Bookmark, cite or print this page The postulate of "the psychic unity of mankind" states that all human beings, regardless of culture or race, share the same basic psychological and cognitive make-up; we are all of the same kind. The postulate was originally formulated by Adolf Bastian , the "father of German anthropology", who was a classical German humanist and a cultural relativist , who believed in the intrinsic value of cultural variation. Bastian passed it on to his similarly minded student, Franz Boas , who, as the "father of American anthropology", transmitted it on to all of his students. Edward B. Tylor introduced it to 19th century British evolutionist anthropology, where it became a fixture, defended by all the major British evolutionists. The postulate, indeed, was essential to the great comparative projects of evolutionism, which would be futile if cultural differences were determined by differing biology.

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IResearchNet Psychic Unity of Humankind Anthropology, the study of human beings in their bedazzling variety, eternally provokes questions about what human beings share, about their similarity, unity, or identity. The doctrine of the psychic unity of humankind is an answer to that question.

Humans, it claims, are characterized by something more than merely biological unity. The psychic unity of humankind or mankind enters the anthropological lexicon in the work of Adolf Bastian The idea itself, however, is too large to belong to any single person. The historian of ideas, Eric Voegelin , suggests that the roots of this notion go back to the era of the ancient Mesopotamian city-states and the conviction they subsequently furnished that, standing as we do beneath the same sun, we are all equal.

Other sources for the idea have been essayed by the anthropologist Klaus-Peter Koepping. Popular within anthropology from its midth-to early 20th-century beginnings, the psychic unity of humankind was a scientific postulate that fed from all these general influences.

Today the phrase mostly surfaces in anthropological writings as a throwaway citation. Occasionally, as Melville Herskovits already noted in , it is referred to approvingly but usually on the understanding that it no longer has any substantive theoretical role to play.

Nonetheless, the idea arguably remains at the very heart of the anthropological enterprise, though less as a still center of intellectual gravity than as a magnet possessing both attractive and repulsive poles. This curious centrality can be conveniently discussed by distinguishing between the synthetic, the programmatic, and the normative dimensions of the idea. Inductive Synthesis An indefatigable traveler and collector of ethnographic data, Bastian was also an ambitious conceptual synthesizer.

He recognized that all ethnic groups generated their own collective representations; that across this variety of characteristic representations it was possible to discern certain elementary ideas; and that the presence of these elementary ideas counted as compelling evidence for the psychic unity of all peoples. The doctrine was soon put to use in a number of early anthropological disputes. Can we account for cultural similarities between different peoples by recourse to the diffusion of ideas from a common source or in the course of historical contacts?

The doctrine suggested we could not. Moreover, contact without psychic unity is insufficient on its own to explain the diffusion of ideas. Is humanity one the monogenetic claim or several the polygenetic claim? The doctrine of psychic unity suggested that humankind was one race.

Coupled to an evolutionary story that took note of cultural elements surviving from earlier phases even in the most civilized societies, the doctrine of psychic unity suggested rather that primitive peoples could make advances. Popularized by Edward Burnett Tylor — , this latter argument firmly linked the psychic unity of humankind to progressivist and evolutionary theories in anthropology.

World War I dealt harshly with all varieties of progressivist optimism. The hugely influential cultural particularism of Franz Boas — dealt equally harshly with evolutionism in anthropology.

Boas himself endorsed the idea of psychic unity, arguing persuasively that all peoples had essentially equal intellectual capacities and moral faculties. Nonetheless, with everything distinctively human elucidated by reference to discrete cultures, psychic unity became an explanatory empty set. Research Program Countercurrents, to be sure, have not been absent.

Among his elementary ideas, Bastian counted space, time, numbers, and the cross. Subsequent investigations, whether conducted to establish evidence for psychic unity or for cultural diffusion, have by now confirmed a large inventory of images and symbols occurring in the most far-flung cultures. An exhaustive itemization and analysis of these and countless images of a more idiosyncratic nature was undertaken by Gilbert Durand.

Interest in their archetypal significance has been strongest among ethno-graphically informed Jungian thinkers such as Eric Neumann and Mircea Eliade The cognitive anthropologist James Silverberg stressed the fact that rapport between observer and observed in the field would be impossible in the absence of psychic unity, and suggested that the empirical investigation of logical and inference-making universals was best pitched at the level of discourse.

These are some of the signal resources currently available for thinking about the substantial content of the human psyche and its dynamic entwinement in varied sociocultural formations.

