The Psychology of Superstition

By Gustav Jahoda | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
Superstition and Uncertainty

Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favoured by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless, and being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune's greedily coveted favours, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity.

SpinozaTractatus Theologico-Politicus

These words of Spinoza anticipate in essence by some two-and a-half centuries a theory of magic propounded by the famous anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. He started from the observation that the world of primitive man may be broadly divided into two spheres. Given a certain stock of knowledge and skills, one of these can be mastered and controlled in such a way that man can satisfy his needs; outside this sphere, the competence available is insufficient by itself to ensure the attainment of man's goals, and it is here that magic holds sway. Malinowski's frequently cited example relates to the fishing practices of the inhabitants of the Tobriand Archipelago, where he undertook his major fieldwork. Those in villages on the inner lagoon, where fishing is easy and safe, do not have any magical procedures associated with it; by contrast villages on the open sea could obtain fish only in circumstances that were hazardous and highly uncertain. This illustrates Malinowski's main point that 'man resorts to magic only where chance and circumstances are not fully controlled by knowledge'.

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