The Psychology of Superstition

By Gustav Jahoda | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER THREE
Superstition as Error

It is in fact a sincere but fallacious system of philosophy, evolved by the human intellect by processes still in great measure intelligible to our own minds, and it has thus an original standing-ground in the world. And though the evidence of fact was dead against it, it was but lately and gradually that this evidence was brought fatally to bear.

Tylor The Origins of Culture

It has just been shown that one cannot divide the peoples of the world into the superstitious and the enlightened, but only into those by and large more or less superstitious. A backward glance into history teaches us the same lesson. The dominant intellectual temper of nineteenth-century Europe was rationalistic. It is epitomized in Comte's and Mill's serene confidence in the capacity of the human mind to bring about orderly progress, as well as in Darwin's shattering demonstration that the human species fits harmoniously into a vast order of nature. However, it must not be forgotten that there was another side; the same period saw the spectacular rise of occultism, by no means confined to the vulgar and ignorant. Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently hit upon the concept of natural selection, was also an ardent believer in the 'miracles'performed by mediums, and wrote a book on the subject. His interest was first aroused when he witnessed some lectures on mesmerism and phrenology by a certain Mr Hall, who purported to prove the correctness of the relationship between 'bumps'on the skull and character with hypnotized subjects. Wallace was severely taken to task for his gullibility by Frederic Engels, who also saw these performances and decided to conduct his own experiments. Engels, together with a friend, hypnotized

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