Professor Sahlins agreed, and he remained a devotee of Mr. Lévi-Strauss for the rest of his career. He had one big problem with Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s approach, though: As the students demonstrating in the streets made clear, structures changed as they collided with reality, and the Lévi-Strauss framework had no way to account for that — it was, Professor Sahlins believed, fundamentally ahistorical.
He joined the University of Chicago in 1973, and over the next two decades he worked out a form of structuralism that accounted for historical contingency and the actions of individuals. He summed up his ideas in his 1985 book, “Islands of History,” which includes a lengthy examination of Capt. James Cook’s last visit to the Hawaiian Islands, in 1779.
Professor Sahlins argued that the warm reception Captain Cook initially received, and his later death, coincided with the islanders’ belief in a banished god who would one day return, only to be defeated by their chief — in other words, that Cook’s demise, inexplicable to Western eyes, made perfect sense within the islanders’ culture.
Professor Sahlins’s argument did not go unanswered. In what became a closely watched intellectual dispute, Gananath Obeyesekere, an anthropologist at Princeton, accused Professor Sahlins of creating “a myth of conquest, imperialism and civilization” by depicting the Hawaiians as naïve and gullible; instead, he insisted, they would have seen Cook as merely a man, just as Westerners would have.
Never one to shirk a fight, Professor Sahlins hit back with a book-length retort, “How ‘Natives’ Think: About Captain Cook, for Example” (1995). Professor Obeyesekere, he charged, was the real imperialist for denying the uniqueness of the islanders’ culture and insisting that they adhered to a universal rationality — one that just happened to be the Western view of the world.
“It is difficult for the nonspecialist to judge whether he or Mr. Obeyesekere is right about Captain Cook and the Hawaiians,” Richard Bernstein wrote in The New York Times. “But at least until Mr. Obeyesekere replies, Mr. Sahlins appears to have won a decisive round in an academic boxing match.”