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Folk-Lore/Volume 23/Review/Les Fonctions Mentales dans les Sociétés Inférieures


Les Fonctions Mentales dans les Societes Inferieures. Par L. Lévy-Bruhl. Paris : Félix Alcan, 1910. 8vo, pp. 461.

M. Emile Durkheim and his associates in the publication of L'Annee Sociologique have made many invaluable contributions to the science of Social Anthropology. All the studies of this French school have been written from what may be called the "socio-centric" view-point. The distinguishing feature of their method of investigation is the tendency to attribute the origins of social institutions to the social group as a physical and psychical entity reacting in a more or less automatic manner to the influence of environment. The part played by the individual in the early stages of social evolution is held to be negligible, and is accordingly ignored.

M. Levy-Bruhl in the present work has attempted to formulate the laws of a primitive psychology entirely sui generis and conforming to the socio-centric bias. Recently Mr. Wm. M'Dougall, in his Introduction to Social Psychology, analyzed the individual psychical processes which are of predominant importance socially. But this work was not strictly speaking a "social psychology" in the sense that M. Levy-Bruhl's book may be so called, inasmuch as the former took the individual mind as the subject of analysis, while the latter deals with the social mind alone. Moreover, Mr. M'Dougall did not limit his treatment to savages and lower types of society, but, having made his observations both upon civilized and uncivilized subjects, deduced principles of general application. This exemplifies the characteristic difference between the French and English schools of anthropologists. The French school bases its investigations upon the theoretically primitive group, and denies that its mental processes may be deduced or its institutions explained by the consideration of the individual mentality. On the other hand, the English school adheres to the theory of a close analogy between the mental processes of primitive man and civilized man, the influence of individual mind and personality in the formation of social institutions, and the legitimacy of reconstructing primitive mental processes in the light of our own mental life. M. Lévy-Bruhl attacks the English school on this score at the outset of his work. He states that the mental processes of peoples of lower cultures, their institutions, and in fact almost all things in their lives, are of a social rather than an individual character,—"representations collectives,"—and as such must obey the laws of a psychology founded upon the collective rather than the individual consciousness.

Animism is the particular object of M. Lévy-Bruhl's onslaught, since it involves the axiomatic assumption of one mental mechanism common to man at whatever stage of culture. He accuses British anthropologists of making animism a sort of residuary legatee for the reception of all rites and beliefs not obviously connected elsewhere. It is unfortunately true that in some instances the comparative method has been utilized in this country with more of zeal than caution. But in all the body of facts brought together in this book there is nothing which successfully controverts a rational application of the animistic hypothesis. The author seems to think that in proving the existence of belief in a plurality of souls amongst savages he has confuted the entire Tylorian theory. M. Lévy-Bruhl's real reason for denying animism seems to be that it does not fit in with his scheme of a generic difference between the mental workings of the savage and the civilized man.

If it be assumed that primitive man's mental processes are entirely different from ours, how is it possible for us to learn each other's language, to understand each other by utilizing the mechanism of generically different mental processes to express our mutually unintelligible modes of reasoning? The possibility of translating from a savage to a civilized language and vice versa would seem to indicate a fundamental similarity of mental workings in man of whatever culture or race. Again, if the mental processes of primitive man differ in kind from ours, some demonstration of a corresponding anatomical or physiological difference might reasonably be expected. But, while the brain of a Veddah may be less elaborately convoluted than that of a European, anatomists have been unable to find any structural difference which might lead them to expect the one to be "prelogical" and the other logical, the one to possess a mentality impervious to the "law of contradiction" and the other to renounce belief in Epicureanism if it thunders out of a clear sky. Physiological differences alleged to exist between savage and civilized men have been demonstrated to be practically negligible.

But let us consider M. Lévy-Bruhl's findings. The "representations collectives" of primitive man differ from our ideas and concepts in that the former are not "logical" but "mystic," — a term meaning in this connection "related to the belief in forces, influences, and actions imperceptible to the senses but nevertheless real" (p. 38). "Les primitifs voient avec les mêmes yeux que nous; ils ne perçoivent pas avec le même esprit. On pourrait dire que leurs perceptions sont constituées par un noyau entouré d'une couche plus ou moins épaisse de représentations d'origine sociale." In other words, a primitive concept is a complex of what often seem to us to be wholly unrelated elements. The mystic character is especially exemplified in the case of names, images, shadows, dreams, etc. M. Lévy-Bruhl cites the persistence of savage belief in fetishes and charms in spite of demonstrations of their inefficacy as proof of "impermeability to experience." But the "will to believe" has often risen superior to contravening facts in societies of by no means primitive mentality.

The collective mental processes of primitive societies are regulated by what M. Lévy-Bruhl calls the "law of participation." By this he seems to mean a mystic connection between objects or beings logically unrelated. The Bororos of Brazil, for instance, declare themselves to be parrots. This substitution of mystic relationships for the natural relationships of causality leads the author to characterize primitive mentality as "prelogical." This means that it is indifferent to the "law of contradiction" and obeys the "law of participation." M. Lévy-Bruhl does not go so far as to deny all knowledge of the principles of cause and effect to the savage. He admits that the individual savage often uses the same process of reasoning under a given set of circumstances that any one of us would use. But the "representations collectives" are governed by entirely different laws, and contain "emotional elements and definitely felt mystic relationships."

The larger portion of the book treats of the relation of "prelogical" mentality to language, to enumeration, the connection of the law of participation with hunting, fishing, war, totemism, etc. All of the familiar matter of social anthropology is reinterpreted in the light of this view. What this all amounts to is that savage peoples seem to make habitual use of certain illogical conceptions and associations in their everyday life, and that they have a dominating feeling of close relationship with their environment, — a "mystic symbiosis." This psychic solidarity is the natural concomitant of primitive communism.

The chapter in which M. Levy-Bruhl explains the transition from "prelogical" mentality to the higher forms is interesting. In the primitive social group, where mental processes are prevailingly collective and the feeling of unity with the environment is absolute, as in certain totemic tribes of Central Australia, the normal state is one of implicit " participation." But with the development of society comes the differentiation of the individual consciousness, which lessens the feeling of symbiosis and demands its renewal in explicit representation. Hence ritual. Myth is the mystic verbal environment of one of those "representations collectives." The content of the myth is originally meaningless. It is the emotional value of the associations which the words recall that is of primary importance. Later, when the particular words and phrases become disassociated from their proper mystic relationships, the aetiological myth comes into being. This smacks of Max Müller.

M. Lévy-Bruhl has not convinced me that " representations collectives " are subject to laws of psychology entirely peculiar to themselves. Even admitting the nebulous " law of participation," the mystic feeling of communion so dominant in primitive societies, there seems to be no need to construct an entirely new and separate psychology. This "participation" is merely a specialized group of associations grown up under the fostering influence of social tradition. These associations often prevent application of the principles of causality. But belief is not always amenable to logic in civilized society.

M. Lévy-Bruhl's work is most valuable in that it directs attention to the importance of collective mental processes as dynamic factors in the formation of the beliefs and institutions of primitive society. But the author ought not to have disregarded the influence of the individual, which is already very prominent amongst the lowest peoples we know. The consideration of this factor would have made the work less brilliantly paradoxical but more useful.

E. A. Hooton.