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. SocraticGadfly

    Couvent: Those formulaic expressions go back to the oral history of myth. They were mnemonic aids. Study today shows that a rigorous meter (no free verse) a generally standard stanza length, and liberal use of such formulaic structures and expressions are key to (a relatively high degree of) fidelity in oral transmission.

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  2. marc levesque

    Massimo – Very interesting.

    Socratic, Robin – On average, biologically, I doubt that over time peoples’ unitariness has varied much, but I think different peoples’ ability to go meta about themselves varies a lot and is at least partly driven by biology. So if Jaynes is saying that individuals’ perspective isn’t any closer to unitary on some levels and that cultural changes can affect how people report and frame their experience, and to a certain extent change how they actually experience it, then I’d agree.

    Assuming overall that self, like reasoning, is a highly variable experience within and between individuals, and includes somewhat variable and disparate parts that we often treat as stable or unitary.

    Mu too.

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  3. brodix

    Marc,

    Experience as well. Nature and nurture.

    The modern middle class life, that is very much about defining us as individual economic units, that are both distinct from each other and the environment in which we inhabit, has some significant cultural effects that can be hard to see through.
    Do we really end at our fingertips? Our eardrums? The lenses of our eyes?

    Are we sure the sense of self is entirely unique to ourselves?

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  4. Robin Herbert

    From Feyerabend:

    “It seems that neither Homeric Greek thought nor its artistic representation acknowledged a body in the modern meaning of the word.

    I have just started reading the Odyssey. I am not sure what he means by the modern meaning of the word body, but I am beginning to think I am reading the wrong book here.

    I don’t see how much more the body could be acknowledged than it is here. I am switching between Butler and Chapman just to be sure that Chapman is not sneaking in stuff that wasn’t originally there, but no – it is there in Chapman too. I am getting a little puzzled by this.

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  5. brodix

    It seems to me that what is the basis of something, from a person, to a nation, to an idea, to an academic discipline, is its core. Its center of gravity, so to speak. That around which all aspects of it are focused and are drawn.
    Yet when we try to define it, it becomes a selection process between what it is and what it is not, so it gets defined in terms of its perimeter.
    So while there is this sense of singularity and wholeness, any description seems relational and disjointed.
    Then there is the desire to find a way to put these different entities into some larger system, theory, entity, but that leads to more levels of relational description, rather than any central core.
    The problem is that actually combining them cancels and erases details and at most creates a hybrid.
    Reality is ultimately panoramic, rather than monolithic.

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  6. michaelfugate

    Per my earlier comment, it would seem that literature is not too bad at providing an accurate picture of our world – certainly the human condition. Arbitrary gods v. randomness – can you tell the difference?

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  7. Haulianlal Guite

    is it possible that “myths, philosophy and science” represent not so much separate epistemological categories that differ in kind, but a continuum rather, which differ only in degrees? I say this, also in the context of epistemological anarchism but from a far broader sweep too, due to:
    – the perceived absence of a uniform scientific method;
    – the perceived absence of a clear demarcating principle between science and pseudo-science;
    – the enormous difficulty in defining “naturalism”, “materialism” and “physicalism”; and
    – Quine’s confirmation holism, which apparently justifies not just science but all worldviews, including mythopoeias …

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  8. couvent2104

    Haulianlan,

    is it possible that “myths, philosophy and science” represent not so much separate epistemological categories that differ in kind, but a continuum rather

    “Continuum” is in this context the most abused word in the world. It doesn’t mean anything at all, except that you can’t say exactly what the difference is between two things.
    I’m in favor of very heavy fines for philosophers using “continuum”. Start with $ 100,- the first time, and double the fine each time the word is repeated. .

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  9. brodix

    Haulianlan,

    Consider how our minds function, in which each thought is a focused distillation of information, sort of like frames of a film. So when it gets to cultural frames, there has been a great deal of breaking down and rearranging of assumptions, ideals, beliefs, etc. So if there is a continuum of thought, it would be at a very elemental basis.
    The one which seems most basic is the narrative model of time. For instance, the eastern view of time is the past is in front of the observer and the future behind, because the past and what is in front are known, while the future and what is behind are hidden. This accords with the contextual fact that we see events after they occur and this information proceeds to other points of view.
    While the western view is that the future is in front of the observer and the past behind, because we see ourselves as separate from and moving through our context. So we are moving toward our future.
    Then you could take this to the atomistic view of physics, that reality is made up of discrete units, moving about. Yet some of the more interesting explanations for Quantum Theory have gone to eastern views of contextuality and how the parts are reflections of the whole and not distinct from it.

