The Earth is Full of Gods
Myths and Metaphors in Western Thought
– A Sociological Interpretation
Edited version of Ph.D. thesis
National University of Ireland
Conferred at Maynooth on 11 September 2001
(2) Social Facts
(3) The Writing Lesson
(4) Camels in Germany
(6) Popper and Kuhn
(7) The Collective Unconscious, Archetypes and the Myth of the Hero
(8) Isaac Newton
(9) Adam Smith
(10) Charles Darwin
(11) Karl Marx
(12) Sigmund Freud
(13) Albert Einstein
“Good historical myths are generally far more exciting, significantly more teachable, and more readily remembered than the real thing. By telescoping history around critical moments that always lead to the inevitable present, myths surpass all but the most exceptional historical truth in their appeal to human interest… Great “origins” myths are too much of a cultural art form… to die out simply because they are not true.” (Sulloway 1980:503)
Taken from Frank Sulloway’s landmark study of Freud, this quotation handily encapsulates several themes prominent in this study, which investigates the underrated importance of myth and metaphor in the Western intellectual heritage. In this passage we can note therefore the highlighting of the existence of historical myths, the mention of the issue of their communicability, the acknowledgement of their dramatic appeal to human interest, and lastly the problematic assertion of their untruth.
In part, this thesis intends to argue in favour of timeless truths of human existence which myths represent apocryphally, as it were. This truth should be seen to complement values expressed in the positive use of adjectives like ‘systematic’, ‘logical’ and ‘factual’. Indeed, the latter should also be seen to have their own particular type of mythic manifestation, be it deliberate or unconscious on the part of authors and interpreters.
To elaborate, using what at first may seem like a trivial example, let us note that Ernest Gellner has written that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus deserves to stand on the shelf next to the poetic works of T.S. Eliot, in that it belongs to the same period and employs the very same stylistic devices. Eliot, he says, took themes, allusions and symbols which had, by the then stale conventions of Victorian or Georgian lyricism, been conspicuously un-poetic, and welded them into a literary unity with poetic and “deep” elements. These thereby regained freshness and made an impact which, on their own, they could no longer command (1979:7).
Gellner continues by asserting that Eliot’s borrowings from ordinary un-poetic speech always retained the air of being dredged up from a world which was not the poet’s own, “probably with a gloved hand if not with pincers”, and the result was a kind of collage. He claims that Wittgenstein’s “poetry” was different in that, far from being a collage, it claimed logical continuity for all the elements it employed. Wittgenstein’s reinforcement-borrowings were from technical logic and mathematics and they were welded with the deep and cultural stuff into what purported to be an absolute and indissoluble unity. All the propositions in the Tractatus were numbered. This conveyed that they were part of one indissoluble system (1979:7-8).
To shed light on this game Wittgenstein was playing let us quote Halle (1972) on what he sees as the difference between science and the arts. The method of science is, he says, analytical, “a procedure of taking things apart”. For putting things together, for establishing “valid associations”, one depends rather on the intuitions of the creative imagination, of the generalizing eye, as expressed chiefly in the arts or the humanities, although, he writes, it is also expressed under the rubric of science by a Newton or an Einstein (1972:150).
How then are such associations best formulated and conveyed? In an essay on the early work of Erving Goffman, Lofland (1980) writes that the “Goffmanesque touch” is achieved by what the literary critic Kenneth Burke in Permanence and Change (1936) called perspective by incongruity. This ability in Goffman has also been noticed by Manning (1980:262). Having antecedents in the works of Shakespeare and Nietzsche, it is the trick of taking a word or phrase usually applied in one setting and transferring its use to another setting. This, Lofland writes, is the art that the early Goffman practises in two forms: firstly, by sprinkling the text with incongruous phrases, and secondly by applying an entire incongruous model to a phenomenon to achieve a new perspective (1980:25).
Lofland continues his essay by stating that, just as foreign travellers and anthropologists often see things as problematic that some circle of natives does not, so Goffman becomes a foreign traveller in his own land (1980:27). Collins (1980:174) corroborates this, describing Goffman as an empiricist who has broken new ground in our conception of empirical materials. This issue of novel conceptions of empirical materials will be encountered again in our case studies, most especially when we look at Freud and Einstein.
In the first chapter, however, we begin to tackle what empiricism itself actually means. Robert Merton has written that a central point of agreement in all approaches to the sociology of knowledge is the thesis that thought has an existential basis insofar as it is not immanently determined (1973:13). Perhaps the basic epistemological question that has prompted this study has been, then, for want of a better formulation, the following. What are the universal conditions of thought? From a sociological perspective, the key initial distinction to be made in this regard is between the sociology of knowledge – a branch of our subject which, as it is usually understood, studies the links between ideas and specific social contexts – and the concept of a sociological theory of knowledge. The latter entails most simply the recognition that the social nature of human life is an a priori factor influencing our ideas.
In the subsequent search for and examination of what seem to be social facts of our existence, we compare as much of that existence as is practically possible, which necessitates the inclusion of material from beyond Western societies and modern times. The plentiful evidence of mutually analogous themes and situations receiving representation in differing cultures and periods involves us in the comparative study of worldviews in the light of their common existential background. Therein what we call archetypal aspects of life emerge and societies are seen to present these universal types of experience to their members in the form of myth and metaphor.
Given our specific interest in the Western intellectual heritage and its emphasis on quantitative, ‘nuts-and-bolts’ discovery (‘science’), what then becomes of paramount interest to us is the figure of the hero, or outsider, as it is repeatedly represented in that heritage. The image of each exemplar should be seen to be a representation of aspects of human life that are out of time, at an elevated level of exposition of such experience, as well as one of a maker of an historical contribution to the scientific explanation of the universe. The case studies explore this phenomenon with a view to drawing conclusions about the significance of myth and metaphor for learning and the communication of ideas, especially in their complementary relation to the quantitative requirements of Western science.
This is an interpretative study, the method of which is derived from a trawl of literature cited in standard reference works not only in sociology but also in philosophy, psychology and anthropology. The impression of what was there to be uncovered was derived as a by-product from literature studied at master’s degree level. There was quite an amount of source material of partial relevance to our topic – key questions half-asked or half-answered, as it were – but that nobody had tried to pull it all together. This has been pretty much confirmed in the course of the research. This dissertation, however, does not claim finality but aims to be a general introduction to and exploration of the topic summed up in its title.
The introductory chapter explores some basic epistemological issues in sociology and science in general and initially employs the collaboration of Berger and Luckmann as targets for a critical reconstruction of these issues. This is then used as a platform to attack scientism and relativism. Our comparative outlook is also made manifest in the desire to transcend the pre-existing sociology of knowledge and semiotics. This leads us into structuralism, as it can be defined in the social sciences. That is where we first encounter Saussure and Lévi-Strauss. The next chapter, on the concept of social facts, moves to Durkheim and the latter’s naturalistic conception of science. There we delve into some of the biased Western presumptions attached to science in the nineteenth-century. What is myth, we ask, and we introduce Lévi-Strauss’ concern with the concept, along with Derrida’s criticism of the influence of Saussure and structural linguistics.
The third chapter is entitled The Writing Lesson after a key anthropological example used by Derrida to turn the work of Lévi-Strauss upon itself and expose the latter’s unconsciously ethnocentric assumptions. To broaden the context of the argument against binary dualism, Joseph Campbell and William McNeill are then used to differentiate between individualism and collectivism as reflected in the outlooks of East and West.
The fourth chapter is entitled Camels in Germany after an anthropological example of the blinkered application of logic tests in the former Soviet Union. It contains further criticism of a Western bias which reveals ignorance of context. We then compare Barry Barnes’ remarks on the incidence of sociological condemnation of Western lay beliefs about science as ‘irrational’. This also entails a first reference to Thomas Kuhn and the disciplinary paradigms of scientists. Barnes is also quoted for his key idea, though somewhat tentatively expressed, that lay beliefs may be understood as metaphorical extensions of original material. We contradict his assertion that it is more common for the public just to take scientific conclusions on trust, on the grounds that it does not actually offer to explain anything of the content of such beliefs. Nor does it even tell us on what such trust is based. This leads us into framing our concern with sociological taxonomy, with the dimensions of such ideas, as opposed to the connections between them and specific social contexts.
The succeeding chapter predictably proceeds to the topic of legitimation. The sharp distinction drawn by Berger and Luckmann between common sense and ‘ideas’, and between mythology and science, is regarded as unwarranted. This forms the starting point of a critique of the four levels of social legitimation they propose, which are here regarded as muddled, to say the least. In contrast, Thomas Luckmann’s solo effort in The Invisible Religion is regarded as possessing insight of transcendent value, especially in his identification of socialisation as the universal anthropological condition of religion.
Following on from our return to the topic of mythology, and armed with an understanding of the metaphysical aspect of all worldviews, the sixth chapter deals with the relevant thoughts of Popper and Kuhn, as they are arguably the leading post-war figures in the philosophy and sociology of science. Issues concerning the definition of myth and science are seen to be both raised and then dealt with inadequately by these two figures, and especially poorly by Kuhn, and this leads us back to analytical psychological roots and the seventh chapter.
Given Popper’s belief in expectations that are psychologically or genetically a priori, for example, figures such as Jung, Campbell and Storr help us explore concepts such as the collective unconscious, archetypes and the myth of the hero. We try to show the relevance of these concepts for the investigation of our subject matter, given that archetypal experience is interpreted and defined in a non-culture-specific, non-Lamarckian way. Myths, ancient and modern, are divided into expository and explanatory categories, dealing with existential facts and cosmology respectively. Comparisons are drawn from the sociological work of Durkheim, Goffman, Luckmann and Winch, and criticism is made of Giddens, Wittgenstein and Gellner on the notion of imprisonment in language games.
Language is seen as contextual also, with further reference being made to Goffman. Archetypes are then defined as prehistoric rather than ahistoric in origin, in a distinction exemplified by a contrast drawn between Plato and Kuhn. Further sociological parallels are then found in Simmel’s essay The Stranger and in Goffman’s comments on “character” and “fatefulness”.
Society is seen to engender agency in its members through a pattern of withdrawal-and-return, of creating outsiders. The chapter concludes with a summing up of methodological findings in a key assertion: there are two broad levels of mythic resonance and, beyond the ranks of specialists – for whom the systematic, explanatory aspect of cosmologies tends to hold the most mythic appeal – the communication of intellectual ideas increasingly depends on metaphors and analogies that are expository of human existence, which is a priori social. We are then left with complementarity of quantitative and qualitative concerns in the communication of ideas.
Then follow six chapters of case studies, succeeded by a lengthy concluding chapter. What then, one may ask, about the apparent problem of assuming that which one seeks to prove, by focusing on individuals in that heritage? Just as everyone comes to a problem with preconceptions, however, so it will be seen and explained in the case studies just where the initial prompts came from to study such individuals.
Before becoming immersed in one’s Western intellectual heritage, one has to be aware, in some a priori sense, of the towering presence of Newton, Smith, Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein. Concerning legends, anecdotes, reputations, there were also other possibilities to be considered for interpretation. These included the likes of Galileo up on the leaning tower of Pisa, or Archimedes in the bath, or Rousseau finding his inspiration under a tree on the road to Vincennes, or Descartes in Bavaria in the winter of 1619, conceiving in his stove-heated room the mission that was to have such deep effects on the philosophical world.
In the sense of sociological ‘legend’, there was the influence of Durkheim’s Suicide and Weber’s Protestant Ethic. All of these had grounds to be considered in terms of their cultural and/or intellectual resonance. The roots of this study therefore lay in perhaps an impressionistic appreciation of the history of science and philosophy. The next step was to delve deeper and more broadly into its content. Therefore we set out to cover a broad band of intellectual endeavour, from the natural sciences to the humanities or social sciences.
In physics, the twin pillars were clearly Newton and Einstein. Chemistry is largely skipped, as the likes of Boyle or Lavoisier did not seem in the same legendary league. As for biology, Darwin also clearly stood alone, with Wallace in the shadows nearby. Furthermore, as the history of known creation myths can be divided into two categories – that of the origin of the cosmos and that of the origin of humanity – so chemistry kind of falls in between.
As for the ‘human’ sciences, it was decided to include Adam Smith because, even if he is not quite a household name like the others, he definitely surpassed the boundaries of economics in his intellectual influence and, anyway, it was felt that someone historically outstanding from the field of economics had to be included, given the anti-idealist bent of this dissertation.
In the arena of political economy, Marx was again an inevitable choice, while, when dealing with the life of the mind, the same went for Freud, about whom Auden once famously wrote that he had become less a person than a whole climate of opinion. Overall, being a household name was not a prerequisite for inclusion but was merely regarded as a bonus, once the intellectual figure clearly resonated beyond the particular field of origin.
The study intends to form a general interpretation of what these figures, their lives and the reception of their ideas represented, in terms of myth and metaphor, along with what they actually thought. This entails an awareness of historical and ahistorical considerations, given that we must assume, to the best of our knowledge, that the basic facts of human existence, especially our physical and psychological make-up, have remained the same since time immemorial.
In this context is placed the whole issue of communicability. Apart from the appeal of systematic cosmologies to expert opinion, there are to be observed varying degrees of metaphorical and allegorical extensions of the original material that is under scrutiny. The basis of these extensions underlies a sociological taxonomy of those aspects of existence which must be transformed into myths and metaphors. It is these phenomena that are of interest to us rather than specific rules of transformation. The socialisation of every individual into a worldview constitutes the universal anthropological condition of religion, according to Thomas Luckmann, but the worldviews of all societies seem to reflect certain common experiences. Thus are existential facts represented. A key vehicle or mythic embodiment for such representation is the model of the hero, whose process of withdrawal from and return to society acts as the structure for the agent and human agency. This is why origination is of such mythic significance for both expert and layman.
In a review of the Polish sociologist Florian Znaniecki’s Social Role of the Man of Knowledge, Robert Merton makes a fundamental distinction when he tells us that Znaniecki has not confused problems in the sociology of knowledge with a sociological theory of knowledge, which is a “special epistemology” (Merton 1973:41). Another way of stating this difference can be found in Berger and Luckmann and their Social Construction of Reality, where they write that there has been general agreement that the sociology of knowledge is concerned with the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises. It may thus be said, they claim, that the sociology of knowledge constitutes the sociological focus of a much more general problem – that of the existential determination of thought as such (1966:16).
Some answer to that more general problem will be found at the root of every endeavour in the sociology of knowledge, whether it is there explicitly or implicitly. We attempt to tackle this problem directly, without abandoning the sociological angle of inquiry. Of course, this ‘philosophical’ interest may seem incongruous in the context of the discipline of sociology. Let us try to show that such an opinion is unjustified but first let us spell it out as Berger and Luckmann see it.
“The philosopher… will inquire into the ontological and epistemological status of these conceptions. Is man free? What is responsibility? How can one know these things? And so on. Needless to say, the sociologist is in no position to supply answers to these questions.” (Berger and Luckmann 1966:14)
The proper answer to this assertion that the sociologist cannot tackle such questions has two parts. The first part requires the introduction of a distinction taken from Karl Popper’s Poverty of Historicism.
“The school of thinkers whom I propose to call methodological essentialists was founded by Aristotle (…) [These] are inclined to formulate… questions in such terms as ‘what is matter?’ or… ‘what is justice?’ and they believe that a penetrating answer… is at least a necessary prerequisite of scientific research, if not its main task. Methodological nominalists, as opposed to this, would put their problems in such terms as ‘how does this piece of matter behave?’ or ‘how does it move in the presence of other bodies?’ ” (1994:28-29)
In the second volume of his Open Society and its Enemies, Popper encapsulates the essentialism of Aristotle and his teacher Plato. He writes that we may reasonably attribute to both Antisthenes and Diogenes the Cynic the statement I can see a horse, Plato, but I cannot see its horseness (1966:299). In sharing Popper’s sympathy with the nominalists’ emphasis on the imperative, for science, of contextual awareness, not least in the use of definitions derived only from empirical cases, we can see that an effort to place one’s own presuppositions in context is necessary in any investigation. Berger and Luckmann, however, touch merely on issues surrounding the sociological researcher as they contend that the questions they have emphasised “properly belong to the methodology of the social sciences, an enterprise that belongs to philosophy” (1966:26). They state that their theorising “refers to the empirical discipline in its concrete problems, not to the philosophical investigation of the empirical discipline” (1966:26).
The second part of our reply to their initial claim as to what a sociologist cannot answer involves of course our earlier assertion, to be later developed, that every sociologist brings to every problem a philosophy founded on values and presuppositions. For example, just what is empirical? Do we take its meaning for granted, like Berger and Luckmann? Do we examine the social context of Western empiricism, in an exercise in the sociology of knowledge? Or do we try to explore comparatively the context of empiricism in general, as reflected in differing cultural representations?
In claiming an interest in the last type of question it should be clear that our chief interest does not lie in the field of the sociology of knowledge per se. This choice is also prompted by a perception that that field has unfortunately often been characterized by scientism – science as a ‘value-free’ masquerade maintained by a belief in itself and its research techniques – and relativism. As an exemplar of the former deficiency, Karl Mannheim distinguished between what he called relationism, whereby “existentially-determined” thought (social science, politics, culture and everyday notions) must be grasped in the framework of an existential correlation between subject and object, and what he calls the thought of the exact natural sciences (1993:401-02).
Reading Mannheim, it is as if the characteristics of the practitioners of these “exact” sciences were not determined by the conditions of their existence, which is nonsense. Compare Giddens writing in his New Rules of Sociological Method, where he claims that sociology, unlike natural science, stands in a subject-subject relation to its ‘field of study’, not in a subject-object relation, and that it deals with a pre-interpreted world (1976:146). Beyond all this confusion of subjects and objects, is not nature too a pre-interpreted world, in the socialisation of each human being? As for the accusation of relativism, perhaps we should wait until we come to appraise the work of Thomas Kuhn before we elaborate on it but here we can at least introduce the concept by quoting from Gellner’s Legitimation of Belief.
“Relativism is interesting at least in that it takes what others consider to be a problem, and uses it as a solution. The problem: truth is different on the other side of the Pyrenees – so how can it be truth? The relativist turns this upside down: for him it is not so much a problem, but rather a solution. Truth is that which is locally believed.” (1974:47)
Or the way things are organised locally. Having pointed out the paradox resulting from the application of relativism to itself – the relative truth that truth is relative, so to speak – Gellner goes on to distinguish between “normative relativism” – the idea that there are no universal, independent criteria by which local ones can be judged – and what he calls “mere sociological relativism”. The latter he sees as the doctrine that convictions vary with the milieux within which they occur. This second category, however, is better seen as a manifestation of relativity, which soundly asserts that the observer’s standpoint is inevitably reflected in the data he or she provides.
To take a definition or understanding for granted, as if it were ‘uncontaminated’ by a context, is ethnocentric and thereby reflective of a transient historical phenomenon, which all cultures have been. To link ideas and values to specific contexts is also to concentrate on such passing phenomena, of course, but, rather than say any more here about the sociology of knowledge, we can use this point to excuse the lack of attention paid to semiology in this study.
The study of ‘signs’ is largely passed over because we judge it irrelevant and invalid where our subject matter is concerned. Let us give an initial example of the former difficulty, as we perceive it. To follow Roland Barthes’ interest in “myth” as reflected in things like clothing, food, cars and furniture would be to pursue phenomena arising from specific decades of the twentieth century. This is notwithstanding whatever fascination lies in uncovering the code of signification linking apparently ephemeral items to deep-seated Western assumptions.
Nonetheless, even if we leave aside temporarily the issue of the influence of Saussure and structural linguistics, then Barthes’ implicit separation of ‘history’ from pre-history still remains incompatible with our own understanding of myth. One can conceive of very ancient myths, he writes, but there are no eternal ones, for it is human history which converts reality into speech, and it alone rules the life and the death of mythical language. Ancient or not, he adds, mythology can only have an historical foundation, for myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things (1993:110). We, in contrast, view myth as ‘eternal’ insofar as homo sapiens has existed prior to ‘history’ and continues to exist, as the same species.
As regards the assertion of invalidity, this amounts to a refusal to become diverted towards neo-Kantian categories of mental apprehension of the world. This rejection will be largely explained through the use of Derrida’s criticism of Lévi-Strauss and Giddens’ objections to the ideas of Saussure. The only possible concession to neo-Kantianism appears later, in the Einstein case study, in the form of the physicist’s contribution to the concept of such categories. His contribution will be seen to support the epistemological standpoint of this study.
Reference to Saussure and Lévi-Strauss leads us on to structuralism, since any search for universal features of social life is normally seen to be part of a structuralist inquiry. In Central Problems in Social Theory (1979) Anthony Giddens tells us that in social science the term ‘structure’ appears in two main bodies of literature: that of functionalism, “often in contemporary versions called ‘structural-functionalism’”, and that of structuralism. As regards the former, Giddens writes that in the nineteenth century Spencer and others employed these terms in the context of organic or biological analogies wherein structure is understood as referring to a ‘pattern’ of social relationships and function to how such patterns actually operate as systems. Structure here is primarily a descriptive term, the main burden of explanation being carried by function (1979:60).
In structuralism, by contrast, he tells us ‘structure’ appears in a more explanatory role, “as linked to the notion of transformations”. Structural analysis, whether applied to language, to myth, literature or art, or more generally to social relationships, is considered to penetrate below the level of surface appearances. The division between structure and function is replaced by one between code and message (1979:60).
For their part, Bottomore and Nisbet (1978:558) tell us definitions and descriptions of structuralism are legion, being found in diverse fields, but they stick to a definition of the term “as it is found in sociology and social anthropology”, by which “the relation is more important than the parts”. They attribute its origin to Comte in France and Marx in Germany and, in granting French pre-eminence to Durkheim, they acknowledge that his broad influence leads us beyond a “purely sociological canvas” to figures such as Lévi-Strauss.
“It can hardly be disputed that structuralism, by its rigorous criticism of and opposition to any analysis of society which is conceived primarily in terms either of the intentional actions of individuals or of the working out of historical processes, does constitute itself as a distinctive type of sociological analysis.” (1978:592-93)
It is strange, then, for them to have included Marx as an originator. Still, as David McLellan writes, even though there are in the later Marx certain traces of positivism and though he was certainly not immune to the general enthusiasm for a supposedly value-free natural science that reached its high point in late Victorian society, the general view that no element in the total process of history could be isolated and given a significance unaffected by the other elements was a view that stayed with Marx throughout his life (1975:40).
Even more pre-emptive, though, is the fact of the contradiction in Marx with regard to such intentions and processes. The third of his Theses on Feuerbach asserts that the materialistic doctrine which maintains that men are the products of circumstances and education, and that, consequently, different men are the product of different circumstances and of a different education, forgets that it is men who change these circumstances, and that the educator himself needs educating (see Marx and Engels 1970).
Now compare that reference with the passage from the introduction to Capital where he writes that when a society has discovered the “natural law” that determines its own movement it can “neither overleap the natural phases of its evolution nor shuffle out of them by a stroke of the pen”. Instead, all it can do is to “shorten and lessen the birth pangs”. This displays an inconsistency in relation to his view of knowledge as Praxis, as an ongoing mixture of action and reflection. Moreover, it should serve to explain why Marx is not seen as immediately important here to our discussion of the extent to which structuralism, as demarcated above by Bottomore and Nisbet, is relevant to our concerns.
Hawkes (1977) has also attempted to sum up this -ism with a similar definition to that provided by Bottomore and Nisbet. He writes that this concept that the world is made up of relationships rather than things constitutes the first principle of that way of thinking that can properly be called ‘structuralist’. At its simplest, he says, it claims that the nature of every element in any given situation has no significance itself, and in fact is determined by its relationship to all the other elements involved in that situation. In short, the full significance of any entity or experience cannot be perceived until it is integrated into the structure of which it forms a part (1977:17-18).
For Hawkes it follows that the ultimate quarry of structuralist thinking will be the permanent structures into which individual human acts, perceptions and stances fit, and from which they derive their “final nature”. When somebody writes of the final nature of anything in this regard it only adds to the offence of the neglect of the importance of context. This neglect can be seen in any form of structuralism based on categories of mental apprehension which suggest self-containment. If it is valid to proclaim the insignificance of individual elements viewed separately in any given situation, the problem is to grasp the extent and relative importance of the elements involved.
Giddens claims that “in the form of social theory… structuralism may be most cogently defined as the application of linguistic models influenced by structural linguistics to the explication of social and cultural phenomena” (1979:9). On Saussure’s example of the Geneva-Paris train, which, despite changes to stock and personnel, gains its identity from its departure time and route i.e. the ways it is differentiated from other trains, Giddens writes that in this view exactly the same is believed to apply to the sounds that comprise linguistic utterances. The idea of difference, as Saussure formulates it, thus completes the insulation of langue as a self-contained system: the ‘value’ of the components of language derives solely from the demarcations drawn between them (1979:12). Giddens observes, however, that no system can be “comprehended as pure form, as defined wholly internally”.
“The identity of the ‘Geneva-to-Paris-train’ cannot be specified independently of the context in which the phrase is used; and this context is not the system of differences themselves… but the factors relating to their use in practice. Saussure implicitly assumes the practical standpoint of the traveller, or the time-tabling official, in giving the identity of the train; hence the ‘same’ train may consist of quite distinct engines and carriages on two separate occasions. But these do not count as instances of the ‘same’ train for a railway repair engineer, or a train-spotter” (Giddens 1979:16).
This criticism should serve to dispose, insofar as we are interested, of Saussure’s doctrine of the arbitrary character of the sign, which Giddens shows is only tenable to the extent that a sign’s character is conventional. We can return to Giddens’ contextual point later, however, when he himself can be seen to make a contradictory assertion in this regard in his New Rules of Sociological Method.
(2) Social Facts
In The Rules of Sociological Method Durkheim set out his view that, whatever one’s feelings about them, when one fulfils obligations, executes contracts or performs duties defined externally “in law and in custom” this is not creativity in action but merely an inheritance through “education”. In this way he saw societies as having their own realities which exercised constraint over their individual members (1966:1-3, 13). These social facts, explicable only in terms of each other (1966:110-11), can be characterised as
external to individuals
objective (beyond subjective definitions)
This reflects Durkheim’s “theme of the naturalistic character of sociology” (Giddens 1978:36). Durkheim stated that, for the observation of these facts, “all preconceptions must be eradicated”. This rule he saw as the basis of the scientific method (1966:31). What we have here in Durkheim, however, is a naturalistic conception of science, also commonly known as scientism.
Law is Durkheim’s chief example. Where he writes that when “the sociologist undertakes the investigation of some order of social facts, he must endeavour to consider them from an aspect that is independent of their individual manifestations” (1966:45), he sounds interested in pursuing a path akin to that we are taking here. We seek to highlight some abstract universalities in the forms of cultural representations – forms which underlie the varied content in the worldviews of different societies. Law is hardly a universal phenomenon or concept, however, and Durkheim cannot legitimately say that “objective criteria are at hand” when, if looking at the family for instance, its legal structure and the right of succession are taken as the basis of classification (1966:46). Indeed, if necessary we would argue that ‘family’ is a cultural manifestation of a social abstraction, of an archetypal element of social life, which is the unit of socialization.
