Saturday, January 17, 2015


Paul Radin is a beacon on the road to free thinking


This book is both essential and at the same time representative of its time, which means limited on some important points.

It is essential because it refuses the easy but race-minded not to say openly racist or racialist dominant ideas of his time, the 1920s and 1930s, in anthropology, for instance those of Lucien Lévy Bruhl. According to these thinkers “primitive” man is limited in intellectual means and does not think logically. Yet these anthropologists had accumulated a lot of knowledge, stories, mythological tales or constructions, descriptions of languages, beliefs and religious ideas or concepts. But they only accumulated this knowledge and never really stepped back to consider things with the necessary distance to make them objective. I will not insist on that point. It is not the object of this book or its review.

Paul Radin is careful not to make the same mistakes as the people he criticizes and these are essentially first of all pure speculation on material collected without any critical distance, and second a systematic questioning but without discriminating the people who are questioned. Paul Radin considers the first mistake leads to pure subjectivity entirely under the control of western ideology, hence a vision that is not in phase with the real thinking of these “primitive” people. Strangely enough Paul Radin keeps the word “primitive” which is pejorative. I by far would prefer speaking of primeval civilizations. Most of them do not practice writing, though this is more and more obsolete because colonization has widely spread writing among all peoples in the world, and some of the old civilizations like the Mayas, the Incas, the Aztecs and some others in America had writing systems of their own. This leads to the simple question: what does primitive mean? Today such peoples are practically inexistent as such. There are probably some pockets in Amazonia and some in New Guinea, maybe Africa, but most people now are reached by civilization and the problem is for them not to be destroyed physically, linguistically or even, and especially, culturally. Some ancient cultures can be recaptured and reconstructed but the culture of Australian Aborigines today may have the proper forms but does not have any more the proper meaning and utility, purpose as before the arrival of Europeans, because these depend on the context, and that one has changed tremendously over the last century, let alone the last fifty years.

The second mistake has two levels. For one, questioning is always leading. There is no absolutely unobtrusive and neutral questioning, but that can be reduced to as little as possible and be set under control. But the second level is a lot more important: you cannot consider everyone equal or identical by principle in such questioning procedures. Paul Radin has an important point here: these people are all different but some categories can be seen such as those Radin puts forward: men of action on one hand and thinkers on the other hand. I am not sure those two categories are enough, but these two categories are essential. Paul Radin describes and qualifies both very carefully. The thinkers for him are the few people (and there are only a few in all societies even western societies) who try to understand and explain the reality of the world in which they live. Most of them will come to and suggest constructions that are mythical or mythological in the form of stories about the gods, the spirits, the creation of the world, the acquisition of language and knowledge, etc. They often officiate as priests of sorts responsible for the various religious or spiritual rituals; as doctors and scientists responsible for the welfare and healing of the members of the community and also for the spreading of traditional and accumulated knowledge necessary for the survival of the community and its members; or as poets, bards, story-tellers who develop their memory in order to keep the collective knowledge of the past and the cultural elements of the community.

Paul Radin though makes a mistake of his own here. He does not consider these categories with which he deals in any phylogenic way. The stories he analyzes are taken as first of all rather stable in their content, second as having always existed like that, and third as not having been influenced by colonization. He even considers that stability as one trait or distinctive feature of the thinkers of these societies. He quotes North American Indians a lot, the Winnebagos very often, but he works with the stories he collected in the 1920s mostly, still remembered at the time by the surviving Winnebago Indians, after four centuries of brutal genocidal colonization and at least two or three if not more centuries of compulsory Christianization. Many of the formal characteristics of these stories are strikingly similar to some of the Hebrew-based religions, particularly Christianity. That’s part of the phylogenic approach I think should be implemented in this case in two directions: can we in anyway understand how these stories developed before the arrival of Europeans; and can we actually pinpoint the impact of the brutal colonization and Christianization of the concerned Indian population? Maybe the answer is no, but we cannot neglect these questions and draw the conclusion that what we see is what we should see. What we can get from the Maya inscriptions in their stone temples is at least absolutely free of any Christian and Western influence. What these inscriptions are telling us, if we can decipher them, is then authentic, whereas what we can get from the memory of some living descendants cannot in any way be said and guaranteed as authentic. Too much time, too much violence, too much damage done by western colonization. What you get is not what you should see.

