Wittgenstein and Method in the Study of Religion

JVF Conference Papers

In the “Remarks of Frazer’s Golden Bough”, Wittgenstein shows his concern for clarity amidst the temptations surrounding the seeking of explanations, especially with respect to understanding cultural practices different from one’s own.

Like many intellectuals in the English-speaking world in the early-to-mid twentieth century, Wittgenstein was fascinated by J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough. In this text, first published in 1890, expanded to 12 volumes in 1911-15, and abridged to a single volume for more popular reading in 1922, Frazer presents a comparative, evolutionary model of the development of magic and religion in “primitive” cultures. Through his analysis of the ancient rituals of the killing of the priest king at Nemi, Frazer devises a theory of the development of human civilizations, from the primitive, to the religious, and culminating in the modern. During the 1930s and 40s, Wittgenstein read from the first volume of the Golden Bough with his student and friend Maurice O’Drury; along the way Wittgenstein wrote some comments on Frazer’s work that eventually came to be known as the “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough”.

These remarks were first published in 1967 and since then have come to have a place of considerable importance in studies of Wittgenstein’s views on religion and the interpretation of cultures.

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