Rational Thinking & the Scientific Approach in Primitive Cultures


The extracts below come from an essay called Magic, Science and Religion by the ethnographer (what we would now more commonly call an anthropologist) Bronislaw Malinowski. In it he makes a number of interesting comments about the mistake ethnographers often make when they think of ¡¥savage¡¦ culture as being fundamentally different to civilised culture. His work needs to be read with care because his research was originally carried out in 1914 and so his ideas are over a century old. As such, at times, it is clear that he is writing from a different cultural perspective and particularly one that does believe that Western civilisation is in some measure superior to what he refers to ¡¥primitive¡¦ society. Nonetheless, he does make some interesting points when he calls into question the assumption that ¡¥primitive¡¦ man is unable to think logically, rationally ¡K or scientifically. If Malinowski is right then there might be considerable overlap between what we would normally call indigenous knowledge systems and our own ¡¥Westernised¡¦, scientific systems of knowledge



¡¥[The classical response to questions about primitive man¡¦s ability to think rationally] is, to put it in a nutshell, that primitive man has no [rational] moods at all, that he is hopelessly and completely immersed in a mystical frame of mind. Incapable of dispassionate and consistent observation, void of the power of abstraction, hampered by ¡¥a decided aversion towards reasoning¡¦, he is unable to draw any benefit from experience, to construct or comprehend even the most elementary laws of nature. ¡¥For minds thus orientated there is no fact purely physical¡¦ nor can there exist for them any clear idea of substance and attribute cause and effect, identity and contradiction. Their outlook is that of confused superstition, ¡¥pre-logical¡¦ made of mystical ¡¥participations¡¦ and ¡¥exclusions¡¦.


[But this is not necessarily the case and recent scholars are beginning to call this into question.] Professor J. L. Myres [entitled] an article in Notes and Queries (an anthropological journal) ¡¥Natural Science.¡¦ And when we read there that the savage¡¦s ¡¥knowledge based on observation is distinct and accurate¡¦ we must surely pause before accepting primitive man¡¦s irrationality as a dogma. Another highly competent writer, Dr. A. A. Goldenweiser, speaking about primitive ¡¦discoveries, inventions and improvements¡¦ ¡V which could hardly be attributed to any pre-empirical or pre-logical mind - affirms that it would be unwise to ascribe to the primitive mechanic merely a passive part in the origination of inventions. Goldenweisder states that ¡¥Many a happy thought must have crossed his mind ¡K nor was he wholly unfamiliar with the thrill that comes from an idea effective in action.¡¦ Here we see the savage endowed with an attitude of mind wholly akin to that of a modern man of science!


[As such, in answer to the question] ¡K has the savage any rational outlook, any rational mastery of his surroundings, or is he, as [some] maintain, entirely mystical? The answer will be that every primitive community is in possession of a considerable store of knowledge, based on experience and fashioned by reason.¡¦ (pp. 25 ¡V 26)



In response to the claim that primitive thought is dominated by magic and so cannot be rational or logical, Malinowski argues that belief in magic is consistent with the ability to think scientifically and rationally. He puts this most clearly in the following section where he explains the role that magic plays in the life of the ¡¥savage¡¦.



¡¥What is the cultural function of magic? We have seen that all the instincts and emotions, all practical activities, lead man into impasses where gaps in his knowledge and the limitations of his early power of observation and reason betray him at a crucial moment (emphasis mine). The human organism reacts to this in spontaneous outbursts, where rudimentary modes of behaviour and rudimentary beliefs in their efficiency are engendered. Magic fixes upon these beliefs and rudimentary rites and standardises them into permanent traditional forms. Thus magic supplies primitive man with a number of ready-made ritual acts and beliefs with a definite mental and practical technique which serves to bridge over the dangerous gaps in every important pursuit or critical situation. It enables man to carry out with confidence his important tasks, to maintain his poise and his mental integrity in fits of anger, in the throes of hate, of unrequited love, of despair and anxiety. The function of magic is to ritualise man¡¦s optimism, to enhance his faith in the victory of hope over fear. Magic expresses the greater value for man of confidence over doubt, of steadfastness over vacillation, of optimism over pessimism.¡¦ (p.90)



Bronislaw Malinowski: Magic, Science and Religion, Doublday Anchor Books, 1954