Gerardus van der Leeuw on ‘primitive mentality’

Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950) was a true polymath. He was in his day an expert in the field of phenomenology of religion. He was a leading liturgist in the Netherlands. His writings about art are still widely read. Besides he served as the Secretary of State for Education and Science (1945-1946).

In his book ‘Primitive Man and Religion’ (only edited in Dutch: “De primitieve mensch en de religie” [1937]) Van der Leeuw wrote about the concept of primitive mentality. It was coined by Levy-Bruhl in the early twentieth century and Van der Leeuw  discusses this concept quite extensively.

Van der Leeuw stresses in his discussion the fact that this so-called ‘primitive mentality’ shouldn’t be interpreted in an evolutionary way. We are not talking about an outdated mindset. On the contrary, Van der Leeuw emphasizes that this primitive mentality is still part of modern man. However, it is largely suppressed in our day. We act and live according to our ‘modern mentality’. But what, we might ask, is then the difference between primitive and modern mentality? Van der Leeuw lists eight ‘aspects’ of the primitive mentality in contrast to modern mentality. I will single out three of them, which I consider to be the most important.

1. Van der Leeuw points out that for both mentalities the world is ‘given’. However, the way we deal with this ‘givenness’ differs largely. Modern man asks how we experience the world, what we know of it, what we can do with it. Modern man seeks to ‘handle’ the given world, makes it to an ‘object’. Wood is ‘material’, which can be used to make something. Primitive man on the contrary doesn’t see the world as object, but as subject. He doesn’t look for opportunities to handle the things he meets, but tries to discover its power. Everything has power, life, holiness. Primitive man seeks, not to handle, but to relate to this power, this holiness in every aspect of life.

2. Modern man thinks analytically. He is used to divide reality in parts and bits, in order to get a better understanding. Primitive man thinks synthetically. His thinking is directed to the totality. Modern man makes generalizations and abstractions; whereas primitive man doesn’t. Modern man thinks and speaks in general terms, whereas primitive man thinks and speaks in concrete ways. I’d like to remind that the notions modern and primitive man don’t stand for distinct periods in human history, nor stand for different kinds of civilization. Both modern and primitive mentalities are, according to Van der Leeuw, a lasting part of humanity.

3. A third difference involves the way we participate in reality. For modern mentality, it’s obvious that a person could be present only at one place at once. But for primitive mentality, it’s not obvious at all. Van der Leeuw provides the example of an Indian, who just became a father. He isn’t allowed to see his child the first weeks, but he acts as if (to use an expression which is thoroughly modern) he is present with his child and his child with him. The first weeks he limits his journeys, in order not to fatigue his childs. He avoids trespassing the creeks, in order to avoid the bad influence of waternymphs. For the primitive man living means participating in reality. The differences between these to mentalities becomes obvious in our use of the term ‘symbol’. For modern man a symbol is a kind of allegory which shows us something; for primitive mentality it means participating in its reality.

Van der Leeuw describes these differences in mentality primarily as a phenomenologist of religion. However, he doesn’t hide his regrets about the (relative) loss of primitive mentality in the contemporary culture. According to Van der Leeuw the loss of this primitive mentality causes a loss of ‘unity of life’ (“eenheid des levens”). This loss of unity of life affects the realm of religion (liturgy!), art and indeed the whole culture. For this reason Van der Leeuw seems not to be optimistic about the developments he observed before, during and shortly after World War II.

In short (and applied to the subject of my research) Van der Leeuw’s thoughts on primitive mentality signal a loss of this mentality in our modern society, which blocks a proper understanding of liturgy and the sacraments. Fortunately, his own works in liturgics and sacramental theology provide a good remedy!