If one is interested in examining the evidence of transcendent social categories, the political history of the West suggests that the first step is to overcome disdain for the capacities and ideas of non-Western, non-industrial peoples. Two related assumptions on this matter, which were most prevalent in the nineteenth century, have been described by Charles Rycroft. The first assumption is that the concept of evolution can be applied directly to human societies. This idea, which derives from Spencer, leads to the further sub-assumptions that some societies are ‘primitive’ and others evolved or ‘advanced’, and that existing ‘primitive’ societies provide evidence of what advanced societies were like before they evolved.
The analogy is with biology. The fact that fishes, amphibia, reptiles and mammals can be arranged in an evolutionary series, and that they are still alive in a world apparently dominated by man, was used to justify the idea that non-European societies were survivals from earlier phases in the evolution of ‘civilised’, i.e. European, man (1971:52).
Having elaborated on this pseudo-biological notion, Rycroft then moves on to discuss Western disdain for non-European thought.
“Furthermore, since many of these so-called primitive societies hold beliefs which strike Western intellectuals as irrational and illogical, attempts were made to explain these as early evolutionary stages in the development of the capacity for logical and rational thinking. And on the basis of the biological law that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, parallels were drawn between the minds of savages and those of European, usually middle-class, children.” (1971:52)
Rycroft then quotes from Roger S. Poole’s introduction to the 1969 English translation of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Totemism when he states that it was a question of fitting together savage fancy with civilised fact and that no one at the time seemed even the slightest bit embarrassed by this appalling presumption. A classical sociological example displaying its pervasiveness can be found in the introduction to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism where Weber suggests that rationalisation is in part a manifestation of uneven evolution among human beings.
By way of an earlier contrast, the Italian jurist Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) produced The New Science in 1725. This was a book ignored for over a hundred years until a French translation appeared in 1844. Bottomore and Nisbet describe its preoccupations in the following way. They write that, like Lévi-Strauss, Vico was very interested in mythology and the poetic imagination as these have affected the development of culture and human consciousness (1978:564).
Vico’s perspective on myth was very different from explanations that saw non-European, non-industrial peoples as devoted to childlike nonsense. Hawkes (1977) also comments on his work, saying that the master key of the ‘new science’ lay in Vico’s decisive perception that so-called ‘primitive’ man, when properly assessed, reveals himself not as childishly ignorant and barbaric, but as instinctively and characteristically ‘poetic’ in his response to the world, which informs his responses and casts them in the form of a ‘metaphysics’ of metaphor, symbol and myth (1977:12). Specifically, Hawkes tells us that, according to Vico, all myths have their grounding in the generalized experience of ancient peoples and represent their attempts to impose a satisfactory, graspable, humanizing shape on it, and that shape springs from the shape of the human mind itself (1977:13).
The twentieth century saw the heritage of Vico notably taken up by the French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.
“Myth has become without doubt Lévi-Strauss’s overriding interest… as a means of reaching the basic structures of thought and behaviour throughout mankind. His distinction between “historical” and “mythic” peoples has been frequently criticized. According to Lévi-Strauss those people in whom the historical past is preserved use the past as the means of illuminating the present, whereas people without such historical consciousness, people in whom myth plays a major role, employ myths in the present as the instruments for creation of the past. Clearly “historical” peoples have their mythic structures also, structures indeed around which history tends to be done, and there must be few if any peoples utterly devoid of a historical sense, however permeated or over-laden it may be by myths.” (Bottomore and Nisbet 1978:582)
What is myth? If the word has an everyday usage, then that usage is, if anything, pejorative. Edmund Leach comments that myth is an ill-defined category and that some people use the word as if it meant fallacious history but he also says the theological usage is rather different in that myth is a formulation of religious mystery (1970:54). For Leach this latter interpretation comes close to the anthropologist’s usual view that myth is a sacred tale.
He continues by writing that the distinction that history is true and myth is false is quite arbitrary. A corpus of tradition starts with a Creation story, followed by “legends about the exploits of culture heroes” (1970:55). Leach states that Lévi-Strauss evaded the issue of the relation between myth and history by concentrating his attention on “societies with no history”. At this juncture let us mention in passing Lévi-Strauss’s idea of inauthenticity as reflected by the “something” referred to in the next quote, from his Structural Anthropology. This is an implicitly political idea to which we will shortly return in more depth.
“We should like to avoid describing negatively the tremendous revolution brought about by the invention of writing. But it is essential to realise that writing, while it conferred vast benefits on humanity, did in fact deprive it of something fundamental.” (1972:365-66)
Bottomore and Nisbet suggest that our best hope for understanding his view of structuralism lies in his treatment of myth as found in “the savage mind”. In the book of that name Lévi-Strauss (1966:263) tells us that the characteristic feature of this savage mind is its timelessness and that savage thought can be defined as analogical thought, which works by imposing on the world a series of contrasts or oppositions. The capacity to invent totems, to conceive of oneself and one’s society in terms of other species, is seen as the capacity for a different kind of logic, to the activities of which Lévi-Strauss gives the name bricolage.
In French a bricoleur is a superior kind of handyman who fashions what he requires from whatever materials are at hand. Hawkes writes that the term bricolage is defined in his two major works on the primitive mind, Totemism (1962) and The Savage Mind (1962). It refers to the means by which the non-literate, non-technical mind of so-called ‘primitive’ man responds to the world around him. The process involves a ‘science of the concrete’ (as opposed to our ‘civilised’ science of the ‘abstract’) which, far from lacking logic, in fact carefully and precisely orders, classifies and arranges into structures the minutiae of the physical world by means of a ‘logic’ which is not our own (1977:51).
Lévi-Strauss concludes in Structural Anthropology that “the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science and… the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of the things to which it is applied” (1972:230). Leach, though, comments that although Lévi-Strauss constantly reaffirms his view that the structures of primitive thought are present in our modern minds just as much as they are in those who belong to “societies without history”, he has been very cautious about trying to demonstrate this equivalence.
In The Savage Mind he does occasionally consider the application of structuralist arguments to features of contemporary Western European culture but for the most part he draws “a sharp (though arbitrary) line” between primitive societies and advanced societies (1970:16). Nonetheless, Lévi-Strauss does make a couple of key observations about myth in Structural Anthropology that must be noted here. Whether the myth is recreated by the individual or borrowed from tradition, he says it derives from its sources only the stock of representations with which it operates but, he adds, the structure remains the same and through it the symbolic function is fulfilled. A compilation of known tales and myths would, he observes, fill an imposing number of volumes but they can be reduced to a small number of simple types if we abstract from among the diversity of characters a few elementary functions (1972:203-04). Lévi-Strauss then goes on to elaborate before posing the relevant question for our consideration.
“Any characteristic can be attributed to any subject; every conceivable relation can be found. With myth, everything becomes possible. But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions (…) If the content of a myth is contingent, how are we going to explain the fact that myths throughout the world are so similar?” (1972:208)
Reflecting his debt to Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, by way of explanation, believes that the analysis of myth forms part of structural linguistics. Leach writes in paraphrase that “verbal categories provide the mechanism through which universal structural characteristics of human brains are transformed into universal structural characteristics of human culture” (1970:38). Remembering both Lévi-Strauss’s negative reference to writing and Giddens’ criticism of Saussure, we can now introduce Jacques Derrida to attack this perspective’s blinkers.
Derrida maintains that the condition of the “scientificity” of linguistics is that the field of linguistics has hard and fast frontiers and that, in a certain way, its structure is closed. He says that the “representativist” concept of writing facilitates this. If writing is nothing but the ‘figuration’ of the language, he continues, one has the right to exclude it from the interiority of the language as the image may be excluded without damage from the system of reality. Derrida states that Saussure, in proposing as his theme ‘the representation of language by writing’, thus begins by positing that writing is ‘unrelated to the inner system’ of language. External/internal, image/reality, representation/presence, such is the “old grid” to which, he claims, is given the task of outlining the domain of a science (1976:33).
(3) The Writing Lesson
Johnson (1997:14) writes that it is only by first constructing an idealized image of a South American tribe called the Nambikwara, as an innocent and simple people, that Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques (1955) is then able to offer an example or parable of the corrupting effects of writing.
“I should prefer to… remember the Nambikwara as they appear in a page from my notebooks. I wrote it one night by the light of my pocket-lamp: ‘The camp-fires shine out in the darkened savannah. Around the hearth which is their only protection from the cold, behind the flimsy screen of foliage and palm-leaves which had been stuck into the ground where it will best break the force of wind and rain, beside the baskets filled with the pitiable objects which comprise all their earthly belongings, the Nambikwara lie on the bare earth. Always they are haunted by the thought of other groups, as fearful and hostile as they are themselves, and when they lie entwined together, couple by couple, each looks to his mate for support and comfort and finds in the other a bulwark… against the difficulties of every day and the meditative melancholia which from time to time overwhelms the Nambikwara. The visitor who camps among the Indians for the first time cannot but feel anguish and pity at the sight of a people so… beaten down into the hostile earth, it would seem, by an implacable cataclysm; naked and shivering beside their guttering fires. He gropes his way among the bushes, avoiding where he can the hand, or the arm, or the torso that lies gleaming in the firelight. But this misery is enlivened by laughing whispers. Their embraces are those of couples possessed by a longing for a lost oneness, their caresses are in no wise disturbed by the footfall of a stranger. In one and all there may be glimpsed a great sweetness of nature, a profound nonchalance, an animal satisfaction as ingenuous as it is charming, and, beneath all this something that can be recognized as one of the most moving and authentic manifestations of human tenderness.” (Quoted in Johnson 1997:12-13)
In response to Lévi-Strauss’ depiction of a masquerade in which the chief pretends to his people to be able to read and write, in imitation of the anthropologist, and is thereafter abandoned by most of his followers, Derrida provides these observations. The appearance of writing is instantaneous. The scene is not the scene of the origin, but only that of the imitation of writing. Even if it were a question of writing, what has the character of suddenness here is not the passage to writing but the importation of an already constituted writing. It is a borrowing and an artificial borrowing. It could never describe the appearance of writing, which has, on the contrary, been laborious, progressive and differentiated in its stages (1976:126-27).
Lévi-Strauss’s representation of the use of writing, which Johnson calls “truncated and caricatural” (1997:16), allows him to distinguish between its intellectual and sociological function, as a precondition of a hypothesis concerning its corrupting political impact, and it prompts this criticism from Derrida. By suggesting that the essential function of writing is to favour the enslaving power rather than ‘disinterested’ science, Lévi-Strauss now can, he states, neutralise the frontier between peoples without and with writing with regard to what is supposed to be deducible from it, with regard to their historicity or non-historicity (1976:127-28).
This means that Lévi-Strauss’ distinction between ‘historical’ and ‘mythic’ peoples is based on what Derrida calls his “trust in the presumed difference between knowledge and power” (1976:128). Derrida, however, questions the proposition that writing is not an essential condition of science and progress, a proposition in support of which Lévi-Strauss has apparently cited the example of the Neolithic agricultural revolution. He writes that Lévi-Strauss’ assertion can be sustained “only by denying all specificity to the scientific project and to the value of truth in general”. Derrida states that any force that that position can muster can only be shown by a relinquishing of its claim to be a scientific discourse. Then he introduces another crucial point that does not need a great deal of elaboration. The concept of writing, as it used by Lévi-Strauss, would seem singularly narrow. Anthropology today gives us a great deal of information about scripts that preceded the alphabet, about other systems of phonetic writing or systems quite ready to be phoneticised (1976:128-29).
As Johnson (1997:25) comments, Lévi-Strauss, in his haste to prove that the appearance of writing inevitably entails the corruption of authentic human intercourse, fails to ask the fundamental question as to the nature of the object he is describing. He takes it as immediately clear and self evident that he and his reader know and understand what writing is i.e. Western, phonetic writing. Again attacking both Lévi-Strauss and Saussure at once, Derrida tells us what this means.
“The traditional and fundamental ethnocentrism which, inspired by the model of phonetic writing, separates writing from speech with an axe, is thus handled and thought of as anti-ethnocentrism. It supports an ethico-political accusation: man’s exploitation by man is the fact of writing cultures of the Western type. Communities of innocent and un-oppressive speech are free from this accusation.” (1976:121)
In this case Derrida actually points to another form of inscription which Lévi-Strauss does not recognize as such and which, Derrida says, is described in the latter’s 1948 thesis on the Nambikwara but not in Tristes Tropiques.
“When, in Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss remarks that ‘the Nambikwara could not write… [and] they were also unable to draw, except for a few dots and zigzags on their calabashes’, because, helped by instruments furnished [by the anthropologist], they trace only ‘wavy horizontal lines’ and that ‘with most of them, that was as far as they got’, these notations are brief. Not only are they not to be found in the thesis, but, in fact, eighty pages further on, the thesis presents the results at which certain Nambikwara very quickly arrived and which Lévi-Strauss treats as ‘a cultural innovation inspired by our own designs’. It is not merely a question of representational designs showing a man or a monkey, but of diagrams describing, explaining, writing, a genealogy and a social structure. And that is a decisive phenomenon. It is now known… that the birth of writing (in the colloquial sense) was nearly always and everywhere linked to genealogical anxiety.” (1976:124-25)
Giddens (1979:27) concurs with Derrida’s judgement insofar as he says there is no way to rebut the charge that, quite contrary to Lévi-Strauss’ own assertions, his analyses reflect categories of Western society imposed on other cultures. To generalize on this issue, it has often been argued that it is more difficult for white people to realize how they are affected by racism because whiteness is regarded as normal. We may note as a result that a dualistic or ‘binary’ outlook does not have to be explicitly conceived or formulated.
As Sartre writes in his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, not so very long ago the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants, “five hundred million men and one thousand five hundred million natives”. If women, for instance, have endured an invisibility or irrelevance akin to that of the colonial native, one problem with the view that Western social philosophy is consequently dualistic is that this idea’s utilisation can itself suffer from the same flaw.
Men cannot be blamed for all of women’s problems, no more than whites can be blamed for all the problems of the Third World. It would seem that dualism tends to apply to the dominators’ assumptions and to the conclusions of the dominated or marginalized. For example, if bourgeois and patriarchal assumptions have presupposed the basis of human experience in terms of property ownership and maleness, then the opposite sides of these coins are composed of conclusions of the downtrodden and their champions which elevate the proletariat or women above the rest of humanity. Thus when Lévi-Strauss holds up the Nambikwara and divides the perception of the world into binary oppositions he attempts to cross to the side of the dominated but in doing so carries his dominating assumptions along with him.
Leach (1970:91) acknowledges that what will doubtless puzzle the novice is how on earth Lévi-Strauss comes upon his basic oppositions in the first place. To assert that fire and cooking are basic symbols by which Culture is distinguished from Nature is, however, hopelessly inadequate. Looking at the broad historical context of binary categorization, the American mythologist Joseph Campbell refers to antiquity and enters the domain of the sociology of knowledge by exploring, via mythology, the contrasts between the life of patriarchal pastoral nomadism and that of settled agriculture. For Campbell, the patriarchal point of view is distinguished from the earlier archaic view by its setting apart of all pairs-of-opposites – male and female, true and false, good and evil – as though they were absolutes in themselves and not merely aspects of the larger entity of life (1991:26-27).
To elaborate on this distinction, Campbell evaluates Nietzsche’s perspective on the ancient Greeks. This will appear again in the case study of Marx.
“Nietzsche was the first… to recognise the force in the Greek heritage of an interplay of two mythologies: the pre-Homeric Bronze Age heritage of the peasantry, in which release from the yoke of individuality was achieved through group rites inducing rapture; and the Olympian mythology of measure and humanistic self-knowledge that is epitomized for us in Classical art. The glory of the Greek tragic view, he perceived, lay in its recognition of the mutuality of these two orders of spirituality, neither of which alone offers more than a partial experience of human worth.” (1991:141)
Furthermore, after an exposition of a Babylonian example that parallels the Greek mythological war of the Titans and the gods, Campbell comments that it is an effect of the conquest of a local matriarchal order by invading patriarchal nomads, and their reshaping of the local lore of the productive earth to their own ends, and is used to validate in mythological terms not only a new social order but also a new psychology (1991:80).
Campbell writes that the archaic Bronze Age philosophy is “in its primary, unintended mode” properly comparable to the childlike state of mind termed by Piaget “indissociation” but, in its developed, higher forms, also the most important single creative force in the history of civilization. He goes on to say that its import is “experienced immediately in the ultimate mythic rapture of non-duality, or mythic identification” (1991:57). Here is Campbell’s comment on the part of the Odyssey where Odysseus is finally left without companions:
“[H]ad Odysseus been a sage of India, he would not now have found himself alone, floating at sea, on the way back to his wife Penelope, to put what he had learned into play in domestic life. He would have been united with the sun – Noman forever. And that, briefly, is the critical line between India and Greece, between the way of disengagement and of tragic engagement” (1991:173).
Thus Campbell asserts that a Bronze Age image of the cosmos “still intact in the Orient, renders a fixed world” (1991:6) and that in the Far East, as well as in India, “the world was not to be reformed, but only known, revered and obeyed” (1991:191).
The works of the historian William McNeill give considerable support to Campbell’s analysis of myth. In The Rise of the West (1963), McNeill devotes the fifth chapter to comparing the formulation of the Greek, Indian and Chinese civilisations. He writes of the “double character” of Greek religion (1963:206) in a manner which is equivalent. He also writes that the beginnings of Greek philosophy may be viewed as a fruitful projection upon the cosmos of the busy, ordered world of the polis. The polis, arising from an “unusual plasticity of circumstance” experienced by Greek settlers in Ionia (1963:193), was to become the “master institution” of Greek civilisation. A citizen of such a city was as free as man can be from subjection to any alien will; yet his life was rigorously bound by law. Thus it is scarcely surprising, writes McNeill, that a few speculatively inclined citizens imagined that the universe might be similarly governed, yet this implausible guess gave a distinctive bent to all subsequent Greek (and European) thought (1963:215). It is vital, however, to note that this was not a fluke result that psychologically turned up out of nowhere, so to speak. As Ernest Gellner has written, echoing Campbell:
“Philosophies such as Absolute Idealism or Logical Positivism… are local-temporal versions of what are perhaps archetypal attitudes of the human spirit. The idea that all things are connected and form a whole, and that to understand things is to see them as partial aspects of that whole – it seems to me inconceivable that men should think without some of them making this the centre of their thought. Similarly, the view that anything we claim to know must be either something we have experienced or something we have ourselves made up, is again an idea that must forever remain a possible starting point for the evaluation of human knowledge” (1979:237).
That second tendency was summed up by the pre-Socratic Xenophanes of Colophon who in the sixth century BC made the immortal claim that if horses and cattle had hands, then horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses and cattle would draw them like cattle.
As regards China, McNeill tells us that its culture “always exhibited a strong autochthony” (1963:218). After the diffusion across Asia of Neolithic farming and potting techniques, the state of geographical isolation, the barrier of warlike nomads in Central Asia and the special soil and rainfall conditions of the Yellow River valley meant that its agriculture was based on an intensive garden style of cultivation rather than the plough. Whatever the full reasons, he says, the massive fact that the rhythm of daily life for most Chinese differed widely from the agricultural rhythms familiar to Middle Eastern, European and most Indian peasants constituted (and continues to constitute) an incalculably pervasive, yet seldom obvious difference between the civilized communities of the Far East and those of western Eurasia (1963:218-19).
In his Plagues and Peoples (1976) McNeill writes too about “the heavy micro-parasitism characteristic of a climate as warm and wet as that of the Ganges Valley and of the rest of India’s best agricultural lands” (1976:90) and he connects several leading traits of Indian civilisation to the prevalence of disease: the fragility of imperial structures, the caste system and the characteristic transcendentalism in religion (1976:92-94).
We can now return to The Rise of the West to see McNeill descriptively contrast key embodiments of the outlooks of Greece, China and India. The atheism of Buddha and the systematic refusal of Confucius to speculate on divinity bore a certain similarity to their contemporaries in Ionia. All three turned their backs on the gods but in contrasting ways. The Ionians were curious to know how the world worked, Buddha was totally uninterested in physical laws and strove to withdraw from the world and Confucius was interested only in human affairs and sought to find a norm of conduct in the traditions or rites of a remote ancestral past (1963:214n).
We seem to have moved a considerable distance from looking at the historical origins of binary conceptions but this digression has served a number of useful purposes. The theme of the existential determination of thought has been further explored with the particular emphasis having been placed on the mutual inextricability of society, geography and ecology. This has served to drive home the importance of comparative contextual awareness. Popper’s interest in situational logic (1994:149) has been pursued implicitly too and the material on the Greeks will again prove relevant when we come to examine the ideas of Thomas Kuhn. Situational logic is the proper province of the sociology of knowledge, once we understand the underlying existential framing of all social situations. That is the relativity inherent in the human observational condition.
(4) Camels in Germany
Just as Derrida has revealed Lévi-Strauss’s narrow conception of writing to be ethnocentric and Campbell and McNeill have explained the broad cultural context of such dualism, so too we can use an example from Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (1997:91-94) to undermine the implicit binary opposition between logics that Lévi-Strauss conceived. The pitfalls of a blinkered, non-situational understanding of Aristotelian logic are illustrated by the ingenuity with which Uzbek interviewees in the 1970s responded to the “Problem of Camels in Germany”. This was invented by A.R. Luria to test the claim that these pastoralists were trapped in a childlike, pre-logical way of thinking. At this point Fernandez-Armesto is worth quoting at length.
“He presented problems in deduction – elementary syllogisms – to his interviewees, beginning, for instance, ‘There are no camels in Germany. The city of B. is in Germany. Are there camels there or not?’ (…)
‘I don’t know. I’ve never seen German villages.’
After repetition of the syllogism, the respondent asserted that there were probably camels in B.
‘If it’s a large city, then there should be camels.’
‘But what do my words suggest?’
‘Probably there are. Since there are large cities, then there should be camels.’
‘But if there aren’t any in all of Germany?’
‘If it’s a large city, there will be Kazakhs or Kirghiz there.’”
A similar exchange focused on the colour of bears in Novaya Zemlya in the far north of Russia where, the questioner asserted, all bears are white.
“‘There are different sorts of bears… I’ve seen a black bear. I’ve never seen any others. Each locality has its own animals; if it’s white they will all be white. If it’s yellow they will all be yellow.’
‘But what kind of bears are there in Novaya Zemlya?’
‘We always speak only of what we see; we don’t talk of what we haven’t seen.’
‘But what do my words imply?’
‘Well, it’s like this. Our tsar isn’t like yours and your tsar isn’t like ours. Your words can be answered only by someone who was there, and if a person wasn’t there he can’t say anything on the basis of your words.’”
Fernandez-Armesto then proceeds to analyse these responses, along with the way they were interpreted by the interviewers. By the researchers’ analysis, exchanges like these were supposed to show that the Uzbeks could not make logical inferences that would in modern Western societies be expected of a child of pre-school age, and that they were incapable of grasping the nature of a hypothetical problem. In reality, however, the respondents seem to have understood perfectly. The Uzbek response is readily recognizable as a sophisticated strategy of non-cooperation with researchers which has been documented with increasing frequency by anthropologists in recent years. The respondents implicitly reject the interviewers’ conventions, evade answering insultingly simple questions and manipulate the interview to express an agenda of their own. The man called on to envisage a Germany without camels replied with an implied syllogism of his own: there are camels in every large town; there are large towns in Germany; therefore, there are camels in Germany. He also spotted a flaw in the questioner’s reasoning: there may be ‘no camels in Germany’ if ‘in’ means ‘native to’; but that will not stop them being imported by Kirghiz or Kazakh traders. The questioner failed to perceive himself as the victim of this lampoon. Like Piaget among the children, observes Fernandez-Armesto, he was in the realm of silly questions, which is vulnerable to conquest by silly answers.
Having also pointed out that a respondent had managed to outdo a researcher in hypothesis, with his imagined yellow land with yellow animals, and having also admired the defiance shown in the comment about tsars, Fernandez-Armesto sums up the meaning of this case. Throughout these interviews, the Uzbek participants were faithful to what seems a superior kind of wisdom: logic alone is insufficient for truth; trustworthy conclusions cannot be based on unverified premises; where received information conflicts with experience, the latter is the more reliable guide.
In case such an example may be thought convincing just by having happened far away, let us see what Barnes (1972) has to say about lay responses in the West to scientific beliefs. He writes that sociological studies of the lay response to scientific beliefs are often influenced by a preconceived vision of science’s gradual triumph over prejudice and error and that distortion of lay beliefs is a common consequence of this. It is interesting, he says, to note how often these beliefs are simply condemned as ‘irrational’. The word seems in practice to be used as a stronger condemnation than ‘erroneous’ to stigmatize deviations from particularly sacred beliefs, including those of the natural sciences, and expansion of such criticism is rarely to be found, as its meaning is taken to be obvious (1972:280-81).
This means that in practice ‘rationality’ acts as an evaluative term and not as an explanatory one. The Kuhnian elements of description become overt as Barnes continues his analysis. Scientists’ beliefs will, he writes, on the whole derive from the esoteric concepts, taxonomies, images and working rules embedded in their disciplinary paradigm. These can be understood, as the scientist understands them, only in terms of each other and the practice in which they are embodied; a minimum of familiarity with the appropriate discipline is needed, considerably exceeding that possessed by most of the laity. The lay actor will accordingly find scientific theories and their justification unintelligible (1972:283). Barnes’ account of what can and does happen as a consequence is of great relevance to this study.
“One strategy that can be adopted in these circumstances is for the actor to make the material intelligible as far as possible in terms of his own concepts; it will be rare indeed that no shift of meaning occurs in the process. Mostly this can be regarded as misunderstanding on the part of the lay actor; in some circumstances it is more profitable to view the same shifts as metaphorical extensions of the original material.” (1972:283)
More commonly, he asserts, actors recognise that it is impossible for them to evaluate scientific discourse and they take scientific conclusions on trust. In many cases, he writes, the reception of scientific beliefs can be simply the response to an institutionalised knowledge source. To take something on trust is not to assimilate it, though, and to accept the pronouncement of such a source can be to remain utterly ignorant about the content of the opinion. If we imagine a continuum of assimilation bounded at the one end by such ignorance and at the other by the ‘cold’ expertise of a coterie of experts, then the shifts of meaning occur all the way in between. We discuss less about in whom these shifts occur than about what kind of shifts they are and in this we are reminded of what Lofland writes about the early work of Goffman, where he sees its central preoccupation as being with sociological taxonomy, rather than sociological theory. For Lofland it is taxonomy in the sense that the subject of inquiry is dimensions of social life, rather than laws (propositions) of social life (1980:34).
Given that we are concerned with defining what is perhaps a novel area of interest for sociology, we should see nothing ‘inferior’ about what Lofland sums up in the Goffman case as a “conceptual scheme or frame of reference rather than a theory” (1980:34). We are interested in boosting the importance of an aspect of qualitative analysis which, according to C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination, “cannot… provide you with frequencies or magnitudes”. Its technique and its end, Mills continues, are “to give you the range of types” (1959:214).
