Works of Lev Vygotsky

Primitive Behavior

It thus becomes clear that primitive man, in his own development, had already taken that vital step of shifting from natural arithmetic to the use of signs. As we have found the same shift in the development of memory and thinking, we may therefore assume that this is the general direction taken by the historical development of human behavior.

just as man’s increasing domination of nature is founded less on the development of his natural organs than on the enhancement of his technology, so also his control over himself, and the unrelenting development of his behavior is founded mainly on the enhancement of external symbols, devices and techniques elaborated in a particular social environment under the pressure of technical and economic demands.

All of man’s natural psychological operations became radically altered by these influences. Some withered away, while others became more highly developed. However, the most important, decisive and characteristic element in this process is the fact that it was enhanced from the outside, and was ultimately determined by the social life of the group or the people to which an individual belonged.

Whereas we have found that apes used tools but not symbols, in the case of primitive man we find work, as the basis of his existence, arising from the use of primitive tools, and the transition from natural psychological processes (such as eidetic memory and direct perception of quantities) to the use of civilized symbols and to the creation of a special civilized technology enabling him to control his own behavior.

There is, however, in this regard, one feature which characterizes the stage reached by primitive man in his development. If we are asked to name one essential trait of primitive man, magic or magical thinking most usually come to mind. As we shall try to show, this trait characterizes not only man’s external behavior, aimed at achieving control over nature, but also his behavior aimed at achieving control over himself.

Any simple example will suffice to illustrate the essence of magic. Let us say that a man wants it to rain. For this purpose he proceeds to depict rain by means of a special ceremony, in which he blows hard, waves his arms and strikes a drum, in order to simulate the wind, lightning and thunder; he also pours water. In other words, he imitates rain, creating a visual picture similar to the one he hopes to elicit in nature. When primitive or semi-primitive man copulates on a sown field, in the hope of stirring the soil to fertility, he is also engaging in similar magic, based on analogy.

As Dantsel has correctly observed, primitive man performs the fertility ceremony in those instances where we would use agricultural technique. These simple examples make it clear that primitive man resorts to magical operations as a means of achieving control or dominion over nature, or of bringing about, at will, various phenomena.

This is what makes magical behavior essentially human, and beyond the reach of animals. For the same reason it is wrong to regard magic merely as an inadequacy of thinking. In a sense, in fact, it is an enormous step ahead in comparison with animal behavior. It expresses a mature human tendency to dominate nature, in other words, a tendency to shift to a fundamentally new form of adaptation.

Magic exhibits not only a tendency to dominate nature but to an equal extent a tendency to dominate oneself. In this respect, we find in it the embryo of another purely human form of behavior: control of one’s own reactions. Magic envisages a basically identical influence on the forces of nature and on human behavior. It may conspire to an equal degree to induce either love or rain. For this reason, it contains the undivided nucleus of future technique designed to dominate nature, and of civilized technique for the control of man’s own behavior.

Dantsel accordingly finds that, contrary to the objective practice of our own technique, we may to some extent classify magical behavior as a kind of subjective, instinctively applied psychotechnique. In his opinion, the lack of differentiation between the objective and the subjective, and their gradual polarization, mark the starting point and the most vital path of cultural development.

In actual fact, the complete separation of the objective and the subjective becomes possible only on the basis of a highly developed technique whereby man, while influencing nature, comes to know it as something outside himself and subject to its own special laws. In the process of his own behavior, as he accumulates a certain psychological experience, he comes to know the laws governing his behavior.

Man influences nature by repelling its forces and compelling some of them to act upon others. He acts upon himself in a similar way, by repelling external forces (stimuli) and compelling them to act upon themselves. This experience of exerting influence through the intermediate external force of nature, this way of using psychological tools is identical for both technique and behavior.

BŘhler and Koffka have rightly observed that, when it first occurs in the child, the use of words to symbolize things parallels psychologically the use of sticks in experiments with chimpanzees. Observations of the child have shown that, from the psychological point of view, all the features of the process we have seen in apes occur once again here. What distinguishes the magical thinking of primitive man is the fact that two modes of his behavior, aimed respectively at dominating nature and dominating himself, have not yet become two separate entities.

Reinach defines magic as the strategy of animism. Other authors, such a Hubert and Mauss, have defined it as the technique of animism. And of course it is true that primitive man, viewing nature as a system of animate objects and forces, acts on those forces just as he acts on an animate creature. For this reason, Taylor is right to consider magic as an erroneous emphasis on the ideal at the expense of the real.

