Tylor, E. B.

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TYLOR, E. B . (18321917) was an English anthropologist, often called "the father of British anthropology." Edward Burnett Tylor was born in London on October 2, 1832, the son of a brass-founder. Both his parents were members of the Society of Friends, and it was within the Quaker community that Tylor grew up. He entered his father's brass foundry at the age of sixteen, but a breakdown in health followed, and in 1855 he was sent to America in search of a cure. In Cuba in 1856 he met the noted archaeologist Henry Christy, who was also a Quaker, and they traveled together for some time. Out of this visit came Tylor's first book, Anahuac, or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern (1861), written and published before he was thirty. He had no university education of any kind, but he was a gifted writer and a tireless researcher in the emergent anthropological field. The two books for which he is chiefly remembered were written in his thirties: Researches into the Early History of Mankind (1865) and the even better known work Primitive Culture (2 vols., 1871). Although he wrote many more articles and reviews, he was to publish only one more book, the popular handbook Anthropology (1881). Gradually he gained academic recognition. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1875. In 1883 he became keeper of the Oxford University Museum, and in 1884 reader in anthropology. From 1896 to his retirement in 1909 he was professor of anthropology, the first in Britain. He was knighted in 1912 and died on January 3, 1917.

During the years of Tylor's greatest activity, the question of the origin and evolution of religion was high on the agenda of social scientists, the dominant theorists being F. Max Müller on one level and Herbert Spencer on the other; Müller worked exclusively with language, while Spencer proceeded by way of vast generalizations learned in large measure from Auguste Comte. Tylor was no less interested than Müller in language, but he began at an earlier point in its evolution, far beyond "Aryan" roots and their meanings. To reach this point it was necessary for Tylor to formulate a comprehensive theory to bridge the gap between the present and the remote past. This was the theory of "survivals"elements of culture or society that evolution has left behind. Gesture probably preceded language, though Tylor was too cautious to claim gesture to have been a separate stage in human communication. In matters concerning religion, he believed himself to be on firmer ground.

It was in 1866, in an article in the Fortnightly Review titled "The Religion of Savages," that he first introduced his idea of "animism," "the belief in Spiritual Beings," as the earliest form of known religionand of course accessible only through the study of survivals and by placing a particular interpretation on the difficult matter of "savage" mental processes. His theory was given a definitive statement in Primitive Culture, and the word animism is still widely used today, though more in a descriptive than in an evolutionary sense.

Otherwise, Tylor's approach to early forms of human religion has often been criticized as being too intellectual and too moral. According to one of his disciples, R. R. Marett, he was "a little blind to the spontaneity of the process whereby Man becomes at once religious and moral, without taking conscious thought to it, until he is fairly involved in an incoherent striving that is neither because it is both together" (Marett, 1936, p. 168). Looking into the past for a certain type of moralized religion, and failing to find it beyond a certain point, Tylor missed much of importance. He had no feeling for the ecstatic side of religion, perhaps partly because of his intense dislike of nineteenth-century spiritualism. Also he cannot be exonerated from having overlooked or deliberately ignored all the evidence later produced by Andrew Lang in support of "high gods of low races," gods who were neither ghosts nor spirits. "Spirit" was perhaps the only category open to a pioneer such as Tylor, but when linked with "belief" (as it was in his celebrated "minimum definition" of religion), it had the effect of relegating much else to a subordinate place in the structure of religion and culture.

In the running debate between evolutionism and diffusionism it is generally supposed that Tylor was wholeheartedly on the side of the unilinear evolutionists. But he was prepared to consider diffusionism on its merits, and to stop only when the evidence would carry his argument no further. In his early years he was indeed something of a diffusionist, even to the extent of speculating that the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl was not only a man but may even have been an Irishman! Later his habitual caution prevented any further such flights of fancy, and on the whole he sided with the evolutionists, while stopping short of absolute dogmatism.

It was characteristic of Tylor's immediate disciples that sooner or later they were forced to part company with his findings in the form in which he stated them. The ubiquitous and enigmatic Andrew Lang broke away on the issue of "high gods," the urbane R. R. Marett on the matter of "preanimism" and later on questions concerning performative ritual. But these scholars and others retained a deep affection for their mentor. Marett wrote that throughout his career Tylor appears as "the most ingenuous of men, open-minded because he is simple-minded, the friend of all mankind because he would be incapable of feeling otherwise; and withal hardheaded, of business antecedents, not easily fooled, pedestrian enough to prefer solid ground under his feet" (ibid., p. 214). In short, though often unacknowledged, he laid foundations on which the study of primal religion has built for more than a century.

See Also

Animism and Animatism; Manism.


For discussions of Tylor's contribution to the science of religion, see R. R. Marett's Tylor (London, 1936); Richard M. Dorson's The British Folklorists: A History (Chicago, 1968), pp. 187197; J. W. Burrow's Evolution and Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory (Cambridge, 1970), pp. 228259; and Eric J. Sharpe's Comparative Religion: A History (London, 1975), pp. 5358.

New Sources

Segal, Robert A. "Tylor's Anthropomorphic Theory of Religion." Religion 25 (January 1995): 2330.

Tylor, Edward Burnett. The Collected Works of Edward Burnett Tylor. London, 1994.

Eric J. Sharpe (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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