We have recently began taking a look at Paul Feyerabend’s (recently released, even though he died back in 1994) book Philosophy of Nature, which presents his ideas on the history of the different ways in which human beings have tried to make sense of the world. The second chapter is on the structure and function of myths, since mythological accounts are one of the three “forms of life” that humans have come up with in order to understand the world, and that Feyerabend explores in his book (the other two are philosophy and science).
Feyerabend points out that very early on a conflict started between myth and philosophy, for instance with Xenophanes accusing Homer of defaming the gods, and with Plato’s attack on poetry in the Republic. Perhaps more interesting, and unknown to me before reading Philosophy of Nature, is the fact that a contemporary of Xenophanes, Theagenes of Rhegium interpreted the gods as forces of nature, and understood their quarrels as the interactions among such forces. Apparently, Theagenes set out to defend Homer, but did so by introducing the then radical idea that mythological texts ought to be read as allegories.
Regardless, says Feyerabend, “With the attacks by Xenophanes (Fragments 21B11, 12; see also 14, 15, 32, 34) and Heraclitus (Fragments 22B40, 42) the once-uniform body of learning is split up into philosophy, which proceeds purely conceptually, aiming to eradicate the imagist way of thinking of earlier epochs, and poetry (verse, drama, etc.), which continues to employ the old tools even when presenting new ideas.”
This, then, is a crucial moment in the history of Western thought: when poetic / mythological understanding of the world diverges from philosophy, which, of course, later on will in turn give rise to science.
Next, Feyerabend makes an interesting move in drawing a parallel between different ways of interpreting myths and different ways of interpreting scientific theories. Bear with me for a minute. Beginning with the myths, he suggests that there are two ways of developing what he calls a “nature theory” of myths, that is a theory that assumes that myths are based on some sort of core factual truth. (Obviously, there are non-nature theories of myth as well.) Nature theories of myth can be epistemologically naive or more sophisticated: “[the] naïve version, which is closely related to naïve realism, assumes that the elements of reality, the ‘facts,’ are unambiguously presented to human consciousness and that these facts can be unambiguously described with the help of concepts. … The refined version, by contrast, assumes that influencing [of “facts” by concepts] does occur and considers it an important component of our knowledge.”
And here is the parallel with philosophy of science: “The transition from the naïve theory of nature myths to the more refined version is paralleled in more recent developments in philosophy of science. Here, too, it was first assumed that scientific concepts and scientific theories are uniquely determined by the phenomena of nature and that any differences in their theoretical structure must be due to errors of thought or experiment.”
What Feyerabend is getting at is the conclusion — I believe fairly widespread among philosophers of science, nowadays (but not when Feyerabend was writing) — that a naive realist interpretation of scientific theories is untenable: there is no sharp separation between facts and concepts, and our conceptual frameworks in part determine what counts as a relevant fact or not. This isn’t necessarily a particularly novel idea, as it was expressed already by Darwin in a famous letter to a friend of his: “How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”
(That letter was written by an exasperated Darwin, who was having a hard time convincing his mentor, William Whewell — the guy who invented the word “scientist” — that Darwin’s Origin was a very good example of the type of induction, known as inference to the best explanation, that Whewell was championing against the more traditional account of induction defended by John S. Mill. See my summary of the dispute here.)
Feyerabend then discusses Edward Burnett Tylor’s Religion in Primitive Culture, and in particular Tylor’s theory that “mythological concepts are all object-based and the myths themselves are ‘a perfectly rational and intelligible product of early science.’ Gods, demons, ghosts, vampires, and their various destinies are not just ‘mere creations of groundless fancy’ — that is, they are neither symbols nor analogies — but ’causes conceived in spiritual form to account for specific facts.'” According to Tylor, that is, myths and science have the same objective: to collect salient appearances and provide explanations for them.
(It should go without saying, but just because two activities have the same objectives it doesn’t follow at all that they are equally good at achieving them, nor is Feyerabend arguing anything of the sort.)
The last section of the chapter is devoted to Levi-Strauss’s criticism of the nature theory of myths, in favor of what Feyerabend calls a structuralist account. (Again, notice the similarity with developments in philosophy of science: structuralism is a family of quasi-realist approaches to the nature of scientific theorizing, according to which relations, rather than concrete entities, are the locus of action.) According to Levi-Strauss, “The mistake of Mannhardt and the Naturalist School was to think that natural phenomena are what myths seek to explain, when they are rather the medium through which myths try to explain facts which are themselves not of a natural but logical order.” (Again, it’s about relations, not raw facts.)
Levi-Strauss’s position seems to be that myths reflect some kind of deep structure of the human mind, rather than refer, in however distorted a way, to the outside world, as both the naive and sophisticated forms of nature theory do. Feyerabend’s final comment on this is: “Lévi-Strauss’ ideas are comparable to the new and more complex forms of empiricism that have developed in philosophy of science within the past ten to fifteen years. His critique of naïve naturalistic-utilitarian theories of myth, totemism, and other elements of preliterate societies has much in common with the critique of naïve empiricist theories of science. In both cases we have to ask how a certain social product refers to the nature that surrounds it; in both cases we recognize that the received theories (of science, of myth) contradict conspicuous — though not always familiar — facts.”
I take Feyerabend to be sympathetic to Levi-Strauss’s structuralist approach to myths, although he does think that it goes too far in discounting the role that the external world plays in shaping myths.
Next up: Homer’s aggregate universe.