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London: Allen & Unwin, 1916. Pp. 208. 1

The International Journal of Ethics, 27 (Oct 1916) 115-17

In 1914 Mr. Clement Webb delivered a course of lectures at Oxford on certain sociological theories of religion. In their present form they are still lectures. They contain a most interesting commentary for anyone who is reading the works of Durkheim and Lévy-Bruhl; and they constitute a very able polemic. There was needed just such an attack upon the theories of these men from just such an antagonist as Mr. Webb. It is as a polemic that the book must be read; not as an exposition or a detailed criticism. On the one side, we should have ranged all the varieties of contemporary thought represented by Bergson, Sorel, and in philosophy of religion, Durkheim, LévyBruhl, Cornford, Harrison; 2 ” on the other, the Oxford tradition headed by Mr. Webb. Mr. Webb’s assault is forceful, but rather scattered. He turns too suddenly from criticism of special theories to criticism of general tendency, and from criticism of M. Lévy-Bruhl to criticism of M. Durkheim, who does not hold quite the same views. And sometimes where he has felt an antipathy, he has failed to elaborate a refutation; so that one is left in doubt as to whether he has quite understood M. Durkheim’s point of view.

When we examine Mr. Webb’s objections one by one, we find that they may be summed up in two classes: one religious, the other philosophical. He objects on religious grounds, because he believes that the tendency of the group theory is to reduce all religion to illusion, to “objectifications of feeling.” 3 He objects on philosophical grounds, because the theory of the “social origin of the categories” seems to invalidate all human knowledge. 4 These two classes of objection should be kept quite distinct. A theory is hardly likely to be thoroughly positivist and pragmatist at the same time. So that one is led to a restatement of the positions of both the two sociologists in question.

First M. Lévy-Bruhl. In his book on Les Fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures,this author distinguishes sharply between a pre-logical and a logical mentality. The former is that of the Bororo of Brazil who has a parrot for his totem. Now, according to M. Lévy-Bruhl, this is not merely the adoptionof parrot as an heraldic emblem, nor a merely mythological kinship or participation in qualities; nor is the savage deludedinto thinking that he is a parrot. In practical life, the Bororo never confuses himself with a parrot, nor is he so sophisticated as to think that black is white. But he is capable of a state of mind into which we cannot put ourselves, in which he isa parrot, while being at the same time a man. 5 In other words, the mystical mentality, though at a low level, plays a much greater part in the daily life of the savage than in that of the civilised man. M. Lévy-Bruhl goes on to insist quite rightly upon a side of the primitive mind which has been neglected by older anthropologists, such as Frazer, and produces a theory which has much in common with the analyses of mythology recently made by disciples of Freud. 6 It is true that he exaggerates the difference between the mind of the savage and the mind of the civilised man, and that, as Mr. Webb points out, his contrast between “contradiction” and “participation” is misleading [23-24]. But it is also true that the growth of the scientific spirit has been unfavourable to mysticism, and that mysticism has had an obscurantist effect in science. The contrast is a sound one. Lévy-Bruhl maintains that a sharp differentiation of function is necessary, without abandoning either of two essential attitudes of the human mind. This is...

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