The Debate Over the Rationality of Magic


In 1937, the British anthropologist, Richard Evans-Pritchard, published a book that was destined to become a classic of anthropology, Oracles, Witchcraft, and Magic Among the Azande. (The Azande are a sub-Saharan agricultural people living in the Sudan and parts of the Congo Republic.) The book challenged the usual anthropological dismissal of the beliefs and practices of "primitive peoples" as irrational, and attempted to demonstrate that the consultation of oracles, belief in witchcraft, and the practice of magic make sense within the overall context of Azande culture. In 1958, the philosopher, Peter Winch, wrote an article based on his reading of Evans-Pritchard's book titled, "Understanding a Primitive Society." In this piece, Winch agreed with Evans-Pritchard's sympathetic approach to the occult aspects of Azande society, but argued that the approach must be taken further than Evans-Pritchard was himself willing to go. Evans-Pritchard had tried to show that the Azande's belief in witches helped them make moral and psychological sense of the misfortunes that befell them, even though we Westerners know that witches do not exist. Winch's question for Evans-Pritchard is, what is the framework within which we make that judgment? If it is the framework of Western science, then the judgment that there are no witches is simply the result of imposing upon the Azande a set of concerns and standards of reasoning that belong to our culture, but not to theirs. Different cultures have different criteria for rational belief and action. Our standards are local to our culture, and no more objective than anyone else's. Does this leave us with a nihilistic relativism? Does tolerance and sympathy for other cultures rob us of any vantage point for making judgments that are simply true or false, including moral judgments about such practices as slavery, infanticide, or torture? Is that the price we must pay for treating magic seriously?

Unfortunately, Evans-Pritchard's book and Winch's article are not available in electronic form. Their basic arguments, however, are presented in the three readings below. It's best to read them in the order that they are listed.



Oracles Among the Azande

Synopsis of Winch's Position

Rationality and Relativism