The Psychology of Superstition

By Gustav Jahoda | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
What is Superstition?

It is hard to mark out the boundaries of superstition. A Frenchman travelling in Italy finds almost everything superstitious, and is hardly wrong. The archbishop of Canterbury claims that the archbishop of Paris is superstitious the Presbyterians levy the same reproach against his Grace of Canterbury, and are in their turn called superstitious by the Quakers, who are the most superstitious of men in the eyes of other Christians.

Voltaire Philosophical Dictionary

Many words in everyday use are deceptive. On hearing them, we have the confident feeling that we understand them clearly; but if we were suddenly challenged to define them, we would discover that our certainty was a convenient illusion. Take 'democracy', a word that has nowadays achieved an almost universally favourable connotation; hence most countries tend to claim that they are 'democracies'. Suppose one had to decide whether a particular state is or is not a'democracy'. The dictionary definition of 'government by the people' is not really much help if one tries to apply it in practice. There are of course lots of criteria one might apply, such as the presence or absence of free elections, the degree of control exercised by the state over the individual, and numerous others. A little closer scrutiny reveals that such criteria themselves tend to be rather ambiguous. How do we assess the degree of control exercised by the state, and at what point does it become excessive by 'democratic' standards? Do 'free' elections require a secret ballot? If so, Britain in mid nineteenth century was not a democracy. Let us ask some concrete questions: are the 'people's democracies' or the new

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