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Radin, Paul

Radin, Paul




Paul Radin, American anthropologist, was born in Lodz, Russian Poland, in 1883 and died in New York City in 1959. Despite the fact that he was brought to the United States in infancy, he never severed his European roots, and he could never bring himself to accept the New World completely, except, ironically, for his association of nearly fifty years with the Winnebago Indians of Wisconsin.

Radin’s personal and social background was complex. He came from a German-Russian Jewish family that had become secularized in the mode of the haskalah, the Jewish strand in the western European Enlightenment. His father was a rabbi of the reform movement, a Hebrew scholar, and a linguist. Herman, his oldest brother, became a physician, and Max, next in line, was a distinguished legal scholar. For the Radins these secular professions, which refocused the traditional Jewish concern with ritual learning but which did not abandon learning as a ritual, were ideologically correlated with a humane, if skeptical, liberalism. The skepticism and rationalism, however, were largely reactive protests against the cramping social and intellectual orthodoxy of the patriarchal and theocratic past. Yet the passion for scholarship, the commitment to human realization in the world, and, in Radin’s case, the fascinated concern with religion and ethics, maintained a distinctively Jewish cast. Moreover, Radin’s intellectual cosmopolitanism, his radicalism, his conception of learning as a moral enterprise, and his capacity to live almost exclusively the life of the mind, making him, therefore, dependent upon friends for a variety of services, represent further elements that characterized the Jewish scholar en passage from the traditional milieu to the modern industrial and urban world. But Radin never came to terms with modern technology; he never learned to use a typewriter, for example, and laboriously wrote out his voluminous notes and manuscripts in so minute a hand that a magnifying glass was sometimes necessary to decipher the script.

Formal résumés of his career are sparse and often inaccurate; he rarely bothered to put himself on record in professional directories. Since he moved from establishment to establishment, state to state, country to country, and job to job, there is little institutional continuity to trace; only his work reflects the inner unity of his life. The host of friends he left behind knew him only in phases and primarily as a teacher, yet his gift for spontaneous intimacy made each feel that he shared with Radin some particular secret.

Radin was a creator and formulator of meaning, a “poet-thinker,” a “thinker-artist,” a “priest-thinker,” and not a man of action, a layman, to use the terms he chose to describe two contrasting, historical, temperamental types—first in Primitive Man as Philosopher (1927), then in Primitive Religion (1937), and in subsequent works. He could live only in a cerebral “blaze of reality.” The degree to which his own commitment to the intellectual life may have led him to see this dichotomy as a universal temperamental division is difficult to determine. Late in life, he adopted the position that these two contrasting temperaments can and usually do complexly coexist in the same person; he seems, therefore, to have invented ideal types, despite his antipathy to such abstract efforts.

In spite of the intensity of his intellectual commitment, Radin was never moved to glorify the position of intellectuals. He regarded them as dependent upon the official academy, which was in turn linked to the ruling establishment, and, along with Franz Boas, he therefore viewed them as bound by convention and, for the most part, incapable of pursuing interests other than their own.

Although he migrated from post to post, Radin was never at a loss for a job. In the words of Julian Steward, “his charm …got him about every job in Anthropology in the country ….” (personal correspondence, 1964). During the early depression years, when many of his students and colleagues were unemployed, he managed to find support for anthropology from government agencies previously unconcerned with such efforts. For example, his work on Mexican pamphlets in the Sutro Library in San Francisco was supported by the Works Projects Administration. Moreover, he received support over the years from a variety of foundations; he may have offended bureaucrats, but he nevertheless had a talent for attracting patrons.

Radin never conceived of anthropology as merely a specialized discipline; it was for him more a way of life. He was bent on discovering the conditions under which man thrives, and he followed his pursuit where it led him. He objected to professional jargon because it turned the study of man into a mystery. His goal was to attack the “great, recurring, troubling themes in history” (Diamond 1960, p. xviii), to determine basic human nature. “That the cultural pattern hides this knowledge from us forever is a counsel of despair” (1933a, p. 267).

Although Radin felt at home in the cognitive worlds of primitive peoples and admired “the ruthless realism and objectivity” (1953, p. 325) with which they analyzed man, he did not believe in any return to the primitive or entertain any notion of the noble savage. Rather, he believed that the primitive experience is part of our historical consciousness. An understanding of it would pave the way toward an understanding of what is basic to human nature and toward a critical evalution of civilization.

Radin first studied anthropology in Europe and came to the field of anthropology by way of zoology and history. He became a student primarily of Boas, and it was probably the combined effect of James Harvey Robinson’s skeptical humanism and Boas’ empiricist insistence on the indivisible potential of primitive and civilized mentalities that originally led Radin to question all notions of primitive inferiority.

