Being a powerful society, the Victorians imagined that they existed in the most modern times; such was the character that they attributed to their social, scientific, and intellectual innovations. With virtues grounded in a confident belief in an ordered future, the work of its most representative thinkers expressed the uniqueness of their society from what had passed before. In order to accomplish this feat, however, they found it necessary to overlook many aspects of life in nineteenth-century Britain. The emerging field of ethnology, which in the second half of the century was dominated by the work of Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), bears witness to the struggle of the Victorians to isolate and exhibit what were considered to be the most developed features of the contemporary world.
Although little read today, Tylor's writing had a widespread and enduring effect on Victorian thought. Among his achievements, the theory of survivals, which were elements of the “primitive” or archaic past that continued to play an active part in the beliefs of the present day, also helped to direct the imagination back to the classless utopia of prehistoric times. Tylor's concept was not unique in producing this effect: Walter Benjamin wrote of how the wish-fulfilling images of the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris also “manifest an emphatic striving for the outmoded—which means, however, with the most recent past” (Benjamin 1978: 148).
In focusing on what was outmoded in society, therefore, the theory of survivals brought primitive culture within the concerns of the present day. Yet it was precisely in order to defeat superstition and irrational beliefs, which were considered to be hallmarks of primitive culture, that Tylor had drawn attention to them in the first place. The resulting problems of recognition and understanding in the conceptualization of survivals led him finally to affirm a static and mechanical idea of the continuity of culture, in opposition to the radical, dynamic view with which he had been working until the publication of Primitive Culture (1871). It is the passage from the one to the other in his work that will be discussed in this article.
The Development Theory
With his 1870 work, The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man, the archaeologist and naturalist John Lubbock (1834-1913) helped to inaugurate in Britain what is known as the “development” theory of human prehistory. This is the theory that human societies everywhere originate in a period of savagery (distinguished by activities of hunting and gathering), before progressing through a stage of barbarism (nomadism and pastoralism, then agriculture), and culminating in the kind of industrial civilisation that Lubbock would have recognised as his own. This progressive and optimistic view was influential in many fields of study during the later decades of the nineteenth century, and Tylor was an enthusiastic exponent of the development theory. Whereas Lubbock's ideas about human civilization were organised on the basis of the materials of archaeological research, Tylor also made use of sources that were more difficult to classify in material terms. It was the newer forms of evidence provided by collectors of folklore and popular customs that inspired him to think about the continuity of cultural beliefs and practices from one historical epoch into another.
Particularly important for Tylor was the existence of phenomena in modern industrial societies that, according to the development theory of culture, had no logical place in such societies. These phenomena, he claimed, had lingered from the period in which they had a functional or ritual meaning in their given society, until they reached the point where they had survived into a new system of thought and practice in which they appeared to be unintelligible. For example, Tylor drew attention to the old German custom of allowing a sinking man to drown as having originated from an earlier period, in which it was believed that to save the man was to snatch the victim from the clutches of the water-spirit, an action that the spirit would try to avenge. The survival of such archaic ideas in folklore allowed a connection to be made between “the primitive doctrine and the surviving custom” (Tylor 1871: 99-100).
Such examples were the basis upon which Tylor formulated the definition of cultural survivals in his 1871 work, Primitive Culture. Here he describes survivals as:
processes, customs, opinions, and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home, and they thus remain as proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out of which a newer has been evolved. (1871: 14-15)
On the strength of these survivals, it becomes possible to declare that the civilization of the people they are observed among must have been derived from an earlier state, in which the proper home and meaning of these things are to be found; and thus collections of such facts are to be worked as mines of historic knowledge. (Tylor 1871: 64)
Survivals, which are continued “by force of habit” into “newer states” of societies, furnished proof that “older conditions” of culture evolved into newer forms. Furthermore, the collection and interpretation of survivals would assist the evolutionary anthropologist working within the orbit of the development theory of culture.
