Witchcraft, Magic and Rationality
Social Anthropology seeks to gauge an understanding of cultures and practices whether they are foreign or native. This is achieved through the studying of language, education, customs, marriage, kinship, hierarchy and of course belief and value systems. Rationality is a key concept in this process as it affects the anthropologist’s interpretation of the studied group’s way of life: what s/he deems as rational or plausible practice. Witchcraft and magic pose problems for many anthropologists, as its supernatural nature is perhaps conflicting to the common Western notions of rationality, mainly deemed superior. In this essay I will be exploring the relationship between rationality and witchcraft and magic, and will further explore rationality as a factor of knowledge.
Rationality from the Latin ‘rationari’ meaning to ‘think’ or ‘calculate’ is a significant concept in Western philosophy born out of the Enlightenment. During the 17th and 18th centuries many philosophers began to emphasise the use of reason as the best method of learning objective truth. Pioneers in this field include Descartes and Locke.
This was also a time when science came to the forefront of Western thought, seen as the embodiment of rationality. It was believed that the ability to reason is the very thing that separates man from other animals. It is what makes us human, and therefore it is our job to utilise this benefit at all times. As rationality grew in importance its contrasts such as ignorance and superstition were seen to have no place in a rational Western society. Things that were unexplainable through rational means were invalid. These are terms that can and are applied to practices such as witchcraft and magic.
Witchcraft and magic are practices that call upon supernatural, unseen forces.
Witchcraft is the use of these forces for negative ends, to extort evil, and magic asks for positive ends. Witchcraft has been found to exist in all corners of the globe at some point. It is no coincidence that during the Enlightenment, witch hunts in Europe and North America became common. The aim was to rid society of these people regarded as unreasonable and dangerous. By contrast self-proclaimed witches still have a function in some societies today, mainly in the developing world. Magic however is often a word used to describe certain people’s modes of divination, mainly those in the developing world. It is my view though that magic and the institution of religion are not as different as it may first appear. The Yorubas chanting to the god Shango is no different to the congregation of a church singing hymns. Both are with good intentions, and both may ask for some divine intervention. Labelling one form magic and one religion is just semantics.
To question whether it is rational to believe in witchcraft and magic is in fact just a question as to whether the belief in supernatural intervention is rational. Is it...