Discussion of the views that Magical Beliefs are a 'species' of Science
In the middle of the sixteenth century de Boodt (Boetius) published a work on gems. After rejecting a number of previous works, which according to him admitted foreign, magical superstitious material, he continues with a recitation of the amazing physical and medical virtues of the stones. He narrates about his discovery of a marvellous jasper whose properties (conceived in occult terms) could cure haemorrhages and this, he stresses, he observed and tested, experimenting with the jasper on several patients. In the volume he also discussed the bezoar stone and from which animal it came, and he looked at a number of its medicinal uses besides that of being an antidote for poisons, and advised that the patient should not have anything before or after it, just in case some occult antipathy between them impaired the action of the bezoar. He does, however, remark that he doubted the existence of the horn of the unicorn, since he had yet to be convinced that such an animal could be found.1
We would perhaps recognise in the above the beginnings of scientific scepticism together with mistaken assumptions concerning the mixing of drugs, but which were nonetheless empirically valid. The collator of the texts herself — like other writers — considered that the beliefs had both magic elements and contrasting scientific ones. (If we have certain standards whereby we discern what is magical and what is not, I wonder what criteria Boetius was using to distinguish his beliefs from those he called superstitious and magical. We cannot, of course, discount the diversity of audience that he was trying to appeal to as in no way affecting the content of his writings.)
From this example the conclusion might be drawn that beliefs concerning magic are less to do with magic, however defined, than a means by which the definer distinguishes their own way of dealing with and understanding the world. But since this will always be an 'unreal' demarcation, magic will inevitably be seen to have a resemblance to the defining world-view (or what the defining world view is considered to be). Thus the division of Boethius's beliefs into magic and science is not tenable in itself but is more a reflection on what the writer considers to be 'science'.2
The following discussion will be limited, of necessity, to those who do make the link between magic and science (although to make the point above more general I will look at a few views on religion and magic). Tambiah reminds one of the dangers in attributing the characteristics or concept of the magic of Western civilisation to like-phenomena elsewhere. I concur with this view of contextual study (and of not extracting what is considered to be magic from 'extraneous' beliefs as in the above example), and will show how frequently discussions of magic are ethno-centred in this manner.
First, I will consider briefly the treatment of religion and magic, on the basis that religion is considered a 'world view'. Magic is consistently viewed as something — while concerned with invisible powers — to do with this world, whereas religion is other-worldly. For example, for Mauss magic was a special application of sacred forces, mana, in the daily profane world. For Durkheim the congregation in the church exemplified the notion of solidarity which maintains society, and religion as society is a collective representation. Magic, however, does not appear to reach such a status. The magician works alone with a clientele. Leach points out 3 that this dual division by Durkheim influenced future classifications of magic: was there a special class of magical acts? Did they belong to sacred or profane, and so forth.
But what did magic actually do? Rivers 4 suggested that, together with religion, it was a mode of causation. The difference between the two lay in their attitude towards the means by which man could influence the world. With magic, the rites man used depended for their efficacy on his own power, or powers believed to be inherent in, or the attributes of, certain objects and processes used in the rites. Religion, on the other hand, depended on the will of some higher power whose intervention was supplicated.5 Since the book is about medicine, magic and religion Rivers looks at some rites to cure an epileptic on Eddystone Island, British Solomons. Within the rites he detects a religious element — within the formulas appears to be a note of supplication (prayers). The rite was thus defined as a fusion of both magic and religion.6
Writers on Egyptian magic were less tactful than Rivers. Magic was explicitly contained in an evolutionary continuum which led, not to science, but to monotheistic religion. Magic here consisted of the power of magical names, spells, enchantments, formulae, pictures, figures and amulets, as well as the performance of ceremonies accompanied by the utterance of words of power. One writer, Wallis Budge, bemoans the fact that, despite its high civilisation Egyptian minds were influenced by magic in that it shaped their views both temporal and spiritual, "in a manner which ... is very difficult to understand".7 The point of 'higher' magic was to cause a transference of power from a super-natural being to man such that the person was for a time able to become as mighty as the original possessor. Even worse, when the ordinary people eventually got hold of magical practices it degenerated in spirit and flourished. (What is interesting, if we compare this with post-Reformation England8 and even the Azande9 is that all areas were undergoing rapid social change). What the writer does decry is that the Egyptians never saw anything incongruous in their mixture of magic and religion: they believed, according to him, in One God to which he ascribed clear Christian qualities: "... Who was almighty, and eternal, and invisible" — and therein lay the poor Egyptian's salvation.10
What was this magic used for? In a more considered account11 we find it appeared to be an ever-increasing collection of "charms" to protect the dead or acquire blessings for him in the dead life (sic)12, since prosperity after death lay largely in the hands of the living through votive offerings, the worry of ancient Egyptians that they would be forgotten tends to show through these early coffin texts (eg, charm to ensure efficacy of a charm). There were also numerous charms to prevent disasters in the home13, although the writer, in a sociological note, reminds the reader that priests stood to gain through writing charms and the promotion of fear of misfortune can in part be placed at their feet. The means of control appears to be through the papyrii or engravings on coffins, which may indicate words associated with powers of causation.
