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E.P.

Piggott

School of Anthropology

Dr. Patrick Alexander

The scientific mentality is often contrasted with ways of


thinking current in pre-modern societies, yet how valid is
this contrast?

E.P. Piggott
St Hughs College
University of Oxford

The importance of studying the scientific mentality versus the alternative methods of
thought is crucial to the understanding of how and why we think like we do. Without the contrast of
viewing seemingly immutable logical concepts such as time and chance occurrences that shape our
existence with interpretations that completely defy these, we cannot see how relative our knowledge
of the world and of thought itself is shaped by historical innovations of discovery and revolution.
With this is mind, I explore how the contrast between the methods of empirical analysis and
theoretical concepts grounded in repeated occurrences (the nature of scientific experimentation) is no
more of a valid explanation, socially, to the concept of witchcraft, mystical powers and supernatural
evidence to suggest why certain events happen. I focus on the world-view of the Azande as
documented by E.E. Evans-Pritchards ethnographic account Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among
the Azande (1937), both to justify the relative importance of their explanations for events caused by
the supernatural, but also to shed critique on the judgements made by Evans-Pritchard and similar
academics during a period of Colonial rule and Western empiricism. Furthermore, I question how the
nature of evidence is ascertained in Western science and how the methods of measurement used do
not necessarily fit with Azande society, as if the concept of evidence is even relevant towards
practices of oracle consultation. However, I contrast this with the role of the supernatural in society
and how it has been criticised for the active use of mystical powers for ulterior benefit, as is the case
for West African economic talisman usage. Finally, I explore the basic properties of both scientific
theory and alternative perspectives on thought to ascertain similarities and question if they are merely
both manifestations of the same principles, eradicating the notion of binary differences between
Western and non-Western interpretations of the world.

E.P. Piggott

School of Anthropology

Dr. Patrick Alexander

The idea of the scientific mentality is one that is crucial towards Western thought. I define
this as the world-view in which natural explanations and causes for phenomena are sought, observed,
and theorised by the repeated occurrences which eventually forms into a web of theories explaining
the rational explanation of the worlds existence and intricacies. Through this, ideas that have no
repeated, empirical and demonstrable evidence are (mostly) rejected by the scientific mentality
(besides theoretical concepts such as dark matter which exist as models of best fit). The principles of
obtaining knowledge is that is both justified and of true belief. However, the view of witchcraft
widely practiced in Azande society even today is one that challenges this Western mentality due to its
lack of explaining why these natural processes occur (Evans-Pritchard 1937 (1976), Mills 2013). In
essence, if one is to apply Pyrrhonian scepticism (Empiricus [Sextus], Bury 1933), the criterion of
truth (the arbitrary judge of rational reality and non-reality) in Azande society is grounded in
epistemic norms, thus the justification of belief in witchcraft is grounded in the belief of observable
truths akin to demonstrating said norms. To place this in further context, the collapse of a grain store
on a group of individuals sitting beneath is an occasional circumstance in Central Africa as a result of
termite damage. Unlike the scientific mentality which proposes this is merely what termites do, the
Azande notion of witchcraft and supernatural intervention is applied to explain why it collapsed when
people were sitting underneath. Unlike Western thought, this model of evidence places specific
emphasis on the roles of individuals in processes that happen in society, which are proven by
phenomena such as these. The combination of witchcraft and the unfortunate circumstances causing
death form observable truth are seemingly explained by the epistemic norms pervasive in Azande
society, thus achieving the appropriate criterion of truth. Similarly, in West African societies that
involve partaking in gambling, it is not always chance that determines the result of games, but it is
owed to supernatural powers and related to the moral standing of the individuals (Parish 2005).

The contrast between these subjective explanations for phenomena and the historically
Intellectualist modes of thought in academic study may not be the result of cognitive differences
between the Azande and the West (as purported by early anthropologists such as Edward Tylor and the
racist notions of early European settlers in Africa), but possibly the way in which satisfactory
evidence has been developed itself. Evans-Pritchard notes that the biological component of
witchcraft in Azande thought is what Europeans would call the small intestine (Evans-Pritchard
1937). Through this, it is clear to highlight the model of evidence he uses: his interpretation of this is
based on the collective perspectives on human anatomy and the history of Western medicine, with his
observation stemming from strains of thought that could even reach Vesalius pioneering work De
humani corporis fabrica (1543), in addition to the years of intellectual enlightenment, innovation and
the de-personalisation of scientific theory (Horton 1967). Through the collective works of many
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E.P. Piggott

