Folks, today I am beginning something new: the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series. In it, I will present a series of open access, curated texts from the history of anthropological theory. I will keep going until I complete a free anthology suitable for classroom use, or until I get bored. If other minds want to publish in the series, then they can do so too — who knows what projects they may want to cook up…
Here’s a link to the first one: a version of Kroeber’s 1917 article “The Superorganic” that is half the size of the original essay, edited and with an introduction by yours truly. Please feel free to share widely!
Now to the meat of the paper itself: Alfred Kroeber’s “The Superorganic” is a classic of anthropological theory. Originally published in 1917 in American Anthropologist, the article drew important responses from Edward Sapir and Alexander Goldenweiser. Kroeber included material from the article in his textbook Anthropology: Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, and Prehistory. Kroeber’s interest in the superorganic continued to develop in publications like Configurations of Cultural Growth. “The Superorganic” is central to understanding the thought of one of the founders of anthropology and indeed, the history of anthropological theory itself. And yet it is little read today. Why?
There are many reasons: editors of textbooks and anthologies rely on disciplinary histories of anthropology, often transmitted orally, rather than consulting the findings of professional historians of anthropology. Anthropology’s oral history is often forgetful of the richness and sophistication of early Boasian anthropology. But much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Kroeber himself. The essay is extremely long, and larded with multiple examples used to make the same point.It is written with very purple prose — Matthew Bradley once opined that Kroeber “never used one word when three would do” — and his Victorian styles seems incongruous today. This is especially true of the sexist and exoticist tone of his language, which is replete with phrases of male achievement and the mind of the ‘savage’. The essay is clearly written and structured, but there is little explicit signposting. When it comes to speaking for a contemporary audience, then, Kroeber is his own worst enemy.
In this occasional paper I present an edited version of “The Superorganic”. The original essay is around 19,000 words. I have cut it down to just under 8,000. The argument has been preserved in its entirety, including Kroeber’s discussion of historical figures such as Gustave Le Bon, because I believe his criticism of their thought is relevant in a world where their intellectual heirs are still active. In a few cases I have altered verbs and nouns for agreement when deleting text caused them to disagree. These are indicated with brackets. The goal has been to respect Kroeber’s argument and stylistic choices while presenting a slimmed-down version which can be taught in a single session in an undergraduate or graduate theory course.
I hope that this will become one of a series of papers which present early anthropological theory in a form that is accessible to everyone. There is today a tremendous amount of material which is open access. Much Boasian thought is now in the public domain, but is difficult to find and inconvenient to read. And frankly, once must already know what is in it in order to know it is worth finding in the first place. By cleaning and curating a selection of open access, I hope to make open access resources better known and to raise awareness of the actual history of anthropological theory.
Like Savage Minds itself, this series is a homebrew’d, DIY project that does not want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There may be typos or other errors in the manuscript. In future editions these may be corrected.
One of the ironies of “The Superorganic” is that Kroeber never actually uses the word anywhere in the essay except the title. What, then, is his argument? Kroeber begins the essay by asking the question: what is the nature of cultural evolution, and how does it contrast with ‘organic’ evolution — that is to say, with biological evolution as described by the then-new and ground-breaking science of genetics. It’s a question typical of the Boasians: it is in dialogue with biology, but seeks to understand the autonomy of anthropology as a way of knowing.
Kroeber develops this contrast between the organic and cultural (which he also calls the social, or simply ‘civilization’) by way of a third term: mentality. On the one hand, Kroeber sees the mental lives of individuals as the biological substrate on which culture writes itself. On the other hand, individual psychology is ultimately ‘mechanical’ in the sense that chemistry and physics can be used to understand the biological constitution of the individual which results in their mentality. Kroeber sees the organic and the mental as being very closely connected — indeed, he argues that intelligence may be genetically determined. But if the organic causes the mental, the mental does not, then, cause the cultural. Rather, culture operates on its own level of determination.
Predictably, Kroeber argues that organic racial difference cannot affect the growth of civilization. There are no superior races. But he also argues that individual organic endowment cannot affect civilization. Kroeber makes this argument through a discussion of the role of genius in shaping history. Even the greatest inventions, he argues, will only take root if a culture is prepared to accept them. And if a culture is ready for an innovation, then anyone with above average intelligence may be able to invent it. Both Darwin and Wallace imagined evolution, and neither would have been accepted if society was not ready for the idea. Here Kroeber is at his most deterministic, minimizing the role of individual agency and emphasizing what later anthropologists would call ‘structural factors’ in shaping human conduct.
How, then, could culture have originated if it is such a unique phenomena? Kroeber is careful to emphasize that there is no answer to this question, but suggests that human evolution led to a ‘saltation’ in which culture as a qualitative distinct phenomena appeared. This position anticipates current work on culture as an emergent phenomena. It is also important to emphasize that in asking this question, Kroeber clearly sees the importance of biological anthropology and human evolutionary history to cultural anthropology.
Finally, Kroeber argues that the legitimacy of anthropology (or history, these terms are used interchangeably in a way that modern readers may find strange) is tied to the existence of culture. It is always possible to assign ‘mechanical’ causes to behavior because humans are organic. But in doing so, he argues, we miss the cultural dimension of conduct that makes human lives so unique. At the same time, Kroeber argues, art and literature conveys truths that are enduring, but which are aesthetic and not scientific. Thus Kroeber argues that history/anthropology represents a third way of knowing the human which avoids the organic reductionism of science, but which is more concrete than literature. Here Kroeber’s argument is ambiguous, and addresses several questions that future anthropologists will grapple with: Is anthropology a unique discipline because it has a unique subject matter? Or does anthropology have a unique method? Why not prefer a biological reduction of human action? Kroeber occupies several positions here, and the loose ends in this section of his argument would be taken up by future thinkers.
Kroeber is famous for having claimed that anthropology is the “most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities” and yet, ironically, this bon mot never appears in his writings — it was a favorite saying of his that has been passed down to us from anthropology’s oral history. Hopefully the publication of an accessible version of this essay will give readers the opportunity to move beyond this wonderful, epigrammatic summary of Kroeber’s thought and experience the original in all its richness.