We should always also keep in mind, however, what Dennis Wrong has to say on Mills in his Skeptical Sociology. For Wrong, Mills knows that “insight” or “literary sensibility” or an awareness that in some sense “Dostoevsky said it all before and better” are not enough to assure even a limited understanding of history, politics and society. Disciplined thinking, much plain fact-grubbing, unremitting exposure to the materials of contemporary and recorded history, the capacity to brood over and exploit one’s personal experience without crudely projecting them onto the universe – all this and more are necessary (1976:22).
Berger and Luckmann (1966:27) state that only a very limited group of people in any society engages in theorising, in the business of ‘ideas’ and in the construction of Weltanschauungen. The theoretical formulations of reality, whether they are scientific or philosophical or even mythological, do not exhaust what is ‘real’ for the members of a society. Since this is so, they say, the sociology of knowledge must first of all concern itself with what people ‘know’ as ‘reality’ in their everyday, non- or pre-theoretical lives.
In other words, common-sense knowledge rather than ‘ideas’ must be the central focus for the sociology of knowledge (1966:27). The list of problems we could identify with the content of this passage can be summed up in a simple question: just what is the common-sense view of ‘ideas’? This is just another way of phrasing part of our overall objective but let us here now deal with the four levels of social legitimation that Berger and Luckmann propose.
The first is incipient. They see it as “pre-theoretical”, in the form of linguistic acquisition. The second they term “theoretical propositions in a rudimentary form” and here may be found various explanatory schemes relating sets of objective meanings. These schemes are highly pragmatic, directly related to concrete actions. Proverbs, moral maxims and wise sayings are common on this level. Here, too, belong legends and folk tales, frequently transmitted in poetic forms (1966:112). It is noteworthy that on p.145 of the same book the authors state with probably unintended irony that Karl Marx brooding in the British Museum “has become a proverbial example” of the possibility that theories can be realized in history.
The third level is that of institutionalized bodies of knowledge and the fourth is made up of symbolic universes. This final category, when juxtaposed with the second, would seem merely to reaffirm the unwarranted nature of the categorical distinction between common sense and ‘ideas’. Nevertheless the fourth level is regarded as “the most comprehensive level” of legitimation where “the sphere of pragmatic application is transcended once and for all”. They tell us that symbolic processes are processes of signification that refer to realities “other than those of everyday experience” and they verbosely continue that such universes are “bodies of theoretical tradition that integrate different provinces of meaning and encompass the institutional order in a symbolic totality” (1966:113).
It is strange then to find, in Luckmann’s own Invisible Religion (1967), the following excerpt contradicting the foregoing passage with regard to defining those universes. He writes that the familiar forms of religion known to us as tribal religion, ancestor cult, church, sect, and so forth are specific historical institutionalisations of symbolic universes. Symbolic universes are “socially objectivated systems of meaning” that refer, on the one hand, to the world of everyday life and point, on the other hand, to the world that is experienced as transcending everyday life (1967:43).
Now let us return to The Social Construction of Reality and see what the joint authors say about the conceptual machineries that maintain these entities. Some conspicuous types of these are named as mythology, theology, philosophy and science. Without proposing an evolutionary scheme for such types, they say, it is safe to say that mythology represents the most archaic form of universe-maintenance, “as indeed it represents the most archaic form of legitimation generally”.
Very likely, they write, mythology is a necessary phase in the development of human thought as such (1966:127-28). They go on to define mythology as a conception of reality that posits “the ongoing penetration of the world of everyday experience by sacred forces” (1966:128) and state that science “not only completes the removal of the sacred from the world of everyday life, but removes universe-maintaining knowledge from that world” (1966:130).
In defining mythology they have avoided the polarity of the sacred and the profane upon which Durkheim’s definition depended (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1954:37-38). This polarity undermined Durkheim’s reasonable contentions as regards the dispensability of supernature and the simultaneous permanence of religion. Still, there are several difficulties here.
The reluctance to admit to proposing an evolutionary scheme sounds like mere hedging and nowhere do they define science but take its meaning for granted as part of their categorization. Their jointly-expressed view of mythology also contradicts the substance of Luckmann’s own criticisms of the sociology of religion expressed in 1967 – a fact which seems increasingly close to astonishing given the proximity of the dates of publication of the two books.
Before we return to The Invisible Religion, though, let us finish with their 1966 collaboration. The co-existence of naïve mythology among the masses and a sophisticated theology among an elite of theoreticians, both serving to maintain the same symbolic universe, is observed to be a frequent historical phenomenon, and only with this phenomenon in mind is it, they claim, possible to call traditional societies of the Far East ‘Buddhist’, for example, or, for that matter, to call medieval society ‘Christian’ (1966:129).
Surely the same principle applies if we call industrialized society ‘scientific’? On his own, however, Luckmann wrote that in the sociology of religion “the main assumption… consists in the identification of religion” (1967:22) and that therefore the shrinking reach of the churches was taken to mean that modern society is non-religious. In the sociological theory of religion it is, he says, customary to define certain ideas – for example, those dealing with the “supernatural” – as religious and, then, to attach that label to the groups and institutions that seem primarily concerned with the codification, maintenance and propagation of such ideas.
This appeared to Luckmann to be a theoretically impermissible short cut and in order to avoid it he felt obliged to begin with a specification of the universal anthropological condition of religion (1967:50). This condition he sees as socialization, as “individuation of consciousness and conscience in social processes… actualized in the internalization of the configuration of meaning underlying a historical social order” (1967:51). He decides to call this configuration of meaning a world view. Individual existence derives its meaning from a transcendent world view. The stability of the latter makes it possible for the individual to grasp a sequence of originally disjointed situations as a significant biographical whole. The world view as a historical matrix of meaning spans the life of the individual and the life of generations.
Luckmann says, in sum, that the historical priority of a world view provides the empirical basis for the “successful” transcendence of biological nature by human organisms, detaching the latter from their immediate life context and integrating them, as persons, into the context of a tradition of meaning. We may conclude, therefore, that the world view, as an “objective” and historical social reality, performs an essentially religious function and define it as an elementary social form of religion. This social form is universal in human society (1967:52-53).
(6) Popper and Kuhn
Remembering McNeill’s identification of the polis as the societal key to the critical engagement of the Ionian Greeks, we can now turn to Popper’s ideas on mythology, as expressed in Conjectures and Refutations (1972). These ideas link metaphysics and science. His Greek examples strongly suggest that he saw myths as equivalent to conjectures about the nature of the universe.
“And as for Freud’s epic of the Ego, the Super-ego, and the Id, no substantially stronger claim to scientific status can be made for it than for Homer’s collected stories from Olympus. These theories describe some facts, but in the manner of myths. They contain most interesting psychological suggestions, but not in a testable form. At the same time I realized that such myths may be developed, and become testable; that historically speaking all – or very nearly all – scientific theories originate from myths, and that a myth may contain important anticipations of scientific theories. Examples are Empedocles’ theory of evolution by trial and error, or Parmenides’ myth of the unchanging block universe in which nothing ever happens and which, if we add another dimension, becomes Einstein’s block universe (in which, too, nothing ever happens, since everything is four-dimensionally speaking, determined and laid down from the beginning). I thus felt that if a theory is found to be non-scientific, or ‘metaphysical’… it is not thereby found to be unimportant, or insignificant, or ‘meaningless’, or ‘nonsensical’. But it cannot claim to be backed by empirical evidence in the scientific sense – although it may be, in some genetic sense, the ‘result of observation’.” (1972a:38)
As regards the meaning of that last sentence, let us allow Popper to elaborate. Going back to more and more primitive theories and myths we shall in the end, he says, find unconscious, inborn expectations. The theory of inborn ideas is absurd, he thinks, but every organism has inborn reactions or responses; and among them, responses adapted to impending events. These responses he describes as ‘expectations’ without implying that these ‘expectations’ are conscious. The newborn baby ‘expects’ to be fed and, one could argue, to be protected and loved. In view of the close relation between expectation and knowledge he writes that we may even speak of ‘inborn knowledge’. This ‘knowledge’ is not, however, valid a priori; an inborn expectation may be unfulfilled. Thus we are born with expectations; with ‘knowledge’ which, although not valid a priori, is psychologically or genetically a priori, i.e. prior to all observational experience (1972a:47). Popper adds that one of the most important of these expectations is the expectation of finding regularity. He regarded faith in regularities in nature as an example of a metaphysical belief he himself held.
Here Popper has expanded his view of myths as conjectures into one of them as phenomena ultimately derived from the human genetic inheritance, which of course itself is a product of evolution under the earth’s physical conditions. This, as we shall later see, concurs with the perspective of Jungian psychology on the basis of mythology.
Popper (1972a:127) asserts that “science is myth-making just as religion is” but is differentiated from “the older myths” by being accompanied by a tradition of critically discussing the myth. For Popper, a critical attitude needs for its raw material theories or beliefs held more or less dogmatically. Thus science must begin with myths and with the criticism of myths; neither with the collection of observations; nor with the invention of experiments; but with the critical discussion of myths, and of magical techniques and practices (1972a:50).
Yet this seems to loosen somewhat the suggested link between myths and the genetic inheritance, at least as far as science is interested. This impression is reinforced later in Conjectures and Refutations where he writes that, according to the view of science which he is trying to defend, this is due to the fact that scientists have dared since Thales, Democritus, Plato’s Timaeus, and Aristarchus to create myths, or conjectures, or theories, which are in striking contrast to the everyday world of common experience, yet able to explain some aspects of this world of common experience (1972a:102).
On the same page he refers to these being “attempts to explain the known by the unknown”, which can only suggest further a contradiction with what he has stated on p.47 and that he is slipping away from his identification of the significance of the evolutionary context. Here we must take into account his refusal to discuss origination, as explained in his Logic of Scientific Discovery (1972).
“The initial stage, the act of conceiving or inventing a theory, seems to me neither to call for logical analysis nor to be susceptible of it. The question how it happens that a new idea occurs to a man – whether it is a musical theme, a dramatic conflict, or a scientific theory – may be of great interest to empirical psychology; but it is irrelevant to the logical analysis of scientific knowledge.” (1972b:31)
In Conjectures and Refutations he backs up this refusal with an attack on induction. He states that traditional empiricist epistemology and the traditional historiography of science are both deeply influenced by the Baconian myth that all science starts from observation and then slowly and cautiously proceeds to theories. That the facts are very different can be learnt, he says, from studying the early Presocratics. Here we find bold and fascinating ideas, some of which are strange and even staggering anticipations of modern results, while many others are wide of the mark, from our modern point of view; but most of them, and the best of them, have nothing to do, he insists, with observation (1972a:137).
His use of the phrase “Baconian myth” in the sense of describing an erroneous belief and his recurrent failure to relate back to what he has written earlier about genetically a priori ‘knowledge’ is perhaps best explained by his failure to distinguish two categories of myth; namely, the expository and the explanatory. We shall return to these before long but, before leaving Popper aside for a discussion of the relevance of Thomas Kuhn, we can note once more Popper’s insight that “scientific myths” remain myths or inventions (1972a:128).
It is true, writes Bryan Magee (1973), that Popper’s writings are somewhat loftily exclusive in their references to the path-breaking geniuses of science, whose activities his theories most obviously fit, and that most scientists take for granted theories which only a few of their colleagues are questioning. For Magee, Popper has always been primarily concerned with discovery and innovation, and, therefore, with the testing of theories and the growth of knowledge, while Kuhn is concerned with how the people who apply these theories and this knowledge go about their work. Kuhn’s theory is in fact, he says, a sociological theory about the working activity of scientists in our society (Magee 1973:41).
Kuhn (1988:234) maintains that Popper shares with “more traditional philosophers of science” the assumption that the problem of theory-choice can be resolved by techniques that are semantically neutral. In other words, what are the standards of the critical attitude? Who criticizes the critics? On those “once current views of nature” as seen by historians of science, Kuhn has written in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions:
“If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today” (1970:2).
If this definition of myth looks primitive, however, then let us look at his definition of science, such as it is:
“[T]he sciences, like other professional enterprises, do need their heroes and do preserve their names. Fortunately, instead of forgetting these heroes, scientists have been able to forget or revise their works. The result is to make the history of science look linear or cumulative” (1970:139).
If science amounts to no more than a type of professional organization originating in the West then is it any wonder that Kuhn has often been accused of relativism? As late as 1996 Kuhn has said in an interview that there are lots of societies that do not have science (see Horgan 1998:46), so it is clear that he does not see it as wrapped up in a particular philosophical attitude. When we come to compare and contrast his interpretation of Aristotle with what we have learnt, this blind spot should become even more evident. Let us elaborate first on his view of science as a professional enterprise. Here it is important to note that we have to look beyond the content of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to his later revisions and clarifications of his ideas.
“Some of the principles deployed in my explanation of science are irreducibly sociological, at least at this time. In particular, confronted with the problem of theory-choice, the structure of my response runs roughly as follows: take a group of the ablest available people with the most appropriate motivation; train them in some science and in the specialties relevant to the choice in hand; imbue them with the value system, the ideology, current in their discipline… and, finally, let them make the choice. If that technique doesn’t account for scientific development as we know it, then no other will.” (1988:237-38)
One could be forgiven for thinking that the foregoing can also easily account for figures like Lysenko. Let Solzhenitsyn speak here by way of explanation. In 1934, Pskov agronomists sowed flax on the snow – exactly as Lysenko had ordered. The seeds swelled up, grew mouldy and died. The big fields lay empty for a year. Lysenko could not say that the snow was a kulak or that he himself was an ass (1974:57).
For the moment, however, let us allow Kuhn to keep digging the hole of his brand of scientism. Whatever scientific progress may be, he writes, we must account for it by examining the nature of the scientific group, discovering what it values, what it tolerates and what it disdains (1988:238). Gellner (1974:179) tells us that, for Kuhn, it is consensus, not freedom, which distinguishes science. He calls Kuhn the Thomas Hobbes of the philosophy of science and writes that the fear which the English Civil War engendered in Hobbes was awakened in Kuhn by his experience of social scientists in 1958-59, “with their dreadful freedom and near-total anarchy”.
For Gellner, Kuhn’s error lies in the assumption that social scientists or, for that matter, pre-Socratic philosophers, provide the model for the cognitive condition of humanity in the pre-scientific or pre-paradigmatic stage. Gellner states that the significant contrast to science is not the absence of a paradigm but the presence of one of a different kind. This is Gellner’s view of the features of pre-scientific paradigms, of the ‘savage mind’: they are characterized by a failure to separate cognitive functions from others; by the fusion of nature and culture, of knowledge and social charter. They generate a world which is ‘meaningful’, cosy and human, rather than cold, mechanical and un-human (1974:180).
The savage mind is clearly still with us and it would surely be of more value to examine first the society of which the ‘scientific’ group is a part, and analyse that society in the light of other societies, but let us continue with Kuhn’s description of the scientific group. He writes that “typical communities, at least on the contemporary scientific scene, may consist of a hundred members, sometimes significantly fewer” and that “groups like these should… be regarded as the units which produce scientific knowledge” (1988:253). He regards this knowledge as “intrinsically a product of congeries of specialists’ communities” (1988:253). Kuhn also refers to a contrast between an “esoteric, isolated and largely self-contained” scientific discipline with any one of the humanities “that still aims to communicate with and persuade an audience larger than their own profession”. He goes on to say that science is the only activity in which each community is its own exclusive audience and judge (1988:254).
One wonders what he has made since of the explosion of popular interest in science in which many of its leading practitioners have succeeded in communicating their ideas to the general public. A sceptical protest that a book by Stephen Hawking gets bought just for the coffee table can be countered by an example taken from the 1997 science-fiction feature film Event Horizon. Therein the character played by actor Sam Neill explains the formerly arcane physical concept of a singularity. He takes a sheet of paper and makes two holes in it and then he folds the sheet until the holes meet exactly. Pushing a pen through the aperture he tells the other characters that the shortest distance between two points is zero. This simple demonstration vividly contradicts both Euclid, whose axiom that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line is proverbial, at least in boxing terms, and Einstein, whose curved space overthrew such common sense. We may now ask where Kuhn’s view of science originated? Horgan describes the situation in the context of the interview quoted from earlier.
“He… traced his view of science to an epiphany he experienced in 1947, when he was working toward a doctorate in physics at Harvard. While reading Aristotle’s Physics, Kuhn had become astonished at how “wrong” it was. How could someone who wrote so brilliantly on so many topics be so misguided when it came to physics? Kuhn was pondering this mystery, staring out his dormitory window (“I can still see the vines and the shade two-thirds of the way down”), when suddenly Aristotle “made sense”. Kuhn realized that Aristotle invested basic concepts with different meanings than did modern physicists. Aristotle used the term motion, for example, to refer not just to change in position but to change in general – the reddening of the sun as well as its descent toward the horizon. Aristotle’s physics, understood on its own terms, was simply different from, rather than inferior to, Newtonian physics.” (1998:42)
This interpretation enables Kuhn to state that “individuals raised in different societies behave on some occasions as though they saw different things” (1970:193) and so “do in some sense live in different worlds”. Though most of the same signs are used before and after a revolution – e.g. force, mass, element, compound, cell – the ways in which some of them attach to nature has somehow changed. Successive theories are thus, he says, incommensurable (Kuhn 1988:267).
We must note now that McNeill states that by the fourth century BC – the time of Aristotle – Greek philosophers had ceased to take the world of the polis for granted (1963:214n) and nowhere is the essentialist nature of Aristotle’s physics commented on by Kuhn. To take the context of the polis, which encouraged critical discussion, for granted, entailed a very different perspective from that of the absolutism displayed by Plato and Aristotle. Their ‘wrongness’ can be demystified through comparative sociology and historical awareness. Bernstein (1973) writes with specific reference to Aristotle when he states that the weakness of Greek physics lay in the inadequate attention paid to quantitative experiment and that some historians have attributed this to the social structure of Greek society, according to which such experiments would have been considered as menial activity of the sort usually assigned to servants or slaves (1973:28).
Moreover, Aristotle’s teleological doctrine, which explains phenomena in terms of their purposes and equates the essence of anything with the final state towards which it develops, reflects a series of assumptions about a ‘natural order’. These in turn reflect different social and political conditions from those of the Ionians. For instance, Aristotle did not write brilliantly on the issue of slavery. In fact, he said next to nothing about it. In brief, he was a very contingent example from which to begin to construct a theoretical edifice about the nature of science.
Before we pass on from Kuhn, though, we must note a concession he does make to genuine comparativeness in outlook. He insists that, though different solutions have been received as valid at different times, nature cannot be forced into an arbitrary set of conceptual boxes. On the contrary, the history of proto-science shows, he believes, that normal science is possible only with very special boxes, and the history of developed science shows that nature will not indefinitely be confined in any set which scientists have constructed so far (1988:263).
In terms of what can be seen to work, the only ‘boxes’ that distinguish the scientific outlook are empiricism, mechanism (i.e. impersonal, mechanistic explanation) and concern with a particular logical form (see Gellner 1974:56, 206). This apparently pragmatic reliance on efficacy needs some reinforcement before we continue.
Barnes (1974) presents a lengthy discussion of the case of the Azande institution of the poison oracle, which came to prominence thanks to Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937). Barnes’ sweep reflects the fact that this is a ‘textbook’ case which has attracted many commentaries. Barnes writes of its significance for comparative studies, saying that its associated beliefs, relating to what we would call natural events, run strongly counter to current scientific ideas, and that if any belief system is to be labelled irrational this one must be (1974:27).
In the Azande case the poison oracle was used to answer questions on a wide variety of subjects. The poison used – ‘benge’ – was administered to a chicken, whose life or death determined the positive or negative answer. Given that logic is hostage to its initial premises, we must agree that the ‘workings’ of the oracle cannot be written off as illogical. Perhaps Barnes’ assertion that oracular beliefs “deny nothing we see; they assert nothing unseen by us” (1974:28) is more arguable but let us allow him to continue.
In his view, neither the demands of logic nor those of experience give us grounds for treating the oracle as an irrationally-held belief system. The two most clear-cut and easily justified standards of natural rationality are of no help to us, he claims, and so we must ask what others are available. Probably the other most widely advocated standard, in sociology and anthropology, is that of efficacy. Efficacious beliefs, it is sometimes argued, are rationally held, whereas adherence to inefficacious ones is puzzling and in need of explanation. Unfortunately, Azande justify their oracle in terms of its efficacy and are willing to cite concrete examples by way of illustration (1974:28-29).
Barnes then makes his rhetorical protest. But the oracle does not ‘really’ work. He writes that efficacy seems at first an easy rationality criterion to apply objectively. Then he goes on to assert that in practice whenever social scientists use it to classify beliefs in ways unacceptable to the “actors” who hold them, talk of real efficacy may be seen as a rationalization of the felt superiority of their own theories. Real efficacy, then, he concludes, has no independent use in assessing how rationally a system of belief is held (1974:29).
It looks like Barnes cannot see the wood for the trees in this case. The real evidence for ‘efficacy’ is the presence of Evans-Pritchard, the anthropologist. The history that brought him and his profession there did not do so by relying on poisoned chickens. Like is not being compared and contrasted with like, insofar as we are not examining the worldviews of two equally obscure tribes.
We can convey this point with another cinematic reference. In the film Battle of the Bulge there is a scene that takes place when some Germans have overrun an American encampment in a surprise attack. The actor Robert Shaw, playing a German officer, holds up a fresh chocolate cake sent across the Atlantic to one of the ‘defeated’ American soldiers and announces what this object means, as a metaphor. We cannot beat this.
The same principle underlies comparisons between Western and Azande beliefs. Rival arguments in specific cases and problems have to be seen in an overall (geo)political and historical context. When Alexander the Great slashed open the Gordian Knot – the steps in the untying of which would have added up to a wonderfully complex algorithm – he was simply summing up the relevance for philosophy of the argumentum ad baculum. This is the argument that relies on the club, which is arguably the ultimate materialist philosophical expression. An invasion of anthropologists is only a less ‘forceful’ parallel.
No such argument, however, represents any state of affairs which is ‘meant to be’. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn had used the fact that Darwin’s Origin of Species “recognised no goal set either by God or nature” to describe scientific evolution as a process “that moved steadily from primitive beginnings but toward no goal” (1970:172). There is no goal of absolute knowledge but at the same time evolution cannot take completely random forms. For example, in nature there are reasons at a cellular level why animals do not have wheels. Evolution too is circumscribed by a context.
(7) The Collective Unconscious, Archetypes and the Myth of the Hero
In Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Carl Jung concludes that there is a universal myth-making level of mind which he terms the collective unconscious (1990:66). Continuing the superficial similarity to Lévi-Strauss, this he sees as responsible for underlying similarities between myths, visions, religious ideas and certain types of dream from differing cultures and historical periods. Myths in this context, however, are divided into two categories already mentioned.
expository (allegorical stories giving expression to basic experiences)
explanatory (attempts to provide explanations of the world)
The latter category can be seen to reflect a human need for meaning, which underpins the ordering of experience. Each cosmogony or creation myth can in turn be subdivided into the part dealing with the origin of the world and, consequentially, the part accounting for the origin of humanity. These explain the universe and humanity’s place in it respectively.
According to Storr (1973:37), if Jung had expounded this hypothesis of a collective unconscious in terms of the human need for art and science instead of “religion” it would have been far more widely acknowledged. Having covered Luckmann on religion, it is interesting therefore to note too the passage from Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life which contradicts those who say he was neglectful of the meaning religion has for its adherents. For Durkheim the believer who has communicated with his god is a man who is stronger, who feels within him more force, either to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them (1915:416).
In antiquity St Augustine observed that the beginning of knowledge is an act of faith, given that the seeker after truth must first have some idea where it is to be found. In the nineteenth century Nietzsche argued that all knowledge was interpretation and that behind every system of thought lay some unproven assumption on the part of its author (1972:19, 26).
This standpoint was backed up in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, when Popper wrote that no amount of observed regularity logically entailed its continuation and so no scientific theory could be verified. It has sometimes been pointed out that definitive falsifications of theories are in the end just as hard to come by as verifications and Gellner (1974:176) concludes that the strength of Popper’s idea of falsification lies in the very acknowledgement of its possibility. Hence the unceasing importance of contextual awareness. Criticism of essentialism does not aim at establishing the non-existence of essences or ultimate realities but Popper tries to show that belief in them does not help us in any way.
In contrast with organized religions, which are openly doctrines of first causes, the metaphysical presence is cloaked in the realm of ‘value-free’ science and the scientific method. For example, the verifiability principle of logical positivism, which asserts that we should only study that which can be measured and tested empirically, is itself an act of faith no more testable than a belief in God. They share the fundamental characteristic of a metaphysical belief – the attribution of meaning. It does nonetheless seem evident that in practical terms any concept of truth can be seen to have three inseparable aspects.
By these categories our provisional knowledge depends on an a priori sense on sensory equivalence among observers, on agreement on rules of consistency and on comparative but open-ended studies of our own and other societies’ mythologies.
By way of complementing cosmologies, expository myths “give shape, form and often artistic expression to emotional experience” (Storr 1973:37). This is part of the general experience arranged by explanatory myths into our socialized points of view, which precede all observation. Such also is the universal anthropological condition of religion.
When we then break myths into their components – into the situations, figures, images and ideas of symbolic significance represented within – the fact of our consideration of symbolic representation leads us to make a distinction of the utmost importance. Storr (1973:112-13) claims that Jung understood the difference between a “sign” and a symbol in a way Freud did not. In other words, Freud’s view of symbols as disguises was shallow in comparison with Jung’s opinion that true symbols always possess overtones and resist sharp intellectual definition. If the Jungian symbol thus appears more vague or nebulous, this receives compensation by virtue of increased resonance.
Sulloway (1980:337) tells us that, in the sense of Freud’s usage, there are 257 symbols mentioned in the latter’s writings. Freud himself in his Introductory Lectures (1991:235) states that each individual recapitulates in abbreviated form the entire development of the human race, and that “symbolic connections may… be regarded as a phylo-genetic heritage”. Therefore we should be rightly sceptical about the worth of a definition founded on a belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Even at the physical level, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny only at the embryonic stage.
The Jungian symbol is based on the concept of the building blocks of the collective unconscious. These are termed the archetypes. As Jung writes in Symbols of Transformation, the symbols are always grounded in the unconscious archetype but their manifest forms are moulded by the ideas acquired by the conscious mind (1990:232). Furthermore, as Storr writes in elucidation, the archetype corresponds to the flexible mould. It does not correspond to the actual manifestation as produced by any culture yet it underlies all manifestations produced by all cultures. The nearest one can come to it is by parallel and comparison (1973:40). In Interaction Ritual (1967:44-45), Erving Goffman’s emphasis on the abstract presence of moral regulation is, if anything, complementary:
“Throughout it has been implied that underneath their differences in culture, people everywhere are the same. If persons have a universal human nature, they themselves are not to be looked to for an explanation of it. One must look rather to the fact that societies… must mobilise their members as self-regulating participants in social encounters…”
Goffman tells us that human nature is not a very human thing and that, by acquiring it, the person becomes a kind of construct built up from moral rules that are impressed from without. The question remains: societies must mobilize their members around what, if morals vary but ‘morality’ is everywhere? Let us see what he has to say, in Frame Analysis, on the relationship of the individual to established cultural standards.