Tylor's work on survivals is pertinent to the study of cultural history. In an evocative passage from Primitive Culture he lists the different historical origins of the decorations in the room in which he is writing his book:
Here is the honeysuckle of Assyria, there the fleur-de-lis of Anjou, a cornice with a Greek border runs round the ceiling, the style of Louis XIV and its parent the Renaissance share the looking glass between them. Transformed, shifted, or mutilated, such elements of art still carry their history plainly stamped upon them; and if the history yet farther behind is less easy to read, we are not to say that because we cannot discern it there is therefore no history there. (Tylor 1871: 16)
Artistic phenomena, however insignificant they might seem, were unmistakably “stamped” with their own history, meaning that items dating from the distant past could also be identified and traced to their relevant historical period. The meaning of the verb “to trace” also coincides with the noun form, which denotes a barely discernible quantity of the existence, in passing, of something. In his essay “The Surviving Image”, Georges Didi-Huberman points to the impact that Tylor's idea of the lasting power of “miniscule [sic], superfluous, derisory, or abnormal things” has had on the work of the German art historian Aby Warburg. Didi-Huberman suggests that Warburg had transformed Tylor's concept into the “untimeliness” that was characteristic of the nachleben or “after-life” of works of art (Didi-Huberman 2002: 63-64)1.
To be sure, within its original historical context the survival had been a useful methodological device enabling theorists of cultural development in the human sciences to reason with facts that appeared to contradict their ideas. Victorian society was filled with examples of technological forms and cultural practices that did not relate to the models heralded by scientific research. What was at issue for the evolutionary theorists was proving that their society was uniquely modern in its conviction of the truth of scientific rationality as against theological speculation on the origins of mankind. Insofar as the evidence of folklore and popular custom disturbed the character of this secular modernity, Tylor recognized the significance of assigning to these phenomena a category that was to hold a privileged position in his anthropology. The difficulty which he then experienced in trying to clarify the identity and activity of survivals in contemporary societies, which can be seen in his research papers of the 1860s, points to an underlying tension with the concept of the survival. The tension in this definition is replaced in 1871 with Primitive Culture, in exchange for a less problematic view of the progress or continuity of cultures, which has since passed out of popular use in anthropology2
The 1860s marks a decisive point in the history of theories of culture in Britain. The publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 renewed interest in the origins of human civilization, although not everyone who participated in the ensuing debate understood Darwin's ideas about natural selection in the same way (Moore 1991: 366). In addition to On the Origin of Species, works which influenced ideas about culture during the 1860s included Henry Maine's Ancient Law (1861), Charles Lyell's The Antiquity of Man (1863), Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy (1869) and Lubbock's Origin of Civilization. Lyell's book on the study of modern archaeological traces of prehistoric ages may have given Tylor the idea to read seemingly tenuous, illogical details of contemporary cultures as fragments of dead “lower” cultures that were embedded in living “higher” ones (Tylor 1871: 64-65).
The major cultural scientific conflict of the time was, however, an older one between the “progressives”, who believed that human civilizations tended to advance, and the “degenerationists”, who believed that modern civilizations represented a decline from the societies of the past. Tylor was associated during this period with a group of men, including lawyers, classicists, and theologians, who despite personal differences broadly agreed that there was a direct progression from ancient “primitive” society through various intermediate stages to modern civilized society. This group of intellectuals included the American lawyer and ethnographer Lewis Henry Morgan, the Scottish ethnologist John Ferguson McLennan, and John Lubbock (Rainger 1878: 51-70). In a paper given in 1863, “Wild Men and Beast Children”, Tylor argues against the theory of degeneration as well as against polygenetists who attempted to relegate black people to a separate and inferior species of humankind (Tylor 1863: 21-32; Hodgen 1836: 57).
Aside from his considerable connections in the world of British natural science and archaeology, Tylor also forged links with other important scholars during the course of his formative research work. Of these, a decisive encounter was with the English collector and antiquarian Henry Christy, whom Tylor had met while travelling in Havana in 1856. The pair journeyed together through Mexico between March and June of that year, an experience out of which Tylor drew materials for his first book, Anahuac, in 1859. Anahuac contains much botanical and geological information relating to Mexico, testifying to the influence of Tylor's geologist brother Alfred as well as Christy, who, according to Tylor, was a mine of ethnographic knowledge.
