Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Understanding A (Secular) Primitive Society

Religious Studies Sept 1995 v31 n3 pp. 303-9 © COPYRIGHT 1995 Cambridge University Press

In her essay entitled `Heathen Darkness’,(1) the anthropologist Mary Douglas has exposed one of the most prevalent modern misunderstandings of ’primitive’ societies, the myth of primitive piety:

It seems to be an important premise of popular thinking about us, the civilised, and them, the primitives, that we are secular, sceptical and frankly tending more and more away from religious belief, and that they are religious. (p. 73)

Douglas goes on to discuss how the myth of primitive piety has served both religious and anti-religious ideologies, and more particularly, how it has thwarted the proper development of the anthropology of religion. There is always a risk involved in studying the religious life of traditional people; they may turn out to be thoroughly secular. In that case the ethnographer is left to make an uncomfortable choice between publishing the heretical finding that `My tribe hasn’t got any religion’ (p. 76) and blindly assuming that native secretiveness makes their faith impenetrable to outsiders. Most anthropologists avoid the problem altogether by attending to safer issues such as politics and economics. Furthermore, the assumption of a universal (and static) traditional piety makes a genuinely comparative study of religion impossible: they (the `primitives.’) are religious, while we (the `civilised’) have become, after a long and twisted spiritual history, secular. Such a view hardly leaves room for any enlightening application of insights gained from the study of traditional societies to the analysis of the Western religious heritage or of our own contemporary spiritual situation. This predicament leads Douglas to proclaim the importance of the recognition of primitive secularity and heterodoxy for the understanding of religion: `Unless we can think of tribes as secular, or given to mystery cults, dualist philosophies, or heterodoxies about the nature of grace and the godhead, the questions that have unleashed historic wars and mass executions, we have hardly begun the anthropology of religion’ (p. 81). I would add that important work in the philosophy of religion has also been distorted by an inability to recognize `primitive’ secularity.

Almost thirty years ago Peter Winch wrote an article entitled `Understanding a Primitive Society’ (UPS), in which he tried to defend and extend the argument made in his earlier book, The Idea of a Social Science (ISS).(2) Both works have become seminal texts for contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, and have together generated a whole literature of debate among philosophers, theologians and social scientists. In his article, Winch anchors a theoretical discussion of the intelligibility of religion and of cross-cultural understanding in examples taken from the mystical beliefs and practices of the Azande, a traditional people living on Africa’s Nile -- Congo divide. The source of these examples is the ethnographic classic, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande,(3) by the prominent British anthropologist, Sir E. E. Evans-Pritchard (hereafter: E-P). Since Winch’s work is so well-known there is little point to my offering yet another summary of his philosophical arguments, especially as these have no direct bearing on the topic of the present essay. Instead, I shall concern myself with the spiritual attitudes Winch attributes to the Azande, and how a broader consideration of E-P’s writings may lead to a different understanding of the spiritual condition of Zande society, an understanding which may be exemplary for Douglas’s program of a reformed anthropology of religion.

Winch’s reading of E-P is not entirely uncritical. A central aim of Winch’s paper is to demonstrate that E-P is mistaken in pronouncing Zande magic ineffective and their belief in the existence of witches false. According to Winch, by judging magic ineffective, E-P applies a criterion appropriate to the evaluation of technologies to social practices which do not play a technological role in Zande society. Furthermore, says Winch, E-P’s claim that Zande witches do not really exist involves the application of epistemological standards native to empirical science to the evaluation of beliefs which do not belong to a scientific theory.

Having rejected as misplaced the question of witchcraft’s empirical reality, he suggests a different role for such notions and practices in Zande life:

We have a drama of resentements, evil doing, revenge, expiation, in which there are ways of dealing (symbolically) with misfortunes and their disruptive effects on a man’s relations with his fellows. (UPS, p. 321)

The idea of `dealing with misfortunes’ is fundamental for Winch’s interpretation of Zande mysticism. Every human society is limited by the effectiveness of the technologies it has developed for the preservation and promotion of that which it holds dear, i.e. life, health, prosperity, security, and so on. When these are threatened by contingencies beyond the control of available technology, people must find ways to recognize their own limitations without being paralyzed into inaction. While improved technology may remove a particular source of anxiety, it cannot offer a complete solution to the human predicament because something can always go wrong:

