interred in their homeland, he was convinced by Boas and Wallace that a burial of the bones in New York City would suffice. When he reached the age of 15, he learned that Boas and Wallace had lied to him. The skeleton was being warehoused in the Museum’s basement, alongside hundreds of other bones that belonged to indigenous peoples. In “Skull Wars,” a book focused on the Kennewick man controversy, David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the Museum of Natural History, recounts Boas’s flippant attitude toward the entire affair:

Pressed as to why the museum could claim Qisuk’s body when relatives were still alive, Boas replied, “Oh, that was perfectly legitimate. There was no one to bury the body, and the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.” When an Evening Mail reporter wondered if the body didn’t actually “belong” to Minik, Boas bristled “Well, Minik was just a little boy, and he did not ask for the body. If he had, he might have got it.”

Minik’s lifelong struggle to retrieve his father’s skeleton and return them to his native soil has been documented in Ken Harper’s “Give Me My Father’s Body: The Story of Minik, the New York Eskimo.” A review of this book by Rhode Island College professor Russell A. Potter includes this observation on the cold-blooded “scientific” stance of Boas and Alfred Kroeber, a student of Boas’s who became famous for his writings on “Ishi”, the last hunter-gatherer in California.

They were brought to a damp basement room, and as might have been foreseen, most of them soon came down with tuberculosis, against which they had little resistance. Studied, even as they were dying, by some of the most prominent anthropologists of the day, including Franz Boas (also remembered as Zora Neale Hurston’s thesis advisor) and Alfred Kroeber (“discoverer” of Ishi and father of science-fiction novelist Ursula K. LeGuin), their last days were spent in agonizing pain without benefit of meaningful medical attention.

Considering that Franz Boas was one of the foremost critics of racial doctrines in the US, one must surely wonder about the nature of such a social science. I think the key to understanding this kind of tunnel vision is unequal power relationships. No matter how enlightened the scientist, there is a built-in imbalance in the way that one side is doing the studying and the other side is being studied. This imbalance rests on economic inequality. “Primitive” peoples simply lack the capital to fund scientific expeditions of the sort that Boas thought useful. Historical laws of capital accumulation made it impossible for Eskimos to send ships to countries like the United States to retrieve specimens to be studied in Greenland or Alaska. Fundamentally, anthropology rests on imperialist inequality no matter the good intentions of the scholars involved.



  1. I was perhaps a bit hasty in lumping you in with the blogger who runs Suburban Idiocies, who quite literally just lists quotes by Enlightenment figures about the Jews. This seemed to me almost a perfect embodiment of what Goldner was criticizing as “polling Enlightenment figures.” And then I saw your post, which opened with one of Kant’s casually racist statements from his anthropology, and thought it was more of the same. (Maybe worth pointing out that the portrait you feature in that post is of Jacobi — one of the counterenlightenment figures Fluss and Frim attack as precursors to the Alt-Right — and not Kant. But you’re hardly the only person to mistake that particular portrait of Jacobi for Kant; major publications (including The Guardian have also repeatedly done this).

    As for Chibber, I like him more for his critique of postcolonial theory than his particular brand of Marxism, which seems a kind of synthesis of analytic Marxism and Brennerism. While I like Brenner more than some of his followers (Comninel in particular sucks), I disagree with him about bourgeois revolutions. I suppose that I also agree more with your position of twenty years ago more than your current stance on Enlightenment. Sorry if I misrepresented the gist of your response to Fluss and Frim, however.

    Comment by Ross Wolfe — March 22, 2017 @ 6:28 pm

  2. Between the mind and the world stands cognition and our cognitive abilities.

    Our cognition and its workings depend on the cognitive *tools* we employ.

    Hence, Hegel’s contribution: He resolved the dualism of ‘mind/matter’ by introducing the factor of the tools our mind uses to investigate and interact with reality (his Phenomenology of Spirit, I am told, is a contribution to that endeavor). It is those intellectual tools that we can investigate to see if they’re working or not.

    This is why Marx intervened to redefine and reestablish ‘political economy’ on a new footing, so as to provide us with better tools (cognitive-investigative tools), so that as a species we could intervene in our reality more effectively.

    This also why Lenin says, “Without a revolutionary theory there cannot be a revolutionary movement.”

