The work of the embryonic anthropologists of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century is replete with examples of writers like Levy-Bruhl, who sought to distinguish man's modern logicality from the pre-logicality of so called "primitive man." By the 1950s, however, theorists (including Comte, Frazer and others) argued that these projects were inherently imperialist in their approach. As M. Herskovits said, "ethnocentrism is rationalized and made the basis of programmes of action detrimental to the well being of other peoples." Resulting from this worthy reactionism many writers have been seduced by relativism as a principle of tolerance in regard to the practice and praxis of native peoples. For example, Geoffrey Harrison has argued from relativistic premises to the conclusion that people should not interfere with the practice or praxis of ethnic or minority groups; nor should they attempt to "civilize" native peoples by bringing them into the mainstream of modern western society. Relativism, although attractive for this reason, is not a position that is free of its own problems. Rather, many have argued that the relativist's position is itself incoherent and or self-refuting. In this paper I attempt to avoid both imperialism and relativism, by returning to the roots of the debate.
I trace the thread of relativism by taking to task Peter Winch (one of Wittgenstein's followers), in his attempt to apply Wittgenstein's later philosophy to the problem of cross-cultural understanding. I argue that an investigation of the undertaking Winch is involved in allows us a perspective as to how one form of cultural relativism is generated. Peter Winch, in his classic book, The Idea of a Social Science, claims that the mature philosophy of Wittgenstein holds a key to the problems that beset anthropologists and social scientists studying cultural and social phenomena. Perhaps this is best evidenced in Winch's "Understanding a Primitive Society," where he provides a template for understanding what is often viewed as the 'puzzling' ritual practices of native peoples. Winch's dissatisfaction with the treatment of ritual practices arises from the work of James Frazer in his classic The Golden Bough and the treatment of natives by E.E. Evans-Pritchard in Witchcraft, Oracles and the Azande (Oxford; U.K. Clarendon, 1958) Both Frazer and Evans-Pritchard approach the question of ritual practices in a similar way. Both adopt a somewhat imperialising viewpoint that understands the ritual practice of native peoples as premised upon and the result of a misconstrual of the natural order of the world. This view is predicated on the belief that Western science understands the way the world works. Hence, from an unbiased perspective, and as such, are in a position to inform native peoples of the error of their ways.
Winch's "Understanding a Primitive Society" is in part a reaction against this imperialising viewpoint. He wishes to tread a path between the obsfucation of the nature of ritual practice and the imperialising approach that he perceives in the work of Frazer and Evans Pritchard. I will argue that although Winch proceeds from the most noble of intentions, i.e., from a respect for the culture of non-western peoples, his position generates a relativism that is inconsistent with his aims.
It is important to note that Winch's work stands as a landmark in the debate regarding relativism over the last three decades. Many of his successors (Hollis and Lukes, Brown and David Bloor) argue over the residue in the aftermath of his work. For example, the so-called "bridgehead" argument, which postulates the possibility of contact between paradigmatically and relativistically opposed cultures is taken up again and again. To this day, Winch's work continues to draw adherents. Berel Dov Lerner, in a recent paper ("Winch and Instrumental Pluralism" Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25. 1995: 80) argues for a form of Instrumental Pluralism (the view that there are many different--yet equally valid--forms of rationality).
It is my contention here, however, that any investigation of the forms of cultural relativism that have been propounded since the 1960's must pay particular attention to Winch's employment of Wittgenstein's philosophy. Specifically, I contend that in Winch's attempt to explain the intrinsic nature of the magical and ritual practices of another culture, while he is correct to avoid the temptation to explain ritual practice, he remains convinced that such ritual practices must form a coherent and necessarily relativistic system of knowledge.
I would like to start by contrasting the arguments given by Wittgenstein in his Remarks on Frazer's The Golden Bough with those of Winch on the same subject ("Understanding a Primitive Society" and in The Idea of a Social Science And Its Relation to Philosophy, in which Winch expressly acknowledges a debt to Wittgenstein). By comparing these works I will demonstrate that Winch owes an further, unacknowledged debt to Wittgenstein for the central tenets of "Understanding a Primitive Society".