He [the Zande man] may wish thereby, in a certain sense, to free himself from dependence on it [something important to his life yet over which he has imperfect control]. I do not mean by making sure that it does not let him down, because the point is that, whatever he does, he may still be let down. The important thing is that he should understand that and come to terms with it. (UPS, p. 320)

According to Winch, Zande magic, like Christian prayer, expresses such an attitude to the contingencies of life:

I do not say that Zande magical rites are at all like Christian prayers of supplication in the positive attitude to contingencies which they express. What I do suggest is that they are alike in that they do, or may, express an attitude to contingencies, rather than an attempt to control these. (UPS, p. 321)

What would E-P say to all of this? Winch himself has always been aware that the relationship between his philosophy and E-P’s ethnography is far from simple:

The relationship between [Alasdair] MacIntyre, Evans-Pritchard and myself is a complicated one. MacIntyre takes Evans-Pritchard’s later book, Nuer Religion, as an application of a point of view like mine in the The Idea of a Social Science; he regards it as an object lesson in the absurd results to which such a position leads, when applied in practice. My own criticisms of Evans-Pritchard, on the other hand, have come from precisely the opposite direction. I have tried to show that Evans-Pritchard did not at the time of writing The Azande agree with me enough; that he did not take seriously enough the idea that the concepts used by primitive peoples can only be interpreted in the context of the way of life of those peoples. Thus I have in effect argued that Evans-Pritchard’s account of the Azande is unsatisfactory precisely to the extent that he agrees with MacIntyre and not me. (UPS, p. 315)

While in the above paragraph, Winch is discussing meta-interpretive aspects of studying another culture, it might apply equally to the actual content of particular interpretations of traditional societies. Here again E-P’s later work seems more congenial to Winch’s views. While Winch implies that E-P of The Azande underestimates the religious depth of traditional mystical practices, Nuer Religion is a virtual panegyric to primitive spirituality. Thus E-P concludes his book on the Nuer with a statement which might as easily be applied to any of the great monotheistic religions:

Though prayer and sacrifice are exterior actions, Nuer religion is ultimately an interior state. This state is externalized in rites which we can observe, but their meaning depends finally on an awareness of God and that men are dependent on him and must be resigned to his will. At this point the theologian takes over from the anthropologist.(4)

Now that is exactly the kind of spirituality which Winch wanted E-P to discover in Zande magic. Recognition of one’s dependency on God and resignation to His will constitute the classic monotheistic solution to the problem of coming to terms with the contingencies of life.

Winch’s reference to E-P ’at the time of writing The Azande’ implies a process of change of heart. The old E-P was partially blind to the diversity of human experience; the new E-P is capable of appreciating Nuer society on its own terms. Similarly, one might think that the old E-P saw primitive ritual as false technology, while the new E-P recognizes its true spiritual depth. E-P himself had disavowed the errors of The Azande ten years before Winch’s article was published!

I reject this interpretation of E-P’s development. A more careful examination of E-P’s writings reveals that rather than a change of heart, we have here a change of subject matter. According to E-P, the Azande and the Nuer are informed by fundamentally different attitudes towards life, as was immediately apparent to him upon encountering the latter:

I had previously spent many months among the Azande people of the Nile-- Uelle divide. From my earliest days among them I was constantly hearing the word mangu, witchcraft, and it was soon clear that if I could gain a full understanding of the meaning of this word I should have the key to Zande philosophy. When I started my study of the Nuer I had a similar experience. I constantly heard them speaking of kwoth, Spirit, and I realized that a full understanding of that word was the key to their -- very different -- Philosophy. (Nuer Religion, p. vi)

Another important difference between the two peoples involves their respective dependence on magic and medicine:

Coming to the Nuer from Zandeland, where everyone is a magician and medicines are legion and in daily use, I was at once struck by their negligible quantity and importance in Nuerland, and further experience confirmed my first impression. I mention them chiefly for the reason that their rarity and unimportance are indicative of the orientation of Nuer thought, which is always towards spirit. (NR, p. 104)

Not only are the Azande more interested in witchcraft and magic than they are in Spirit, E-P believes that these concerns actually bar their way from approaching God:

Witchcraft ideas play a very minor role [in Nuer religion], and magic a negligible one. Both are incompatible with a theocentric philosophy, for when both fortune and misfortune come from God they cannot also come from human powers, whether innate or learnt. (NR, pp. 316-17)

It is now possible to reappraise E-P’s view of the Azande. E-P is completely aware of the importance for people to find a way to deal with the contingencies of life. Like Winch, he does not believe that it is possible to address the spiritual implications of the reality of human frailty by undertaking yet more practical measures. It is exactly for this reason that he refuses to attribute spiritual depth to Zande magic and witchcraft, for these notions teach that `both fortune and misfortune . . . come from human powers’. Azande magic does not point to human finitude, it is viewed `as a tangible weapon of culture ... deriving its power from the knowledge of tradition and the abstinence of living men.’(5) Far from offering a way to `express an attitude to contingencies, rather than an attempt to control these’, E-P implies that Zande mysticism instills false confidence and blinds its practitioners to the real extent of their control over nature.

As we have seen, E-P argues that only theism, rather than magic, can foster a spiritually rich sensitivity to life’s contingencies. Do the Azande, in addition to their magic, possess a theistic sensibility? In his essay `Zande Theology’(6) (which could be less deceivingly titled `Zande Atheology’), E-P completes his picture of Zande spirituality (or lack of it) by discussing the notion proposed by other writers that `the idea of a Supreme Being is deeply anchored in Zande mentality’ (p. 291). Not surprisingly, E-P finds that theistic concepts and practices play a very minor role in Zande life. They have little or no concern for God or gods, almost no mythology explaining the relationship between the divine and human realms, and spend practically none of their time in worship, prayer or sacrifice. For instance, he describes how the name of Mbori, a vague supernatural entity considered by some ethnographers to be the Zande Supreme Being, enters into day to day speech:

As a fieldworker I must record that I have never heard a Zande pray and that I have seldom heard people utter his [Mbori’s] name, and then only as an ejaculation of emotional intensity and with only the vaguest suggestion of doctrinal significance. I must confess also that I have found the greatest difficulty in obtaining either information about Mbori or arousing any interest in him.... (p. 299)

One could imagine that Mbori could somehow play the same role as the God of the great monotheistic religions, but in fact the Azande do not cultivate an attitude of dependence on Mbori similar to the notion of `God’s will’ preached by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Even at the hour of death, Mbori’s providence is rarely mentioned:

In sickness and death he [the Azande] thinks of witchcraft as their cause, and not of Mbori, who does not interfere in such matters, and he seeks to cure disease and avenge death through magical and oracular processes against witches and not by prayers to Mbori. Nevertheless, it appears that death is sometimes vaguely attributed to Mbori when no other cause can be discovered. [My emphasis -- B. D. L.] (p. 300)

All-in-all, E-P paints a picture of a thoroughly secular Zande culture whose members take more-or-less effective practical measures to protect and promote their interests, but who are unwilling or unable to face up to the limitations of their powers. Their magic is not a proper medium for piety, their theistic faith almost non-existent. This description sounds startlingly familiar. A similar attitude has been central to the Western sensibility since the Enlightenment which promoted `the view that the experiences of contingency and problems of meaning that were previously interpreted in religious terms and worked-off in cult practices can be radically defused’ by technological solutions.(7) The Azande have their magic and we our technology; neither society is particularly comfortable with the idea that some contingencies will always remain beyond its control. Although our hubris may be better-founded than that of the Azande (our technology works better than their magic), both cultures (to the extent that the West is as thoroughly secular as the Azande!) share essentially the same spiritual condition.

On the opening pages of UPS, Winch suggests that the reason why anthropologists often depict magic as an irrational form of technology is that they accommodate their explanations to their own (Western) culture, `a culture whose conception of reality is deeply affected by the achievements and methods of the sciences’ (p. 307). What I am suggesting is that a broader and more careful reading of E-P’s writings reveals that far from being the product of a narrowly Western, secular, and instrumental sensibility, E-P’s studies of the Azande constitute a critical analysis of such a secular sensibility which happens to inform a traditional society. While Winch claims (but never in such harsh terms) that E-P was blind to Zande spirituality, it may be said that E-P explains why the Azande themselves are blind to the kind of spirituality embraced by Winch. Just as we are in danger of losing our ability to appreciate a religious perspective due to our `conception of reality’ which is `deeply affected by the achievements and methods of the sciences’, the Azande never developed such a perspective due to their own conception of reality which is deeply affected by the achievements and methods of magic. That is exactly the kind of comparative hypothesis sought by Mary Douglas in her essay `Heathen Darkness’. It would be fair to say that in the 1930s, Evans-Pritchard had already laid the cornerstone for Douglas’s reformed anthropology of religion.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a set of remarks which inspired Winch’s interpretation of the Azande, once wrote:

What narrowness of spiritual life we find in [Sir James] Frazer! And as a result: how impossible for him to understand a different way of life from the English one of his time! Frazer cannot imagine a priest who is not basically an English Parson of our times with all his stupidity and feebleness.(8)

Sometimes it requires an even greater effort of the imagination to recognize that the weaknesses of our own culture may reappear in the most surprising places.(9)


(1) In her Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 73-82.