One of the earliest examples of Tylor's use of the idea of survivals occurs in Anahuac, in the passage in which he remarks of the Mexican calendrical system that “The name of Shrove Tuesday survives in our calendar, to remind us of the time when we also used to go to be shriven before Easter” (Tylor 1859: 49). The linguistic reference indicates the influence of his research in philology. Tylor was familiar with the oriental studies of Friedrich Max Mller, as well as with the work of Gustav Klemm, both of whom stressed the importance of linguistic and cultural relationships across Indo-European cultures. He also knew about the folklore collections of Jakob Grimm; indeed, Andrew Lang, a pupil of Tylor's and one of the founders of the British Folklore Society, described folklore as “the study of survivals” (Marett 1936: 26). Tylor's various interests in Anahuac—such as the observation of geological traces, religious and astrological continuities from Aztec to post-conquest Mexico, and artistic forgeries—all point to the shaping of his thought in the 1860s.
By the time of the publication of his second book, Researches into the Early History of Mankind, in 1865, Tylor had begun to involve his work in the theoretical discussions that centred on the question of the progress or degeneration of cultures. His identification with the theories of Lubbock led him to attempt to define “primitive” culture as a stratum or base level of human civilization, in order to show that there could be no absolute degeneration from a superior original culture. However, in this earliest work of his maturity as an anthropologist he also began to understand the nature of the problems that would stand in the way of such a rationalization of human progress. It was precisely the new forms of evidence gathered by the Grimms and others that had enabled Tylor to widen the scope of enquiry into the progressive development of humankind, which now caused him to re-examine the development theory.
In Early History of Mankind he attempted to articulate a methodology that would allow him to interpret different forms of material evidence than had been previously used to investigate primitive culture. The “earlier civilization” whose outlines he was attempting to trace “lies very much out of the beaten track of history”, so that “direct records” needed to be replaced in the work of historical reconstruction by the “indirect evidence” gained from such studies as “Antiquities, Language, and Mythology” (Tylor 1865: 4). The problem with such evidence was that it obstructed the clear lines of progress that the theorist of development looked for. Although Tylor does not explicitly refer to it in Early History of Mankind, the theory of survivals comes to the rescue of the following insight, expressed in that book: “the course of development of the lower civilization has been on the whole in a forward direction, though interfered with occasionally and locally by the results of degrading and destroying influences” (1865: 365). The attempt to address the nature of the “degrading and destroying influences” constitutes a significant part of his work during the later 1860s, during the period in which he researched and wrote Primitive Culture (Leopold 1980: 12).
The Problem of Evidence
Although Tylor went further than any British writer in refining and popularizing it, he did not invent the idea of survivals in culture. The origin of the theory of survivals dates to the early years of the nineteenth century, when Jakob Grimm had been a student of the German jurist Friedrich Carl von Savigny (1779-1861) in Berlin. It was Savigny who had argued in his work that law developed, like language, in a gradual way, and it was he who traced the influence of Roman law beyond its historical boundaries, into later European society. These were insights that caused Grimm and other interpreters of the materials of folklore and mythology to reflect on the nature of historical continuity (Burke 1969: 142-145). The issue of continuity was important to theorists of cultural development because it helped to identify the differences between stages of human civilization. For example, the appearance of certain archaic tools in societies labelled as “barbaric” might suggest that they had not completely emerged from the “savage” state. The revived interest in collecting materials of European folklore led theorists of popular culture to consider whether the survival of the past within the present needed to be distinguished from the continuity of the past into the present. As Tylor stated in Primitive Culture, “The simple keeping up of ancient habits is only one part of the transition from old into new and changing times” (Tylor 1871: 14-15).