Frazer is right when he says that magic regards control over thoughts as control over things: natural laws are supplanted by psychological laws, and, for primitive man, whatever is similar in the mind is similar in reality. Therein lies the basis of imitative magic. The above examples make it clear that in magical operations the attempt to act upon nature is governed by the law of simple association through similarity.

Since the ceremony performed is reminiscent of rain, it must therefore prompt rainfall in nature; since the sexual act leads to fertility, it must guarantee a good harvest. Acts such as these prove possible only if one assumes that the laws of nature and of thought are one and the same. A similar identification between the laws of nature and, those of thought also underlies other magical operations, for example, the practice of damaging, tearing or piercing the image of someone to whom one wishes to do harm, or of burning pieces of his hair, etc.

Our account of the magical behavior of man would be incomplete if we did not point out that man displays the same attitude not only towards nature, but also towards himself.

Words, numbers and knots used for memorization also gradually begin to play the role of magical devices, because primitive man has not yet mastered his own behavior to the point where he can understand the real laws governing language, numbers or mnemotechical symbols. To him, the successful effect of those devices seems magical, just as primitives used to ascribe to magic the white man’s ability to communicate thoughts in writing, etc.

It would, however, be a great mistake to attach absolute importance to the magical character of primitive thinking and behavior, as LÚvy-Bruhl does, and to confer on it the status of a primary feature, of independent origin. As Thurnwald notes, research has shown that magic is certainly not found most commonly among the most primitive peoples. A suitable medium for its development is found only among the semi-primitives, while it flourishes among the higher primitives and the ancient civilized peoples. Considerable cultural development is needed in order for the prerequisites for magic to be fulfilled.

It is therefore evident that primitive and magical behavior really cannot be said to be co-extensive, and that magic is not a primary but a relatively late feature of thinking. Leroi writes, “In magic LÚvy-Bruhl has found a fundamental sphere which confirms his ideas. But magic also exists among the civilized peoples; like belief in magical forces, it is not ipso facto synonymous with thinking contrary to the natural laws of logic. “This latter point is particularly important, as it enables us to understand the true place and significance of magic in primitive behavior. We have already referred to Thurnwald’s fine analysis in which he shows that the magical ceremony of driving out spirits from a sick person is entirely logical from the standpoint of primitive man’s understanding of the causes of the illness.

Thurnwald has also demonstrated that in order for magic to emerge, the technical powers of primitive man must have developed to a certain level. Without that degree of technical and mental development, behavior cannot assume magical traits. Magic does not, therefore, generate primitive technique and the primitive mentality: instead, magic is generated by technique and the related technique of primitive thinking.

This becomes particularly clear when we consider not only that magic came on the scene quite late and is relatively independent of the primitive Way of life, but also that even where magic is highly developed it is not the sole dominant influence on primitive behavior and thinking, and certainly does not color primitive behavior as a whole. Indeed, as research has shown, it represents only one of the many facets of behavior, which, though internally or organically linked to all the others, cannot replace them and is not identical with them.

One researcher, whose opinion we have already quoted, argues that if primitive man really thought in the manner prescribed by LÚvy-Bruhl he would not survive more than a single day. This is certainly true. The whole of adaptation to nature, the whole of primitive technical activity, hunting, fishing and war – in a word, all the essential components of the life of primitive man, would be absolutely impossible if based solely on magical thinking, as would the control of behavior, mnemotechnical activity, the beginnings of writing and numeration, and the use of symbols. In order to achieve mastery over the forces of nature and one’s own behavior, one’s thinking must be real, not imaginary; logical, not mystical; and technical, not magical.

We have already seen that the magical significance of primary mnemotechnical devices, words and numbers – and of symbols in general – is of later origin, and in any case cannot be said to be original or primary. Leroi is right when he says that there is nothing primitive about the mystical significance of numbers. This is also true of late increments of magic. In any case, magic is not the primary origin of cultural development, nor is it a synonym of the primitive, the primeval and the rudimentary in thinking. Yet even where it does occur, as we have already seen, it does not encompass behavior as a whole.

