Debate Magazine

Robin Horton: MIA

By Cris

Over the past few months, I have been reading everything that Robin Horton wrote over a span of forty years. To say that it has been transformative would be an understatement. During the course of this reading I have often wondered why Horton is not better known. While he is quite well known to anthropologists of religion and philosophers of Africa, outside this small circle his name recognition is minimal.

Given the brilliance of Horton’s work, it seems strange that I should mention his name to anthropologist friends (some of whom work in Africa and all of whom are well-read) and draw blank stares. This requires some explanation and I think there are several. But before getting to those in a future post which will also extensively review Horton’s work, I want to situate him within the larger history of anthropology.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this history is that the discipline has been largely concerned, from its inception and through its primary development, with religion. There is of course a standard story about this history, which I will shortly tell. In this telling, however, we are going to frame the issues in a way which accounts for the missing character of Robin Horton.

The Standard Story: From Tylor to Geertz

As usual, our story begins with the commonplace that anthropology was founded by rationalist, ethnocentric Victorian scholars who, having been smitten by Darwin’s dangerous ideas, speculated that “primitives” had been frozen in time and were living relics of the evolutionary past. These cultural evolutionary scholars, prominently including Edward Burnett Tylor and James George Frazer, believed in progress. Progress was most evident when it came to the evolution of mind or intellect. As people ascended the evolutionary scale toward modern civilization, their modes of thought changed. Early or primitive humans had been mired in magical and mystical thinking. While such thinking made a certain kind of sense, it gradually gave way to more systematic and rarified forms of religious thinking. This kind of thinking made no sense at all. Science had, after all, shown that the supernatural was imaginary and that modern religion was just a more developed form of primitive religion. Both were superstitions and should be jettisoned in favor of science.

Across the Atlantic pond, the founder of American anthropology was skeptical. Franz Boas questioned the assumption that cultures, and hence minds, could be arrayed along an evolutionary continuum from primitive to modern. He argued that conjectural evolutionary schemes should be set aside and that anthropologists should content themselves with data collection. Heeding this call, and a similar one from Malinowski in Britain, anthropologists fanned out across the world to study “primitives” in their natural settings. Thus began the great era of fieldwork and ethnographic description. Anthropologists had, at least on the surface, been freed from the ethnocentric shackles of cultural evolutionary schemes.

But the real death knell for evolutionist anthropology came from across the English Channel. In France, a brilliant scholar was determined to establish a new discipline that would supplant anthropology and become the premier science of humanity. In Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, the sociologist Emile Durkheim criticized the cultural evolutionists as “intellectualists” – they were mistakenly focused on individuals, minds, and psychology. Humans did not, Durkheim asserted, individually or introspectively reason their way to magical and religious thinking. Rather, humans are born into societies which transmitted these ideas to them. People were, in other words, taught to think and reason this way. Religious ideas were the products of human social life, not individual cognition. Having dispensed with psychological approaches to religion, Durkheim argued that society, the paramount and determining factor in human life, functionally maintains and perpetuates itself through collective rituals, emotional arousal, and sacred symbols.

Durkheim’s Social-Symbolic Victory

Durkheim won this epic debate and all anthropology thereafter was “social-functional” and “symbolic.” Whenever and wherever anthropologists encountered strange rituals or magico-religious ideas, it would be taken for granted that these symbolically and functionally contributed to social cohesion. This was especially true of primitive religions and traditional beliefs. Even if “primitives” did not know the real reason for their rituals, and did not understand what their symbols actually signified, social anthropologists surely did. It was all social glue, with polyvalent symbols providing adhesion.