School of Anthropology

Dr. Patrick Alexander

academics and revolutionaries it seems that the scientific mentality has formed the nature of
measuring natural evidence without the supernatural, but the Azande notion of witchcraft highlights
this as only a relative method of understanding the world around us. These forms of explanation were
constituted in practice over thought due to the nature of society (Lambek 1993, Stewart et al. 2004).
The Azande model for evidence is based on explanations for multiple, ongoing phenomena that are
continuously evoked by witchcraft and other mystical powers (Evans-Pritchard 1937) and this
suggests that because of the pervasiveness of witchcraft in Azande society, simply assigning a
theoretical explanation and singular root method would undermine how evidence is observed and
interpreted.

The issue that stems from the duality of two different methods of observing evidence is
highlighted by historical thought itself. It was the view of Western societies and academics in previous
centuries that an alternative view of evidence and explanation is inferior as the Western models of
Intellectualism are rational towards our understanding of the natural world. Thus in early
anthropological texts the idea of a prelogical mind is one that is considered unscientific in how it
perceives evidence for natural occurrences (Levy-Bruhl 1912, Evans-Pritchard 1965). Although
Evans-Pritchard asserts that this does not mean that so-called primitive societies such as the Azande
are not irrational, the notion of them being unscientific when science strives to highlight the most
rational explanations for the world means that they are seemingly wrong and incompatible with
Western views. Furthermore, Levy-Bruhl notes that without logical explanation of phenomena, ideas
about the occult and the supernatural are evoked (Levy-Bruhl 1947, Evans-Pritchard 1965). When
considering these archaic views in context to their time in history, it is clear that the perceived
superiority of Western science was entrenched in Colonial dominance and empiricism. Moreover, the
attached stigma of witchcraft and the occult in Europe is prevalent throughout history through
Christian condemnation (Stewart et al. 2004). Rather than the post-modern practice of relativism in
which studies of cultures are given no comparison, these ideas were formed at a time when the
Azande would have been considered intellectually inferior and primitive for these views, which
reinforces a historical contrast between the scientific mentality and alternative ways of thinking.
Therefore, in terms of the nature of evidence between the two societies, there is no valid contrast
between an Azande explanation of phenomena by witchcraft and the contemporary scientific
methodology, as both are relatively alternate ways of interpreting processes in the world, and since
both perform the same functions in their respective streams of thought, the only contrast is how data is
obtained. However, the historical contrast was one formed from Colonial and Intellectualist attitudes
of superiority. In order to shirk such a bias, one must view the Azande in light of epistemological
relativism.
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E.P. Piggott

School of Anthropology

Dr. Patrick Alexander

However, it is possible to find contrast in how Azande witchcraft, amongst other mystical
powers in other societies, is seemingly manipulated to the advantage of individuals. Among the
Azande people, it is possible to reinterpret the seemingly immutable results of the poison oracle,
which determines ones situations by the result of an experiment involving the benge (oracle) showing
results through the result of a poisoned fowl (Evans-Pritchard 1937). Through this, individuals can
shape whether the results of the oracle are really absolute; for example, if the result of the benge
highlights that an individual is bewitched, they may wish to test this again, which can produce a
different result. Furthermore, the nature of witchcraft being an inherited biological trait can be
bypassed; if a relative is determined to be a witch, their kin can claim that they were not actually
related or even estranged from their kinship (Evans-Pritchard 1937). On the surface, this suggests that
the nature of the poison oracle is futile insofar as the results can be adapted to the favour of the
individual and so the immutable scientific characteristics of the test are simply voided. However,
Evans-Pritchard notes the importance of the benge in Azande society, suggesting that trying to cheat
the oracle will only result in further bad fortune. Furthermore, the pervasiveness of selective evidence
in Western society is widely practised, with funding being directed to certain strains of scientific
experimentation in order to further a certain cause, such as biased pharmaceutical evidence (Ridley
2014). The presence of selective evidence, which can appear in both modes of thought, albeit less
commonly in Western science, suggests less dissimilarity between Azande poison oracles and Western
science in how they may be employed.