    Therefore, the only things we can improve on, in order to understand and change our social reality, are the tools with which we interrogate social reality.

    Example: one cognitive tool humans use is ‘inductive reasoning’: Based on a number of samples, we derive general rules or laws, or conclusions regarding certain patterns. For example, in some countries (including the U.S.), based on testing a small percent of the cows to be slaughtered, the authorities determine the safety of all the beef available for sale to the customers. In Japan, however, they do not rely on such inductive conclusions when it comes to their beef intake; they examine every single cow that’s slaughtered. In this case, we can say that the Japanese use better cognitive tools when it comes to their beef consumption.

    As a species still in development (still ‘becoming’), we can only improve the intellectual tools we have, as well as invent new ones, if we are to improve our social conditions. That’s all we can do.

    If Enlightenment is/was anything, it is the contribution to the argument that ‘belief’ (such as religious belief) is not the best cognitive tool when it comes to understanding as well as transforming our social reality. That’s about as basic as you can get without disagreement, and that is about all we need to proceed forward.

    No need to fight ‘Enlightenment Battles’ (albeit, now in the language or modernity v. postmodernity, etc.) any more than we need to prove that the Earth spins around the Sun, and not the other way around.

    Comment by Reza — March 22, 2017 @ 8:31 pm

  3. Boas’s observational “methodology” is a great example of ‘cognitive tools’ in need of examination.

    His method of paying Robert Peary to physically bring back six Eskimos from his Arctic expedition is akin to a microbiologist’s method of isolating certain microorganisms in a petri dish to study their growth conditions, etc. Except that the microbiologist actually does know to provide the proper conditions for the growth of the microorganism.

    Boas’s method, more precisely, is as full of flaws as isolating a bee from its natural habitat of flowers and the hive to gain insight into a bee’s behavior. The racism apparent in the analogy is not mine; it’s inherent in Boas’s methodology.

    The aspect of ‘observation’ has been a contentious bone in discussions of scientific methodology for a long time: How does the observational methods/instruments change the object of the observation, the thing under study?

    Clearly some observational methods are more destructive of the things under study. Removing a bee from its natural habitat and putting it under a glass container to see how it behaves destroy any chances of getting a realistic understanding of how a bee behaves. Placing hidden cameras in the bee’s actual and natural environment is a much better option. Discovery Channel has it better than Boas.

    So, the only thing that can get a ‘scientist’ to go with the total destruction of the setting of an entity’s actual and natural existential conditions must be his or her *belief* that natural entities behave in the same exact manner regardless of the conditions they find themselves in.

    In other words, only an anti-materialist with a very extremely limited imagination could have done such a monstrosity of an ‘experiment’ as did Boas to understand how the Eskimos ‘behave’.

    “Pressed as to why the museum could claim Qisuk’s body when relatives were still alive, Boas replied, “Oh, that was perfectly legitimate. There was no one to bury the body, and the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.” When an Evening Mail reporter wondered if the body didn’t actually “belong” to Minik, Boas bristled “Well, Minik was just a little boy, and he did not ask for the body. If he had, he might have got it.””

    Boy … My favorite discourse analyst, Bakhtin, would have had a field day of tearing into that bit. The many levels of ignorance demonstrated by this excerpt is beyond me. But all of them stem from his belief system, not from a scientific-inquiry perspective.

    Comment by Reza — March 22, 2017 @ 9:51 pm

  4. Right on Proyect. Sloppy continental ‘philosophers’ are not worth your time. I endorse engaged ethnographies in anthropology, which emerged on the basis of a problematization of imperialism, and attempts to break down the subject-object relation in studying other cultures.

    Comment by Lawrence — March 24, 2017 @ 11:26 pm

  5. “Unfortunately Ishi’s arrival coincided with the worsening health of Kroeber’s first wife Henrietta from tuberculosis. She finally passed in 1913. Soon after, Kroeber himself became afflicted with an inner ear ailment that left him deaf in the left ear for the rest of his life. He meanwhile studied Ishi, his tool making, his language, and recollections of tribal life, piecing together the tragic story of the extermination of his tribe by white settlers. In 1916 Ishi himself died of tuberculosis.”

    Comment by Sandi Brockway — April 5, 2017 @ 7:03 am

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