Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Metalepsis as participation: on Lucien Lévy-Bruhl

I have written more than once about metalepsis, a concept that figures in Aristotle and Plato but that has a number of later connotations (or, I would say, latent ramifications that were eventually made explicit). This word serves as a handy trope for the move by which one puts oneself into and out of the context of a question or an assumption, a poem or a scientific system or even a religious worldview. (This is part of what I meant when (following David Rylance) I asked for generosity in philosophical/political argument; but here I will be exploring a different angle.) But the use of some multisyllabic term from ancient Greek raises suspicions: have I just employed a little pseudo-etymology to mystify a straightforward concept or even to justify an unstraightforward practice?

What I mean by metalepsis is a good deal more than a suspension of disbelief or a tentative "for-the-sake-of-argument" stipulation of premises (though it can be these too); it's a sort of full-body joining-in, a kind of virtual submersion. In this post I'll unpack one particular vein of precedent for this idea.

I originally formulated this notion of metalepsis by thinking over the resonances of the word participation, which is what it means in Greek. As I've mentioned elsewhere, participation as a philosophical term comes to modern currency (aside from its use in neo-Thomism) with Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, who was searching for a way to describe and account for the apparent cavalier attitude of "primitive" peoples towards the law of contradiction.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, dissatisfied with the state of anthropological theory, Lévy-Bruhl paid close heed to the evidence being gathered by fieldworkers, and in a number of controversial works attempted to reformulate a plausible account of the mentality of the peoples studied. In particular, he found himself unsettled by the implicit or explicit intimation that the natives were simply deficient in rationality, or that they were groping in the dark for explanations of natural phenomena. Lévy-Bruhl intuited that something else was going on, something far more interesting and complicated than fumbling for science, or the rationale for the white man's burden, or mere relativism.

Deeply struck by countless anecdotes of primitives’ seemingly inexplicable behavior, Lévy-Bruhl made a distinction between primitive and modern mentalities. The former, he said, differed from modern European civilization not just in empirical but in rational terms. It wasn’t just that in their apparent naïvete they could aver belief in impossible physical occurrences; they could countenance assertions that were, on their face, flatly contradictory. This was a difference not in what they thought physically possible, but in their idea of possibility itself. It was not just that they believed a sorcerer could transform into a poisonous snake, for instance, but that they made no distinction between scenarios in which a man transforms into a snake and bites his victim, or “causes” a snake to bite someone, or shoots a dart poisoned with snake venom.

Because of this apparent unawareness of the principle of non-contradiction, Lévy-Bruhl called primitive mentality prelogical. His account has been widely—and divergently—critiqued. Some have seen it as fostering ethnocentrism; others as far too relativist. Responding to critiques by Malinowksi, Boas, and others, Lévy-Bruhl eventually modified it significantly in some respects. Others after him have continued to criticize it. But despite their differences, all these anthropologists concur with Lévy-Bruhl that “indigenous” mentalities have a coherence and sensicality of their own. This debate is not settled today, but a rough consensus has been reached, a sort of halfway house meant to mollify the defenders of universalism and multiculturalism alike. In Lévy-Bruhl’s terms, the position is: while “primitive” humanity is perfectly capable of thinking logically and “scientifically” if the occasion is felt to demand it, such cultures also have another manner of thinking, which is nothing like truncated or failed science at all, but based upon an entirely separate kind of experience. Lévy-Bruhl called this principle the “Law of Participation.”

As is well known, Lévy-Bruhl did not coin this term. In other posts I will have something to say about its antecedents. What he meant by it is summarized with deceptive ease, but really grasping it is difficult. Lévy-Bruhl held that “savages” actually experienced the world in such a way that they were continuous with it. Categories that seem hard and fast to us are, to this way of experience, permeable. The easiest feature to see, and the most misleading, of such a world-view is the attribution of intentionality to “inanimate” forces and objects. I say this is misleading, in part because of course when I describe it I almost cannot do so in any way except those which make it seem frankly self-contradictory. An “inanimate” object is precisely what is not admitted by the mentality we are discussing.

This does not make the people who hold it “animists.” A tendentious description of this term could permit itself the observation that it was invented by western thinkers for attitudes they did not understand—no “animist” every described themselves as an animist. At the same time, however, this does not make the term meaningless. It is meant to pick out certain common, and meaningful, characteristics in human behavior. What is important to recall is that it is an etic, not an emic, term—it is used by outsiders, not by people for themselves. Indeed, one reading of Lévy-Bruhl would note that he seems to move from etic accounts like (such as that primitive, or “prelogical,” mentality “does not bind itself down, as our thought does, to avoiding contradiction” ) to emic accounts which merely present his ethnographic anecdotes without needing to situate them in a structure of theory, a theory which could only misconstrue them. Such a theory eluded Lévy-Bruhl. “To be honest,” he says in the posthumously-published Notebooks on Primitive Mentality, “I did not have one.”