In Primitive Man as Philosopher (1927) he dismissed theories about the automatism of primitive life as being merely projective of an increasingly routinized modern life. Radin found primitive mentality different in degree but not in kind from civilized mentality. He saw that, despite the variety of cultural forms involved, responses of primitive peoples to the major challenges of life are sophisticated, profound, and—to a civilized person endowed with self-knowledge—understandable ways. Therefore, Radin rejected such theoreticians as the early Lévy-Bruhl and other members of the French sociological school, who stigmatized primitives as being incapable of abstraction, participants in a mystic entity, linguistically inadequate, or lacking individuality. And, although he had some connection with Robert Redfleld and the other folk-urban polarity theorists, he was opposed to the view, later adopted by Redfield, that moral consciousness has expanded with civilization. He took great pains to establish moral insights as a primitive characteristic and in general was skeptical of the idea of progress in such areas.

In The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (1955b), for example, he emphasized two themes: first, the ambivalence of the human impulse toward creation and destruction, symbolized in the dual image of the Deity; and second, man’s Sisyphean struggle, expressed in trickster mythology, to create, and then constantly to rescue, meaning from a chaos of sensory impressions, biological needs and appetites, enigmas of personal, social, and cosmic origins, and death.

Radin’s elaboration of the dual conception of the Deity had descended from Andrew Lang and had been anticipated in the work of Ehrenreich, Boas, Kroeber, and Dixon; indeed both the Americanists and the German historical school had been preoccupied with the issue, but Radin explored the nature of God among primitives more fully than any other American ethnologist. Radin believed that the universal human issues are central to the social and ritual lives of primitive peoples. It was his belief that the relative weight given to certain issues differs for primitive and civilized peoples; this led him to assert that although basic human nature is the same everywhere, it is more visible among primitives.

Primitive life was for Radin closer in its structure and ideology to the roots of comedy and tragedy. His conception that the universal human drama is actually enacted in aboriginal society made his work memorable to nonanthropologists. He attracted such diverse personalities as Mark Van Doren, Lewis Mumford, C. G. Jung, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, John Dewey, and Huntington Cairns.

Radin was constantly aware of the linked exploitative and creative roles of the “priest-thinkers” and thought this link existed to some degree even in primitive societies. He regarded the priest-thinkers as the inventors of religious systems, who thereby reflected their own profound need to create a coherent universe of meaning while catering to the intermittent needs of their laymen followers. He imagined that the priest-thinkers, or shamans, or medicine men, had been the original formulators of the monotheistic synthesis. This synthesis existed as a social convention of Judaeo-Christian-Islamic civilization, but as a pure faith it is as uncommon among primitives as among ourselves. The drives of the priest-thinkers may have been neurotic and their hunger economic, but for Radin this did not dim the significance of their insights. He was, however, troubled by their exploitative potential.

Radin had a thorough grounding in the history and languages of his own culture. He considered this grounding the basis for his conscious understanding of his own alienation from the prevailing values of his culture, without which “the task of understanding the primitive could not be accomplished.”

Radin’s general conception of primitive society is the most effective synthesis attempted thus far. He identified three outstanding positive features of aboriginal civilization: respect for the individual, regardless of age or sex; a remarkable degree of social and political integration; and a concept of personal security that transcends all governmental forms and all tribal and group interests and conflicts. His synthesis of primitive economic and social structure, philosophy, religion, and psychology is an implicit, inductive, historical model of primitive society that also serves as a foundation for a historical theory of human nature.

Radin took his first field trip to the Winnebago in 1908 and eventually published monographs and articles on almost every aspect of their lives. In his field work he considered himself a historical reporter and was skeptical of the claims of participant-observers: To avoid the pretentious impressionism common to their approach the observers would have to become members of the tribe, but Radin doubted that any well-qualified ethnologist would be willing to do that. It was not just that he doubted the results of field work done without knowledge of the language but also that he thought field work should be grounded in the lives of specific individuals and not built up from a generalized conception of the individual.

As a linguist Radin was in a class with Sapir and Boas. In addition to the voluminous Winnebago texts, Radin published a series of Wappo (1924), Huave (1929a), and Mixe (1933b) texts, a grammar of Wappo (1929b), notes on Tlappanecan (1933c), and a sketch of Zapotec (1930). He was also concerned with historical linguistics, publishing a classification of Mexican languages (1944) and working for an entire decade on Patwin. His most important linguistic contribution was an early monograph (1919a) on The Genetic Relationship of the North American Indian Languages, in which he argued for their essential continental unity. Although Sapir had initially criticized this idea of unity, he and his student M. Swadesh were later to develop parallel themes on this subject.

