Anthropology: An Introduction, Through Philosophy and Physics

Anthropology. One may find easy to define it by the name. The study of Man or The science of Human Beings.

It is better to stop here with the formal definition; else one may find perplexing to browse through hundreds of definitions given by hundreds of Individuals.

To define a subject one requires unfathomable understanding of that subject. As this essay will never wait till we gain unfathomable understanding in the field of Anthropology, we are in urge to give at least a novice definition for now. Let us have a quick recap of the history of Anthropology in the urge of understanding.

It’s not easy to trace out the beginning of this discipline. Since the human origin there must have been some individuals in its society involved in thinking about their existence in order to understand their own selves. But here we define anthropology as a science. What makes an approach scientific?

This is called as scientific approach. We take Phenomena, explain what causes it and predict what it may cause. By employing this approach to the approaches of Individuals in the past who dared to investigate their existence we sort out the scientific oriented fellows from people just being philosophical.

It starts with Herodotus the great Greek historian; he described and distinguished the people living then in Persian Empire from Greece. He established a method of differentiating other people from our own. His approach is not totally anthropological but still we shall call it to posses some quality of being scientific.

And second we shall enter the medieval period of Islamic Golden Age. Al Biruni, the father of Indology holds all tendency of having scientific approach in his study of Human. He was well versed in Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. His writings exhibit his detailed approach in studying other people, their culture, belief, science and other cultural and social aspects. Unlike Herodotus Biruni used direct observation and Analysis of the culture he addressed.

Third. Ibn Khaldun. 14th century philosopher of Islamic Golden Age analyzed Physical, Psychological, Environmental, Social and Economic factors that in turn had effects on rise, progress and fall of the civilizations.

These three, Herodotus, Al Biruni and Ibn Khaldun posses affinity to be called as the founding fathers of primitive Anthropology, collectively.

Soon after stepping out from their dark ages, 15th century European explorers in search of wealth had firsthand experience with other cultures and they recorded it as vivid, brief and unsystematic accounts.

We must notice that until this era, modern scientific approach has not yet begun in Europe. The printing press and Martin Luther King’s protestant reformation advanced Europe in Literacy. This literacy developed science as an organized activity.

Scientific approach to the studies emerged as Europe stabilized itself with Industrial Growth. This helped philosophy to take new ventures into science with contributions from eminent personalities like Galileo Galilee, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton.

Social Science effectively distinguished itself from Physical Science at the same time Newton was formulating his unified approach on Physical Sciences. It was John Locke, a friend of Newton who understood that the rules of science applied to the study of celestial bodies is also equally applicable to the human behavior.

“Since we cannot see everything and since we cannot even record perfectly what we do see, some knowledge will be closer to the truth than will other knowledge. Prediction of the behavior of planets might be more accurate than prediction of human behavior, but both predictions should be based on better and better observation, measurement, and reason”

Locke writes this view on prediction of Human Behavior in his ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ (1690).

Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire believed in Newton’s non-religious approach to study natural phenomena. He introduced the idea of a science to uncover the laws of history. This was to be a science that could be applied to human affairs and would enlighten those who governed so that they might govern better. Then comes 18th Century; the Age of Enlightenment.

Marie Jean de Condorcet described human history in 10 stages while Jacques Rousseau who thought that in the beginning the Human Society was ideal and due to Human’s invention of Agriculture and Commerce all the atrocities came into being. He proposed a Social Contract to revert human back to that Idealistic enlightened stage.

The philosophers of this enlightenment age tried to use knowledge in serving the Humanity at least by reducing its sufferings. They tried to form a religion based on science which became clear in the centuries followed.

“I believe that I shall succeed in having it recognized . . . that there are laws as well defined for the development of the human species as for the fall of a stone”

–         Auguste Comte

Adolphe Que’telet, Claude-Henri de Saint Simon and Auguste Comte were the early positivists who worked extensively in the social wellness of the Human Beings through scientific approach of Positivism, a new found scientific approach. The definition of Positivism is volatile to define; It changed from person to person.

Saint Simon was the person who developed this positive school of thought. He explicitly tried to found a religion based on science which botched.

Comte further worked on developing positivism as a theory to unchain human from sufferings with the new found science and like Simon he tried to make his theories into a Religion for the happiness of the Mankind. It started growing outrageous causing the later minds to detest the term ‘Positivism’.

“All theories in which the ultimate standard of institutions and rules of actions was the happiness of mankind, and observation and experience the guides are entitled to the name Positive”

– John Stuart Mill

And Stuart Mill changed the word positive into phenomenal or experiential to avoid the confusion.

Que’telet named his approach ‘Social Physics’, Saint Simon called his approach ‘Social Physiology’ and Comte ‘Sociology’. Thus Sociology was born alongside the Physics and other scientific disciplines.

Then came the Imperialist age. When Imperialistic powers of Europe rose conquering other lands of America, Africa and Asia they encountered various culture and societies. The term imperialism changed to Colonialism as the control of other people changed to govern the displaced native poor population of the Europe into the new found lands.

With Imperialism and Colonialism came a stream of new information of cultures, customs and other data of the people of those foreign lands. To establish the superiority of theirs over these foreign societies’ colonialists developed a scientific approach to justify their control over. They took information analyzed incorporating so called science inside and found amateur anthropology.

