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Edvard (Alexander) Westermarck (1862-1939)


Finnish social anthropologist, philosopher, and sociologist, whose area of specialization was the history of marriage, morality, and religious institutions. Westermarck gained international fame with his doctoral thesis, The History of Human Marriage, which was inspired by the ideas of Darwin and Herbert Spencer. Westermatck attacked on the theory of primitive promiscuity, and sought to demonstrate that the matriarchate was not a stage of human development and that universal promiscuity was a myth. The study appeared first in 1891, and later in three volumes in 1922.

"Long ago I sat one day in a library where I had come upon the three volumes of E.A. Westermarck's The History of Human Marriage. Browsing through its pages, I kept chuckling and I know some other denizens of the library must have thought me off my rocker to be finding something at which to laugh in what was a dusty tome. Yet there is nothing more amusing than man and his customs, and in that case it was some studies of marriage by capture." (the Western writer Louis L'Amour in Education of a Wandering Man, 1989)

Edvard Westermarck was born in Helsinki (Helsingfors), the son of Nils Christian Westermarck, who taught Latin at the University of Helsinki, and the former Constance Gustava Maria Blomqvist, the daughter of the University librarian and professor of the History of Learning. As a child Westermarck suffered from chronic catarrh. Although he could not take part in games and sports at school, he later showed physical toughness in his strenuous expedition journeys in North Africa.

Westermarck was educated at the Swedish lyceum. After graduating in 1881, he entered the University of Helsinki, receiving his doctor's degree (Ph.D.) in 1890. He also worked as a teacher at the university. At the age of 25 he learned English in order to study the works of Darwin, Morgan, Lubbock, and McLennan in the original language. This was exceptional, because academic circles in Finland were oriented toward Germany and toward idealism, not Anglo-Saxon empiricism and naturalism.

As a result of a visit to England in 1887 and studies at the British Museum, Westermarck wrote his dissertation, the first six chapters of The Origins of Human Marriage. The whole book, published in 1891 with a foreword by Alfred Russel Wallace, was an immediate scientific success. It launched his life's work to investigate the institution of marriage. Westermarck himself never married or had a family. According to some sources, his sexual orientation was well-known in London, but he never had to experience a public ostracism like Oscar Wilde.

In England Westermarck spent much of his time in Surrey, where he was well acquainted with English men of letters, such as Edmund Gosse; the philosopher and psychologist James Sully became his intimate friend. They had met earlier in Norway by chance when walking in the mountains. "This was the beginning of an acquaintance to which I have owed much in my life," he later said.

The period between 1900 and 1902 Westermarck lived mostly in Morocco but he also constantly moved between Finland and Britain. From 1907 to 1931 Westermarck acted as professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. At the same time he was professor of practical philosophy at the University of Helsinki (1906-1918). For a number of years he devoted the summer term to the School of Economics and the rest of the year to his investigations in Morocco and his work in Helsinki. In 1918 he moved to Turku, where he had been appointed professor of philosophy and rector at Åbo Akademi, the Swedish-speaking university ofTurku. A famous Swedish-speaking Finn, Westermarck also participated in the negotiations concerning Åland in the League of Nations and published the article 'The Aaland Question' in Contemporary Review in 1920.

The two-volume The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas (1906-08) was an attempt to "scientificize" moral philosophy. His conclusion Westermarck based on anthropological, ethnological and historical data. "Could it be brought to people that there is no absolute standard in morality," he wrote, "they would perhaps be somewhat more tolerant in their judgments, and more apt to listen to the voice of reason." The Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright considered it the most important philosophical work ever written by a Finn.

Westermarck thought that morality is a social phenomenon and can be traced to altruistic and objective feelings of approval and disapproval, according to social rewards. Westermarck argued against the view that moral judgments are universal facts or common to all people. They are a product of a long period of development, and ultimately based upon emotions and vary in different individuals.

Westermarck's rational and critical approach to religion was noted by Prometheus, the freethinkers' association founded in 1905 – he served its chairman for some time. In his youth Westermarck had read Mill's essays on religion, which influenced deeply his thinking. He remained an agnostic the rest of his life.

Westermarck was also one of the first sociologist to examine, why human beings are so modest about their sexuality. In the essay The Origins of Sexual Modesty (1921) he saw that sexual shame is only a by-product of an Darwinian adaptation, the natural instinct of aversion to incest, which has led to the veiling of the sexual function itself. He had suggested already in his doctoral thesis, that men are disposed to find their their mothers and sisters sexually unattractive. An innate aversion to later close sexual attraction and bonding develops between individuals living together from early childhood. Freud's Oedipal theory about inherent incestuous desires was in direct contrast to the Westermarck effect, which is considered nowadays more accurate explanation of human behavior.