Thus we have, in an indirect manner, arrived at what are probably considered the most common characteristics of magic for its user: charms, rites, an attempt to influence events with the aid of non-human power (though not necessarily super-human, ie, it may be a property of an object or language) for either positive or negative purposes. But it does appear, as Malinowski said "a sober, prosaic even clumsy art, enacted for purely practical reasons",14 ie, profane.
The connection between magic and science in anthropology, that they had a common basis, was developed by Tylor, Frazer, Lang and others at the end of the last century. Frazer and Tylor's habit of classifying similar customs and practices world-wide under common labels might not have led them to "add to the analysis of the phenomena in any one culture",15 but it did lead to the assumption that in aim, method and purpose they were similar.
Frazer rationalised magic, which had previously been considered something quite alien to anything Western and civilised, ie, irrational and unscientific, to place it in his evolutionary scheme of intellectual development, as a rational process of analogy. Science and magic were about the same things, they were about observation of natural phenomena and a theory of causality; magical acts were a means to an end based on false assumptions — the law of similarity, ie, that like was thought to produce like (for example, sticking pins in an enemy) and the law of contagion (that things once in contact continue to act on each other (for example, an enemy's nail parings and hair can be treated as if they represented him).16 These were erroneous correlations of cause and effect.
But what of rationalism? This concept forms a central part of the comparison between magic and science.
Rationalism, as a philosophical view that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge, rivals any other system which may claim esoteric knowledge, whether from mystical experience, revelation or intuition. Logical truths, like "A and not-A cannot co-exist" are believed to hold with the real world — thus the stress on consistency of thought. The connection of rationality and science is a historical one — notions of rationalism were contingent with the separation of what was to become a new 'scientific' tradition in the sixteenth and seventeenth century: both Descartes (who was visited by an Angel) and Galileo (who saw it in the stars) conceived of nature as ultimately explainable in terms of mathematical laws. Newton stressed observation and experimentation. The new outlook also involved the notion that the inanimate world was self-acting and self-perpetuating, and that man was not the purpose of the Universe. This last involved a restriction of the notion of causation: out of two of Aristotle's four causes (the other two having dropped out of consideration some time before) — efficient and final, the former only was to be applied to the natural world. (Efficient is now what we would call 'cause', the other, final, is what we would term 'purpose'). Thus the question Why? could not be asked of natural events, but rather How? To use an example, instead of looking at the adaptation of man to the world in terms of a Creator's purpose, Darwin's random variation and natural selection could only be considered in terms of efficient causes.17
Magic was thus conceived — as were many primitive practices in the heyday of the Victorian (and previous) Scientific Age — as Irrational. And by labelling magic and like practices as erroneous in its assumptions about nature, science thus had its methods delineated as different and valid. In science the universe was controlled by knowledge of natural laws, in magic control was achieved through rites and use of 'super-natural' or non-human power. (Implicitly Beattie appears to confirm this epistemological position when he states that magical rites are expression and art in contrast to the technicality of science.) Since rationality was also a state of mind, the connection that primitive thought was irrational followed from this, together with or prior to misunderstanding various primitive practices as such.
Why is magic seen to constitute a belief about the world if its manifestations appear so pragmatic? In order to achieve anything, even through a non-human invisible power, postulates an assumption about the world and about what can be achieved within it. In Lang's words "The medicine-man's supernatural claims are rooted in the general savage view of the world, of what is possible, and of what (if anything) is impossible ... The medicine man's powers are rooted in the savage theory of things"18. For Frazer 'savages' tried to explain nature by reference to spiritual beings.19 Religion's world, for him, was essentially "living, conscious and more or less analogous to human feeling and intelligence"20 — there was something prior to Man. Science on the other hand is the ultimate reality, it is dead, unconscious and inhuman. It aimed at simple statements about the world, religion was complex. And with magic at the bottom of his intellectual hierarchy the epistemological validity of science was simply confirm.
These views have changed little since Frazer, and while Magic has been held up as a parallel mode of acquiring knowledge (eg, Levi Strauss), it is largely as an example of which is not efficacious. Knowledge is still defined by the existence and achievements of science 21 — or as Barry Barnes put it: how else do anthropologists tell that chanting doesn't aid the crops?22
Evans Pritchard's book on Azande Witchcraft was published in 1937. Already he had stated his position with regard to the 'intellectualist' version of primitive thought (1933). Instead of viewing magic as the superstitious part of religion, or as 'false' science (Frazer, Tylor), or as pragmatic (Malinowski), he placed it within its culture (ie, the totality of religious and moral ideas and institutions). The irrationality of primitive thought became logical within the confines of its context. It compartmentalised beliefs in such a way that they did not conflict with one another — it was the anthropologist in systematising them who pointed out their inconsistencies: which even then the Azande couldn't comprehend as conflicting, but with respect to 'Western thought' it was still irrational. Evans Pritchard's attitude to Frazer was reflected thus: if the latter had observed what the natives did rather than what they thought, he would have been less inclined to draw similarities between scientists and witch-doctors.