This is, more or less (emphasis on the latter), where things stood until 1965 when Clifford Geertz famously lamented, in “Religion as a Cultural System,” the malaise afflicting the field:

Two characteristics of anthropological work on religion accomplished since the second world war strike me as curious when such work is placed against that carried out just before and just after the first. One is that it has made no theoretical advances of major importance. It is living off the conceptual capital of its ancestors, adding very little, save a certain empirical enrichment, to it. The second is that it draws what concepts it does use from a very narrowly defined intellectual tradition. There is Durkheim, Weber, Freud, or Malinowski, and in any particular work the approach of one or two of these transcendent figures is followed, with but a few marginal corrections necessitated by the natural tendency to excess of seminal minds or by the expanded body of reliable descriptive data.

But virtually no one even thinks of looking elsewhere – to philosophy, history, law, literature, or the “harder” sciences – as these men themselves looked, for analytical ideas. And it occurs to me, also, that these two curious characteristics are not unrelated. If the anthropological study of religion is in fact in a state of general stagnation, I doubt that it will be set going again by producing more minor variations on classical theoretical themes.

While we may question whether Weber, Freud, and Malinowski had major or enduring impacts on the anthropology of religion, there is no doubt that Durkheim did. His social-symbolic-functional theory swept the field and framed nearly all ethnographic work on religion that was done in the four decades after 1912, when Elementary Forms first appeared. While these ethnographies provided a great deal of “empirical enrichment,” in terms of theory they were essentially a series of footnotes to Durkheim. Ironically, Geertz’s own symbolic approach can be seen as just such a footnote.

It was Durkheim, after all, who first recognized the way in which symbols dominate our lives and indeed make us human. But symbols, for all their communicative and instrumental usefulness, pose certain problems and can be quite vexing. They are strangely dual, having the paradoxical quality of presenting from “out there” while simultaneously existing “in here.” So while symbols potentially unify or bridge outer and inner worlds, they may also divide those worlds, giving rise to the sense there is this world and another world. When symbols function to rupture rather than bridge, as often occurs through either introspection or anomaly, chaos and confusion potentially ensues. Religion, according to Durkheim, averts this chaos – or rather transcends it – by imagining and imposing (some might call it conjuring) connections.

Geertz, though paying obligatory homage to Durkheim at the outset of his 1965 essay, proceeds as if he were discovering something new. Whether by accident or design, Geertz seems not to have noticed that his call for a symbolic anthropology of religion was nothing more, and perhaps something less, than an elaboration of Durkheim.

Whatever the case, most anthropologists heeded Geertz’s call for a more intensively symbolic approach to religion. This allowed or enabled anthropologists to become artists of sorts, weaving their word-materials into richly layered and aesthetically pleasing tapestries. When theory appeared, as it did in later decades, ethnographies trafficking in the magical or religious were usually prefaced with obligatory nods to Foucault’s power or Bourdieu’s habitus. The usual procedure was formulaically to recite one theory or the other (sometimes both, for the especially ambitious) and then fit the ethnographic descriptions into the chosen framework. The fits, needless to say, were often forced and sometimes ill. Religion, in the end, seemed to be just another form, or subset, of symbolic play in larger fields of discourse, economy, and politics.

This was, and remains in many or most quarters, the state of the anthropological art on religion. While a few anthropologists, beginning in the 1990s, revisited earlier theories of religion and situated themselves within the neo-Darwinian field of evolutionary religious studies, these are a tiny minority. Religion remains, for most anthropologists, a social-symbolic complex that is best described and assessed using various post-structural procedures or no method at all. Evolutionary and explanatory treatments of religion are, for most social and cultural anthropologists, strictly taboo.