R. H. Lowie and Sapir were Radin’s closest professional friends, and Radin remained affiliated with the Boas school throughout his life. However, he could not accept their ethnological theories. In his Method and Theory of Ethnology (1933a), which, with Lowie’s History of Ethnological Theory (1937), remains the only systematic work on ethnological theory written by an American, he attacked Boas’ quantitative and distributional approach to cultural data. He believed it led to over-generalized, external, and patchwork histories of traits, in abstractly deduced time perspectives, rather than to specific histories of societies as experienced and created by their members. Radin always felt that there is a contradiction between this aspect of the Americanists’ approach and Boas’ insistence on prolonged field work and textual analysis within particular societies.

Radin’s dispute with Kroeber summarizes his differences with the Americanists. Kroeber’s notion of the superorganic and consequent lack of interest in the person in history, his sweeping efforts to classify whole civilizations by configurations of traits and qualities determined by a combination of intuitive and quantitative means, and his insistence on ethnology as a natural science—that is, as having a subject matter composed of discreet, isolable, and objectively determinable elements that can be traced and categorized on their own terms (a view Boas also held)—did violence to Radin’s focus on the individual as the locus of culture. Kroeber’s view denied Radin’s belief that if one probes deeply enough into particular forms, universal meanings will be revealed; Kroeber’s view also abused Radin’s sense of history as man’s agent, as the agency for revealing the nature of man and the necessary conditions for his fulfillment.

Radin, despite the strength of his influence, left no school of students. His final academic affiliation was with Brandeis University, first as professor of anthropology and then as chairman of the department. He had thought that in going to Brandeis he would find a congenial home, but he found the new university no less bureaucratic than the older institutions. He died in 1959 a few days after his heart failed him during a professional lecture in New York City.

Stanley Diamond

[For the historical context of Radin’s work, see the biographies ofBoas; Kroeber; LÉvy-bruhl; Red-field; Robinson; for discussion of the subsequent development of some of Radin’s ideas, seeLinguis- Tics, article onHistorical linguistics; Religion; and the biography ofSapir.]


1906 Zur Netztechnik der südamerikanischen Indianer. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 38:926-938.

1913 On Ojibwa Work, 1913. Canada, Geological Survey, Summary Reports [1913]: 374 only.

1919a The Genetic Relationship of the North American Indian Languages. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 14, No. 5. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1919b The Relationship of Huave and Mixe. Journal de la Société des Américanistes de Paris New Series 11: 489-499.

1920 The Sources and Authenticity of the History of the Ancient Mexicans. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 17, No. 1. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1924 Wappo Texts. First Series. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 19, No. 1. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1927) 1957 Primitive Man as Philosopher. 2d ed., rev. New York: Dover.

1929a Huave Texts. International Journal of American Linguistics 5:1-56.

1929b A Grammar of the Wappo Language. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 27. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1930 A Preliminary Sketch of the Zapotec Language. Language 6:64-85.

1931 Concept of Right and Wrong. Pages 818–827 in Victor F. Calverton (editor), The Making of Man: An Outline of Anthropology. New York: Modern Library.

1933a The Method and Theory of Ethnology: An Essay in Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill.

1933b Mixe Texts. Journal de la Société des Américanistes de Paris New Series 25:41-64.

1933c Notes on the Tlappanecan Language of Guerrero. International Journal of American Linguistics 8:45-72.

1934 The Racial Myth. New York: McGraw-Hill.

(1937) 1957 Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin. New York: Dover.

1944 The Classification of the Languages of Mexico. Tlalocan 1:259-265.

1945 The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians. Bollingen Series, No. 5. New York: Pantheon.

1953 The World of Primitive Man. New York: Schuman. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Grove.

1955a The Literature of Primitive Peoples. Diogenes 12: 1-28.

(1955b) 1956 The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. New York: Philosophical Library.


Adler, Alfred (1909-1920) 1964 The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology. Translated by Paul Radin. Rev. ed. New York: Harcourt. → First published as Praxis und Theorie der Individual-Psychologie. Contains 28 papers originally published in medical journals between 1909 and 1920.

African Folktales and Sculpture. (1952) 1965 2d ed. Folk tales selected, edited and introduced by Paul Radin. London: Seeker & Warburg.

[Blowsnake, Sam] (1920) 1963 The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian. Edited and translated by Paul Radin. New York: Dover. → The writer is referred to throughout the notes as S. B. The autobiography proper closes with Part I. Part II embodies the system of instruction used among the Winnebago and forms a unit in itself. Part I was also published as Crashing Thunder: The Auto-biography of an American Indian.

