Empathetic eye

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive on 2013-08-17 18:27Z by Steven

Empathetic eye

Agência FAPESP: News Agency of the Sao Paulo Research Foundation

Fábio de Castro

Agência FAPESP In 1865, an expedition led by Swiss natural scientist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) of Harvard University travelled around Brazil for 15 months to study the country. Among the voluntary collectors that participated in the expedition was a 23 year old medical student, William James (1842-1910), who would later become one of the most influential American thinkers, known mainly as one of the creators of pragmatic philosophy. 

Organized by professor Maria Helena Toledo Machado of the History Department of Universidade de São Paulo’s (USP) Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences School (FFLCH), the book Brazil through the eyes of William James covers  the large volume of writing and drawings produced by the young James during the expedition. Unlike the travel logs typical of the period, the material left by James reveals a sensitive and empathetic traveler with unique perspectives on the nature and society of Brazil.

The book was launched on April 7 at the USP’s Maria Antônia University Center, during the opening of the exhibition Rastros e raças de Louis Agassiz: fotografia, corpo e ciência (Traces of Louis Agassiz: photography, body and science), a collection of a series of photographs obtained during the expedition on Brazilian racial types…

…James’ perspective also significantly contrasts with the bias expressed by the expedition. Agassiz, founder of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, intended to collect fish specimen and data on their geographic distribution in Brazil, with a view to contesting Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which he opposed.

During the trip – known as the Thayer Expedition because it was financed by magnate Nathaniel Thayer-, Agassiz became interested in studying the population, taking the initiative to document Brazilian racial types through photography with a view evaluating the results of miscegenation. The work is one of the main photographic registers of Brazil in the 19th century.

“Agassiz was a creationist and the scientific and racial focus of the expedition is a bit backwards. But this did not affect James’ perspective. Highly sensitive, he developed what I would characterize as empathy, which would be manifested throughout his work. He shows a great capacity to understand the world from the other’s perspective. Instead of the paternalistic and pious approach common among other travelers of the time, he got involved with people and managed to understand the profound differences of this unfamiliar society,” affirms Machado.


According to the historian, the position James exhibited in his expedition diaries are reflected throughout the life of the thinker. Later, he would fight against imperialism, defend Darwinism, become a follower of relativism – which garnered much criticism – and would develop the notion of stream of consciousness.

“All these ideas are coherent to his manner of approaching reality, manifested during his time in Brazil. In his writings, he deconstructs the exotic perspective, the incomprehensible other, the foreigner alienated from the codes of local social life,” says Machado…

Read the entire article here.

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Brazil through the Eyes of William James: Diaries, Letters, and Drawings, 1865-1866

Posted in Biography, Books, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive, Monographs on 2013-08-17 18:14Z by Steven

Brazil through the Eyes of William James: Diaries, Letters, and Drawings, 1865-1866

Harvard University Press
November 2006
230 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
38 line drawings; 10 black and white halftones
Hardcover ISBN: 9780674021334

Maria Helena P.T. Machado, Professor of History
University of São Paulo

In 1865, twenty-three-year-old William James began his studies at the Harvard Medical School. When he learned that one of his most esteemed professors, Louis Agassiz, then director of the recently established Museum of Comparative Zoology, was preparing a research expedition to Brazil, James offered his services as a voluntary collector. Over the course of a year, James kept a diary, wrote letters to his family, and sketched the plants, animals, and people he observed. During this journey, James spent time primarily in Rio de Janeiro, Belém, and Manaus, and along the rivers and tributaries of the Amazon Basin.

This volume is a critical, bilingual (English-Portuguese) edition of William James’s diaries and letters and also includes reproductions of his drawings. This original material belongs to the Houghton Archives at Harvard University and is of great interest to both William James scholars and Brazilian studies experts.

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A tale of two scholars: The Darwin debate at Harvard

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, History, Media Archive, United States on 2010-12-06 22:26Z by Steven

A tale of two scholars: The Darwin debate at Harvard

Harvard Gazette

Louis Agassiz was a scientist with a blind spot—he rejected the theory of evolution

Few people have left a more indelible imprint on Harvard than Louis Agassiz.

An ambitious institution-builder and fundraiser as well as one of the most renowned scientists of his generation, he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) and trained a generation of naturalists in the precise methods of observation and categorization developed in Europe. His wife Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the other half of this Harvard power couple, was co-founder and first president of the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, the precursor of Radcliffe.

Unfortunately, Agassiz chose the wrong side in what turned out to be the 19th century’s greatest scientific controversy, and as a result ended his career as something of an anachronism. The controversy was over Charles Darwin’sOn the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” which was published in 1859 and soon won over the younger generation of scientists and intellectuals, including most of Agassiz’s students…

…Agassiz’s idea of nature was an essentially static one: God had placed the various species of plants and animals in specific places around the globe, and there they had remained, in the same forms and quantities as when they were first created. There was a hierarchy to organisms, but not an evolutionary one. Some were more complicated and advanced, but he did not believe as Darwin did that more complicated organisms evolved out of simpler ones.

Agassiz had similar ideas about humans. The five races of man were indigenous to specific sections of the earth. Highest in development were white Europeans. Lowest were black Africans. Agassiz took a very dim view of racial mixing.

In 1863, in a letter to Samuel Gridley Howe, appointed by Lincoln to head the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, Agassiz expressed his views on the matter: “Conceive for a moment the difference it would make in future ages for the prospect of republican institutions and our civilization generally, if instead of the manly population descended from cognate nations, the United States should hereafter be inhabited by the effeminate progeny of mixed races, half indian, half negro, sprinkled with white blood. In whatever proportion the amalgamation may take place, I shudder at the consequences.”…

Read the entire article here.

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