Wittgenstein, Ludwig. “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough.” In Philosophical Occasions, 1912–1951, edited by James C. Klagge and Alfred Nordmann, 118–55. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.


Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough is a set of aphoristic notes and marginalia scribbled in reaction to Sir James George Frazer’s armchair account of magical rites, ritual, and ceremony. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, first published in 1890, grew to thirteen volumes by 1936, four years prior to Frazer’s death at Cambridge; a 1922 abridgment compiled by Frazer’s spouse has circulated widely ever since. The bulk of Wittgenstein’s Remarks were composed during his initial encounter with Frazer’s text in 1931, the rest “not earlier than 1936 and probably after 1948,” according to one biographer. They were first published[1] after his death, also at Cambridge, in 1951. 

Frazer’s monograph spurs Wittgenstein to irritation and indignation. It is Frazer’s unreflexive approach to other modes of human practice, or forms of life, that he most abhors. “What narrowness of spiritual life we find in Frazer! As a result: how impossible it was for him to conceive of a life different from that of the England of his time! Frazer cannot imagine a priest who is not basically a present-day English Parson with the same stupidity and dullness” (125). His irascibility mellows, subsequently leading into reflections on the limits to understanding, or even accessing, the significance of any human practices, one’s own or others’. “One could say ‘every view has its charm,’” he writes, “but that would be false. The correct thing to say is that every view is significant for the one who sees it as significant (but that does not mean, sees it other than it is)” (135). Even others’ misunderstandings and judgements of one’s own practices are a valid part of ritual complex : “I must also make my own the contempt that someone else may have for me, as an essential and significant part of the world as seen from the place where I am” (135). 

Wittgenstein pushes against Frazer’s assumption that magic is based on incorrect beliefs about nature rather than meaningful experience: “for no phenomenon is in itself particularly mysterious, but any of them can become so to us, and the characteristic feature of the awakening human spirit is precisely the fact that a phenomenon comes to have meaning for it” (129). One cannot derive the rationale or meaning of a ritual practice from the supposed—or even reported—beliefs to which it is said to correspond.

His meditations read like a compulsive working through of a troubling obsession. As if following his own future maxim, “don’t think, but look!,”[2] Wittgenstein looks to the patterning of Frazer’s interpretations, asking how his explanations could have engendered so much satisfaction in readers for decades: “The concept of a perspicuous presentation, a way of setting out the whole field together by making easy the passage from one part of it to another, is fundamental. It denotes the form of our representation” (133). Wittgenstein sees Frazer’s hypothesis-driven “connections” as a failure of imagination—or of spirit. His examination of Frazer’s representation of “primitive ritual” breaks open “the way we see things” and shows “our kinship with those savages” (133). In defamiliarizing Frazer’s form of account, Wittgenstein looks for ways to see the peculiarities of practices, including those of the modern interpretive social sciences and philosophy, otherwise. In lieu of a conclusion, he offers instead an aphorism: “one can only describe and say: this is what human life is like” (121).

Relevance Today

While similar versions of his critiques of Frazer’s evolutionism and of the comparative method in anthropology have long been articulated from within anthropological discourse, Wittgenstein expressed them from the margins (and in the margins) of anthropology’s history, in a philosophical idiom uniquely his own. The Remarks can be read as an instructive prelude to the Philosophical Investigations (1953), with its enduring notions like “form of life” and “language game” inchoately aired in the Remarks’ passages. These hold particular importance for the anthropology of religion and for analyses of ritual practice—particularly its symbolism—while Wittgenstein’s wider musings on translation, commensurability, resemblance, rationality, and comparison between styles of reasoning persist as perennial challenges for anthropology and the sociology of scientific knowledge. Wittgenstein’s knotty, situated humanism epistemologically aligns with the cultural relativism that dominated anthropology’s structuralist and symbolic periods. Additionally, retrospective understanding of the various turns in anthropology to both (thick) description and to practice is deepened through engagement with Wittgenstein Remarks, with their sensitivity to the irreducibility of lived experience to comprehensive explanation.

