Book club: Philosophy of Nature, ch. 3

Ancient Greek artWe come now to a discussion of the third chapter of Paul Feyerabend’s posthumously published Philosophy of Nature, on the universe as perceived by the Ancient Greek poet Homer. (My treatment of chapter 1 is here and of chapter 2 here.) Remember that Feyerabend’s goal is to compare and contrast three different ways — or forms of life — in which human beings make sense of the world: myths, philosophy, and science. We are then continuing to explore the mythological approach. Homer’s epics represent a concrete example of what Feyerabend discussed in chapter 2.

Interestingly, the chapter begins with an introduction to Greek archaic art, highlighting how, for instance, figures represented in vases and other paintings are silhouettes, with representation being stylized. Often the environmental setting of the action is entirely missing (the figures are painted against a uniformly colored background). This, Feyerabend contends, is not to be chalked up to the art in question being “primitive,” since the Paleolithic and Egyptian art that preceded it was less schematic and more realistic. “There was a transition to clarity everywhere, and the forms tightened up,” so the archaic style was the result of a conscious effort at clarifying and simplifying.

Consider, for instance, a famous painting of a lion attacking a deer. The piece is composed of individual stylized figures in standard poses (wild for the lion, peaceful for the deer): “the act of devouring has been simply added to the wild lion and the peaceful deer. … It almost seems like we need to read the image rather than see it: a wild lion, a peaceful deer, the lion devouring the deer.”

Feyerabend is building up to a rather unusual suggestion, which I don’t think is in line with modern scholarship, but which is nonetheless intriguing:

“We should not rule out the possibility that a certain style represents the world in precisely the way in which it was seen and experienced by the artist and his or her contemporaries, and that basic assumptions (conscious or subconscious) are expressed in each formal characteristic, assumptions that reflect the cosmology of the time. Thus, in the case of the ‘archaic’ style we should not rule out the possibility that the world of the archaic humans was indeed an aggregate of parts rather than an organic unit, and that archaic humans saw their fellow humans as loosely connected mannequins driven solely by external factors.”

What does any of this have to do with Homer and the epic/mythological way of making sense of the world in Ancient Greece? The idea is that there is a parallel between archaic art and Homer’s epics: “Nine tenths of the epics’ content consists of formulas, that is, of already existing phrases that are inserted at suitable places and frequently repeated. … Note how Zeus changes from counsellor to storm-mountain-god to paternal god, not in connection to what he is doing, but at the dictates of metre. … Just as with the geometric style, the elements are ‘sewn together’ rather than combined into an organic whole. … Even a continuous movement is broken up into individual events much like in a filmstrip.”

Again, there is much that is speculative here, with Feyerabend explicitly drawing a parallel between Homer’s poems and the stylized (but not “primitive”) art of the time, provocatively suggesting that both reflected the way the ancients thought of cause and effect when it comes to human action:

“It seems that neither Homeric Greek thought nor its artistic representation acknowledged a body in the modern meaning of the word. At the most, a mannequin was conjured up that then got involved in a multitude of astonishing actions. Nor did this mannequin have a soul in our sense. Just as the body is composed of limbs, parts of limbs, surfaces, and motions, so is the ‘soul’ composed of ‘soul’ events that are combined into interesting aggregates and sequences. Some of these events are not even of a ‘private’ nature but the result of external interference by gods or inferior daemons. … Persons do not yet possess an impenetrable exterior skin, and the divine is not yet something alien. Powers freely flow into the human being.”

This leads Feyerabend to suggest that the archaic Greeks thought of human action in the world very differently from the way we think of it today (actually, as we shall see, the turning point was the advent of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who invented the approach that eventually matured into what we call science). In the Homeric world everything has an explanation, but the locus of that explanation is not human free will. Rather, humans succeed or fail in what they do as a result of a number of coincidences orchestrated by external forces.

Crucially, there is no religious sense of morality, as the gods are simply humans writ large, they do not embody any principle of morality that mortals can use as a guide to their own existence: “in becoming the embodiment of cosmic justice Zeus lost his humanity. Hence Olympianism in its moralized form tended to become a religion of fear, a tendency which is reflected in the religious vocabulary. There is no word for ‘god-fearing’ in the Iliad. Thus ‘moral progress’ leads to a loss of humanity.”

Feyerabend goes on to compare the archaic with the scientific worldview, citing Pascal: “‘If a workman were sure to dream for twelve straight hours every night that he was king,’ said Pascal, ‘I believe that he would be just as happy as a king who dreamt for twelve hours every night that he was a workman.’ In fact, because of the way that myth takes it for granted that miracles are always happening, the waking life of a mythically inspired people — the ancient Greeks, for instance — more closely resembles a dream than it does the waking world of a scientifically disenchanted thinker.”

One of Feyerabend’s crucial conclusions in this chapter is that the Homeric mythological view of the world is “rational” in the sense of being internally consistent and in agreement with the dictates of the oral poetic tradition. But it is not “rational” in the modern sense of providing an accurate description of the world.

Feyerabend is very clear that it doesn’t make sense to put mythological accounts of the world on the same footing as scientific ones, “and yet a closer comparison of different cosmologies almost always reveals the existence of advantages and disadvantages on both sides. This will become obvious in our discussion of the various historical transitions.”

The chapter concludes with these surely to be controversial observations: “The question [in comparing myths and science] is not how to get around without categories, but how best to select one’s categories and whether there are categories concerning which we have no choice. … the allegedly so ‘natural’ and ‘unbiased’ approach of the early empiricists introduced a number of cosmological, historical, and physiological assumptions of exactly the same kind that we have found in the epics. The only difference is that the assumptions are now explicit and hence more easily accessible to examination.”

Next: the transition to an explicitly conceptual approach to nature.


63 thoughts on “Book club: Philosophy of Nature, ch. 3

  1. SG commented: “the fact that what the West calls schizophrenia, per the WEIRD theory, is simply not identified as such in many cultures”. There is a lot of cross-cultural work on Scz which suggests that prevalence is pretty similar worldwide (which militates against simple genetic models, otherwise you’d see high rates in some genetic isolates etc), but that the subtypes vary markedly. “In California, people were more likely to describe their voices as intrusive unreal thoughts; South India…providing useful guidance; West Africa…morally good and causally powerful”. Even in the West, hebephrenic and catatonic subtypes are less common than previously.

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  2. Most definitely Star Wars is the Homeric poem of our time.

    I’d rather say they live in a continuum. Star Wars and Homer, a continuum. Yes, that sounds good. This might be one of those very rare situations in which the expression “continuum” is appropriate, don’t you think so?

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  3. Couvent,

    One idea to consider is the function of the “continuum,” versus the function of the “other.” In that much definition is relational, if not confrontational. So while there very much is the continuum throughout life, not just humanity, our descriptive understanding is often a consequence of the distinctions. Consider those “voices” in the mind; How would our minds function otherwise, if there wasn’t the sense of alternate perspectives operating in the background. Yet in the other direction, when different people are on the same wavelength, they function as a larger whole.


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