Thursday Seminar: "Franz Boas’ Primitive Art between Morphology and Evolution Theory"


Thursday, October 25, 2018, 6:00pm to 7:30pm


Gould Hall, I Tatti

At first sight, readers of Franz Boas’ Primitive Art (1927) did not need to worry about theories. They were apparently presented with a treatise in which the works of the pioneers of the “Biology of Images” (Pitt-Rivers, Stolpe, Holmes, Haddon, Balfour, Colley March) were all quoted. The author declared that he had no other ambition than to follow the methods these prior writers had established. However, Boas' perspective was radically opposed to them on a crucial point. The biologists presented their series of artifacts, constructed by following the criterion of the “connection of form,” as steps in the evolution of human thought. Boas accepted the “connection of form” as a methodological instrument to impose an order to cultural artifacts, but he refused to admit any evolution in the field of mental operations. If we look closer at Primitive Art, we discover that Boas also refers to psychologists like Thurnvald, Fechner, or Wundt, and to art historians like Grosse, Riegl, and Semper. It is in the writings of scholars belonging to that tradition that we can find the reasons for the non-evolutionistic position adopted by Boas about the human mind. If there is no possible “childhood” in art, it is impossible to postulate, even in “primitive” societies, a childhood of thought. In the realm of thought, no evolution is to be found, only variation.

Carlo Severi is Directeur d’études at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. He has twice been a Getty Scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles (1994-95 and 2016-2017), as well as a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin (2002-2003), and a Visiting Fellow at King’s College, University of Cambridge (2012-2013). His books include: L’image rituelle (with Carlos Fausto) (L’Herne, 2014); Le Principe de la chimère: Une anthropologie de la mémoire (l'École Normale Supérieure, 2007; recently translated into English and published by Hau Books/University of Chicago Press as The Chimera Principle: An Anthropology of Memory and Imagination); L’Objet-Personne: Une anthropologie de la croyance visuelle (Éditions Rue d’Ulm, 2017); and the edited volume Translating Worlds: The epistemological space of translation (with William Hanks) (Hau Books/University of Chicago Press, 2016).