Primitive Myth vs. Modern Science

On the one hand, there is the viewpoint of myth that it has no literal interpretation. On the other, there is the viewpoint that there is a literal interpretation of science. Bridging between the two is philosophy, which is open to both the non-literal and literal interpretations. Robert Segal’s article, "Myth as primitive philosophy: The case of E. B. Tylor" questions not only the relationships between myth, philosophy and science, but also the relationship between the primitive versus modern mentality. Segal provides the positions of various theorists to build the case for or against Tylor’s assertion that primitive myth is separate from modern science.

Tylor, like many of his colleagues, assumes that there is a distinction between myth, science and philosophy. He assumes that "primitive philosophy is identical with primitive religion" (18), and that there is no science in the primitive world. Primitive religion in this model is the counterpart for science "because both are explanations of the physical world" (19). The role of myth, according to Tylor, is to explain why the gods do what they do, whereas religion states that they do it (19). Furthermore, this assumes that the primitive mind is no less interested in manipulating the physical world than moderns, and that science belongs only to the realm of the theoretical. In the primitive realm, there is no conscious need to separate science from myth, religion and philosophy. Primitive science teaches the community how to survive within the environment. Primitive "scientists" could better understand the rhythms of the world, a perspective from which Tylor seems divorced.

If primitive religion functions in order to make sense of the physical world, then it would follow that the purpose of primitive religion is linked to that of survival. In contrast, modern thought is influenced by new discoveries in science and technology, and religion is not linked with survival but with coping. The ethnocentrism that plagues Western thought has traditionally recognized primitives as lesser beings: interesting for study but in no way related to "civilized" beings. Segal seems to support the argument that the primitives are of a different developmental caliber than moderns, and are crucial for understanding the core of archetypal and metaphorical thought. An understanding of primitive myth from this perspective yields an understanding of human myth. Because of Tylor’s ethnocentrism, he fails to see the relationship between primitives and moderns. Perhaps the modern generation is so concerned with preserving primitive myth because these populations are dying out or were greatly altered as a result of colonialism.

As the theoretical paradigm shifts out of the post-modern era, more and more students attempt to shed the old ways and embrace perspectives better suited for the shrinking global market, one digitally linked with more cultural exchange than imagined following the World Wars. As food shortages and natural disasters top the world news, the need for myth grows stronger as communities need explanations for why god or gods do what they do. Science has tried being the voice of reason, but it lacks a universal audience, because it can only explain so much.

The post-Enlightenment eras have focused on finding a universal truth, and this fever is still strong through the modern and post-modern eras. Segal’s article demonstrates that there are as many answers as there are thinkers, who are as varied as snowflakes. What Tylor’s claim is not prepared for is the post-modern, holistic thinking that believes that there are many answers for every question and no universal perspective, but, rather, many perspectives for the same thing.

Works cited

  • Segal, Robert A. "Myth as primitive philosophy: The case of E. B. Tylor." Rpt. in Thinking Through Myths: Philosophical Perspectives. Ed. Kevin Shilbrack. New York & London: Routledge, 2002. 18-45.
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