Cairo Essays

Edmund Leach

  • Evans-Pritchard by Mary Douglas
    Fontana, 140 pp, £1.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 00 634006 7

Fontana Modern Mastership has by now become so diffuse that the editorial problem may well have shifted from choosing a master who deserves the accolade to finding a biographer to bestow it. Why else should Malinowski still be left off the list but Evans-Pritchard (E-P to all who knew him but not in this book), Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford from 1946-1970, gain the crown? But if E-P be held to deserve apotheosis then Mary Douglas seems, on the face of it, a very appropriate hagiographer, for she is a noted anthropologist in her own right, was once a pupil of E-P, and, like E-P himself in his later years, is an exceptionally devoted member of the Roman Catholic Church. But, unlike E-P, Douglas lacks a sense of history, and the outcome is perverse.

She seems to have gone out of her way to avoid stating what is obvious but essential. For example, she ignores E-P’s own statement that he first became interested in anthropology and archaeology through contacts with the friends of R.R. Marett, who was a prominent member of E-P’s Oxford college. She also ignores the fact that in 1973 E-P, while reiterating his almost paranoid dislike of Malinowski, nevertheless declared that ‘I learnt more from him than from anyone.’ Equally astonishing is the almost complete absence of any reference to Radcliffe-Brown, of whom in 1940 E-P wrote: his ‘influence on the theoretical side of my work will be obvious to any student of anthropology’ as indeed it is, if we count only the work that had been published by that date. Even more eccentric is the suggestion that in his study of The Nuer (1940) E-P was making an analysis of negative feedback, thus antedating The work of Norbert Weiner by eight years. For those of us who are less inclined to believe in miracles, this particular aspect of E-P’s work is an entirely straightforward application of Durkheim’s thesis concerning mechanical solidarity as spelled out in De la Division du Travail Social (1893), a work that Douglas does not mention.

Miniature intellectual biographies in the ‘Modern Masters’ style are, at their best, a kind of dialogue between the biographer and the imagined author of a corpus of textual material which the biographer puts under review. Clearly, in work of this scale, the biographer cannot be expected to take account of all the verifiable historical facts which relate to the biographee’s career. Moreover, in the present case, since many of E-P’s closest associates, friends and foes alike, are still alive, reticence concerning personal matters is fully justified. On the other hand, a wholesale neglect of chronological detail will inevitably lead to chaos.

E-P was a prolific author. Beidelman’s bibliography, published in 1974, lists well over four hundred items published between 1927 and 1974. From this it is easy to discover that many of the key arguments in E-P’s most celebrated books had originally appeared as journal articles many years earlier. Thus the sequence in which E-P’s ideas developed is a good deal more complicated than might appear if one concentrates only on the major titles. Douglas’s own ‘Short Bibliography of Evans-Pritchard’s Writings’ contains only 17 items. They include, mysteriously, A History of Anthropological Thought (1980), but three substantial books, among them the major essay collection The Position of Women in Primitive Society and Other Essays in Social Anthropology (1965), are missing. Correspondingly, in the very short ‘Biographical Note’ at the beginning, the number of errors, misprints and deficiencies is almost comic.

All this puts me in some difficulty. I am one of the few likely reviewers of this book who will immediately recognise the large number of simple errors of fact – some of which are trivial, others important. Should I devote my space to making a catalogue of these sins, or should I concentrate on the argument of Douglas’s essay, which, despite the claim in the blurb that ‘this is an introduction to the social anthropology of the last fifty years through the work of its foremost thinker,’ makes no pretence at completeness either as a biography or as a survey of the academic field? I will compromise and only point out errors when they are immediately relevant to Douglas’s thesis, which quite explicitly presents an intuitional rather than a historical view of her subject-matter.

Most of the volumes in the ‘Modern Masters’ series are addressed to a non-specialist readership; they try to expound in relatively simple language the complex intellectual arguments of the Master. Douglas is clearly contemptuous of such treatment. Those who want to understand Evans-Pritchard’s work as it has ordinarily been understood had better read Evans-Pritchard. Her task is to provide a new revelation. I quote from the second paragraph of the Introduction: ‘I have made a personal reconstruction upon the writings, forcing them into closer confrontation with problems which were evidently present to Evans-Pritchard but which have become more public and explicit since. There was no need to go beyond Evans-Pritchard to explain the importance of his work to specialists. The challenge here is to interest others in solutions to problems they have never considered before ...’ But what about the unfortunate non-specialist who just wants to know why specialists who have not had Douglas’s revelation have nevertheless thought E-P’s work rather important? For such readers Douglas’s book will not provide much sustenance and I can only suggest that they turn to the recently published biographical article by T.O. Beidelman in the Supplementary Volume 18 of the International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. Beidelman’s article is not free from blemish but it gives the reader most of the facts in more or less the right order.

