‘Primitive’: A key concept in Chidester’s critique of imperial and Van der Leeuw’s phenomenological study of religion
A critical examination of the history of theories and uses of concepts such as ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ in the academic study of religion in imperial, colonial and postcolonial contexts is particularly urgent in our time with its demands to decolonise Western models of knowledge production. In Savage Systems (1996) and Empire of Religion (2014), David Chidester has contributed to this project by relating the invention and use of terms such as ‘religion’, ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ by theorists of religion in European imperial metropoles to South African colonial and indigenous contexts. This article intends to take Chidester’s project further by relating Gerardus Van der Leeuw’s phenomenological analysis of ‘primitive mentality’ (particularly in De primitieve mensch en de religie, 1937) to Chidester’s analysis and postcolonial critique of imperial theories of religion. By taking animism and dreams in Chidester’s and Van der Leeuw’s works as example, it is argued that in spite of the latter’s decontextualised use of ethnological material, a fundamental shift occurred in the judgement of ‘primitive’ religion from Tylor’s evolutionary to Van der Leeuw’s phenomenological analysis, which is contrary to claims according to which modern theories are unanimously denigratory of indigenous religions.