“The associated lore… draws from the moral traditions of the community as found in folk tales, characters in novels, advertisements, myth, movie stars and their famous roles, the Bible, and other sources of exemplary representation.” (1974:562)
Goffman continues by stating that life may not be an imitation of art but ordinary conduct is, in a sense, an imitation of the properties, a gesture at the exemplary forms, and the primal realisation of these ideals belongs more to make-believe than to reality (1974:562). For reasons like this, it is the Jungian conception of the symbol, as a cultural manifestation of an archetype, which seems to us to be more useful for the analysis of the representation of existential facts. These facts have been defined here as the expectations common to the experience of all humans.
To elaborate further on the nature of the archetypes and thereby on the basis of the collective unconscious, Storr writes that it seems highly probable, though difficult to prove, that the human infant is born with a number of predispositions to which to respond; for example, parents, the opposite sex and rather basic situations like having children, separating from parents, and death (1973:49).
Jung writes in Two Essays that the nature of man presupposes woman, just as it is prepared for a quite definite world where there is water, light, air, salt and carbohydrates. The form of the world into which he is born is already inborn in him as virtual images, as psychic aptitudes. These a priori categories have by nature a collective character; they are images in general and are not individual predestinations (1990:190).
This concept of inherited predispositions was shared by Popper, as we have seen. It is according to such reasoning that Cuddon (1992:58) can describe the “fundamental facts” of human existence as “archetypal”. These are “birth, growing up, love, family and tribal life, dying, death, not to mention the struggle between children and parents, and fraternal rivalry”. These are the kinds of social fact in which we are interested. Now compare Winch (1958).
“I wish to point out that the very conception of human life involves certain fundamental notions – which I shall call ‘limiting notions’ – which have an obvious ethical dimension… within which the possibilities of good and evil in human life can be exercised. The notions… correspond closely to those which Vico made the foundations of his idea of natural law, on which he thought the possibility of understanding human history rested: birth, death, sexual relations.” (1958:107)
In his New Rules, Giddens comments on these ‘limiting notions’, saying that these turn out to refer to biological universals that in some sense play a part in all human existence and pose exigencies that have to be adapted to or coped with by any form of social organisation (1976:50). Giddens asserts that what we are supposed to do, by reference to such universals, is to elucidate puzzling features of alien institutions; these give us an anchor in our attempts to work out the internal relationships within the system of ideas ‘expressed’ in those institutions. However, he argues, the ideas relating to the bedrock on which we are supposed to build are themselves imprisoned within the same language-game and may represent some sort of ‘inevitable exigencies’ of man’s existence in a way which has nothing to do with what we might regard, from within the form of life of Western culture, as ‘biological universals’ (1976:50).
Giddens clearly read up a bit better later, before writing Central Problems in Social Theory (1979). Remembering his analysis of the identity of the Geneva-Paris train, we already know that language is never a self-contained system, or prison, but always reveals a contextual relativity as to usage and meaning. Perhaps a little bit more needs to be said on this matter. Keeping in mind Giddens’ positive reference (1976:57) to the theme, shared by the earlier and later Wittgenstein, that the limits of language are the limits of the world, for the purpose of exposition we can usefully employ a quotation from Gellner’s critique of Wittgenstein’s legacy, Words and Things.
“It is sometimes supposed… that Linguistic Philosophy could be refuted by showing that there is non-verbal thought or that concepts manifest themselves in ways other than linguistic ones. Indeed they do, and indeed there is thought outside language, if we mean by “language” a natural or constructed system of sounds or marks. But if we investigate these non-lingual manifestations of thought or concepts, we will find that they also involve a system of alternatives and so forth describable as a “language game”; in an extended sense of language indeed, but a legitimately extended one, which bears out the points made by linguistic philosophers. Though this philosophy has many weaknesses, this is not one of them.” (1979:131n)
Here Gellner is mistaken. On 21st June, 1993, the BBC broadcast a Horizon TV documentary on work being done at Georgia State University with a colony of bonobo chimpanzees. The researchers’ interpretation of the evidence obtained pushed them towards the view that language acquisition cannot be viewed in isolation but forms part of a broader process of enculturation.
Similarly, Goffman’s point that talk is governed by social rules and common understandings that go beyond and sometimes even conflict with linguistic norms is elaborated in “Felicity’s Condition”, a posthumously published essay from 1983. He points out that while linguists have illuminated the formal presuppositions of utterances, the social presuppositions of talk (e.g. about who can talk to whom in what circumstances) have to be examined (see Branaman 1997:lxxviii).
Furthermore, in his Forms of Talk (1981) he explains that there are utterances – those which he calls “response cries” – which do not qualify as conventionally directed talk and which can be understood only by reference to the social situation outside states of talk (see Branaman op. cit.). As Robin Williams comments in his essay “Goffman’s Sociology of Talk”, talk is to be treated as a type of activity and not merely as a medium of communication. Due to this, the features of participation within encounters are taken to be features of talk too (1980:216).
If the earth is a confusing, threatening place to evolve as a species, where we are all born into a ‘family’ (i.e. a unit of socialisation) with a wider group horizon and where we must achieve (re)productive identity before inevitable death, then we should expect these facts to manifest themselves in cultural representations. Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious in its original form emphasises that human anatomy, physiology and basic psychological experiences have remained pretty much unaltered for millennia. This means therefore that some cultural creations, in their underlying form at least, should transcend time and place.
As the most relevant example, let us choose the myth of the hero – a type extensively studied by Jungians. As Storr writes, the hero who, often originating in obscurity, receives the call to adventure, leaves home, faces dangers, slays a dragon or other monster, and is finally rewarded for his bravery by a throne and beautiful bride, is familiar to most people from the myths and fairy tales which they read in childhood. It is not difficult, he says, to see that such myths express one set of fundamental psychological experiences common to all men (1973:36-37).
Hero myths share similarities because our psychological progress through life is similar, notwithstanding the male orientation of the last quotation. These myths are expository, giving expression to such experience. It is necessary to understand, however, that explanatory myths also reflect group experience, be they more or less global and ‘scientific’ in perspective. This point will be developed when we distinguish two levels of empirical appreciation of Newton. Archetypal facts of existence crop up in cosmologies as well, often via hero myths of origination, as we shall observe, and expository myths themselves have to reflect the world in which we exist.
Campbell has described the archetypal hero in detail in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. According to his survey, symbolic rites of passage and the theme of a perilous journey are typical in such stories. The dangerous journey itself has three common motifs: separation, initiation and return (1993:30). The initial call to adventure is usually precipitated by a chance circumstance – an accident waiting to happen, so to speak – such as Charles Darwin’s opportunity to sail on the Beagle, for instance. The most dangerous part of the journey may be overland or on water but, as Campbell emphasises, fundamentally it is inward, psychologically (1993:29), and Freud’s self-analysis can serve here as a literal example. So too Kuhn refers to the Preface of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus as being a famous description of a crisis state (1970:69). Afterwards the subject emerges transformed, possessing the power to bestow great benefits on humanity (1993:30). Upon his return, however, the hero is faced by uncomprehending opposition to his message before it is eventually accepted and its author honoured, alive or dead.
To elucidate further this mechanism of separation-initiation-return, let us compare Plato with Thomas Kuhn. Plato’s genius for allegorical imagery is exemplified by the simile of the cave, in which he likens the ordinary run of humankind to prisoners chained in a cave with their backs to the light, taking the shadows on the wall to be real. Plato then imagines one of these prisoners (the philosopher) being made to leave the cave. The liberated one is dazzled by the light and wishes to return to the darkness but, in time, his eyes grow accustomed to his new surroundings. Then Plato imagines him returning to the cave where he now struggles with the dim light and, what is worse, faces odium and ridicule from his old companions for the apparent insanity of his tale (1987:255-59). This is a social allegory representative of what Kuhn has, in his analysis of the history of science, traced as the events preceding what he terms a paradigm shift. Plato presents us with a vivid representation of what might also be called the archetype of the outsider or stranger.
Plato’s dramatic rendering of the process of withdrawal and return portrays, in an abstract manner, the evolution of knowledge. It might, however, be accused of being ahistorical in that Plato either ignores or is unaware of the limitation that his philosopher belongs to an agrarian society oppressive for women and slaves, among others. If essentialism in thought is a consequence of a static society, which is seduced into thinking of itself as part of a ‘natural order’, then here again it is clearly observable. If only one social context is known or considered relevant, then context fades as a consideration. All philosophers become one abstract embodiment of ‘philosopher-ness’ and there is no desire to compare as many empirical cases as possible.
In contrast to Plato’s vision, Kuhn’s theoretical scheme is at least based on an interpretation of historical evidence and, though his theory could never have been confirmed, it could at least have hoped for corroboration, which Popper in Objective Knowledge has called an evaluating report of past performance (1981:18). Meanwhile, such distinctions are inapplicable in the case of Plato’s simile, which is of expository rather than explanatory value. All the same, if archetypes are qualitative types of events rather than quantities and dimensions, this does not mean they are viewed in an essentialist manner here. They are seen as products of evolution, which means they are prehistorical rather than ahistorical.
Jung’s emphasis on the general nature of archetypes disposes of accusations that he was a Lamarckian, at least as far as we are interested. It also allows us to ignore the cursory and ill-informed criticism of his perspective offered by Lévi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology (1972:208). All Jung claimed to have done was to have isolated these predispositions by his technique of comparing myths from differing cultures. Just as the absence of absolute truths does not prevent us, however, from identifying three abstract aspects of whatever people believe to be true, so Jung’s distinction helps us avoid essentialism and at the same time explain how existential realities can be isolated from delusions. It must still be kept in mind even then that the comparative study of myths only tells us how people react to experience, not what that experience really is.
Before wrapping up this part of the thesis and moving on to our case studies, a number of extra corroborations may be noted. One is the fact of Kuhn’s bafflement at the two-hundred-year-old dispute about the discovery of oxygen and the rival claims of Priestley and Lavoisier. To Kuhn, the fact that the priority for oxygen has repeatedly been contested since the 1780s is a symptom of something askew in the image of science that gives discovery so fundamental a role (1970:54). This example should prove no mystery, if not already, then surely by the end of the dissertation.
It is also instructive to compare the simile of the cave with Simmel’s essay “The Stranger” (1950:402-08). This is an example from classical sociology that is suggestive of the archetype of the hero. Simmel writes that the stranger is an element of the group itself whose position as a member involves both being outside the group and confronting it (1950:402-03). This “potential wanderer”, framed by Simmel largely in terms of economic activity, is seen as not radically committed to “the unique ingredients and peculiar tendencies” of the group (1950:404) but the resulting objectivity is “by no means non-participation”.
The freedom that allows the stranger to experience and treat even his close relationships as though from a bird’s-eye view contains “many dangerous possibilities” (1950:405). Simmel concludes his essay by stating that in spite of being inorganically appended to it, the stranger is yet an organic member of the group and so its uniform life includes the specific conditions of this element. Rather vaguely he writes that we do not know how to designate the peculiar unity of this position “other than it is composed of certain measures of nearness and distance” (1950:408).
We will see how ‘nearness’ and ‘distance’ are floating degrees and kinds both within the individual and between the individual and the mass. Compare Jung on the same theme, asking what has the individual personality to do with “the plight of the many”? In the first place, Jung says, he is part of the people as a whole and is at much at the mercy of the power that moves the whole as anybody else but the only thing that distinguishes him from all the others is his vocation (1983:202).
We will get a little more from Jung on the concept of vocation later, at the end of this study, but right now let us allow him to continue, specifically on the political implications of this phenomenon. For Jung, creative life always stands outside convention. That is why, when the mere routine of life predominates in the form of convention and tradition, there is bound to be a destructive outbreak of creative energy. This outbreak is a catastrophe, he says, only when it is a mass phenomenon (1983:202).
We have seen Campbell describe the mutuality of two orders of spirituality in the Greek heritage and the Simmel example provides further evidence to suggest the existence of what might be called the structure for the agent. Giddens has described action or agency as “the stream of actual or contemplated causal interventions of corporeal beings in the ongoing process of events-in-the-world” (1976:75) and says that it connects directly with the concept of Praxis. This concept of human conduct as a mixture of action and reflection is cast in an interesting light if we return to Goffman.
In Writing Home the English playwright Alan Bennett quotes approvingly from Goffman’s Frame Analysis when he writes that he who would combat false consciousness has much to do because the sleep is very deep (1996:305). Goffman’s essay “Where the Action Is”, from Interaction Ritual, defines action as activity involving fatefulness. Such activity is both “problematic and consequential” (1967:164). Character – seen by Goffman as the capacity to retain composure and self-sameness against challenges (1967:217) – and the ritual order of which it is a part are renewed only in moments of fatefulness (1967:239). At such moments there are risky opportunities to make a good showing and effect reputation.
There are certain prized attributes which entail exposure to fatefulness. To create a forum for their affirmation, individuals must engage in fateful action (1967:261). Goffman suggests that such action is outside the normal round of social life and that “these naked little spasms of the self” occur at the end of the world but there at the end is action and character (1967:270). The apparent agency of the heroic figure and of those in whose experience the example diffuses and resonates, has to be seen in the wider context of the group, which engineers a device of withdrawal and return in order to achieve a renewal of group metaphysics. The discovery or enlightenment obtained in the literal or metaphorical wilderness is finally adapted for broad cultural assimilation as myth and metaphor, allegory and image.
Campbell (1991:378) observes, nonetheless, that metaphysical speculation, experience and symbolization must remain on a fairly elementary level for the great majority. In the case of Isaac Newton, for example, we will see two levels of mythic resonance on the subject of the nature of the universe. The story of the falling apple relates to universal gravitation in a much more basic manner than the false notions of absolute space and time underpinning classical mechanics.
The Newton example, among others, suggests that, as one looks beyond the ranks of specialists, whose mythic sensitivity tends to lean more towards abstraction and systematization, the communication of ideas depends increasingly on metaphor and allegory that represent human existence. These representations tend unsurprisingly to draw heavily on the life of the theorist as much as on the theory. As for what is implied for the relative merits in this context of quantitative and qualitative research techniques, let us again refer to Popper.
In his Poverty of Historicism (1994:119n) he asserts a difference between “metaphor” and “serious theory”. He states that if the method of science were still that of essentialism (i.e. the method of asking ‘what is it?’) it would be justified to claim that scientific hypotheses are all based on metaphor. He claims, for instance, that one of the main differences between psychoanalysis and the wave theory of light is that while the former is largely essentialist and metaphorical, the latter is not.
This is what Giddens has to say on the connection between art and science, as he hits the head of the nail a glancing blow. He claims the arts are not limited by the demand to provide a ‘veridical’ description of anything in reality, and, since this allows them creative powers that are in his view denied social science “by its very format”, there is in this he says a definite tension between the two (1976:49). The arts, he says, are “above all concerned with man himself: with his place in the universe, his relation to gods and spirits, the characteristics of the human condition” (1976:148). The arts’ portrayals of human life are, in his view, bound to the reflexive capacity of human beings to imaginatively reconstruct, and develop an emotional reaction toward, experiences that are not their own; and thereby to further their understanding of themselves.
From where derives this capacity for reconstruction? How does it operate? Giddens says there is some plausibility in holding that metaphor has an important role in the creation of innovative paradigms. To become acquainted with a new paradigm is to grasp a new frame of meaning in which familiar premises are altered: elements of the novel scheme are learned through metaphorical allusion to the old. Metaphor both produces and expresses a ‘displacement of concepts’: the connection of disparate frames in a way which is initially ‘unusual’. Metaphor is, he acknowledges, perhaps therefore at the heart of innovations of language, such that there is an essential poetics in the succession of scientific theories which reflects and draws upon the metaphysical usages of natural language (1976:147-48).
For Barnes (1974:49) the key point that must be established is that a theory is a metaphor created in order to understand new, puzzling or anomalous phenomena, either in terms of a familiar, well ordered part of existing culture, or in terms of a newly constructed representation or model, which our existing cultural resources enable us to comprehend and manipulate.
Giddens claims that social scientific analyses are rarely likely to yield the dramatic impact that it is possible to attain through imaginative literature or poetic symbolism but he adds that the significance of this should not be exaggerated. He holds up Goffman’s analyses of ‘staged performances’ which draw from, and appeal to, mutual knowledge, and he says Goffman is able, by comparing all sorts of activities to such performances, to achieve the sort of deflationary effect which comes from turning an existing order upside down, and which is such a prominent theme in comedy and farce (1976:49). Goffman is Giddens’ only example, while we try to present numerous incidences from several fields.
Lofland introduces a word of caution, though, about Goffman’s style. Perspective by incongruity has, he claims, its liabilities. It is, he explains, rather easy simply to misread his intentions and, associated with misreading, is ambiguity in trying to pin down exactly what a given concept might mean (1980:27-28). Popper, though, always insisted that definitions remained contextual and Jung’s idea of archetypes or predispositions underlying thought and behaviour found support from the likes of him and Goffman, as we have seen.
In Objective Knowledge (1981), Popper identifies the evolution of humanity as being characteristic of a species of problem-solvers. Nevertheless, has not the struggle to arrive at this definition itself been a ‘problem’ in need of solution? The key point is that the image of the problem-solver is qualitative information, while the algorithmic solutions to specific problems are schematic and quantitative in contrast. Therefore the communicability of this concept of problem-solving requires complementary information. In Popper’s case this necessity is borne out most clearly and ironically in The Poverty of Historicism, with his use of the term Oedipus effect “for the influence of the prediction upon the predicted event” (1994:13).
We are not so much interested in rules of transformation but in what elements of existence must be transformed, as a rule. Though the parts of our subject matter are seen to consist of the contents of diverse cultures, the key relations are the connections between these contents and the archetypal facts of life. The existential determination of thought grows out of these universal social conditions of life. Such facts amount to a collective unconscious, a set of predispositions both consequent and relative to evolution. We are concerned with this message, whereas the investigation of specific codes and of their transformation of life into cultures is the proper province of the sociology of knowledge. Mythology, seen as the pillars of our provisional knowledge, offers the means to abstract those cultural themes that transcend history and geography.
The more global the perspective then, the more subtly analogical it becomes for its initiates, in its explanatory function, and the more obviously representational it gets for the uninitiated, in its expository function. Myth is an inevitable mixture of picture and diagram, narrative and number, and this should be seen to have an immense bearing on our standards of rationality.
Before we move on to half a dozen case studies of Western intellectual heroes it must be pointed out that these choices at least in part reflect the exploratory nature of this dissertation, around our epistemological themes. As a final textual note, these studies involve a certain amount of repetition of material we have already used, because they are designed for a dual role: that of essays as well as that of integral chapters in the overall thesis structure. After them we may pursue our conclusions by judging the significance of our material for the sociological contribution to the problem of the existential determination of thought and for research and pedagogy in social science.
(8) Isaac Newton
“Historians of science often refer to the year 1666 as the annus mirabilis of classical science. It was during this year that Isaac Newton, returned to the protection of his mother’s house in Lincolnshire by the Great Plague of 1665 that had closed Cambridge University, formulated – at least for himself (much remained unpublished for decades) – most of the basic concepts that transformed physics into a serious quantitative science.” (Bernstein 1973:132).
This depiction, from Jeremy Bernstein’s 1973 study of Einstein, is then elaborated on with a listing of what the author sees as the breakthroughs made by Newton at this time. During a period of eighteen months, Newton formulated his basic laws of mechanics and the calculus, differential and integral, for working out their consequences, as well as the law of universal gravitation and his optical discoveries, of which the most celebrated is his observation that ‘white light’ from the sun is dispersed by a prism into a rainbow of coloured light, each colour being bent by the prism at a different and characteristic angle (1973:132).
Temporally it was not that simple, however. If these quotes give an indication of the immensity of Newton’s achievements they also require substantial qualification. Westfall (1994:38-40) shows that the notion of an annus mirabilis is mythical; that Newton came and went from Cambridge in that period, chiefly to get money it appears; and that, more importantly, a focus on the plague and his return to Woolsthorpe distracts from the continuity of his development, 1664-66. More particularly, in relation to the discovery of the principle of universal gravitation, Westfall uses the scientific reaction to the great comet of 1680-81 to illustrate the lengthy nature of the process by which Newton came to its formulation.
“Most opinion held that comets were foreign bodies not related to the solar system and not governed by its laws. In his writings on comets, Hooke excluded them from the attraction between cosmic bodies that he posited. Apparently Halley held a similar view in 1680. The letter to Flamsteed strongly implies that Newton did also. That is, no matter how important his demonstration was that elliptical orbits entail an inverse-square force, Newton apparently considered the force as specific to the solar system, which contained related bodies. He had not yet formulated the idea of universal gravitation.” (1994:155-56)
Why then the myth of an annus mirabilis? We can readily identify the theme of the mythic hero obtaining revelation in a wilderness from the image of Newton’s enforced retreat to Lincolnshire. That Woolsthorpe constituted a wilderness is proven well enough by Newton’s alienated behaviour when stuck there, especially as a youth. As for the trials suffered in this wilderness, Rankin gives us a graphic description of the route leading to discovery. Isaac does not spare himself in researching the phenomenon of colour. Practising what the Neo-Platonists preached, his practical experimentation is carried as far as staring at the sun until he almost goes blind and sticking blunt needles in behind his eyeball to see the effect. He finds that Hooke, and indeed everyone else from Aristotle to Descartes, has misunderstood the fundamental nature of light (1993:91).
As I.B. Cohen writes, in his Preface to the Dover edition of Newton’s Opticks, it is rare that the theoretician and experimenter are combined in one individual, as they were in Newton (1979:xxxv), and we can see from our perspective how a new twist on the history of ascetic mortification was given by such self-torture and discovery. Contrary to the common-sense scientific position of the time, colours are not produced by the disturbance of ‘pure’ white light, for Newton finds it is the colours themselves which are pure, and they are seen not by modifying white light but by splitting it into its components.
In publication terms the upshot of these particular researches of the 1660s was the Opticks of 1704 – a work held almost sacred throughout the eighteenth century and then left out of print until 1931 because of its exposition of a corpuscular theory of light. For Cohen, the Principia Mathematica of 1687, with its mathematical demonstrations and general avoidance of speculation, contrasts with the large speculative content of the Opticks, but, in order to lessen the difference between them in this regard, he is led to quote from the penultimate paragraph of the General Scholium to Book Three of the Principia.
“But hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses; for whatever is not deduced from phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy… And so to us it is enough that gravity does really exist, and act according to the laws which we have explained, and abundantly serves to account for all the motions of the celestial bodies, and of our sea.” (1979:xxviii)
Cohen employs this stark quotation in order to assert the following qualification about the operation of its standard. It should, he says, be borne in mind that Newton’s phrase Hypotheses non fingo was applied by him to the nature of the gravitational attraction and was never a guiding principle in his work. It is equally clear, however, he adds, that many readers of the Principia tended to think of this motto as characteristic of the book (1979:xxii).
Furthermore, Cohen (1979:xxxiii) points out that every one of the famous thirty-one Queries at the end of the Opticks is phrased in the negative, so Newton was not being truly interrogatory in these cases. This is instructive, in that we may justifiably surmise where Newton’s un-testable sympathies and suspicions lay, but it is not the key point we wish to make about Newtonian metaphysics – a point which does not involve his heretical religious beliefs either. We cannot develop a line of argument on this issue just yet, however.
At this point it is the story of the apple which is of most interest from the plague period. The most famous mythic element, it is also the overriding and often the only association the general public makes with Newton. According to Westfall (1994:51) the story of the apple is too well attested to be thrown out of court. He interprets its mythic meaning as a vulgarization of universal gravitation by its treatment of it as a bright idea, a flash of insight, the effect of which plays on the Judaeo-Christian association of the apple with knowledge.
Nowhere, though, does he mention the aspect of the anecdote which seems to have overtaken our consciousness as the story has evolved. Rankin (1993:88) literally gives us a graphic representation of this aspect with his drawing of an apple hitting Newton on the head. No matter what the origin of this distortion, therein perhaps lies the key to the story’s resonant appeal, which resembles that of the death of Aeschylus when an eagle, mistaking his bald head for a stone, dropped a tortoise on it.
The moral of each story seems to be circumspection. The very discoverer of universal gravitation gets caught out by its operation when the real world makes its presence felt once more. In Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud gives us a plausible explanation of why such a situation may be found comic.
“Under the heading of ‘unmasking’ we may also include a procedure for making things comic with which we are already acquainted – the method of degrading the dignity of individuals by directing attention to the frailties which they share with all humanity, but in particular the dependence of their mental functions on bodily needs. The unmasking is equivalent here to an admonition: such and such a person, who is admired as a demigod, is after all only human like you and me.” (1991:263)
Freud also states that the ‘comic of situation’ is extracted from the relation of human beings to an often over-powerful external world (1991:257). Bodily needs of course include the need to avoid falling objects and Newton’s discovery of the way this phenomenon works may be perceived to be prompted by a failure to keep it in mind. Hence the existential need for circumspection. The reliability of judgements of the true nature of such sources of confrontation is not relevant at such a level of representation but will be dealt with here in due course.
At this level the extent of Newton’s discovery is thus of secondary importance. The image of the apple hitting Newton’s head suggests to us something about mass assimilation. It is slapstick in the history of ideas – the banana skin route to discovery, if you will – but we need to emphasise its limited scope in order to dispose of it for the moment. It would of course be absurdly superficial to restrict our analysis to examples of Newton’s symbolic resonance which derive only from such anecdotes, for there is also the metaphorical meaning(s) of the actual science, just as important as the echoes caused by Newton’s persona.
At this point let us return to the Principia. Even with a lack of in-depth mathematical knowledge, one can still grasp the principles of the physics and thereby draw certain conclusions regarding varying levels of symbolic resonance which appeal to perspectives that differ in their technical sophistication. Let us examine the structure of the Principia as outlined by Rankin. The Principia starts off with “an unshakeable foundation on which the mighty edifice of three books will rest”. Mass, force and motion are defined, just as Euclid prefaces his Elements with definitions of points, lines and areas. The whole is constructed in Euclidean fashion with a rigorous logical structure of Definitions, Axioms (laws), Propositions, Lemmas (assumptions), Corollaries and Scholia (explanatory notes) (1993:120).
In passing we may suggest that perhaps the only single example from the above group to enter everyday speech is the third axiom which commonly appears as the statement, To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is what we may term Newton’s proverb. In reference to this example, Kuhn (1977:298) says that some symbolic generalizations in the sciences are ordinarily expressed in words. Perhaps unsurprisingly he devotes no attention to the possibility that they have an extra-professional resonance, apart from where he writes that he sees “no reason to doubt the widespread impression that the power of a science increases with the number of symbolic generalizations its practitioners have at their disposal”. Widespread among whom, one wonders?
In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life Freud asserts that superstition is in large part the expectation of trouble (1975:323). The explicitly partial nature of this equation suggests that unfounded belief, however judged so, can often coincide with and obscure the existentially-based expectation of confrontation but at the same time allow the latter to find autonomous expression in statements such as Newton’s axiom. If so, the proverb can be seen to appeal to the same level of consciousness as the story of the apple.