According to Douglas, E-P’s ‘life plan of intellectual effort had already been mapped out very clearly in the three essays published in the Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts of the Egyptian University: “The Intellectualist (English) Interpretation of Magic” (1933), “Lévy-Bruhl’s Theory of Primitive Mentality” (1934), and “Science and Sentiment: An Exposition and Criticism of the Writings of Pareto” (1936)’. Douglas contends – this is the basic theme of her book that E-P’s later writings represent a continuous development from the ideas implicit in these relatively early essays, a development which culminated in E-P’s masterpiece Nuer Religion (1956), of which cynics have remarked that it exhibits the Nuer as first-class Jesuit dialecticians.

Now, no specialist would want to question the value of these Cairo essays. Though hard to get at in printed form, they were widely circulated in mimeograph for many years. The evidence for development is less obvious. As E-P himself frankly stated, the 1962 lectures which provide the text of Theories of Primitive Religion (1965) use much the same material as the Cairo essays in much the same way. But until now no one seems to have considered at all carefully how the Cairo essays came to be written in the first place.

Nor does Douglas herself pay any attention to this rather crucial matter. In her view, the Cairo essays represent a kind of introspective reflection on the philosophical implications of E-P’s fieldwork experience. They provide a ‘long-term agenda of publications’ and demonstrate that he ‘fully intended his work as a major contribution to the sociological theory of knowledge’. Douglas claims that ‘in the 1920s, when Evans-Pritchard’s training began, the central questions in anthropology related to the conditions of human knowledge.’ With this in mind she starts her book with a cursory survey of some of the theories of primitive mentality and the processes of human reasoning which were then current among philosophers and experimental psychologists. She gives particular emphasis to the ideas of Bartlett and Sherrington, noting that the latter’s organic theory or mental functions is indirectly mentioned by E-P in the 1934 article in a reference to Rignano’s The Psychology of Reasoning. Although she recognises a kinship between E-P and the French sociologists Durkheim, Mauss, Lévy-Bruhl and Halbwachs, she pointedly omits any reference to Malinowski where the connection is direct and easily demonstrable. Indeed, her only reference to Malinowski comes on page 40, where she asserts, quite erroneously, that he spent ‘four whole years – during the 1914-18 war’ among the Trobriand Islanders and that he was ‘theoretically soft’.

Anyway, Douglas’s thesis is that E-P’s ‘programme’ had ‘its roots in William James’s interest in mental associations, in Frederick Bartlett’s concern with memory and in Marcel Mauss’s questions about the socialising of the physical body’. Already in 1934 it contained insights comparable to those of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953).

After an outline of this supposed programme we are given an account of E-P-style anthropological fieldwork considered as an inspirational experience, and then two chapters entitled respectively ‘Accountability among the Azande’ and ‘Accountability among the Nuer’. For those who already know the background material these are likely to be the most interesting chapters in the book, but I do not see how they could be comprehensible to readers who had not already made a fairly close study of Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937) and The Nuer (1940).

Ignoring the fact that parts of the Azande volume first appeared in print as early as 1928 and that substantial sections of The Nuer derive from articles published from 1933 onwards, Douglas adopts the line that these two very different monographs are closely related. In their finished form they focus on a common theme which she labels ‘accountability’. This produced, in the case of the Azande, the curious logic inherent in belief in the poison oracle and, in the case of the Nuer, the different logic which generates the ideology of blood feud, lineage solidarity and lineage segmentation: ‘The foundation of meaning ... is the system of accountability. As people decide to hold others accountable and as they allow the same principles to extend universally, even to apply to themselves, they set up a particular kind of moral environment for each other. According to the pressures created by the environment the mind’s thought is discriminated and toughened.’ I find Douglas’s argument very contrived and do not fully understand it, but the crux of her thesis is somewhere here.

Chapter Seven, entitled ‘Reasoning and Memory’, goes back to Bartlett and the French sociologists and the applicability of their theories to E-P’s Nuer material. Here again I find perverse Douglas’s quite unorthodox and highly personal treatment of E-P’s account of the relationship between formal social structure and the perception of past time – in the sense that, from my own prejudiced standpoint, she appears to be putting Evans-Pritchard’s argument exactly back to front. But for readers who have not been as thoroughly grounded in an alternative view as I have been the going may seem easier.