The reading of aspects of modern culture—whether tools, rituals, or beliefs—as phenomena which belong to an earlier period of history stemmed from the philosophical impetus which the discovery of traces of human prehistory had given to the study of archaeology. Furthermore, it was a discovery that opened the door to speculation about the material constitution of everyday reality, for the implication of the evidential trace as survival was that it existed at once in two separate worlds. As the German neuropsychiatrist Erwin Straus noted in his essay, “Memory Traces”,
We discover a trace as an artefact, as something which, by nature, does not belong to the material into which the trace is imprinted … The strangeness points to a past interference with the integrity of the trace-preserving material. The strangeness endows the trace with the character of past happenings. (Straus 1966: 86)
The need to try and make sense of the “strangeness” in the fabric of the everyday implies “past interference”. Indeed, according to Straus it is the recognition of this “strangeness” that gives to the trace the “character” which denotes that some activity has taken place in the past. The instinct to try to account for seemingly unintelligible phenomena that appear in the midst of a widespread familiarity of detail, an instinct that is closely connected with learning and recognition in the sciences, is the true problem with which the theory of survivals is concerned3.
In his essay entitled “On the Survival of Savage Thought in Modern Civilization”, Tylor uses a quotation from August Comte's “Positive Philosophy” to assist him in asserting the validity of the study of traces in order to emphasize the progress of cultures. Tylor recommends that “all ethnographers … adopt as a standing rule” Comte's remark that “no conception whatever can be understood except through its history”. The meaning of this statement is, according to Tylor, that “the civilization of any age is not a new creation to meet the wants of that age, but is a result of past times, modified to meet new conditions of life and knowledge”, and that civilization shows “in its cases of survival clear vestiges of the course of its development” (Tylor 1869: 533). Implicit in these statements is the notion that the civilization of the present day is a conception, analogous to a material body, which can be understood by studying its past.
The relationship between the theory of survivals and Comte's positivism is not straightforward. Tylor believed that the survival represented an inconsistency in modern culture, caused by the introduction of scientific knowledge and verified by experiment, into “primitive” ways of thinking. The modification of primitive thought through identifiable stages leads finally to modern scientific thought. During the course of this process there would inevitably remain vestiges of past forms, which were worthy of study for the light that they shed on modern thought. Experimental inference had progressively isolated intuitive or “natural” reasoning, which Tylor sometimes described as the “association of ideas”. Access to the meaning of such phenomena was gained through the study of its history, but Tylor discovered that historical access to the past was compromised and made uncertain by the problematic evidence of cultural survivals.
In another equivocal statement from the same essay, Tylor claims that “savages display thoughts and practices whose origin is comparatively intelligible; far more intelligible than in the modified state in which we have them as survivals at higher grades of culture” (1869: 534). According to the Positivist view, “the past” describes a time that is given and complete, in a way that enables the present to first constitute it and then to educate itself by relating to it as having passed. However, this identity of the past appeared to be invalidated by the ambiguous nature of the evidence from folklore and mythology that Tylor had studied as cultural survivals. His grasp of these findings as constitutive of a problem in the theory of history is revealed not in the definitive statement on the concept of survivals given in Primitive Culture, but rather through the hesitant and contradictory articulations of methodology in his writings of the mid- to late 1860s.
Research Papers of 1866-1869
The outlines of a radical methodological critique of cultural survivals can be seen in the occasional papers given by Tylor at scientific meetings and conferences during the years 1866 -18694. In “Phenomena of a Higher Civilization Traceable to a Rudimental Origin of the Savage Tribes”, given in 1866 at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Tylor begins by explaining how a new science is forming in which the “study of the lower races is capable of furnishing important knowledge about ourselves, about our own habits, customs, laws, principles, prejudices” (Tylor 1866: 112). After giving several examples of primitive survivals Tylor prophesizes that these “samples” of the “general working and character” of an as-yet-unnamed science “will, before many more years are past, have assumed the position of a great and powerful department of natural science” (1866: 116). In prophesying the emergence of this “great and powerful” new science, he found it necessary to bring all survivals into a classificatory order rather than to regard them in their historical specificity, as he had tried to do in a haphazard way in Anahuac. He had therefore begun to describe survivals as symptoms in the progress of all human cultures, not merely as traces within certain cultures in history.
