In a critical tone, Winch notes that in Evans-Pritchard's work, "There is more than one remark to the effect that "obviously there are no witches"..." (p. 307). This might make Winch appear to be criticizing E-P simply for disagreeing with the Azande. But I don't think that's quite right.
On p. 308 Winch writes that:
Evans-Pritchard, although he emphasizes that a member of scientific culture has a different conception of reality from that of a Zande believer in magic, wants to go beyond merely registering this fact and making the differences explicit, and to say, finally, that the scientific conception agrees with what reality actually is like, whereas the magical conception does not.If E-P goes wrong it is not, according to Winch, simply for rejecting Zande belief in witches, oracles, and magic but for doing so on the grounds that such belief supposedly fails to agree with reality. One apparent problem here is that it is hard to see a difference between saying, as I surely may, "I do not believe in witches etc." and saying, as Winch finds problematic, "belief in witches etc. does not agree with reality." Surely (at least sometimes) belief that p = belief that p is true = belief that p agrees with reality. Winch sounds as though he is saying that it is a mistake to go beyond saying "I believe this and you believe that" to saying "I am right and you are wrong." But that can't be right. It can't simply by definition be wrong to think oneself right. If 'right' and 'wrong' mean anything then it is possible that I am right and others with different beliefs are wrong. And if 'right' and 'wrong' mean nothing then it is meaningless to say that I am wrong to say that I am right (or wrong).
Presumably Winch is not making that mistake. He is not talking about what anyone might say but about what Evans-Pritchard says. The mistake, whatever it might turn out to be, is a mistake given Evans-Pritchard's particular goals and commitments. And what it will turn out to be has to do with his making certain claims finally and beyond certain other claims. That is, as a kind of justification. Winch would not object, I take it, to a Zande person assuring us that he believes in magic, nor to a European insisting that he believes in science. Nor would he object, I believe, to these assurances being made in the idiom of agreement with reality. The problem he sees is with trying to claim in a non-circular way that one's preferred conception of reality is justified by reality itself.
Evans-Pritchard [...] is trying to work with a conception of reality which is not determined by its actual use in language. He wants something against which that use can itself be appraised. But this is not possible; and no more possible in the case of scientific discourse than it is in any other. (p. 309)Here is another problem. What is not possible? If this allegedly impossible thing is conceivable then don't we need proof, rather than mere assertion, that it really is impossible? And if, as I suspect, Winch means that it is not really conceivable because it is incoherent, then what is the 'it' that Evans-Pritchard wants but cannot have? What is the 'it' that we cannot conceive? It seems a little uncharitable to attribute such incoherence to Evans-Pritchard. But then I suppose it would be equally uncharitable of me to attribute it to Winch. Let's say for now that Winch seems to see in Evans-Pritchard an apparent confusion. We get onto firmer footing very soon, thankfully.
On p. 310 Winch quotes a series of definitions that E-P provides of terms such as 'mystical,' 'scientific,' and 'ritual'. It is clear enough, at least with the help of Winch's italics, that E-P has built pro-science and anti-mysticism, anti-ritual bias into the definitions. If we define the relevant terms in such a way then it is not reality that will justify our preference for science over magic but simply our own uses of language. And that is no justification of such uses at all.
Does consulting oracles make sense? Winch considers this question starting on p. 311. Azande do not treat oracular pronouncements as hypotheses but as guides to action. Is it possible to make decisions about what to do in this way? Yes. Does it make sense to do so? To those who do so, yes. To us, probably not. The disagreement between Winch and E-P arises because:
it is clear from other remarks in the book to which I have alluded, that at the time of writing it he would have wished to add: and the European is right and the Zande wrong. This addition I regard as illegitimate and my reasons for so thinking take us to the heart of the matter. (p. 313)So here we are, at the heart of the matter:
Evans-Pritchard is not content with elucidating the differences in the two concepts of reality involved [in the language of the Azande and in our language]; he wants to go further and say: our concept of reality is the correct one, the Azande are mistaken. But the difficulty is to see what "correct" and "mistaken" can mean in this context. (p. 313)Another difficulty might be to see what "illegitimate" can mean in the context of the previous quotation from p. 313. I don't think Winch can really mean that E-P has no right to prefer the European 'language' to the Zande one. The mistake that Winch has in mind is that of thinking that one language can be more correct than another in a purely objective, value- and preference-free way. Or at least that the European, scientific language is more correct in this kind of way than the Zande language. Perhaps some possible language would be riddled with problems, but the Azande got along with theirs for a very long time (apparently they have moved over to ways of thinking more like ours now, but that's beside the point). In what sense could their language and way of life be (not immoral or ugly or unpleasant but) incorrect or mistaken?
One way that Winch considers would be if it involved contradiction. But merely possible hypothetical contradictions are not a real problem, and it is not irrational to ignore them. Apparent contradictions that do arise must be dealt with in some way, but if there is a way to deal with them then the system as a whole, including this method for dealing with what might otherwise be a problem, is not irrational. Theoretical contradictions matter for theoretical systems, but not everything that might look like such a system really is one. This is Winch's claim about Zande ideas about the inheritance of witchcraft. If witchcraft is inherited, as the Zande (used to) say, then if one member of a clan biologically-related through the male line is a witch the whole clan must be, and if one is not then none can be. There is a post-mortem test that shows whether a person really was "a witch" or not, though, so this could seemingly be used either to show that everyone or no one is a witch. One positive result here or there need not brand the whole clan as witches because the witch might have been illegitimate or swapped at birth or whatever, but enough results one way or the other would surely clear the matter up. Is it irrational, or less rational, of the Azande not to carry out the relevant tests? Winch thinks not. They simply are not interested in knowing about global witch-statuses. This is not a mistake. It is a mistake, though, if we think that they somehow ought (in some supposedly absolute sense) to have such an interest.
This, I gather, is what Winch takes Evans-Pritchard's mistake to be. He wants our standards of rationality, the norms that govern our assessment of ways of thinking and behaving, to justify themselves and delegitimate those that differ from them. He wants, as it were, a kind of neutral or non-evaluative judgment of value. This is incoherent. That's one problem.
Another problem, it seems to me, is that E-P wants to understand the Azande but goes about it in a way that will not work. Later in the paper (p. 319) Winch writes:
Since it is we who want to understand the Zande category [of magic], it appears that the onus is on us to extend our understanding so as to make room for the Zande category, rather than to insist on seeing it in terms of our own ready-made distinction between science and non-science.The issue here is not what makes sense or what is in some sense legitimate but simply what will get us what we want. We will not understand those whose concepts are very different from ours if we insist on an overly simple application of our concepts to theirs or translation of their concepts to ours. Of course we do need to relate their concepts to ours in some way, but we are not stuck, as Winch points out, with a fixed stock of concepts or expressions. We can add to what we have, and part of the point of studying other cultures is to grow in this way.
In the end, then, Winch appears to have identified two errors in Evans-Pritchard's thinking: a pragmatic one and a logical one. The logical one is to try to use your own concepts (or way of life) to justify themselves (or itself). The pragmatic one is to try to understand the behavior of another people without the necessary flexibility and open-mindedness, and, indeed, from a starting point that defines that behavior as irrational.