Magical Thinking : An Anthropological Excursus

1. The relationship between philosophy and anthropology
1.1 If philosophy, narrowly defined, is the study of ontology, epistemology, and logic, then these have a relationship with anthropology, broadly defined, as the study of humankind. For particular aspects of human behaviour must have a relationship with the higher level philosophical issues - thus this represents a tangential excursus from our usually studies in philosophy.
1.2 Anthropology is broadly differentiated into socio-cultural anthropology and physical anthropology, and has strong links with sociology, archeology, and linguistics. In the former interest it typically engages in cross-cultural comparisons, long-term contextual examination, and the use of participant-observation (collectively referred to as 'ethnography'). In the latter interest it engages in forensics, anatomical and genetic analysis.
1.3 The major contributors to the history of anthropology include: Lewis Morgan (kinship relations and social development), Franz Boas (cultural relativism and disciplinary subfields), Bronislaw Malinowski (reciprocity, participant-observation), Margaret Mead (gender differences, adolescence, and sexuality), Claude Levi-Strauss (structuralism, linguistics), Clifford Geertz (symbolism, thick description).
1.4 An anthropological investigation into magical thinking, the belief in paranormal influences, connects the philosophical concerns of metaphysics and ontology, and epistemological methods, with the anthropology of religion and spiritual practises. Modern anthropology assumes a continuity between magical thinking and religion.

2. A Typology of Magical thinking
2.1 The core principle behind magical thinking is that there is causal relationship between coincidental events that is inexplicable to rational methodology, but rather through associativity (Edward Burnett Tylor). Example the Azande and crocodile teeth and banana crop (E. E. Evans-Pritchard). It is expressed through ritual, prayer, superstition, taboo, etc., where it is believed that this actions will have a causal effect on an external reality. There is also examples of people engaging in such behaviour even though they do not actually believe in the causal effect (quasi-magical thinking).
2.2 The principle of coincidental association was expanded by Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough, 1890) who developed the idea of "sympathetic magic", consisting of "contagious magic" (connectivity) and "homeopathic magic" (characteristics can be imparted e.g., the Azande practice of curing epilepsy by eating the burnt skull of the red bush monkey). Lucien Levy-Bruhl ("How Natives Think", 1925) argued that magical thinking among primitive peoples involves "collective representations" that includes "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" fallacies. Claude Lévi-Strauss however (The Savage Mind, 1966), noted however that the correlations used by primitive peoples often had a high degree of accuracy.
2.3 A variation from physical associativity is explored is symbolic association (Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion, 1954) where verbal utterances can change reality. Noted in the avoidance of talking about certain subjects (e.g., rats on the Isle of Man). From symbolic association, magic is often considered to expressive, following metaphor and metonym, rather than instrumental action (Stanley J. Tambiah, "Magic, Science and Religion and the Scope of Rationality", 1990). Malinowski notes that magical language has a high "coefficient of weirdness" (archaic words, unusual grammatical, liturgical language). Tambiah notes the combination of words with unusual gestures or use of material components.

3. Psychology and Phenomenology of Magical Thinking
3.1 Sigmund Freud believed that magical thinking equated with cognitive development and argued that practitioners and believers of magic as projecting their mental states onto the world around them, which existed both as a phase in childhood and in neurotics (Totem and Taboo, 1913).
3.2 In the pre-operational stage of cognitive development (Jean Piaget, L'image mentale chez l'enfant, 1966) children egocentrically strongly believe that their personal thought is universal and has a direct effect on the rest of the world. Encounters with traumatic experiences (e.g., death) their mind creates a sense of responsibility or the ability to reverse the trauma through wishful thinking. This correlates with imaginative make-believe and fantasy.
3.3 It is important to note that cultures that continue do so from a lack of rational explantory power, not due to a cognitive limitation on their own part; c.f., the shaman doubter (Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology 1963, 1967), and can be highly pragmatic in their use of magic suggesting an idiomatic approach (Robin W.G. Horton, Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West, 1997) e.g., the magic stones of the Aguaruna of Peru (Michael Brown, Tsewa's Gift: Magic and Meaning in an Amazonian Society, 1986).
3.4 Ariel Glucklich (The End of Magic, 1997) describes magic from a phenomenological and subjective experience which includes altered states of consciousness; consider shamatic drug-use, tantric sex magic etc. Gilbert Lewis (The Look of Magic, 1986) further elaborates this state to that of ritualised, unthinking habit (e.g., the flow of dervish dancing, group chanting, the use of mantra).
3.5 Many contemporary psychologists (e.g., R.R Marett, Pascal Boyer, Pierre Lienard, J.M. Zacks, and Barbara Tversky) argue that ritualistic activities satisfy an emotional need for action where no practical action exists and may have a placebo effect when relevant. Rituals can activate vigilance-precaution systems and provide anxiety relief. In obsessive-compulsive situations rituals can persist without efficacy because the intent is lost within the act.

4. Social Development of Magical Thinking.
4.1 Belief and practise in magic is a historical and cultural universal. The word derives from the Hellenic adjective majikos, specifically referring to the practises of Persian astrologers. The practise of magic has been described as a social activity (Marcel Mauss, In A General Theory of Magic, 1903)). There is the the universal religious dichotomy of profane and sacred (Émile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912), and the practise in group activity to create "collective effervescence", which is also associated with performative utterances in a ritualistic setting (John Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 1962)
4.2 Magical beliefs and practises have a correlation with social development. Indigenous and tribal cultures universally have a type of animism where everything - people, animals, plants, rocks, rivers etc - have a spiritual essence ( Sir Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture, 1871). Animism gives rise to fetishism (great spirits can be embodied in items) and spiritism (disembodies spirits can be communicated with e.g., ancestor worship). In a general anthropological sense, the professional in the early division of labour that has expertise in communication with such spirits is the shaman.
4.3 The development of polytheistic religions in axial civilizations correlates with the establishment of writing. A distinction develops between one between magic of state-sanctions religions (rites, exorcisms, prayers, prophecy) and those which are opposed to the state religion. Non-religious magic becomes secretive and isolated, mystical, occult and esoteric. The separation of magic from religion first appears in Judaism (Lev 19.26, Deut 18.10-11). This becomes common to the Abrahamic religions; "magic" is declared as antithetical to the rites of religion (e.g., witch-hunts in Christianity, contemporary execution in Islamic countries for sorcery).
4.4 Mauss suggests that magic seeks to satisfy instrumental needs whereas religious satisfies a moral code. This distinction is important in considering the revival of magical practises in early modernity which coincided with the early Christian heresies, printing etc., and their transformation into scientific knowledge (e.g., alchemy to chemistry, astrology to astronomy) with its evidential causality, even with naturalistic pantheism. Likewise religious moral codes are transformed into universal secular law (Sigmund Freud, The Future of An Illusion, 1927), and mysticism retains its subjective experience in the aesthetic and sensual lifestyles. A smaller group rejects modernity as whole even to the extent of returning to animistic lifestyles (e.g., Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1927).

Presentation to The Philosophy Forum, Sunday 2nd March, 2014