Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough by Ludwig Wittgenstein

James Frazer’s Golden Bough is a now much-discredited work of anthropology, published in various versions between 1890 and 1915. The fundamental thesis is that societies move from a belief in magic, to one in religion, finishing in the knowledge that comes from science. Despite it being challenged rather harshly even from the early days of its publication, it has remained influential in literature. I revisited it because of the influence it had on Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Around 1930-31, Wittgenstein first had some of the Frazer’s work read to him, then made some notes on it himself, which have been published in this extremely short book (it’s only 18 pairs of pages with the original German on one side and the English translation on the other.

Wittgenstein challenges Frazer’s notion that the people (called ‘savages’ by both Frazer and Wittgenstein) engage in magic with a belief that it will cause a particular action:

Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied.

One could also kiss the name of the loved one, and here the representation by the name would be clear.

The same savage who, apparently in order to kill his enemy, sticks his knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut out of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy.

This last paragraph makes, what I think is a key challenge not only to Frazer, but also one that applies equally well to the modern ‘new atheist’ movement and their ideas about what religious people believe. In both the religious, and ‘magical’ sense people don’t truly believe that these ritual actions will directly cause change. They do it fundamentally because it makes them feel better. As such, when people pray in church a friend that has cancer, but also support them getting medical treatment, it’s not that there’s some sort of disconnect between the two actions. They are, fundamentally, different things. Science is not a replacement for religion.

Wittgenstein’s responses to the work fit quite well into his later work, especially the Philosophical Investigations. For example, Wittgenstein also challenges Frazer’s notions of how different these ‘savage’ cultures are from us. He uses an example in which Frazer refers to a ‘ghost’ since the important fact is that Frazer has the word ‘ghost’ to refer to. It’s still widely understood in modern times. Frazer did not need to explain this term:

A whole mythology is deposited in our language

This shows a strong kinship with this group. The early ‘magical’ savages, the religious thinkers or the scientists are wildly different from each other, they all share common thought patterns and approaches, and as in the previous example, are not as ignorant to the effect that their actions may have as Frazer would like to believe. It also links with the Philosophical Investigations as an example of the way that language develops (or doesn’t) based on use. We still have a use for the word ‘ghost’

If you have some experience of Frazer’s Golden Bough, Wittgenstein’s remarks are worth a read. Besides anything else, it’s unlikely to take much more than a few minutes and it contains some interesting challenges to the text. If nothing else, his forthright approach makes for an enjoyable read.

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