Christianity and Morals (1939), Westermack's final philosophical work, was born partly as a reaction against views that the "modern world owes its scientific spirit to the extreme importance which Christianity assigned to the possession of truth, of the truth." The credit for progress, according to Westermarck, should be attributed to the Enlightenment. Considered too radical, the book was not published in Finnish until 1984, although it had already been translated during the Continuation war (1941-44). In Christianity and Morals Westermarck also represented tolerant views towards homosexuality. "Among mammals the male possesses useless nipples, which occasionally even develop into breasts, and the female possesses a clitoris, which is merely a rudimentary penis, and may also develop. So, too, a homosexual tendency may be regarded as simply the psychical manifestation of special characters of the other sex, susceptible of being evolved under certain circumstances, such as may occur about the age of puberty. Thus the sexual instinct of boys and girls shows plain signs of a homosexual tendency, and is often more or less undifferentiated. When facts of this kind become more commonly known, they can scarcely fail to influence public opinion about homosexuality." (from Christianity and Morals)

"The patient and impartial search after hidden truth, for the sake of truth alone, which constitutes the essence of scientific research, is of course the very opposite of that ready acceptance of a revealed truth for the sake of eternal salvation, which has been insisted by the Churches." (in Christianity and Morals, 1939)

Westermarck made several travels in Morocco from 1897. After an absence of ten years, he returned in 1923, and eventually bought a house on the outskirts of Tangier. The last visit he made to Morocco was in 1938-39. Among his most important Moroccan informants was Abdessalam El-Baqqali, whose family belonged to the Andrja tribe. He followed Westermarck to London and visited also Sweden and Finland. With a Swedish woman, whom El-Baqqali had met in his youth, he corresponded for decades. In Sex år i Marocco: reseskildringar (1918) Westermarck devoted one chapted to his friend.

Westermarck's field study methods in social anthropology were based on primary research, field work and and comparative approach. He learned Arabic and many Berber dialects, and summarized, along with a proverb, that "Honey is not fat, sorghum is not food and Berber is not a language." The observations of his studies were recorded in Marriage Ceremonies in Morocco (1914), Ritual and Belief in Morocco (1926), Wit and Wisdom in Morocco, and other now classical books. In Ethical Relativity (1932) Westermarck attacked the idea that moral principles express objective value. He argued that moral judgments can be taken as arguments about the speaker's feelings, but this relativism does not lead to subjectivism, because moral feelings must be altruistic. His six lectures on the history of customs, Tapojen historia (1913), were translated into Finnish by the writer Joel Lehtonen. This book introduced first time Westermarck's ideas to the Finnish speaking public.

"Onpa sangen merkillistä ajatella, että työt keskeytetään ja kaupat pidetään suljettuina eräänä päivänä joka viikko vielä meilläkin sen vuoksi, että ihmiset tuhansia vuosia sitten uskottelivat, että taivaankappaleet tekevät eräinä aikoina työn tuloksettomaksi tai vaaralliseksi. Syynä tähän omituiseen ilmiöön on osaksi ulkonnollinen pyhitys, jonka maagillisiin käsityksiin perustuva tapa on saanut, mutta osaksi myöskin se seikka, että yksi lepopäivä viikossa on nähty hyödylliseksi tahi tarpeelliseksi nykyaikaisessa kiirehtivässä ja kilvoittelevassa yhteiskunnassa. Vanha tapa säilyy siis hyödyn nojalla, jota se todella on tuottanut." (in Tapojen historia, 1913)

Westermarck died on September 9, 1939, in Tenhola. His travels in Morocco preindicated the rising interest of the literary expatriates in the country, among others Paul Bowles. The Westermarck Society was founded in 1943. Its publications include the journal Sosiologia (Sociology), Acta Sociologica, and Transactions of the Westermarck Society series. In Finland Westermarck's work influenced a number of scholars, among them Rafael Karsten, who studied Inca culture in Peru, Gunnar Landtman, who studied Papuans in New Guinea, Hilma Granqvist, Yrjö Hirn, and Rolf Lagerborg, a relentless critic of Christianity. Violet from Berhard Shaw's play Man and Superman (1905) has been called a modern, self-conscious woman, who had read Westermarck. The famous anthropologist and sociologist Claude Lévi-Strauss considered him "the last and most famous representative of the English Anthropological School; he embodied, with an exceptional, militant power, a current of thought which renewed our social and moral understanding, and out of which grew the first efforts to develop a comprehensive description of mankind."

