Social Anthropology seeks to gauge an understanding of cultures and practices whether they are foreign or native. This is achieved through the studying of language, education, customs, marriage, kinship, hierarchy and of course belief and value systems. Rationality is a key concept in this process as it affects the anthropologist’s interpretation of the studied group’s way of life: what s/he deems as rational or plausible practice. Witchcraft and magic pose problems for many anthropologists, as its supernatural nature is perhaps conflicting to the common Western notions of rationality, mainly deemed superior. In this essay I will be exploring the relationship between rationality and witchcraft and magic, and will further explore rationality as a factor of knowledge.
Rationality from the Latin ‘rationari’ meaning to ‘think’ or ‘calculate’ is a significant concept in Western philosophy born out of the Enlightenment. During the 17th and 18th centuries many philosophers began to emphasise the use of reason as the best method of learning objective truth. Pioneers in this field include Descartes and Locke. This was also a time when science came to the forefront of Western thought, seen as the embodiment of rationality. It was believed that the ability to reason is the very thing that separates man from other animals. It is what makes us human, and therefore it is our job to utilise this benefit at all times. As rationality grew in importance its contrasts such as ignorance and superstition were seen to have no place in a rational Western society. Things that were unexplainable through rational means were invalid. These are terms that can and are applied to practices such as witchcraft and magic.
Witchcraft and magic are practices that call upon supernatural, unseen forces. Witchcraft is the use of these forces for negative ends, to extort evil, and magic asks for positive ends. Witchcraft has been found to exist in all corners of the globe at some point. It is no coincidence that during the Enlightenment, witch hunts in Europe and North America became common. The aim was to rid society of these people regarded as unreasonable and dangerous. By contrast self-proclaimed witches still have a function in some societies today, mainly in the developing world. Magic however is often a word used to describe certain people’s modes of divination, mainly those in the developing world. It is my view though that magic and the institution of religion are not as different as it may first appear. The Yorubas chanting to the god Shango is no different to the congregation of a church singing hymns. Both are with good intentions, and both may ask for some divine intervention. Labelling one form magic and one religion is just semantics.
To question whether it is rational to believe in witchcraft and magic is in fact just a question as to whether the belief in supernatural intervention is rational. Is it irrational to believe in things that we cannot prove in a rational manner? At this point I would say ‘Yes’. It is illogical to believe in things that cannot be proven. Proof must be a condition for belief or we could believe almost anything to exist, for example flying pigs. It is evidence that makes belief different from faith, which is having trust in things that often appear to have no substantiation. However to use rationality as a determining factor of proof, and therefore belief, means that it must be a flawless concept within itself. But is this so?
If we decide that it is irrational to believe in things that cannot be proven then we are at the same time saying that it is only rational to believe in things that can be proven. However there are many things that evade the boundaries of Western science, for example emotions. Can we prove love exists? It is something invisible, intangible and there is no objective proof for this emotion; no way to scientifically monitor it. Can we then say to believe in love is irrational? Many people would argue ‘No’, that they themselves have experienced love. And this is the first criticism of rationality. It is not concerned with personal experience that cannot be charted. Sometimes it is considered more rational to believe in things proven objectively (through scientific means) than perhaps your own experiences.
What does this mean for the Anthropologist carrying out fieldwork? Benedict Allen in his documentary series ‘Medicine Man’ explored the world of shamans across the world. During filming Allen hurt his leg in an accident and had been taking antibiotics, which were not working. After three days he encountered a traditional healer, a shaman, whom he agreed could attempt to heal him. The shaman took the horn of an animal, prayed on it and stuck it directly into Allen’s wound. He then chewed up some herbs and spat them into Allen’s mouth. Two days later Allen’s wound had closed up. He believed it was the work of the shaman that had done this and that he had been involved in a magical process. However Western science does not permit this. What should the Anthropologist believe? Should science override the Anthropologists themselves? At times the belief in rationality can render the Anthropologists’ own perceptions and experiences null and void.
What about this objective truth? Can we say there is such a thing? Social Anthropology as a discipline has become more and more aware of how personal opinions and prejudices affect the anthropologists’ work. This is also true in the ‘traditional’ sciences, the opposite of magic. Scientists are human beings, fallible creatures. It is highly unlikely that every scientist has shed their prejudices in a way that others cannot. Descartes once wrote ‘Judging requires not only the intellect but also the will…the will is also required to give assent to something that is perceived in some way’ Here Descartes observes that when we make judgements we have to also decide what is worthy of our judgement. A scientist will him/herself decide which aspect of a situation to concentrate on, thus determining what is evidence. Even the greatest scientific theories began as someone’s opinion. S. J. Tambiah highlights this further by stating that ‘”Rationalization” is a kind of adaptive mechanism that by contrast shapes the perception of a situation itself rather than its evaluation.’ What does this say for rationality when the epitome of the concept is not without problems? Science, as it is unable to free itself from human subjectivity, is not an objective process, and it is also why there are many conflicting theories in the field.
