The English philosopher and anthropologist, Robert Ranulph Marett was known for his philosophical analysis concerning the evolution of religious beliefs and rites. Born in Jersey, Channel Islands, Marett was a product of a traditional English educational system that stressed the basic classics common during the latter half of the 19th century. Marett pursued scholastic endeavors at both Victoria College and Balliol College. After completion of his education, he held several positions at Oxford University, including fellow and rector. Besides his academic pursuits, he was cofounder of the Oxford University Anthropological Society. The influence of classical thought with a philosophical perspective can be seen in his views on both anthropology and religion. These influential views are apparent in his major published works of Anthropology (1912); Faith, Hope, and Charity in Primitive Religion (1932); and Head, Heart, and Hands in Human Evolution (1935).
Contributions and Perspectives
Marett recognized the critical importance of Darwin in the discipline of anthropology. For Marett, Darwinian evolution was the essential theoretical or philosophical framework by which the scientific study of our species becomes possible. Although he did not assign philosophy under the domain of anthropology, Marett had acknowledged that philosophy is the thread by which science operates. In this manner, both critical thought and open scope of inquiry can lead to greater scientific explanations. The philosophical inquiry reduces the rigidity and dogmatic acceptance of unquestioned theoretical explanations, especially when it is applied within an historical perspective.
Marett’s perspective on the scope of anthropology would be conducive with most modern perspectives on this topic. Condoning a holistic view, the anthropologist should be well versed in anatomy, geography, linguistics, and the adaptations that the arrays of culture have provided. Although rudimentary, the acknowledgment of variations in phenotypic expressions is by no means an indication of worth; the common psychological operations of our species can express its humanity within the domain of culture. In this process, the anthropologist can understand the uniting factors of both political and religious structures found throughout the world. Thus, the anthropologist can indirectly augment the practical art of “healing” the political and religious fracturing within the world. This inevitably would require that the anthropologist understand both his or her own deepest self and the society that is the object of study. This places the anthropologist beyond the constraints of ethnocentrism inherited in Western philosophical thought and proceeds into the realm of humanism.
One of the greatest contributions made by Marett concerned his unique perspective on magic and religion. With his philosophical perspective and developments in psychology, Marett’s views on religion were contrary to the established and influential perspectives presented by James Frazer and Burnett Tylor. For Marett, these views on religion became too restrictive and intellectualized to accurately depict all of the processes involved in religion. The basis of the religion can be found in the subject awe of the individual toward the unknown or mysterious, a supernatural perspective prodded by both intellectual limitation and feelings. This primitive foundation of religion, aptly termed animatism, does not indicate a dualistic physical-spiritual existence. Rather, it should be seen in terms of powers constituted within or related to an object, all of which might not be associated with spirits. In this manner, there is a differentiation between the object and its power. Examples of these powers can be seen in the practice of witchcraft and the protective powers of objects or symbols, all of which do not constitute a spirit. Such a mysterious force gives religion a wider base than Tylor’s animism.
The same consideration afforded to the basis of religion was also extended to the concepts of magic. In the evolution of religion, the process of performing magic (e.g., spell) is depicted as an extension of the emotional release of stress. Psychologically, for the individual, the process of transference stems from the will for action toward a particular end, although there may be a distinction between the object or symbol and the “reality” for the willed outcome. This process easily develops into prayer. The fluid motion from magic to prayer dwells in mystery of super-naturalism. When infused into social structures, the independence of magic can be seen in the concept of taboos. These unseen forces are unleashed to unknown destructive ends. Although there is a difference between taboo and witchcraft, the concept of magic as a supernatural force remains. Even when developed into prayer, the request for aid involves a perceived magical outcome steeped in awe. This process returns to Marett’s view on animatism.
As a social anthropologist, Marett valued social psychology in the process of comparing religions of various cultures. Not totally discounting the individual, it is society that is responsible for the emotive tone of religion and its associated value system. This social reinforcement of values can be seen not only in taboos but also in regard to moral development of the individual. In the social arena, the individual’s will and complete psychological constituents both are directed toward its rites of passage. In this manner, both magic and social development are blended to fulfill or complete the individual’s maturity with freedom and enlightenment. Authority, both social and religious, relies on these psychological factors, essentially promoting faith and hope as a communal experience.
Although Marett’s critique of Frazer and Tylor are perhaps well founded, the advancements made in the fields of both biology and psychology would question Marett’s conclusions. These advancements, along with new philosophical perspectives, would certainly call for a reanalysis of his theoretical framework. Despite our scientific advancements, Marett’s contribution cannot be diminished. His philosophical inquiry and differing perspective on psychology yielded a differing opinion on the fundamental principles governing primitive religion. Recognizing that feelings play an important role in human activity, the overrationalization of belief structures can be seen as seriously flawed. At the risk of misrepresenting Marett’s intentions, it is possible that both the ambiguity of language in regard to religious categorization and “fuzzy” logic associated with emotion are partly to blame for the “pro” rational view. Considering the extensive influence of Aristotelian philosophy in Western thought, both Frazier and Tylor’s views are understandable. However, Marett’s unique perspective and cultural relativism bring deeper meaning to the evaluation of the human experience. The individual is more than an automaton, that is, a logic machine with incredible associative abilities. Marett’s view of the human, as with anthropology, was holistic and complete, providing a deeper meaning for both.
- Firth, R. (1953). The study of values by social anthropologists: The Marett lecture, 1953. Man, 53, 145-153.
- Hammond, D. (1970). Magic: A problem in semantics. American Anthropologist, 72, 1349-1356.
- Horton, R. (1960). A definition of religion and its uses. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 90, 201-226.
- Marett, R. R. (1900). The threshold of religion. London: Methuen.
- Marett, R. R. (1912). Anthropology. New York: Henry Holt.
- Marett, R. R. (1932). Faith, hope, and charity in primitive religion. New York: Macmillan.
- Marett, R. R. (1934). The growth and tendency of anthropological and ethnological studies. Man, 34, 141-142.