It is my arguments that Winch's mis-reading of "grammar", as conceptualized by Wittgenstein, leads Winch to depict Azande oracular practices as embodying a "concept of reality." This not only contradicts the grain of the rest of his argument, but more importantly, generates an unacceptable relativism. First, however, it is important to provide a reference range for the criticisms that will follow by giving a brief and general account of the "scientific explanation" approach as it is found in Frazer's book The Golden Bough -- an elaborate and fascinating study of ritual in "primitive" societies. In this eclectic work, Frazer draws from a vast cornucopia of anthropological data. Repeatedly, Frazer takes a particular example, such as the King of the Wood at Nemi, and argues what he believes to be the "error" of our ancestors. For Frazer, the Nemi ritual arises out of a misconception about the course of nature. However, Fraser takes the beliefs that underlie such rituals to be proto-scientific. The killing of the King of the wood at Nemi should be understood as a way of guaranteeing the bounty of the land in the future. As he states, the rituals of our ancestors "were not willful extravagances of the ravings of insanity, but simply hypotheses, justifiable at the time when they were propounded, but which fuller experience has proved to be inadequate." For Frazer, the ritual practice in primitive societies is the first blind attempt at embryonic science. Following this he believes that contemporary men and women (with a fully developed and predictive scientific understanding of nature) can cast a retrospective eye over the ritual practices of primitive peoples and reveal inherent errors.
This viewpoint invokes massive underlying assumptions regarding the progress and development of humankind; as well as many more tacitly held value judgements about the superiority of the scientific over the so called "primitive". These assumptions do not appear to trouble Frazer. Indeed, his wider project within The Golden contributes to a social anthropology that claims to chart the course of humanity's rational development. Following Auguste Comte, Frazer believes that the human mind "has undergone an ... evolution, gradually improving from perhaps bare sensation to the comparatively high level of intelligence to which the civilized races have at present attained." Through his accumulation of anthropological data, Frazer intends to provide the basis for any theory that attempts to lay bare the general principles or laws of human development; and hence of human action in general. Frazer regards physical science as the determinate end-product of this development. Thus he views any ritual practice as a kind of proto-hypothesis. For example, Frazer explains popular peasant ceremonies in spring, midsummer, and harvest on the hypothesis that they "were originally magic rites intended to cause plants to grow, cattle to thrive, rain to fall and the sun to shine." However, according to Fraser, modern human beings' development of scientific investigation has resulted in a thoroughgoing explanation of the casual chains that operate in nature. In achieving this explanation, science has risen above the proto-hypotheses of ritual. With the benefit of hindsight, ritual can be seen as a vital stagepost on the way to the development of science. However, once the practice of science has been established ritual is revealed as merely a collection of errors.
This view is evident in Frazer's account of his central example ,the King of the Wood at Nemi. Frazer interprets the ritual slaughter of the king of the wood as a muddle-headed understanding of the workings of nature. Put simply, modern people know that the ploughing of the remains of the old crop back into the land will enrich the soil and produce a healthy crop in the next season. That knowledge is based upon the scientific understanding of the chemistry of the soil and the nature of plant life. The "primitives" at Nemi merely knew that the seasons change and believed (wrongly) that the passing away of the old (the killing of the King of the Wood) would guarantee the ushering in of the new.
Wittgenstein's critique of Frazer takes the form of a set of eighty-four remarks or aphorisms. According to Wittgenstein, Frazer's account fails to acknowledge the roles of ritual practice at all. This failure springs from Frazer's attempt to characterize ritual practice in scientific terms.
Wittgenstein argues that Frazer's account of ritual practice is a gross and erroneous over-simplification of the richness and diversity of the role ritual practice plays in "primitive" societies. Wittgenstein argues the fact that Frazer can view ritual practice as "so to speak, pieces of stupidity" only to the extent he fails to recognize the specific features which set ritual apart from other types of activity. Magic and ritual play a special role in the lives of those who practice them. However, one of the most striking features of ritual, which Frazer completely ignores, is that on certain occasions only people engage in such practices. As Wittgenstein states, "the same savage, who stabs the picture of his enemy in order to kill him, really builds his hut out of wood and carves his arrows skillfully and not in effigy." Similarly, Wittgenstein notes, native peoples celebrate rites invoking the sun towards morning when the sun is about to rise, but not at night when they simply burn lamps. These simple examples point to the distinctive nature of ritual practice. Moreover, they suggest that in contrast to other activities (including perhaps scientific practice) there is no clear distinction within a ritual between a means and an end. Thus what is at issue for Wittgenstein in the question of understanding ritual is not an explanation of how a specific goal, such as the production of a healthy crop through the use of natural fertilizer, is to be achieved. Rather, what is at issue is understanding the performance of a highly specific set of actions. "Understanding" in this context would involve the insight of the significance of the act has ion for the individual who practices it.
