The logic of magic: Reading Wittgenstein’s remarks on Frazer’s The golden bough

Marcus McGee


This article centers on a close reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s The golden bough, showing how Wittgenstein’s Remarks offer a prescient view of anthropology. More than a critique of Frazerian evolutionism, the Remarks sit on the vertiginous edge of anthropological and philosophical interest, opening onto questions like: “what are the limits of thought?” and “how do we learn something new?” This article deepens an understanding of the Remarks by examining moments at which they reconsider Wittgenstein’s own prior work, namely the Tractatus logico-philosophicus. By contextualizing the Remarks in a broader movement of thought—one that spans, fissures, and connects what are conventionally isolated as Wittgenstein’s “early” and “late” work—it explores an isomorphism suggested by the Remarks between what Wittgenstein calls “philosophical” and anthropological “problems.” In doing so this article presents, and enacts, a version of Wittgenstein’s thought that might serve as a compelling, albeit mercurial, exemplar for anthropological inquiry.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/725383