Debate Magazine

Lucien Lévy-Bruhl: Animist “Primitives”

By Cris

At the conclusion of my post on RR Marett, I noted that for all his keen insights into the expansively causal and perhaps even cosmological nature of animist worldviews, his otherwise brilliant analysis was marred by its intense focus on individual experience. While Marett held “that religion in its psychological aspect is, fundamentally, a mode of social behavior,” he never developed this idea or explained how individual “religious” experience meshed with the social. A year after Marett published The Threshold of Religion (1909), Lucien Lévy-Bruhl would do just this. I see Lévy-Bruhl as something like the perfect complement to Marett. In what follows I survey Lévy-Bruhl and present some preliminary ideas about their joint relevance to evolutionary religious studies.

In 1910, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl published Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures, a title that inauspiciously translates as Mental Functions in Primitive Societies. When this book finally appeared English, in 1926, it appeared under the equally inauspicious title How Natives Think. Lévy-Bruhl was trained in philosophy and taught that subject at the Sorbonne before turning to anthropology. His interests shifted after he began reading ethnographic reports on so-called “primitive” peoples that were pouring in from around the imperial-colonial world. He eventually immersed himself in these reports to the exclusion of nearly everything else. In doing so, he became convinced that the “primitive” worldview differed fundamentally from the modern (i.e., Western) worldview. He characterized the former as “mystical” or “mythical” and argued that the prevalent style of “primitive” thinking was “pre-logical.”

These are general themes he would visit again and again over the next few decades, as is apparent from these titles: Primitive Mentality (1922), The Soul of the Primitive (1928), The Supernatural and the Nature of the Primitive Mind (1931), and Mystic Experience and Primitive Symbolism (1938). As these titles also suggest, Lévy-Bruhl saw the “primitive” as being fundamentally concerned with, and linked to, proto-religious or religious concepts such as the soul, supernatural, myth, and mysticism.

Judging the issue by titles alone (always a bad practice), it appears Lévy-Bruhl is suggesting that “primitives” possess a different kind of brain, mind, or cognition. This is not what he means; Lévy-Bruhl never asserts that “primitives” are less cognitively able than “moderns.” Indeed, he contends otherwise. In terms of equipment and ability, everyone has the same kind of mental equipment and capability. By “mentality” Lévy-Bruhl means worldview or Weltanschauung. In so-called “primitive” societies, this (admittedly difficult to comprehend) worldview is a totalizing cosmology. Animist worldviews are distinctly non-dualist: there is no nature set apart from supernature or material distinct from the immaterial. Nothing is strictly inert because everything participates in everything else. All is connected. Lévy-Bruhl calls this way of conceiving and being the “law of participation.” Everything that exists – objects, events, landscapes, weather, animals, and people – participate in a world that is connected. Because of these connections or participations, nothing happens (or fails to happen) for strictly material or mechanical reasons. Given deep connection and participation, one thing cannot but fail to affect another thing. All these effects are relational, the result of enmeshment that entails impersonal agencies (i.e., powers or potencies along the lines of Marett’s mana) and invisible agents (of all varieties, including souls, ghosts, spirits, and gods). Things are never just “things.”

Lévy-Bruhl unfortunately characterizes this worldview as “mystical” or “mythical.” Though these concepts have negative connotations in modern or rationalist society, Lévy-Bruhl neither suggests nor implies that this worldview is mistaken, wrong, or irrational. It is not the product of faulty thinking, despite his equally unfortunate characterization of this thinking as “pre-logical.” By pre-logical, he means that animists categorize the world in ways that do not require the strictly defined logic that is important in modern societies or cultures. This peculiar kind of logic is based on the comparatively recent idea that some aspects of the world are purely material and have an essential kind of quality that gives them identity. In cultures where these ideas exist, the law of contradiction becomes important. But in cultures where these ideas do not exist, one “thing” can simultaneously and without contradiction be another thing – it can participate in multiple forces or identities at the same time.

This worldview or “mentality” is not deficient but it is different. It would not work (or at least not work well) in modern societies because such societies have a different set of challenges (presumably related to environments and technologies). As Lévy-Bruhl aptly puts it, “their concerns are not our concerns.” Conversely, our concerns are not their concerns. Animists face an entirely different set of challenges that give rise to an entirely different set of solutions. This, in turn, accounts for the dichotomous difference between “primitive” and “modern” worldviews.

Aside from his sympathetic treatment of “primitive mentality” (which we today would call the “animist worldview”), Lévy-Bruhl’s other innovation was to observe that this worldview does not arise through individual cognition. It is socially generated and transmitted through what Lévy-Bruhl called “collective representations.” Animists do not generate this worldview through thought or on their own: they are born into a society that transmits these ideas to them. Because this worldview “fits” the environment and makes sense of the world, it is continuously confirmed (or affirmed) as being valid. There is little reason to question or challenge it. This explains its ostensibly static nature (it is not of course static). .

While Lévy-Bruhl’s work is not explicitly evolutionary, he worked within the evolutionary paradigm (and was responding to it). As was the case with Marett, he used a revised scheme that divided societies into two types: primitive and modern. Yet for all his insight into the so-called “primitive,” Lévy-Bruhl could not escape the rationalist bias of his times. He saw this worldview as both ancient and static. The category of “primitive” inevitably suggests time and advance.

What appears to be a simple contrast between the primitive and modern is in fact an implicit progression from supposedly simpler to complex. The evolutionary implications are unmistakable and unavoidable. Progress, advance, and development are traditional evolutionary concepts. For better and usually worse, they carry along with them a fair amount of normative and assumptive baggage. The “primitive” assumes and implies an advance or progression to its counterpart, which is variously characterized as civilized, modern, scientific, or complex. The “primitive” is thus an evolutionary concept or category, regardless of whether those who use it claim otherwise. Marett was guilty of this as well, and contributed to the widespread and still-prevalent idea that some societies can be characterized as “primitive.” I reject this idea.

Despite these deficiencies in approach, Marett and Lévy-Bruhl are – or rather should have been – pivotal figures in the history of evolutionary religious studies. They approached ethnographic and ethnohistoric records with a seriousness and sympathy that was rare for the day and age. In their reading of those records, they discerned a comprehensive and complex worldview that traversed the traditional categories of western philosophy: epistemology, ontology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics. This was an approach to the animist worldview that languished for many decades before Claude Levi-Strauss and Irving Hallowell fitfully and partially began pursuing it again in the 1960s. Even then, it took another 20 years before the richness and strangeness of that worldview would be more systematically fleshed out by scholars such as Tim Ingold, Philippe Descola, and Eduardo V. de Castro.


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