In the following year, he gave a paper entitled “On Traces of the Early Mental Condition of Man” at a meeting of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. In this paper, Tylor explains how there has been an upward progress in the mental condition of man, “a succession of higher intellectual processes and opinions to lower ones” (Tylor 1867: 84). He uses examples of counting, spiritual beliefs, and ideas and habits of mind across different cultures to prove his theory. The paper is also significant in that it is the first occasion in which Tylor explicitly uses cultural survivals to differentiate between present “nonsense” and former “sense”. He provides the example of modern funeral offerings to explain his point:
when we see a wreath of everlastings laid upon a tomb, or a nosegay of fresh flowers thrown into an open grave, a full knowledge of the history of funeral offerings seems to justify us in believing what we should hardly have guessed without it, that even here we see a relic of the thoughts of the rudest savages who claim a common humanity with us, a funeral offering vastly changed in signification, but nowhere broken in historic sequence. (1867: 90-91)
Funeral offerings are shown to be relics and representations of the culture of the “rudest savages”, who are nevertheless related to civilized people in an unbroken psychic sequence. There is evidently a tension in this example between continuity and disruption in historical time, which leads to the “vast change in signification” of funeral offerings.
In another passage he attempts to bring together his theory of the intellectual unity of humankind with the theory of natural selection. In describing the nature of spirituality in “primitive” peoples, he states:
In the working of the minds of these early tribes, we trace a childlike condition of thought in which there is a wonderful absence of definition between past and future, between fact and imagination, between last night's dream and to-day's waking. Out of this state of mind we find arising all over the world a consistent, intense, and all-pervading spiritualism to form a basis upon which higher intellectual stages have been reared … But through age after age there has gone on a slow progress of natural selection, ever tending to thrust aside what is worthless, and to favour what is strong and sound. (1867: 92)
The tension in this example and in numerous others from the same paper arises from his attempt to explain that the study of “savage” practices such as “sorcery” would help to facilitate the intellectual progress of “higher races” (1867: 93). At its heart there is a struggle to unify humankind by attempting to bring to light the course of its differentiation from an original singularity, a project which may be seen as both scientific and theological.
The most equivocal of Tylor's documents on the identity and meaning of survivals is his 1869 paper, also given at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, “On the Survival of Savage Thought in Modern Civilization”. This paper marks Tylor's first use of the concept of “revivals”, which he announces by referring to the example of medieval witchcraft. According to him, European witchcraft was on the wane in the ninth century but “had been carried along the course of civilization till, finding in medieval life a congenial soil, it burst out afresh, and grew apace like the ill-weed it was” (1869: 523). He compares the medieval revival of witchcraft with the contemporary revival of spiritualism, a development that he traces to the influence of the work of Emanuel Swedenborg in the eighteenth century.
Tylor's friend and Darwin's ally, Alfred Russell Wallace, was a spiritualist who believed in the ability of the living to communicate with the dead. Wallace's spiritualism might explain why Tylor chose to tread cautiously through his investigation of this contemporary survival, which he compared with the primitive belief in animism—the life of inanimate objects. It produced this contentious passage:
Even supposing the alleged spiritualistic facts to be all true, and the spiritualistic interpretation of them sound, this does not alter the argument. It would prove that savages were wise, and that we civilized fools have degenerated from their superior knowledge. But it would remain true that modern spiritualism is a survival and revival of savage thought, which the general tendency of civilization and science has been to discard. This is the case of spiritualism as seen from an ethnographic point of view. (1869: 528)
From the anthropological perspective, modern spiritualism provides an example of cultural survival that could be at the same time both culturally advanced and irrational, and therefore out of the progressive lineage that Tylor had tried to establish with his theory of development. Indeed, it seemed that the closer he got to the problems of recognition and understanding that characterize the theory of survivals, the more that he betrayed himself through hesitation and contradiction.
In his 1871 work The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin refers favourably to Tylor and the other exponents of the development theory of culture, broadly agreeing with their principle that mankind had a shared general history and that racial differentiation described differences of degree, not differences in kind. Darwin states: “Man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals and religion” (Darwin 1871: 184). Primitive Culture was published in the same year as The Descent of Man. In Primitive Culture, the development theory of culture appears to merge with the evolutionary model, although as we have seen there was no logical development of Tylor's thought towards this end. The association may have been strategic, since Tylor and Darwin shared many allies in the conflicts over the theory of the development of culture.
