The chauvinism of anti-primitivism

A common move that you encounter when dealing with ancient societies and economies of the ‘anti-primitive’ move. Trapped within the wayward frameworks of the likes of Moses Finley or Karl Polanyi, the anti-primitives seek to counter what is perceived to be an argument for primitivism. To wit, ancient peoples were rather simple folk, unable to think abstractly, operating with a crude economics and rough-and-ready technology. Plus, they were caught in the stagnation of their set ways. Against this dreadful approach, the anti-primitives argue that they weren’t primitive at all, that they were ‘partly capitalist’ (Algaze). And that’s where the chauvinism kicks in. Eric Cline puts it best: they were as complex and as sophisticated as we are. Ah yes, we are the benchmarks in sophistication and advancement, so let’s pay the ancients a compliment and refute those dreadful primitivists. Ultimately, the problem is the framework itself – primitive versus modern, simple versus complex. A far better framework is an interaction between difference and identity. Of course, they were sophisticated, but that does not mean they were the same as us.

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11 thoughts on “The chauvinism of anti-primitivism

  1. “Eric Cline puts it best: they were as complex and as sophisticated as we are. Ah yes, we are the benchmarks in sophistication and advancement, so let’s pay the ancients a compliment and refute those dreadful primitivists.”

    This dosn’t ring true. I must declare an interest here. I use the anti-primitives argument myself. How else does one get students who feel superior to “primitive” people to question their own attitude? Am I really reinforcing their chauvinism?

    I think you need to apply Russel’s theory of logical types to this question.

    “Ultimately, the problem is the framework itself – primitive versus modern, simple versus complex. A far better framework is an interaction between difference and identity. Of course, they were sophisticated, but that does not mean they were the same as us.”

    You may well be right. Unfortunately I don’t understand.

    Perhaps its demo fatigue.

    1. I’m arguing that the model of primitive-sophisticated has the chauvinistic assumption built into it, since we usually turn out to be the benchmark of sophistication against which others are measured. By contrast, a model of identity-difference does not have such an assumption.

      1. I got the first bit – I’d call it ‘second order chauvinism’.

        It’s your second sentence I’m having trouble with. Perhaps I’m dense, so be patient with me. What is an ‘identity-difference’ model?

        Concretely, how would I use this to challenge students who’s definition of ‘unsophisticated’ is ‘someone who doesn’t have an iphone’?

  2. You can add to the primitive-modern model and simple-complex model the wissenschaftliche giant-short model. In 1851, Heinrich Ewald argued that the gigantic Anakim mentioned in biblical passages such as Numbers 13 must represent a historically ancient people, because:

    “primitive tribes remaining near to a state of nature, appear to possess gigantic stature more frequently than the more advanced and versatile nations. The latter appear to lose from the body what they gain in the mind; and so the Hebrews at the time of Moses must have possessed very much the same short slender stature which is now characteristic of the hardy and adroit Arab.”
    (The History of Israel to the Death of Moses [London: Longmans, Green, and co, 1867], pp. 227-228)

    Ewald wrote at a time when the average German height was only a little over five feet (average height reflects average social conditions and, as you may be aware, conditions in Germany weren’t too good in the early 19thC).

      1. Hence why the German orientalists kept encountering “gigantic” Africans – whose standard of living was much better than their own (and stature more gigantic) – and Ewald’s association of primitives (Africans) with giants.

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