Apart from that we can consider some of the ideas put forward by Paul Radin who always tried to get the philosophical constructions or reconstructions of the philosophy of these people from their thinkers and thus what he says represents what he has understood from and in what these thinkers told him. In what language by the way? Their original language or English or another European language? If it was collected in English or Spanish or French that means the informers have translated their own culture into these European languages and we should wonder about their ability at translating and their command of the European language they used. And if it was collected in their original languages, it has been translated by some European translator, and there I am afraid translation is necessarily high treason. He never gives the stories in bilingual presentation and hardly gives any information about how the poems or rituals he comments upon sound or look in their original languages. From what I know about the native languages of Polynesia or Northern America and Africa, the least we can say is that many of these languages are NOT easily translatable into French, English, Spanish or German, if any translation from one language to another can in any way be 100% faithful, and I doubt that very much.

Paul Radin particularly criticizes western influence in what is being said and propagated about these civilizations. First of all he considers there is no real cause-effect thinking in these cultures. He is right but does not argue the point enough. There is no cause-effect thinking because the world is not cut up into small elements and the world is not thought as a necessarily causal chain of action or evolution. These civilizations understand the world and daily experience as being a tremendous amount of simultaneous elements that have to be captured in one single vision, and from these elements when they are fulfilled or when they reach a certain level of fulfillment some new phenomenon or element will emerge, not caused by anything but rather let free to emerge, or not emerge eventually. That’s where the original languages would be important. In Prakrit languages for example they have a special verbal form, the preterit participle, that expresses exactly that phenomenon: now this element has been fulfilled, now this second element has also been fulfilled, a certain action can eventually be performed, or a certain phenomenon can appear, or even may appear, and develop, not caused by it though it can or may develop only when these actions have been fulfilled.

This is the  basic way of thinking of Buddhism: now I have finally learned what I had to learn, now I have assimilated this learning, now I have made up my mind, I may decide to start doing some more advanced action like entering some meditative state to move towards enlightenment. It is not learning the Dhammapada by heart and reciting it every day that will enlighten me. In fact I may get on the way to enlightenment even if I have not read the Dhammapada and even if I can’t recite one single verse. But I will have to have reached a certain level of knowledge and resolve in a way or another to be able to decide to get on that way. And what I did not learn before I will learn along the way. That way of thinking and behaving is contained in the very syntax of Prakrit languages, and Sanskrit even, and that goes back to the development of these languages some ten thousand years ago, if not even more. Strangely enough we can even follow such syntactic forms in the other branch of the Indo-Iranian languages, the Indo European branch and see how these syntactic forms have been dropped (they were common to the two Indo-European and Indo-Aryan branches because they must have been in the common basis on the Iranian plateau before the two branches migrated down west or east), or rather transformed, shifted in meaning in the Indo-European languages of today.

That’s what I mean by a phylogenic approach and that is absent from Paul Radin.

Another example is the way he considers the West has centered its philosophical and social development on an individualistic approach thus neglecting the group, or even at times rejecting any group approach. On the other side the civilizations Paul Radin is studying are capturing the individual as necessarily part of the community. The individual does not determine what he or she is going to do by himself or herself but what they decide to do is largely dependant on the way they articulate themselves onto that community that is identifying for them. The West has even invented a word for that: it is called “communitarianism,” meaning the individual can only develop within the closed limits of his or her community, but the western approach as carried by this word is critical if not hostile. In fact this approach in these communities means that the individual, when he has reached the full sense of belonging to his community, when he has fully concentrated his intellectual and ethical means onto the fulfilling of the common objectives of himself or herself and of their community, hence when the individual has fully integrated in his or her stance the vision and perspective of his or her community, then he or she will “naturally” come to doing what he or she has to do. Integration in the identifying community of the individual is the condition for the individual to be successful, for the individual to reach prestige and a heightened sense of existence. But this is fundamentally conveyed in ALL languages in the world by the personal pronoun systems. And Paul Radin once again does not consider language.

These personal pronouns may change in many ways but they are basically founded on a three-tiered distance hierarchy.

