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Levy-Bruhl, concrete psychology and "primitivism" (was: Re: [xmca] Bateson's distinction between digital and analog)

What a great post, Martin (copied below). This is a very helpful look into Levy-Bruhl, Vygotsky's use of the term 'Kaffir,' etc.

And ... into that problem which Mike Cole, Natalia Gajdamaschko (in a Cambridge Vygotsky Companion article, I think 2007), you, and others have been pointing to for a long time: Vygotsky's (and Luria's) notion of the "primitive mind."

I don't myself believe Vygotsky was being racist, or "Eurocentrist," as some have referred to his use of the term "primitive," and to his ideas about people living today or in the past in Paleolithic, Neolithic, semi-feudal subsistence farming modes of production and cultures, etc. I can think of no single term to cover all these variations and others like them. Is there one? Anyway, I don't think Vygotsky's reason for using the term was some kind of racial or ethnic chauvinism.

One angle to look into on Vygotsky's use of the term "primitive" is the way he tended to be very careful about trying to us the existing terminology of the scientific literature of his day, and not just make up his own terms - unless he had to. This can compared to the way Engels (and as I understand it, Marx in his Ethnological Notebooks - anyone have a copy?) adopted the terms Morgan used for the three major stages of human historical development: savagery, barbarism and civilization. These stages can be translated in modern terms into Paleolithic, Neolithic, and ... post-Neolithic?

Those terms "savagery, barbarism, civilization," were used by Morgan, and by Marxists who have adopted his theory of historical stages, in a completely scientific and non-pejorative way. But today, in 2012, these terms are as outmoded, unsatisfactory, and racist-sounding as the term "primitive."

However, the objects, processes and concepts that these now outmoded terms used by Morgan, Marx, Engels, Vygotsky etc. intentionally indicated and tried to grasp with their intended meanings remain very relevant. But as we all know so well, we can't indicate objects, processes or concepts (or just "objects" for short) without words, and so, when the words themselves get in the way, the concepts become much more difficult to understand and discuss, and as a consequence the objects being indicated by a word become more obscured. And so it has gone.

Moreover, leaving aside the terminology problem, I agree that Vygotsky's *concept itself* about how "primitive man" thought has important flaws. Despite the many true and important *observations* Vygotsky (and Luria) made about what could be awkwardly, loosely (and ultimately inaccurately) described as 'non-modern and pre-literate' forms of human thought, there was something fundamentally wrong with Vygotsky's *explanations*. But CHAT is still working on adequately uncovering, critiquing and replacing those explanations, while at the same time stumbling over these problematic terms and descriptions that keep piling up. The trick is to keep our sights on the essences and contradictory geneses and developments of the objects, processes and concepts of interest.

For me, Mike asks a ton of very valuable and helpful questions about this "primitive thinking" question in his Vimeo presentation in the July 2010 "The Symposium On Vygotsky's Concepts Part I," which also features Paula Towsey and David Kellogg (and for which Paula did a superb job of producing). Mike's presentation is entitled "Do College Professors Think Like Children, Primitives or Adolescents?" His part of the symposium begins on 26:53 (that was a note to myself, actually, not an encouragement to skip over Paula and David! LOL).

Finally, your great post today, Martin, reminded me of the intriguing presentation at ISCAR, Rome you gave on ... let's see, looking this one up now as well ... "Becoming Wise: A Concrete Psychological Investigation of the Babalawo." Thank you for both!

I changed the thread name so there is an easier way to find Martin's post in the archives. Martin's post is below. (And I'm not snubbing you, David! I enjoy your posts as always. I changed the thread name to try to make it a little easier later to find those insights into Levy-Bruhl that Martin so generously provided.)

- Steve

On Feb 19, 2012, at 8:39 AM, Martin Packer wrote:

I've not been following this thread closely, and so I apologize if I am hijacking it. But like David I have been struck by LSV's treatment of the Kaffir. In LSV’s notes on Concrete Psychology he discusses the examples of a judge and a husband in some detail. He also mentions “Catholic, worker, peasant.” Actually, what he writes is “Kaffir, Catholic, worker, peasant” (p. 65).

The first mention of Kaffir occurs when LSV writes that it is “the social structure of the personality that determines which layers are to dominate. Cf. A dream and the leader of the Kaffirs” (p. 65). He goes on: “In him (the leader of the Kaffirs) sleep acquired a regulatory junction through the social significance of dreams (unexplainable difficulty, etc., the beginnings of magic, cause and effect,animism, etc.): what he sees in his dreams, he will do. This is a reaction of a person, and not a primitive reaction.”

