In Mary Douglas's Purity & Danger, she reports that the anthropologist Vansina

recalled affectionately three very independent thinkers he found amongst the Bushong, who liked to expound their personal philosophies to him. One old man had come to the conclusion that there was no reality, that all experience is a shifting illusion. The second had developed a numerological type of metaphysics, and the last had evolved a cosmological scheme of great complexity that no-one except himself understood.

So here, we have, so to speak, a Heraclitus, a Pythagoras and a Badiou.

Douglas remarks:

So it is important to point out again, as has often been said before, that these connections between persons and events which characterise the primitive culture do not derive from failure to differentiate. They do not even neccessarily express the thoughts of individuals. It is quite possible tht individual members of such cultures hold very divergent views on Cosmology

as indeed, the three men above did.

So how then does one distinguish primitive cosmology or find it? What are its markers? One cannot simply say primitive cosmology is that found in primitive cultures - or so it seems.

  • The interesting thing - for my point of view - is not so much that a primitive society like the Bushong produce an individual able to "think" as Heraclitus did (but this is the way in which the anthropologist has "translated" - with insight - the narration of the Bushong), but that after around 3,000 years of culture and "intellectual evolution" we still loose time with the "primitive narration" of a Bushong-philosopher like Badiou. Apr 10, 2014 at 10:54
  • Allegranza: I was making a humourous point. I think one has to understand the arc of french philosophical & political thought to begin to make sense of it - in the sense of being able to critique it. Possibly exposition of his thought leaves something to be desired. The anthropologists insight, if we assume professional courtesy in that he hasn't mangled the thought, is to translate it into the categories of thought that make sense to us philosophically. Apr 10, 2014 at 11:29

3 Answers 3


I'm inclined to interpret primitive in the "not developed or derived from anything else" sense: individuals can come to their world-views based almost solely on there own personal experience, with only limited outside intellectual/cultural influence. This can be contrasted with "non-primitive" cosmologies that exist in the context of a structured organization, a school in the most general sense of the term, that serves as a locus for the maintenance and dissemination of its ideas.

I'd liken this as being similar to the concept of a "moral intuition" -- a most basic, almost instinctual, sense of how the world works in a moral sense.

In the same way, people can, without extensive training or indoctrination, generate a model for how the world is, and thus about how it came to be, without tying it into established intellectual or cultural frames.

  • I think that we cannot "define" primitive with an "essentialist" (absolute) approach: primitive cultures and societies are clearly defined so in anthropology (e.g.Levi-Strauss, Levy-Bruhl) reflecting a "western" point of view. Primitive societies have cosmological myths and narratives that are of course not "scientific". Their "function" was only partially to explain how the world works. Apr 10, 2014 at 10:49
  • Mary Douglas makes the point, and she was writing in the 60s, when 'primitive mentality' was a big question, and was very familiar with the literature, that Anglo-American thought were chary of using the word 'primitive', whereas continental thought quite cheerfully used it - which led her to think, contra appearances, and pace a 'repression' mechanism that the Anglo-American theorists thought themselves above primitive mentality, whereas the continental theorists admired them. Apr 10, 2014 at 11:37
  • Not only to partially explain, but to make the world meaningful. Apr 10, 2014 at 11:39

A "primitive" cosmology would be one which is not based on observational data, where the conclusions or truths derived from it are not subject to experimental verification, and where its fundamentals are not expressed mathematically.


Douglas remarks on the cosmology of a primitive culture. You turn this into the idea of a primitive cosmology. That concept slip is not justified.

"Primitive" is a loaded word at the best of times. Primitive with respect to what? Our own morals, social and cultural complexity, scientific understanding, technology, what exactly? All too often it is used in a vague, derogatory and catch-all sense, as inferior to ourselves. This may be true for some aspects of a culture but quite false for others, while yet others may just be a matter of viewpoint or mode of thought.

I would answer you; what makes a cosmology primitive is the subjective viewpoint of the commentator.

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