George Walford: How Ethnologicians Think

Pure and serene, logic floats above the thinking tainted by practical purpose or hope of advantage. At least, it used to do so; the title of James Hamill’s book shows how things have changed: Ethno-Logic; the Anthropology of Human Reasoning [1]. As studied by logicians, logic is about the form of reasoning, free of any connection with content. Ethno-logic, on the other hand, links methods and forms of thought with real life.

The term is new (at least to this commentator) but the science has been around since early in this century, long enough for its practitioners to have split between two schools. The relativists see logic as a product of culture and language, the extremists of this tendency denying it any universality and restricting all meaning to the language and culture in which it originated. The colonial school, on the other hand, allocates all human thought to one of two modes: either to the civilised, which is abstract and hypothetical and values consistency, or to the primitive, which is immediate and concrete and cares little for consistency. The researcher operates in the civilised mode, and ‘primitive’ does little more than distinguish and disparage patterns of thinking that differ from this. Rejecting colonialism, taking his stand with the moderate relativists and undertaking to demonstrate panhuman patterns in thinking, Hamill notes that this requires accounts of reasoning located at the subjects’ viewpoints. Physical science encounters a related difficulty when it runs up against ‘observer effect,’ but that becomes significant only in the remoter areas of nuclear research, and the difference leads Hamill to a reclassification of the sciences. Basing himself on the greater interaction between researcher and elements under study in anthropology and sociology, and the increased difficulty this entails, he ranks these as the ‘hard’ sciences, physics and chemistry as ‘easy.’

Aristotelian logic studies validity rather than truth; both the distinction and the choice belong to western European culture, but ethno-logicians have to start somewhere. Unable entirely to escape ethnocentricity whatever they do, they begin where they find themselves, with Aristotelian thinking, and use ethnological information to test it. Hamill fears that this still privileges the thinking associated particularly with the West and proposes to overcome the difficulty by taking Aristotelian thought, together with the philosophical logics deriving from it, as western Europe’s folk logic (we return to this later); the task then becomes a matter of comparing this folk logic with others. The solution hardly seems to meet the case; it leaves the investigators still using the logic of western Europe to the exclusion of anything distinctive there may be in that of the Hopi, the !Kung San or the Inuit, and to that extent it prejudices the outcome.

Arming themselves with both the syllogism and the propositional calculus of Whitehead and Russell (both methods involving the either/or of Aristotelianism) the ethno-logicians sally into the field. They find, as so many have found before, that there is more to life and people than the textbooks suggest: ‘If we observe people reasoning in natural contexts, we will almost never hear any of them using or citing the theorems of textbook logic.’ As formulated by the theoreticians propositional logic offers no easy study, but it is simple in the sense of having been reduced to basics; the examples treated are either true or false. The empirical version encountered by the ethno-logician stands on a different level of complexity, preserving ‘not only truth but also other elements that are clearly cultural.’

Ethno-logical study has not, so far, paid much attention to any connection between social groups and particular reasoning patterns, concentrating instead on in-depth descriptions of the reasoning found in some particular cultural context. Levy-Bruhl, an early worker in this field, spoke in his early writings (he changed his ideas later) of a ‘pre-logical mentality’ clearly linked with the ‘primitive’ thinking mentioned above, being little given to analysis, essentially synthetic, impervious to experience and insensible to contradiction; his approach differed from orthodox colonialism in not regarding this as inferior to western European thinking but only different from it. Or so Hamill maintains, but one has to ask whether Levy-Bruhl’s consistent use of western thinking in his own work does not imply something different. Benjamin Whorf, studying Hopi, took a similar approach and provokes the same question.

One of the workers Hamil criticises, A. R. Luria, presented his Uzbekhistani subjects with pictures of a saw, an axe, a shovel and a piece of wood; they put the shovel aside, grouping the saw, axe and wood together on the ground that these two tools were needed to make the wood useful, and had their answer dismissed as wrong; the tools should have gone together, apart from the material. Hamill comes down on the side of the respondents, claiming for them ‘active, social, functional systems of thinking rather than abstract, categorical thinking.’ Maintaining his relativistic approach he holds Luria guilty of having ‘set up his research with Western, categorical, paradigmatic thinking in mind.’

