Theories of Diffusionism: Myth and/or Science?

  • Kazuo Matsumura
Keywords: cultural diffusionism, mythology


In the nineteenth century, the paradigm of the age was cultural evolutionism represented by Friedrich Max Müller, Edward B. Tylor, and James G. Frazer. With the realization of the limits of this theory in the early part of the twentieth century, there arose the new paradigm of diffusionism, represented by George Elliot Smith and William James Perry in Great Britain, and by Father Peter Schmidt and Father Wilhelm Koppers in Austria-Germany. Curiously, this paradigm was not popular in other countries such as France and the United States and besides, the diffusionists in the two areas were not in league but showed open hostility to each other. The paper examines the diffusion theory of W. J. Perry as the representative example, and also discusses the reasons why the theory that once in vogue came to be criticized and disappeared.

Today, however, diffusionism has proved to be correct thanks to the development of various branches of sciences. In a word, the early diffusionists were overzealous in presenting a universalistic theory before they could secure a firmer ground by amassing reliable data.  They consequently constructed a quasi-science myth. The line that separates myth and science is not firm as this case of diffusion theory attests.