Concerning the gigantic leap made by Newton in the Principia with regard to understanding the mechanics of the universe, let us first outline the materials he had to work with, in terms of pre-existing scientific knowledge. From Copernicus he took heliocentric theory; from Kepler the Three Laws on the motion of the planets, the concept of gravitation and the cause of tides; from Galileo the behaviour of falling and projected bodies; and from Descartes the concept of rectilinear inertia in motion. We can take Kepler’s laborious discovery of the Mars ellipse, however, as an example of the limitations of pre-Newtonian developments. Kepler’s result was essentially an empirical observation. It had little predictive power. There was no way, for example, to account for why the planets moved in ellipse or account for why other objects, like projectiles, did not (Bernstein 1973:30).
Through his invention of the differential calculus, Newton was enabled to define velocity and acceleration at any point along an orbit. This acceleration is caused by the force(s) acting on the orbiting object and Newton thereon produced the ‘differential’ equation F = ma, relating force to acceleration. In order to specify the force, Newton produced a mathematical expression for the force of gravity. This is the law of universal gravitation which states that every mass attracts every other mass with a force that is proportional to the product of the masses involved and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Newton inserts this expression into F = ma and solves the equation by ‘integration’, which he also invented. Integration enables a summing up of the effects of the infinitesimal pieces of the orbit. The solutions yield the particle orbits and Newton was able to show, with his expression for gravitation, that the only possible orbits are conic sections: ellipses, hyperbolas and parabolas.
Newtonian mechanics was devised to describe motions of objects that move much more slowly than the speed of light and for such objects it gives almost the same results as the special theory of relativity. Its huge practical success, combined with the fact that the apparently ‘fixed’ stars, whose motions are very slight when viewed from earth, provide a stationary frame of reference which is adequate for most of its problems, meant that its theological underpinnings with regard to absolute space and time tended to be ignored by Newton’s successors.
In reference to the first Scholium of the Principia, Bernstein thus tells us that Newton attempted to distinguish between ‘common’ time as measured by clocks and some sort of ‘absolute’ time whose primary existence was in the consciousness of God (1973:73). Furthermore, Newton’s first axiom states that every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressing upon it, and Bernstein gives the following comment.
“Newton himself believed that such motions could not be distinguished, from the point of view of the laws of physics as he knew them, from a state of rest. But in his view accelerations were something different altogether. When we are accelerated we feel it – we are pushed or pulled – and hence it would appear to be reasonable to claim that we can measure accelerations, even in ‘empty’ space, in some absolute sense.” (1973:106)
The first point to make concerns the temptation to dismiss as nonsense the classical-mechanical view that there is no difference between a state of rest and a state of uniform motion in a straight line because it conflicts with our everyday experience of motion and rest. To overcome that objection one needs only to envisage the possibility of moving in a closed vehicle, perfectly smoothly, in a straight line and with a constant velocity. It would then be impossible to ascertain one’s state. The more important point concerns the fact that if the two states mentioned are indistinguishable theoretically, then it makes no sense to hold on to the notion of a state of absolute rest, insofar as it is unnecessary and scientifically meaningless in the absence of any supporting evidence of absolute space.
All we are left with then is a set of relative motions. As regards how this impinges on classical mechanics, Newton’s most frequently discussed examples had to do with rotations, whereby he would have argued that a satellite orbiting synchronously over a fixed position on the equator resists gravity through centrifugal force. This force appears to be produced by the relationship of the object to empty (absolute) space, for which, again, no experimental evidence exists. Bernstein quotes Ernst Mach from 1883, stating that Newton has acted contrary to his expressed intention only to investigate actual facts. No one, wrote Mach, is competent to predicate things about absolute space and absolute motion; they are pure things of thought, pure mental constructs, that cannot be produced in experience (1973:109-10).
Absolute space, motion and time are metaphysical notions which derive from earthly experience but clearly not in the crude sense by which the earth seems flat and the sun appears to travel across the sky. The fact remains, nevertheless, that no amount of expressed desires to avoid “hypotheses” can negate, in this case, the insidious metaphysics of ideas flowing from this world’s physical perspective.
Before we explore further the implications for symbolization of such technical detail let us bring in another anecdote which also appeals to the empirical mindset but again at a much less technically sophisticated level. Westfall (1994:197) grants that this incident may have really occurred but it is Rankin who describes it more succinctly. It concerns Newton’s position in the aftermath of the overthrow of King James in 1688. Newton was rewarded for his anti-Catholic stance with a seat in the Parliament which decided the Revolutionary settlement. He had an impeccable voting record but spoke only once. Feeling a draught, he asked an usher to close the window (1993:139).
One does not have to think very hard to recall other anecdotes about famous figures which act as parallel metaphors employing bathos to anchor cynically our inflations and abstractions. There is Plutarch’s image of Diogenes the Cynic’s sole request upon receiving a visit from Alexander. I would have you stand from between me and the sun (1939:473). In Plutarch’s account, such a reply only prompted Alexander to say, Were I not Alexander I would be Diogenes. Then there is Samuel Johnson’s response to Bishop Berkeley’s view that the world exists only to the extent that we perceive it. Kicking a large stone, he said to Boswell “I refute it thus” (1979:122). Thirdly, there is the celebrated reply of Dr Jowett’s unknown undergraduate to the question, in the course of a lecture on the Stoics, as to whether or not a man could be happy even on the wrack. Perhaps, sir, a very good man, on a very bad wrack (Gellner 1985:86).
In comparing and contrasting the temptations faced by Buddha and Christ, Campbell (1991) identifies in the Christian image of Jesus being urged to throw himself from the roof of the Temple the danger to the mystic of what Jung (1990b:146-47) calls “inflation” i.e. the temptation to believe one has surpassed the earth and its physical demands. Herein may lie the shared source of the resonance of these anecdotes, which all assert the primacy of bodily needs over mental functions, no matter how exceptional the human figure.
We can now begin to draw together the common mythic implications of the physics and the stories. In an important sense the practical success of the technical detail is of less interest here than the flaws. The sheer comprehensiveness of the physical and mathematical discoveries had a deep, convincing appeal in terms of explanatory ‘myth’ but the retention of notion of absolutes points us towards the circumscription of that spirit of empiricism which Newton embodied.
In other words, it is as if Newton represents the pinnacle of achievement of a type of outlook in which material reality is viewed as something based on the earthly perspective. Thus the empiricist’s abstract problem is to specify and analyse earthly conditions properly, by which, say, Aristotle will be shown to be wrong and Newton right.
To illustrate exactly what is meant let us borrow Plato’s simile of the cave (1987:255-59) in which he portrays the ordinary run of humanity as prisoners chained with their backs to the light, taking the shadows on the wall of the cave to be reality. Now, instead of having one of the prisoners (i.e. the philosopher) leave the cave and enter the light, as Plato asks us to envisage, let us instead picture another (the ‘empiricist’) being freed to examine the properties of these shadows, which have previously either not been remarked upon and simply accepted without reflection, or viewed as divine portents, or the work of providence, or even seen in terms of Aristotelian physics.
The empiricist determines that they are mere shadows and names them thus and attributes the cause of the phenomenon to the movements of bodies beyond the cave. Nevertheless, since our subject cannot leave the interior, he never directly experiences the perspective to be gained from entering the light. More significantly, he does not leave in imagination either and assumes that he has determined the true nature of reality from his collection and interpretation of data available from the cave, when it is really only the reality of his perspective he has uncovered, despite his identification of the source of the shadows as lying in another realm.
In this situation, for the empiricist to tell his companions that it is simply all God’s plan is ultimately less misleading than his assumption of the universality of the cold and damp conditions of the cave, of which his companions are only too well aware, if ignorant as to their real causes. Indeed this awareness may well be expressed in cave anecdotes among the prisoners which become fondly quoted in a manner equivalent to the honour accorded by Plato’s prisoners to “those best able to remember the order of sequence among the passing shadows and so… best able to divine their future appearances”. Moreover, the attribution of the workings of physical phenomena to supernatural causes at least admits an alternative, if ineffable reality, whereas the assumption that observation is ‘pure’ does not because it neglects to admit to being a ‘mere’ perspective.
It would be wrong, though, to try to imprison Newton’s scientific imagination in induction, but, rather than employ his Unitarianism or his devotion to alchemy to make him look less uniform in his means of apprehension, let us quote instead his well-known late summation of his life.
“I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but, as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” (Westfall 1994:309)
To what does this passage correspond, symbolically? According to Campbell (1991) the first of four essential functions of mythology is to elicit and support a sense of awe at the mystery of being. More practically, Freud (1991:160-61) states that among tendentious jokes the rarest class is that of the sceptical joke, which attacks not a person or institution but “the certainty of our knowledge itself, one of our speculative possessions”.
Whereas the relatively common cynical joke or anecdote denigrates inflation and abstraction by an emphasis on the primacy of material needs over mental functions, the sceptical joke, states Freud, has as its “more serious substance… the problem of what determines the truth”. Outside Western culture there is an example from Chinese philosophy which metaphorically expresses this dilemma as vividly as any. It concerns the sage who, when asleep in his garden, dreams he is a butterfly, and is prompted by his experience to wonder is he really a butterfly who dreams he is a man? The comparative rarity of this form of joke highlights, by contrast, the shared wellspring in philosophical geocentricity of teleology (i.e. ‘God’s plan’) and empiricism as a metaphysical theory.
At this point let us try to draw together the elements of our argument in a unifying summation. We have tried to show that a common thread links the appeal of anecdotes such as the story of the apple to the assumptions underlying the English empiricism of which Newton was the figurehead. This connection centres on the primacy given to the earth’s conditions and both degrees of apprehension parallel each other in two ways.
The popular wisdom reflected in the appeal of Newton anecdotes is analogous to the scientific wisdom inherent in an empirical approach to the gathering of knowledge. Empiricism is an outlook which stresses the priority of the accumulation and analysis of data. Nevertheless, just as popular wisdom can combine practical representations of problematic contexts with superstitious explanations of their meaning, so empirical methods can mask insidious and unwarranted metaphysical assumptions. In other words, cynical popular wisdom and empiricism as a theory share strengths and weaknesses and differ from each other really only in the degrees of their technical sophistication and metaphysical explicitness. Thus Newton’s references to God are more scientifically harmless, in a God-made-everything-but-this-is-how-it-works sort of way, than the in-built metaphysics whereby the physical has become the metaphysical, even though that too depends on one’s perspective.
Therefore to reconstitute one’s material circumspection in terms of a fear of divine retribution or caprice, or plain bad luck – which is usually a euphemism for some injustice or else denotes failure by a narrow margin – is actually quite ingenuous, as is Newton’s alchemy and Biblical chronology, on which Bernstein quotes from J.M. Keynes’ essay Newton the Man.
“Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.” (1973:135)
Though Keynes rightly demolished the then-reigning image of Newton as the ‘complete’ empiricist, two important points need to be made. Firstly, Westfall (1994:154) shows that alchemy helped Newton to conceive of action at a distance which, though since shown to be technically untrue, was essential for his theoretical structure. More importantly, it is clearly wrong of Keynes to imply that metaphysics in science ended with Newton, when it never ends as long as observation continues.
We have also argued that the less commonplace ability to transcend in imagination the effects and implications of the earth’s physical conditions is evident not only in mystics but also in diverse phenomena such as sceptical jokes and Newton’s boy-on-the-shore simile. In the end then we are left with a conception of Newton as still the greatest savant of the way this world works, yet in the end also as one capable of at least metaphorically representing the possibility that he had got hold of the wrong end of the cosmic stick, so to speak. In other words, he is perhaps the chief symbolic embodiment of ‘hard’ reality in our intellectual history and yet his example also pushes us to grasp the limitations of such reality.
(9) Adam Smith
“It has become commonplace to describe the discipline of economics as beginning with an Adam, whose surname was Smith. While it is true that his great work… launched the classical tradition in economic thought, a larger claim for his innovating role would not be justified.” (Barber, A History of Economic Thought, 1991:17)
This is despite The Wealth of Nations (1776) having suffered the fate of most classics, according to Barber (1991:51) – being more talked about than read. Furthermore, he also points out that little of its content can be regarded as original to Smith himself. This content amounts to an economic universe where, for example, women do not count, and where its author’s opposition to government regulation of the corn market seemed, and still does seem to many commentators, to appear to challenge the very right to survival of the poor. Thirdly, despite its trinitarian appeal, his division of society into “three great, original and constituent orders” (1993:155-57), made up of those who live by rents, profits and wages, reflects the world of his own time. Also, from the point of view of economics, his ideas on value have often been dismissed as “superfluous metaphysics” (Barber 1991:31). Lastly, it is clear that his vision of industrial transformation had more to do with pin-making than iron fabrication and that he did not foresee high-technology economies of scale or their consequences. To counter accusations, however, that Smith’s lasting fame is a result of his inherent empathy with a resurgent climate of laissez-faire right-wingery, one can present a strong case in his defence. Firstly, it may be argued that the circumspect Smith was something of a conspiracy theorist by virtue of his perspective on economic interest groups, as is evidenced by the following oft-quoted pithy observation.
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” (Smith 1993:129)
Secondly, his opposition to the Poor Law regulations of his time was based on their restrictiveness on the mobility of labour (Barber 1991:48) rather than on an indifference to others’ hardship, which was comparatively overwhelming in his day. Thirdly, his opposition to government intervention has to be seen in the context of very different assumptions and experiences regarding its effects in the eighteenth century. Fourthly, it is untrue to suggest that he opposed all government intervention. Apart from noting his recognition that the state must secure social stability as a prerequisite of economic activity – even through the encouragement and toleration of “public diversions” (1993:441) as a bulwark against religious frenzies – we can also quote an observation from his editor Sutherland (1993), who writes that Smith’s views on the state organisation of services are highly topical in the emphasis placed on considerations of efficiency, the role of markets, and the possibilities of some services being self-financing (1993:577).
Lastly, the habit of restricting editions of The Wealth of Nations to the first two, more directly theoretical volumes – reminding us of Kuhn’s comment (1970:139) about the revision of works of scientific heroes for succeeding generations – has hidden evidence of compatibility with later, more democratic values e.g. Smith’s firm opposition to colonialism (1993:341, 364). In a sense, though, this argument is irrelevant, in that we are not really interested in misappropriations of Smith’s ideas for political debates that still fluctuate. It is Smith’s intellectual resonance – his key images and their coalition – that is intriguing from our perspective.
To account convincingly for Smith’s reputation as an intellectual icon we must look closely at the presentation of The Wealth of Nations. It is clear that his chief interest lay in developing a theory of long-term economic growth but why he should be preoccupied with this particular question can be left for later.
Let us for the moment look at some of the cornerstones of his theoretical structure. Though not the first to do so, Smith correctly identifies the division of labour as the key to productivity. His famous example of the division of labour – pin-making – had already received exemplary status in 1755 when Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie entry described its manufacture as involving eighteen stages (Sutherland 1993:xxiv).
Otherwise known as the needle in the haystack, in the silent search for which you could hear one drop, the pin is a proverbial item, at least in English. Ironically made then by women, the example’s attribution to Smith perhaps derives from its position in the firmament of his economic universe, of which more will be seen later in this essay. In a kind of swings-and-roundabouts way, however, it is also ironic that, just as he his associated with the example of the pin, so in contrast he may have been denied priority for the phrase “a nation of shopkeepers”.
“To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers, but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.” (1993:358)
Sutherland comments on this familiar image, identifying it as a phrase often attributed to Napoleon but used long before by Adam Smith. According to her, it also formed part of a speech said to have been delivered at Philadelphia by Samuel Adams in August 1776, five months after the publication of The Wealth of Nations (1993:568).
Smith saw the development of the division of labour as originating from the peculiarly human propensity to exchange and emphasised its ontological importance in the following manner, thus reinforcing the centrality of his field of inquiry. Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog (1993:21). This fabulist image echoes a passage in The Republic, namely Plato’s ‘proof’ that dogs are philosophers. Plato states that a creature that makes a distinction between the familiar and the unfamiliar on the grounds of knowledge or ignorance must surely be gifted with a real love of knowledge and offers the dog as example.
“It is annoyed when it sees a stranger, even though he has done it no harm, but it welcomes anyone it knows, even though it has never had a kindness from him. Haven’t you ever thought how remarkable this is?” (1987:68-69)
The illustrative usefulness of the dog as metaphor has been recognized by more than Smith and Plato, as is exemplified by Darwin’s writings, and the significance of exchange should be clear, but next comes the question of how exchange can best be promoted, in order to boost productivity through the development of the division of labour.
In Smith’s system we thus come up against concepts such as free trade, capital accumulation and money viewed as “the great wheel of circulation” (1993:175). Given Smith’s preoccupation with discovering the key to long-term economic expansion, the division of labour by itself is meaningless without the dynamic force that drives and regulates it, namely capital accumulation, which enables continuing investment.
The concept of capital accumulation goes almost without thinking today but in his time Smith, following Hume, had to debunk common-sense mercantilist notions that export surpluses and the hoarding of precious metals determined the true wealth of nations. Instead, Smith substituted the again by-no-means-original insight that wealth was actually dependent on the volume of circulating economic activity, both nationally and internationally, which he saw as necessitating free trade.
It remained then for Smith to explain to common sense how the prospect of economic anarchy would be avoided, given his deregulatory prescriptions. Here we come to his most significant metaphor – that of the invisible hand – which represents the unconscious regulatory power of the market. This concept, Sutherland tells us, had appeared earlier in Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and we are also told that the notion of unintended social outcomes was common to several thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Sutherland elaborates on the image, saying that Smith had already argued that an ‘invisible hand’ distributes, with some approach to equality, the ‘necessaries of life’ and the basic means to happiness, despite the unequal distribution of wealth in commercial society (1993:547-48).
Framed thus, it might appear to be a superstitious and even dishonest assertion, until one observes its more focused and pertinent formulation in The Wealth of Nations, in relation to the capitalist. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it (1993:292). This apparent paradox had an undeniable basis in his socio-economic observation and its urgency seemed especially forceful given the author’s conception of the good of society. Here we must remind ourselves of the overriding concern with long-term economic expansion, which translates society’s interest as economic growth and the enlargement of the economic surplus.
This significance of this relates to history. As Barber writes, in the early stages of Western industrial emergence – when poverty and scarcity were the dominant facts of economic life – it was probably appropriate to concentrate attention on the expansion of output (1993:113). The process of capital accumulation provided evidence of the mysterious efficacy of the invisible hand in this respect, with the mechanics of income distribution being still of secondary importance. It was not Smith’s task to work out the short-term or microcosmic intricacies of such distribution, just as Darwin could not be blamed for the imperfections of the fossil record.
Here we must locate Smith in his proper intellectual company. The key image here, where we are concerned, is that of the invisible hand, a concept as apparently paradoxical – and arguably as revolutionary, in its own field – as natural selection, relativity or the unconscious. Though, as we have stated, other thinkers did notice unintended consequences of social action, only Smith came to give the phenomenon a striking name, in this specific context.
The claim to a priori significance of this context is clear when one realizes that the enlargement of the economic surplus was the sine qua non of other abstract arguments, such as those over natural history, the nature of the human mind, the nature of the cosmos, or even over the most equitable distribution of that surplus. A static world is not going to be interested in or aware of dynamic concepts such as natural selection or relativity. Likewise, the idea of there being a non-willed aspect to economic growth, which necessarily follows from close observation, simply does not figure when there is no economic expansion.
“Economic growth did not… become an important object of intellectual study until the eighteenth century, when in Britain and a handful of other European countries, commerce and industrialisation were beginning to grow in a rapid and sustained manner. It has been estimated that economic growth may have averaged only 0.1 per cent per annum between the years 500 and 1500, equivalent to output approximately tripling in a thousand years. A growth rate of ten times that pace… was achieved in Britain in the eighteenth century, resulting in significant rises in output and material wealth in… a single generation. This represented the first stirrings of a powerful new phenomenon.” (Bronk 1998:89)
The sheer complexity and relative novelty of our economic system still presents different long-term scientific problems from natural history, for example, the frame of reference of which can be grasped mathematically but not imaginatively. Thus the invisible hand remains today perhaps a vaguer concept than natural selection, yet still full of relevance given the evidence from the late twentieth century of the failure of command economies outside of wartime. When at war, a people’s economic self-interest seems to translate as self-preservation. As Bronk comments:
“Central planning appears incapable, no matter how big the civil service, of allocating resources with anything like the efficiency of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. This is the powerful kernel of free-market economics” (1998:98).
Nevertheless, Smith has to offer an explanation of human nature to support this invisible hand. Let us therefore take note of his judgement as to the immediate key to capital accumulation. Parsimony, and not industry, he says, is the immediate cause of the increase of capital (1993:199). We may feel entitled to attribute some of this opinion to the Scottish Calvinist heritage, as is perhaps evidenced by the following assertion that bankruptcy is perhaps the greatest and most humiliating calamity which can happen to an innocent man (1993:204).
The material circumspection is very clear but Smith, living in a world of far grimmer general prospects – for white people – than that of today, also makes an interesting generalization on a theme on which Freud makes a contradictory assertion in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Freud’s offering is that superstition is in large part the expectation of trouble (1975:323) but Smith writes that the over-weening conceit which the greater part of men have of their own abilities is an ancient evil remarked on by the philosophers and moralists of all ages. Their absurd presumption in their good fortune, has, he adds, been less taken notice of, but is, if possible, still more universal (1993:104).
Perhaps the difference is that, whereas Freud was writing about superstition as a phenomenon among people, Smith was describing people as a superstitious phenomenon? One writer from antiquity who did observe what Smith was talking about, however, was Petronius.
“Yet it is not only the seas that serve mortals like this. Weapons play a man false in wartime; the collapse of his family shrine buries a man giving thanks to heaven; a man falls from his carriage and hastily gasps his last. Food chokes the glutton, abstinence the abstemious. If you think about it there is shipwreck everywhere.” (1986:125)
This last quote is not entirely incongruous when one notes Smith’s evident fondness, for illustrative purposes, of phenomena such as lotteries (1993:104), smuggling (1993:108) and cockfighting (1993:455). The dogs that never exchanged their bones are not the only additions of metaphorical colour to Smith’s text. In such a world of great danger of ‘shipwreck’, Smith goes on to reveal his understanding of the psychological meaning of property i.e. capital.
“A small proprietor… who knows every part of his little territory, who views it with all the affection which property, especially small property, naturally inspires, and who upon that account takes pleasure not only in cultivating but in adorning it, is generally of all the improvers the most industrious, the most intelligent, and the most successful.” (1993:268)
Note the use of the word “affection”. This appraisal is taking us away from what are perhaps everyday notions of what wealth offers e.g. power, freedom, luxury, ease. Let us compare Plato on money.
“For just as poets are fond of their own poems, and fathers of their own children, so money-makers become devoted to money, not only because, like other people, they find it useful, but because it’s their own creation.” (1987:6)
In Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, Sheila Rowbotham attributes to Marx a definition of property not as a substance or things but as a relationship. She states that this is helpful in that it implies an attitude “to natural conditions of production” which constitutes a prolongation of the body (1973:64). This too supports the view that the mythic assimilation of the world necessarily involves other people and objects. The fact that it can be done through money, politics, war, capital accumulation, friendships, sexual relationships, works of art, religious beliefs, craftsmanship and so on merely reflects the variety of social contexts in which it occurs. Parenthood too counts in insofar as it translates as a biologically-produced extension of the corporeal self.
Such seems to be the philosophical basis of homo economicus. This term, often employed pejoratively to denigrate Smithian and, by extension, Enlightenment faith in Reason, can suggest an air of unreality, as is particularly evidenced by certain comments made by Smith himself.
“Envy, malice, or resentment, are the only passions which can prompt one man to injure another in his person or reputation. But the greater part of men are not very frequently under the influence of those passions; and the very worst men only occasionally.” (1993:407)
Ernest Gellner, for one, has ridiculed such judgements. He says that by reading David Hume and Adam Smith one might gather the impression that both the lusts and the guilts of the human heart are quite transparent to itself, at any rate in Scotland (1985:14). However, it must be evident that homo economicus, acting out of self-interest as clarified here, is a mythic figure with a basis in at least one aspect of reality – the creativity of capital accumulation. He is an Everyman who personifies each of the myriad fingers of the invisible hand.
To elaborate further on this hand, we must examine the economic universe of its godlike operation. It is an emergent cosmos, the past of which is murky, given Smith’s primitive depiction of historical ‘stages’, yet it has a point of origin – the propensity to exchange – from which proceeds, at an inconstant pace, an increasing diversity – the division of labour – according to a vital mechanism – capital accumulation – which is reflected in the self-interest of the individual homo economicus.
We thus see that the two types of myth – explanatory and expository – are combined in Smith’s economic universe. We are also in a position to see how his systematic economic world and the key concepts and images with which it is dotted are mutually supportive from these angles. It may be concluded that Smith, like Darwin for instance, is a symbolic figure playing on the existential fact that the world contains many fantastic things that are yet ultimately amenable to human understanding, via a divining intermediary of almost miraculous powers.
Metaphorically, he was one of those who understood some of the hows and whys it could be that, in the words of the pre-Socratic Thales, the earth is full of gods. This understanding is epitomised by the concept of the invisible hand, which guides homo economicus across the economic universe he mapped out.
(10) Charles Darwin
Curiosity about the case of Darwin was initially prompted by a strong impression that the idea of the evolution of living things had apparently general acceptance by the public, at least outside large parts of the United States, while the principle of natural selection remained generally misunderstood, or unknown. Put alongside the common cliché that we are ‘descended from the apes’ and the crude notion that Darwin was a man for whom ‘survival of the fittest’ – another hackneyed phrase – meant that the strong trample the weak by some ‘natural’ law, this interest only increased. A figurative illustration may sum up our perception of the problem: the idea that a distinctive animal like a giraffe got its long neck from the habit of stretching for food through countless generations.
Sulloway (1980:238) tells us that Darwin’s legacy was so extensive as to create, at times, its own invisibility, where educated people read about Darwinian ideas at first-hand and at nth hand, and this suggests a straightforward explanation for the existence of any distortion without accounting for its particular nature. If the notions described above are indeed commonplace, they remain untrue, but what kind of falsehood or error do they represent?
As a modern editor of Darwin’s masterpiece, Burrow (1985:23, 27) points out that the terms “evolution” and “survival of the fittest” do not actually appear in early editions of The Origin of Species, where Darwin employs “mutability” and “the struggle for existence” in their stead. The term survival of the fittest was in fact, he writes, coined by Herbert Spencer, while the associated phrase nature red in tooth and claw actually preceded Darwin, being the property of Tennyson.
More importantly, it needs to be made clear that Darwin saw “fittest” in evolutionary terms as meaning adaptation rather than aggression. Furthermore, apart from a single oblique reference (1985:227),The Origin of Species says nothing about human evolution, though the argument does carry the implication that we are part and parcel of natural history. It was not until 1871 and The Descent of Man that Darwin dealt directly with human origins, giving us an ancestry which included an ape-like creature.
Anyone who has taken the trouble to read what he actually wrote – Stephen Jay Gould is on record somewhere as saying he had never met an biology undergraduate who had read The Origin – knows that if there is a problem it is not one of presentation, whereby highly technical information is accessible only to experts who assure a passive public of its significance. We know too that Darwin has been widely read in the past, so a discrepancy between substance and lasting appearance appears even more intriguing.