The example of the Kaffir recurs repeatedly throughout these notes. For example: “The relation of a dream to future behavior (the regulatory function of sleep) amounts genetically and functionally to a social function (a wizard, the council of the wise men, an interpreter of dreams, someone who casts lots- are always divided into two persons)” (p. 65). “The relationship between sleep and future behavior (the regulatory function of sleep for a Kaffir) is mediated by the entire personality (the aggregate of social relations transferred inwardly); it is not a direct connection” (p. 67). Overall, LSV mentions the Kaffir 15 times in this short text.

And he used the example in other texts of the time. For example, in The Problem of Consciousness (1934) he wrote: “Consciousness as a whole has a semantic structure. We judge consciousness by its semantic structure, for sense, the structure of consciousness, is the relation to the external world. New semantic connections develop in consciousness (shame, pride – hierarchy ... the dream of the Kaffir, Masha Bolkonskaya prays when another would think ... ).”

“Kaffir” has become a pejorative term in Africa today, especially in South Africa, in large part because it originated in the Arabic term for unbeliever. It is a term used in the Koran in the same way. But until the early 20th century it was used to refer to natives of southern Africa, often specifically to the Xhosa people. It is the term that Lucien Levy-Bruhl used to refer to the natives of South Africa.

For Levy-Bruhl, of course, divination was a symptom of “primitive mentality.” His analysis in The Savage Mind led him to “the conclusion that the primitive’s mentality is essentially mystic. This fundamental characteristic permeates his whole method of thinking, feeling, and acting, and from this circumstance arises the extreme difficulty of comprehending and following its course. Starting from sense-impressions, which are alike in primitives and ourselves, it makes an abrupt turn, and enters on paths which are unknown to us, and we soon find ourselves astray” (p. 480).

The book ends with these words: “In this midst of this confusion of mystic participations and exclusions, the impressions which the individual has of himself whether living or dead, and of the group to which he ‘belongs,’ have only a far-off resemblance to ideas or concepts. They are felt and lived, rather than thought. Neither their content nor their connections are strictly submitted to the law of contradiction. Consequently neither the personal ego, nor the social group, nor the surrounding world, both seen and unseen, appears to be yet ‘definite’ in the collective representations, as they seem to be as soon as our conceptual thought tries to grasp them. In spite of the most careful effort, our thought cannot assimilate them with what it knows as its ‘ordinary’ objects. It therefore despoils them of what there is in them that is elementally concrete, emotional, and vital. This it is which renders so difficult, and so frequently uncertain, the comprehension of institutions wherein is expressed the mentality, mystic rather than logical, or primitive peoples” (p. 447).

At least Levy-Bruhl - after concluding that primitive people have no concepts, no true ideas, no sense of self or society, no definite conception of reality, and fail to recognize the basic law of logic - at least he acknowledged the difficulties for the anthropologist of grasping another way of living in the world. For Levy-Bruhl, primitive mentality was not to be considered an early form of our own reasonable mentality, it was fundamentally distinct, essentially other. He genuinely seemed to want to explore “primitive mentality” objectively, without presumptions, especially avoiding the presumption that such people ought to think the way Westerners do. He wrote that the people he studied did not lack the capacity to think abstractly and logically, they lacked the custom and habit to do so. He tried to treat them as different yet equal, not as childlike, or as historical precursors to his own form of mind. And yet he could not avoid describing these people in prejudicial terms. They are “prelogical,” etc.

Nonetheless, at times Levy-Bruhl came close to seeing that we are as mystical as they are! “The network of second causes which to our way of thinking is infinite in extent, rests unperceived and in the background in theirs, whilst occult powers, mystic influences, participations of all kinds, are mingled with the data directly afforded by perception, and make up a whole in which the actual world and the world beyond are blended. In this sense their world is more complex than our universe, but on the other hand it is complete, and it is closed” (p. 445). But we too live in a world of the unseen: God, electrons, nuclear reactions, and so on. A select few - our wise men - have the ability to influence these and in a special way to see them. But for the rest of us they are mysterious entities that guide our destinies, or light our houses, or threaten our existence. What Levy-Bruhl called “mystic” was any logic which rested on principals he refused to share (for example, let’s assume that a man’s soul persists in his clothes when he dies), while to reject the premises of a syllogism was exactly what he found fault with!

