Re-Packaging E.B. Tylor

Reflections on “The Legacy of Edward Tylor – Roundtable”

by Liam Sutherland

It is a rather odd experience to be writing a response to a podcast in which I participated, along with Graham Harvey, Paul François Tremlett, James Cox, Miguel Astor-Aguilera and Jonathan Jong. This was a roundtable discussion held at the 2017 British Association for the Study of Religion (BASR) conference in Chester reflecting on the place of Sir Edward B. Tylor, founder of social anthropology. Last year may have been nothing if not a tumultuous year (perhaps not compared to 2016) but it was a significant date for scholars of Tylor as the centenary of his death in 1917. All of the roundtable participants had contributed chapters to a volume edited by Harvey, Tremlett and myself published with Bloomsbury in that year Edward Tylor, Religion and Culture, which offered reflections on the multi-faceted nature of the man and his work.  

It would certainly have been interesting to gain a more removed perspective, ideally someone not quite so closely engaged with the question of Tylor’s role and relevance as myself. Though that also demonstrates the unfortunately somewhat niche status of Tylor scholarship. With apologies for that clear lack of distance then, hopefully I can offer some reflections on the discussion as a participant which can generate wider discussion. Indeed, one of the core themes of the roundtable and the volume has been the need to re-examine the stereotyped and pre-packaged means by which we understand the seminal figures, theories and methodologies which have contributed to our scholarship in ways we often take for granted.

This is clearly a process which needs to be applied as generally as possible, my fellow editors and I were extremely glad to contribute to the BASR Bulletin’s Re:thinking series, which offers fresh perspectives on classic texts in the study of religion, on Tylor’s seminal (1871) Primitive Culture. Obviously, we cannot engage with these foundational texts evenly which is why this practice should be encouraged widely and should also promote a healthy scepticism about our inherited views of classical approaches. I, for one, must acknowledge a large to mid-size William James shaped hole in my knowledge of classical theory.

I think we would all like to assert the need to avoid closing off avenues of research associated with undeniably outdated schools of thought. Encouraging a critical eye which examines, makes selective use of and understands but does not ignore the methods and theories of the past. It might just provide overlooked insights and at the very least allows us to understand the complicated development of our thought and practice, just as we strive to do with religion and culture. As Tylor himself acknowledged:

[T]he investigator who turns from his modern text books to the antiquated dissertations of the great thinkers of the past, gains from the history of his own craft a truer view of the relation of theory to fact, learns from the course of growth in each current hypothesis to appreciate its raison d’être and full significance and even finds that a return to older starting points may enable to find new paths, where the modern tracks seem stopped by impassable barriers (Tylor 1903 [1871] 2: 444).

As Jong pointed out, nobody writes like that anymore! The above quotation, I should also add was followed closely by an injunction to avoid slavishly accepting the authority of past scholarship (Tylor 1903 [1871] 2: 452). Hopefully the discussion doesn’t come across too much as the meeting of some kind of Edward Tylor fan club (or as Astor-Aguilera once memorably put it, the intention is not to hold some kind of ‘back to Tylor’ rally) as much as we might appreciate many aspects of our subject. Rather, I would explain the general excitement through the fact that rediscovery, going over ground once briskly walked over, can be as exciting as fresher discoveries. In the process of planning and editing our book, it became clear that the simple act of bringing together scholars interested in different aspects of Tylor’s life and work, or areas of study impacted by it, couldn’t help but generate fresh perspectives because of its relative rarity!

As repeatedly discussed in the roundtable and the volume, Tylor was a far more nuanced, humane, persuasive and multi-faceted thinker and scholar than often comes across in the secondary literature. The difficulties of packaging historical figures and theories in the study of religion for undergraduate courses and textbooks was certainly acknowledged, but nonetheless there was still an evident shared conviction that Tylor has been particularly and largely unfairly overlooked in comparison with other historic and problematic ancestors.  I for one would argue that Tylor’s “intellectualist” approach to religion is particularly crudely stereotyped as concerned only with beliefs in an individualistic and philosophical sense. As I stated in the roundtable, much has been made of the phrase “savage philosopher” but it is mentioned only once or twice within his vast two-volume magnum opus Primitive Culture.

