Winch's 'Understanding a Primitive Society' addressed the question of how to interpret apparently irrational alien beliefs and practices. Criticizing Evans-Pritchard's study of Zande witchcraft, Winch argued that across cultures there are divergent conceptions of what is rational and real and that, where they diverge, it is mistaken to apply 'our' standards and conceptions to 'their' beliefs. Winch's position is here re-examined in the light of the current debate about whether the Hawaiians thought Captain Cook was divine. Sahlins holds that they did, asserting that different cultures have different rationalities. Obeyesekere disagrees, holding that these views are just further evidence of European mythmaking about the natives' savage mentality, and that 'practical rationality' is common to all cultures. In conclusion it is argued that Sahlins's 'Maussian' interpretative strategy is preferable to Obeyesekere's 'Davidsonian' approach, that Sahlins cannot sustain his Winchean claim about rationality and that denying it is a precondition for understanding a practice central to all cultures: that of trying to get the world right.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- History and Philosophy of Science