Levy-Bruhl and the Mode of Thought of Preliterate People:
Levy-Bruhl’s works on primitive mentality deserve attention for an account of theories of primitive religious beliefs. His basic assumptions are sociological, yet he does not easily fit into the sociological category because his main concerns are purely philosophical. Levy-Brhul held that one could just as well begin a study of social life by analyzing ways of thought just as one would study ways of observable behavior.
Levy-Bruhl’s best-known book is “How Natives Think” which forms the basis of our discussion here. In this book, he outlined the view of the two broad mentalities- civilized and primitive which he considered as opposites. In terms of this dichotomy primitive cultures are marked by a ‘prelogical’ mentality which is blind to the law of contradiction. On the other hand, the law of contradiction is a characteristic of modern societies. The primitive substitute for it is a law of mystical participation. According to Levy-Bruhl (1912) the word ‘mystical’ means belief in the supernatural. The representations of primitive peoples have a quality of being mystical and the logical principle of these mystical representations is called by Levy-Brhul the law of mystical participation. Further, he holds that as the representations are mystical, collective representations of primitives are a network of mystical participation.
This book contains a series of comparisons between ‘us’ (Westerners) and ‘them’ (primitive people). Westerners, in comparison, appear logical and scientific. The primitive people, by contrast, appear to focus on the mystical rather than logical. This aspect of Levy-Brhul’s analysis makes it different from Durkheim’s analysis of religious phenomena.
Levy-Bruhl, on the other hand, focused his attention on primitive thinking and not on social institutions. He is outstanding in that he recognized that the origins of religion are impossible to explain. He recommended that primitive religious structures and mentalities are what we should be looking at. He pointed out that every society has its own way of thinking and acknowledged that the mental content of the individual is derived from and explained by the collective representations of one’s society. He insisted that these collective representations are functions of institutions of society.
Levy-Brhul clearly separated the content of thought of primitive people- his subject matter from the psycho-physical processes of thought as Tylor (1871) and Frazer (1890) before him had not. He dealt with the ideas held by the bulk of the members of a society what he called collective representations and what today would be called values.
The word mystical, as it is used by Levy-Brhul, refers to the belief in the natural-cum-supernatural world of magic and religion and so forth. He is perhaps the first to point out that the distinction between natural and supernatural is not made in most cultures. This lack of distinction he regarded as mystical.
The logical principles of this mystical representation are what Levy-Bruhl calls the law of mystical participation.
Evans-Pritchard (1965) points, out that Levy-Brhul’s term ‘participation’ resembles the association of ideas of Tylor and Frazer, but Levy-Brhul’s conclusions are different from their conclusions. While, for Tylor and Frazer primitives believe in magic because they reason incorrectly from their observations, for Levy-Brhul they reason incorrectly because their reasoning is determined by their mystical beliefs in supernatural and representation of those beliefs.
According to Evans-Pritchard, Levy-Brhul’s discussion of the law of mystical participation is perhaps the most valuable part of his thesis. He was one of the first to emphasize that primitive ideas are meaningful when seen as parts of patterns of ideas, and behavior. Each part has an intelligible relationship to the others. He accepts primitive magic and religion as it is and uses it as a base to study its structure and what we learn about a particular kind of mentality is common to all societies of a certain type. In order to emphasize the distinctiveness of this mentality, Levy-Brhul holds that primitive thought in general differs altogether from Western thought in quality, and not just in degrees.
The main difficulty with his approach, however, as Evans-Pritchard (1965) has pointed out, is that Levy-Brhul compared the scientific thought of the then Western world with the magical and religious thought of primitive societies, whereas he should have compared both from the same society.
Evans-Pritchard’s studies of religion among certain African tribal groups basically deal with systems of belief. For example, his study, Nuer Religion, is about the religious ideas and practices of the Nuer of Southern Sudan. Undoubtedly Evans-Pritchard has taken into account the social contexts of the ideas and practices he talks about. But his study is primarily concerned with the system of beliefs rather than with that of social relations.