We therefore need to look for a source of interpretation of this phenomenon that could transcend specific social contexts, such as the one where, for example, Social Darwinism was a product of the reception of scientific ideas by a world where laisser-faire was the dominant perspective in political economy. Social Darwinism was outlived by the science that unintentionally spawned it, a science whose lack of moral prescriptions must have created a helpful vacuum to be filled by the use of pseudo-biological notions to justify the social order.
We may see then that Darwin’s continuing ‘credibility’ among the uninitiated lies in his symbolic rather than in his literal meaning. Nonetheless, his sturdy scientific reputation only adds force to the conviction that these two types of meaning are mutually dependent. What attracts one to discover the meaning of natural selection apart from exposure to myth and metaphor surrounding the figure of Darwin? As Leach (1970:59) writes, with special relevance to this point, myth is not just fairytale but contains a message. He claims it is not very clear who is sending the message but it is clear who is receiving it. For Leach, the novices of the society who hear the myths for the first time are being indoctrinated by the bearers of tradition.
By going out of his way, so to speak, Darwin was a hero, and bona fide heroes make for the best hero myths (Sulloway 1980:446). In this case, as Miller (1992:159) states, the myth usually credits Darwin with the single-handed discovery of evolution by natural selection, which thus relegates Alfred Russel Wallace to no more than a footnote. This is ironic, given that Miller tells us how in the sixth and final edition of The Origin of Species Darwin introduced a compromising codicil which showed him reverting to “his original belief in the Lamarckian hereditary effect of effort and experience” (1992:139).
Furthermore, Miller also states that by the end of the nineteenth century, but before the advent of modern genetics, only Wallace and the German naturalist August Weismann, among important scientists, refused to budge from the principle of natural selection (1992:142). Indeed, Barnes (1974:110) claims that the only principle that Darwin clung to unshakeably was that of uniformitarianism – the view that the geological processes that shape the earth are and always have been the same.
Storr (1973:37) states that all hero myths are similar because our psychological progress through life is in basic respects the same, no matter where and when we are born, and Campbell has described the archetypal hero in detail in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1993). According to his view, symbolic rites of passage and the theme of a perilous journey are typical in such stories. The dangerous journey itself has three common motifs: isolation, initiation and return. The initial call to adventure is usually precipitated by a “chance” circumstance – an accident waiting to happen – such as Darwin’s opportunity to sail on the Beagle. Upon his return home, however, the hero is faced by uncomprehending opposition to his message before it is eventually accepted. Opposition to Darwin took its time to arise simply because he took twenty years before publishing The Origin of Species in 1859 and was only forced into doing so by news of Wallace’s independent discovery.
The Beagle voyage is the extent to which the theme of the fantastic voyage fits so seamlessly with the facts of Darwin’s life. Yet, in their withdrawal and return, such heroes have to bring back from their ordeals something extraordinary for the benefit of humanity. Now it is obvious that the return from the wilderness of a Christ or a Buddha means something qualitatively different from that of a Darwin, and Darwin’s life and work arguably represent symbolically an existential fact described long ago by the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, when he said the earth is full of gods. This recognition that the world contains the most fantastic things, which yet have nothing to do with super-nature, seems a key element of the appeal of heroes of Western intellectual history, at least those from recent centuries.
We have seen Sulloway (1980) describe Darwin’s legacy as being so extensive as to create its own invisibility but there remains the necessity of showing, by at least a representative number of examples, just how he could have achieved such a state of pervasiveness in the first place. For this we must look at the works to try and see what elements may have captured the imagination of readers. Despite the Beagle he might have remained relatively unsung, historically, though still celebrated scientifically – as a naturalist – were it not for what the voyage prompted him to come up with later – much later – in the form of his fantastic explanation of the way the living world works, which he presented in a manner that complemented his symbolic role.
Miller (1992:97) writes that Darwin’s first significant image was “the image of an irregularly branching tree”. Darwin himself phrases it as “the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications” (1985:172). Whether or not this description of the history of life was chosen deliberately is less relevant at this point than what it echoes. Mircea Eliade (1961:39) writes in Images and Symbols that every inhabited region has what may be called a “Centre”, that is to say, a place that is sacred above all. For Eliade, what we have here is a “mythic geography” and, mentioning examples from China and Babylon, he states that these cities, temples or palaces, regarded as Centres of the World, are all only replicas, repeating the same archaic image – the Cosmic Mountain, the World Tree or the central Pillar which sustains the planes of the cosmos (1961:42).
Eliade continues by stating that the summit of the Cosmic Mountain is the point at which creation began and that “the creation of man, a replica of the cosmogony, took place similarly from a central point, in the Centre of the World”. He goes on to say that the most widely distributed variant of the symbolism of the Centre is the Cosmic Tree (1961:44). Eliade (1961:52) translates this piece of esoterica for today by observing that, to the degree that the ancient holy places lose their religious efficacy, people discover and apply “other geomantic, architectural or iconographic formulas which… represent the same symbolism of the Centre”.
Thus it was that when the Biblical Creation lost credibility the new account given by Darwin conveniently utilized an old representation to convey its novel interpretation of the evidence of where we came from and what we are. Of the two types of creation myth, relating to the origins of the universe, on the one hand, and of humanity, on the other, the first is expressly absent from the Darwinian biological cosmos set out in The Origin, when he states that he has nothing to say on the origin of life itself (1985:234), while the second only developed with the emergence of the common notion that we are ‘descended from the apes’, which is technically false but metaphorically true.
Of course anyone can preach about a tree of life but it is in the technical details of Darwin’s version that he comes into his own. It is often been said that his willingness to handle obvious examples of difficulty facing his theory is an engaging feature of his approach. Yet we can turn this on its head by stating that it is precisely because he dealt convincingly with some astonishing features of the natural world, in expounding on natural selection, that he persuaded readers he understood the ‘gods’ of which the earth is full.
In dealing with the development of the eye (1985:217), the structural resemblance to muscle of electric organs in fishes (1985:222), the hive-bee making its hexagonal cells (1985:234) and the slave-making instinct of certain ants (1985:243), Darwin convinces the reader that, given enough time and the accentuation of characteristics through generations of survivors, these marvels will develop, at least as far as is mathematically possible. In the case of the bees, as is well known, the cells’ shape means the greatest amount of honey is held with the least expenditure of wax. Darwin shows in this instance that, like everything else, reassuringly enough, natural selection must obey the laws of mathematics and thus it has arrived here at a state of architectural perfection which cannot be surpassed.
Nevertheless, just as one needs to be convinced of relativity through a consistent argument based on unprecedentedly acute observation of, and concentration on, physical phenomena, so it takes a Darwin to explain these things to us as being part of a process which is not in the least bit obvious or self-evident, for it is the unconscious nature of natural selection that really contravenes everyday, commonsensical, teleological thinking. Here we can quote the historian William McNeill (1976:43-44) on the typical human response to the natural world within which natural selection occurs.
“It is a testimony to humanity’s animistic propensities that most textbooks still explain how fallowing allows the earth to restore fertility by having a rest. A moment’s thought will convince anyone that whatever processes a geological weathering and consequential chemical change occur in a single season would make no noticeable difference for the following year’s plant growth.”
McNeill states that, to be sure, in the case of dry farming, soil kept in a bare fallow can store moisture that would otherwise be dispersed into the air by passage of water from the soil through the roots and leafy parts of plants. This means that, in regions where deficient moisture limits crop yields, a year’s fallowing can increase fertility by letting subsoil moisture accumulate. Elsewhere, however, where moisture is not the critical limit, the great advantage of fallowing is that it allows farmers to keep weeds at bay by interrupting their natural life cycle with the plough.
Now let us remind ourselves that Gellner (1974:180) describes the features of pre-scientific paradigms, of the ‘savage mind’, as generating a world which is ‘meaningful’, cosy and human, rather than cold and mechanical. In this regard, Campbell (1991:313) quotes Seneca making an illustrative distinction between the worldviews of the Etruscans and the Romans through the example of their opposing interpretations of lightning. Whereas the Romans believed that lightning occurred when clouds collided, the Etruscans thought that clouds collided only in order that lightning be caused. For Campbell this moment marks the passage from the ancient to the modern world.
It is important too to note that Flew et al (1984:226-27) describe mechanism as a scientific philosophy, developed by Descartes, which entailed the elimination of abstract qualities in favour of the quantifiable in research and which also meant doing away with teleology (Aristotelian ‘final causes’ or purposes) in explanation. Darwin’s mutability of species eliminates abstract qualities in living things, while he gets rid of teleology by showing that evolution has no goal. The evolution of the characteristics of organisms is a series of unconscious, supra-individual adaptations to the pressure of fluid circumstances.
For example, an attribute such as phototropism in plants is to be explained with reference to the molecular structure of the leaf, which enables it to respond by moving in the direction of the sunlight. By extension, the development of such an attribute is to be explained by natural selection at the level of the same structure. It is one of many characteristics developed through generations and transmitted (genetically, though Darwin knew nothing about genetics) in the course of the struggle for existence.
Furthermore, Darwin clearly understood the type of mental leap required to digest his frame of reference. The mind cannot, he wrote, possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of a hundred million years and it cannot add up and perceive the full effects of many slight variations, accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations (1985:453). Thus, if one does not actually concentrate on the exposition of the theory and instead hears or reads of it at nth hand – or even watches David Attenborough’s habit of referring to peculiar plant adaptations as examples of ‘cleverness’ – one is almost led to assume that it means something like its Lamarckian opposite, and that a plant ‘deliberately’ turns its leaves in order to catch the sunlight.
More generally, what other method does Darwin use to get his message across? As already implied, in the way he writes about the natural world, inescapably yet conveniently employing certain animals to illustrate his insights, the evidence points to a straightforward answer. Let us return to the example of the slave-making ants and Darwin’s description of one of his experiments.
“I then dug up a small parcel of the pupae… and put them down… near the place of combat; they were eagerly seized, and carried off by the tyrants, who perhaps fancied that, after all, they had been victorious in their late combat.” (1985:245-46)
This short passage gives us a flavour of the detail of Darwin’s style, which is perhaps best described as that of a fabulist, like Smith and Plato. This is true not only of The Origin of Species of 1859 but also notably of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals of 1872. Let us take the dog, for instance. Whereas using animals as representations – either the familiar or the monstrous (e.g. the giraffe!) – draws from an timeless metaphorical well, in this instance dogs serve as particularly suitable examples for the exposition of what he has to say. See how the following example is explicit in tone, being even reminiscent of a typical cartoon animation scenario.
“All wolves, foxes, jackals, and species of the cat genus, when kept tame, are most eager to attack poultry, sheep and pigs; and this tendency has been found incurable in dogs which have been brought home as puppies from countries… where the savages do not keep those domestic animals. How rarely, on the other hand, do our civilised dogs… require to be taught not to attack poultry, sheep and pigs! No doubt they occasionally do… attack, and are then beaten; and if not cured, they are destroyed; so that habit, with some degree of selection, has probably concurred in civilising by inheritance our dogs.” (1985:240-41)
It needs to be pointed out, though, that habit in this case is being taken to refer to the human practice of beating errant canines so as to influence the behaviour of individual creatures, without prejudice to their genetic inheritance. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, what Ridley (1994:207) calls “the pleasantly anecdotal style” continues, aided in this instance by numerous drawings and graphic illustrations. Take this example of the style.
“I will give one other instance of antithesis in expression. I formerly possessed a large dog, who, like every other dog, was much pleased to go out walking. He showed his pleasure by trotting gravely before me with high steps, head much raised, moderately erected ears, and tail carried aloft but not stiffly. Not far from my house a path branches off to the right, leading to the hot-house, which I used often to visit for a few moments, to look at my experimental plants. This was always a source of great disappointment to the dog, as he did not know whether I should continue my walk; and the instantaneous and complete change of expression which came over him, as soon as my body swerved in the least towards the path (and I sometimes tried this as an experiment) was laughable. His look of dejection was known to every member of the family, and was called his hot-house face.” (1994:221)
Fables have traditionally illustrated pieces of popular wisdom or morality through animal protagonists but, as we know, natural selection portrays the struggle for existence as amoral, and in this case it is not popular wisdom but his own that Darwin illustrates, sometimes quite proverbially, as in the following example from p.84 of his notebook ‘M’ (see Sulloway 1980:241). He who understands baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke. Was this the moment when science caught up with the metaphysics of Xenophanes of Colophon who in the sixth century BC said that if cattle and horses had hands, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses and cattle would draw them like cattle? In other words, the dumb animals would draw cartoons.
We have argued that Darwin is widely known, often for the wrong reasons in terms of scientific fact, because he was a mythic hero who, largely through the medium of de facto fables, produced the widespread conviction that he understood how the earth happens to be full of ‘gods’. This understanding has itself become mythical, distorted by transient social values and, more profoundly, because it goes against common sense to those not exposed directly to the proof of the ‘miraculous’ powers of observation and argument he possessed.
(11) Karl Marx
“It is simply not true that Marx ever described the historical process as a movement of thesis, antithesis and synthesis; or that his ideas were refuted by the Russian Revolution in that, according to him, a revolution could only come about in the most advanced industrial countries; or that he believed the standard of living of the working class would inevitably decline” (McLellan 1975:7).
If we want to picture Marx as he commonly depicted in accounts of the history of thought, we can refer to an image in Plato’s Sophist (1993:37) which describes the perennial conflict between two types of thinker: the battle of gods and giants. The giants drag down to earth everything from heaven and the unseen, grasping the rocks and trees in their hands, for they grip all such things and maintain that only that which can be touched exists. The gods who battle against them defend themselves very carefully from somewhere above, contending that true existence consists in certain incorporeal Forms, which are objects of the mind. According to Flew et al (1984:38), Plato himself is the first forefather of the gods while Leucippus, Democritus, Hobbes and Marx fight in the front line for the giants.
The fact that ideas cannot seriously be appraised without reference to their economic context did not always seem obvious, especially in a world where the eighteenth century saw the stirrings of economic growth as a powerful new phenomenon (Bronk 1998:89). Before then such expansion was generally so small as to be practically non-existent. Such a static material state of affairs provides the basis for essentialism of thought in general, so the ‘natural order’ can seem one absolutely free of context, so to speak.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, though, to see history with such blinkers made one ripe for exposure as an anachronism, which perhaps explains the rhetorical tone employed by Marx in the passage from The Communist Manifesto, where he asks if it requires deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life (1985:102).
In Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward, the state security official Rusanov lovingly describes his flat to another patient in a neighbouring bed. To convey its comfort he uses the phrase ‘being determines consciousness’, and a footnote from the translators states that “this saying of Karl Marx has become a proverb in communist countries” (1971:402).
Less ironically, A.J.P. Taylor points out in his introduction to the Penguin Manifesto that nearly everyone now accepts the principle that ideas and beliefs grow out of and reflect existing society rather than lead an independent life (1985:40). Indeed, Marx’s arch-critic Popper, in the second volume of The Open Society and its Enemies, writes that in a qualified sense Marx’s “economism” represents a valuable advance in the methods of social science and has suggested many lines of inquiry that have greatly increased our knowledge.
In criticizing John Stuart Mill in this regard, Popper describes psychologism as the theory that sociology must in principle be reduced to psychology, to ‘human nature’. For Popper, to have questioned this is perhaps the greatest achievement of Marx as a sociologist (1966:88). In passing we may illustrate the significance of the emphasis on the economic contingency of what appear to be some of the most basic societal assumptions through a pithy example taken from Marx’s collaborator Engels and his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
“Our jurists… find that progress in legislation is leaving women with no further ground of complaint… This typically legalist method of argument is exactly the same as that which the radical republican bourgeois uses to put the proletarian in his place. The labour contract is to be freely entered into by both partners. But it is considered to have been freely entered into as soon as the law makes both parties equal on paper. The power conferred on the one party by the difference of class position, the pressure thereby brought to bear on the other party – the real economic position of both – that is not the law’s business.” (1986:103).
This is not seen by Marx and Engels as a conspiracy on the part of lawmakers and the judiciary. Popper calls the ‘conspiracy theory of society’ a secularization of a religious superstition (1966:95), in which the average Vulgar Marxist believes that Marxism lays bare the sinister secrets of social life by revealing the hidden motives of greed and lust for material gain which actuate the powers behind the secrets of history (1966:100).
Though Marx does sometimes speak of psychological phenomena such as greed and the profit motive he never uses them in order to explain history. He interprets them as symptoms of the corrupting influence of the social system. Popper elaborates by writing that a Vulgar Marxist Conspiracy Theory has very largely replaced the ingenious and highly original Marxian doctrine. He sees this as a sad intellectual come-down from the level of Capital to that of The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1966:101). Yet, whatever the distortion, how come there is no such phrase as a ‘Vulgar Engels-ist’? On the matter of origination in intellectual history, it is interesting to note, as an aside, what Carew Hunt writes about Engels’ significance.
“‘Engels’, said Marx, ‘is always one step ahead of me.’ And with this went a modesty which led him consistently to underrate his contribution to their joint achievement. (…) Marx, indeed, always recognized his debt to him, and his famous theory was ‘our theory’.” (1963:34)
David McLellan too writes the following on Engels’ significance:
“Engels was the keeper of Marx’s archives and the authoritative exponent of Marx’s ideas – beginning with his editing Marx’s manuscripts for the remaining volumes of Capital. He was a quick and lucid writer, a vulgariser in the best sense possible, and the systematisation and clarity of his works gave them a much wider circulation than any of Marx’s writings. Engels’ contribution was to assimilate Marx’s views more and more to the prevailing positivism and scientism – a process begun with Engels’ speech at Marx’s graveside” (McLellan 1975:73).
We can return to that oration later. The chief problem we are interested in right now, however, lies in the metaphor employed by Marx in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in 1859 and by Engels in his Anti-Dühring of 1877-78 to convey the conception of the relationship between the economic basis of society on the one hand and the broad realm of culture on the other.
The dualistic base-superstructure image is simple to visualise but it is a crude device for grappling with the mechanisms of historical change. McLellan, for one, writes that it has been strongly argued in criticism of Marx that any theory of historical materialism which separates the base from the superstructure is invalid, since the base necessarily involves elements from the superstructure – for example, it is impossible to conceive of any economic organisation of society without some concepts of rules and obligations (1975:41).
Though McLellan (1975:38) writes that “Marx never used the expression ‘historical materialism’ (still less ‘dialectical materialism’)”, the building metaphor offers only a flat, two-dimensional view of historical development. If we take culture to mean a shared, learnt way of life, then the wider cultural context of societies, which includes language, folk memory and the biosphere, may be more fundamental than the perceived ‘contradictions’ in an economic mode of production in that it presents us with a four-dimensional continuum.
The reproduction of the economic surplus from one generation to the next is the material foundation of cultural evolution but the cultural context – biosphere, folk memory, language – is responsible for the creation of the surplus in the first place. Any contradictions are therefore cultural ones. This explains how ‘classes’ and individuals can be observed acting against their own economic interests, say in cases where such action helps preserve a racist superiority complex.
As regards the mythic basis of historical materialism, let us begin by quoting Magee (1973:98-99). He states that “the general notion that history must have a destination, or if not that a plot, or at any rate a meaning, or at least some sort of coherent pattern seems to be widespread”. According to Milan Kundera (1985), the fantasy of the Grand March is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies, but we must leave aside Kundera and kitsch for the moment because in this case we can discern not one but two creation myths, referring to the origins of the universe and humanity respectively.
From the notion of perfect prediction implicit in Newtonian mechanics came the implicit Marxist belief that ultimate revelation will be attained by science. Secondly, Engels’ Origin claimed that primitive communism was the state of human emergence. The latter claim involves a neat bit of circular reasoning with its pre-lapsarian view of history. If the most fundamental form of exploitation is economic, against those of no property, then we know what is ‘wrong’ with history. This reveals to us by contrast the superior morality of the true way, which in turn leads us on to the pre-lapsarian account explaining how and why the possessors of only their own labour power lost out originally, in the course of the birth of the most fundamental form of exploitation.
A quotation from the graveside oration delivered by Engels upon the death of Marx sums up both what is worthwhile and worthless in this view of the world, both with its highlighting of the material contingency of societal values and its nonsense about laws of evolution.
“Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history; he discovered the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, religion, science, art, etc.; and that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which State institutions, the legal conceptions, the art, and even the religious ideas of the people concerned, have been evolved, and in the light of which these things must be explained instead of vice versa as had hitherto been the case.” (Quoted in Carew Hunt 1963:64)
In The Poverty of Historicism, Popper (1994:42-44) distinguishes two kinds of prediction in science – prophecy and engineering – and writes there and elsewhere, as in The Open Society and its Enemies, that Marxism very much neglected the latter in favour of the former, to its own detriment. If we judge the scientific outlook to be characterised by empiricism, mechanism (i.e. impersonal, mechanical explanation) and a particular logical form, we can therefore see that empiricism has been well served by the emphasis on material concerns and by the researches of Marx and Engels into the workings of capitalism. Nevertheless, history, like evolution, has no goal, and to say they work according to ‘laws’ is mere teleology, and the sketchy nature of the predicted steps to revolution and the classless society means that the logical form is at best threadbare.
As for Marxism as it has affected the politics of the real world, we cannot really begin with anyone but Lenin and what Conquest calls his “return to a rather pre-Marxist emphasis on the role of an organised political elite” (1972:11). Faced with the Tsarist autocracy, Lenin in What Is To Be Done expressed his key ideas that the working class, left to its own devices, is able to develop only a trade-union consciousness (1988:98), that the bearers of science come from the bourgeois intelligentsia, exemplified by Marx and Engels (1988:98), and that the smallest possible number of the most homogenous possible groups should lead the struggle (1988:174, 181). This organisational principle, termed democratic centralism, meant that the emancipation of the working class was no longer the task of that class itself. Nevertheless, Marx and Engels had repeatedly used the term “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, and so Lenin ‘only’ planned to make the Party the embodiment of that dictatorship.
In the tenth chapter of the first volume of The Open Society and its Enemies Popper writes about what he calls the ‘strain of civilisation’. There and repeatedly in the second volume he also writes of the yearning for “the lost unity of the tribe”, which should remind us again of Joseph Campbell. For Popper this entails the “shelter of a patriarchal home” (1966:246). In this regard he discusses Toynbee’s remarks in A Study of History whereby the latter asserts a distinctively Jewish inspiration for Marxism. For Toynbee, Marx has put (the “goddess”) Historical Necessity in place of Yahweh and the proletariat in place of Jewry. The Messianic Kingdom becomes the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the salient features of the traditional Jewish apocalypse protrude and it is the pre-Rabbinical Maccabean Judaism that the philosopher-impresario is presenting in modern Western costume.
Popper agrees with most of this as analogy but not as serious analysis, in that Marx’s historical prophecy can be described as a closely knit argument but Capital elaborates only what he calls the ‘first step’ of this argument, the analysis of the fundamental forces of capitalism and their influence upon the relations between the classes. The ‘second step’, which leads to the conclusion that a social revolution is inevitable, and the ‘third step’, which leads to the prediction of the emergence of a classless i.e. socialist, society, are only sketched (1966:136).
Though there is a shared teleology between a belief in Yahweh (‘God’s plan’) and a belief in ‘historical necessity’, the projection of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a stage of transition before the establishment of a communist society means we are not talking about any ‘messianic kingdom’. The proletariat does compose a chosen people but in this case its mission is to make Jews of the entire world, so to speak.
After Lenin took power and the Soviet Union was created Trotsky took it upon himself to write the story from within the Bolshevik fold. Irving Howe calls Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution “the single greatest work of history in the Marxist vein” (1978:138) with a narrative that unfolds as a “great drama of the struggle between classes” (1978:138). Howe uses the term epic in this case because that book follows the curve of traditional epic narrative as a consequence of the magnitude of the task Trotsky set himself.
The formation of a people, a great theme of the epic, becomes the emergence of a new historical epoch and the epic ‘hero’ shifts readily through three appearances – the proletariat, the Bolshevik party and Lenin. Howe describes the History as “an unfolding vindication of Bolshevik myth” (1978:142) in which Marxism serves both as analytical method and underlying political myth, a way of understanding yet also a way of transforming history. At this point let us quote Louis Halle’s interpretation of what Marx really represented.
“Marx was a philosopher only secondarily, and a revolutionary only secondarily. Primarily he was a dramatist, like Aeschylus. He composed his drama of the revolution on the mythic framework of Hegel’s philosophy as Aeschylus had composed the drama of Prometheus on the framework of Greek myth, and he was a revolutionary merely in trying to achieve its production” (1972:57).
As elaboration, Halle suggests that it was surely Marx’s dramatic instinct that prompted him to adopt the simple device by which the Marxism of the philosophical manuscripts became the Marxism of the Manifesto where, in place of the inwardly divided species being, man, he put two characters: the proletarian and the capitalist (1972:59). While accepting this insight as valuable we must take Halle’s Greek analogy even further.
In reference to The Birth of Tragedy of 1872, Campbell states his belief that Nietzsche was the first to recognise the force in the Greek heritage of an interplay of two mythologies: the pre-Homeric Bronze Age heritage of the peasantry, in which release from the yoke of individuality was achieved through group rites inducing rapture; and the Olympian mythology of measure and humanistic self-knowledge that is epitomised in Classical art. The glory of the Greek tragic view, Nietzsche perceived, lay in its recognition of the mutuality of these two orders of spirituality, neither of which alone offers more than a partial experience of human worth (1991:141).
In the chronological succession of the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the Chorus declines in importance from an initial leading role and ends up fading into the background. No one has since made a great success of any attempt to reintroduce the Chorus among the theatrical dramatis personae. We must argue, however, that that which the Chorus represents receives symbolization in other contexts, as in the subject of this essay.
The phenomenon of group rapture referred to by Campbell is evident in Nietzsche’s comments such as “the immediate effect of Dionysiac tragedy is that state and society, the gulf separating man from man, make way for an overwhelming sense of unity that goes back to the very heart of nature” (1993:39) and “the chorus is a living wall against encroaching reality because it… depicts existence more… completely than the man of culture who sees himself as the sole reality” (1993:41).
Now compare the following passage from Marx, described as “almost mystical” by David McLellan (1975:35). It is taken from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and included in his Early Writings, a collection edited by Tom Bottomore.
“Communism is the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for man. It is… the return of man himself as a social i.e. really human, being, a complete and conscious return which assimilates all the wealth of previous development. (…) It is the definitive resolution of the antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man. It is the true solution of the conflict between existence and essence, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species. It is the solution of the riddle of history and knows itself to be this solution.” (1963:155)
Nietzsche goes on to state that the stage and the action were fundamentally and originally conceived only as a vision, that the sole ‘reality’ is the Chorus and that tragedy is originally ‘chorus’ and not ‘drama’ (1993:44). According to this view we must see Greek tragedy as the chorus of Dionysus continuously discharging itself in Apollo’s world of images (1993:43). Thus, for Nietzsche, the drama is the Apolline symbol of the knowledge and effects of Dionysus. What this suggests to us is that Halle’s insight applies only to the dramatic images of the revolution, which are but a screen for the group rapture the revolution is presumably meant to induce, following its overthrow of the Great Conspiracy.