In fact the “animation” of the natural world is simply a function of the fact that the primitive human being experiences everything in the world as more than itself. Lévy-Bruhl offers this gloss, in the pages where he first offers the account:
in the collective representations of primitive mentality, objects, beings, phenomena, can be, though in a way incomprehensible to us, both themselves and something other than themselves. (How Natives Think, pp76-7).
To the bemused anthropological fieldworker, the tribespeople will staunchly reiterate that they are themselves ants, sloths, poisonous frogs, or (in the famous case of the Brazilian Bororos), araras, scarlet parakeets;
This does not signify that after death they become araras, nor that araras are metamorphosed Bororos, and must be treated as such. It is something entirely different. … It is not a name they give themselves nor a relationship that they claim. What they desire to express is actual identity.
This identity is the central point; there is a felt continuity between perceiver and perceived, between thinker and the object of thought; but also between two or more different objects, any of which may or may not be (what we would call) imaginary. Thus a member of a tribe may be a human being and also “be” a totemic animal; the flash of lightning is not “explained as” Thor but is Thor. “Participation” is the term for the way these objects relate to each other in quasi- and (to us) problematic identity. Thus, too, what would be to us mutually exclusive explanations of an event can be comfortably conflated, so that for example (one example of many from Lévy-Bruhl), the death of a man killed by an alligator is accounted for as death by witchcraft, without distinguishing between such scenarios as: a witch having transformed into an alligator, or sending an alligator, or even simply using a weapon made to duplicate wounds an alligator would give. In the native mind, these different narratives all overlay each other, participate in each other, in a kind of shifting moiré pattern.

Lévy-Bruhl is at pains to emphasize that this is not an intellectual postulate but an experience. Remarking upon various instances in which “superstitions” have attributed a malevolent power to a foreigner’s hat, or a rocking chair, or a portrait of Queen Victoria, blaming the said object for a drought or a plague or some other misfortune, Lévy-Bruhl specifies that participation is something other than
merely an artless and erroneous application of the principle of causality…. It consists in a mystic relation which the primitive represents to himself—and of which he is convinced as soon as he represents it to himself—between the antecedent and the consequence....The opposition between the one and the many, the same and the other, and so forth...is of but secondary interest. (How Natives Think, p74; 77)
There is a real question as to why these logical or philosophical issues which Lévy-Bruhl names here ever did become of more than "secondary interest." Some shift not only in thinking but in mode of experience—can one say a “change of consciousness” without being tarred with the newage brush?—transpired. In other posts, I will have more to say about that; here I just need to register it.

As his work progresses, one sees in Lévy-Bruhl an incremental foregrounding not of the opposition of prelogical to our own analytic approach, but of a positive account of participation itself. Some of this tendency was native to him; some was in response to the considerable reaction, both positive and negative, that his writings provoked. Lévy-Bruhl was a philosopher, and many philosophical readers found something in his work appealing. Anthropologists, however, were divided.

Most of his critics at one point or another faulted him for the term “prelogical;” Boas, Malinowski, Radin, and others, spoke quite sharply of his remarks on primitives’ casualness about contradictions. He was said to have portrayed natives as confused, muddled, hopelessly vague. Worst of all, he made all his proclamations without having ever done fieldwork! This last objection has considerably more weight than the former. It is true that Lévy-Bruhl was a philosopher doing anthropology from Paris, and one can legitimately raise doubts about his conclusions based on this. But he questioned anthropologists who had done fieldwork very intensely, and his willingness to revise his accounts belies arguments that he forced the data to match his conclusions. (Moreover, fieldwork is no proof against reaching drastically wrong conclusions, as is well known—only the most controversial case being Margaret Mead’s alleged projection of sexual utopia onto Samoa).

In fact Lévy-Bruhl was, no less than his opponents, concerned himself with understanding the peoples he studied “in their own terms;” he was interested in showing them to be capable, thoughtful, skilled, intelligent. But the terms “prelogic,” “primitive,” “savages,” even “natives,” were fraught with the baggage of colonialism. To a discipline that was eager to shed ethnocentrism, these were liabilities, and they contributed to a hostile reading of Lévy-Bruhl’s central contention—that “primitive mentality” was different.

The problem was this: If we say that primitives have a wholly different way of thinking than we do, we run the risk of essentially claiming a gulf between us that prevents our communication with them and even our understanding. We may be able to avoid a certain sort of condescension, but only at the price of making them completely other; and we have no answer at all to the question, how did we become like us if we started like them? Moreover, how can we even talk to or about them? If we posit that their world-view is so drastically other as to constitute an alternate ontology, how is it that the anthropologist is able to bridge the intervening chasm so as to describe this other mode of being? This is the puzzle of incommensurability .On the other hand, if we say that primitives do think like us, we have to account for their obviously very different assertions and behaviors. In this case, we have possible scenarios of development, but we find ourselves strongly tempted to the conclusion that the primitives are indeed mis-applying logic or rationality, and, when they do not respond to our patient enjoinments and demonstrations, the loaded word deficient is lurking just offstage.

Lévy-Bruhl’s opponents took a different approach. To them, natives were not making foolish logical mistakes; but neither were they reasoning in a completely different manner than modern Europeans. They were, rather, reasoning just as logically as we would, in like manner but on the basis of different assumptions.

