The wild thought of anthropology. Kant in the anthropological theory

Essay, 2020

10 Pages



Anthropological theories, especially structuralism and functionalism, come from the strain of Kant's subjective idealism, which distances them from a truly scientific explanation of culture; but it brings them closer to a phenomenological theory of culture. This essay reflects on this epistemological problem, from the Hegelian critique to the Kantian theory of knowledge, which Hegel describes as ordinary consciousness. From this point of view, structuralism and functionalism, would not explain the phenomenon of culture, but when recreating it phenomenologically, they would constitute a wild thought of anthropology.

Keywords: Anthropological theory, phenomenology, theory of knowledge, epistemology.


"It is seen when one looks closely, that a good number of our philosophical doctrines are but a reproduction of the old metaphysics. One finds here a thought without criticism and as it is presented to the intelligence of anyone". This is how Hegel refers especially to Kant's subjective idealism, which he makes a ruthless criticism in his Logic, because it does not go beyond ordinary consciousness. It refers to this as the science of the immediate, in contrast to mediated knowledge, which is what characterizes science. Hegel argues that Kant's system is similar to that of magical thinking.

If Malinowski applies Kant's system to his anthropological theory, the epistemological consequences are important. When Malinowski analyzes magic, he does so from the same magic system. Magic explained by magic, myth explained by myth.

Culture as a black box

Malinowski was a man trained in the natural sciences, specifically in physics, and also in psychology, which leads him to be one of the first anthropologists to apply the methods of the natural sciences to socio-cultural analysis. Kant's influence on Malinowski is not direct, it occurs through one of the founders of psychophysics: the Austrian scientist Ernst Mach.

For the empirio-criticists, everything that is within the border of the self (umgrenzung) is the domain of psychology, and that which is outside, of physics. This led Malinowski to explain the phenomena of culture from a psycho-subjective determinism, which is objectified by transcending the umgrenzung. As an idealist, he considers that the knowledge of reality is subjective, and that objectivity is possible as intersubjectivity, and most importantly, that we only see in reality, what we ourselves put into it. This leads to a contradiction that it solves thanks to the methods of behaviorism, since the standardization of human behavior allows the formulation of statistical laws of culture:

"The fact is that the social dimension of public consensus is a necessary but not sufficient condition and that, without the analysis of the individual mind, we cannot advance a step in our understanding of religion (Malinowski, 1985 p. 75)".

This implies the study of human behavior, regardless of consciousness; the construction of an immense black box of culture, where it is not possible to see cultural processes as a conscious phenomenon, but as manifest behavior determined by needs:

"The tension of instinctual needs, strong experiences of emotion, lead, in one way or another, to worship and creed (1985, p. 14)"

Malinowski's behaviorism is consistent, and is governed by the idea, that there is a universal psychophysiological mechanism (1.985 p. 89):

"The value of behaviorism is due in the first place, to the fact that its methods are identical, in terms of their limitations and advantages, to those of field anthropological research (Malinowski, 1967 p. 35)".

This premise of Malinowski has very serious implications for the ethnographic method, because one of its limitations is that in pure behavioral analysis, the behavior of the human being is separated from the cognitive processes of consciousness. From this point of view, it is only possible to understand cultural phenomena, based on their pragmatic effect on society, and not on their socially elaborated meaning.

"The route from nature to the stomach of the savage is very short, and consequently, it is also to his mind, and the world for him, is an indiscriminate background from which the species of plants and animals that are useful and edible stand out. primarily (Malinowski, 1985 p. 43) ”.

This idea is not so original in Malinowski, since it was already part of the empirio-critical ideology, specifically that of E. Mach, who was even more recalcitrant in the determinism imposed by hunger:

“Likewise, class consciousness and class prejudices, such as the feeling of a homeland, even a homeland, can be very useful for certain purposes. But these concepts should not be seen by the serious researcher, at least at the time of the investigation. All of these selfish motives only serve practical purposes. Habit naturally exists in the man of science. The little mischief of the wise, the mañero achievements, and the twisted interpretations of the works of a foreigner, on certain occasions, amply prove that the paths of science end in the stomach, and that the love of truth in our current social state it is only an ideal (Mach 1,948 p. 21)”.

It can be inferred from here that Malinowski was the product of an entire era, where empirio-criticism or phenomenological positivism pervaded all sciences, a phenomenon that Konrad Lorenz criticizes in his work on animal and human behavior. At that time, Kant was the philosophical father of many scientists: physicists, psychologists, biologists; but above all, of the psycho-physical as Mach.

That Malinowski builds his scientific theory of culture from the most primary need (hunger), is not a coincidence, it is an ideological necessity, which will lead to the last consequences in applied anthropology. Later, he warns that the proper nutrition of the native workers of the English transnational companies in the South Sea Islands is a priority; the most important matter of the colonial administration. Now, what is a culture product of hunger like?

Magic, science and religión

Let's see how he rebuilds the religious world of the Melanesians:

“If we consider in this way that food is the main link between man and his environment, that by its reception he feels the forces of providence and destiny, it is then possible for us to understand the importance not only cultural, but also biological, of the religion in the sacralization of food. In this we see the germs of what in higher times of religion evolved in the sense of dependence on providence, gratitude and trust.


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The wild thought of anthropology. Kant in the anthropological theory
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Sozialanthropologe Javier Flórez Miranda (Author), 2020, The wild thought of anthropology. Kant in the anthropological theory, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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