In the words of Leroi, “primitive man exists on two different planes, one of which is natural or experimental, while the other is supernatural or mystical. This applies in equal degree to the mind of the primitive and to his life. The two planes may merge, though this is not the rule, notwithstanding the claims of LÚvy-Bruhl.” While the importance of magicians should not be underestimated, say Leroi in another connection, it should also not be exaggerated; above all, it should be considered in its proper context. “In other words, it is wrong to assert that the primitive mind constantly mixes up magical powers and technical skill.” People who become chiefs, for example, are not magicians, but those with the greatest age and experience, valor and eloquence.

LÚvy-Bruhl’s principal mistake is his failure to give due weight to the technical activity and the practical intellect of primitive man. His use of implements, which, though genetically linked to the operations of the chimpanzee is of an infinitely higher caliber, is fundamentally different from magic.

LÚvy-Bruhl frequently misinterprets the thinking of primitive man as being identical with his instinctive and automatic activity.

As Leroi has the following to say on this Point: “One cannot compare, as LÚvy-Bruhl does, the technical activity of primitive man with the skill of a billiard player. This is a fit subject for comparison with the way primitive man swims, or climbs trees, but the making of a bow or an axe amount to much more than an instinctive operation: the material has to be chosen and its properties recognized; it then has to be dried, softened and cut, etc. In all of this, skill may impart precision to a person’s movements, but cannot analyze or combine them. A billiard player may have no mathematical ability at all, but the designer of the billiard game must have had something more than instinctive skill. Does a lack of abstract theory mean the absence of logic? On seeing that a boomerang is returning to him, how can a primitive not attribute this to the effect of the spirit? He would have had to see in this the result of its shape, and identify the functional details in order to reproduce them.”

It is not our purpose here. to delve further into this matter. The problem of magic far transcends the confines of our topic, and requires something more than psychological investigation and explanation; nonetheless, we wish to hazard the theoretical assumption that magical thinking, considered as the difference between the need to control natural forces and one’s actual ability to do so, is not only due to an inadequate development of technique and reason, accompanied by an exaggeration of one’s own powers, as Thurnwald argues, but emerges properly at a certain stage in the development of technique and thinking, as the necessary product of the tendency, as yet undivided, to control both nature and one’s own behavior, from the primitive union of “naive psychology and naive physics.”

Throughout this presentation, we have sought to show that the thinking devices with which primitive nun is endowed inevitably lead to integrated thinking, preparing the psychological ground for magic. A divergence in the course of development of the practical intellect, or technical thinking, and oral or verbal thinking is the second prerequisite for the emergence of magic. The need for the early development of technical thinking, and the adaptation and subjugation of the forces of nature to one’s own power constitutes the major difference between the intellect of primitive man and that of the child.

The third theory of psycho-cultural development, to which we have referred in one of the first paragraphs of this chapter, and whose main aspects we have tried to develop in this study, holds that the basic components of the psychological development of primitive man are to be found in the development of technique, and the corresponding development of social structure. It is not magic that gives rise to technique, but the corresponding development of technique, under the special conditions of primitive life, that give rise to magical thinking.

This primitive union of “naive psychology” and “naive physics” can be seen with special clarity in the processes of primitive work, which we, to our great regret, have been obliged to leave aside, but which truly are the key to understanding the whole of the behavior of primitive man. This union finds its material symbolic expression in the combination of tool and symbol that is so common among the primitive peoples. For example, as Bucher says, “In Borneo and the Celebes special digging sticks have been found, with a smaller stick attached at one end. When this stick is used to loosen the soil during the planting of rice, the smaller stick emits a sound.” This sound is rather similar to the commands of shouts intended to regulate the pace of work. The sound of the device attached to the digging stick takes the place of the human voice. Here a tool, as a means of acting upon nature, and a symbol, as a stimulant to behavior, are combined in the same device, from which the primitive spade and drum were later to evolve.

The combination in magical action of the tendency toward control of nature and the tendency toward control over one’s own behavior, reflecting in the distorting mirror of magic the start of cultural development – the full title of man, in the words of Thurnwald – is the most characteristic trait of the personality of primitive man. Subsequent cultural development, driven by man’s growing domination of nature, causes those two tendencies to diverge. More advanced technical development eventually separates the laws of nature from the laws of thinking, and magical action begins to fade away.

In parallel with the higher degree of domination over nature, social life and work begin to make control over one’s own behavior increasingly imperative. Language, numbers, writing and other technical devices all develop. With their’ help, man’s behavior itself rises to new levels.