Peter Melville Logan, “On Culture: Edward B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture, 1871″


Edward B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture articulates one of two major theories of culture to emerge around 1870. His theory defines culture in descriptive terms as the “complex whole” that makes up social ideas and institutions, and in this it helped to establish anthropology as a recognized science. Tylor’s ideas were closely related to those published about the same time by Matthew Arnold, who defined culture as a humanist ideal that society should strive for.

engraving of Tylor

Figure 1: Engraving of Edward Burnett Tylor

Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917) established the theoretical principles of Victorian anthropology, in Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom (1871), by adapting evolutionary theory to the study of human society. Written at the same time as Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869), Tylor defined culture in very different terms: “Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (1: 1). Here culture refers to the learned attributes of society, something we already have. Arnold’s theory focused instead on the learned qualities that we should have, which he prescribed as a way to improve the existing society. (See Peter Melville Logan, “On Culture: Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, 1869.″) The prescriptive element of his theory thus was antithetical to anthropology’s descriptive premises. Nonetheless, the simultaneous appearance of the two new theories of culture suggests a connection between them, and in fact both versions of “culture” had an overlapping interest in responding to one and the same problem. Each redefined culture from a term limited to individuals to one that encompassed society as a whole. While Tylor focused on the insular, subjective life of “primitives,” Arnold thought that Victorians displayed a similar incapacity. Notwithstanding the evident differences between Arnold’s treatise on Victorian Britain and Tylor’s on human prehistory, both works focus on the problem of overcoming a narrow subjectivism and learning to comprehend the social body as a whole. The two were thus more alike than not, representing different approaches to the same problem, rather than two unrelated uses of the term culture (see Stocking, “Matthew Arnold”).

For Tylor, Anthropology was a “science of culture,” a system for analyzing existing elements of human civilization that are socially created rather than biologically inherited. His work was critical to the recognition of anthropology as a distinct branch of science in 1884, when the British Association for the Advancement of Science admitted it as a major branch, or section, of the society, rather than a subset of biology, as had previously been the case. Tyler was the first president of the section, and in 1896 became Professor of Anthropology at map iconOxford, the first academic chair in the new discipline (Stocking, Victorian Anthropology 156-64).

While a foundational figure in cultural anthropology, Tylor thought about culture in radically different terms than we do today. He accepted the premise that all societies develop in the same way and insisted on the universal progression of human civilization from savage to barbarian to civilized. Nowhere in his writing does the plural “cultures” appear. In his view, culture is synonymous with civilization, rather than something particular to unique societies, and, so, his definition refers to “Culture or civilization.” In part, his universalist view stemmed from his Quaker upbringing, which upheld the value of a universal humanity, and indeed Tylor’s refusal to accept the concept of race as scientifically significant in the study of culture was unusual in Victorian science.

The biology of evolution was explained by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species (1859), and he expanded his finding to include human evolution in The Descent of Man (1871), which was published the same year as Primitive Culture. While Darwin concentrated on biology, Tylor focused solely on the evolution of human culture. In this, he participated in a lengthy philosophical tradition explaining human development from its beginning to the present day. This speculative practice extends back to classical antiquity. In De Rerum Natura (The Way Things Are), recounting the even earlier ideas of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE), the Roman poet Lucretius (99-55 BCE) told the dramatic story of a turbulent primal earth that generated all forms of life, including giant humans, who would slowly come together to create social groupings. Lucretius was particularly concerned with the development of beliefs about supernatural beings, which he viewed as anthropomorphic attempts to explain the natural world. In medieval Europe, Lucretius’s ideas were largely forgotten in favor of the Christian account of human origins in Genesis. But by the eighteenth century, philosophers proposed new, secular accounts that minimized the story of Genesis. In Scienza nuova (1744; The New Science), the Italian Giambattista Vico (1688-1744) proposed a theory of human origins that incorporated many of Lucretius’s ideas, including the gigantic stature of early man, and he reiterated the anthropomorphic explanation for the rise in beliefs about gods. Indeed, the first of Vico’s 141 axioms explains the importance of human self-projection as a means of explaining the world around them: “By its nature, the human mind is indeterminate; hence, when man is sunk in ignorance, he makes himself the measure of the universe” (75).

Enlightenment philosophers like Vico typically divided the development of human culture into three distinct stages. While his stages depended on the increasing sophistication of language over time, in De l’esprit des loix (1748; The Spirit of Laws), the French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) used three static stages defined less by time than by geography and the effects of climate: savagery (hunting), barbarism (herding), and civilization. The French ideologue Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94) used ten stages, but he saw them as more dynamic than did Montesquieu. In Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (1795; Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind), Condorcet took a developmental view of social progress linked to the development of human reason over time. Condorcet was particularly significant to the thinking of Tylor’s defining predecessor, the French philosopher of science Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Comte’s Cours de philosophie positive (1830-42; Positive Philosophy) proposed three similarly dynamic stages premised on the growth of reason: the theological stage, dominated by superstition; the metaphysical, where spiritual thinking was replaced by political allegory; and the positivist stage of scientific reason. Comte’s philosophy was popularized in Britain in 1853 by Harriet Martineau’s condensed translation.