Selected Reviews

While anthropologists have drawn predominantly from the Philosophical Investigations, the Remarks have received little attention. This trend shifted course with the recent publication of The Mythology in Our Language (2018). In addition to featuring a novel English translation of the Remarks by Stephan Palmié, this volume also offers fine-grained “critical reflections”—or new remarks on the Remarks—by Veena Das, Wendy James, Heonik Kwon, Michael Lambek, Sandra Laugier, Knut Christian Myhre, Rodney Needham, Michael Puett, Carlo Severi, and Michael Taussig. It is not to be missed!

This was preceded by three serious engagements by anthropologists with the Remarks.[3] 

Mary Douglas’ 1978 “Judgements on James Frazer,” in Daedalus, focused on Frazer’s defunct influence, following his dismissal by subsequent generations of anthropologists. “Nothing matches the greatness of Frazer’s fame,” she wrote, “so well as the completeness of its eclipse among anthropologists today” (152). In Rodney Needham’s quizzical book of lectures turned essays, titled Exemplars (1985), he takes great care with the Remarks in a series of loose reflections on “Wittgenstein and Ritual.” Needham delights in this rare instance of Wittgenstein applying “his philosophical interests” to “ethnographic descriptions of more alien social forms” (150-151). 

In Stanley Tambiah’s Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality (1990), the book based upon his Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures of 1984, Tambiah adjudicates the potential slippage between the point of view to comparison offered in Wittgenstein’s Remarks—that “we” are like the supposed Other—and one dominant reading of “forms of life” from the Philosophical Investigations, which could suggest the absolute “particularity and contextual nature of historically formed culture complexes and linguistic genres,” rendering comparison, let alone the assimilation of others’ views to that of the anthropologist, misguided or impossible. Tambiah probes the subsequent history of anthropology to resolve this seeming paradox by applying Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer to “the tension between the two modalities of universality and particularity contained in anthropology’s aspirations to translate as well as compare cultural and social forms” (64) in the subsequent history of anthropology. These tensions remain salient today; and Wittgenstein’s Remarks continue to offer a remarkable course of reflection for anthropologists, historians, and philosophers looking to engage them anew.

[1] The Remarks were first published in 1967 in German as “Bemerkungen über Frazers The Golden Bough,” edited by Rush Rees in Synthese, vol. 17: 233-253. They were first translated into English by A. C. Miles and published with introductory notes by Rush Rees in The Human World, no. 3 (May 1971): 28-41. In 1979, this translation was further revised for the first bilingual English-German printing as Remarks on Frazer’s “Golden Bough”/Bermerkungen über Frazers “Golden Bough,” Nottinghamshire: Brynmill Press. That bilingual edition was subsequently published in the United States by Humanities Press in 1983 and again in 1987. John Beverslius produced an alternative (to Miles’) English translation of the Remarks, which first appeared in 1979 in Wittgenstein: Sources and Perspectives, ed. C. G. Luckhardt, Cornell University Press and Harvester-Wheatsheaf. A revision of Beverslius’ translation appears bilingually in Philosophical Occasions: 1912-1951 (1993), from which I cite, with a few modifications, here.      

[2] Philosophical Investigations, §66

[3] A fourth engagement, certainly serious, is Thomas de Zengotita “On Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough,” in Cultural Anthropology vol. 4., no. 4 (November 1989): 390-398. I read this insightful essay as, primarily, a contribution to Wittgenstein scholarship. Others will likely take it otherwise and should therefore, in Wittgenstein’s words, “just look!” Another response was French philosopher Jacques Bouveresse’s, “L,animal cérêmoniel: Wittgenstein et l’anthropologie.” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 16.1 (1977): 43-54, later republished with a French translation of the Remarks (L’Âge d’Homme, 1990).      

Gabriel Coren: contributions / website / gabriel.coren@berkeley.edu / Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley