Primitive Mentality

  Primitive Mentality, by Lucien Lévy-Βruhl. Authorized Translation by Lilian A. Clare. New York: The Macmillan Company. $5.00.

  IT is possible to regard Levy-Bruhl's presentation of savage states of mind as more illuminating than any statement which has previously appeared, especially if the reader assists him somewhat with his interpretation and occupies more explicitly than the author the standpoint that mental attitudes and processes in races are due to historical rather than biological causes--are acquired by social experience rather than predetermined by nervous structure. I knew of no volume which gives the reader so vivid a sense of participation in the mental life of the "inferior" races. The collection of evidence is also very welcome because of the number of significant data produced from the reports of evangelical missions and other hitherto neglected sources. Moreover we are grateful to the translator for an adequate and skilful rendering.

But it must be understood that the author considers only the savage states of mind connected with magical practice, and we miss any attempt to interpret primitive mind in its totality. The relation of mind to tools and other invention, to crises in social life, to complexity or simplicity of types of social organization; the distribution of attention in different fields and the formation of various interest patterns and interest groups—all this is ignored, and consequently all the problems of primitive mentality tend to be interpreted in magical terms, which is excessive.

For example, Léνy-Bruhl has employed here, as in his previous volume (Les Fonctions Mentales dans les Sociétés lnférieures, 1910) a number of useful terms. Among these is "participation," by which he means a singular merging of personality in surrounding persons and objects. Thus a woman visits the missionary and proposes. to take the medicine in place of her sick husband. A man has a mystic connection with a totemic animal, so that when it is thirsty he feels faint, when it is pursued he pants, when it dies he dies; it is, in a manner of speak-ink, his alter ego, his external soul; if it is a tiger, it may at his wish tear his enemy, or if a snake, poison him. This is the magical participation of personalities, and it is indeed a principle of wide application not only among savages but in Christendom. We read, for example, in ! Corinthians 7:14: "The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife." And our whole scheme of salvation is, in fact, one of magical participation.

But Léνy-Bruhl extends the principle to cases which do not call for this explanation. When a missionary-doctor cures a certain savage of an ulcer and the savage thereupon demands from him a suit of clothes, or as another instance when the savage is saved from the water and demands a knife, Léνy-Βruhl's interpretation is as follows: The man has a magical identity with his group, he has been "doomed" by unseen powers, his rescue implies the thwarting of these powers who will consequently be vengeful and will eventually demand satisfaction by the death of others of his group, perhaps by visiting the group with pestilence or famine. The rescued person has therefore incurred the enmity of his people or lost status by being saved and he must be indemnified by the white man. But this explanation ignores the other and simpler one that the savage who has been cured or saved by the white man feels that the action is the beginning of a social participation between the two, of a solidarity which entitles him to share in all that the white man is able to bestow. Léνy-Βruhl expresses this himself sufficiently: "By looking after him, giving him a home, feeding him, sending him to the hospital, and saving him, the white man has taken charge of him.... You are now my own white man,' said the man whom Μackenzie had cured of a horrible wound in the face, 'and I shall always come to beg of you." But he does not let the matter rest here. He stretches his theory of magical causation to cover the case, and adds: "That means: Ηencefοrward.... I have the right to reckon on you to compensate me for what your intervention has cost me with the mystic powers upon whom my social group depends, and upon whom I myself have depended until now."

It is doubtful also whether the characterization of savage mind as "prelogical" is a useful definition of the situation. It might, indeed, be appropriate to call an animal prelogical, or a race incapable of the mental steps involved in maintaining and defending by argument a given mental position, if such a race existed. But it is conceded by ethnologists that the savage is capable of consistent and connected argument from his own standpoint. A black cannibal can successfully defend the negative position in an argument with the white man on the question: "Resolved that eggs and cheese are a superior diet to human flesh," and Livingstone was certainly worsted in argument by an African rain-maker when he contended that the white man's God might be invoked for rain but not the black man's God. It is true, as Lévy-Βruhl points out, that the savage shows some confusion as to which of several positions he ought to occupy in a given case. If, for example, a crocodile seizes a woman he assumes that this misfortune was mediated by a wizard by virtue of a mystic participation between the wizard and the crocodile, but whether the wizard turned himself into a crocodile or the crocodile acted as the emissary of the wizard is a point on which he is not at all dear. In speaking of the incident he may occupy successively both positions. But these spiritual question are very confusing at best, and it does not appear that the indeterminateness of the savage is greater than that of the church fathers and later ecclesiastics on questions relating to the Holy Ghost, the Trinity, the immaculate conception, transubstantiation and witchcraft. It was in fact usual at one time for the best white thinkers to occupy alternatively logically contradictory positions. Giordano Bruno .expressed surprise when he was condemned in spite of his explanation that in the heretical passages he had been speaking as philosopher and not as theologian.

It is true also that you cannot dislodge the savage by argument from positions which seem impossible from our point of view, because he has different premises. The woman seized by the crocodile was perhaps accompanied by two others, and if the white man argues that it is perfectly natural for a woman to be seized by a crocodile and involves no instigation by a wizard, the savage replies: "But why did he seize the one in the middle and not one of the others?" Similarly, the savage cannot be moved by the white man's argument that the 'poison ordeal is unfair. To his mind the poison is not strictly a poison but a test. It has the quality of poisoning only those who are guilty and have been "doomed" and "delivered over" by the unseen powers. As a selective agent or detector

( 160) it is infallible. But prepossession by a theory and tenacity in maintaining it is something for which we use other terms than "prelogical." Our own leading eugenist is able to explain a bad Italian boy in New York exclusively on the assumption of a bad piece of germ plasm in Sicily or Calabria, and the eminence of Abraham Lincoln on the basis of putative descent from John Marshall of Virginia. It would be interesting also in this connection to compare the grotesqueries of savage mentality with those of the simon-pure Freudians—with those in Freud's own fictional masterpiece on Leonardo da Vinci, or in his theory of totemism. "Prelogical" is therefore not an apt term since it defines nothing particular to the savage and tends to leave the impression that he is separated logically from modern man in a qualitative way.



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