While Enlightenment thinkers and Comte referred to the development of “society” or “civilization,” the nineteenth-century German social philosopher Gustav Klemm (1802-67) used a novel term for his discussion of human development. In his Allgemeine Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit (1843-52; The General Cultural History of Mankind), he substituted the word Kultur for “society” (Williams 91). Nonetheless, Klemm, like his predecessors, considered human culture or civilization as a single condition. The exception was the German Romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), whose unfinished Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784–91; Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man) insisted on cultural relativism, arguing that there was too much variety to view all human societies as part of the same unilinear process.

Tylor’s method did not appear ex nihilo, then. He adopted Klemm’s term, “culture,” as preferable to “civilization.” Most significantly, he used Comte’s three stages wholesale, but he substituted Montesquieu’s terminology of “savage,” “barbarian,” and “civilized” for Comte’s ungainly “theological,” “metaphysical,” and “positivist.” To these, he added a practical method for studying humanity, and this emphasis on scientific objectivity within ethnographic practices differentiated his work from that of his predecessors. “Evolutionary Anthropology,” as Tylor’s Victorian method was called, dominated British ethnography until the end of the nineteenth century. In his most influential work, Primitive Culture, he spelled out two major contributions to anthropology: he defined culture clearly as an object of study for the first time, and he described a systematic method for studying it.

His science of culture had three essential premises: the existence of one culture, its development through one progression, and humanity as united by one mind. Tylor saw culture as universal. In his view, all societies were essentially alike and capable of being ranked by their different levels of cultural advancement. As he explains in a later essay:

the institutions of man are as distinctly stratified as the earth on which he lives. They succeed each other in series substantially uniform over the globe, independent of what seem the comparatively superficial differences of race and language, but shaped by similar human nature acting through successively changed conditions in savage, barbaric, and civilized life. (“On a Method” 269)

The earliest stage of savagery featured largely in Tylor’s study of culture; the term itself derives from the Latin for forest-dweller, and at the time it had both neutral and positive connotations as well as the negative ones that remain today. Societies within each stage have superficial differences masking their fundamental similarity, and the anthropologist’s job is to identify the latter. Determining where the group stood on the hierarchical ladder of cultural development provided the context for interpreting all aspects of the society by comparing it with others on the same rung around the world. One of the most prominent consequences of this logic was the familiar practice in Victorian museums of displaying together all objects of one type from around the world, arranged to illustrate the intrinsic cultural evolution of a musical instrument, bowls, or spears, for example. A cursory glance at most illustrated anthropological books from the time, such as Friedrich Ratzel’s The History of Mankind (1885-86), demonstrates the same principle at work.

The progression from savage to civilized did not occur evenly or at the same pace in every society, but the distinct stages were always the same, much as the growth of the individual from infant to adolescent to adult takes a similar form in different places. The association this analogy created between primitives and children was roundly rejected in anthropology at the turn of the century, but in the meantime it created a sense that Victorians were confronting their infant selves in what they regarded as primitive societies. In this sense, the science of anthropology was not just about the study of other, largely colonized people; it was also about the connection between modern life in Europe and its own earlier stages, and this meant that anthropology had much to teach the British about their own society. Tylor argues that elements of early culture continue on in later stages as “survivals.” Superstitions, nursery rhymes, or familiar expressions (“a pig in a poke”) often are illogical and unintelligible. Such aspects of modern life, he argues, are survivals from mythology or rituals that served a purpose in the past but had lost their meaning over time, even as the practice itself continued. To Tylor, the most apparently insignificant aspects of Victorian life were critical to anthropology. Survivals were “landmarks in the course of culture. . . . 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 found; and thus collections of such facts are to be worked as mines of historic knowledge” (Primitive Culture 1:71). Reuniting survivals with their lost meaning was the key to understanding the true nature of the primitive mind.

Ultimately, understanding the perceptions and working of that primitive mind was the object of anthropology. His central premise was the doctrine of psychic unity: the belief that all humans are governed by the same mental and psychological processes and that, faced with similar circumstances, all will respond similarly. The principal of psychic unity explained the appearance of identical myths and artifacts in widely disparate societies. While acknowledging two other possibilities—that each society could have inherited the trait from a common ancestor, or that each came into contact with one another at some point and learned it from the other—he argued that “independent invention” was the most frequent cause of such coincidences.