The next two chapters provide a Catholic eulogy of Nuer Religion (1956) and of Lienhardt’s complementary Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka (1961). E-P and his pupil took opposing views as to whether these peoples of the Southern Sudan had a concept which is translatable as ‘God’ in the Catholic sense. Douglas sides with Lienhardt, but praises E-P for his insights into the problems of translation. The praise is deserved but, here again, it seems to me that E-P owed much more to Malinowski than either he or his biographer has admitted. Douglas’s last chapter, entitled ‘Evans-Pritchard’s Contemporary Influence’, does not tell the reader anything in particular. So the make or break of the book must turn on whether the Cairo texts of 1933-1936 can carry the intellectual load imposed on them.

Here I have to go back to Douglas’s persistent carelessness. The statement at the beginning that Evans-Pritchard was a lecturer at the London School of Economics from 1923-31 is evidently a misprint for 1928-31. In that form the information was presumably taken over unchecked from Beidelman. It is incorrect. Evans-Pritchard was never a member of the academic staff of the London School of Economics, though in the years 1929-30, 1930-31, 1931-32 he is listed in the Calendar in the category ‘Other Lecturers’. He gave a variety of courses. In 1930-31, Malinowski advertised a new course of 16 lectures to be given in the spring and summer terms with the title ‘The Mental Outlook of Primitive Man’. The printed syllabus reads as follows:

Primitive experience and reasoning powers; the nature of primitive knowledge; the roots of early mysticism; ‘Primitive Credulity’ and the ‘prelogical savage’; anthropological legends to be exploded; the roots of primitive rationalism; the sources of the mystical views and activities of primitive man; the main elements of magico-religious activities and ideas: ceremonial dogma, sacred organisation and ethical influence; sociological analysis of mythology; a brief survey of the various theories of primitive magic and religion; the functionalist theory of primitive magic and religion and their relation to primitive knowledge.

We do not know how Malinowski interpreted this syllabus, though it seems reasonable to suppose that parts of the course closely resembled the celebrated Riddell Memorial Lectures on ‘The Foundations of Faith and Morals’, delivered at Durham University in February 1935. Be that as it may, the LSE Calendar for 1931-32 advertised exactly the same course with the same syllabus as being given by Evans-Pritchard. No doubt it was a very different course from Malinowski’s, though it would have been constrained by Malinowski’s rubric, much of which fits very well with the texts of the first two Cairo essays. In October 1932, Evans-Pritchard took up a vaguely defined post as Professor of Sociology at the Egyptian University in Cairo and during the academic year 1932-33 he delivered a course entitled ‘Magic, Religion and Science’. The 1933 and 1934 Cairo essays are explicitly stated by their author to ‘embody’ this 1932-33 course of lectures. In view of the timing it seems to me almost certain that they were substantially the same lectures that he had given in London a few months earlier. This puts Douglas’s arguments about the origin of the ideas which these lectures contain in a rather different light.

As far as the essays are concerned, as distinct from the associated lectures, matters are by no means so simple. Douglas dates the three essays as having appeared in 1933, 1934 and 1936 respectively. The covers of the original publications give the dates as May 1933, December 1934 and December 1935. The third essay (on Pareto) refers, however, to an important study by Franz Borkenau published in 1936 and the essay as a whole is clearly based on the four-volume English translation of Pareto’s Traité de Sociologie Générale, which only appeared in 1935. It is possible therefore that all the Cairo essays reached the printer a good deal later than their covers suggest. The concluding sentence of the second essay (on Lévy-Bruhl) reads: ‘a programme of research which will lead us to a more comprehensive and exact knowledge of mystical thought, indeed of all types of thought, must await a later publication.’ But the opening paragraph of the third essay says only that it is ‘a section of an Histoire des Doctrines of Primitive Mentality’, of which the two earlier essays were also sections. The problem then is when and why did E-P read Pareto? I believe that Pareto’s work had great influence on E-P’s thinking, just as it did on mine, but, contra Douglas, it seems to me that the ‘programme of research’ referred to at the end of the second essay was never in fact published. Nor can I agree with Douglas that E-P’s subsequent publications represent the consistent working through of an implicit plan. But the thesis she has proposed deserves further attention.

If her book leads budding anthropologists to dig out the original versions of the Cairo essays, especially the second and the third, it will have served a useful purpose. The reader who goes that far should, however, dig further to find out what Malinowski was saying about the foundations of faith and morals at much the same time.