There is no question that native ratiocination is recognizable. Pacific islanders are able to steer from one tiny island to another by means of the stars, but if they were not able to reason, the stars would be of no use to them. Lévy-Bruhl acknowledged that in countless circumstances, the behavior of the “primitive” looked perfectly rational and did not seem to call for any special hypotheses.
Considered as an individual, the primitive, insofar as he thinks and acts independently of these collective representations when possible, will usually feel, argue and act as we should…the inferences he draws will be just those which would seem reasonable to us in like circumstances. If he has brought down two birds, for instance, and only picks up one, he will ask himself what has become of the other, and will look for it. If rain overtakes and inconveniences him, he will seek shelter. If he encounters a wild beast, he will strive his utmost to escape. (How Natives Think p79)
But there remains a difference. The stars, the ocean, the birds, the rain, the wild beasts themselves are not experienced in the same way by the primitive and the European, Lévy-Bruhl thinks. “The very material upon which this mental activity is exercised has already undergone the influence of the law of participation.” (my emphasis).

The problem with the argument that only the assumptions and not the manner differ, is that it does not account for the great tenacity of these assumptions, their incredible recalcitrance in the face of (what would count for us as) “evidence,” and the unremitting sense one gets in reading ethnographic reports that the natives really seem to experience something different from what we would experience. In fact, there is no clear demarcation between “beliefs” and “experience” in the sense that the counter-argument would have it. This is clearly seen in cases of spirit or ancestor possession, or faith healing, or cases of shamanic killing like “voodoo death,” or the famous Australian kurdaitcha, or bone-pointing. One does not writhe, babble in glossolalia, or enter trances; one does not heal—and above all one does not die—merely upon the basis of a hypothetical or even a stipulated “belief;” these things occur because the belief is held in a way that involves the whole self.

All of these issues informed Lévy-Bruhl’s debates with contemporaries and all have contributed to his ambiguous legacy. The difficulties about incommensurability remain current even now. There is no consensus over the nature of the “mythic” or “magical worldview,” but what is not in dispute is that it is different.

Trying to think this difference involves us in considerable paradox, and is a matter of ongoing debate. Lévy-Bruhl's legacy is not yet spent. My use the notion of participation (qua metalepsis) is informed by David Abram’s detour through phenomenology (in particular Merleau-Ponty, who as is well known writes of the reciprocal relation between world and mind: “the world looks at me when I look at the world”); by Owen Barfield’s account in Saving the Appearances; and by Gerard Genette's narratology; but also via its previous resonances in Malebranche, the scholastics, neo-platonism, Renaissance tropology, Aristotle, and Plato. It seems to me that a word with such venerable and versatile heritage has depths worth plumbing. Lévy-Bruhl's work is valuable in reminding us that it is not just a matter of chasing down footnotes; it bears on the parameters of reality.


  1. The vuvuzela is a case where participation in the contest, with the crowd as a whole takes precedence over the symmetrical team songs, dissing the opposition etc. It gets louder during the more exciting passages but for no particular side.

  2. In fact I am sure it has been argued more than once that sports fans' ["vicarious"] enjoyment is one of the still-current legacies of participation. (The case that it the game is a "sublimation" of combat strikes me as a slender percentage of the truth, but it's not incompatible with this).

  3. Yes indeed it has but the participation is in your 'own' crowd with your own chants, songs and abuse which is rich and varied and directed against the other crowd. This may even end in running street battles after the match. I speak of football hooliganism in Britain. Now in South Africa the vuvuzela is a non-specific noise carrying no particular marker and for that reason many Europeans have disliked it preferring team songs etc. We like the symmetrical and the metrical so to speak. Bateson whom no doubt you are aware of has much to say in Steps to an Ecology of Mind about the symmetrical and the complementary. In South Africa the 'ubuntu' community value or that we are part of each other is symbolised by the vuvuzela. This game is played.

  4. Your posts on participation/metalepsis are just in time for my own interests in the early Christian experience of the relationship between divinity and mortality, which you may have gleamed from parsing my own blog.

    I also think of early sections of Bataille's Theory of Religion where he attempts to explicate just how European civilization 'escaped' this kind of experience.

    Interesting that you mention glossalalia, as that is a subject I've considered before http://nightisalsosun.wordpress.com/2010/02/02/speaker/

  5. Nightsun~~ welcome. I am glad you find SCT congenial, and to have your comments.

    Bataille is a thinker regarding whom I have considerable ambivalence. After Blanchot's Death Sentence and Step not-beyond, Bataille's preface to "Madame Edwarda" is the work that most creeped me out when I was first working through this group of French writers. However his Theory of Religion made less of an impression on me; I will go back and look at it again.

  6. Thanks for this--I have been playing with a toy idea I call (crossed out) animism (no way to put the word under erasure here).

  7. Thanks, Timothy, and welcome. I am coming to a more nuanced view of 'animism' in the wake of reading Robin Horton and Philippe Descola (two very different anthropologists). Not sure just what you mean but my guess is that Barfield's 'final participation' might be a sort of 'crossed out' version too. I think deconstruction offers some ways forward with this.