Uncaging the beast

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • Victorian Anthropology by George Stocking
    Collier Macmillan, 429 pp, £22.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 02 931550 6

The ‘British School’ stands near the centre of modern anthropology. McLennan and Tylor, Malinowski and Pitt-Rivers come to mind. No one has done more to examine their leading concepts (‘culture’, ‘evolution’) or place them in perspective than George Stocking of the University of Chicago. His brilliant essays and intellectual leadership have virtually built an academic specialty. And Victorian Anthropology is unquestionably his masterpiece, a work of precision, subtlety and historical irony.

Two methodological and somewhat antithetical problems ordinarily encountered in the writing of the history of ideas are superbly controlled. (Similar praise may be given to the writings of J.W. Burrow, whose very different style of work in the history of the social sciences plays an important role in Stocking’s conceptualisation of his task.) The first is the use of a biographical mode of analysis, employed so that the particular is in the service of the general. Biography, a digressive art, is customarily at war with main themes in the history of ideas, but cross-comparison has been achieved here. And there are bonuses, also well integrated, as in the captivating chapters on Victorian Imperialists and adventurers in the bush.

The skill with which each contributor or episode in the story of what in time became known as ‘anthropology’ (which once had a theological definition) is examined against a specific historical background is a second methodological triumph. Each author or situation is placed in a firm historical setting in relation to other social and institutional variables, so that what results, in the author’s own words, is ‘an experiment in multiple contextualisation’,

The achievement would be considerable were this relentless analysis only the history of a ‘discipline’ or a revision of the literature. But it is also a discussion of the history of a society exploring itself at a distance, as it were, providing its ‘gentlemen’ with a licence to raise awkward questions under the heading of scientific objectivity, so that Victorian readers and auditors became both confident and nervous: confident about their material and hence moral superiority, but nervous about the failure of their civilisation to eradicate superstition, violence and ignorance. And as Stocking’s book is about a continual mental debate between 19th-century British society and the past or pasts from which it ascended, so his method requires us to consider in similar fashion our own century and its special historical and cultural assumptions.

In the 19th century, anthropology was or became the study of ‘savage’ – that is, ‘darkskinned’ – peoples in remote and exotic corners of the earth. By contrast, sociology was the study of ‘civilised’ peoples – that is, Europeans: which explains, says Stocking, why sometime colonial subjects prefer sociology to anthropology. The distinction was crucial to the Imperial British, who some thirteen decades ago acquired a degree of confidence in themselves conspicuously absent today. Not until the 20th century did the contrast between civilised and savage weaken. Freudian psychology, global war and double-think acts of terrorism have very nearly erased the line once drawn between self-mastery and self-indulgence.

The line was once an enviable statement of human potential against the historical background of centuries of cruel behaviour. Slowly and painfully there occurred a change in manners which Norbert Elias, writing in the age of the Nazi death camps, has termed the ‘civilising process’. As a popular message, it reached a high point of formulation in the Enlightenment. In its earliest manifestations, before the entry of aboriginals onto the Imperial stage, the civilising impulse was mainly for home consumption, although universalised in 18th-century style. All human society had once been savage or primitive or backward, but progress and enlightenment were the wave of the future, which approached in evolutionary or discrete stages.

Samuel Johnson, on his famous trip to the Highlands and outer islands in the middle of the 18th century, remarked upon the transformation of military chieftains into country gentlemen. Doubtless, he mused (a man of his time), there was something attractive about their pristine state, but the improvement was a plus. In becoming ‘effeminate’ like their neighbours to the south, they enjoyed the benefits of commerce, peace and learning – that is, civilisation. In the 19th century, the bands of explorers, proconsuls, armchair ethnologists, amateur scholars, folklorists, jurists and proto-dons whose combined efforts created a British school of anthropology, worked from the general assumption that the primitive peoples of the earth, which to some of them also meant the bottom levels of the slum-dwelling working classes, would follow the happy upwards trajectory of history.

Their optimism was grounded in a set of characteristically British assumptions about human motives and incentives. The British school of anthropology emerged in part from a tradition of thought that was ethically and philosophically utilitarian. It was scientific, rationalistic and atomistic. Volition was the result of careful calculation based on enlightened, individual self-interest. From this perspective, the romantic poets and the Victorian aesthetes who celebrated the instinctual or emotional life and made reference to the essential self buried within, were only wilful and perverse. The existence of the irrational – which for the Victorians meant the disgusting evidence of deliberate mutilation, systematic maltreatment of women and children, incest, cannibalism, totemism and superstition continually reported from the field (the eyewitness account became important in the second quarter of the 19th century) – was a ‘problem’ because progress was considered to be a historical law akin to a law of nature. A rejection of progress was in effect a rejection of science itself.

Precisely because the alternatives were so threatening, the premises were nearly impossible to dislodge, and contrary evidence had to be overlooked or rationalised. The symbolic and ritual elements in social life which give meaning to it (or as some now say, ‘meanings’) received little attention in their own right. This was a reflection, says Stocking, in one of many extraordinary observations, of British anthropology’s underlying scientism and the habits of mind of its early ‘practitioners’ or ‘cultivators’, men of Evangelical religious background inclined to regard belief as preferable and superior to ritual.

