The Research Project The Intellectual Landscape of the Westermarckian Circle is funded by Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland (2014-2017)



The philosopher, sociologist, and social anthropologist Edward Westermarck (1862–1939) is one of the most internationally well-known scholars in the Finnish history of science. He was not only the founder of the Finnish sociology, but also one of the founding fathers of institutionalized sociology and social anthropology in Britain. In Finland, Westermarck introduced the intellectual tradition of British Enlightenment, empiricism and Darwinian naturalism as an alternative for the German idealism which then dominated the Finnish academia. Through his books The History of Human Marriage (1891) and The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1906, 1908), Westermarck established himself as one of the leading social scientists in the Anglo-American world. An indication of his status was his appointment as the professor of sociology at the University of London.

In Finland, Westermarck’s interest in tracing the origins of social and cultural phenomena was transmitted to many of his students. The most prominent members of the Westermarckian circle were art theorist Yrjö Hirn (1870–1952), philosopher Rolf Lagerborg (1874–1959), anthropologist-sociologist Gunnar Landtman (1878–1940) and anthropologist and scholar of religious studies Rafael Karsten (1879–1956), who all became key-figures in the development of the Finnish human and social sciences in the early decades of the twentieth century. Along with their scholarly activities in sociology and anthropology, Rudolf Holsti (1881–1945) and Ragnar Numelin (1890–1972) made prominent careers in politics and diplomacy. This “Westermarckian circle” was also active in various social debates as well as instrumental in developing liberal and tolerant intellectual culture in the Finnish society characterized by nationalism, idealism and antagonistic debates on language and identity.


Our research project focuses on the connections between the scientific work and social activities of Westermarck and his disciples. A primary goal of the project is to analyse the question of the validity and relevance of the concept of the “Westermarckian intellectual landscape” and assess its significance in the Finnish science and society between ca. 1890-1940.

Although Westermarck is known not only for his diverse scientific legacy, but also for his political activities and his criticism of religion, these aspects of his life’s work have not been studied systematically. In particular, there is no extensive scholarship on the intellectual collective created by Westermarck and his followers. While existing studies mostly focus on the works of one individual scholar, our project aims to provide a thorough interpretation of the affinities and differences of the scientific and political thought of the Westermarckian circle. Besides contributing to Finnish intellectual history, the project examines Westermarck’s neglected role in the history of British sociology and social anthropology.


The project’s results will be published in four doctoral theses and in a collection of articles that will be published both in Finnish and Swedish. Each member of the research group and the project leader will also publish at least one article in a peer-reviewed international journal.