“The mind of the ‘primitive’ has hardly any room for such questions as ‘how’ or ‘why?’” “Myths, funeral rites, agrarian practices, and the exercise of magic do not appear to originate in the desire for a rational explanation; they are the primitives’ response to collective needs and sentiments which are profound and mighty and of compulsion” (Levy-Bruhl, 1926/1910, p. 25).

But of course the reasoning that he judged irrational was being demonstrated in the context of interrogations by people who had colonized, oppressed, and often enslaved and killed those they were talking to. Bonfil Batalla, writing of the treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas, has noted how “a system of cultural control was put into effect through which the decision-making capacities of the colonized peoples were limited. Their control over various cultural elements was progressively wrenched away, as it benefited the self-interest of the colonizers in each historical period” (pp. 67-68). In such circumstances it would hardly be surprising if such peoples were to show little interest in the topics that Western researchers tried to get them to reason about.

In Levy-Bruhl’s account, one of the “most important components of the primitive’s mental experience” (p. 122), and one of the central aspects of mythical mentality, was their understanding of dreams. He described how for “the South African races” dreams assisted in contact with the dead. He recounted not one but three dreams of Kafirs. Here is the second, the most straightforward of the three: “‘A man dreams that an attempt has been made to take his life by one whom he has always regarded as his true friend. On awakening he says: ‘This is strange; a man who never stoops to meanness wishes to destroy me. I cannot understand it, but it must be true, for ‘dreams never lie.’ Although the suspected friend protests his innocence, he immediately cuts his acquaintance’” (p. 108, citing J. Tyler (1891), Forty Years Among the Zulus). Levy-Bruhl goes on to explain that this unmasking of wizards and revealing of danger stems from the contact which dreams provide with the dead: “The dream is a revelation coming from the unseen world” (p. 109).

It is a small step from dreams like the Kafir’s to practices of divination, the topic of the next chapter of Levy-Bruhl's book. Levy- Bruhl described how when dreams and omens do not appear spontaneously, the “primitive” will turn to divination. “To calculate the chances carefully and systematically, and try to think out what will happen, and make plans accordingly, is hardly the way in which primitive mentality proceeds” (p. 159). Instead, divination is the tool of choice.

This is the Kafir that LSV makes reference to in Concrete Psychology. I take great solace from the fact that LSV not only gave the Kaffir and his dream a central place in his sketch of concrete psychology but also, writing just a few years after the publication of Levy-Bruhl’s work, insisted of the Kafir’s dream that “This is a reaction of a person, and not a primitive reaction” (p. 65). The divinatory dreaming of a Kaffir, then, far from being an illlustration of primitive mentality, as Levy-Bruhl would have it, is for LSV an example of the hierarchy among the higher psychological functions. And lest we assume that those of us in the Occidental world practice only scientific thinking, and that divination is to be found only in premodern societies, in backward, primitive cultures, remember that in May of 2011 a large number of people in the US were sufficiently convinced by Harold Camping’s prophesies of the end of the world that they sold their worldly goods in preparation for their transportation to the hereafter. And how many of us have purchased a lottery ticket based on our favorite number, or our birthdate?

Or tried to predict the outcome of games of chance? “What is clear in most reports of North American games of chance is that the activity, even when it had crossed the line and become a pastime, was still heavily related to genuine forms of divination” (Csikszentmihalyi & Bennett, 1971, p. 47). And let’s not forget that it was the illustrious Carl Jung who wrote the introduction to the translation of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination. Jung believed in what he called synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, and there are Jungian analysts today who use Tarot cards as part of their clinical practice.

And yet, LSV still calls the Kaffir "primitive." Divination - tossing bones - may be "the beginning of conscious self-control of one's own actions," but it is *only* the beginning. It is merely a way of deciding what to do when there is no obvious basis for choice. His position here is like that of Omar Moore, who, in a much- cited article, argued that the function of divination is to introduce what is essentially a randomization mechanism that disrupts customary practices that have become ineffective (as a result of failure-due-to-success effects, such as hunting out an area, or hunting to the point that the remaining animals become wary and hard to catch). This is to say that divination functions precisely because it *cannot* predict the future!

I find myself somewhat disappointed by such an account. It seems to me it fails to recognize the "closed" nature of our own modern universe.


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