According to the historian Joan Leopold, Tylor “seems to have accepted the concept of survivals before and then developed its potential as a support for evolutionary theory” (Leopold 1980: 49). In Primitive Culture comparisons are frequently drawn between cultural life and natural life. “Just as the catalogue of all the species of plants and animals of a district represents its flora and fauna, so the list of all the items of the general life of a people represent that whole which we call culture” (Tylor 1871: 7-8). In a definition of anthropology that he wrote for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875), Tylor stated that “the one sound and indispensable method for the study of human arts and institutions” was “that of placing each at its proper stage in a line of evolution, and explaining it by the action of new conditions upon the previous stage whence it was derived” (Tylor 1994: 123).
In contrast to Leopold, the historian of anthropology George Stocking regards the concept of survivals as having been co-opted into the cause of liberal intellectual progress, as mediated through Tylor's own Utilitarian political background. “The doctrine of survivals was … a principle of intellectual conservatism rather than creativity” (Stocking 1987: 162). Stocking argues that what lay behind the idea of the survival was Tylor's ultimate belief in “the psychic unity of man”, enabling the anthropologist or folklorist “to reason back from irrational tradition to the rational behaviour underlying it” (1987: 127-128). Stocking concludes that “in good uniformitarian fashion, survivals united the causal processes of the present with those of the past” (1987: 163).
The art historian Georges Didi-Huberman reads survivals as terms that “have nothing whatsoever to do with the premises of a teleology in progress, or with any 'evolutionary sense'. They certainly bear the evidence of a more original and repressed state, but they say nothing about evolution itself” (Didi-Huberman 2002: 67). Although this observation broadens the scope of Tylor's work, it is important to note that, as this article has shown, for Tylor the question of the viability of his concept for evolutionary theory became of paramount importance by the late 1860s.
The differences in these interpretations of Tylor's thinking on survivals confirm the difficulty of making concrete the tensions that motivated his early writing. In the present study, rather than demonstrating that Tylor developed and modified his concept of survivals, it has been more productive to follow it as a problem that he was never able to resolve. Instead, Tylor appears to have measured and adapted the idea strategically in line with what was at stake among the broader controversies of his time.
The theory of survivals that is given in Primitive Culture lacks the uncertainty that had enriched Tylor's earlier essays on the subject. In contrast to the difficulties in articulation of the 1869 paper, “On the Survival of Savage Thought in Modern Civilization”, the following statement from Primitive Culture is expressed serenely:
Rudimentary as the science of culture still is, the symptoms are becoming very strong that even what seem its most spontaneous and motiveless phenomena will, nevertheless, be shown to come within the range of distinct cause and effect as certainly as the facts of mechanics. (Tylor 1871: 16-17)
Therefore, by 1871, the idea of “the primitive” that is gathered through the collection and comparison of survivals is described in terms of a smooth method, analogous to the implementation of a mechanical model.
 One of Tylor's biographers, R. R. Marett, defined Tylor's theory against that of Herbert Spencer as “the survival of the un-fittest” (Marett 1936: 26). Marett also reports that “[In 1884] Tylor took the opportunity of running South to New Mexico … for a turn in the Pueblo country” (1936: 14-15). This “Pueblo country” was the same region of the southwestern United States in which Warburg later gathered the material for his famous lecture on snake ritual.
 See, for example, the recent study by Adam Kuper, The Reinvention of Primitive Society: Transformations of a Myth (Kuper 2005), especially Part 1.
 See also Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological (1991). In his Archaeology of E. B. Tylor Richard J Parmentier writes that “The problem of rationality emerges as the central concept in Tylor's problematic” (1976: 62).
 It is instructive to note the parallels in this difference between “official” and “unofficial” views of Tylor and the variations that Joan Leopold discovers between Tylor's views of the origin of Indo-European myths during his published work of the 1860s. See Leopold (1973: 13).
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Source: History and Anthropology, volume 19, June 2008