If this at first sight seems rather esoteric let us link it to the recent past through two related examples, one fictional and one documentary. Orwell tells us in Nineteen Eighty-Four that in Oceania the prevailing philosophy is called Ingsoc, in Eurasia it is called Neo-Bolshevism, and in Eastasia it is called by a Chinese name usually translated as Death-Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self (1954:158-59). As Campbell (1991) repeatedly tells us, the individual simply does not count in the unchanging universe of the Eastern mythologies which, he asserts, have remained stuck in the Bronze Age. However, a parallel can be seen in The Gulag Archipelago where Solzhenitsyn writes perceptively about the show trials of leading Bolsheviks that took place in 1937-38.
“And what did Bukharin fear most in those months before his arrest? It is reliably known that above all he feared expulsion from the Party! Being deprived of the Party! Being left alive but outside the Party! And Dear Koba had played magnificently on this trait of his (as he had with them all) from the very moment he had himself become the Party. Bukharin (like all the rest of them) did not have his own individual point of view.” (1974:414)
We are now in a position to qualify the importance of Gellner’s criticism that Marxism is curiously ill-equipped to offer any kind of pastoral care or solace for individual anguish, given that it can hardly be suggested that death or broken hearts will be abolished under communism (1985:38). The anguish of the individual is part of the yoke of individuality which Marxism has implicitly promised to remove, and where individuals do not count their deaths or broken hearts do not matter. Let us employ a final quote from Nietzsche at this point.
“The metaphysical consolation… that whatever superficial changes may occur, life is at bottom indestructibly powerful and joyful, is given concrete form as a satyr chorus… living ineradicably behind all civilisation, as it were, remaining the same forever, regardless of the changing generations and the path of history.” (1993:39)
Lucien Goldmann, writing in The Hidden God, wishes to underline the fact that although Marxist thought implies a faith in the future, it naturally denies any idea of the supernatural or of revelation. It is, certainly, a religion, he says, but a religion with no God, a religion of man and of humanity. In the epistemology which he finds in common between the Theses on Feuerbach and Augustinianism, it is man’s faith in eternity or in the future of humanity which decides the existence, not of truth, but of the possibility of knowledge (1964:172n). Even more apposite is Goldmann’s comment on Marxism that the transcendent element present in this faith is not supernatural and does not take us outside or beyond history; it merely takes us beyond the individual (1964:90).
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera (1985:241-50) claims that, behind all European faiths, lies the first chapter of Genesis, with its affirmation of the goodness of human existence, which he terms “categorical agreement with being”. The aesthetic ideal of this agreement he calls kitsch and it “excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence” (e.g. filth, pain and death). For Kundera, kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians, parties and movements and its communist version is epitomized by Stalinist May Day parades. Totalitarian kitsch means that everything which infringes on it (individualism, doubt, irony etc.) must be banished. Thus the gulag is a septic tank used to dispose of refuse. The typical secrecy of the gulag adds force to Kundera’s metaphor that kitsch is “a folding screen set up to curtain off death”.
The theory of political economy devised by Karl Marx, with Friedrich Engels, underwent a metamorphosis in the real world that enabled it to promise group rapture like an ancient mythology and set itself up as a ‘scientific’ technique to produce it. In acknowledging the mythic transformation, or accentuation, we then have to take account also of the likes of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky.
The original theory may have only heavily leant itself to utopianism by association but it has proved easy to make the leap to internalize the ‘scientifically’ predicted revolution as a rite arising out of Apolline form, order and reason and one which will institute the abolition of classes and the group rapture to follow the end of individualism. Thus the Bronze Age heritage reappeared as Marx became the mask of Dionysus in our time, presenting the proletariat as the satyr chorus. Given that Marx is often called ‘the father of modern sociology’ but also ‘the last of the prophets’, Carew Hunt writes that his predictions regarding the ‘higher stage of socialism’ are apocalyptic rather than analytic (1963:106). Perhaps Keynes, in his essay “Newton the Man” (1966), would have been closer to the truth had he called Marx, rather than Newton, the last of the Sumerians.
Some words from Carl Jung suggest that, despite the evidence of the twentieth century, the heyday of mythological collectivism is past. He writes that the deification of Jesus, like that of Buddha, was not surprising, for it afforded a striking example of the enormous valuation that humanity places upon these hero figures and hence upon the ideal of personality. Though it seemed, he continues, as if the blind and destructive dominance of meaningless collective forces would thrust the ideal of personality into the background, yet this was only a passing revolt against the dead weight of history. Once the revolutionary, unhistorical, and therefore uneducated inclinations of the rising generation had had their fill of tearing down tradition, he claimed, new heroes would be sought and found. Even the Bolsheviks had embalmed Lenin and made a saviour of Karl Marx. Jung saw the ideal of personality as one of the ineradicable needs of the human soul, and, the more unsuitable it was, the more fanatically it was defended (1983:205).
(12) Sigmund Freud
“Sigmund Freud, by the power of his writings and by the breadth and audacity of his speculations, revolutionised the thought, the lives and the imagination of an age. He contradicted, and in some cases he reversed, the prevailing opinions, of the learned as well as of common people, on many of the issues of human existence and culture. He led people to think… in ways that would have seemed to earlier generations at once scandalous and silly.” (Wollheim 1971:9)
On a lighter note, we should first acknowledge what is probably the simplest and most widespread misconception of all concerning Freud but which also perhaps sums up by exaggeration his legacy of insights. Thus, according to Wollheim (1971:15), Freud never believed that the whole of man’s instinctual endowment was sexual. Concerning this case study, though, the distortions surrounding the political and scientific connotations of Freud’s life and work have already been dealt with comprehensively, especially by Sulloway (1980). Therefore such an area will not be the chief focus of our exploration. Instead we can concentrate more on the extent to which the symbolic representation of existential facts is revealed in psychoanalytic theory and legend.
Mention of such representation leads us initially to making a distinction of the utmost importance. Storr (1973:112-13) claims that Jung understood the difference between a “sign” and a symbol in a way Freud did not insofar as Freud’s view of symbols as disguises was shallow in comparison with Jung’s opinion that true symbols always possess overtones and resist sharp intellectual definition. For example, Wollheim points to “a topic mentioned only briefly in the original text of the Interpretation of Dreams but which figures increasingly in later editions” and which, he says, is widely assumed to be central to Freud’s theory of dreams.
“I refer to the symbolism, according to which there are certain invariants in dream-representations so that certain basic thoughts or preoccupations find a regular form of expression: for instance, the parents are represented by kings and queens, the penis by sticks, tree-trunks, umbrellas, nail files or long, sharp weapons, the womb by boxes, cupboards, ovens or hollow objects like ships” (Wollheim 1971:72).
Wollheim states that Freud claimed that this suggested a capacity of the mind more general than the phenomenon of dreaming. Sulloway (1980:337) tells us that, in the sense of Freud’s usage, there are 257 symbols mentioned in the latter’s writings. Freud in his own Introductory Lectures (1991:235) states that each individual recapitulates in abbreviated form the entire development of the human race and that “symbolic connections may… be regarded as a phylogenetic heritage”. Therefore we should be rightly sceptical about the value of a definition founded on a belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Disguises are socio-cultural in origin and only remain plausible when interpreted as such.
Here is Wollheim again, on a dream discussed by Freud in three different places in his work. He states that is to be observed that the link whereby a visit to the theatre can symbolize marriage presupposes that marriage is seen in a happy light, for not merely can young wives go to the theatre and see all the plays respectability had hitherto prohibited but marriage initiates them into an activity which hitherto had been their secret desire to gaze on: sexual intercourse. According to Wollheim we can see here how a universal symbolism gains its authority from widespread ways of thinking and feeling (1971:78-79).
This is Victorian and it is ridiculous, at least insofar as they grasp it. In contrast, the Jungian symbol is based on the concept of the archetype (1990a:232, 1990b:190), which translates as an expectation that is genetically a priori to the experience of all human beings. It is this conception which seems more useful for the analysis of the social representation of such existential facts as birth, maturation and death. Jung claimed to have isolated such pre-dispositions by his technique of comparing myths from differing cultures. If he was right then these afford us some comparative foundations for the criticism of ideologies and empirical social realities and, more specifically, for the elucidation of how myth and metaphor operate in our intellectual heritage.
Sulloway (1980:445-95) has dealt in detail with the Freudian hero myth. He writes that “the expedient denial and refashioning of history has been an indispensable part of the psychoanalytic revolution” (1980:445) and that the denial process has tended to conceal the biological roots of psychoanalysis while creating a myth of the hero around Freud himself. Two main features of this myth are an emphasis on Freud’s intellectual isolation during the crucial years of discovery, which exaggerates the hostile reception given to his theories, and a depiction of Freud as possessing absolute originality.
Yet the fact remains that Freud’s transformation of the scope and depth of psychology made him undoubtedly a genuine intellectual hero and, furthermore, his career path corresponded in many ways to the typical mythic pattern. The ‘chance’ circumstance which sets the hero on the road is exemplified by his encounter with the Anna O. case through Josef Breuer; the ‘blunder’ of the seduction theory of 1895 serves to represent the temporary refusal of the call to action; Wilhelm Fliess personifies the ‘secret helper’; Freud’s self-analysis stands for the dangerous journey; and the hostile reception consists of the largely negative response originally accorded to his theories by mainstream medicine.
Indeed, the analogy of the heroic journey was not lost on Freud himself and his depiction of the interpretation of dreams as the “royal road” (1976:769) to the discovery of the workings of the unconscious mind reflects this. We shall soon return in more detail to this aspect of Freud’s awareness and the significance of this particular image in the same context.
With respect to the refashioning of psychoanalytic history, another vital consideration, at least for the sociology of knowledge, must be its success in America. Writing about the American receptivity to psychoanalysis, Sulloway asserts that Freud’s theories have been consistently reinterpreted in a more purely environmentalist light than Freud ever intended (1980:443). Perhaps such a society lacking in formal stratification encourages an optimistic mind-set that sees humanity as being amenable to change but, given our preoccupation with the international reception of Freudian ideas, we must pass over the role of America in this sphere.
We must also do no more than acknowledge the significance of the internal organization of the movement about which not only the opponents but also the adherents were struck by the similarities with a religious sect (Sulloway 1980:480-81). According to Gellner (1985:215), Freud ran his “scientific” association in a manner which bore a fair resemblance to the administration of the Mafia or of a Leninist party. Nonetheless, such considerations properly explain neither the international pervasiveness of psychoanalytic ideas nor the ‘assimilation’ of particular elements of these before others. Let us therefore take a closer look at some of the more pervasive elements of Freudianism.
With its central generalisation that dreams represent the (disguised) fulfilment of (repressed) wishes, The Interpretation of Dreams is Freud’s most important book. Of the elements therein, the most time-honoured is his employment of the story of Oedipus (1976:362-66), which he uses to elucidate part of a chapter on “typical” dreams – in this instance dreams of the deaths of loved ones. Freud writes of the Greek legend “confirming” his discovery of the nature of the child’s feelings of love and hatred toward its parents. Furthermore, it is hardly accidental that Freud depicts the dreamer as an “exile” from childhood and its forbidden wishes (1976:346). As we have mentioned already, he also asserts that the interpretation of dreams is the “royal road” to knowledge of the activities of the unconscious.
More than any other figure in our survey, Freud seems to have been acutely conscious of a heroes’ gallery and he was careful to insinuate himself into its company. This is typified by a claim made in his 1917 essay “A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis”, which can be found in the seventeenth volume of the Standard Edition of the collected works (pp. 136-44) (see Sulloway 1980). There he wrote that he formed a trinity with Copernicus and Darwin, having followed their cosmological and biological revolutions by showing that the ego is not master in its own house.
Even more significant is the following distinction: Freud presents his ideas with overtly symbolic (and, indeed, traditionally aesthetic) material and does not primarily dissect such material with his ideas. In other words, the symbolization of psychoanalysis for general assimilation leans on material that is itself heavily symbolic, exemplified by the story of Oedipus, which is part of the Western aesthetic canon, thanks to Sophocles. Furthermore, Freud reworks the pre-existing material so much that he practically reinvents it, though his is hardly the last word on the matter.
Writing in Newsweek on 21st December, 1981, David Gelman comments on German sociologist Marianne Krüll’s analysis of Freud’s handling of the Oedipus story in the light of Freud’s own family history. In her view, it was a creative compromise of the kind sometimes used by children with parental conflicts but, instead of seeking the real source of hostility toward his father, Freud hit upon the Oedipus myth and made it a parable of all human motivation – ultimately, one of the most pervasive parables of modern intellectual life.
Even so, she says, Freud may have stood Oedipus on his ear. Krüll and others argue that a “Laius complex” would have been more to the point. It was Laius, the father, who – because of a prophecy that he would one day be murdered by his son – left the infant Oedipus on a mountaintop to die. Freud chose to believe that the “gripping power” of Sophocles’ drama lay in the tragic destiny of the son who, not knowing his real parentage, unwittingly murders his father and marries his mother. According to Gelman, Krüll says it was only Freud’s bias that prevented him from recognizing the primal guilt of Laius.
Nevertheless, there remain convincing reasons behind Freud’s interpretation and one of these ironically comes not from The Interpretation of Dreams but from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.
“The strange fact that the [Oedipus] legend finds nothing objectionable in Queen Jocasta’s age seemed to me to fit in well with the conclusion that in being in love with one’s mother one is never concerned with her as she is in the present but with her youthful mnemic image carried over from childhood.” (1975:232-33)
If Freud holds a trump card in Jocasta’s age then, as we have seen, the opposition can respond with the fact of the barbarism of the exposure of the infant in response to a superstitious fear. In other words, the infant is at the mercy of this madness.
Let us compare now what Lévi-Strauss concludes about the story of Oedipus but first we should note what Leach (1970:65) says by way of explanation. Leach writes that the formal religious theory of the Greeks was that man was autochthonous, in that the first man was half a serpent that grew from the earth like plants. This is what Lévi-Strauss says in his Structural Anthropology about such a chicken-and-egg problem.
“The myth has to do with the inability, for a culture which holds the belief that mankind is autochthonous… to find a satisfactory transition between this theory and the knowledge that man is born from the union of man and woman. Although the problem obviously cannot be solved, the Oedipus myth provides a kind of logical tool which relates the original problem – born from one or born from two? – to the derivative problem: born from different or born from the same? By a correlation of this type, the overrating of blood relations is to the underrating of blood relations as the attempt to escape autochthony is to the impossibility to succeed in it. Although experience contradicts theory, social life validates cosmology by its similarity of structure. Hence cosmology is true.” (1972:216)
With this confusion of the explanatory and expository functions of myth it is as if, for Lévi-Strauss, stories about gods symbolize belief in gods, which is absurdly idealist. It is an error similar to Freud’s Lamarckian assumptions outlined earlier. Belief in gods is a culture-specific example of a metaphysical belief, while dreaming of kings and queens may be a culture-specific representation of archetypal parent-child relations.
At much the same period as Freud was working on the subject of dreams, we find him investigating another phenomenon, no less despised than dreams, which also reveals the unruly influence of wish or impulse in the normal mind (Wollheim 1971:79). Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life deals mainly with the type of error known technically in English as the parapraxis but which has become the everyday cliché of “the Freudian slip”.
Our immediate concern lies not with the many vivid examples of slips of the tongue and pen, and of forgetting and bungling. Instead we are very interested in a comment such as Freud’s on the losing of objects of value i.e. that it may be the offering of a sacrifice to the obscure powers of destiny to which homage is still paid among us today (1975:265). Later he gives us the following related generalisation that superstition is in large part the expectation of trouble (1975:323). The explicitly partial nature of this equation shows us again that unfounded belief, seen here in this study to be characterised in abstract by teleological, anti-empirical and inconsistent ‘principles’, can often coincide with and obscure the existentially-based expectation of confrontation (trouble) but can also at the same time allow the latter to find autonomous expression in a Greek myth.
In this light, in the arena of parent-child relationships, Oedipus is trouble. Herein may lie the key, the broad symbolic foundation of the myth. Thus Oedipus too is literally a sacrifice to the obscure powers of destiny; symbolically a lost object of value. A Greek tragedy reflects that life is a tragedy. As Leach writes:
“If Society is to go on, daughters must be disloyal to their parents and sons must destroy (replace) their fathers. Here then is the irresolvable unwelcome contradiction, the necessary fact that we hide from consciousness because its implications run directly counter to the fundamentals of human morality. There are no heroes in these stories; they are simply epics of unavoidable human disaster” (1970:80).
In general, what can be learnt about the world from such irrationality as displayed in the story of Oedipus as handed down to us? On one level, Freud in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life shows us that many evident absurdities in human interaction are almost miraculously capable of rational explanation but moreover his work also carries the implication that the surreal, dreamlike aspects of existence evoked by parapraxes and superstitions are part of the ‘natural’ order of human affairs and therefore paradoxically comprehensible and in some way ‘predictable’. Thus Freud too, it could be argued, is one of the few who understands how the earth happens to be full of ‘gods’.
To elaborate on the nature of superstition, Reber (1985) defines it as any belief held in the absence of what an unbeliever would consider adequate evidence for it. For this source, many superstitions are seen to have religious origins while others “exist uncritically as unexamined beliefs”.
“Some authorities treat superstitions as descendants of primitive attempts to understand the inexplicable, to make sense out of a complex and confusing world; others, notably behaviourists, see them as natural consequences of a failure to recognize the existence (or lack of existence) of cause-and-effect relationships between one’s own behaviour and subsequent occurrences in the world about us.” (Reber 1985:747)
According to the second category, superstitious behaviour is seen as that which results from adventitious reinforcements which, in reality, are not specifically co-ordinated with it. The point of any demonstration, say one involving the feeding of an animal on an irregular schedule, is to show that the notion of a contingency between response and reinforcement is in the mind of the beholder and that a true assessment of cause and effect is not necessary for highly developed behaviour (1985:747).
Elsewhere in the same lexicon Reber defines induction as a process whereby “general principles are inferred from specific cases” (1985:352) but we can see that to turn this process on its head is to arrive at superstition as he has defined it. For example, the specific cases of the operating of the feeding mechanism are ‘inferred’ from the general principle of wing-raising on the part of a pigeon in a Skinner box, following an initial coincidence of the two events.
As Jonathan Miller puts it, “scientific curiosity is not a native human talent” but has to be “shaped and directed by social situations” (1982:49). Therefore it is not socially universal, or at least it is not absolutely necessary for social existence in a complex and confusing world – a scenario which can be represented by a great analogy from Kafka in The Trial.
“You must remember that in these Courts things are always coming up for discussion that are simply beyond reason, people are too tired and distracted to think and so they take refuge in superstition.” (1986:192-93)
The existential permanence of human struggle, even against the properties of the material world, surely holds the key to the underlying permanence of superstition. As a corollary, this also suggests that economic room for observation is a prerequisite of the scientific mindset but, just as scientific curiosity is not ‘natural’, so also the beginning of knowledge is an act of faith, derived from a point of view.
The relative rationality of each point of view is then determined by its internal consistency, on the one hand, and the breadth of its outlook on the other. Thus it could be argued that superstitions associated with particular religions represent a type of lack of recognition of cause-and-effect that derives from cultural immanence and that we are all superstitious to some extent.
In a hostile and rather bombastic critique of the psychoanalytic movement written by Ernest Gellner, we see a quote from Hayek’s Three Sources of Human Values inserted approvingly. Hayek believed men will look back on our age as an age of superstition, chiefly connected with the names of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud (Gellner 1985:222). Our interest in superstition in the Freudian context has surely little or nothing to do with Hayek’s or Gellner’s, however. This is despite the heavy criticisms that can be made in this case of Freud’s Lamarckian biological (i.e. teleological) assumptions, or his creation of a closed system of thought that judged its evidence, and its critics, by its own (unfalsifiable) criteria and no others, and thus made itself unfalsifiable.
We have argued that superstition is an existential fact, as is the fact that it has symbolic consequences. In Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Jung (1990:190) writes that the “innate images” acquire consciousness through the encounter with empirical facts and we can see that, whatever the culture, these facts are bounded by an eternal tension between freedom and necessity, within limited knowledge. The consequences are exemplified by the social symbolisation of a complex and confusing world through elements of Freudian theory.
Thus the resonance of the tragic version of the story of Oedipus and of the notion of the Freudian slip both overlie a type of recognition of the world which in an everyday, commonplace sense results in superstitious behaviour but which is also amenable to an heroic, shamanic figure who, because of his particular field of interest, doubles up as a modern caster-out of spirits. The image projected by this remarkable man is also of one who was very keen to have our picture of him taken in the right company.
(13) Albert Einstein
Given our prior classification of truth, as a practical concept, into the three abstract aspects of sensation (experimental), abstraction (logical) and meaning (metaphysical), we shall observe in the course of this essay how Einstein’s discoveries and the philosophical outlook within which they emerged provide ample justification for such a model. Moreover, our interest in the significance of myth and metaphor in the Western intellectual heritage is well served by the devotion of a case study to this figure. The name Einstein became a byword for intellectual wizardry – he was probably the twentieth century embodiment – at least in part because of the difficulty even his colleagues had in fitting him into what Bernstein calls the normal spectrum of scientific achievement (1973:51). As we shall see, the strangeness of his discoveries made him almost a literal wizard as well as a metaphorical one, at least in comparison with the cognitive and deductive powers of the typical human individual.
The most popular catchphrase associated with Einstein is the mass-energy equation E = mc2 which he discovered in 1905 and which ‘inspired’ two hit pop records in Britain in the 1980s alone. Indeed, one prompt for this essay was the hypothetical situation imagined whereby if one asked a person in the street the formula for something more mathematically ‘practical’ like the circumference of a circle they would probably be unable to answer correctly, yet the chances would be greater that they could recite the mass-energy equation, a formula they did not understand and perhaps could not even write down.
For the purpose of elucidation let us compare this equation with what is perhaps the most famous quotation in philosophy. Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum or I think, therefore I am sounds pretty much equally succinct, yet the convoluted original justification for this dictum is, practically speaking, as meaningless to the general public as the technical content of Einstein’s equation.
This is despite even the fact that the physicist is commonly associated with the invention of the atomic bomb – an association reinforced by literary and cinematic products too numerous to mention. The Cartesian formula clearly resonates beyond the discipline of philosophy, even through parody, as in when the character Querry on the opening page of Graham Greene’s novel A Burnt-Out Case writes in his diary on a Congo riverboat, I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive.
Given the irrelevance of technical philosophy in such a case, our approach would look instead for a symbolic meaning in the Cartesian human self-definition and self-assertion in terms of consciousness, upon which the general intellectual belief in the distinctiveness of our existence seems largely to depend.
In an essay entitled “Einstein’s Brain”, which appears in his book Mythologies, Roland Barthes has the following to say on the mass-energy equation. For Barthes, the world blissfully regained, through the mythology of Einstein, the image of knowledge reduced to a formula. Paradoxically, he observes, the more the genius of the man was materialised under the guise of his brain, the more the product of his inventiveness came to acquire a magical dimension, and gave a new incarnation to the old esoteric image of a science entirely contained in a few letters (1993:69). Barthes then continues in the same vein.
“The historic equation E = mc2, by its unexpected simplicity, almost embodies the pure idea of the key, bare, linear, made of one metal, opening with a… magical ease a door which had resisted the desperate efforts of centuries. Popular imagery faithfully expresses this: photographs of Einstein show him standing next to a blackboard covered with mathematical signs of obvious complexity; but cartoons of Einstein (the sign that he has become a legend) show him chalk still in hand, and having just written on an empty blackboard, as if without preparation, the magic formula of the world.” (1993:69)
Before we continue we must note an important distinction relating to the perceived wizardry of the possessors of arcane knowledge. In logic, or pure mathematics, a ‘paradox’ is essentially equivalent to an inconsistency. It means that a given proposition does not follow from a series of axioms, which usually means that one has made a mistake in the process of logical deduction. It sometimes means that a conclusion one feels ought to follow does not follow.
On the other hand it is difficult to see what can be meant by a paradox in experimental physics. If the result is correct it is not a paradox but a fact but some facts seem to contradict one’s intuitive sense of what the world should be like. Hence when people say relativity is paradoxical they usually mean it predicts things unlike what they think the world, or nature, should be. On the matter of they way people generally think the world should be, we can see that, according to Einstein, their outlook is characterized a priori by a lack of reflection; an uncritical, childlike acceptance of an immersion in their surroundings. To him it was as if such surroundings were generally invisible to curiosity about their origins. Bernstein quotes Einstein on the latter’s contrasting reaction as a child, when shown a compass by his father.
“Something deeply hidden had to be behind things. What man sees before him causes no reaction of this kind; he is not surprised over the falling of bodies, concerning wind and rain, nor concerning the moon or about the fact that the moon does not fall down, nor concerning the differences between living and non-living matter.” (Bernstein 1973:22)
Though Miller (1982:49) states that scientific curiosity is not a native human talent but has to be shaped and directed by social situations, there is more to the problem of discovery, of origination, than can be offered by the sociology of knowledge. It can be seen in this case where the individual paid a truly extraordinary amount of attention to the physical world around him.
Furthermore, the wilderness metaphor readily available from Einstein’s life also conforms to the pattern of the necessary isolation of the originator. During his years in the patent office he worked under conditions a contemporary physicist would find all but impossible. He had contact neither with professional physicists nor with the books and journals that he needed for his work. He had no guidance from senior colleagues and no encouragement either. As Bernstein says, in physics he had to be self-reliant. There was no one else to rely on (1973:71).
There later arose in the world of physics a mythic belief that Einstein’s inspiration for his innovations came from the celebrated Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, which led to the abandonment of the concept of the ether. This is now generally accepted not to have been the case but it may have been that the ascribing of the point of origination to that experiment was a mythic necessity in order to make standard (‘common’) sense of Einstein’s leap(s).
Einstein himself testifies that the special theory of relativity of 1905 “crystallized out from the Maxwell-Lorentz theory of electromagnetic phenomena” (1996:49) and Bernstein asks us to envisage the point of no return Einstein had to cross, scientifically. The real problem is how to reconcile Newtonian mechanics, which allows an observer to be accelerated to the speed of light, with the relativity principle for electromagnetic theory, which cannot allow an observer to travel at the speed of light. The genius of Einstein was in recognizing that these two theories cannot be reconciled and that it is Newtonian mechanics which is wrong (1973:53).
The very unusual cognitive engagement with the world displayed by Einstein is also reflected in Bernstein’s depiction of a visionary sense in our subject. The early Einstein papers seem, he writes, to be rooted in a sort of clairvoyant view of the meaning of physical phenomena and there is an overriding sense of being close to them even when they are being described in new and apparently revolutionary terms (1973:105). Furthermore, we are told too of the “strikingly non-mathematical character” of these papers, which are full of ideas “expressed verbally”, and that what stands out is the role of “visual imagery” (1973:139).
The special theory is ‘special’ because it only deals with the uniform motion of constant velocity in a straight line. In the general theory of 1915 the essence of Einstein’s new view is that there is a hitherto unexpected link between the geometry of space-time and gravitation. This discovery has perhaps since been proverbially assimilated: the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line. This contradicts Euclid, who, in this regard, had already become proverbial in relation to boxing.
