Magic and Religion in the Work of Edward B. Tyler

Born and educated in an upper-class Quaker family, Edward B Tyler He failed to enter the university in his youth, which refused admission to those who were not faithful to the Church of England. He was forced to work for it in his family’s foundry, but a delicate illness forced him to spend some time vacationing in the Caribbean.

  1. First Department of Anthropology
  2. Magic
  3. the real and the imaginary
  4. Religion

After returning to his native country in 1856, Edward Tyler married Anna Fox, who would henceforth become his faithful assistant and collaborator in the task of collecting, analyzing and interpreting information about the myriad traditional societies of his time. His comparative principles laid the ideological and methodological foundations of what was evolutionary and cultural anthropologywhich would almost completely dominate this discipline in the last decades of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century.

First Department of Anthropology

sir Edward Burnett Tyler (1832-1917) was the first holder of a chair in anthropology in Great Britain (1896), as well as the first author of a treatise on general anthropology, Primitive Culture (1871). His ideas are based on an evolutionary scheme where, under the rationalistic influence of time, he assigns an instrumental uniqueness to human cognition superimposed on a temporal axis where social organization and cognition pass through a progressive development towards the present forms of reason, both in moral and the scientific: “Man’s desire to know the causes operating in every fact he witnesses, the causes why every state of things he observes is what it is and not otherwise, is not the product of highly civilized, but characteristic of its species even in its lowest phases. Among the primitive savages there is an intellectual appetite, the gratification of which demands many of the moments not occupied by war or play, by sleep or the need of food.

It is rehabilitation of the “primitive”, if we take into account some prejudices of the time. The primitive ceases to be an ignorant prey to error, to be part of a necessary relation in the evolutionary chain of reason and social order. The savage was a kind of “living fossil,” and anthropology the “archaeological” study of a culture that was paradoxically alive and dead: petrified in its cognitive-cultural development, biologically and psychologically alive.

The primitive ceases to be an ignorant prey to error, to be part of a necessary link in the evolutionary chain of reason and social order


In case of Magic, Tyler envisions a primitive science dominated by flawed mechanisms but potentially containing the scientific desire to seek knowledge. The main fault that Tyler attributes to magic is the lack of distinction it makes by not differentiating the intrasubjective components (imaginable, imaginable) of those who reach the field of perception from a material and objective “outside” (positive reality).

The man, who is still in a low intellectual state, having begun to associate in thought those things which he knows by experience to be connected with reality, has gone wrong in reversing this action, concluding that the association in the thought must in fact imply such a relation.

So he tried to discover, predict and produce events by processes which we can now see to have only one perfect sense. By a large body of evidence from savage, barbarous, and civilized life, the magical arts arising from this misguided behavior of mistaking an ideal for true connection can be clearly traced from the lower culture from which they sprang to the lower culture . in which they are currently located.

We see how confusion between ideational components and reality They generate a false system of cause-and-effect relationships, because despite the fact that perfectly valid relationships are established in their formal aspect, the imagined meanings are not distinguished from those developed in the field of real perception, distorting the dialectical relationship with the world, as it happens when the neurotic is incapable of working out a principle of reality to escape the basic phantasmatic productions in his unconscious.

the real and the imaginary

Primitive thought was therefore unable to discriminate consistently between the real and the imaginary. It is under this discourse that Tyler raises his minimal definition of religion as “belief in spiritual beings”, introducing the concept of animism into the anthropological vocabulary, a key point on which the various mythological and theological plots interweave and develop.

The animism it will include all kinds of spiritual beings, although it will have its foundations in the belief in the human soul. The primitive is at the crossroads of establishing certain logical connections between sleep and wakefulness, life and death, trance and ordinary consciousness.

Since it is unable to distinguish between the imaginary and the real as heterogeneous fields, it must account for those experiences in which consciousness seems to detach itself from bodily and material limitations. Then it arises belief in the human soulwhich may be temporarily separated from the body under the influence of sleep, or permanently severed at the moment of death.


And then it comes religionas the product of speculation about the nature of certain physiological and mental phenomena upon which the primitive establishes erroneous distinctions which they do not contemplate the difference between the real and the imaginary. Starting from the concept of animism, Tyler establishes extrapolations that allow the use of this same resource in other creatures and elements of nature.

Vincent van Gogh said: “When I feel the need for religion, I go out in the evening to paint the stars”

As the chain of analogies progresses, a religious system strictu sensu begins to develop, which makes possible the formation of community doctrines and rituals, as well as a method of explaining man and nature. Behind all this apparently “irrational” development, Tyler sees an intellectual effort involving correct use of logical mechanisms applied to incorrect premisesthe result of an inadequate perception of reality.

But dialectical rational reality itself leads man and culture to progressive development and adequate perception of nature. He then resorts to the classic tripartite stagger, where from the first animistic moment a second stage develops by analogous propagation. polytheistic.

certain souls are elevated to the rank of godsrewarding them with the forces of nature and, when god comes to dominate the hierarchical scale, the last great stage is finally reached: monotheism. Tyler then establishes a the evolutionary theory of mind and its progressive development, where religion is contemplated only in its cognitive aspects, in a kind of dialectic with reality, leaving aside its effectiveness in “social cohesion” or in power relations.

From the beginning man used two ways of thinking about nature. On the one hand, a world whose mechanics are constructed by supernatural agents, personal beings who act by impulses and motives similar to their own, a kind of massive projection onto reality that would ascribe to both living beings and material objects one and also properties and intentions than their own internal ones. This would be a characteristic thought of animism and would later lead to the complexity of religious forms.

Finally, share this reflection on Vincent van Gogh: “When I feel the need of religion, I go out in the evening to paint the stars.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *