- The Interpretation of Primitive Ritual
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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106 ] The Interpretation of Primitive Ritual1 “The Interpretation of Primitive Ritual” was written for Josiah Royce’s 1913-14 “Philosophy 20c: Seminary in Logic.” Each student was expected to present one long paper and several “notes” (as Royce referred to the shorter papers) related to the overall topic for the year, “A Comparative Study of Various Types of Scientific Method.” Eliot read the following “long paper” on 9 Dec 1913.2 Two questions to discuss: causality and interpretation of meaning. On what terms is a science of religion possible? Can it be treated wholly according to the methods of sociology? And are these methods ever wholly “scientific.” My discussion of these methods will be based mainly on Durkheim’s Règles and “Représentations Collectives” and partly upon LévyBruhl ’s Fonctions mentales.3 Science of Religion must be distinguished from Philosophy of Religion. In the latter, the investigator ranges his “facts” according to a definition of religion. This definition is never arrived at by a generalisation from the facts; because the facts are never just those facts until we have the definition . In the work of such older men as Max Müller, scientific definition is confused with philosophic interpretation: thus he says, “Religion consists in the perception of the infinite under such manifestations as are able to influence the moral character of men.”4 This is not a generalisation and cannot serve as a definition. I shall want to show presently that the same confusion between definition and interpretation is present in contemporary, professedly more scientific work, and that in fine no “scientific” definition of religion is possible. I should like also at the outset to protest against the use of the expression “Evolution of Religion.” The word evolution I believe is currently used with deplorable looseness. The sorts of fact, as I understand it, which can properly be described in terms of evolution are those in which a continuous relation between organic tendency and environment can be expressed more or less quantitatively, according to a standard of value. We have the right to take human value as the standard for natural evolution, but what standard have we for religion or society? In the words of Durkheim, the facts are particular societies which are born, develop, die, independently from each other . . . a people which replaces another is not simply a [ 107 The Interpretation of Primitive Ritual prolongation of this other with some new characters; it is something other; it has some added properties, some less; it constitutes a new individuality and all these distinct individualities, being heterogeneous, cannot fuse (se fondre) into one continuous series, nor, above all, into a single series (une série unique).5 Furthermore, as Durkheim might have indicated, there is a difference between natural and social evolution in that in the former we are able practically to neglect all values that are internal to the process, and consider the process from the point of view of our value, which is for our purposes conceived of as outside the process (such a definition, of course, declines to consider vitalism seriously). While to some extent in a social progress, and to a very great extent in religious progress, the internal values are part of the external description. This brings us to the question all important for this field of inquiry: what do we mean by description? As an introduction to this question I shall take up another type of investigation. For the Max Müller type, as we have seen, a special religious sense or faculty; an intuition of something or other, is a postulate. For a more modern group, religion is a practical, though imperfect or mistaken, adaptation to environment, [a] more or less consciously rational inventing of theories to account for experience. Tylor’s animism is of course the classic of this type of explanation: [T]he ancient savage philosophers (sic) probably made their first step by the obvious inference that every man has two things belonging to him, namely, a life and a phantom (I.428). Even in healthy waking life, the savage or barbarian had never learnt tomakethatrigiddistinctionbetweensubjectiveandobjective,between imagination and reality, to enforce which is one of the main results of scientific education (I.445).6 What a curious assumption! We are asked to refer the supernatural to an inference from observation; we are given an hypothesis which owes its vraisemblance to the fact that we feel that this is what we should do were we in the savage’s...