Animist Theory of Mind (Nietzsche)

As regular readers know, over the past few months I’ve been digging around the early literature on the origins, evolution, and history of what we we today call “religion.” In addition to the well known classics (David Hume, Charles Darwin, Edward Tylor, Emile Durkheim, and James Frazer), this literature includes lesser known work by early anthropologists such as RR Marett and John Lubbock.

As regular readers also know, I’m finding that these foundational figures have already thought and written about most of the things that have preoccupied cognitive and evolutionary scholars of religion over the past 15 years. The main differences seem to be that the old-timers didn’t have access to modern neuroscientific terminology or equipment, didn’t experiment with undergraduates or children, and didn’t run statistical tests on data. Other than this, much of what is ostensibly new in cognitive and evolutionary religious studies is actually quite old.

There was one thing, however, that I thought was truly new. This is the idea that “theory of mind” — the ability to attribute mental states to others and understand that others can have mental states different from one’s own — plays a key role in animist and religious thinking. Theory of mind research has been raging over the past few decades and continues unabated. So it must be new, right? Wrong.

Yesterday I was reading “Nietzsche’s Debt to Lubbock” (Thatcher 1983) and was chagrined to learn that Nietzsche argued this long ago:

Now man believed originally that wherever he saw something happen, a will had to be at work in the background as a cause, and a personal, willing being. Any notion of mechanics was far from his mind. But since man believed, for immense periods of time, only in persons [i.e., minds] (and not in substances, forces, things, and so forth), the faith in cause and effect became for him the basic faith that he applies wherever anything happens — and this is what he still does instinctively: it is an atavism of the most ancient origin. (Gay Science, aphorism 127).

Ancestral humans, in other words, “supposed that the mind was everywhere” and then “projected” mind onto everything (Dawn of Day, aphs. 31,17). There are some resonances here with Stewart Guthrie’s “faces in the clouds” argument that pervasive anthropomorphizing gives rise to animist-religious ideation. Not convinced that Nietzsche is contemplating what we would today call “theory of mind”? Try this:

In the inner psychic economy of the primitive man, fear of evil predominates. What is evil? Three things: chance, the uncertain, the sudden. How does primitive man fight against evil? He conceives it as reason, as power, even as a person [i.e., mind]. In this way he establishes the possibility of entering into a kind of treaty with it and in general to exercise influence over it in advance — to forestall it. (Will to Power, aph. 1019).

This is theory of mind. Nietzsche clearly thinks it key to animist-religious ideation. He is in good company with modern scholars, many of whom argue the same thing with different language. I should have known.

Cartoon Illustration of Theory of Mind

Ideation aside, Nietzsche also talks about ritual traditions that become established by chance events or coincidences. The classic example of this comes from Skinner’s experiment showing that pigeons can be conditioned to act “superstitiously” in response to chance events. Nietzsche notes that over time the original events giving rise to the (chance) association is forgotten, leaving a ritual whose purpose appears aimless. Yet such rituals persist. Why? Nietzsche gives an answer that presages Durkheim and sounds like group level selection:

How the [ritual] tradition has arisen is immaterial, at all events without regard to good and evil or any immanent categorical imperative, but above all for the purpose of preserving a community, a generation, an association, a people. (All Too Human, aph. 96).

Given that Nietzsche was the focus of my first round of graduate study, I should have known this too. I think one of the lessons in all this is that we moderns should mind (and mine) the classics carefully before thinking we have discovered something new.

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