Primitive Man as Philosopher
by Paul Radin


By John Dewey

Dr. Radin's work opens up an almost new field. It may not go contrary to the beliefs which are implicitly current among workers in the anthropological field. But even an outsider, like the present writer, can see that it surely introduces a new emphasis, fixing attention upon phases of the culture of primitive man which are usually passed over lightly, if they are not overtly denied. There are at least many premises and many conclusions which have gained popular currency which are incompatible with the material and interpretations which he presents. From the standpoint of the specialist in this intellectual territory, Dr. Radin's work is pioneering in quality; it introduces new perspectives in its assertion of the existence of a definite intellectual class, proportionate in numbers and influence to the "intellectuals" in any civilized group, and one which is possessed of ideas upon most of the themes which have formed the staples of philosophical discussion. It is easy to imagine his contribution becoming the center, almost a storm-center, of animated debate and heated controversy among the special students of primitive life.

In that discussion a laymen like myself has no place. But no one concerned with the intellectual history of mankind, especially with the background of what has now become more or less conventionally set apart as philosophy, can fail to be intensely interested in the material which he has advanced. There are not lacking recent writers on the origins of philosophy who have dealt with its emergence from primitive speculations, especially from the material connected with religious beliefs and rites, and who have insisted upon the influence of the latter upon the formation of early philosophic notions. But in the light of Dr. Radin's material their views need reconsideration. For if he is even approximately right, philosophic origins are not to be sought for in the cruder and conventionalized forms which religious beliefs assumed among the populace at large, but rather in the interpretations of the small intellectual class, whose ideas may have been crude because of limitations of subject matter at their command, but which at least were bold, independent, and free within these limitations.

It may be worth while, even at the expense of a hasty traversing of ground which Dr. Radin has covered in detail, to point out some of the matters of the background of philosophic origins with respect to which the material of Dr. Radin demands either authoritative refutation or else a pretty thoroughgoing revision of notions which have become current. Among these points is the secondary and auxiliary place of supernatural and magical practices and beliefs in connection with practical achievement. If we trust the material, primitive man was in fact more "tough-minded," more realistic in facing facts, than is currently believed. The student of morals and social philosophy must give serious attention to the weighty mass of evidence which is adduced to show that early man instead of being enslaved to the group to the point of absorption in it was in fact highly individualistic, within certain limits more so than modern civilized man. The extent to which early ethical judgments in the way of social condemnation were limited to special occasions instead of being generalized into judgments of character at large raises the question whether their moral standpoint was not in so far sounder than that which civilized "progress" has developed. The prevalent idea that the customs of the group provide automatic moral standards and rules receives a severe shock when we find that along with great freedom of "self-expression" there is equal emphasis upon responsibility for personal control of actions so as not to harm others. The conception that primitive man attributes an independence to the existence of the group comparable to that of the "external world" seems not only to do justice to the facts which the upholders of the incorporation theory rely upon, without falling into their excesses, but to be also a valuable contribution to any sociological theory. And these are only a few of the points with respect to which the material of the first part of Dr. Radin's work demands serious attention together with reconstruction of current beliefs as to the background and origin of later moral and social speculations.

For the abstract phases of philosophy the second part, entitled "The Higher Aspects of Primitive Thought," is equally significant. The titles of the chapters are themselves sufficient to indicate the precious nature of the material to those interested in the development of metaphysical speculation. Dr. Radin would doubtless be the first to deny that he is breaking entirely new ground in his presentation of the actual facts regarding aboriginal man's notion of what constitutes reality and human personality. But I do not know where one would turn for such a complete and convincing picture of the dynamic and qualitative way in which the world presented itself to the primitive speculator on existence. Under the influence of modern philosophic theories, it has been assumed that the object and world were first regarded as collections of sense-data, while the obvious inconsistencies with this notion have been accounted for as animistic and supernatural injections. Dr. Radin explodes this traditional notion. He makes it clear that objects and nature were conceived dynamically; that change, transition, were primary, and transformation into stability something to be accounted for. His account makes clear that effects, emotional and practical, were the material of the thought of real objects, and that thinkers, in their doctrine of an inner "form," stated in rational terms a notion which was expressed mythically by the mass, a notion which has marked affiliations with a persistent strain in the classic philosophic tradition.

To continue, however, would be merely to summarize what the book itself vividly presents. I only hope that the cases selected by way of illustration may serve to indicate to those interested in the development of philosophic ideas and to the larger number interested in the growth of the intellectual phase of human culture, the rich and provocative material which Dr. Radin has freshly provided.

SOURCE: Radin, Paul. Primitive Man as Philosopher; with a foreword by John Dewey (1927), 2d rev. ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1957), pp. xvii-xx.

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