Waitz, Theodor

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Waitz, Theodor


Theodor Waitz (1821-1864) was a German psychologist and anthropologist; his Anthropologie der Naturvölker (1859-1872) was the first comprehensive work on anthropology written in German.

Waitz was born in Gotha, the son cf a clergyman who was also director of a seminary. This environment colored his work in philosophy and psychology; all his major works outside of anthropology extol religion as the greatest creation of the human mind. Yet Waitz’s moralistic and idealistic bent was always restrained by a countervailing impetus toward empirical research.

Waitz studied at the University of Leipzig, where he received his PH.D. at the age of 19. After travels to Paris and Rome, during which he worked on a critical edition of Aristotle’s Organon, he joined the faculty of the University of Marburg in 1846 as a teacher of philosophy. His first published works were synthetic in character: thus, in his Grundlegung zur Psychologie (1846a) and in a textbook, Lehrbuch der Psychologie als Naturwissenschaft (1846b), he sought to integrate the humanities with science. (To achieve this integration he had studied anatomy.) He was deeply impressed by the ideas of Herbart and believed that the principles of pedagogy would provide the scientific key for understanding the intellectual development not only of individuals but of mankind as well. His Allgemeine Pädagogik was published in 1852, four years after his promotion to extraordinary professor at Marburg.

Just as Waitz had studied anatomy in order to be able to create a new psychology, so he sought to base a new philosophy and a new pedagogy on the study of world cultures. He therefore began to write the six-volume Anthropologie der Naturvölker, a survey of all that was known at that time about primitive peoples. In the first volume, ϋberdie Einheit des Menschengeschlechtes und den Naturzustand des Menschen (1859; “Concerning the Unity of Mankind and Man’s Natural State"), he investigated the genesis of mankind in terms of “natural history” and “psychology.” He fiercely attacked the notion that there are fundamental differences between the various races of man, a notion supported in Europe by Klemm and Gobineau and in the United States by Josiah Clark Nott and George R. Gliddon. Waitz’s book contained some of the same conclusions that Darwin published, also in 1859, in the Origin of Species. (A similar book by Adolf Bastian, Der Mensch in der Geschichte, which appeared in 1860, showed no evidence that the author had any familiarity with Waitz’s work.)

In the few remaining years of his life, Waitz published the next three volumes, Die Negervölker und ihre Verwandten (1860) and Die Amerikaner (which appeared in two volumes in 1862 and in 1864), but he wrote a draft of only the first part of the fifth volume, Die Malaien, before he died. This was completed (1865) by his disciple, the ethnologist G. Gerland, who added a second part, Die Mikronesier und nordwestlichen Polynesier (1870); Gerland also added a third part (which became the sixth volume) on the other South Seas peoples (1872). Together, these volumes constituted what for the time was an excellent compendium of ethnological material, and even today they can be consulted with profit since some of the material they contain is not otherwise readily available.

It was in the first volume that Waitz sought to provide a theoretical formulation of the problems that preoccupied him. He began by asserting that human groups have a fundamental psychic unity and that they have become differentiated in the course of history. He believed that all human beings traverse essentially the same stages of psychic development but that environment and history determine when a particular group will reach a particular stage. Unlike the post-Darwinian social scientists, he was not able to visualize evolutionary stages that are alike for all mankind.

Research into the “natural foundations of history,” which Waitz considered to be the special province of anthropology, requires, in his view, primarily the study of nonliterate peoples. He called them Naturvölker, not because they live in a state of nature (which does not exist in any case) but because they seemed to be closest to that hypothetical state. Since these peoples have similar reactions to their physical environment, one may conclude that their mental abilities are the same. Waitz felt that the alleged unfitness for survival of many such peoples (for example, Polynesians, American Indians, and Australian aborigines) is really due to their small numbers, to the harmful influences of Europeans, and the like. In every instance, the progress of civilization depends upon favorable or unfavorable circumstances rather than upon differences in intellectual ability.

