Mode of Thinking
“Mystical participation” is an idea introduced by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl in 1910 to identify what it is about the mentality of so-called primitives that makes them understand things differently from Westerners. Lévy-Bruhl began his lifework as a professional philosopher in search of “unimpeachable truths” that would be universally human in their validity. To escape his own cultural limitations, he began studying the reports of missionaries and colonialists working among preliterate peoples in Africa, Australia, the Americas, and Oceania – all baffled by what they took to be absurd beliefs on the part of the natives. Finding the same sorts of “absurdities” in all parts of the world, Lévy-Bruhl proposed that while Europeans find meaning in events by looking for causal, empirical theories to explain what made them happen, “primitives” find meaning by seeing empirical events as “participating” in a larger, invisible reality – something on the order of myth, made up of what he...
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