Engaging the World of the Supernatural: Anthropology, Phenomenology and the Limitations of Scientific Rationalism in the Study of the Supernatural

  • Theodore S Petrus


Scientific rationalism has long been considered one of the pillars of true science. It has been one of the criteria academics have used in their efforts to categorise disciplines as scientific. Perhaps scientific rationalism acquired this privileged status because it worked relatively well within the context of the natural sciences, where it seemed to be easy to apply this kind of rationalism to the solution of natural scientific problems. However, with the split in the scientific world between the natural sciences and the social sciences, the role of scientific rationalism, especially in the social sciences, becomes less clear-cut, with the ambiguous status of positivism in the social sciences making scientific rationalism more of a shaky foundation than a pillar of social science. The weaknesses inherent in scientific rationalism are most exposed within the context of anthropology, and particularly in the anthropological study of the supernatural, or supernatural beliefs. This paper will attempt to point out some of the weaknesses of scientific rationalism specifically within the context of the anthropology of the supernatural and religion. By doing so, it is hoped to show, with reference to some phenomenological ideas, that, while scientific rationalism does have its merits within anthropology, a rigid application of rationalism could become a limitation for anthropological studies of those aspects of human life that challenge Western scientific rationalism. The debate around the position of anthropology as a science or non-science is related to the issue of the role of scientific rationalism. This debate is indeed part of the history of anthropology and is as yet unresolved As such, the ideas of several earlier scholars will be referred to in an attempt to contextualise the arguments presented in this paper.

Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology, Volume 6, Edition 1 May 2006

Author Biography

Theodore S Petrus
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1445-7377
print ISSN: 2079-7222