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Wittgenstein and the ritual

“Only describe, don’t explain”
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Sir James George Frazer’s Golden Bough is an anthropological comparative study of mythologies and religions, in which he examines primitive peoples of Europe relating to mythologies from all over the world. In his text Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, Wittgenstein turns against Frazer’s interpretation of the apparently irrational behavior of primitive people in his efforts to make them scrutable for his readers. His explanation of the primitive magic and religious beliefs is not satisfying, says Wittgenstein, as it makes them appear as mistakes. But a mistake, he continues, can be attributed only to someone who has a theory. At the center of a magical or religious symbol there is no theory. People don’t always form scientific hypothesis about the world; there are times when they simply perform a ritual.

“The form of the ascending spirit is veneration” (photo)
“The form of the ascending spirit is veneration” (photo)

Frazer observes that, at some early phase of society, the king or the priest was thought to be the holder of supernatural powers allowing him to control nature. Wittgenstein considers people didn’t actually believe that the ruler had these powers –and neither did the ruler, unless he was “an imbecile or a fool”. What else are we to think since with the king’s first mishap his lack of such powers would become obvious? It’s simply that, Wittgenstein says, the concept of power attributed to the king or priest was adapted in such a way as to be harmonized with the everyday experience of both the believers and the holder of that power. They knew their king did not have the power to control nature but they played the game, for reasons we’ll see below. Wittgenstein recognizes hypocrisy on the primitives’ part here, but only to the degree that hypocrisy generally plays a role with most things people do.

If these primitives sat down to write their knowledge of the natural world, we would see that it did not differ radically from ours. Only their magic would be different. For example, when a people perceives the idea of the soul as a little person, of the same liking with the human it inhabits, he does not do anything different than, say, Plato when he philosophizes on the world of ideas. The modern “magic”, according to Wittgenstein, is philosophy; it’s only that the primitives did it in a more childish manner.

Frazer says of the primitives that it must have been too difficult for them to discover the folly of magic. They could not apprehend that a spell which supposedly brings rain will, at some point, necessarily appear effective, because it will eventually rain anyway. He notes moreover that, in a way, they sabotaged themselves, since they would address their magician for their spell only during the start of the raining season and not during the drought; thus feeding their delusion.

But it is very strange, replies Wittgenstein, for us to think that the primitives could not realize that it would eventually rain anyway and that the spell was not the real cause for the falling of the heavenly drops. And it’s not that they didn’t know about the raining seasons. The fact itself that the custom would be repeated every year at the same period, when rainfalls were about to start, shows us exactly that they were aware of this changing of the seasons. It is also a proof that they didn’t literally expect the magician to bring the rain; otherwise they would ask him to do so during the drought season, when they would need it the most. Magic, then, did not constitute an ultimately irrational act, but a ritual –an expression of joy and hope.

“When you are philosophizing you have to descend in the primeval chaos, and feel like home there” (“Culture and value”) (photo)
“When you are philosophizing you have to descend in the primeval chaos, and feel like home there” (“Culture and value”) (photo)

Wittgenstein says that this erroneous view of our ancestors is rather due to our sense of superiority we feel in relation to them. To see our ancestors’ magic as wrong science –meaning wrong medicine, physics, technology etc- is a foolish prejudice of the 20th century. He goes on to say that the ritual element of those societies, although we look down upon it in disdain, we maintain until today. To burn an effigy of your enemy in order to hurt him, is the same as kissing the photograph of your beloved or of a saint. Obviously, this action is not based on the belief that we actually affect the person depicted on the image. It only aims at a satisfaction, which is accomplished. And actually, it does not even aim at anything; it’s simply that we behave in this way, and then we feel satisfied. We should suppose the same for our ancestors.

But let’s take what Wittgenstein says seriously, to make further parallels. Let’s imagine a parent whose child is seriously ill and in danger of dying. Let’s imagine this parent praying. Is it possible to consider that this parent does not actually expect for his child’s health to be improved, as a result of the prayer? For that to be the case, the parent would have to think in this way: “I know that by praying I will change nothing, I know that I cannot alter the physical reality around me with my thoughts, but it’s alright; the prayer will simply be a celebration of health, a festivity for the value of life; and it will make me feel better (or satisfied)”. I think that these thoughts, followed by the act of prayer in the specific ciscumstances, would make the parent, in the least, inconsistent -even self-contended if we consider the very real danger his child faces. Of course, one could say the real reason somebody prays is that it indeed makes him feel better, that even a false hope is perhaps better than nothing; but the maintaining of a false hope is based on it remaining unstated as a false one. In other words, the one who prays truly believes that through the power of his thoughts he will change the physical world around him, even if at the same time he very well knows the laws of nature or the statistical improbability of such an undertaking. Shouldn’t we suppose the same for our ancestors?

Now let’s change the scenario a little bit, with the child this time not being in danger of dying, but a victim of an accident that left it with one arm lost. Would the parent, this time, pray for a new hand to grow on his child’s shoulder? No. He might very well ask in prayer sympathy or solidarity from god, he might ask for this accident not to become an obstacle for his child in his future happiness or professional success; he might ask a number of different things. But he would surely not ask for a new limb. Why not? This is what the child needs more than anything at the moment. It is because, however unconsciously, he recognizes that god cannot deliver such a thing; even though at the same time the parent considers god to be all-mighty. In the same way, the primitives that made magic to bring the rain only during the raining season, and not when they really needed it, did not find any inconsistence between their thoughts and their actions. This does not mean they are imbeciles, fools or bad scientists, as Wittgenstein might say, it just means that they can suspend their intelligence, which they surely possessed, to maintain hope (or joy, or a festive sense of wonder…). The hope that they will be safe, that there is someone who, if satisfied by their ritual, will look after them (either the magician or a god or anything “larger than them”). The hope that they are, to a degree, responsible for their fate. That they can control, and therefore understand, the physical world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) (photo)
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) (photo)

The basis for Wittgenstein’s criticism is that Frazer thinks lowly of the primitive people, failing to admit their similarities with the “Englishman of the 20th century” (who Wittgenstein himself looks down on). This is not a negation of the importance, let alone the existence, of the ritual in our lives –in primitive times or in the modern ones. We shake hands, we kiss foreheads, we kick the ground without expecting to hurt it but only to release our frustration, and some among us pray. Wittgenstein sees both ritual and reason in the modern man, but only the former in the primitive. But it is these similarities that lead us to the conclusion that they too, like any of us, were capable to hold two contradicting thoughts in their heads at the same time. This does not make them fools, it makes them human. People don’t always think rationally, even if they know how to do it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein – Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough

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