First “I” necessarily and from the very start captured simultaneously as twinned to “YOU” and this couple “I-YOU” is simultaneously captured as differentiated from the third level “OTHER” that will lead to the third person. We have to understand that “I-YOU” is basically captured as “WE.” That’s the first community, the nurturing family. Even that community is questioned by the West. But the various civilizations of the world vary a lot as for their understanding of the “OTHER.” There is the first “OTHER” that provides the “WE” with some identity. It is the “OTHER” the “WE” belongs to. In some languages and their societies the pronouns change according to the sex of the person speaking, implying the male or female community is the identity of the male or female individual. In some other languages and civilizations the pronouns vary according to the social class or social caste the individual belongs to: when an individual from a lower class speaks to a person of a higher class, or vice versa, the pronouns vary and become specific. We thus have complex networks of communities and memberships according to how a civilization defines the “OTHER.” But we must be clear here it is never seen as homogeneous. Yet recent events have shown that even in some advanced and developed western countries there exist some referential groups defining the identity of their members and the way they are supposed to behave. The French are probably the clearest community defining the French community as having to be republican and to adopt and defend what they call “republican values” which include the rejection of any religious reference as identifying and imply any member of this French republican community has the right in the whole world to debunk any religious beliefs, except – of course, would hey say – the Jews. Hence it boils down to the Christians (in fact only the Catholics) and the Muslims. Some people are being brought to court, tried, convicted and sentenced even to prison terms for questioning such “values”: they are accused of advocating terrorism.

That’s where Paul Radin is wrong. He is right to insist on such communitariasnism but he is wrong to consider they are typical of “primitive” civilizations.

In the same way he accuses the West of making it compulsory to think in evolutionistic terms. He considers “primitive” civilizations are refusing to see the world in such evolutionistic terms. He is right as long as he considers what he is studying is frozen into some stability. But he is wrong because it is the collecting of what he is studying that is freezing these materials into some kind of stable unchanging essence. These stories have been produced in multiple versions in oral societies over millennia. Since colonization started (without colonization we would never have been interested in these civilizations) they have been under heavy influence from the West and Christianity. Furthermore when we deal with Africa we don’t consider that another influence was felt some ten centuries before colonization: Islam. What was the impact of Islam on African cultures? And we find the same blocking attitude in Europe concerning the Christianization of the old Indo-European cultures that existed before the arrival of Christianity. It took six to eight centuries for that Christianization to be completed. Luckily we can now start following that process in some basic myths or legends of Europe like Tristan and Isolde.

Another important element is the role of language in his approach. He is very keen on insisting on the role of the “word” and particularly the “written word” in the stabilizing of cultures and civilizations. He seems to attribute this fact to the West again. Here it is quite acceptable to say that writing has had a very strict impact on the stabilizing of culture and thinking. But he should question language and not reduce it to words.

The linguistic ability is the constructed result of the implementation of another capability of the brain, the capability to discriminate patterns in what the senses capture and then to conceptualize these patterns in order to recognize them. Homo Sapiens by giving names to these patterns developed their linguistic capability. Keep in mind this phenomenological chain:


And you may understand what conceptualization is. Any human group or individual who has a language at their disposal has that capability. Paul Radin should have met Vygotsky to see that since conceptualization has a psychogenetic development in children, it must have had a phylogenic development in Homo Sapiens. What was the role of the phylogeny of language in the emergence of Homo Sapiens? And what was the role of conceptualization in that phylogeny? That would have led him to a hierarchy of the human conceptualizing capability. Any human who speaks a human language has developed a certain level of conceptualization. We can then wonder if these languages and their communities have developed more or less abstract conceptualization.

Then the “conditions to success” that he lists page 82, with an addition page 95, show how powerful conceptualizing is. To succeed an individual within a community has to demonstrate:

1-       a definite inward purification
2-       a reverend and a humble spirit
3-       persistent effort
4-       strength of character
5-       the saving grace of the sense of life’s realities
6-       a knowledge of oneself
7-       restraint

This is not primitive at all: it implies a tremendous level of education, training and conceptualized understanding on one hand; then it could be said of any person in any world and civilization. The specificity in the civilizations he studies is the fact that this cannot be understood and grasped without the full articulation of an individual on his or her community. But as I have said before that is not typical of these “primitive” societies. Communitarianism is extremely present in western societies and can be seen as a force that can question and even challenge the national communitarianism of some countries who refuse to recognize and acknowledge the existence of such communities within what they call the national community.

