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. Equally, they are characterized by something less than spiritual unity, at least insofar as we fail to semantically disentangle “spirit” from a parochial Christian ontology and theology.
The psychic unity of humankind (or mankind) enters the anthropological lexicon in the work of Adolf Bastian (1826-1905). The idea itself, however, is too large to belong to any single person. An intimation that there is a “humanity” and that it is “one,” regardless of differences of caste, age, sex, or nation, is ethnographically rare but not unique. The historian of ideas, Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), 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. Particularly significant was the Stoics’ challenge to the distinction between Greek and barbarian; Cicero’s (106 BC-43 BC) coining of the term humanitas; the Renaissance ideal of the virtuous human as a cosmopolitan “universal human”; and the Enlightenment’s championing of the “brotherhood of mankind.” Nor should we neglect the transformation of the Jewish image of the one God into a universal God for all peoples in Pauline Christianity, along with the radicalization of this idea in numerous peasant revolts and ecclesiastical reform movements, right up to the utopian socialism of the early 19th century and beyond.
Popular within anthropology from its mid-19th-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 1959, 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.
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. In many cases, common origins are too ancient and/or there is no credible evidence of contact; so it must rather be the case that the human mind is such as to independently generate similar ideas when faced by similar problems and circumstances. 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. Is history a story of degeneration from noble beginnings with no possibility for “primitives” to become “civilized”? 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 (1832— 1917), 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 (1858—1942) 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.
The fact that an emphasis on cultural particulars has made many anthropologists suspicious of human universals provides one reason for the eclipse of Bastian’s doctrine. A further reason is that when 20th-century anthropologists did swim against the Boasian tide to seek generalizations applicable to all cultures, they more commonly swam “downstream” in search of social, economic, ecological, and biological regularities than “upstream” to the psyche.
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. The snake or the serpent, often eating its own tail (the uroborus) or in the beak of an eagle; the dragon; the swastika; the tree of life; the omphalos (navel of the world); the association of the left hand with disorder or cunning and the right hand with what is “right”: These and other primary images or symbols are so widespread as to make fair bid to be called universal.
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 (1905-1960) and Mircea Eliade (1907-1986). The Freudian approach is well represented by the pioneering psychoanalytic anthropologists Géza Roheim (1891-1953) and George Devereux (19081985), who used parallels and divergences between field data and material emerging from psychoanalytic case studies to illuminate each other. 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. Lévi-Strauss, most ambitious of all, sought to properly locate socio-cultural phenomena by identifying isomorphic processes and structures at work in physical, biological, linguistic, and psychological phenomena.
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.
Virtually any line traced through the intellectual history of anthropology reveals itself as a tacit tacking back and forth across the wind of Bastian’s fundamental concept. 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.
Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), for example, held to a monogenetic view, arguing that the brain of the “savage” and the brain of the “civilized person” were the “same brain.” Judged from the perspective of polygenesis, Morgan’s work supported the doctrine of psychic unity. 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 (1884-1942) this evolutionary schema shortchanged primitive peoples. They needed to be understood in their own terms and in any case had desires comparable to the rest of us. 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. economicus.
And yet according to Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), 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. The “psychic unity of humankind” in this sense is not merely some outdated 19th-century doctrine, but an unstated research program, the name of a sprawling conceptual terrain that anthropologists are collectively mapping out.
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.
Without a doubt, anthropology’s flagship achievement in this area is the blow dealt to racism. 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. For considered in a historical sense, what else is the gifting to the world of a more culturally differentiated universal, a more concrete and accurate sense of humanity’s psychic unity, than a labor on behalf of a humanity that must draw together without squandering its priceless diversity? Anthropology at its best, and that includes a figure like Bastian, has always seen itself as helping to bring about a “world culture” of a different order than the one presently doing the rounds.
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