The largest criticism that can be pointed at rationality is not how we use it but rather the apparent self-evident truths that compose our definition of it. Rationality as a function seeks to observe and make judgements on things in an unbiased manner; however our very notions on what observation, judgement and unbiased are, are inevitably tied up in our own opinions. It is impossible to detach prejudice, expectations and cultural upbringing from beliefs and perceptions, even apparent self-evident ones.
Evans-Pritchard in his ethnographic text ‘Witchcraft Oracles and Magic Among the Azande’ wrote about the Azande people of Sudan. The belief in witches and witchcraft was an integral part of Azande life at this time. Evans-Pritchard gives the example of when an old granary collapses, killing or injuring somebody resting beneath it. He stresses that Zande people know that termites eat away at the wood, and that in the heat the granary provides shade. The Azande people however seek to determine why at that point that particular granary fell on that particular person. The first port of call is always witchcraft because ‘If there had been no witchcraft, people would have been sitting under the granary and it would not have fallen on them, or it would have collapsed but the people would not have been sheltering under it at the time. Witchcraft explains the coincidence of these two happenings.’ To the Azande people it is perfectly rational to suspect witches are responsible for these acts, as they believe that witchcraft existing is a self-evident truth. They do not question if witchcraft but rather how. A Western scientist would consider the non-existence of witchcraft to be a self-evident truth and therefore conclude something different, that the death was an accident. E. Mansell Pattison believes that the difference is not a question of rationality but rather ‘…our differing construction of what reality is.’ ; the self evident truths we hold, and it would seem these are not as objective as we like to think they are.
It is also important to look at the language we use when describing certain things. As I mentioned before there is little difference between magic and religion however by us labelling one ‘magic’ we are already influencing our own perceptions. Magic in the west is very much a part of fantasy. It is common knowledge that magic shows are just tricks of the eye and manipulation of situations. In fact a magician’s sole purpose is to trick the audience. When we label a people’s practice as magic we are almost informing people that these practices are no more than tricks themselves. The same can be said when we talk about shamans and doctors. One will use Western medicine and one will not, but are they really that different? I believe they are either doctors, or both shamans. Sometimes our language can represent people unfairly.
We also have to be aware that things which are unfamiliar to us can, solely due to their being alien, appear irrational or strange. In Anthropology we are quite aware of how descriptions and unfamiliarity of the ‘other’ can influence our ideas even when we think we are being rational. Horace Miner presents the best example of this in his famous article from the 1950s called ‘Body Ritual Among the Nacirema’
‘The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalised series of gestures.’
Here Miner uses anthropological language to describe a form of mouth-washing that is practised within a so-called ‘tribe’, the true identity of which can be discovered simply by reversing the name of ‘Nacirema’. Miner is merely describing the brushing of teeth, but through his use of language he influences our opinions and gives perhaps the best demonstration of how our perceptions on people change when we make them the ‘other’.
Considering all these things: that self-evident truths, the uses of language and unfamiliarity are all closely linked to the very way we evaluate, can we now say that rationality which is reliant upon all of these things is an objective process? I would argue ‘No’. Rationality cannot be a flawless concept if its components are flawed.
There are many ongoing debates in the social sciences about rationality. There are those that believe it is a universal concept such as Charles Taylor and those that believe rationality is not independent of culture and context for example Wittgenstein. I have already demonstrated the problems of subscribing to the view that rationality is a universal, faultless concept; however what of Wittgenstein’s theory? Wittgenstein believed that there could be multiple ‘rationalities’. That what is rational may differ from one culture to the next. This could mean that the Azande’s belief in witchcraft would be seen to be rational. Evans-Pritchard who does not himself believe in magic wrote that, for the Azande, ‘Belief in witchcraft is quite consistent with human responsibility and a rational appreciation of nature.’ This could almost put an end to rationality being criticised as it allows the scope for difference. But then why cite rationality at all if there is no room for translation? Even in our acceptance of ‘multiple rationalities’ we are still using rationality as a yardstick.
Rationality is not the seamless model it first appears to be. First there is a danger that rationality can undermine our personal experience. Second it would seem rationality is not objective, but instead bound in our own prejudices in our definition and application of it. Third there is now no consensus on the nature of rationality itself, whether it is universal or relative. All these things make it very hard to answer the question as to whether a belief in witchcraft or magic is a rational one. After this research I can say that the answer to the question will vary depending on who you ask, but my personal belief is that the most rational answer to the question is to say that there isn’t one; and that Anthropology can function perfectly without it.
Descartes, R. Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings (Penguin, 1998)
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft Oracles and Magic Among the Azande (Oxford University Press, 1976)
Lehmann A. C. & Myers J. E. Magic, Witchcraft and Religion – An anthropological Study of the Supernatural (Fourth Edition) (Mayfield Publishing Company, 1997)
Miner, H. Body Ritual Among the Nacirema American Anthropologist 58 (1956)
Tambiah, S. J. Magic, Science, Religion and the scope of Rationality (Cambridge University Press, 1990)
Taylor, C. Rationality in Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes editors Rationality and Relativism (Cambridge Press, 1982)
Turner V. W. International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences David L. Sills editor (Crowell Collier and Macmillan, 1972)
Wittgenstein L. On Certainty G. E. M. Anscombe and Denis Paul editors (Oxford Blackwell, 1969)