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Primitive Mind
We have looked at evolution as a progressive process at the level of social
development and thought. As a science of society made possible by modes of thought
tied to objectivity. As positivist attitudes linked directly to science.
Ways of thinking about primitive societies as simplistic and childlike in structure
were questioned by Tylor and others who argued that human nature and all human
societies shared some things in common, such as religion. In direct contrast to
Christian theology, primitive societies seen as godless in character were shown by
Tylor to have basic religions and that the idea of religion was a feature of all societies.
In their earliest form this consisted of animism, of spiritual non-material entities and
developed to include the existence of the human soul with the substance of a nonmaterial spirit. These ideas appeared as a rational response to problems faced in
primitive society, namely what happened to people once they died and consequently
what was the difference between life and death? What is the nature of dreams and
visions? These questions lead directly to the belief in man as both a body and soul.
Man departs from the body and the body dies, spirits are the souls of dead ancestors,
beliefs which lead to the emergence of the idea of spirits as invisible forces shaping
the world. From this there developed the belief in a principle unifying force that
created the world and rules our lives – essentially a belief in God.
Primitive minds are not simplistic and childlike. Many Primitive societies have
extremely complex cosmologies, many have complex social institutions. The function
of religion is intellectual. It arose from the problem of death. Tylor sketches a
powerful theory of religion as a psychological comfort to believers. Religion is
explained as a means to relieve anxiety about the future. The anthropologists of the
time were concerned with identifying the origins of religion and why it developed. By
the early C20 concerns had grown as to why the progressive pattern thought to be
present in the development of religion was not as clear as the pattern thought to exist
in social development. Theorists began to recognise the existence of complex
cosmologies in primitive societies and simple religions in complex (civilized)
Fraser - adopted a three stage process to account for the emergence of human
knowledge, beginning with magic as an attempt to explain events in natural terms,
followed by religion and the adoption of supernatural forces determining the world
and leading eventually to the dominance of science and the acceptance of natural
causes and laws as explanations of how the worlds works. Religious, magical and
scientific beliefs sit side-by-side in certain societies, but it is not the case that
primitive societies had magic and religion and complex societies had science. The
acceptance of this state of affairs led to the rejection of the search for the origin of
religion in favour of explanations of the social function of religion (often associated
with Durkheim)
Levy-Bruhl - French philosophers were also interested in anthropology and the
character of primitive mentality. LB argued that we cannot understand religious
beliefs and practices in terms of individual psychology and certainly not as a means of
assuaging fears of death. He saw religion as the result of “collective representation”,
as a system of beliefs and the institutions they are tied up in (“culture”). These differ
according to the social organisations the society possesses. Systems of beliefs are not
fundamentally the same; they affect the population according to their specific
character. LB believed there was the ability to distinguish between primitive and
civilized mentalities and that the two mentalities were distinctive of two types of
society. Civilized mentality is seen as logical in character. It seeks natural causes of
phenomena and the consequent effect. These are then subsumed under general natural
laws which seek to explain any relationships between the two (cause and effect).
On the other hand primitive mentality is concerned with the invisible. It is pre- logical
in character and concerned with the occult (hidden) cause of events.
Primitive people are capable of thinking rationally. There is nothing in their character
that determines they are primitive, the difference between primitive and civilized is
purely social, it is a difference in the collective representations they adopt. The
categories of thought available to civilized people are not available to primitive
people, who view objects in their world as having occult elements. The primitive
mind organizes experience according to a “law of mystical participations” where
mystical forces connect certain objects and forces. The relationship between
experience and the world shape social attitudes and behaviour in both societies.
Mystical beliefs are not signs of stupidity, but signs of the collective beliefs that
certain groups possess.
Religion exists in all societies and performs social functions. How then does it order
peoples experience of the world? The distinction between civilized and primitive is
not accepted today. LB points to why peoples experiences of the world, both civilized
and primitive, are shaped by collective representation; for example that scientific
knowledge is not the product of individual minds but is a form of collective
representation, that the ordering of experiences in and of the world are the basis of
collective knowledge.
Durkheim – suggested an alternative view of primitive thought, that of primitive
classifications. His theory of social evolution, of simple mechanistic leading to
complex organic was that this transition was the result of the division of labour. The
evolutionist approach was overshadowed by his concerns relating to the function of
institutions, beliefs and practices in society as a whole, which he saw as underpinning
the social order. Durkheim saw the purpose of religious beliefs and institutions as a
means of confirming the solidarity of the group.
Durkheim and Mauss attempted to look at the ways primitive peoples classify objects
within their experiences, particularly those with religious or spiritual meaning and to
understand the relationships between objects. They recognised that primitive people
deal with everyday objects in a common-sense way, but what about other objects?
How had the way of classifying objects developed? Locke had proposed that
classification was the result of individual experience, Kant had suggested that we are
born to classify, that we have certain a priori forms of mind which allow us to classify
the world, but these were philosophical accounts. What Durkheim and Mauss were
searching for was a sociological account of the nature of classification, the model of
what primitive people use, and what they suggested was that it was based on the
social order, the systems of relations that underlay primitive societies kinship
The structure of the universe was a reflection of the structure of organization in
society (Zuni Indians). D and M argued that the system of classifications was a
reflection of society as a whole – that it was well ordered, closed, had a fixed system
of social relations, and importantly that as a consequence it was also static because of
the way that it was mapped on to their perception of the universe.
There are many reasons why people map the universe as they do. It is too simplistic to
attempt to read off forms of organization from social organization. Any number of
influences can affect changes in social anthropology, the social ideology of
knowledge suggests that beliefs are directly related to the structure of society and the
interests of particular social groups and that these inform debates within structural
anthropology. Levi-Strauss suggests the elimination of stark contrasts between the
idea of primitive and civilized society, that there is a similarity of minds between all
kinds of people and that we should treat primitive cosmologies as rational, coherent
and logical.
By the early C20 human science had transformed the portrayal of primitive mind from
the idea of childlike and simplistic to that of complex, related to particular beliefs and
practices and performing a particular function in society. This was the direct result of
dissatisfaction with ideas of social evolution and led to an attempt to understand how
modern societies are the result of forces they are not aware of. This raises the question
as to if humanity can achieve complete emancipation from unconscious forces and the
way we relate to them.