With this leap the connection with the physical phenomena is far removed and Einstein is guided not by experiments but by his epistemological principles. In fact, writes Bernstein, in some bizarre sense his ‘method’ has more in common with the philosophical attitudes of Plato, with the Platonic emphasis on perfect shapes and forms, than with any physicist one can think of since and including Newton (1973:105).
We can look upon this as Einstein’s reintroduction of the supernatural in the form of the supernormal. It is analogous to Plato’s unseen, eternal world but, here, such a world is one of interdependent masses and velocities of which our world is but a pale reflection made up of ‘space’ and ‘time’. The earth really is full of ‘gods’, like Thales said, and our everyday notions of space and time derive from our collective earthly experience of a world of material objects. The first aspect of practical truth, which is sensory or experimental, has to be framed in this context.
Popper writes that it was one of the greatest achievements of our time when Einstein showed that, in the light of experience, we may question and revise our presuppositions regarding even space and time, ideas which had been held to be necessary presuppositions of all science, and to belong to its ‘categorical apparatus’ (1966:220). In our ordinary experience we are conscious of an apparently irreversible flow of events divided into past, present and future events. The fact that this set of impressions is shared by the rest of humanity has led to the quantification or invention of time (Bernstein 1973:54).
According to this view the first important observation of Einstein’s first 1905 paper on relativity is that every statement about the ‘objective’ time of an event is really a statement about the simultaneous occurrence of two events (1973:55) A simple example is that of the coincidence of the start of a television broadcast with the arrival of the hands at a particular clock reading. The concept of simultaneity itself requires what is known as a procedural definition, given that the light illuminating both events has a finite speed, but this fact is not particularly relevant to the present exposition. Now let us refer to Einstein in 1915. The guiding philosophical principle that underlies the general theory of relativity is his conviction of the meaningless of absolute, empty space as a physical entity. As he sometimes put it, ‘Space is not a thing’. Space and time are only given meaning in terms of metre sticks and clocks. Let us allow Einstein himself to elaborate here.
“The idea of space… is suggested by certain primitive experiences. Suppose that a box has been constructed. Objects can be arranged… inside… so that it becomes full. The possibility of such arrangements is a property of the material object “box”, something that is given with the box, the “space enclosed” by the box. This is something… thought quite… independent of whether or not… there are any objects at all in the box. When there are no objects in the box, its space appears to be empty.” (1996:137)
He goes on to elaborate on the significance of our experience of a world of material objects for our everyday categories of apprehension.
“We have linked up the concept of space with experiences using boxes and the arrangement of material objects in them. Thus this formation of concepts already presupposes the concept of material objects (e.g. “boxes”). In the same way persons, who had to be introduced for the formation of an objective concept of time, also play the role of material objects in this connection. It appears to me, therefore, that the formation of the concept of the material object must precede our concepts of space and time.” (1996:141)
The view that the second practical aspect of truth is abstraction receives ample clarification from the next passage, as Einstein differentiates it from the sensation of material objects through the example of Euclid.
“We cannot ask whether it is true that only one straight line goes through two points. We can only say that Euclidean geometry deals with things called “straight lines” (…) The concept “true” does not tally with… pure geometry, because by the word “true” we are eventually in the habit of designating… correspondence with a “real” object; geometry, however, is not concerned with the relation of the ideas involved in it to objects of experience, but only with the logical connection of these ideas among themselves. It is not difficult to understand why, in spite of this, we feel constrained to call the propositions of geometry “true”. Geometrical ideas correspond to more or less exact objects in nature, and these last are undoubtedly the exclusive cause of the genesis of those ideas.” (1996:2)
Concerning the ‘reality’ of these “exact objects in nature”, quantum mechanics tells us that the masses and velocities linked in Einstein’s unseen world are fundamentally indeterminate to the extent of offering only the chance of probabilistic prediction about their behaviour. This is a system of mechanics used to explain the behaviour of atoms, molecules and elementary particles. It was born in 1900 when Max Planck suggested that energy must be radiated in discrete units or quanta. Of all the ideas considered up to now it is, according to Bernstein, the only one to go radically beyond the bounds of classical physics. This may, he writes, seem strange after one has been exposed to the somewhat startling conclusions of the relativity theory but the relativity theories, both special and general, are set in a causal description of events occurring in space-time. Einstein’s space-time consists of points whose positions and times are to be determined by classical procedures using rulers and clocks. Quantum theory denies the underlying validity of such descriptions and has changed the whole epistemological basis of science (1973:153-54). Perhaps the best-known element of quantum theory is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle by which the variables usually interpreted as specifying the position and momentum of subatomic particles cannot both take definite values simultaneously. Einstein could not accept such implications and parted company with quantum theory in the 1920s.
In coming to the third practical aspect of truth, which is meaning and which is here represented by Einstein’s brand of metaphysics, as we interpret it, we must mention two of his aphorisms. These are One may say the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility and God does not play dice with the world (see Bernstein 1973:156, 175). This evidence that, for Einstein, meaning resided in such physical order, is nevertheless in implicit contradiction with quantum mechanics’ assertion of a universe without ‘exact’ objects, yet these aphorisms clearly appeal to a universal existential desire for some sort of ‘solid’ metaphysical arrangement. A desire that the sky will not fall down, so to speak.
At this point, however, let us introduce some relevant material from Gellner’s discussion of Kant in Legitimation of Belief. By the time we ‘see’ an external world at all, we have already assumed a causal orderliness in it – those causal sequences which enable us to locate, to place, objects and events in the positions they occupy. Causality and objectivity thus stand and fall together (1974:186). Gellner then elaborates in a footnote.
“It is often claimed that Kant’s doctrine of the universal applicability within nature of the principle of causation has been disproved by certain much-publicised developments in modern physics. But these developments in fact confirm his insights. For it appears that the point at which determinism is replaced by probability is also the one at which interference by the observing mechanism makes it impossible to determine all at once both the location and the speed of the particle. Objectivity and causality lapsed together, which is precisely what Kant taught: his proof of causality overtly hinged on the assumption of objectivity.” (1974:186n)
Einstein, who after all first made the observer an integral part of the observed world, later wrote with Leopold Infeld that “without the belief in the inner harmony of our world, there could be no science” (1961:296) and Easlea (1973:55) generalises on this particular point, exploring what he sees as one extremely important aspect of the scientific revolution, namely the aesthetic commitment to the idea that nature possesses a mathematical simplicity and beauty if only looked at in the right way. This commitment, he believes, still is an important factor motivating and directing research in the physical sciences.
In this regard Kuhn too writes that there “another sort of consideration” that can lead scientists to reject an old paradigm in favour of a new. These, he says, are the arguments, rarely made entirely explicit, that appeal to the individual’s sense of the appropriate or the aesthetic – the new theory is said to be “neater”, “more suitable” or “simpler” than the old (1970:155). Easlea goes on to state that commitment in the “revolutionary” stage is based to a large extent on ‘physical intuition’ as to the nature of reality, with aesthetic criteria playing a guiding if not a leading role (1973:80). However, when physicists speak of the great beauty of the general theory of relativity, such beauty is in the eye of expert beholders, and perhaps the most that can be commonly assimilated ‘aesthetically’ consists of images such as those of God and dice, which arguably themselves, in the context of Einstein’s usage, ‘contradict’ the direction of scientific discovery.
Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics traces the parallels between Eastern mysticism and quantum theory. In reference to experimental evidence of the instantaneous interaction of separated light photons, Capra writes that Einstein’s view of physical reality as consisting of independent, spatially separated elements is incompatible with the laws of quantum theory and that the universe is fundamentally interconnected, interdependent and inseparable (1991:346). This is reminiscent of Gellner’s identification of “local-temporal versions of what are perhaps archetypal attitudes of the human spirit” (1979:237). Of immediate relevance is Gellner’s pinpointing of the idea that “all things are connected and form a whole, and that to understand things is to see them as partial aspects of that whole”.
In contrast, Gellner’s second identification is that of the view that anything we know comes from our experience or our invention. We can reconcile Einstein’s achievements with his scientific ‘limitations’ now by turning to Campbell’s mythological studies which reveal a complementarity, to use a term employed by Niels Bohr to try and describe the implications of quantum discoveries. Campbell identifies Nietzsche as the discoverer of the interplay of two types of mythology – that of the individual and that of the group – in Greek tragedy, which recognized their mutuality (1991:141). For Campbell, the patriarchal point of view is distinguished from the earlier archaic view by its setting apart of pairs-of-opposites as though they were absolutes in themselves and not merely aspects of the larger entity of life (1991:26-27).
‘Exact’ objects are perhaps best distinguished when placed in opposition. Campbell also writes that the archaic Bronze Age philosophy of the collective which has survived in the East is, “in its developed, higher forms”, the most important single creative force in the history of civilization. He asserts that “its impact is experienced immediately in the ultimate mystical rapture of non-duality, or mythic identification” (1991:57). Yet without duality, without the mathematics and the atomism and the “Olympian mythology of measure and humanistic self-knowledge” of the Greeks (1991:141), how could we obtain access to the technical detail required for the explanation of phenomena, beyond their mere representation or exposition. The fact that Capra can find ancient Chinese philosophical parallels to quantum mechanics is of expository value, not of explanatory application.
In conclusion, we may refer to Benoit Mandelbrot, the inventor of fractal geometry, who, when interviewed in Newsweek on 26th March 1990, stated that the average person knows that reality is messy and does not correspond to ideal forms of mathematics. Complete disorder, like plain noise or any mess, is not lovely. Beauty must have organised forms but not too regular or too similar. For Mandelbrot, a fractal is like a work of art that doesn’t come from man, but from equations and nature.
Therefore the scientific aesthetic outlined by Easlea (1973) is only partially representative of human aesthetic apprehension and this apprehension is itself reflective of a complementarity found in cultural as well as physical phenomena. Thus if we can call Einstein the king of uncommon sense, we must understand such “sense” as defined by a perception of spatio-temporal objects made abstract as ideal forms. Without the conception of such forms there could have been none of the mathematics, logic or science which eventually led us to question the underlying validity of the physical origins of our concepts and perhaps thereby begin to grasp the epistemological interdependence of explanatory (quantitative) and expository (qualitative) discoveries.
Concerning the intellectual heroes of the West, myth has, in the cases examined here, given us examples of an isolated wilderness for Newton in Lincolnshire, for Darwin on the Galapagos Islands, for Einstein in the Berne patent office, for Marx in the British Museum and for Freud in his own psyche. In such circumstances intellectual origination is telescoped around 1666, or the Galapagos, or the Michelson-Morley experiment, or The Wealth of Nations, without common reference being made to the likes of Wilhelm Fliess or Alfred Russel Wallace or even Friedrich Engels.
The figures in our case studies overturned common sense and superstition with apparent paradoxes by which they revealed a changing, impersonal universe where events are best understood and predicted by looking at their causes, as they can be divined from experience. Such ‘paradoxes’ included an invisible economic hand, an ego not master in its own house, a physical relativity whereby the ‘supernatural’ is transformed into the supernormal, and an unconscious, unwilled method of alteration of the types of living things. They promoted the recognition that the world contains the most fantastic things, which yet have nothing to do with super-nature, and this seems a key element of the appeal of heroes of our intellectual history in recent centuries. In the words of Thales, the earth is full of gods.
This would seem to hold true as a generalization despite the strong criticisms that can be made of Marx and Freud in particular for their teleological and fundamentalist errors. Freud’s insight into the psychology of superstition – Wollheim (1971:234) sums up Freud’s life’s work as a research into the deafness of the mind – belongs ironically within a closed system of thought that presumed without reason to offer an answer for everything in the psyche.
Similarly, Marx taught us the importance of the fact that, all through history, the economic order pays for our ideas and institutions but he presumed to claim to stand outside history and tell us what the final goal of these ideas and institutions would be. Then again, the great empiricist Newton also seemed to answer everything, impressing the layman with the moral of the story of the apple and seducing the expert with notions of absolute space and time.
Furthermore, the sturdy fabric of Smith’s economic universe may have seen its holes gradually get filled in for over two centuries since its supposed Big Bang in The Wealth of Nations but still its impersonality keeps it expanding, like Darwin’s biological cosmos, where the latter’s absence of goal or essence overrides any intellectual reneging on the part its creator. Finally, even Einstein parted company with quantum theory, sticking with measurement by clocks and rulers, but still he taught us the earthly origins of ‘space’ and ‘time’.
Far more than the mere details of their discoveries have been conveyed down the generations. They have permeated on the one hand through their systematic, cosmological appeal to scientific and intellectual audiences and on the other through fables, dramatic allegories, metaphorical incongruity and catchphrases which have resonated more broadly, in popular experience.
Myth conveys timeless themes, figures, situations, but how do these apparently ahistorical patterns fit into the particular intellectual history of the West? Tocqueville writes in Democracy in America (1968:551) that the rationalisation of philosophical thought, which can be seen to represent a trend towards universalism (e.g. the view that everyone should be equal before the law, or the principle of one person, one vote), was discovered at a time “when men were beginning to grow more equal and more like each other” i.e. in the sixteenth century. He adds that it could not be generally followed except in centuries when people’s conditions had become more similar to each other.
The history of thought shows, however, that a basic idea or hypothesis may emerge at virtually any time, once a society as a whole lives above subsistence level, and that the immediate fate of the idea will be decided not by its own ‘rational’ merits but by the social reality of the time. The likelihood of the emergence of an idea depends on the intellectual capacity of the society, which in turn depends on the size of the economic surplus. The reception of the idea depends on its potential effect on vested interests that determine the size of the same surplus.
For instance, there is plenty of historical evidence to indicate that the creative capacity for technological advance is more widespread than the readiness of societies to foster such development. The technological stagnation of the Romans is often traced to rulers who prevented the introduction of agricultural inventions, for example, on the grounds that they would have threatened social stability by making much of the slave population redundant. The stultifying productivity of plantation slavery in the ancient world of Greece and Rome exemplifies the intimate connections between vested interests, economic activities and world outlooks.
The material ‘progress’ of societies depends upon the size of the economic surplus and though a small one, such as that of the feudal period, with its comparatively impoverished elite, may afford greater scope for the introduction of new ideas and methods, it is almost certainly less likely to conceive of them. For example, the feudal system is often said to have carried the seeds of its own destruction by attaining a stability that was unable to withstand the resultant growth of trade. The increasingly powerful urban trading interests then undermined the agrarian feudal social hierarchy. This is what Tocqueville implicitly means when he writes of men becoming more like each other.
As for our own time, the innovation characteristic of capitalism is convincingly explained by economic competition, which itself depends on advanced technology for the movement of goods and services. The fact that Western Europe managed through historical accident to avoid a Mongol invasion, for example, gave it the chance at least to develop its military and seafaring technology and advance its science and philosophy with a fund of comparison in (pre-Christian) Greek knowledge, often filtered through Islamic interpretations and commentaries. Contrast here the experience of the world of Islam e.g. devastating Mongol invasions summed up by the 1258 destruction of Baghdad.
If the vested interests in the Roman slave-based economy helped bring about its eventual destruction, we may well wonder what parallels can be drawn with our world with its own technological problems and abuse of resources? The Romans eventually failed militarily, economically and biologically. The biggest everyday economic impediment was their poor transport technology and their last major conquest was the invasion of Dacia (modern Romania) under the Emperor Trajan (reigned 98 – 117 AD), which meant, among other things, that the supply of captured, ‘readymade’ slaves dried up. Then epidemics arrived during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161 – 180 AD). Even in the first century AD, after the Augustan peace had ended the destructive civil wars, there were, according to McNeill, some parts of the empire – Greece and Italy particularly – that failed to prosper. The Roman imperial system collected tax monies from lands close to the sea and transferred spare cash to the armies stationed at the frontiers. This, he says, remained a viable arrangement until the heavy blow of unfamiliar disease seriously eroded the wealth of the Mediterranean heartlands between AD 165 and 266 (1976:115).
Popper (1966:299) writes in a similar vein on this topic. Regarding the decline, it is, he insists, naïve and romantic to believe, as many still do, that it was due to the degeneration caused by long-continued peace, or to demoralization, or to the superiority of the younger barbarian peoples, or, in brief, to over-feeding. The devastating results of violent epidemics and the unchecked and progressive exhaustion of the soil, and with it the breakdown of the agricultural basis of the Roman economic system seem, he writes, to have been some of the main causes.
The world of intellectual pursuits crumbles inevitably in response to economic contraction but this is, after all, only a digression, restating the links between philosophy, economy and biology. Concerning the historical evolution of scientific endeavour, as reflected in technology, the West is scientific in a professional, institutional sense, by saying which we perhaps acknowledge the contribution of Kuhn a bit more to the sociology of such activity.
The technological advances of the West enabled colonial expansion and the gathering of knowledge about other cultures, even in the course of destroying them, which as an eventual by-product underscored the scientific importance of contextual analysis. In other words, the rise of the West fostered the study of history and geography – the where, when and how of other peoples’ thoughts and actions. An increasingly important spin-off is environmental awareness as history and geography teach us about distant ecological disasters.
Our technological institutions public and private, fed by the broad education system, inculcate research methods based on a reliance on the data of experience, an insistence on impersonal explanation and a concern with a particular logical form. This embodiment of such values in particular institutions constitutes the practical extent to which the West can be called ‘scientific’. In other words, science as we know it is a manifestation of rationalization – what Gellner calls “the bureaucratization of nature” (1974:160). Rationality is fostered by rationalization. Rationality is not the property of the West but rationalization is, historically.
What about paying the piper? Of course the topics of research are still decided by economic factors and this leads us on to the next point. One may wonder about the discovery role, in myth and in reality, of the heroic individual as set against today’s ‘faceless’ research teams – the anonymous researchers in white coats. For Bell (1976) the key feature of a post-industrial society is the central role of scientific and technical knowledge. Such knowledge seems to him to be profoundly different from the discoveries of the Industrial Revolution or from the insights or inventions of its leading figures. Post-industrial knowledge is thus seen as not gained from personal experience but from the massive research programmes of knowledge-based institutions: the universities, the research laboratories of big business and the research divisions of government and the professions.
Set against this contention, mythic heroes can still be seen to emerge today, for example in information technology. The story of the revolution in that field, from the failure of Xerox to realize what an obscure group of its researchers was developing to Microsoft’s struggle against anti-trust legislation, is already the stuff of legend, as in popular books and TV documentaries, as are the figures who have figured prominently in it. We should here remember again our earlier criticism of Berger and Luckmann for failing to realize that the co-existence of naïve mythology and sophisticated theology, both maintaining the same symbolic universe, allows us to call industrial society ‘scientific’ in the same way that medieval Europe can be called ‘Christian’ or parts of the Far East ‘Buddhist’.
If we have succeeded here in displaying the indomitability of myth as a vehicle for representation and communication, however much its content may be shaped by social circumstances, what then are the implications for pedagogy in social science? If the earth is a troublesome place to evolve as a species, where we are all born into a unit of socialization with a wider group horizon and where we must achieve (re)productive identity before death, then we should not be at all surprised to see these facts manifest themselves culturally.
We have defined archetypal themes, figures and situations as genetic or prehistoric in origin, having assumed from the best of our knowledge that human anatomy, physiology and basic psychological experience have remained pretty much unaltered in us social creatures for millennia, but we have also insisted that these predispositions have no ‘absolute’ meaning or definition. They are flexible moulds only ever partly filled or by cultures and so the closest we can pin them down is by parallel and comparison. Their representation gives life meaning through what Luckmann calls the universal anthropological condition of religion, which is socialization into a transcendent worldview.
This to us forms the foundation of any sociological theory of knowledge. For Edmund Leach, as we noted in the essay on Darwin, myth is not just fairy-tale, it contains a message, and he states that it is not very clear who is sending the message but it is clear who is receiving it, in that the novices of society who hear the myths for the first time are being indoctrinated by the bearers of tradition. This indoctrination, or socialization, when viewed long-term, takes us well beyond the transiently political.
Myths must, however, be divided into the expository and the explanatory, the perceived truth of which can be divided into its aspects of sensation (experimental), abstraction (logical) and meaning (metaphysical). This obtains whether or not such truth corresponds to the ‘Western’ scientific values of reliance on experience, impersonal explanation and what we understand as logic. This ‘we’, in sociology and in science in general, has often been implicitly restricted to a coterie of ‘experts’ but we have seen Kuhn’s blinkered recommendation that truth in science be left to the specialists effectively demolished by Solzhenitsyn’s remarks on Lysenko.
Giddens claims Schutz’s formulation of the postulate of adequacy, based upon the thesis that the technical concepts of social science have to be capable of being reduced to lay notions of everyday action, “will not do”. It has in fact, he states, to be reversed: rather than, in some sense, the concepts of sociology having to be open to rendition in terms of lay concepts, it is the case that the observing social scientist has to be able first to grasp those lay concepts i.e. penetrate hermeneutically the form of life whose features he wishes to analyse or explain (1976:158-59).
This sounds like mere condescension towards the ideas of the plebeians. We have hopefully made it clear that things inevitably get rendered in lay concepts. What kinds of concepts? They are concepts representative of existential facts. Giddens and Barnes have agreed that, in the creation of innovative paradigms, novel schemes and frames of meaning are learnt through metaphorical allusion to the old, but our distinction between exposition and explanation has hopefully helped us move well beyond their level of recognition of this phenomenon, amongst both the ‘idiots’ and the ‘savants’.
All Giddens will say further on this postulate of adequacy is that actors tend to take over the concepts and theories of the social sciences and embody them as elements in the rationalization of their own conduct. The significance of this, he claims, is recognized only marginally in orthodox sociology, in the guise of ‘self-fulfilling’ or ‘self-negating’ prophecies (1976:159).
Giddens continues by acknowledging that there is a continual ‘slippage’ of the concepts constructed in sociology, whereby these are appropriated by those whose conduct they were originally coined to analyse, and hence tend to become integral features of that conduct. He maintains then that this potentially compromises their original usage within “the technical vocabulary of social science” (1976:162). Unfortunately, this can only be construed as elitist. It is as if sociologists were indifferent to the power of myth and metaphor. Rather than rail against these shifts of meaning, however, we have tried to explore what they signify, as a contribution to the taxonomy of the abstract dimensions of social life.
To compare great scientific theories both in truth and in myth – or, should we say, in their literal and apocryphal truth – with those of the humanities should lead us to discover an overall ‘aesthetic’ similarity. To the world at large, great science is known for and propagated by its communicability. Such communicability, be it a distortion or not, relies on commonality of experience, and it is archetypal existential experience that underlies the metaphorical and analogical shifts and extensions of meaning in the fields we have examined.
The explanatory detail of science is diffused and rendered as expository mythology to which the non-expert can relate to in terms of his or her own existence. The ‘expert’, on the other hand, is more prone to succumbing to the more sophisticated, systematic cosmologies of explanatory scientific myths. As set out earlier, the more global the perspective is, the more subtly analogical its representation becomes for its initiates, in its explanatory function, and the more obviously metaphorical it has to be for the uninitiated, in its expository function.
If, in the sense of an imaginary continuum of thought, ‘science’ is conception (i.e. origination) and ‘art’ communication then, in practical terms, the details of each particular conception cannot be separated analytically from those of its communication. In other words, ideas require illustration, which is an art in itself, so to speak.
Johnson tells us that Derrida’s reading of Lévi-Strauss is attentive to the rhetorical as well as the conceptual dimension of his theory of writing, that indeed these two aspects – the so-called ‘literary’ and the ‘philosophical’ – are shown to be inseparable (1997:54). Likewise, Freud most prominently did not primarily dissect literature with his ideas but used literary examples to present and elucidate his insights, as metaphor and analogy. Sociologists would do well to keep this in mind and, even if they lack the knack for metaphorical incongruity, there is nothing to stop them availing of metaphors and analogies from literary and artistic sources in order to communicate quantitative information. For them not to do so is perhaps as ignorant as any disdain for ‘fact-grubbing’.
We have here taken a special look at six outstanding intellectual figures in the Western heritage. This of course reflects preoccupations and preconceptions concerning the importance of these thinkers, and the relativity inherent in any observation. We have found sociological reinforcement of the significance of these initial impressions in Simmel and Goffman and have come to conceive of a structure for the agent as a mechanism for group renewal and transcendence, whereby the social mass creates varying levels of ‘outsiderism’ in its individuals in the course of their existential struggles. Myth highlights this phenomenon by its emphasis on critical moments and figures. In this view, individual agency is unthinkable without the group and the group cannot continue without creating such agents, in a chicken and egg co-existence.
At the end of our essay on Marx we quoted Jung on the enormous valuation humanity places on hero figures and “the ideal of personality”. We should now also remember that Popper claimed that how origination occurs is irrelevant to the logical analysis of scientific knowledge and, to give just one negative example, Bernstein (1973:75) states that “one is continually baffled as to why Poincaré did not invent the relativity theory”. Nevertheless, Jung also asked what is it, in the end, that induces a man to go his own way and rise out of unconscious identity with the mass “as out of a swathing mist”. Not necessity, for, he says, for necessity comes to many, “and they all take refuge in convention”. Not moral decision either, for nine times out of ten we decide for convention likewise. What is it, then, he wonders, that inexorably tips the scales in favour of the extra-ordinary?
It is, he writes, what is commonly called vocation: an irrational factor that destines a man to emancipate himself from the herd and from its well-worn paths (1983:199). One might prefer to use the word “horde” rather than “herd” when talking about humanity in abstract (see Wollheim on Freud, 1971:231) but let us allow Jung to continue a little longer, explaining the universal presence of this factor of separation and return. We may not be able to predict who will make the discovery but we can foresee the metaphorical situation in which it will be seen to occur. Indeed, the greater the insight in the course of existential struggle, the more mythic it will end up in its cultural transformation.
Jung writes that vocation, or the feeling of it, is not the prerogative of great personalities but is also appropriate to the small ones. Nonetheless, as the size decreases the voice becomes more and more muffled and unconscious. It is as if “the voice of the daemon within” were moving further and further off, and spoke more rarely and indistinctly. The smaller the personality, the dimmer and more unconscious it becomes, he says, until finally it merges indistinguishably with the surrounding society. In place of the inner voice there is the voice of the group with its conventions, and vocation is replaced by collective necessities (1983:20).
This vocation is expressed in creativity, in origination great or small, whether it is in the arts, sciences or simply in money-making and property-improving, as we learnt from Plato and Adam Smith. In fact such creativity, expressed in attempts to extend one’s power over existence, to create extensions of the self, occurs in a myriad forms, like craftsmanship, relationships with other people, religious beliefs, parenthood and so on.
Apart from their mythic personalities, though, what distinguishes the discoveries of the figures we have examined? As we have already noted more than once, Gellner has written that the view that anything we claim to know must either be something we have experienced or something we have ourselves made up is an idea that must forever remain a possible starting point for the evaluation of human knowledge. If this indeed is an “archetypal attitude of the human spirit” then history suggests this is the fundamental philosophical attitude of science. It is in the mythic conveyance of this spirit in the vessels of these heroic figures in the West that we best see the complementarity of science and art. Myth, whether scientific or artistic, explanatory or expository, is an inevitable mixture of picture and diagram, narrative and number, and the distinction is in the balance of such elements.
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