An Immanent Humanist

Revisiting the life and work of the eccentric anthropologist Paul Radin.

By Neni Panourgiá

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Pictorial notation of an Ojibwa music board, illustration on birchwood slab, collected in northern Great Lakes area, c. 1820. Chromolithograph by James Ackerman, after a watercolor drawing by Seth Eastman, in Historical and Statistical Information Respect

 Pictorial notation of an Ojibwa music board, illustration on birchwood slab, collected in northern Great Lakes area, c. 1820. Chromolithograph by James Ackerman, after a watercolor drawing by Seth Eastman, in Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, 1851. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

For many who pick up his book Primitive Man as Philosopher, Paul Radin will be a familiar figure, hardly in need of an introduction. He was a celebrated and influential, if maverick, figure in anthropology throughout much of the twentieth century, and a number of his books—notably his study The Trickster, which includes responses by Carl Jung and Karl Kerényi, and The Road of Life and Death—have long remained in print. Then again, those thinkers who appear to need no introduction are often the very ones whose accomplishments call for renewed critical engagement. This is very much the case with Radin and Primitive Man as Philosopher.

Paul Radin, the descendant of a prominent Reform Jewish family of doctors, lawyers, and Hebrew scholars, was born in 1883 in Łódź, then part of the Russian Empire. His father, true to the family’s tradition of humanism, was both a physician and a rabbi. In 1884, the Radin family left Łódź for Elmira, New York, and in 1890 moved to New York City. Radin enrolled at City College to study zoology, but by the time he graduated in 1902, his interests had turned to history and the social sciences. After two years of study abroad, chiefly at the universities of Berlin and Munich, Radin returned to Columbia University, where he joined the circle of the influential anthropologist Franz Boas. As an anthropologist, Radin conducted fieldwork among the Winnebago Native American Nation of Wisconsin (today known primarily as the Ho-Chunk Nation), a connection that he kept throughout his life, and in 1911 he received his doctorate in anthropology.

Radin’s subsequent professional career was distinguished but also idiosyncratic and challenging. He held a succession of temporary positions and was unable to secure a permanent post until shortly before his death. After graduate school, he did research on the language and mythology of the indigenous Zapotec Tribe of Oaxaca (the Cloud People) for the Bureau of American Ethnology, and in 1914 Edward Sapir, a student of Boas’ who had gone on to become the director of the Geological Survey of Canada, hired Radin to work with the Ojibwa Native Americans in Ontario. Radin taught at the University of California at Berkeley for a time before returning to Europe. At Cambridge, he worked with W.H.R. Rivers, a participant in the Torres Straits Expedition of 1898—the first anthropological research project carried out in the field—who had become well known for his work with World War I shell-shocked patients, including the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Radin also met and studied with Carl Jung in Zurich, whose theories of mythology and concepts of human type and temperament interested Radin and influenced his work.

Radin then came back to the United States, where he taught at Berkeley again, and at the University of Michigan among other institutions, before taking a position at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Here Radin’s outspoken opposition to racial segregation led a colleague to denounce him to the FBI as a communist. Forced to leave Black Mountain, Radin was under surveillance by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee for the rest of his life. Though he was able to go on working and writing thanks to the private support of Mary Mellon, the first wife of Paul Mellon, in 1949 Radin made up his mind to move to Europe, eventually settling in Lugano and taking a position at the C.G. Jung Institute. U.S. authorities still had him in their sights, however, and when he was threatened with confiscation of his passport, Radin managed a swift return to the States before the threat was realized. His final job was at Brandeis University, where he served as the chairman of the department of anthropology.

Throughout his career, Radin remained a committed progressive humanist, admired by colleagues for his modesty and integrity and for his aversion to intellectual hubris. He was an eccentric anthropologist (Grant Arndt has called him “one of the most heterodox anthropologists among the first generation of Franz Boas’ students”); an immanent humanist at a time when anthropology felt the need to move from the humanities and establish itself as a hard science; a poetic ethnographer deeply convinced that despite any existing differences the condition of being human was experienced in astonishingly similar ways, engaging with similar questions, experiencing similar angst, negotiating similar frustrations. But Radin recognized that humans are also different, and this dissimilitude, he maintained, disallowed for any possibility of uniform representation. As Mark van Doren wrote in the preface to The Road of Life and Death, Radin “knows a secret which is as old as the world. Other people are both different from you and similar to you.”

