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Abstract

This paper provides a systematic exposition of what Wittgenstein took to be the fundamental error committed by James George Frazer, author of the classic anthropological work The Golden Bough, in his account of ritual practices. By construing those rituals in scientific or rationalistic terms, as aimed at the production of certain effects, Frazer ignores, according to Wittgenstein, their expressive and symbolic dimension. It is, moreover, an error to try to explain the powerful emotions evoked even today by traditions such as fire festivals (which may once have involved human sacrifice) by searching for their causal origins in history or prehistory; the disquieting nature of such practices needs to be understood by attending to the inner meaning they already have in our human lives. Certain important general lessons are drawn about the necessarily limited power of scientific and causal explanations when it comes to alleviating many of our fundamental perplexities not just in the area of anthropology but in philosophy as well.1