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Magic - Thought, Logic, And Rationality In Magic

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Early-twenty-first-century discussions that attempt to characterize the forms, or modes of thought in different cultures, as well as their reliance on magic, often retrace debates around the work of Lucien Levy-Bruhl (1857–1939). His ideas have implications for a series of complex questions concerning the way culture can shape thought, providing an individual with either limitations or extended possibilities. Levi-Bruhl proposed that there was a major distinction between the thought of European and preliterate people, which he termed "primitive mentality." He stressed that the difference was due to the content of the ideas and causal understandings in culture, and was not the product of different mental capacity. He termed the modes of thought that characterized each as scientific and prescientific (or prelogical), respectively. He proposed that "primitive" societies tended to use mystical or supernatural explanations for unexpected occurrences. He contended that this form of thought does not permit a kind of logic that challenges or tests it. The thought process has an internal consistency and rationality, but does not follow the rules of scientific thinking and does not differentiate between what Levi-Bruhl called the natural and supernatural.

Some of Evans-Pritchard's most important contributions followed from an attempt to address Levi-Bruhl's distinction between forms of thought. Evans-Pritchard associated Azande common sense with empirical observation and science. This allowed him to contrast what he called "empirical thought" and "mystical thought," which included magic. A central point in his discussion of magic and witchcraft was that Azande thought is founded on rational processes and empirical knowledge of their world.

His ideas offered a radical departure from the preoccupation of previous literature with the dichotomy between magic and science, and between thought that either was or was not scientific. Following Levi-Bruhl's observation that the body of collective representations in cultures with prescientific thought limited possibilities for the thought system's self-critical appraisal, Evans-Pritchard used examples from his Azande material to explain how this took place. Azande responses to the failure of magic to achieve the desired result were not to question their technique or knowledge, but to question the specific acts of the magician and to assume that other magic conducted to counter theirs was stronger. These and other explanations, which Evans-Pritchard termed "secondary elaborations of belief," did not require the Azande to confront the failure of their explanation, nor the failure of their entire system of thought. This, he said, was responsible for the continuation of the belief in magic despite evidence that it was fallacious. Evans-Pritchard characterized these systems as "closed systems of thought." He observed that they were only able to operate in limited ways that did not extend beyond their own parameters. Certain forms of scientific reasoning therefore would be outside the paradigm.

Robin Horton elaborated on this issue by contrasting open and closed systems of thought. He offered that open systems had the ability to either prove or disprove particular causal relationships between acts and natural consequences. Closed systems did not encourage the verification of what was hypothesized, and the result was that the thought system continually supplied ways of accounting for particular successes or failures.

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