E.B. Tylor, Primitive Culture 2 vols. (1871)
Recently, a regular reader accused me of rashly “slitting the throats of the old guys” in my posts on Max Müller and William James. Though mutual accusations of bias made for good beer banter, there was a real point buried somewhere in the comment. Facile critique was never my intent, so I’ll try to be nicer to E.B. Tylor for my misguided young reader’s sake…
I’ve got a soft spot for iconoclasts, and Tylor seems to be one. Tylor locates the study of religion within the broader study of culture. This is important. Unlike James or even Müller, he does not cede religion an intrinsic place in human life—for him, it is simply a feature of many cultures. Again breaking with his contemporaries, particularly Matthew Arnold’s “best which has been thought and said,” Tylor defines culture in broad terms: it is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (1, p1). Individuals have to learn their culture as members of a society. Cultures are complex, incorporating everything from practical knowledge and art objects to values and codes of law. These diverse parts adhere as bounded entities.
But this is the 1870s, and evolution is in the air. Though he assumes that all people possess similar rational faculties, Tylor understands cultures hierarchically—some are simply more evolved and rational than others. But questions then arise: how did cultures become so unequal? How do we explain the persistence of irrationality in highly advanced, scientific cultures? Again, breaking with a popular theory, Tylor presents two volumes worth of evidence to demonstrate that cultures always progress (1, p14). In other words, they move from low to high, primitive to advanced—they never regress from an advanced state to a lower one. This means that primitive cultures have simply not been educated to the same degree as advanced societies. Primitive people are just as rational as other people; primitive cultures are not as rational as other cultures because they lack the necessary education. Myths, for example, provide evidence for this progression. Tales of the gods and heroes offer useful explanations for otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena (257-258). Some cultures learn the scientific truth and abandon the old myths, others do not.
Enter religion. Tylor’s evolutionary understanding of culture becomes the base for his famous theory of animism. As I’m sure we all know, he offers a “minimum definition” of religion as “belief in spiritual beings” (1, p383). His evolutionary thinking holds the definition together. Before humanity acquired belief in spiritual beings, we had no religion because religion is not an innate human quality. After we acquired that minimal religion, some religions evolved into extremely complex systems of belief in modern cultures. Others did not. For Tylor, “animism” holds the “essence” of spiritualist metaphysics, in contrast to materialist metaphysics. It provides “the groundwork of the philosophy of religion” (1, p385). In its most primitive form, animism attributes a spiritual essence to animals, plants, people, natural forces. Later, it develops into pantheons of gods, monotheism, eternal spirits, and the like. Sometimes, a cultural feature learned in an earlier evolutionary phase will persist. Though they be completely irrational in the more advanced phase of cultural development, they subsist “by mere force of ancestral tradition” (2, p403). These he calls “survivals.” Though he never quite says it, Tylor seems to think that most of religion in modern culture constitutes a survival: “there seems no human thought so primitive as to have lost its bearing on our own thought, nor so ancient as to have broken its connection with our own life” (2, p409). The appropriate methods for the study of religion are, therefore, history and ethnography.