Published in 1927, Primitive Man as Philosopher is one of Radin’s earlier works, and it can be seen both as building on the work of Boas and as providing a needed corrective to it. Radin once complained in a letter to Sapir that Boas had “not once” told them to look at the “Indian as an individual,” and it is true that Boas’ liberal humanism led him to emphasize what human beings had in common and to see cultures as collective entities, rather than as individual expressions. “The Kwakiutl dance this way” is a characteristic Boasian proposition. Radin, though no less a liberal humanist than his teacher, felt it incumbent upon himself to make the contrasting though complementary point that one of the things, one of the most important things, that human beings share are their differences. He would not say that the Winnebago believe x or y but that “a Winnebago man gave me this myth.” Radin’s commitment to the individual, as the contemporary anthropologist Regna Darnell has pointed out, was central to his work and is everywhere manifest in it. For Radin, Darnell has said, “Knowledge was different for each listener, uniquely and progressively constructed in relation to personal experience.”

Primitive Man as Philosopher presents a wealth of evidence—filled with songs, myths, poems, proverbs, and stories, the book is as much anthology as it is argument—that not only illustrates the vast variety of critical and interrogative thought present among the so-called primitive people but also makes it clear, as Radin says, that “the mentality of primitive people is not essentially different in kind from our own.” In making this argument, he was attacking two variants of what he dubbed “French thought”: one, said to descend from Rousseau (though it is in fact a misreading of Rousseau’s work) that looked longingly toward a primitive past where everything was simpler, kinder, and more equal; the other, promulgated by Radin’s older contemporary Lucien Lévy-Bruhl in his Les Fonctions Mentales dans les Sociétés Inférieures, which asserted that “no primitive people are capable of logical differentiation or of a logical selection of data.” Radin acknowledges that the content of philosophical thought is culturally contingent, responding to different historical and natural circumstances, but he argues that the intellectual sophistication needed for its existence and development is universal and universally found. Primitive man and civilized man are one and the same in their “interest in knowledge and speculation for its own sake” and in their capacity to engage in “analysis of the world and of human personality.”

Winnebago women sitting in a chipoteke, a wigwam-like traditional structure. Photograph by Henry Hamilton Bennett. Wisconsin Historical Society.

When it came to philosophy, the great difference that cut through human society was the difference not between the primitive and the civilized peoples but rather between reflective and unreflective persons. Radin saw all societies as being divided between these two classes, with the reflective group providing the speculative and religious thinkers and seekers, joined in holding the conviction that what sets human animals apart from other animals is the power of contemplation, while “the overwhelming mass belong to the indifferently religious group [and] are materialists, realists, to whom a god, be he supreme deity or not, is simply to be regarded as a source of power.” The philosopher, in Radin’s view, lives in philosophy, away from the commons, perhaps isolated, if not physically then certainly existentially—“I thought of a certain place far away and immediately I was there; I was my thought” (emphasis mine), Radin reports a Winnebago man saying, explaining his existence through a successive identification “with God, with his soul, and with his thought.” There is a resemblance between this position and Descartes’ account in Discourse on Method of how he arrived at the cogito. How, Radin asks, did this resemblance arise? Not because some missionary took a break from expounding the Trinity to provide the Winnebago man with a brief introduction to modern European philosophy but from the fact that reflective people in all cultures ask and look for answers to common questions about identity, fate, and how to live, among other things.

Radin thought of people as belonging to types and temperaments, in the sense that Jung had given to them. Reflective types share a penchant for speculation, and they also share, whether primitive or non-primitive, the scientific disposition “of subjecting their beliefs to consistent criticism, capable of weighing their merits and demerits.” Radin gives an example from the Maori:

In the early days of Christian influence the Maori were very much impressed by many aspects of European civilization. While not accepting them they yet believed them to be true. One thing, however, so the missionary who relates the following incident tells us, they did not believe and that was that a person could convey his thoughts to another person, separated by many hundreds of miles, by writing. This chief told the missionary he would believe only if all possibility of trickery and magic were definitely excluded. The chief thereupon proposed the following test. A white man was to write something on a piece of paper in his presence and the contents communicated to him alone. This was then to be taken by a Maori whose movements were under control, to a white man living many miles distant and who had no communication with the sender of the message. If this white man could read the message correctly then he, the Maori, would accept this as proof.