This can be expanded upon in terms of the practical uses for both witchcraft and science,
which hold social values in their respective societies. The presence of universal moralities such as a
stigmatisation on unlawful violence, adultery and unhealthy habits are highlighted through Azande
witchcraft. It can be noted that the presence of the supernatural holds social functions, such as a
period of abstinence in Azande culture before the consultation of the poison oracle (Evans-Pritchard
1937). Similarly, a more recent study of West African gambling in the UK highlighted the function of
gambling as a sense of fulfilment and hope for individuals stuck in low-paid jobs (Parish 2005), and
how certain talismans are used in gambling to ward off witches that may make them lose. Moreover,
Stewart & Strathern suggest witchcraft is method of expressing and discharging tensions in society,
and this could be suggested as a spiritual method of judicial functions, such as determining who is a
witch and what must be done (Evans-Pritchard 1937). Similarly, Western society holds similar notions
in how science guides the way in which people are to live: through analysis of diet and certain
substances that affect the body, social attitudes against narcotics and fatty foods have been entrenched

E.P. Piggott

School of Anthropology

Dr. Patrick Alexander

as cultural norms. Ideas that actively promote activities that would seriously affect the sustainability
of an entire society would be rejected and would have no place in Azande witchcraft or Western
science. Therefore, when assessing whether there is a contrast between the two, the social functions
may be individually disparate, but the use of them to provide social functions initially remains a point
of comparison.

Thus it could be suggested that the formation of Azande witchcraft, mystical powers and
scientific theory is intrinsically similar. I bring forward the idea that a scientific explanation provides
a framework for finding a causal context for a wild event can be compared to a similar process
practiced in Azande witchcraft. It could be said that the theoretical entities that are used to explain the
basis of processes in science (such as subatomic particles), the use of the poison oracle similarly uses
a theoretical model involving supernatural spirits in order to link the causation of phenomena (like the
termites eating away the wood) to explain exactly why this happened. Once again, although there are
differences in the result and analysis of the explanation, it seems that the general framework serves
the same purpose relatively. Hortons (1967) analysis on the very formation of scientific enquiry
through an anthropological framework seeks to justify the same principles as I argue.

Whilst on first glance, the principles of Azande witchcraft in comparison to the Western
scientific mentality would appear to be completely dichotomous, the general framework for both are
one and the same. Scientific methodology has been employed in order to explain natural phenomena
and how the world works in a relatively similar way to how the poison oracle explains the causation
of similar events. Whilst both use differing types of evidence, and will have drastically contrasting
conclusions most of the time, the importance lies in how the conclusion is used and what purpose it
serves in society. Western science has been used in order to determine kinship relations (Schneider
1984) similarly to how the Azande poison oracle has allowed families to question their kin based on
witchcraft. Similarly, both are prone to manipulation with the selective use of evidence, but they are
also linked in how their explanations are the basis of using theoretical means to explain events in a
causal context. The basis of contrast in which one is relatively correct is merely the result of
historical assertions based on individual comparisons in a Colonial and Intellectualist perspective,
rather than acknowledging the societal framework in which both Azande witchcraft and the scientific
mentality do not necessarily contrast in function.

E.P. Piggott

School of Anthropology

Dr. Patrick Alexander

Bibliography
Evans-Pritchard, E. (1937) Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande. London: Clarendon,
Oxford University Press

Evans-Pritchard, Edward (1965) Theories of primitive religion. Clarendon Press

Finnegan, Ruth and Robin Horton (1973) Introduction. In Modes of thought: essays on thinking in
western and non-western societies (ed.) R. Horton, & R. Finnegan. London: Faber

Horton, Robin (1967) African traditional thought and western science. Africa 37

Lloyd, G. E. R. (1990) Demystifying mentalities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Stewart P. J. & Strathern A. (2004) Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors and Gossip. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Parish, J. (2005) Witchcraft, riches and roulette: An ethnography of West African gambling in the
UK, in Ethnography, Vol. 6(1)

Mills, M.A. 2013. The opposite of witchcraft: Evans-Pritchard and the problem of the
person. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 19

Ridley, M. 2014 The real risk of cherry-picking scientific data, The Rational Optimist, Jan. 2014
Schneider, D. 1984. A Critique of the Study of Kinship. Michigan: University of Michigan Press
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Salle & London
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E.P. Piggott

School of Anthropology

Dr. Patrick Alexander

Boghossian, Paul (2006), Fear of Knowledge, Clarendon Press, Oxford Chisholm,


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