Lucien Levy Bruhl was a French trained scholar in philosophy who wrote about the primitive mentality in his work titled How Natives Think. He speculated of what he believed to be the operating mindset of mankind namely the primitive and the western mentality. He went on to describe the primitive mentality as one that makes no difference between the supernatural and reality. On the converse, he argued that the western mind makes use of logic and speculation. He also believed in the theory that there was a historical evolution that evolved from the primitive mind to the western mind.
Bruhl started a study on the primitive mentality after being spurred by the thought that all modes of thought among various people in the world were not the same. A colleague of his who had sent him a translation of the works of Ancient Chinese philosophers of which he found incomprehensible. He was also not convinced by the suggestion by English anthropologists such as Frazer and Taylor that the intellect of people all over the world was the same everywhere. He believed that primitive mentality was just but one side of a simple dualism with the other side consisting of the Western civilized mentality. Bruhl described the first feature of primitive mentality as mystical which fundamentally meant that persons of primitive minds never understood the difference between the natural and the supernatural which was typical of modern thinking.
The second characteristic of primitive mentality propounded by Bruhl was that this mentality was prelogical. Levy Bruhl only explained this feature by stating the primitive mind did not it itself down as the modern thought does so as to avoid contradictions. In its place, Bruhl argued that the primitive mind obeys something he cited as the law of participation which meant that thoughts could be joined by connections. He inferred such a view from reports which stated that among the Asante people of Ghana, if a husband learnt that a man had dreamt of sexual intercourse with his wife, he would sue the dreamer for adultery.
It is, however, noteworthy that attempts by Levy Bruhl to lay out some attributes of primitive mentality have come to naught. For instance, Hallpike related the concepts of cause, time, number and self to the theories of developmental psychology which were not available to Bruhl as he wrote at his time. Consequently, Hallpike was of the view that the cognitive abilities of children of six years of age were sufficient to understand what people in a primitive society knew about and also describe the attributes of a primitive mind.
A closer reconnoitering of the works of Paget Henry, Laurenti Magesa and Harvey Sindima shows that the claims of primitive mentality as made by Levy Bruhl were not entirely true and border on bias. Laurent Magesa, in his work, African Religion, the Moral Traditions of Abundant Life offers a substantive overview of the belief system of African religion. Magesa is a Catholic priest in Tanzania and argues for recognition of African religion as a world religion based on its own view of its abundant life. He posits that the moral universe for black Africans was built upon a deep respect and reverence for God. He further asserted that moral universe was founded on honoring the ancestors and dealing with the good and bad spirits.
He further stated that elders in the African setting deserved the highest respect for their long life and mystical powers. He also scorned against private ownership of land since the earth was considered as placed in public trust by God for the public good. Magesa also points out that kinship is what made up life in the African religion. He also viewed marriage and the bearing of children as good for the health of the society as was keeping the ancestors in good spirits. It was stated that enemies of life were wrongdoing, illness and witchcraft which brought disharmony in the society. Prayers, therapeutic dances, sacrifices, offerings and reconciliation rituals were necessary for the restoration of the force of life and the well being of the society.
In Caliban’s Reason, Introducing Afro-Caribbean History, Paget Henry rebuts claims by Bruhl with respect to primitive mentality. He controverts the idea suggested by Bruhl that primitive minds could not think and that they were less intelligent than the civilized Westernized people. He posits that such was a product of the tendency by the west to disparage the intelligence of the African people. This position as advanced by Bruhl is indeed contradicted by several instances of logical thinking and reasoning that has been found to have characterized the uncivilized world. The inferior mentality ascribed by Bruhl to the primitive mentality is fallacious. If anything, there has never been a thing prelogical or even alogical human being.
On his part, Harvey Sindima, a Malawian philosopher and theologian offers a different perspective to the one adopted by Bruhl. Sindima states the African idea of community as the bondedness and sharing coupled with a constant communication. He believes that living while communicating enables the experiences of others to come live to another. While disagreeing with the belief by Bruhl that the primitive mind is prelogical and incapable of reason or logic, Sindima argues that the human intellect was in operation since the beginning of the period traditionally covered by pre-history, as evidenced by extant remains. Further, he relegates Bruhl to the level of a sociologist rather than an anthropologist and thereby suggests that his prelogical claims on the primitive mind are a fallacious fabrication.
Barnard, Alan J and Jonathan Spencer. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2007.
Goody, J.R. Death,Property and the Ancestors: A Study of the Mortuary Customs of the LoDagaa of West Africa. Stanford,California: Stanford University Press, 2008.
Paget, Henry. Caliban's Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Sindima, Harvey. Drums of Redemption. New York: Praeger, 2009.
Thomas, William I. Review of Primitive Mentality. New York: The Macmillan Company, 2007.