One example of this linguistic conceptualizing power working in association with the connection between the individual and the community is given as a sign of abstract thought. Right but Paul Radin doesn’t exploit his own idea enough: he does not consider the language itself.

Words first conceptualize identified and isolated items, static or dynamic, spatial (nouns) or temporal (verbs). Paul Radin has probably understood this. Then the syntax of the language (and there are several different types). The syntax is based on the conceptualization of relations between items. Ergative and non-ergative languages both conceptualize the relation between the agent, the patient and the verbal connection between them, but they do it differently with a direct impact on the way people think, even at the lowest imaginable level of abstraction. The third level of conceptualization is the discourse in which the language is used meaning the relation between the speaker, the interlocutor, their community and the language itself. Every single element in that complex network of relations has to be conceptualized through education, training and experience to be dealt with properly. If we consider the following aphorism “Stones will rot but words never rot,” we have to understand the words, then the syntax, but then consider the discursive context without which the aphorism has no meaning. The meaning provided by Paul Radin, “Anything may be forgiven but offensive words,” is one possible meaning in one possible discursive situation, maybe the common meaning, but definitely not the only one. For aphorisms to really work as general statements they have to be in the third person otherwise they are projected into the discursive context of the speaker and/or interlocutor.

That’s where we come to a fundamental remark when Paul Radin speaks of “simulacra.”

“The parts of the body, the physiological functions of the organs, like the material form taken by objects in nature, are mere symbols, simulacra, of the essential psychical-spiritual entity that lies behind them.” (274)

Paul Radin could not know that Jean Baudrillard was going to develop a whole theory of simulacra in modern society. For Baudrillard carrots have the only value our appetite, our need to eat to survive, give them. That’s for him their real natural value. By setting a price on this value when entering market economy, the market value is a simulacrum of the “natural” value. If we pay with metal money (gold, silver, copper) this money is a simulacrum of the market value. Using paper money, it is a simulacrum of metal money and of market value. If we pay with a check or a credit card or a telephone, each time we go up one rung on the ladder of simulacra, one rung away from the only real natural value of the carrots, i.e. my hunger and my desire to eat in order to survive.

Paul Radin is on a completely different line. He explains that the real material items are the simulacra of the psychical-spiritual entities. We must expand the quotation:

“It is clearly manifest that the dynamic principle is here fundamental. The static principle is definitely only the temporary shell, the body, doomed to early extinction and decay. Also, there is the inability to express the psychical in terms of the body; the psychical must be projected upon the external world. The Ego, in other words, cannot contain within itself both subject and object, although the object is definitely conditioned by and exists within the perceiving self. Thus we have an Ego consisting of subject-object, with the object only intelligible in terms of the external world and of other Egos. This does not in any sense, of course, interfere with the essential dualism of primitive thought but it does imply a tie between the Ego and the phenomenal world foreign to that which we assume. And this connection is very important, for it takes the form of an attraction, a compulsion. Nature cannot resist man, man cannot resist nature. A purely mechanistic conception of life is thus unthinkable. The parts of the body, the physiological functions of the organs, like the material form taken by objects in nature, are mere symbols, simulacra, for the essential psychical-spiritual entity that lies behind them.” (273-274)

A body condemned to get extinct and decay cannot be seen as anything static. It is by essence non-static since it is born, grows, withers, dies and decays. What he is trying to say is that the conceptualized world we reach by getting over the ever changing material world is dynamic but that has nothing to do with ever-changing. It is dynamic because it can make us go beyond appearances, because it builds and activates our mental powers. He is right to say we cannot model the psychical reality of our Ego in terms of the body, but he is wrong to say that the body is there for nothing. He might be following some of the formulations he found in the cultures he studies and his remark might be right within these limits but he is wrong because he does not capture the mental level of the individual, a construct that realizes, expands and develops the capabilities contained in the very structure and architecture of our central nervous system. Then he is right to say that the world cannot exist in our consciousness without being captured, analyzed, modeled and virtualized by this central nervous system into the model we will retain in our mind. The world will be in our consciousness only through this mental model that can be modified but that is the indispensible filter for us to capture the world and even act onto it. That leads him to a very mysterious sentence: “Nature cannot resist man, man cannot resist nature.” In our mental line it is clear, but the words do not express that mental approach. Nature cannot resist man because the mental model man has in his mind is only man’s own creation, yet nature can defeat actions based on this model if the model is unrealistic. In the same way man cannot resist nature because in the end nature will have the last word, except if man is able to change nature. But will nature accept to be changed? That’s a question that is not asked.

