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Tylor - paragraph 1

  • He was interested in definitions of religion
  • He was not concerned with the truth value of religion, such as whether it was right or wrong. Rather why people believe in it and why it exists. The foundations of religion.
  • He took an intellectualist approach in which he is concerned with individual reasoning, such as why did that person come to believe in that religion.
  • He was an evolutionist (a way of thinking anthropologists today have long discarded). We can see this in his text in which he uses ‘cringey’ language such as ‘lower races’ and ‘savages’
  • Takes a comparative approach - in which he compares the simple societies of the world. He does this to come up with the common themes identified as religious belief

Paragraph 2:


Departed from contemporaries:

  • His approach was a step forward at the time, as his contemporaries didnt consider ancient societies rational.
  • He was trying to prove that they were rational societies.
  • So, his definition looks at all religions - he is not considering the primitive main to be recoid of rationalism.
  • However, must take this with a pint of salt, as Lambek says (p21) he Tylor felt that although they are rationalist, the conclusions reached by members of small-scale communities were in error.

Para 3: Definition

  • Tylor defines religion as “a belief in a super natural being” (p23)
  • He believes this is a common denominator in religion
  • He wanted to look for the most minimal definition of religion, which allows him to compare, what he considers, ‘less evolved religions’ with those that are more ‘complex and sophisticated’.
  • This definition allows him to consider lower races as having religion (they would have only considered Christians to have a religion).
  • SO his intellectualist approach means that he combines all religions in the world to find commonalities. This is an inclusive approach and seeks to place all religions in a frame work and identify elements that are common to them….
  • He does this through the concept of ANIMISM:


  • definition and two dogmas
  • what taylor says about animism

Animism according to Tyler is: a deep-lying doctrine of spiritual beings, present in human groups at all levels of evolution.

He decides the doctrine into two dogmas:

  1. Concerning souls of individual creatures, capable of existing after death or destruction.
  2. Concerning other spirits, upward to the rank of powerful deities

What Tylor says about animism:
- He tries to pinpoint the origins of the biological questions and concerns of primitive man

  1. What is it that makes the difference between a living body and a dead one? What causes sleep, walking, trance, death and disease?
  2. What are the human shapes that appear in dreams and visions?

The ancient savage philosophers made the inference that every man has two things belonging to him: life and phantom




Both life and phantom are connected to the body:
Life: enables the body to think, feel, act
Phantom: a second self, an image. Can see this dreams.

But also separate from the body:
Life: can go away from body e.g. death.
Phantom: Can appear at a distance from the body - dreams.

  • Both life and phantom belong to body. They are considered as united, and this united form is described as an apparition soul or a ghost soul.
  • It is a thin unsubstantial human image. It is the cause of life in the individual it animates. It is able to leave the body for behind and appear in dreams and visions even after death of that body. It can enter into bodies of people, animals and even things.
  • He explains that this idea is not something that has gone from higher to lower cultures, but something that was learned on its own. This idea came from the biological questions and puzzles that played primitive man.
  • Can see this idea in what he calls ‘higher civilisations’ such as the Greeks. This is why we see relics of the idea that the soul lives beyond the body, in complex religions such as Christianity.

Lambek (2008) makes comments about Tylors (1971) text ‘Religion in Primitive Culture’


  • Tylor was a rationalist man and departed from many of his contemporaries in finding this quality in primitive man. He defends the rationalism and creativity of all humans.
  • Although some of his language is highly problematic, Tylor’s basic argument was against those who saw in small societies either a degeneration or a borrowing from large-scape ones.
  • Definition of religion as “belief in spiritual beings” = remains relevant to many contemporary thinkers and is part of the western ‘common sense’ on the subject
  • It is striking to see behind the evolutionary language a concern with universals in human thought and experience and the continuity of religious thought between small-scale societies and his own.



Lambek (2008) makes comments about Tylors (1971) text ‘Religion in Primitive Culture’



He criticised his evolutionist approach:

  • Tyler judges small societies as if they have been frozen in time
  • Members of small scale societies weer far more sophisticated thinkers than he gives them credit for.
  • They are far greater knowledge of the human knowledge, and far richer and complex religious lives that Tylor recognised.
  • Lambek says it is a mistake to generalise about small-scale societies; there are great differences among them over time.
  • He presents a one sided and thus impoverished picture
  • The rationalism ignores the emotional side of religion and the intellectualism ignores the collective, symbolic and representational dimension.


“Soul Hunters: hunting, animism, and personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs” (2007 Willerslev)

Key points:

  • The text extends Tylor’s understanding of the importance of dreaming and of animism. About animism and exploring the idea that it comes from a dream world, which is what Tyler was suggesting.
  • FREUD IDEA: Dream experiences exist only in the interiority of the unconscious mind, and that the mind is freed during sleep from the psychological restrictions imposed on it in walking life.
  • WILLERSLEV: Yukaghirs - opposite. What Freud describes as the realm of the unconscious, Yukaghirs see as real and conscious engagements with spiritual beings. Dreams for them are understood as ‘doing’.
  • If science is right in saying that there is no connection between concept at words (baby/house example), then it is also conceivable that through dream experiences, acquire notions of spiritual beings.

‘The world of dreams and walking life are two sides of the same reality, which together constitute one world, and neither is therefore amenable to priorization” (p1760

  • So concepts of spiritual beings can develop independently of language through the medium of dreams (thus our discrimination between ‘natural’ and supernatural’ and ‘real’ and ‘culturally constructed’ cannot be maintained
  • Explains views of Humphrey, that the authenticity of religious representations is by non-linguistic and direct modes of experiencing natural phenomena, such as mountains, rivers and animals. This shows that religion is about feeling things, rather than something you can put into words.