Random thoughts on random topics

Saint-Sernin, Toulouse

Wittgenstein and Frazer

Description itself is never neutral or objective, there is no Archimedean point that allows us to ‘just describe the facts’. But that does not necessarily imply that description and explanation are alike. An explanation, unlike a description, presupposes a theoretical framework, of general principles, inferential relations (causal or otherwise). An explanation typically presents an individual event as an instance of something more general, a law, a pattern, and in doing so links it to other events that are supposed to be similar. Description, though not objective, remains level with what is described, so to speak. It does not generalise, and respects, you might say, the individuality, the uniqueness of what it describes. Of course, description, too, is possible only within a framework, but it functions quite differently. 

[The rain king] What Wittgenstein opposes in Frazer is that the latter attributes some kind of naive proto-science to these people; according to him they are simply wrong (and we are right) about the causal antecedents of the annual rains. That the difference of opinion between Wittgenstein and Frazer itself is like a scientific debate (of sorts) is true but, as far as I can see, that has no direct bearing on the adequacy of Wittgenstein’s  criticism. For Wittgenstein, the essential point is that they do not conceive of the relationship between the Rain-King (and what he does) and the coming of the rains as a causal relationship. Q.E.D., as far as Wittgenstein is concerned: for that is exactly what he holds against Frazer, viz., that he (Frazer) does ascribe to them a kind of naive scientific theory that attempts to explain, in causal terms, the coming of the rains.

[The fire-festival] If to understand the meaning of the ritual means to experience its depth, the terror its enactment brings about, then to laugh at the description would be to show a thorough lack of understanding. That applies to the specific examples Frazer and Wittgenstein are concerned with, and it does not mean, I gather, that there couldn’t be rituals for which to laugh would be the hallmark of understanding. But in these particular cases, to laugh, to ridicule the ‘savages’, is to show that one does not understand. 

[Kissing a portrait] One important characteristic that Wittgenstein mentions, and that seems what is needed to distinguish the kissing of a portrait from doing the dishes, is that in a ritual means and ends coincide. An ordinary action aims at something: we do the dishes because we want to dine from clean ones, because we want to prevent bacteria from growing in the kitchen sink, because we want to impress someone, and so on. Here the action is a means to an end. A ritual is not like that, a ritual is not performed with an eye to its effects (although it may, of course, have effects, and some of these we might find agreeable). Rather, a ritual is performed for it own sake: “…  it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied.” 

One important consequence of this is that whether an act is ritualistic or not (in Wittgenstein’s  sense) does not depend (at least not solely) on the nature of the act. (So doing the dishes can be a ritual as well.) And as far as I can see it also means that we can not say that rituals are either private or social, they can be either, and both.

As for the question whether science itself is a ritual, my guess is that Wittgenstein would acknowledge that many people have indeed replaced their reliance on some religious system by a reliance on science. However, he also quite emphatically states that this is a misunderstanding of what science is and what it can do. (Recall Tractatus 6.371-6.372; cf. also the foreword to Philosophical Remarks in Culture and Value) A proper view on science has no place for ritual, since science is about external, causal relationships between (types) of events, whereas ritual is concerned with the internal significance of an event or act. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: fall 2002