They are not, however, resources that the discipline in general has taken up. It might seem that for anthropology as a whole, the psychic unity idea has been reduced to little more than an uninformative consensus that humanity is all one. But this is a false impression. This is true whether the issue is cultural relativism, gender, number, the body, color discrimination, culture and personality, human evolution, the psyche itself, or native responses to Captain Cook.

And yet Morgan supposed in a Lamarckian vein that with the progress of social and technological evolution, morality and intelligence developed further, were subject to inheritance, and were stored in an increasingly larger brain. For Bronislaw Malinovsky this evolutionary schema shortchanged primitive peoples.

What were those common desires? Well, they did not have the character supposed by many in bourgeois Europe.

By demonstrating that the significance of wealth among the Trobrianders derived from the social importance attached to giving, Malinovsky undermined the utilitarian view that every person everywhere was a self-maximizing H. And yet according to Marcel Mauss , Malinovsky had not gone far enough. He failed to really part company with utilitarianism, for he thought it possible to assess the individual motivations of Trobrianders by putting their separate exchanges on a continuum from pure gift giving to bargaining for gain.

It therefore fell to Mauss to argue that the very contrast between disinterested giving and self-maximization was out of place. Giving and receiving in clan societies was religious, economic, aesthetic, legal, and so on, all at once. There was no separate economy, and no separable economically motivated actor, to be found in such societies.

The key question here is whether such debates are in any way cumulative. To the extent that they are, their virtue does not lie simply in taking this or that widespread assumption about what is common to the human mind and using ethnographic data to expose the assumption as a false universal. It lies rather in forcing the universal to become more concrete, that is, more ethnographically informed and therefore more genuinely universal.

Normative Horizons Expressing the foregoing somewhat enigmatically, we might say that even if anthropology has forgotten the psychic unity of humankind, the psychic unity of humankind has not forgotten anthropology.

This is most apparent when we turn to the normative dimension of the concept. To speak of the psychic unity of humankind as having a programmatic value for anthropology is to indicate that it is more than a curiosity-driven search for human universals.

Ineluctably, the idea has ethical significance. For attempting to inform humans about what they are and what they have in common is not a neutral act. By contributing its share, anthropology becomes part of the world-historical process by which human unity comes to exist in a new sense in virtue of being known to exist. Handed an ethnographic mirror in which to see itself anew, humanity, and most particularly European humanity, had a better chance to recognize why racism was blinkered and wrong.

What is equally interesting is that the psychic unity of humankind also has a reverse ethical significance. It is a telling fact that on first acquaintance the phrase may sound dystopian, a perfect doctrine for a Kentucky Fried world striving all too successfully to become one unified place. The psychic unity of humans, in fact, is a doctrine that straddles what may be the antinomy of anthropological thought in the ethicopolitical realm: the imperative, on the one side, to stand up for the rights of all people to a fair share of the possibilities the modern world makes available, and the imperative, on the other side, to stand opposed to the hydrochloric acid of the Western cultural stomach and its insatiable will to digest and assimilate all otherness into itself.

On the surface it appears that even if anthropology has come up with no way of reconciling the imperative of global equality with the imperative of global diversity, at least it is an intellectual arena in which the competing claims of each may be faced and argued over.

But in fact more might be asserted than this. References: Durand, G. The anthropological structures of the imaginary. Brisbane, Australia: Boombana. Eliade, M. Patterns in comparative religion. Herskovits, M. Past developments and present currents in ethnology. American Anthropologist 61, Koepping, K. Adolf Bastian and the psychic unity of mankind: The foundations of anthropology in nineteenth century Germany. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press.

Structural anthropology. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin. Chicago: Henry Regnery. Lloyd, B. Universals of human thought: Some African evidence. Neumann, E. The origins and history of consciousness. New York: Pantheon Books. Roheim, G. The riddle of the Sphinx: Or, human origins. Rousseau, J. Discourse on the origin and foundation of the inequality among men. Mason Ed. London: Quartet Books. Share it!


Adolf Bastian

Life[ edit ] Bastian was born in Bremen , at the time a state of the German Confederation , into a prosperous bourgeois German family of merchants. His career at university was broad almost to the point of being eccentric. He finally settled on medicine and earned a degree from Prague in This was the first of what would be a quarter of a century of travels. He returned to Germany in and wrote a popular account of his travels along with an ambitious three-volume work entitled Man in History, which became one of his most well-known works. In he undertook a four-year trip to Southeast Asia and his account of this trip, The People of East Asia ran to six volumes. Its collection of ethnographic artifacts became one of the largest in the world for decades to come.


Psychic Unity of Humankind


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