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Isaiah Wilner, Yale University, History

The Boasian Circle: German-American Networks, Intellectual Friendships, and the Idea of Diversity 

Franz Boas, the founder of modern anthropology, championed the idea of diversity, envisioning all the world’s people as members of a global humanity that recognized no boundaries. Boas’s dynamic vision of a single, varied, and constantly changing global community departed from previous conceptions of the “human family”—whether relativist or evolutionist, racist or romantic—which were static, group-based, and concerned with partitions of difference. We should therefore think of Boas as a theorist of the global society.

This project rediscovers Franz Boas as a major mind of our times, one of a handful of German-speaking intellectuals—including Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Max Weber—who shaped our outlook upon modernity. Boas’s genius was to reach beyond the legacy of the European Enlightenment to soak up the energies and insights of foreign worlds of thought, breathing new vitality into the Euro-American tradition. The spirit of dynamism that distinguished Boas’s thinking emerged from the experience of movement, intermixture, and exchange that was common to German urbanites, Indigenous Americans, African Americans, and Jews in Europe and America, who together contributed to Boas’s concept of humanity.

Taking Boas as the node of a global history of ideas, “The Boasian Circle” uncovers a transnational network of friendship that embraced both Germany and the United States and has failed to figure in the national histories of both countries. As an émigré in America, Boas carried with him 1880s Berlin, the home of a soft-spoken intellectual revolution that fostered a trans-Atlantic awareness of human intermixture, variation, and change—or, as we now call it, global consciousness. Once in America, Boas reshaped his German friends, sharing ideas about transformation that he acquired from his Indigenous American interlocutors, thus creating a mode of global belonging. Although the insights of the Boasian Circle were burned in the National Socialist Säuberung, it is possible, through Boas, to recover a shared global history.