California State Library, Sacramento, Sutro Branch, San Francisco 1939–1940 Catalogue of Mexican Pamphlets in the Sutro Collection: (1623-1888). Edited by Paul Radin. 2 vols. San Francisco: Mimeographed.


Boas, Franz (1887-1936) 1955 Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan.

Dewey, John (1927) 1957 Foreword. In Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher. 2d ed., rev. New York: Dover.

Diamond, Stanley (editor) 1960 Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → A bibliography of Radin’s writings appears on pages 1001-1010.

Dubois, Cora 1960 Paul Radin: An Appreciation. Pages ix-xvi in Stanley Diamond (editor), Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Ehrenreich, Paul 1906 Götter und Heilbringer: Eine ethnologische Kritik. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 38: 536-610.

Hymes, Dell H. 1965 Some North Pacific Coast Poems: A Problem in Anthropological Philology. American Anthropologist New Series 67:316-341.

Lowie, Robert H. 1937 The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

Schmidt, Wilhelm 1919–1920 Die kulturhistorische Methode und die nordamerikanische Ethnologie. Anthropos 14/15:546-563.

Schmidt, Wilhelm 1921–1922 Die Abwendung vom Evolutionismus und die Hinwendung zum Historizismus in der Amerikanistik. Anthropos 16/17:487-519.

Schmidt, Wilhelm 1926–1955 Der Ursprung der Gottesidee: Eine historisch-kritische und positive Studie. 12 vols. Münster (Germany): Aschendorff.

Van Doren, Mark 1945 Foreword. In Paul Radin, The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians. New York: Pantheon.

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Paul Radin

Paul Radin

Paul Radin (1883-1959) was an American anthropologist and ethnographer who specialized in the ethnology of religion and mythology and the ethnography of Native Americans.

Paul Radin was born on April 2, 1883, in Poland, and in his early childhood lived in New York City. He received his bachelor's degree in 1902 at City College and after a short period abroad went to Columbia University to study history and anthropology under Franz Boas, receiving a doctorate in 1911. By studying with Boas at Columbia he joined a group of young scholars that became a major influence in the subsequent 4 decades of American anthropology. He did fieldwork among the Winnebago, the Ojibwa, the Fox, the Zapotec, the Wappo, the Wintun, and the Huave. Of these, the Winnebago were his specialty and provided him with material for numerous monographs and articles as well as many extensive examples for his more general writings.

One central theme ran through the greatest portion of Radin's work—the manner by which particular individuals respond to the vicissitudes of their immediate cultural environment. This theme is particularly evident in his three major works. Thus Primitive Man as a Philosopher (1927) cogently argues that reflective individuals are to be found quite as readily among primitives as elsewhere. In Primitive Religion (1937) he demonstrates that for any given culture the degree of religiosity to be found varies from indifferent to deep, depending on the proclivities and intelligence of the individual. The position of the individual was the explicit theme of Crashing Thunder (1926), for here Radin obtained, translated, and edited the autobiography of a member of the Winnebago tribe. This book was a landmark in American anthropology. It was the first and probably the best of a long line of similar autobiographical accounts of individual Indians that was published by subsequent anthropologists.

Other important works by Radin included the The Story of the American Indian (1927), Social Anthropology (1927), The Method and Theory of Ethnology (1933), The Culture of the Winnebago, as Described by Themselves (1949), and The Trickster (1956).

Radin never stayed at any one academic institution for more than a few years. He found the institutionalized aspect of intellectual life uncongenial and preferred to remain throughout his career an independent scholar. At various times he held posts at Berkeley, Mills College, Fisk University, Black Mountain College, Kenyon College, the University of Chicago, and, finally, Brandeis University, where he was made a Samuel Rubin professor and became head of the anthropology department. Radin died on Feb. 21, 1959.

Further Reading

An excellent biographical sketch of Radin is in Stanley Diamond, ed., Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin (1960). Background studies are Robert H. Lowie, The History of Ethnological Theory (1937); H. R. Hays, From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology (1958); and Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (1968). □

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Radin, Paul

Paul Radin (rā´dĬn), 1883–1959, American anthropologist, b. Poland, grad., College of the City of New York, 1902, Ph.D. Columbia, 1911. He was a student of Franz Boas and studied the Winnebago tribe for much of his life, writing classic accounts of this group: The Winnebago Tribe (1923) and The Culture of the Winnebago (1949). Radin also wrote on the religion, philosophy, and psychology of the individual in pre-literate society: Primitive Man as a Philosopher (1927, rev. ed. 1958) and The World of Primitive Man (1953).

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