Long before the discovery of the Mendelian laws of heredity, Waitz asserted that races are not constant entities but are mutable, as are particular peoples and individuals. As noted above, he combated theories concerning the inequality of human races, such as Gobineau’s and those expounded by Nott and Gliddon to justify Negro slavery in North America (1854). He ridiculed such notions as that a given cranial form persists absolutely for all time, that half-breed populations are inferior, and that cultural development depends on mental gifts that are “different” and fixed in a given population. He believed, instead, that cultural development depends on the level of education and the stage of civilization. Just as the physical appearance of a racial type may gradually change as a result of climate, diet, way of life, social conditions, and other aspects of culture, so also may the intellectual endowment of peoples. “A particular people can attain a high level of cultural development without adopting a large number of foreign traits from others, and by the same token it can survive the total decay of this level of culture” (1859-1872, vol. 1, pp. 388 ff.). Waitz also pointed out that there are peoples on different cultural levels within the same race and that Naturvölker can be found among many different races. In refutation of Gustav Fechner he asserted that it is not this-worldly pleasures but rather work and abstention from pleasure that are the sole bases of higher civilization. Man is capable of extraordinary effort only when under severe pressure, and even intellectual effort is a means to a social end rather than an end in itself.

Waitz’s moralistic and idealistic orientation did not prevent him from doing strictly empirical work. Indeed, in contrast to the psychology of his time, which was dominated by Hegel’s idealism and dia-lectically constructed stages, his was a proclamation of the pre-eminent importance of empiricism in psychology. He asserted that psychology, like the natural sciences, must explore causal relationships in the realm of the psyche. He also castigated traditional psychology for failing to study those interactions among individuals that shape the inner and outer life of human society. While he emphasized this sociological aspect of anthropological research, Waitz nevertheless believed that individual creative effort becomes increasingly prominent in human groups with the progress of culture.

If one is fully to understand Waitz’s thought, one must always bear in mind that he wrote his Anthropologie as a foundation for pedagogy, his principal concern—to demonstrate the capacity of socially conditioned human beings for education.

Hermann Baumann

[For the historical context of Waitz’s work, seeRace; and the biography ofGobineau.]


(1846a) 1878 Grundlegung zur Psychologie. 2d ed. Leipzig: Siegismund.

1846b Lehrbuch der Psychologie als Naturwissenschaft. Brunswick (Germany): Vieweg.

(1852) 1910 Allgemeine Pädagogik. 2d ed., rev. Langen-salza (Germany): Gressler.

1859—1872 Anthropologie der Naturvölker. 6 vols. Leipzig: Fleischer. → Volume 1: Über die Einheit des Menschengeschlechtes und den Naturzustand des Menschen, 1859. Volume 2: Die Negervölker und ihre Verwandten, 1860. Volumes 3-4: Die Amerikaner, 1862-1864. Volumes 5-6: Die Völker der Südsee. Part 1: Die Malaien, 1865. Part 2: Die Mikronesier und nordwestlichen Polynesier, by Georg Gerland, 1870. Part 3: Die Polynesier, Melanesier, Australier und Tasmanier, by Georg Gerland, 1872.

Theodor Waitz’ Allgemeine Pädagogik und kleinere pädagogische Schriften. Langensalza (Germany): Beyer & Mann, 1910. →Contains, in addition to the Allgemeine Pädagogik (1852), articles first published between 1848 and 1858.


Eich, I. 1925 Theodor Waitz’ Anthropologie der Naturvölker. Dissertation, Univ. of Bonn.

Gebhardt, Otto 1906 Theodor Waitzs pödagogische Grundanschauungen in ihrem Verhältnis zu seiner Psychologie, Ethik, Anthropologie und Persönlichkeit. Langensalza (Germany): Beyer & Mann.

Nott, Josiah C.; and Gliddon, George R. 1854 Types of Mankind: Or, Ethnological Researches…. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Stroia, Iean 1894 Theodor Waitzs System der Erziehung. Jena (Germany): Hermannstadt Archdiöcesan-Buchdruckerei.