(2) Peter Winch, `Understanding a Primitive Society’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 1 (1964), 307-24 and The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (second edition) (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1992).

(3) E-P, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937).

(4) E-P, Nuer Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), p. 322.

(5) E-P, `The Morphology and Function of Magic: A Comparative Study of Trobriand and Zande Ritual Spells’, American Anthropologist I (1929), 619-41. Here cited as reprinted in John Middleton’s (ed.) Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing (New York: Natural History Press, 1967), pp. 1-22. Present quotation, p. 20.

(6) E-P, `Zande Theology’ in his Social Anthropology and Other Essays (New York: Free Press, 1962), pp. 288-329, here p. 300.

(7) Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Thomas McCarthy, translator) (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), p. 149.

(8) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough (translated by R. Rhees) (Nottinghamshire: The Brynmill Press, 1979), p. 5e.

(9) I wish to thank Professor Jacob Joshua Ross for discussing with me the issues dealt with in this paper.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Winch (and subsequently Habermas) makes much of the Azande affair to make a point, and consequently, loses the very point. Sometimes,it is useful to step away from the verbiage of philosophy and just think of that old woman or little boy who says "you got no clothes."
One of the main points for E-P (and then Winch et al take it up) was that the Azande were not consistent in the application of entrails rule. If we are ready to acknowledge that these tribes are also full of the same crap that were, it is easy to understand. They would have already decided whether the accused was guilty or not; or perhaps, whether an exception should be made, taking into account the general character ofthe accused, and so on.
For them magic was their technology of investigation and the entrails were the rules of evidence. You might charge me with a failure to understand, and making a feeble attempt to explain. I would think there is a difference between the two in many instances,but not in this specific instance. So in a way, Winch is right in asserting the "rationality" ofthe Azande but I do not agree that they somehow are following a different sense of rationality.
But the debate does open up our minds to the need for understanding, this particular point notwithstanding.

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Robert Vieites said...

I studied E-P Azande Witchcraft back when I was doing social anthropology at the University of Stockholm. I wrote a paper critizing E-P and wrote a reinterpretation of Azande Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic.

Basically, understanding any society - whether "primitive" or contemporary - is based upon interpretation. Are we to use context dependent interpretation - relativism - or do we use a context free interpretation - using universal principles - as a means to describe, interprete and explain?

In Azande Witchcraft Oracles and Magic, E-P took a context-dependence approach when he should of been more open to interprestion.

My conclusion was (and is) that it was not a good interpretation of the Azande.

One must look at the whole Azande society, listen to what they say and see what they do. I do not believe that E-P did this correctly.

For example, the poison Benge that was used to find a culprit through an oracle was not scrutinized. Benge is a poison injected into the mouths of fowls. Questions are asked,such as "Was it Mr Mbiti who caused the roof of the hen house to fall," and then Benge is injected unto the fowls mouth. If the fowl dies, then it was Mr Mbiti who did it - not consciously - but nevertheless he did it according to Azande logic. But if the fowl survived, then it was not Mr Mbiti and more questions were asked to the Oracle via injection of the poison Benge unto the mouths of the fowls.

Right here this is suspect. To start with, the Poison Benge can be manipulated. It is not enough that a fowl dies or survives; one must understand the principle behind this form of action.

The principle is that Witchcraft is used here not as witchcraft but as an idiom. What we are witnessing is a system of arbitration and adjudication. This does not mean that the Azande do not believe in Witchcraft but that their beliefs - over saturted with witchcraft - are not necessarily withcraft but that wichcraft is used as an idiom.

Why is this so? Examine Azande society, a very agressive society where there are constant disputes and everyone takes advantage of someone else.

Such a society that does not have a judicial system during E-P time of writing this, use such methods to find order out of disorder.

My point is that E-P did not analyzed correctly the Azandes Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic.

Do the Azande believe in Witchcraft? Maybe yes, maybe no. But I believe that being a society engulfed with much violence and unable to express directly one's feelings or suspicions, the alternative is to use witchcraft as an idiom.

Robert A Vieites
Miami, Florida

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