Part of philosophy, for Radin, is the question of religion, of the nature and form of the divine. For him, creation myths are conscious elaborations of the question of how the animal human became the human animal, but they all result from the unending clash between the two human temperaments, “that of the permanently devout man and the idealist, and that of the intermittently devout, the practical man, the realist” (emphasis mine). It is this latter who explains mundane occurrences as divine, which then form the religious psyche of the individual. Radin tells us that the religious psyche is shaped in this manner, whether it comes from pantheism, from a more structured and systematic polytheism, or from monotheism.

In regards to monotheism, Radin takes a quite irreverent (at least for his time) position, saying that rather than being the ingenious and exclusive invention of the Israelites, monotheism is a religious formation found around the world. It is certain, he says, that among those devout men who have been giving meaning to mundane occurrences and have turned them into religious experiences, some, “in the solitude of their thoughts,” have surely thought about the possibility of a singular god, have surely contemplated monotheism. Monotheism by itself is not that interesting, Radin says—it has happened across time and place, it “antedates even Neanderthal man.” In this way Radin upsets the evolutionary scheme, prevalent at the time, that sees monotheism as the endgame of human religious evolution, going from animism to pantheism to polytheism. For Radin monotheism is not a matter of primitives versus the civilized but a matter of an inner disposition (not even a predisposition) that is found in specifically religious individuals who happen to be thinkers at the same time. He asks whether it could be innate, only to admit that he doesn’t know if it is or not, but that it is certainly a matter of the “eminently religious individual.” Hence, for him the move to monotheism is the result not of an evolutionary scheme but of an intellectual, stochastic engagement. Why is this important? Because, he says, there is no general theory that can be derived from the question of how monotheism developed; there is not one single thing that we can claim that led to the development of monotheism, because we cannot talk about only one monotheism but about many monotheisms found throughout the world. The single interesting question for Radin is why this monotheism, the Hebraic one, succeeded whereas others (the Egyptian one, perhaps) did not.

Furthermore, the real problem, the interesting question, as Radin sees it, is not that monotheism should have arisen but what made monotheism the “prevailing and exclusive official religion of a particular people.” His answer? Historical accident. Monotheism does not require years to develop nor is there anything inherent to it that facilitated its wide adoption by “Jews and Mohammedans, the adherents of the purest form of monotheism known to-day.” Monotheism was just a historical accident that could have gone a totally different way—the gifted, “eminently religious individual” who sat and thought about the possibility of a single god could have been met with indifference, dismissed by the rest with a shrug of the shoulders, left alone. In other words, Radin tells us, it is not the thought, the conceptualization of the single god that is of interest but rather the question of how and why a culture can be convinced (or can convince itself) of such a possibility and turn it into a certainty.

As John Dewey remarked in his preface to the book in 1927, Radin’s work “opens up an almost new field”—a field that we could call “intellectuology,” the study of intellectuals not as unique and special products of the Western philosophical tradition but as a separate class of people who are found in every society, in every era, in every tradition, just as priests, poets, carpenters, shamans, warriors, and politicians are found. In other words, here Radin shows us that intellectuals are cut from the same cloth the world over, and all we have to do is see them as such. These are only some of the questions that he explores in this rich and remarkable book, which challenges the conventional wisdom of its time and is still a model of anthropological inquiry. In it you see his curiosity and respect for the range of human cultures.

Radin’s thought remains challenging today precisely because we find ourselves again at the crossroads of intolerance, half knowledge, and fabricated truths, when religious exceptionalism becomes religious pride and critical thought is viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility. Radin’s critical thought—which places everything and anything under the light of interrogation and doubt, especially one’s own preconceived ideas and inherited prejudices—can help us to engage in the radical humanism that he held so dearly and to see one another, in all our differences, as part of the same self.


Preface to Primitive Man as Philosopher by Paul Radin © 2017 by Neni Panourgiá. Reprinted by permission of New York Review Books.