Primitive Man as Philosopher

by Paul Radin, 1927

I wanted to like this book, but the flaws are too great.  The author, Paul Radin, wants to prove that the tribal peoples of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and the Pacific have developed well thought-out philosophies, but nearly all that he can come up with are myths, ethical maxims, and other folk sayings.  I don’t doubt that these have value in themselves, but they are only raw material from which one might begin to philosophize.  Radin presents little evidence that the natives themselves, even their intellectual elite, have done this.  Instead, he engages in some amateur philosophizing himself, trying to systematize the reported cultural material rather than report the systemizations of his subjects.  Not surprisingly, he comes up with “principles” of primitive peoples’ thought–such as “respect for the development and expression of individual personality” that sound like the sort of ethical axioms an early 20th-century American with ties to the pragmatist movement might lay down.  (This book sports a forward by John Dewey–that in itself should have scared me off.)  The primitives themselves are never quoted explicitly formulating these modern-sounding principles.  Perhaps this is evidence that they have some philosophical acumen after all.

Given the paucity of explicitly philosophical material, Radin makes some rhetorical moves intended to offset criticism that actually undermine his credibility.  He dismisses concerns about a lack of systematic speculative thought, saying that systemization is just a Western preoccupation.  Has the man never heard of Ibn Sina, Samkara, or Zhu Xi?  Then there are the attempts–annoyingly common in anthropologists–to make his primitives look good by denigrating Christianity.  Do the natives’ ethical codes leave something to be desired?  Well, they’re still better than Christian morality, in which (Radin seems to believe) it doesn’t matter how you treat people as long as you go around saying that you love them.  This doesn’t make me think any more highly of the Winnebago; it just makes me question Radin’s reliability.  If he’s such a boneheaded critic of his own culture, how well could he really understand another?

The highlight of the book, for me, was the two chapters on primitive man’s understanding of God.  Radin accepts and presents evidence for Andrew Lang’s thesis that the most primitive peoples are at least incipiently monotheistic.  In addition to their lower dieties, they posit the existence of a Supreme Being.

From the Maori comes the following impressive description of the Supreme Being.  Reading it, I feel certain that it is the true God they are describing.

Io-te-wananga (Io-the-omnierudite) of the heavens is the origin of all things.  These are the things tat Io-mata-ngaro (Io-the-unseen-face) retained to himself; the sprit and the life and the form; it is by these that all things have form according to their kind…

All things were subservient to Io-the-great-one, and hence the truth of the names of Io:

Io-the-great-god-over-all, Io-the-enduring (or everlasting), Io-the-all-parent, Io-of-all-knowledge, Io-the-origin-of-all-things (the one true God), Io-the-immutable, Io-the-summit-of-heaven, Io-the-god-of-one-command, Io-the-hidden-face, Io-only-seen-in-a-flash-of-light, Io-presiding-in-all-heavens, Io-the-exalted-of-heaven, Io-the-parentless (self-created), Io-the-life-giving, Io-who-renders-not-to-man-that-which-he-withholds…

Now, it is clear that all things, the worlds and their belongings, all gods of mankind, his own gods, all are gathered in his presence (i.e. proceed from him).  There is nothing outside or beyond him; with him is the power of life, of death, of godship.  Everything that proceeds from other than Io and his commands, death is the collector of those.  If all his commands are obeyed and fulfilled by everyone, safety and well-being result therefrom.

Now, it is obvious that all things of life and death are combined in the presence of (or are due to) Io-the-hidden-face; there is nothing outside or beyond him.  All godships are in him and he appoints them their places; the gods of the dead and the gods of the living.  All things are named (i.e. created) by the god of the worlds, in the heavens, the plances and the water, each has its own function.  Even the smallest atom, such as grains of dust, or pebbles, has its place–to hold the boundaries of the ocean or the waters.

Few primitive peoples have carried their speculations this far, but it seems that at least the Maori have had among their number some genuine theistic philosophers.

One Response

  1. That Maori quote almost sounds as though it might have been written by the Psalmist. “Io” sounds like “Yah.”

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