Wittgenstein believes that it is misguided to see rituals as superseded by later technological advances, or as resting on primitive proto-hypotheses subsequently shown to be false. In other words, the fact that a particular ritual does not have an effect is not sufficient evidence to undermine it. The distinguishing features of ritual point to a closer connection with the ethical or religious than with the practical or efficient. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein believes Frazer to be "more savage than most of his savages, for they are not as far removed from the understanding of a spiritual matter as a twentieth century Englishman. His explanations are much cruder than the meanings of the practices themselves."
These general objections to Frazer's project are not trivial nor are they merely ad hominem. Frazer's aim was to explain ritual practice from a standpoint of scientific objectivity. Because of this aim, he abstracts from the significance of human ritual and, according to Wittgenstein, in doing so completely misses its point. In an attempt to provide a unified framework for his "explanations", Frazer adopts a reductive and grossly simplified picture of human action. He implicitly construes any action in means-ends terms aimed at want satisfaction. Wittgenstein not only sees this as misguided but holds that "the very idea of wanting to explain practice-for example the killing of the priest king-seems wrong."
According to Wittgenstein such rituals do not succumb to scientific explanation. If we can understand why people act in a certain way, it is not because we can explain their actions in the way that Frazer does, but rather that we can see their actions have significance. Hence, according to Wittgenstein, the understanding we seek of ritual practice is completely different from the understanding of a "natural process" that would be provided by scientific explanation. To understand ritual practice "one must only correctly piece together what one knows, without adding anything, and the satisfaction being sought through the explanation follows of itself." In other words, our incomprehension in the face of the practice is eliminated when we organize our knowledge of the practice in order to clarify its significance.
This declaration on Wittgenstein's part might be construed merely as a non-explanation, a way of avoiding the problem of giving any explanation of ritual practice whatsoever. I believe such a construal to be incorrect. Wittgenstein here is using the word "explanation" in a narrower sense than Frazer (who attempts to apply a very broad based proto-scientific explanation to ritual practice in general). Wittgenstein's intention is to highlight a fundamental difference between understanding a mechanical or natural process (by tracing a mechanism or a pattern of prior causes and by seeking to present the process as an outcome of a set of natural laws) and understanding human belief and action. In the former cases, such understanding enables us to predict how the process will go and in many cases to manipulate it. However, in the latter case prediction and manipulation are at issue. What is important here is the ability to understand the piece of behaviour as a social action, as the action of a conscious being located within a context of beliefs, desires, intentions and emotions. Wittgenstein's aim here is to bring out the specific nature of ritual action. Ritual actions are not performed as means to an end. Ritual, "aims at satisfaction and achieves it. Or rather it aims at nothing at all; we just behave this way and then feel satisfied."
In opposition to Frazer, Wittgenstein believes that when one is confronted with a ritual action, it is a mistake to try and get beyond or behind it. What must be understood is the significance of the action itself. Understanding an action here involves comprehending the significance of a person's action through the context of the action, i.e., the background against which it takes place. For example, one might contrast one ritual action with others which, though inexplicable, we already understand. That is, to understand the immediacy and importance Nemi ritual has for the Azande, we might contrast in with the importance of the Harvest Festival for the Christian. What is striking about this approach is that it renders the hypothetical and historical nature of Frazer's "explanation" redundant or superfluous. As Wittgenstein states, "the historical explanation, the explanation, as an hypothesis of development, is only one way of assembling the data-of their synopsis. It is just possible to see the data in their relation to one another and to embrace them in a general picture without putting it in the form of an hypothesis about temporal development."
