Synopsis of Winch



(The following synopsis of Peter Winch's article, "Understanding a Primitive Society," is from a paper published by Steven Lukes in volume 13, No. 1 of the journal, History of the Human Siences. The paper is titled,  "Different cultures, different rationalities?" and begins on page three of the  journal issue.)


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Winch’s essay starts from the following ‘difficulty’: ‘how to make intelligible in our terms institutions belonging to a primitive culture, whose standards of rationality and intelligibility are apparently quite at odds with our own’ (Winch, 1970[1964]: 94). The essay contains assertions and arguments of three different kinds: philosophical, where Winch states his views concerning rationality, relativism and the like, in opposition to those then held by Alasdair MacIntyre (see MacIntyre, 1962 and 1970[1964]); interpretative, where he takes issue with Evans-Pritchard’s account of Zande witchcraft; and methodological, where he offers both negative and positive suggestions as to how to overcome the difficulty in question. Let us recall these assertions and arguments in turn. Rationality MacIntyre had written that ‘the beginning of an explanation of why certain criteria are taken to be rational in some societies is that they are rational’ (MacIntyre, 1962: 61). In contrast, writes Winch, ‘we start from the position that standards of rationality in dfferent societies do not always coincide; from the possibility, therefore, that the standards of rationality in S are different from our own’. Thus ‘what is real and what is unreal shows itself in the sense that language has’ and, for example, ‘it is within the religious use of language that the conception of God’s reality has its place’. On the other hand, ‘this does not mean that it is at the mercy of what anyone cares to say’: no relativist conclusions follow, for to abandon ‘the idea that men’s ideas and beliefs must be checkable by reference to something independent – some reality’ is ‘to plunge straight into an extreme Protagoran relativism, with all the paradoxes that involves’. Moreover, ‘the possibilities of our grasping forms of rationality different from ours in an alien culture’ are ‘limited by certain formal requirements centering round the demand for consistency’. Yet these ‘tell us nothing in particular about what is to count as consistency. . . . We can only determine this by investigating the wider context of the life in which the activities in question are carried on’ (Winch, 1970[1964]: 97, 82, 81, 100).

The Azande

Evans-Pritchard’s account of Zande witchcraft relies upon distinctions between mystical notions, on the one hand, and common-sense and scientific notions, on the other, and between ritual behaviour (accounted for by mystical notions) and empirical behaviour (accounted for by common-sense notions). The Azande, according to Evans-Pritchard, are ‘immersed in a sea of mystical notions’ which are ‘eminently coherent, being interrelated by a network of logical ties, and are so ordered that they never too crudely contradict sensory experience but, instead, experience seems to justify them’ (Evans-Pritchard, 1937: 319). Furthermore, ‘what appear to us as obvious contradictions are left where they are, apparently unresolved’. Evans-Pritchard’s mistake, according to Winch, is to assume that, in matters of witchcraft, ‘the European is right and the Zande wrong’. For, ‘Zande notions of witchcraft do not constitute a theoretical system in terms of which Azande try to gain a quasi-scientific understanding of the world’. And it is ‘the European, obsessed with pressing Zande thought where it would not naturally go – to a contradiction – who is guilty of misunderstanding, not the Zande’. While it may be ‘of interest to us to understand how Zande magic is related to science’, this ‘does not mean that we have to see the unsophisticated Zande practice in the light of more sophisticated practices in our own culture, like science – as perhaps a more primitive form of it’. Zande magical rites are notto be seen as just further, misguided technological steps to make their crops thrive. Perhaps, rather, Zande magical practices ‘express an attitude to contingencies’, involving ‘recognition that one’s life is subject to contingencies, rather than an attempt to control them’, a ‘drama of resentments, evil-doing, revenge, expiation, in which there are ways of dealing (symbolically) with misfortunes and their disruptive effect on a man’s relations with his fellows, with ways in which life can go on despite such disruptions’ (Winch, 1970[1964]: 91, 89, 93, 102, 104, 105).

Getting them right

So Winch’s negative methodological suggestion is: avoid adopting science (as we conceive it, as ‘in accord with objective reality’) as ‘a paradigm against which to measure the intellectual respectability of other modes of discourse’. His more positive ideas are only hinted at. We should ‘so extend our concept of intelligibility as to make it possible for us to see what intelligibility amounts to in the life of the society we are investigating’. This may require ‘a considerable realignment of our categories’. Thus we do not have ‘a category that looks at all like the Zande category of magic’: the ‘onus is on us to extend our understanding so as to make room for the Zande category, rather than to insist on seeing it in terms of our own ready-made distinction between science and non-science’. And Winch concludes with some rather dark remarks about the importance of seeing ‘the point of rules and conventions’ by relating them to ‘different possibilities of making sense of human life’, the very conception of which involves certain ‘limiting notions’ – notably (here Winch cites Vico and T. S. Eliot) those of birth, death and sexual relations (Winch, 1970[1964]: 81, 98, 99, 102, 105, 106, 107).