The philosophical questions posed by the practice of magic and witchcraft in many cultures concern the nature of rationality and the nature of interpretation. The simplest interpretation of magical practices is that they are bad science: they represent attempts to control events by means that are in fact inadequate. Only a ‘primitive mentality’, inferior to western scientific thought, could overlook the inadequacy (see Lévy-Bruhl ). The problem is that if an interpretation of a practice has to posit widespread irrationality it offends against the principle of humanity, and leads to the need for a less prejudiced and more empathetic understanding. An alternative pioneered by the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard in Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937), highlights the function of belief in magic in sustaining social order, defusing tensions and aggressions, and serving as an outlet for envies and jealousies. Magic, like other religious practice, becomes non-rational rather than irrational, with a symbolic social function. Evans-Pritchard himself believed that the Azande explain events at two different levels, one of which accords with western norms of reason, and one of which does not; so the question of whether this second level involves irrationality is therefore still open. A fully relativistic response to this is given by the British philosopher Peter Winch in The Idea of a Social Science (1958), in which it is argued that reality itself is a social construction, with western conceptions of rationality enjoying no privileged status above that of other ways of taking the world to be.

Philosophy dictionary. . 2011.


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