Wittgenstein's analysis of Frazer is continuous with his analyses in other areas of his philosophy. That is to say, Wittgenstein does not offer a theory of explanation that competes with Frazer's. Rather, he attempts to show how Frazer's "picture" of historical development and proto-scientific hypotheses is misguided. He effects this change of perspective through a timely reminder to examine the actual roles ritual plays within society rather than, like Frazer, trying to squeeze ritual into a preconceived "picture" masquerading as an "explanatory theory".
Peter Winch's point of departure is heavily influenced by Wittgenstein's analysis of ritual practice. Yet, in many respects, Winch goes beyond Wittgenstein. Where he does so, his analysis becomes problematic. Winch targets his criticism on E.E. Evans-Pritchard's book entitled Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Like Frazer, Evans- Pritchard views ritual practice from a "scientific perspective" -- that is, he holds that there is "a very clear implication that those who use mystical notions and perform ritual behaviour are making some sort of mistake, detectable with the aid of science and logic." Construing all ritual practice as "mistaken," Evans-Pritchard believes (according to Winch) that scientific investigation has, "shown conclusively that there are no relations of cause and effect such as are implied by these beliefs and practices. All we can do then is show how such a system of mistaken beliefs and inefficacious practices can maintain itself in the face of objections that seem to us so obvious." Winch's disagreement with Evans-Pritchard is in part a straightforward "Wittgensteinian" objection of the type outlined above. He holds that ritual has its home within a specific and bounded context. He also argues (coextensively with Wittgenstein) that "scientific understanding" is also culturally and historically located and appropriate only to certain areas of study. To universalize this understanding by attempting to "apply" it to areas of human action (such as ritual) is an inappropriate move which can only lead to a distorted understanding of the actual practice of ritual. Winch will contend that he and the Azande, "are both thinking in patterns of thought provided for us by the societies in which we live" and therefore to misapply one (modern science) in an attempt to understand the other (African ritual practice) would be incorrect.
However, Winch goes beyond Wittgenstein at this point. He argues that not only are scientific thinking and ritual practice very different species historically, belonging to different areas of human life, but also that they are both equally valid. This claim may at first seem obscure, but it is easily understood when one realizes that the view is a consequence of Winch's position concerning meaning and knowledge in general. For Winch. "reality is not what gives language sense. What is real and what is unreal shows itself in the sense language has." Against Evans-Pritchard, Winch asserts that there is no "separate" reality against which the correctness or incorrectness of our language can be assessed by a criterion of correspondence. Rather, language is a realm unto itself. This realm constitutes a macrocosm within which the language user is located and, from this location, she or he inherits the norms of truth, falsehood, meaning and purpose that are embodied within that language community. An example of such a view is Winch's understanding of rationality: "rationality is not just a concept in language like any other; it is this too, for , like any other concept it must be circumscribed by an established use, that is established in the language." "It [rationality] is a concept necessary to the existence of any language; to say of a society that it has a language is also to say this it has a concept of rationality." The validity of this viewpoint will not be examined here. Rather, for the sake of argument, it will be assumed that Winch is correct in his understanding of the nature of language.
What is of importance is the consequence Winch's position poses for understanding ritual. As Winch points out, if we accept his view then, "a system of magic like that of the Azande constitutes a coherent universe of discourse like science, in terms of which an intelligible conception of reality and clear ways of deciding (what is true and false) can be discerned."
Notice that despite the fact that Winch is wary of "scientific methodology" something very similar to this type of explanation is evident in his own account. For Wittgenstein, ritual was a specific type of action that occupied a specific place within a person's life. In sharp contrast to this Winch speaks of a "system" of discourse that renders an "intelligible conception of reality" which appears to be much closer in its character to the explanatory model of science. Moreover, Winch talks in terms of "intelligibility" and "coherence" in relation to the "system of ritual" whereas Wittgenstein argues (I think persuasively) that these are not useful or edifying ways in which to think about ritual practice. More specifically, ritual practice does not need to be coherent nor even form a system for it to be meaningful and significant for those who practice it. A useful example here is that of the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity and the ritual practices attached to it. The doctrine is not coherent in logical terms, nor is it explanatory of the way "reality is". Yet it has a profound significance for Catholics.
