We live through maps (0c): Mythos over logos (chapter end)

[continued from the previous post, this series of posts is a complete translation of `Philosophy Paper, written by F.A. Waaldijk, student of mathematics, student number 8327661, in the year 1991′]

[—–fourth post in the translation—–]

We have now prepared the ground sufficiently to discuss mythos and logos. We start with an explanation of these concepts by Robert M. Pirsig in his book `Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ ({1}, chapter 28}:

The term logos, the root word of `logic’, refers to the sum total of our rational understanding of the world. Mythos is the sum total of the early historic and prehistoric myths which preceded the logos. The mythos includes not only the Greek myths, but also the Old Testament, the Vedic hymns and the early legends of all cultures which have contributed to our present world understanding. The mythos-over-logos argument states that our rationality is shaped by these legends, that our knowledge today is in relation to these legends as a tree is in relation to the little shrub it once was. One can gain great insights into the complex overall structure of the tree by studying the much simpler shape of the shrub. There’s no difference in kind or even difference in identity, only a difference in size.

Thus, in cultures whose ancestry includes ancient Greece, one invariably finds a strong subject-object differentiation because the grammar of the old Greek mythos presumed a sharp natural division of subjects and predicates. In cultures such as the Chinese, where subject-predicate relationships are not rigidly defined by grammar, one finds a corresponding absence of rigid subject-object philosophy. One finds that in the Judeo-Christian culture, in which the Old Testament `Word’ had an intrinsic sacredness of its own, men are willing to sacrifice and live by and die for words. In this culture, a court of law can ask a witness to tell `the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God’, and expect the truth to be told. But one can transport this court to India, as did the British, with no real success on the matter of perjury because the Indian mythos is different and this sacredness of words is not felt in the same way. Similar problems have occurred in this country among minority groups with different cultural backgrounds. There are endless examples of how mythos differences direct behavior differences and they’re all fascinating.

The mythos-over-logos argument points to the fact that each child is born as ignorant as any caveman. What keeps the world from reverting to the Neanderthal with each generation is the continuing, ongoing mythos, transformed into logos but still mythos, the huge body of common knowledge that unites our minds as cells are united in the body of man. To feel that one is not so united, that one can accept or discard this mythos as one pleases, is not to understand what the mythos is.

There is only one kind of person, Phaedrus said, who accepts or rejects the mythos in which he lives. And the definition of that person, when he has rejected the mythos, Phaedrus said, is “insane.” To go outside the mythos is to become insane. …

A few remarks impose themselves on me. Firstly: the caveman wasn’t `ignorant’ by a long shot, I think. Ve saw the world differently than we do, ve maybe didn’t think that the earth is a sphere, ve thought perhaps that the sun is a great fire of the spirits, of the gods; in short ve saw other connections than we do, but that doesn’t mean ve was ignorant. I am convinced that the caveman knew/realized/felt/did valuable things which we have now forgotten, unlearned, which have become impossible for us to reach, things that may be more valuable than the things we know of which ve was ignorant.

Exactly the same holds for children. What makes us consider children ignorant is that they see other connections than we, and that they are unable to defend their views. Uncle Henk is a woman. By the time Nne has learned enough language to defend this viewpoint, ve will have lost this viewpoint.

Secondly: the mythos apparently is more than just `the early historic and prehistoric myths which preceded the logos’. If I understand correctly, the mythos encompasses all values and ways of thinking that you collect from your parents and the environment in which you are raised. One consequence is that the logos doesn’t so much come after the mythos, but rather develops and exists within that mythos. I would therefore like to sharpen Pirsig’s words as follows:

The term logos, root word of `logic’, refers to the sum total of our rational understanding of the world. Mythos is the sum total of all our understanding of the world, not only our rational understanding, but also our emotional understanding and whatever other understanding may be left. Our present-day mythos, our knowledge today, is in relation to the early historic and prehistoric myths of our ancestors as a tree is in relation to the little shrub it once was. One can gain great insights into the complex overall structure of the tree by studying the much simpler shape of the shrub. There’s no difference in kind or even difference in identity, only a difference in size.

Now the logos is just a branch in this tree. To reach it one must first clamber up the stem of the tree, this is what education makes you do.The same goes for the other branches in the tree, such as our emotional world. On the day you are born you are at ground level. But your parents and everybody else are in the tree and they will pull you up. There’s nothing you can do about it, even if you disagree, because they are much stronger than you are.

Different cultures have different preceding ancestor myths, and as a result have different mythos. This corresponds to the fact that there are many different kind of trees. Clearly an oak tree differs greatly from a palm tree, and the difference can already be seen by looking at the shrubs.

In our culture the logos branch has become rather overwhelming, threatening not only to starve the other branches, but to topple the entire tree. The mythos-over-logos argument, or what I would like it to be, points out that no matter how large this branch may seem, it is not the whole tree. Also, the shape of the branch is determined by the species of the tree. In more than one sense the mythos comes first. The same of course holds for the other branches, one could equally speak of a mythos-over-passion argument.

In some cultures people rarely distinguish sharply between mythos, logos, emotions, etc. I would like to compare this to a palm tree: there is but one all-encompassing branch and it bears a good fruit (which can fall on your head just as well though).

To go outside of the mythos is to fall out of the tree (or to jump). Depending on how high you climbed, and how far down you fall, this can be a nasty tumble.

This comparison is also deficient, very deficient even, but I will leave it for now anyway. The bit about the palm tree I can illustrate a little with words of Gabriel Marcía Márquez, which he said in the television program `Nauwgezet en Wanhopig’ [`Meticulous and Desperate’] ({2}, pp. 3-11):

People say Kafkaesque, without knowing what that means. As indication of something that is remarkable or surrealistic. The same goes on for magic realism. Everything that happens in the Caribbean or Latin America, or what is strange and unusual, they call magic realism. In fact there is no magic realism in literature. There is however a magic reality, which you can find in the Caribbean. For that you only have to go out in the streets. With that magical reality, we grew up. But that magical reality is also present in Europe and in Asia.

You however are hampered by your cultural development. All Europeans in the end are Cartesians. They reject everything that does not fall within that rational thinking. One goes to Europe, and sees things happen which are as exceptional as what happens in our countries. Moreover you could say that many of those magical influences have reached us from Europe, Asia or Africa.

We are ultimately a mixture of all of you. Everything therefore has a basis in reality. Only, we surrender to that reality more easily. We are part of it, we accept it. Your system of thought forces you to reject that reality. You have done well in life. But I believe you have less fun than we do.

Blistering barnacles, ve is right! I would be having a lot more fun if I could simply write a story, instead of a philosophy paper. But now that I’m on the job I will finish it. To end this chapter, at last we arrive at what this chapter was begun for, also fulfilling a `promise’ made in the preface:

Our belief in logos, the sum total of our rational understanding of the world, is not more than a belief. Our belief in logic and in the scientific method is not more than a belief [`belief’ also means `religion’ in Dutch], and a dangerous one if practised unconditionally, since it then threatens our other ways of understanding the world. Our belief in the word (logos) is not more than a belief, and a dangerous one if practised unconditionally, since it then threatens our non-verbal worlds. 

One who says that the world obeys the laws of logic or even of science, or even of the word, confuses the branch with the tree. 

[—–end of chapter, the next and final chapter starts in the next post—–]


About fwaaldijk

mathematician (foundations & topology in constructive mathematics) and visual artist
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