A. L. KROEBER. University of California. Search for more papers by this author. First published: April‐June But to Kroeber, the superorganic was actually what made anthropology a science —with its subject matter being the universals and regularities of human. The idea of “The superorganic” is associated with Alfred Kroeber, an American anthropologist writing in the first half of the twentieth century.
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Folks, today I am beginning something new: 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…. Please feel free to share widely!
Culture as the superorganic
Now to the meat of the paper itself: Originally published in in American Anthropologistthe article drew important responses from Edward Th and Alexander Goldenweiser. Kroeber included material from the article in his textbook Anthropology: Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, and Prehistory. And yet it is little read today.
There are many reasons: 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. The essay is clearly written and superogranic, but there is little explicit signposting.
When it comes to speaking for a contemporary audience, then, Kroeber is his own worst enemy. The original essay is around 19, words. I have cut it down to just under 8, In a few cases I have altered verbs and nouns for agreement when deleting text caused them to disagree.
These are indicated with brackets. 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 superorgajic. 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. There may be typos or superoganic errors in the manuscript. In future editions these may be corrected.
What, then, is his argument? Kroeber begins the essay by asking the question: On the one hand, Kroeber sees the mental lives of individuals as the biological substrate on which culture writes itself. 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. How, then, could culture have originated if it is such a unique phenomena? This position anticipates current work on culture as an emergent phenomena. It is also important to rhe that in asking this question, Kroeber clearly sees the importance of biological anthropology and human evolutionary history to cultural anthropology.
Finally, Kroeber argues that ssuperorganic 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.
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. Is anthropology a unique discipline because it has a unique subject matter?
Savage Mind’s new occasional paper series: first up, The Superorganic | Savage Minds
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. One quick note, folks: Please feel free to share it widely, including dumping it in whatever archive works for you.
“The Superorganic,” or Kroeber’s hidden agenda.
So hard to find good materials that draw students into particular debates or key ideas. On the supegorganic DJ — this was designed to introduce you to the anthropology you always wanted to do but never knew existed! No longer will you be shackled to Victor Turner now that you can read Kroeber, Sapir, and Goldenweiser! Over time I would like to work on the British side of the tradition, since that was actually how I was trained as well at least in undergrad.
But to be honest the copyright issues with British authors superorvanic much more complicated than they are with American ones, and that makes things more difficult.
But HAU may beat me to it. It is just easier to access and, frankly, cries out for an editor more. Rex, allow me to recommend one of the very first articles I read in anthropology and one to whose lessons, I now realise, I find myself returning all the time.
As you can imagine, a better part of the bibliography comes from Anthro. I want to give my students early 20th Century essays by Anthros, on the value of oral history as indigenous interpretation of their past. What articles come to mind? Since koeber know well the Lowie collection at Berkeley, are there any texts that might be available online?
Difficulty of access supports them. What do you think? If a peoples e. Botany becomes a specific kind of window onto landscape and the historical and mythical past.
With regard to isolated peoples, each South American country has its own unique and varied history with regards to indigenous peoples and their rights, and these varied historical policies directly affect their approach to the specific case of isolated peoples.
The current approach is to protect isolated peoples as much as possible, to initiate contact only as a last resort. For recently contacted peoples, FUNAI tries to do as much as possible to convince them to continue living as they did prior to contact. This is of course a highly ambiguous situation, in essence forcing people to live in imposed isolation. When indigenous groups make clear efforts to avoid contact, it seems perfectly justifiable, indeed necessary, for governments and indigenous rights organizations to do all they can to respect this choice.
It is indeed a very tricky situation, especially since Peru lacks the kind of organized institution with clear policies and relevant experience such as FUNAI in Brazil. The Mashco-Piro and the dilemmas of isolation and contact Cantor and Smith: Dear Robin, Thanks for writing. Thanks for your comment and I hope to continue this discussion with you and others, Glenn.