The defining trait of the primitive mind was its inability to think abstractly. Because numbers are abstractions, counting was limited to the concrete number of fingers or toes, for example, followed by “a lot.” Language was nonexistent. For the same reason, primitives were unable to group similar objects into abstract categories—all trees, or rocks, or flowers, for example. Instead, the primitive saw only individual trees, without understanding categories like a forest, because of their abstract nature. This was above all a concrete world, one in which each object had a unique identity or personality that could not be replaced by any other. Primitives were thus immersed in a world of singular objects. At the same time they were unable to comprehend events, like thunder, in a logical fashion, because they lacked the power to construct abstract natural laws. Instead, primitives projected their emotions onto the world around them as a means of explaining natural events. In response to the threat posed by thunder, for example, the primitive invents an angry supernatural being to explain it. When a tree ceases to bear fruit, the tree’s spirit must be unhappy. Tylor called the primitive belief in spirits “animism,” a term that continues in use today, and thus he follows a long tradition of imagining early humans as dominated by supernaturalism.

Like Comte, Tylor held that the progress of culture was a slow replacement of this magical thinking with the power of reason. He produced a narrative of human evolution that begins with a global supernaturalism in the savage stage. Supernaturalism coexists with the development of language, laws, and institutions in the barbaric stage. In advanced civilizations, like Tylor’s own, reason and scientific thinking predominate. This is not a rational utopia, by any means. Magical thinking persists in the present; the primitive tendency to imagine objects as having a life of their own exists even within the most civilized gentleman, who might think in a moment of frustration that a broken watch was inhabited by an evil spirit. Tylor did not imagine modern culture in idealist terms, but, ever the Victorian, he did view it as fundamentally better than that of primitive culture.

Evolutionary anthropology came under fire in the fin de siècle from within anthropology itself. There were numerous contributing factors, including a new emphasis on the importance of anthropologists doing their own fieldwork rather than examining the reports of others. But in terms of cultural theory, the most important criticism was that of the American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942). A German immigrant to the map iconUnited States, he was influenced by German Romantic philosophy, including Herder’s insistence on cultural particularity. In 1896, Boas published an influential critique of Tylor’s science, “The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology,” in which he persuasively challenged the basic notions of psychic unity and independent invention upon which Victorian evolutionary anthropology rested.  Boas had been actively contesting evolutionary orthodoxy since at least 1887, when he objected to the typological arrangement of ethnographic artifacts within American national museums, insisting that they should instead be displayed with other objects from their originating culture (Stocking, Shaping of American Anthropology 61-67). He argued throughout his work for cultural pluralism, for “cultures” in the plural, and with him began the final shift in anthropological thought from the traditional universalism to the new, particular theory of culture that characterized twentieth-century thought.

Evolutionary anthropology remerged in the twentieth century, as early as the 1930s but more influentially later in the century, and it continues today. Unlike its Victorian variant, evolutionary thought now emphasizes multi-causality, the interaction of multiple events to account for the development of societies, as well as the presence of multiple paths in the development of particular cultures. In both of these regards, Tylor’s central concepts of the uniform primitive mind, the single evolutionary path through three stages, and the universality of one human culture remain decidedly Victorian in their outlook, telling us more about the nineteenth century and its own culture, than they do about contemporary anthropological thought.

Peter Melville Logan is Director of the Center for the Humanities at Temple University, where he is a Professor of English. He is the author of Victorian Fetishism: Intellectuals and Primitives (2010),  Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century British Prose (1997), and Editor of The Encyclopedia of the Novel (2 vols.), 2011.


published July 2012

Logan, Peter Melville. “On Culture: Edward B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture, 1871.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Boas, Franz. “The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthroplogy.” Science 4 (1896): 901-08. Print.

Comte, Auguste. The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. Trans. Harriet Martineau. Vol. 2. 2 vols. London: John Chapman, 1853. Print.

Stocking, George W. “Matthew Arnold, E. B. Tylor, and the Uses of Invention.” Race, Culture and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. New York: Free Press, 1968. 69-90. Print.

—, ed. The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911: A Franz Boas Reader. New York: Basic, 1974. Print.

—. Victorian Anthropology. New York: Free Press, 1987. Print.

Tylor, Edward B. “On a Method of Investigating the Development of Institutions; Applied to Laws of Marriage and Descent.” Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 18 (1889): 245-72. Print.

—. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. 2nd ed. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1873. Print.

Vico, Giambattista. New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations. Ed. Marsh, David. 3rd ed. London: Penguin, 1999. Print.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford UP, 1983. Print.


Peter Melville Logan, “On Culture: Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, 1869″