Such was the internal wiring-board of Early and Middle Victorian thought, the ‘paradigm’, to use the conceptual shorthand that entered the philosophy of the social sciences twenty years ago with the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s much-discussed book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Stocking explores the relevance of paradigms for the study of the history of ideas by pointing out their strengths and limitations. Indeed, the interplay between older and newer modes of explanation is the central interest of his study. What exactly is the historical process by which one set of values and meanings replaces another? This was the question Victorians asked of themselves, and it is proper for us to review it.

In many, respects there was indeed a paradigmatic shift in fundamental assumptions in the second half of the last century. Darwinian evolution undoubtedly represented a major break with certain aspects of pre-1860 thought. It challenged the basic assumptions of the Evangelical revival. Before Darwin, mankind had liberated itself from nature, or had progressed in in parallel but not intersecting lines, but the story was different after Darwin. Mankind became part of nature, subject to the same external forces of control – of supply and demand, for example – that governed all biological phenomena. The beast within was suddenly uncaged.

The Darwinian paradigm shift generated and has continued to generate disturbing speculations about the true character of human nature, but Stocking enters more fully into the Victorian mind and consequently more fully into its culture. He notices the resistance of the Victorians to the Darwinian change of paradigm as much as its acceptance. The utilitarian basis of earlier Victorian anthropology was never abandoned. Faith was retained in a generally positive overall direction guiding human affairs. The British school continued in a generally scientific frame of mind, examining man’s anthropological past from the standpoint of history, origins, stages of development and the pursuit of pleasure in relation to advancing knowledge. ‘A science of leftovers and residues’, Stocking nicely characterises the old spirit, pursued in a culture which was itself uniquely preoccupied with leftovers and residues, the culture of Trollope’s novels and the Edwardian garden party. In the next paradigm shift, the revolt against Victorian ‘classical evolutionism’ as represented by the change, under Durkheim’s influence, to functionalism, the old spirit persisted. Survivals were explained away as examples of once-successful adaptations to environment. Even the study of cultures as systems of meaning and symbols, the direction represented by the dissemination of German ideas in America by Franz Boas, was undertaken within the context of former assumptions, insofar as ritual and social codes were studied in isolation from the control of specific cultural systems. The psychological dimension in human affairs was also undervalued.

Thus the core of Stocking’s analysis is the continuing tension between pre and post-Darwinian anthropology, the intermingling and confusion of ideas and values, the continuities and disruptions, the endless permutations of hypotheses and methods across the Mid-Victorian divide. Victorian anthropology was the creation of an entire civilisation, not the result of one or more insights by gigantic figures. So much then, for the hagiographic tradition which has figured so prominently in the internal history of anthropology as a learned discipline.

Widely attacked by 20th-century anthropologists as an erroneous start, as support for a particular kind of racist or Eurocentric outlook, Victorian evolutionism has nonetheless retained a certain appeal both in Britain and the US. Ironically, evolutionism is functional because, says Stocking, it is needed, just as the Victorians needed to believe in the ultimate diffusion and triumph of the reasoning mind. Despite doubts, functionalists and structuralists need evolution in the battle against creationism and the eugenicism of sociobiology. Theologians and philosophers need evolutionism in confronting that greatest of all ‘modern’ difficulties, the problem of ethical relativism, with which the history of anthropology, in its Boasian if not its Victorian form, is so maddeningly identified.

Any summary of George Stocking’s extraordinary historical inquiry is likely to be puerile. For a reviewer to pluck from its pages mention of the influence on 19th-century anthropology of Locke’s associationism, of phrenology, folklore, comparative anatomy and philology, Comteam positivism, liberal individualism, political economy, polygenism, Scottish conjectural history, middle-class Victorian optimism, competitiveness, paternalism and sexual restraint is to suggest that a huge but familiar literature in the history of ideas has been merely recycled. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is a starkly original book. Furthermore, Stocking himself has been a principal contributor to the literature. In a series of remarkable essays, whose overall plan and execution are now perfectly apparent, he has anticipated the arguments of Victorian Anthropology. In his 1970s studies of James Cowles Prichard, the Early Victorian physician who is the ‘link’ between 18th and 19th-century forms of evolutionism, Stocking was the first to make us consider the central importance of the English Evangelical revival to the pre-Darwinian paradigm, thus permitting us to understand the significance of later disciplinary developments. In a still earlier work on the German-born Franz Boas and his contributions to American cultural anthropology, Stocking took much of the shine off E.B. Tylor’s reputation as the ‘father of anthropology’ and author of the ‘culture concept’, the idea of the relativity of all cultures. Relativity did not come all that easily to the triumphant Victorians. Here he once again reviews Tylor’s exact contribution.

No prior degree of familiarity with both an enormous bibliography or Stocking’s part in its creation can fully prepare the reader for what is surely one of the most logically-controlled, authoritative studies ever undertaken in the history and sociology of ideas.