I suggest two things follow from this view of 'primitive thought'. One, is that the holistic approach so beloved by anthropologists with respect to sociological variables has become transferred to the sphere of ideas and beliefs: mind and culture becomes a closed system, the native incapable of self-,motivated creativity. Two, the native remains at a childlike level of thought.
This has the benefits of — at one level — guarding against the misinterpretation of magical beliefs.23 But at another level involves the assumption that — in the final analysis — native magic is ineffectual in terms of its goals (and as Steven Lukes has defined rational action: that which is goal directed, the most efficient means to obtain ends, and the ends are those that are expected 24, it is irrational in this sense).
Horton's scheme is unashamedly based on Western theoretical (scientific) thought as being the most efficacious and systematic. He compares and sees, like Frazer did before him, a number of basic similarities between African thought and Western theoretical thinking, ie, explanatory theory, putting things in a context wider than common sense, the level of theory varying with context, and making analogies from familiar phenomenon, and so on. This latter means that Africans surrounded by people have a personalised universe, Westerners, surrounded by technology have an abstract one. African society is closed, homogenous. Thus the writing of words on paper in order to harm someone is not seen as inefficient way of carrying the goal out, since the native has no experience to know otherwise.25 However, in an open system of many different languages that would mean a lot of different realities and both (the connection between language and reality) become independent variables.
Hallpike (criticised however for taking Piaget's conceptual realism as being verified and central to Piaget's thought26 — note correspondence in suggests that experience and variety develops the potentiality of the mind. Since the native is at fairly low ebb in this sphere his mind is still functioning at the child's level of development, that is, transferring mental or subjective phenomena into "the objective world".27 However, he does not, as Horton does not, exclude development upon change of environment.
Equally, with Needham's direct causality as a mode of native explanation (in this case for the beneficent value of the skulls of enemies) and Cooper's three-value logic the native's rites are still not efficacious. Both see the problem in explaining native thought — in context — as arising from the 'intellectualists' and others picking the wrong features of Western science to discover the native logic.
The assumption throughout is of an unadulterated native way of thinking,28 or believing, defined by a Western logic that is little used in the West because of its inefficiency. Physics uses indeterminate logic because of just that — it cannot know or judge a particular variable when examining another one which is a function of it at a certain level of analysis. The metaphorical components of scientific thought, its secondary elaborations, complexity when the occasion demands it, and compartmentalisation of anomalies are ignored. It is forgotten that witchcraft did not die out in Europe because it was unsuccessful, indeed its success was due in part to its efficacy in some cases with respect to means and ends. Perhaps also the concentration on causation misleads us with respect to the phenomenon being studied (it is the technical act which is successful which is separated from the rest of the magical belief). By abstracting what is rational or religious from the event or rites, its 'magic' component becomes mere residue. As Tambiah (1970) realised, the totality must be assessed — but we must also take care not to postulate it as closed.
Thus did Newton's mathematical principles get separated from the scheme of which they were apart: objects in the world for him were ideas in the mind of God and he hoped to describe these through mathematical principles (God's principles), alchemy (the secret movements of god's ideas), and history (God's work visible).29 The Victorian anaesthetised him as a man of Science, and it took the discovery of manuscripts to enable scholars to assess the full meaning behind his work.
1 Thorndike 1941:320-23.
2 The word science derives from the Latin word scientia which meant 'knowledge'. In the seventeenth century, science consisted of the accepted branches of knowledge, some of which, for example, magic and alchemy, dropped out. It was then called philosophy and theology. (Brown 1981:54).
3 Leach 1954:11.
4 Rivers 1924.
5 Ibid: 4.
7 Wallis Budge 1901.
8 Thomas 1970:58ff.
9 Kennedy 1967.
10 Wallis Budge op cit: xiii.
11 Breasted 1912.
12 Ibid: 281.
13 Ibid: 292.
14 Beattie 1966:62.
15 Leach, in Yalman 1978:522.
16 Yalman 1968:521-522; Encyclopaedia of Anthropology 1976.
17 The previous paragraph creates an agglutination from Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Russel 1976:16, and general knowledge.
18 Lang 1887:83-88).
19 Frazer 1926:5.
21 Habermas in Crick 1976:137.
22 Barnes 1974:6.
23 Needham 1975:71, Tambiah 1968:201. Even Herodotus got it wrong: mistaking some Egyptian texts as meaning they believed in transmigration of souls, where they enabled the dead person to identify with various other beings (eg, Osiris) in order to have a good time after death (Breasted op cit: 279-280).
24 Lukes 1967-70:208.
25 Horton 1967-70:156.
26 Note correspondence in Man, Vols. 12-13.
27 Hallpike p.259.
28 Kennedy 1967 accuses Evans Pritchard of presenting a primitive philosophy as if it was an enduring property: at the time of Evans Pritchard's fieldwork the Zande had been moved to concentrated settlements where they were in contact with other beliefs and medicines. Other factors also suggest that the 'inconsistencies' may be due to this and disruption of life.
29 Schaffer 1982.
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