Archive for December, 2005

Magic, Science and Religion

Thursday, December 8th, 2005


Malinowski’s classic attempt to separate magic, science, and religion has not worn well.  For some purposes, we now can find it very useful indeed, at least insofar as it separates pragmatic knowledge from unverifiable belief.  However, as Malinowski admitted, traditional societies often categorize knowledge is ways very different from this.  Knowledge of and ethics relating to the nonhuman environment are particularly difficult to describe this way.  A different way to talk about traditional environmental knowledge is as involvement in the world—more or less intense cognitive and emotional relations with nonhuman as well as human “others.”  Often, natural objects are, or contain, spirits that are part of one’s society.  Trying to sort out magic, science, and religion in such cases is useful, and has certainly been useful in the past (in the history of science as well as in anthropology), but perhaps more useful today is to try to understand local concepts of knowledge and interaction.  I present examples from the Maya and the Northwest Coast Native peoples.