Then we understand why he speaks of the “psychical spiritual’ though it is not entirely clear in the word used. Psychical refers to the functioning of the central nervous system at the level of the behavior of the individual and its motivations. But spiritual refers to a cultural element entirely mentally built by man on the basis of what the individual captures in the world. It has little to do with psychical. Psychical remains at the level of the functioning of the central nervous system. Spiritual is at the level of the functioning of the mind, that virtual construct of man confronting his central nervous system to the world and his desire to capture it and survive. Psychical is connected to the body. Spiritual is entirely disconnected from the body. The mind manages the psychical dimension of man’s behavior. The mind conceptualizes all its managed experience into the virtual cultural spiritual model of the individual’s existential and circumstantial experience.

Strangely enough that is in phase with what Marshall McLuhan is developing in the 1950s and 1960s but Paul Radin did not know about it.

For Marshall McLuhan the body is the basis of all further development of man. You can identify his various organs and functions and every invention is the expansion and extension of one particular organ or function. Take the examples of “feet” as a real experiential organ that enables us to walk or run. Then conceptualize this walking-running capability. Then you can manage that walking and running: adapt it to the terrain or the objective, to a road or a forest, an uphill slope or a downhill slope. You have to conceptualize (more or less according to the people) this capability to be effective. Go one step further and “surrogate” the capability with some machine or device, surrogate foot-walking or foot-running with a device enabling us to transport ourselves without using our feet. Then invent the wheel and the cart, the car, the bicycle, etc. The wheel is the surrogate of our feet. It expands and extends our feet in their walking-running capability. This shows the real material natural world when we conceptualize some functions can be surrogated as for these functions with artificial devices pre-conceptualized in a design, realized in the material device itself that surrogates the initial function conceptualized from the real material natural world. The first conceptualization is virtual and is constructed in our mind by our central nervous system (in connection with the real world outside and inside our own body). Then the second conceptualization designing a device that will surrogate the function we have previously conceptualized is also constructed in our mind. It can then eventually be materialized as a drawing, or a model. Then the device is produced and we reach the third conceptualization of its function. We have the following chain:


– 1ST VIRTUAL MENTAL CONCEPTUALIZATION – “walking/running” capability
– 3RD VIRTUAL MENTAL CONCEPTUALIZATION – “(means of) transportation”

Marshall McLuhan cannot consider that the virtual surrogates have in any way the negative dimension Jean Baudrillard would give them. At the same time Marshall McLuhan is perfectly in phase with Paul Radin. The very projection of the virtual conceptualizations onto the body enables us to expand-extend that body into surrogate devices. These devices are real material man-made surrogates of the basic real material physical capabilities of our body. We can consider the conceptualizations themselves and their concepts are surrogates and then they would be virtual and in many ways immaterial, though materiality should not mean touchable.

We could conclude with a short note on, what Paul Radin says on monotheism. He seems to refuse any evolutionary approach of monotheism but at the same time he takes for granted that monotheism was basically invented by the three Hebraic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). In fact he is mistaken about these three religions.

Judaism has a binary vision: check Genesis and look for “God and his spirit.”
Christianity has a ternary vision: the Trinity, the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Islam has a binary vision: unitary as for God but binary as for the Quran, God and His Prophet.

We could of course think of all the “primitive” mythologies in which God is never alone, be he the main one or the only one because he has a Transformer, a Trickster of a type or another to bring to man the divine knowledge man is stated as not able to produce. Without in anyway wishing to be blasphemous, we could wonder if that Transformer, or that Trickster, or whatever other intermediary used by God to enlighten man is not similar to the Spirit of God or Archangel Gabriel, Jesus, and Mahomet. God in these three monotheistic religions always has a helper somewhere and somehow. In fact the only one of these three religions that does not take such a helper among men is Judaism, though we could discuss Moses as the deliverer of the Covenant.


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