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Idea of the Person - Durkheim's Critique, Mauss: The Person As "a Category Of The Human Mind"

soul body phantom ideas

Western European ideas about the person have long centered on the duality between body and soul (in religious discourse) or between body and mind (in the domains of philosophy and psychology). Consequently, early anthropological interest in non-European ideas of the person tended to mirror such deep-seated European conceptualizations, focusing on the origins of the concept of the soul.

The preoccupation of evolutionary Victorian anthropologists with religion focused on the question of its origins. By and large, these thinkers were apostles of secularism and science, committed to the notion that religion and its associated ideas (the soul included) were outdated, survivals from human prehistory. Religion was a repository of conceptions, which, while not entirely irrational in and of themselves, were fallacious or erroneous. In particular, Edward Tylor, in his book Primitive Culture (1871), saw in the idea of the soul the most ancient and fundamental of all religious beliefs, the key to understanding the subsequent development—but also the ultimate irrelevance—of religious ideas:

It seems as though thinking men, as yet at a low level of culture, were deeply impressed by two groups of biological problems. In the first place, what is it that makes the difference between a living body and a dead one; what causes waking, sleep, trance, disease, death: In the second place, what are those human shapes which appear in dreams and visions? Looking at these two groups of phenomena, the ancient savage philosophers probably made their first step by the obvious inference that every man has two things belonging to him, namely, a life and a phantom. These two are evidently in close connexion with the body, the life as enabling it to feel and think and act, the phantom as being its image or second self; both, also, are perceived to be things separable from the body, the live as able to go away and leave it insensible or dead, the phantom as appearing to people at a distance from it. The second step would seem also easy for savages to make, seeing how extremely difficult civilized men have found it to unmake. It is merely to combine the life and the phantom. As both belong to the body, why should they not also belong to one another, and be manifestations of one and the same soul? (pp. 12–13)

In Tylor's scheme, the idea of the soul constituted the core of the most primitive form of religion, Animism, both in the form of the worship of the souls of departed ancestors and in the idea that inanimate objects—trees, rocks, bodies of water—also possessed souls and could be worshiped in their own right.

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