This amateur group of Anthropologists comprised of Zoologists, Physicians, Physicists, Philosophers and others. They studied cultures of colonized and unexplored territories, measured physical features; While ethnologists studying characteristics, behavior and difference between different groups; Sociologists studying contemporary modern society. Franz Boaz who crystallized the modern anthropology was yet a doctorate holder in Physics who entered the field of Anthropology in amateur standing.

This society of amateurs paved way for professionalism. Thus Modern Anthropology was born in 19th century.

Then, came Darwin’s great evolutionary theory. Middle 19th century social philosophers like Herbert Spencer proposed a social based evolutionary theory with the aid of Darwin. They called European Civilization to be the most advanced society. And they strongly believed that every society or civilization needs to pass evolutionary phase until they acquire this advanced state. Thus, analyzing the tribal and primitive societies of the world paves way to observe the past of the Europe itself. Lewis Henry Morgon and Edward Taylor were important figures who believed in Socio Cultural Evolution Theory. This later became Social Darwinism. By the following time, theories started pouring fusing Biological evolution with Social evolution finding a solution to suggest that socially advanced societies are of higher biological traits.

It was Franz Boas in 1920’s changed the course of Anthropology making the discipline serious. Boas rejected earlier ideas of Social, Ethno Centric Evolution and insisted a lot on Research, Experience and Field Work. He defined the discipline and gave it four dimension orientation which we are aware of.

At the same time, when Boas was gaining momentum in Americas, Europe developed a new way of approach known as Structural Functionalism. These functionalists studied how institutions kept society working. Thus European functionalists helped their colonial governments to frame policies in the colonies understanding how the society functions.

Then Claude Levi-Strauss proposed structuralism theory observing common patterns across the societies. He believed that there was a basic structure which every society seems to share. His observations were laid with proofs from opposing concepts, sex, marriage, rituals etc.

Then there were Anthropologists like Julian Steward, Marwin Harris who developed economic and ecological approach in studying a society or a culture which was known as Cultural Materialism or Cultural Ecology.

And till this day Anthropology has taken diverse divisions which become vivid that it has made itself into a science. This is the story of Anthropology and its path in a nut shell.

So, with this we shall try to define the subject.

Anthropology is basically a science. Anthropology studies human beings and studying human beings is its ultimate objective. It studies human beings of Past, Present and Future.  Anthropology stands somewhere in-between Science and Humanities. It keeps one leg in the Science and other in Humanities. It uses technique whatever helps in reaching its target.  With all these ideas, let us give a novice level definition for the discipline.

“Anthropology is a discipline that studies human beings, mutually being inside and outside, by exploring their past, enquiring their present and envisioning their future by the aid of whatever scientific or humanistic discipline or methodology that seems to benefit its study on human.”

Anthropology is related with Sociology in the interest of studying human in society. It had utilized and enhanced sociological research approaches like questionnaire surveys. Unlike Sociology, Anthropology has not restricted itself just with studying advanced human society but had taken the idea of Sociology in studying other non-advanced human societies. It had altered the course of Sociology into its style by adding or removing certain aspects.

While History focuses to record the culture and societies of the past, Anthropology shares the same interest alongside biological aspects. Anthropology uses archive approach technique from History. Anthropology distinguishes itself from History in its scientific approach.

Anthropology is highly related to Psychology in many interests to understand human thinking and behavior. Thinking is the unique task which makes distinction of human from animals. So, Anthropology is much interested in knowing what human thinks as an individual and as society. Anthropology uses psychology to decode thinking of past population on the whole while also trying to form a collective idea from thinking of individuals of the present. Anthropology uses experimental approach of Psychology.

From the launch, Anthropology is extremely allied with Philosophy and Physics. Both Anthropology and Physics share their rational, empirical, skeptical, positive and other approach to phenomena through Philosophy. The scientific way which physics totally grabbed itself from the philosophy stands the basic platform for anthropology to pursue its scientific approach on Humans. Anthropology uses Hypothetical deductive model of Physics which was developed from unifying Philosophy of Induction and Deduction.

As nothing human is alien to Anthropology, it explores divisions of every discipline wherever Human is linked. Anthropology is exclusive by its attempt to create the picture of human from all existing resources available irrespective of its category. This makes it easy to define and hard to describe.

Anthropology is less a subject matter than a bond between subject matters. It’s a part in history, part literature; in part natural science, part social science; it strives to study men both from within and without; it represents both manner of looking at a man and a vision of a man- the most scientific of humanities, the most humanistic of sciences.

–          Eric Wolf

Eric Wolf calls anthropology not as a subject but a bond between more than one subjects. He is trying to conclude that anthropology itself is a part in sociology, part in history, part in philosophy, part in psychology, part in social sciences, part in human sciences and a part in any other discipline which has human degree in it. And also it is an emancipated subject whose method and approach changes with advancement in time and space.

Why is it so? Why anthropology always exhibits itself to be a rebel, a misfit, trouble maker being more humanistic in sciences and more scientific in humanities?

Nothing weird. It perfectly reflects its subject, Human. Humans are of such sort. It’s hard to categorize human. Change is the matter which differentiates human from other beings. Human with his rapid intelligence development makes himself a square pick to fit a circular hole.

This is the evidence that Anthropology itself is a study of Human, the peculiar being who thinks whom he is. Everything will change about and so the Anthropology I believe. The definition will remain same but description changes with advancement; that is reality.

Anthropology forms itself venturing into other disciplines continue accumulating whatever is related to Human. This is how Anthropology is defined and related.

Baba Pakurdheen A

Anthropologist, Writer, Traveler, Journalist and ultimately a Simplite.

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