Informants faced with syllogisms repeatedly altered the premises, substituting ones they found more readily acceptable; ‘some pigs are sows’ became ‘all sows are pigs.’ It recalls Noam Chomsky’s ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’; he expected respondents to recognise this as quite meaningless although completely grammatical, but in almost every case a determined attempt was made to find meaning in it. The ability to accept a proposition as nothing more than a grammatical or logical example, divorced from the significance given the statements made in daily life, requires a degree of sophistication amounting to a distinct mode of thought, and one rarely found; Hamill’s book does not suggest that any of the ethno-logicians have found this significant.

Written mainly in short sentences, consistently brisk and direct, Ethno-logic yet falls short on clarity. Consider this passage: ‘When people acquire a culture they acquire a conceptual world, which includes the processes need to manipulate it. These concepts and processes are knowledge, which is either innate or learned.’ If the concepts acquired are the knowledge, then the knowledge is acquired and not innate; that final pair of alternatives does not arise.

A similar problem arises with this: ‘the pattern of valid and invalid syllogisms is the same from culture to culture and from language to language. This pattern differs from the one defined in logic textbooks.’ If the pattern of valid and invalid syllogisms in western European culture includes a textbook version not found elsewhere then the pattern is not the same from culture to culture. Again: ‘Propositional patterns vary with language and culture because the semantic elements of the arguments mean different things in different settings.’ Is a saucepan containing meat different from another because the second contains vegetables? In a sense yes, but there is a problem of a kind, and a writer on logic who asserts (or denies) the proposition can reasonably be expected to tackle it, not leaving the readers to sort it out for themselves or refer to other passages in the book for a solution.

With all respect to the native speakers (his term) with whom Hamill and his colleagues deal, and without suggesting that it might not be better otherwise, western European behaviour is more likely to affect them than vice versa. In directing their attention outwards, away from Europe, the ethno-logicians turn their backs on the field of investigation where results are likely to be most useful.

In introducing his subject Hamill says: ‘The data display both universal patterns in human thought and patterns found in only one language and culture.’ He does not mention, and the book does not discuss, the possibly of significantly different patterns within any one culture. The proverbial Martian visitor would get the impression from this book that western Europe used nothing but the self-aware, Aristotelian, consistency-hunting mode of thought; we have noted that Hamill proposes to regard this as the western European folk logic (while saying, also, that in natural contexts people do not use textbook logic). If, on returning from his next field trip, he will break his journey from airport to university with a visit to a newsagent and look at some of the journals on show, observing particularly the prominence given to illustrations, he will find western European thinking a good deal less unitary than his book assumes it to be. It includes a great deal of ‘primitive’ or ‘pre-logical’ thinking: immediate, concrete, little given to analysis, essentially synthetic, largely impervious to experience, almost insensible to contradiction and caring little for consistency. The Aristotelian thinking he wants to regard as European folk logic, thinking which is sharp-edged, analytical, hypothetical, abstract, striving to correct itself in the light of experience, worried about contradiction and eagerly pursuing straight-line consistency, is confined to a minority in Europe as elsewhere. It is the folk logic less of a continent than of the sciences, normally called hard, which Hamill distinguishes as easy. His ‘hard’ sciences, ethno-logic among them, require a more subtle mode of thought and it seems to be, partly at least, an attempt on his part to force their results into the Aristotelian straightjacket that produces the lack of clarity exemplified above.

1. Hamill (J.F.) 1990 Ethno-Logic; the Anthropology of Human Reasoning Urbana & Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


The title of the Labour Party implies a special connection with people who have it rough. Of two men, the first a university graduate and a Queen’s Counsel, the second with only school education, a period on the dole and a routine job with the London Electricity Board, the second would seem to be the more typical Labour voter. In fact he is John Major, Conservative Prime Minister, while the university man and QC is John Smith, Leader of the Labour Party.

Two individual cases do not prove anything in this connection, but when they are the leaders of their respective parties this does add to the evidence that something other than class position governs political attachment.

from Ideological Commentary 58, November 1992.