Jahoda Psychology of Superstition – A mode of thinking

Posted on August 1, 2007


In yet another very interesting chapter, Jahoda juxtaposes the approach to magical thinking put forward by Tylor and Frazer as opposed to that proposed by Levy-Bruhl, a student of Durkheim. While the former two assumed that ‘primitive people’ thought in ways identical to our own, Levy Bruhl (according to Jahoda) claimed that “while civilised thought is rational, logical and scientific, primitive thought is affective, poetic and mystical” with the difference being due to cultural (rather than genetic) causes. Jahoda adds:

Moreover, although he perhaps placed insufficient stress on this, Levy-Bruhl definitely recognised that what he called pre-logical modes of thinking persist side by side with logical ones in civilised societies.

This extra point is vital as it shows the connection between Levy-Bruhl and a modern approach to superstition that is pursued by Lindeman, among others. The approach is to claim that human beings have available to them two modes of thinking – the rational mode which is associated with logic and the intuitive mode which is more basic. Superstition is then thought to be due to some aspect of the more primitive mode of thinking. The connection becomes even clearer when Jahoda introduces Piaget’s work on children’s thinking. The main idea as it is pursued now is that children early on develop one or more modes of thinking about specific contexts, such modes being called naive psychology, naive physics, etc. depending upon their area of relevance – this being tied to Pinker’s massive modularity thesis, i.e. that the human mind is a collection of context-specific modules. These modes of thinking are deemed to have various short comings but to play a vital role in development. What is more, the general concensus seems to be that something like these modes continue to function throughout people’s adult lives. In that context, the idea becomes linked to the dual-process reasoning models put forward by Jonathan Evans and others. Strangely enough, reading Jahoda’s book helped me to start sorting out the connections here even though Jahoda predates most of these developments. Indeed, because he only can only write about the general ideas since the details had not been developed, his writing achieves a big picture clarity that it is harder to have these days. Certainly, reading also has helped me to clarify the difference between the tradition that Lindeman is working in and the Skinnerian tradition which is exemplified by Vyse and others.