Disrupting the Standard Story: Back to Geertz

At this point in the standard story, it will be helpful to recall Geertz’s suggestion that a rejuvenated anthropology of religion should look to philosophy, history, law, literature, and the “harder” sciences for analytical ideas. Because Geertz’s famous essay draws most of its inspiration from only one of these, literature, his analysis is of course dominated by symbols, signs, and interpretations that collectively are construed as “meaning.” Those who, following Geertz, treat religion as a “cultural system” have largely ignored the part of the essay in which Geertz treats religion as that which literally and figuratively makes sense or imposes meaning. Given Geertz’s godfather status in social and cultural anthropology, let us consider these passages (parts of which I have underlined for cognitive emphasis) at length:

There are at least three points where chaos – a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability – threatens to break in upon man: [1] at the limits of his analytic capacities, [2] at the limits of his powers of endurance, and [3] at the limits of his moral insight. Bafflement, suffering, and a sense of intractable ethical paradox are all, if they become intense enough or are sustained long enough, radical challenges to the proposition that life is comprehensible and that we can, by taking thought, orient ourselves effectively within it – challenges with which any religion, however “primitive,” which hopes to persist must attempt somehow to cope.

Of the three issues, it is the first which has been least investigated by modern social anthropologists (though Evans-Pritchard’s classic discussion of why granaries fall on some Azande and not on others, is a notable exception). Even to consider people’s religious beliefs as attempts to bring anomalous events or experiences – death, dreams, mental fugues, volcanic eruptions, or marital infidelity – within the circle of the at least potentially explicable seems to smack of Tyloreanism or worse. But it does appear to be a fact that at least some men – in all probability, most men – are unable to leave unclarified problems of analysis merely unclarified, just to look at the stranger features of the world’s landscape in dumb astonishment or bland apathy without trying to develop, however fantastic, inconsistent, or simple-minded, some notions as to how such features might be reconciled with the more ordinary deliverances of experience.

Any chronic failure of one’s explanatory apparatus, the complex of received culture patterns (common sense, science, philosophical speculation, myth) one has for mapping the empirical world, to explain things which cry out for explanation tends to lead to a deep disquiet – a tendency rather more widespread and a disquiet rather deeper than we have sometimes supposed since the pseudoscience view of religious belief was, quite rightfully, deposed. After all, even that high priest of heroic atheism, Lord Russell, once remarked that although the problem of the existence of God had never bothered him, the ambiguity of certain mathematical axioms had threatened to unhinge his mind. And Einstein’s profound dissatisfaction with quantum mechanics was based on a – surely religious – inability to believe that, as he put it, God plays dice with the universe.

But this quest for lucidity and the rush of metaphysical anxiety that occurs when empirical phenomena threaten to remain intransigently opaque is found on much humbler intellectual levels. Certainly, I was struck in my own work, much more than I had at all expected to be, by the degree to which my more animistically inclined informants behaved like true Tyloreans. They seemed to be constantly using their beliefs to “explain” phenomena: or, more accurately, to convince themselves that the phenomena were explainable within the accepted scheme of things, for they commonly had only a minimal attachment to the particular soul possession, emotional disequilibrium, taboo infringement, or bewitchment hypothesis they advanced and were all too ready to abandon it for some other, in the same genre, which struck them as more plausible given the facts of the case. What they were not ready to do was abandon it for no other hypothesis at all; to leave events to themselves.

These are truly remarkable statements, all but forgotten (or ignored) in later social-cultural-symbolic plays on religion. When we consider these in conjunction with the prefatory remarks in Geertz’s famous essay, we find something that looks suspiciously like a research program: (1) anthropologists of religion should draw from philosophy, history, and the “harder” sciences for analytical ideas; (2) social anthropologists have failed to investigate what happens when analytical limits are reached and confusion threatens; and (3) anthropologists should not be surprised to find that magico-religious ideas are used to fill gaps, explain events, order the world, and avoid chaos.

While Geertz never pursued this kind of “intellectualist” program, he was not alone in thinking such an approach would be productive. It is at this point in the standard story that we finally meet our character, strangely missing in all this action: Robin Horton. In the 1960s, Horton began publishing a series of essays that pursued this program with a pungent and provocative vengeance. Some of these, those which Horton considered most important to his primary thesis, were published in Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science (1993). In my next post on Horton, I will consider this extraordinary book and critically evaluate Horton’s larger corpus.


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