Bachofen, Johann Jakob (1815–1887)

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Johann Jakob Bachofen, Swiss jurist, cultural anthropologist, and philosopher of history, studied philology, history, and law at the universities of Basel, Berlin (under Friedrich Karl von Savigny), and Göttingen. After taking his doctorate in 1839 in Roman law, he spent two years at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris. In 1841, Bachofen was offered the chair in Roman law at the University of Basel, and a year later he was appointed a judge of the criminal court at Basel. In 1844 he resigned his professorship to devote himself to legal and anthropological research. In 1866 he also gave up his position as a judge. He traveled widely and lived for long periods in Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Bachofen's major works were in the fields of ancient Roman law and Greek antiquity. The work for which he is best known is Das Mutterrecht. Eine Untersuchung über die Gynaikokratie der alten Welt nach ihrer religiösen und rechtlichen Natur (Stuttgart, 1861). Following up Herodotus's description of a matriarchal system among the Lycians, Bachofen investigated diverse ancient myths and concluded that both matrilineal descent and matriarchal rule developed out of a state of unregulated promiscuity (Hetärismus ) by virtue of the difficulty of ascertaining paternity under such conditions. He maintained that the dominant role of the mother in both the economic and political spheres was a phenomenon common to all primitive societies and that this role was inseparably linked to religious beliefs that established the secular primacy of woman on the basis of the cult of a female deity.

There is no element of evolution in Bachofen's theory. His main interest lay in tracing the transmission of social cultures, not in the biological characteristics attending heredity. Bachofen likewise rejected interpretations of myths in terms of individual psychology. The elements that constituted for him the essential ingredients of historical traditionsmyths, cults and rituals, customs, law, and folklorewere shared characteristics and hence, in his view, objective factors. They embodied a people's collective "spirit," or Volksgeist, which, though a persistent continuum in social development, nonetheless operated at a nonrational and subconscious level. According to Bachofen it was the function of the woman and mother to preserve and uphold these nonrational historical forces and thus to exercise a uniting influence, whereas man, representing the progressive and rational forces, exercised a dividing influence over the development of humankind. The historical process consisted in a continuous striving for reconciliation between these opposing tendencies.

Das Mutterrecht encountered considerable skepticism, if not hostility, among contemporary anthropologists. Bachofen was charged with introducing rather fanciful and value-loaded notions into his theory and with confusing matrilineal descent with a matriarchate. But even though some of his theses have been disproved and others continue to be challenged, many of his suggestions have led to fruitful further research into the family customs of primitive peoples. Increasingly, too, Bachofen's works have been appraised as a major contribution to the philosophy of history.

Bachofen stressed the continuity of historical sequences and, above all, the close interpenetration of myth and history. In opposition to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Bachofen attached decisive importance to myths and symbols in the shaping of human history, since he accorded to them a far greater and more lasting emotive power than he did to rational concepts. In his stress on the irrational elements in history, as also in his insistence on regarding history as a continuous organic growth, Bachofen shared some of the basic premises of romantic thought. Yet, like Johann Gottfried Herder, the great precursor of romanticism, he never regarded himself as a romantic. Indeed, he explicitly repudiated the nostalgic sentimentality with which a number of romantics approached the study of the past.

Bachofen's political views show an undeniable affinity for the conservatism of the political romantics, but here also he was more directly influenced by Edmund Burke, whom he had assiduously studied during his stay in England. Paradoxically enough, Bachofen has often been associated with L. H. Morgan as one of the founders of a socialist philosophy of history. Bachofen did stipulate a "communist" origin of humankind in that he denied the existence of private property among primitive communities. He also prophesied an ultimate return to communism, understood in this sense. But he viewed such a return as a regression, not as "progress." Bachofen saw in socialism and democracy portents of social and political decay, for he held them to be inherently inimical to harmonious community life. Social and political harmony presupposed, in his view, the willing acceptance of the principle of subordination, for he regarded this principle as the prime source of a naturally and divinely ordered historical process.

Bachofen may have gone too far in the political application of his tradition-centered historicism, just as he probably overstated the role of woman in the development of religion, morals, law, and customs. But he did advance a functional conception of social development, in which social structures are seen as elements of a historical continuum and as constituents of an "idea-system" of nonrational and nonlogical beliefs and symbols, and in so doing he substantially contributed to the understanding of both ancient communities and societies of the modern world.

See also Burke, Edmund; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Morgan, Lewis Henry; Philosophy of History; Philosophy of Social Sciences; Savigny, Friedrich Karl von.


works by bachofen


J. J. Bachofens gesammelte Werk. Edited by Karl Meuli. 10 vols. Basel: B. Schwabe, 1943.

Der Mythus von Orient und Occident. Edited by Manfred Schroeter. 2nd ed. Munich: Beck, 1956. Contains a selection of Bachofen's works, with an introduction by Alfred Baeumler and a bibliography of Bachofen's published works.

Individual Works

Das Naturrecht und das geschichtliche Recht in ihren Gegensätzen. Basel, 1841.

Das römische Pfandrecht. Basel: Schweighauser, 1847.

Ausgewählte Lehren des römischen Civilrechts. Bonn: A. Marcus, 1848.

Versuch über die Gräbersymbolik der Alten. Basel, 1859; 2nd ed., Basel: Helbing and Lichtenhahn, 1925.

Das Mutterrecht. Stuttgart: Krais and Hoffmann, 1861.

Die Unsterblichkeitslehre der orphischen Theologie. Basel, 1867.

Die Sage von Tanaquil. Heidelberg: J.C.B. Mohr, 1870.

Antiquarische Briefe, 2 vols. Strassburg: K.J. Trübner, 1880, 1886.

Römische Grablampen. Basel, 1890.

works on bachofen

Bernoulli, C. A. J. J. Bachofen als Religionsforscher. Leipzig, 1924.

Bernoulli, C. A. J. J. Bachofen und das Natursymbol. Basel: B. Schwabe, 1924.

Burckhardt, Max. J. J. Bachofen und die Politik. Basel, 1943.

Kerenyi, K. Bachofen und die Zukunft des Humanismus. Zürich: Rascher, 1945.

Klages, Ludwig, Der Kosmogonischen Eros. Munich, 1922.

Wolf, Erik, article on Bachofen. In Neue Deutsche Biographie, Vol. 1, pp. 502503. Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 1953. Also contains a detailed bibliography of secondary literature.

Frederick M. Barnard (1967)

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Bachofen, Johann Jakob (1815–1887)

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