For further reading: Murrosajoilta: muistoja ja kokemuksia II (1918); Om Edvard Westermarck och verked från hans... by Rolf Lagerborg (1951); Sex and Society by M. Seymour-Smith (1976); Westermarck's Ethics by Timothy Stroup (1982); Edvard Westermarck: Essays on his life and works, ed. Timothy Strouop (1982); Thinkers of the Twentieth Century, ed. E. Devine et al. (1985); Kadonneet alkuperät: Edvad Westermarckin sosiopsykologinen ajattelu by Juhani Ihanus (1990); Suomalaisen kulttuurifilosofian vuosisata by Mikko Salmela (1998); Suomen tieteen historia 2, ed. Päiviö Tommila (2000); 100 Faces from Finland, ed. Ulpu Marjomaa (2000); Ajatuksen kuku. Tankens vägar. Trains of thought, ed. Inkeri Pitkäranta (2004); Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century by Arthur P. Wolf, William H. Durham (2005)

Selected works:

  • The History of Human Marriage, Part I: The Origin of Human Marriage, 1889
    - Det menskliga äktenskapets historia (published by Söderström, Helsinki)
  • The History of Human Marriage, 1891 (2d ed. in 1894; 3d ed. in 1901; 5th ed., rewritten, in 1921)
    - Det menskliga äktenskapets historia (tr. 1892-1893)
    - Origine du mariage dans l'esèce humaine (traduit de l'anglais par Henry de Varigny, 1895)
    - Geschichte der menschlichen Ehe: einzig autorisierte deutsche Ausgabe (aus dem Englischen von Leopold Katscher und Romulus Grazer; mit einleitendem Vorwort von Alfr. Russel Wallace, 2 Aufl, 1893)
  • Samhällslära - Anteckningar i samhällslära enligt Dr. Edvard Westermarks föreläsningar, 1894 (ed. L. Ehrnrooth)
  • The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, 1906-12 (vols. 1-2)
    - Moraalin synty ja kehitys 1 (suom. Emerik Olsoni, 1933)
    - Moralens uppkomst och utveckling (övers. 1916)
    - Ursprung und Entwickelung der Moralbegriffe (Deutsch von Leopold Katscher, 1909-1913, 2. Aufl.)
  • Kristendom och moral: några ord om den kristna kyrkans inflytande på moralen, 1907
  • Moral och kristendomen: Ett bidrag till frågan om beviljandet af fullständig trosfrihet, 1907 (published by Prometheus)
    - Siveys ja kristinusko (suom. 1907)
  • Religion och magi, 1907
  • Ur sedernas historia, 1912
    - Tapojen historiaa, 1913 (suom. Joel Lehtonen, 1913)
  • Ceremonies and Beliefs Connected with Agriculture, Certain Dates of the Solar Year, and the Weather in Morocco, 1913
  • Marriage Ceremonies in Morocco, 1914
  • The Moorish Conception of Holiness (Baraka), 1916
  • Sex år i Marocco: reseskildringar, 1918
  • The Belief in Spirits in Morocco, 1918
  • The Origins of Sexual Modesty, 1921
  • A Short History of Marriage, 1926
    - Avioliiton historia (suom. 1932)
    - Äktenskapets historia i dess huvuddrag (övers. av Rolf Pipping, 1927)
  • Ritual and Belief in Morocco 1-2, 1926
  • The Goodness of Gods, 1926
  • Marriage, 1929
  • Minnen ur mitt liv, 1927
    - Memories of My Life (translated by Anna Barwell, 1929)
  • Wit and Wisdom in Morocco: A Study of Native Proverbs, 1930
  • Blodshämnd bland marockanska berber, 1931
  • Early Beliefs and Their Social Influence, 1932
  • Ethical relativity, 1932
    - Etisk relativism (translated by Edward Westermack)
  • Pagan Survivals in Mohammedan Civilization, 1933
  • Freuds teori on Oedipuskomplexen i sociologisk belysning, 1934
  • Three Essays on Sex and Marriage, 1934
  • The Future of Marriage in Western Civilization, 1936
    - Äktenskapets framtid i västerlandet (övers. 1936)
  • Christianity and Morals, 1939
    - Kristinusko ja moraali (suom. Väinö Meltti, 1984)
  • Född till resenär: ett urval ur Edvard Westermarcks resebrev, 2005 (ed. Gunilla Lundberg-Kelly)

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