George Walford: Primitive Mentality

By publishing his Herbert Spencer Lecture on primitive mentality, delivered at Oxford in 1931, Lucien Levy-Bruhl presented us with a bite-sized piece of serious anthropological thinking twenty-eight small and lucid pages form a unit one can get the mind round. [Levy-Bruhl L. 1931. La Mentalite Primitive; the Herbert Spencer Lecture delivered at Oxford 29 May 1931. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1931].

He opens by warning us to handle the term “primitive” with extreme caution, for we have no direct evidence to show that the condition of the people so called corresponds with that of the first humans. Taking up his main theme he asks whether we can in fact speak of a distinct primitive mentality, far enough removed from our own to remain outside our psychology and logic, demanding special methods of study. Dismissing any argumentative approach, he insists on the need for careful, detailed study of individual and social life, of institutions, beliefs, manners and languages to discover whether the primitive mentality operates on principles peculiar to itself. The student undertaking this task has to work without the sort of firm evidence available to the physicist, chemist or biologist. He has to rely on reports, often from unqualified, inexperienced people, and frequently from ones who, often without knowing it, have already taken sides on the issue, “finding” among the prim itives the metaphysical and religious beliefs they have held themselves since childhood. Before such material can be used for any serious purpose it has to be criticised and compared with reports known to be reliable, and when this is done much of it has to be rejected.

The established facts point to the conclusion that there is indeed a primitive mentality, distinct from our own and found with surprising regularity in the less developed societies. But this is not to suggest the presence of two distinct human types, one logical and the other not. Humanity is one. We can speak the languages of the primitives and they can learn ours; their children often absorb education as rapidly as young whites; in place of science and literature they have myths, tales, proverbs and riddles, and their technology often compels our admiration. Their minds cannot be fundamentally different from ours. None the less the methods of thinking of the Australian Aborigines, Papuans, many North and South American Indians, Bantus and others are so different from ours that our traditional logic and psychology cannot cope.

When seeking to penetrate the primitive mentality one is struck by a difference between their world and ours; in one way theirs is much poorer, in another richer and more complex. We know far more than they of natural phenomena, and have an understanding of natural law that makes miracles extreme rarities, events that only divinity, a power far above nature, is capable of producing.

Primitive mentality takes a very different approach. It certainly distinguishes between natural and supernatural, but without separating them. The supernatural is constantly intervening in natural processes; miracles come as everyday events. At every moment the regular course of events is being interrupted or distorted by extra-natural powers. The primitive is impressed, sometimes terrified, but seldom surprised. He expects, so to speak, the unexpected, lacks any sense of the impossible. Metamorphoses fantastic to us seem simple to him, and he has no hesitation in taking them for real. In short he has only a vague idea of natural law. He has, doubtless, noted how some phenomena regularly follow others. Often he knows the signs indicating a coming change in the weather, but he none the less believes it to be within the power of a sorcerer to prevent clouds approaching, or stop rain falling. If these things happen, he ascribes them to the personal intervention of his chief or ancestors.

In the same way it can be said that for him there is no purely physical fact and that he does not perceive anything in the same way as we do. His sensory apparatus and the structure of his brain are the same as ours, so his sense: impressions must be like ours, but in his thinking they become inextricably mixed with other influences, social in origin, and objects come to possess, for him, tints and qualities of which we have no idea. The primitive feels himself to be surrounded by a countless multitude of supernatural powers and influences, invisible and vaguely defined, which govern, from moment to moment, his happiness or misfortune.

The primitive mentality has been termed mystical, not as the term is used in religion, but in that narrower sense in which it means a belief in powers, influences and actions imperceptible to the senses yet nonetheless real. We seek to explain what happens by reference to what has gone before, ascribing death by illness to a failure of the respiratory, nutritive or other functions, but the primitive has no such conception; for him the cessation of life is a frightening event which has to be ascribed to some malevolent influence. For some primitives there is no such thing as “natural” death, and even death by a spear-thrust is not due to the spear or its wielder but to the sorcerer who has used these means to bring it about. This explains the intense concern shown by primitives with dreams, premonition and divination.

Here we have one way in which the primitive mentality differs from our own; it intermingles what we call natural events with the effects of extra-natural influences, and this is one reason why we find primitive thinking so difficult to follow. There is, in fact, nothing in their thinking corresponding exactly with what we call corporeal and material or, on the other hand, with what we call immaterial or spiritual.

These differences between the primitive mentality and our own carry the greater significance for being linked with another feature of the primitive, one which concerns not only their attitude but the actual functioning of their mind. In many connections, among them some of the most important, primitive thinking seems to be prelogical. This term is not being used to suggest that primitives are incapable of logic but that, unlike ourselves, they do not strive to avoid contradiction. Things that our thinking fords impossible or absurd theirs accepts without trouble.

Although generally conforming, as we do, to the principle of contradiction they also, sometimes, follow another principle, known as the law of participation, according to which creatures, objects and things can, in a way incomprehensible to us but which they fmd quite natural, be at the same time themselves and something else. The opposition between the one and the many, between something and other does not imply for them the necessity, if one term be accepted, of rejecting the other. A single being can at the same time be multiple, and present in two or three places at once.

The only way of demonstrating the validity of what has been said would be to present a mass of evidence. Circumstances making that impossible, a single item will have to suffice; it is taken from the excellent work by Messrs. Edwin W. Smith and Dale on the ba-Ila of Northern Rhodesia. After the death of Chief Sezongo a tortoise and a pair of lions were found, on different occasions, in the but containing his tomb. Both tortoise and lions were accepted as re-embodiments of the chief. Some time after this, Sezongo’s son himself had a son and he, also, was accepted as the old chief returning to earth. A European would be bound to ask: But where exactly is Sezongo? In his tomb, in the tortoise, the lions or the boy? No such question troubled the indigenes; there seems to be a strange confusion in their thinking.

Many examples of similar thinking could be given, from societies far apart. The primitive mind fords nothing startling in the idea of the same creature being at the same time single, double, treble or multiple, although this does not prevent it operating on other occasions, for instance when salaries are in question, according to the principle of contradiction. In the same way, the image is one thing and the original of it another, but this does not prevent them being the same thing.

When we seek that which primitive thinking has in common with our own the effort adds little to our knowledge. But when, having accepted the fundamental identity of all human minds, we go on to study the distinctive features of primitive thinking, we can hope to bring new facts to light, or to take proper account of others long familiar but hitherto misunderstood.

On his penultimate page Levy-Bruhl brings out the particular importance his remarks carry for the student of ideology. Although the primitive mentality is distinct from our own it is not separated by any gap. On the contrary, the most highly civilised societies show traces of it, and more than traces. In the countryside, and even in the great cities, one need not look far to find people who think, feel, and even act like primitives. Perhaps we should go farther still and recognise that in every human mind, no matter how advanced its intellectual development, there subsists an ineradicable base of primitive thinking. This will probably never disappear, or weaken beyond a certain point, and it is doubtless not desirable that it should, because with it would go, perhaps, poetry, art, metaphysics, scientific invention… in short, all the beauty and glory of human life.

If primitive thinking does in fact carry this importance, why has it only now become an object of investigation? The answer is simple. Up to about the end of the 19th Century it was taken for granted that always and everywhere men thought in the same way. It is our growing knowledge of primitive societies, due to the increasing numbers of anthropologists, that has opened up this new and fruitful field of study.

from Ideological Commentary 43, January 1990.