For Bastian, the individual was like the cell in an organism
Adolf Bastian (1826-1905) was an ethnologist who paved the way towards an understanding of the overall universality of humankind, and the role of particularities within that whole.
Bastian identified a general psychic unity of humankind as a single species. This was revealed by what he termed elementary ideas (Elementargedanken), which are universally shared by all humans.
Laid on top of that foundation was a level of specific cultures and practices (Völkergedanken in Bastian’s terminology).
The particularities, consisting of folklore, myths and beliefs, emerged within each group by way of cultural evolution, he suggested, adapting to the specific external environment. But they shared the same elementary and universal origin.
Bastian’s theory is important for the way that it places particular group traits within a larger framing context of humanity.
This holistic vision does not allow a particular Volk to be defined as the principal reality, as in the völkisch-nationalist current which fuelled both Nazism and Zionism.
It transcends the dualism of the universal versus the particular by understanding the organic interconnection between different levels of collective identity.
For Bastian, the individual was like the cell in an organism, a social group which has its own “societal soul” (Gesellschaftsseele).
His thinking influenced Carl Jung in his theory of the human collective unconscious and archetypes, anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski and also proponents of comparative mythology such as Joseph Campbell. (1)
Video link: Joseph Campbell talks about Bastian’s ideas (3 mins).
1. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (London: Souvenir Press, 2011), p. 32.