Furthermore, the ritual attached to the doctrine of the Trinity occupies a limited space within the life of a Catholic. Many contemporary Catholics are also physicists, yet this does not involve them in a contradiction, nor do their Catholic beliefs exhaustively determine what they understand by "reality". This observation is analogous to Wittgenstein's concerning the savage who stabs the picture of his enemy and yet builds his hut and carves his arrows skillfully. Winch's account then, appears to misunderstand the role that ritual occupies and extends this misunderstanding by claiming ritual practice forms a belief system which determines in some way "what reality is."
A further assumption underlies Winch's theory. He seems to believe that there will be for any ritual practice one determinate explanation of that practice-one that is "logical" within its own context. Winch's tacit claim here is that ritual practice has a coherent logical structure that lies waiting to be "discovered" and explained by the anthropologist. But as I have argued, ritual practice and scientific practice do not share the same nature. To suppose that ritual practice forms a system analogous to that of science, and therefore that such a system can be investigated and explicated scientifically by the anthropologist is erroneous. Wittgenstein's critique of Frazer demonstrates that all the anthropologist can aim for is an understanding of the practice of ritual; not an explanation of its internal coherence or its relativistic intelligibility.
Rather, an understanding is reached through examination of the way in which similar ritual practices have significance for our own lives or the lives of our peers. This understanding only exists as a possibility. It may be that any such attempt to contrast a "foreign" ritual with a more familiar example may fail to enlighten. At no point does Wittgenstein assume that each ritual practice will have one determinate explanation. The fact that Winch is compelled to hold the view that they do is a direct consequence of his erroneous assumption that all ritual practice forms part of a belief system that has an underlying coherent and determinate structure. This assumption is not only out of step with the Wittgensteinian position out of which it flows, but more importantly it does violence to the piecemeal and disparate nature of ritual practice in general.
Winch is faced with a further problem in his account of how the systematic nature of ritual practices generates relativism. It will be remembered that Winch argues against Evans-Pritchard's claim that the primitive person is "mistaken" in his or her ritual practice and that science is in some sense "superior" to ritual practice. As Winch states, " Evans Pritchard is not content with elucidating the differences in the two concepts of reality involved; he wants to go further and say: our concept of reality is the correct one, the Azande are mistaken. But the difficulty is to see what "correct" and "mistaken" can mean in this context." 23 According to Winch, no one system is "better" or "superior" to any other: all systems are equally valid and governed by their own internal logic and criteria of correctness. Therefore, it makes no sense for Evans-Pritchard to say of science that it is "superior" to ritual practice because no independent standpoint is available from which to make such assessments. As a consequence, judgements about which is "better" or "superior" are not applicable.
However, just as it is problematic for Evans-Pritchard to posit science as superior to ritual practice it is also, and for the same reason, problematic for Winch to hold that both systems are equally valid. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this point is an example taken from Wittgenstein. Writing on ethics and considering two ethical systems, Wittgenstein states: "if you are saying there are various systems of ethics you are not saying they are all equally right. That means nothing. Just as it would have no meaning to say that each was right from his or her own standpoint. That could only mean he judges as he does." The point here is that if Winch posits different systems of belief (scientific practice and ritual practice) and that each system has a unique status then there is no independent way of adjudicating between them. For under Winch's account the appeal to an independent assessment regarding the nature of belief systems -- be it in terms of logic or reality -- makes no sense. In this way Winch's criticism of Evans-Pritchard also silences the claims he himself wishes to make regarding the nature of belief systems, i.e. that they are all "equally valid". Winch is aware of the relativistic problems that are produced as a consequence of his account of belief systems. As such he provides two arguments that he believes meet any such objections. It is to these arguments I now turn.