I have on extremely rare occasions encountered views of Tylor’s work which are flat out wrong such as the notion that his evolutionary model divided societies into discrete races or that indigenous peoples were viewed as fundamentally irrational when his theories are dependent on the opposite premises. For the most part though, the received image of Tylor is not inaccurate, it is incomplete and lacking in the level of nuance that more thorough engagement with his work would produce.  In the introduction to the volume we argue that while the canonical Tylor is baked into the primary sources, “other Tylors” or “alternative Tylors” can also emerge.

The discernible tension between Tylor as a grand theorist determined to fit data into his explanatory framework and Tylor as a careful ethnologist with an eye for the contextual details was perhaps the most persistent. Expanding our focus from Primitive Culture to his career as a whole renders this even more acute and presents a greater challenge to the more dismissive attitude to Tylor of early 20th century anthropologists. The critique of Tylor as an “armchair anthropologist” can be readily challenged by evidence that Tylor engaged in a fair amount of field research throughout his life. Astor-Aguilera in his chapter of the volume focuses on his travels in Mexico and the southwestern United States as a young man, detailed in his first book Anahuac (1861), in which he directly encountered indigenous peoples. Due to his interest in the development of language he visited deaf and dumb schools in Europe and drawing on his unpublished notes, Ann Kalvig – another contributor to the volume – has shown that he continued to engage in field research on Spiritualist séances in England until the end of his life.

The latter example sums up some of the tensions which can be gleaned from Tylor’s work, not simply as an individual but as a representative of his time and role as founder of a new science. The confident representative of late Victorian scientific rationalism was, as Harvey mentioned in the discussion, intrigued and challenged by encounters with a living new religious movement and even by some of the séances themselves. Perhaps this can be broadened to Tylor’s career as a whole, his encounters in Mexico among contemporary and ancient indigenous cultures (e.g. the ruins of Teotihuacán) spurned later attempts to study and make sense of culture and religion as a whole, albeit in a manner hampered by the endemic arrogance and ethnocentrism of his time and place.

As James Cox rightly pointed out, though, these academic processes were not entirely benign or aloof which also necessitates greater focus. Social anthropology and, for that matter, the nascent “Science of Religion” served as the valets of colonialism from an early age. The seemingly abstract debates about indigenous peoples influenced ethnographers on the ground and in turn policymakers in countries such as Australia. Tylor’s lifelong fascination, deep intellectualism and curiosity about the Other, though, also served to challenge and undermine that very ethnocentrism. I do think that a sense of unease about the certainties of his society and an increasing need to reflect on and certainly no longer ignore world culture was the historical process in which Tylor was caught, but one to which he made a quite specific contribution which has shaped not only our disciplinary culture but culture itself.



Tremlett, P.F., Sutherland, L.T. and Harvey, G. (eds.). 2017. Edward Burnett Tylor, Religion and Culture. Oxford: Bloomsbury

Tremlett, P.F. Sutherland, L.T. and Harvey, G. 2017. “Re:Thinking Primitive Culture” in BASR Bulletin 130 (May).

Tylor, E.B. 1903[1871]). Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom Volume I. London: John Murray.




1 reply
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    Joan Leopold says:

    Perhaps you should add to your bibliography my deconstruction or reconstruction of Tylor’s Primitive Culture in Joan Leopold, Culture in Comparative and Evolutionary Perspective: E. B. Tylor and the Making of ‘Primitive Culture’ (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1980). It does not directly deal with the religious side, but I am finishing a biography of Tylor which will also deal with the “animism” chapters of ‘Primitive Culture.’ For many years historians have been trained to consult the sources, just as anthropologists are supposed to do field work. This is the purpose of my new biography.


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