According to the standard scientific narrative, magic is an anachronism. It belongs to an earlier, more primitive time; a time in which causality was not fully understood. A ritual raindance, for instance, does not cause precipitation. By the causal standard, magic is mistaken, and rituals are arbitrary.
But is it fair to apply the causal standard to magic? The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that it is not. In his ‘Remarks on Frazer’s The Golden Bough’, Wittgenstein states that the famous (armchair) anthropologist, James Frazer, was wrong in his ‘representation of human magical and religious notions’, precisely because he ‘makes these notions appear as mistakes’:
Wittgenstein opposed a now bygone tendency in [anthropology] to rationalize — according to metropolitan European standards of reason — what used to be called “ostensibly irrational beliefs” and practices in the non-Western world, or Europe’s own peasant periphery. What he opposed was the moment of “explanation” that aimed to reduce other forms of life and their associated language games to — perhaps historically explicable, but nonetheless erroneous — category mistakes (Palmié)
According to Wittgenstein, magic is not based on a mistake. It is based on the satisfaction of a practice. For instance, the act of ‘burning in effigy’, or ‘kissing the picture of a loved one’:
This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object that the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction, and does achieve it, too. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied (Wittgenstein)
Wittgenstein argues that we do these things because we are, essentially, ‘a ceremonial animal’. (Just look, for proof, at the Queen’s recent funeral procession.)
When one observes the life and behavior of humans all over the earth, one sees that apart from the…