Regarding the description of ritual practices of "primitives", Winch states "that a new description of action must be intelligible to the members of the society in which it is introduced." He goes on, stating that "the point is that what determines this is the further development of rules and principles already implicit in previous ways of acting and talking. To be emphasized are not the actual members of any "stock" of descriptions, but the grammar which they express. It is through this that we understand their structure and sense, their mutual relations and the sense of new ways of talking and acting that may be introduced." "Grammar" here does not mean what is ordinarily understood by this term, i.e. it is not simply an interest in what constitutes a syntactically well formed sentence. Rather, it is used here in the Wittgensteinian sense to refer to the logic of a given linguistic activity. In other words, it is the meaning that is embodied in the "life"; the praxis and practice of the language game within which it finds its home. It is an attention to our practice of language, not as some non-spatial, non temporal phantasm, both as a spatial and temporal phenomenon (Philosophical Investigations 108). Winch's own view of the underlying "grammar" of linguistic activity is in step with his earlier claims about language forming a system which determines "the real" for the language user. Winch runs into problems however in trying to account for the possibility of one linguistic community (with its own practices) trying to fathom the radically different practices of another community. He would have us believe that this difficulty is overcome by modifying the "structure and sense" of the "grammar" of another linguistic community in such a way as to make it " describable in our own "grammar" of descriptions." But under Winch's own account this is impossible. If grammar and meaning are one and the same, then any change in the grammar will bring with it a change in meaning. This has the result that an explanation of another community's practice from one's own standpoint will always be unavailable. To modify the grammar of the other linguistic community (accepting that such a thing could be achieved) would do violence to the meaning in such a way that what one was left with at the end of such a process would bear no resemblance to the original meaning one was attempting to explain. On the Winchian model, the possibility exists that one might, whilst living in a different linguistic community, effect a change in the grammar one operated with, and hence a change one's understanding of reality. But this would constitute no less than a complete and radical transformation of one's outlook -- rather like seeing the light on the road to Damascus. This argument will not serve Winch's purpose however, for with this radical change of outlook (which is supervenient on the change of grammar), the old system of belief is expunged. It is not that the new system of beliefs can describe the old. Rather, the old system will be lost in the transition.
The second argument Winch offers to avoid the problem of relativism is the following: Winch believes that common ground can be found in the linguistic community under study such that an explanation of their practices can be built up on this strong foundation. Winch states, "I wish to point out that the very conception of human life involves certain fundamental notions." For Winch these are "birth, death and sexual relations." He continues, "their central position within a society's institutions is and must be a constant factor. In trying to understand the life of an alien society, then, it will be of the utmost importance to be clear about the way in which these notions enter into it."
Given Winch's account of meaning, this view is perplexing. Assuming that these features (birth, death and sexual relations) are the three seized upon as central in all communities everywhere, and then using them as a bridgehead for understanding merely begs the question. While it may be that we regard birth, death and sexual relations as in some way defining our lives there is no way to ascertain that other communities hold such values as paramount. The only way to discover if this is indeed the case is to be able to understand (under the Winchian view) the values that operate within a foreign community. To avoid circularity, this is something that the "bridgehead" values of birth, death and sexual relations cannot facilitate.
In conclusion it can be seen that Winch, taking his lead from the writings of Wittgenstein and explicitly rejecting the "scientific perspective" is at the same time seduced by the notion of explaining ritual practice in terms of a system. In doing so he goes beyond Wittgenstein's account and, as I have attempted to demonstrate, unwittingly generates a relativism that is fatal to his overall project.
1 Ludwig Wittgenstein. "Remarks on Frazer's The Golden Bough". Reprinted in Discussions of Wittgenstein. Edited by Rush Rhees. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1970).
2 Peter Winch. The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy. Bryan Wilson. Basil Blackwell (1970)
3 Peter Winch. The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1958)
4 John Frazer. The Golden Bough. London: Macmillian (1922)
5 Frazer p119
6 Auguste Comte Introduction of Positive Philosophy. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (1988).
7 Frazer p237
8 Frazer p128
9 Frazer p18
10 Frazer p61
11 Wittgenstein RFGB
12 Wittgenstein RFGB
13 Wittgenstein RFGB
14 Wittgenstein RFGB
15 Wittgenstein RFGB p70
16 Wittgenstein RFGB
17 E.E. Evans-Pritchard. "Witchcraft, Oracles and the Azande." Printed in Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts. University of Egypt (1934)
18 Winch p79
19 Winch p80
20 Winch p82
21 Winch p99
22 Winch p83
23 Ludwig Wittgenstein. "Lecture on Ethics." Philosophical Review 74 (1965):3-12. p100
24 Winch p96
25 Winch p96
26 Winch p107
27 Winch p107
28 Winch p108
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