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James Frazer: Legacies Michael Mair

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1 James Frazer: Legacies Michael Mair

2 The Legacies Talk Series programme theme: transformative research Legacies talk series as key part 5 scheduled talks: on James Frazer, Eleanor Rathbone, Doctor Duncan, Olaf Stapledon and Margaret Simey Controversial figures in their own right, each engaged in activities that cannot be unproblematically thought of as ‘research’ but yet have been enduringly influential – their ways of working challenged or led to challenges to prevailing orthodoxies* 2

3 James Frazer: Legacies Rather than take up Frazer himself, as with the other talks today, I want to begin with one response to his work: Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough Wittgenstein starts with the main argument of Frazer’s text, e.g.: –“[R]eflection and enquiry should satisfy us that to our predecessors we are indebted for much of what we thought most our own, and that their errors were not wilful extravagances or the ravings of insanity, but simply hypotheses, justifiable as such at the time when the were propounded, but which a fuller experience has proved to be inadequate. It is only by the successive testing of hypotheses and rejection of the false that truth is at last elicited. After all, what we call truth is only the hypothesis which is found to work best. Therefore in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth, and to give them the benefit of that indulgence which we ourselves may one day stand in need of” (James Frazer, The Golden Bough, pg. 264 [iii, 422]) Wittgenstein reacts strongly against this way of proceeding. –“The very idea of wanting to explain a practice [in these ways].... seems wrong to me. All that Frazer does is to make them plausible to people who think as he does. It is very remarkable that in the final analysis all these practices are presented as, so to speak, pieces of stupidity.” –“The same savage, who stabs the picture of his enemy apparently in order to kill him, really builds his hut out of wood and carves his arrow skilfully and not in effigy.” 3

4 James Frazer: Legacies He goes on: –“What a narrow spiritual life on Frazer’s part! As a result: how impossible it was for him to conceive of a life different from that of the England of his time! Frazer cannot imagine a priest who is not basically a present-day English person with the same stupidity and dullness.” –“Frazer is much more savage than most of his savages, for they are not as far removed from... understanding... His explanations of primitive practices are much cruder than... these practices themselves.” –“The historical explanation, the explanation as an hypothesis of development, is only one way of assembling the data – of their synopsis. It is just as possible to see the data in their relation to one another... without putting it in the form of a hypothesis about temporal development.” –“[Despite some] similarities, what seems to me to be most striking is the dissimilarity of all the rites [Frazer discusses]. It is a multiplicity of faces with common features which continually emerges here and there. And one would like to draw lines connecting these common ingredients... One could speak of an association of practices... [as well as the] surroundings of a way of acting.” 4

5 James Frazer: Legacies It is clear that Wittgenstein was infuriated by Frazer’s methods, and the conceptual confusions promulgated in his work. However, it is also clear that he was fascinated by the landscapes of cultural practice Frazer opened up and made available to his readers, however poorly communicated. That combination of infuriation coupled with fascination remains the hallmark of engagements with Frazer. Wittgenstein’s remarks centre on the problems of context, comparison and culture which Frazer’s work brought to the fore but did not resolve. These themes provide the focus for the three talks that make up this Legacies session. 5


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