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  10. Massimo Post author

    Thomas, Socratic,

    Sorry, haven’t read The Golden Bough, so I can’t comment on its similarities with Feyerabend’s position.

    Couvent,

    I’m not going to disagree with your point that Feyerabend probably exaggerates the structural constraints in Homer’s poems. I re-read the Odyssey a few years ago, and I got the same impression you did. Then again, I wasn’t paying attention to the sort of things Feyerabend refers to, so perhaps I should give it another go…

    Haulianlal,

    While no sharp boundaries can be drawn between myths, philosophy and science (especially the latter two!), I dont’ see along which dimension the alleged continuum would exist — again, particularly because of the difference between myths and the other two.

    That said, I’m interested in Feyerabend’s book precisely because of the parallels and contrasts he draws among these three forms of life. And I expect the discussion to become even more interesting once we get to philosophy, and then science. Stay tuned…

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  11. marc levesque

    https://www.scribd.com/document/122121440/The-Rise-of-the-Unitary-Soul-and-Its-Opposition-to-the-Body

    “In other words, the Greeks may have given us the basis for our terminology, but initially they did not have the concept of a unitary soul that is the main seat of consciousness and emotions but also represents man after death.They were not the only ones without such a concept”

    He explains the Greeks had a ‘soul’ called psychê that meant something like life, as in life force, and also various body ‘souls’ like “thymos” for emotions, “Noos” for mind, “menos” for fury, etc. And it wasn’t until the 5th century that the idea of a soul starts to resemble what we understand the word to mean today.

    “It thus seems that there is in Homer not one centre of consciousness, not a firm idea of an ‘I’ that decides what we are doing. Whereas we have one word, ‘soul’, to denote the dimension of human life that is distinguishable from the body and that to a large extent determines the nature of the human being, the early Greeks had a variety of words to denote this dimension”

    Hmmm.

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  12. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, it’s not too bad of a book to be familiar with. Frazier’s analysis is semi-all wet to totally all wet. But, as an encyclopedic compendium, even a century old, of specific practices of the varieties of religious experience, The Golden Bough is still interesting.

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  13. Massimo Post author

    Marc,

    While I do share your skepticism about Feyerabend’s and others’ take on unitary vs non-unitary conceptions of self, soul, etc., it surely is also the case that those concepts are — to some extent at the least — a cultural construction. It then stands to reason that different cultures will have different takes on them.

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  14. wtc48

    Couvent2014: “It’s close to 40 yrs. since I read Homer (and I never read him in the original ancient Greek) but I agree that the Iliad is pretty formulaic at times. The Odyssey, however, is not, or to a lesser degree (as far as I remember).”

    Somewhere (can’t locate it at the moment) Feyerabend notes that Homer’s translators tend to vary the formulaic epithets for the sake of variety, so that the process he is discussing would only be fully represented in the original Greek.

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  15. wtc48

    There are many parallels between Homeric/bardic composition (as described by Feyerabend) and jazz. Formulaic technique, oral (in the sense of instrumental) transmission, emerging from improvisatory performance, based on traditional materials (blues chordal patterns). I don’t know enough about jazz to take the resemblance further, but it seemed to me that it was worth pointing out as a process that has flourished in our own culture.

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  16. Robin Herbert

    I used to work in a college which had students from all over the world, particularly from Asia, ie Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Papuan etc. I don’t buy that there is such a disparity in mental states between me and them. I once met a guy at the airport who had never been outside of his Papua New Guinea highland village before this and talking with him was no different to talking with someone who grew up next door to me, and this was pre- internet. I had a friend who had just recently arrived in Australia from China and his father was an officer in the Red Guard. Again, I got on with him fine, some political disagreements about the freedom allowed by the Chinese government but no sign whatsoever of this ‘mental divide’.

    So I have no evidence at all that I am misinterpreting their mental states and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. There are some cultural conventions that we have to recognise are different, but that is it.

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  17. Robin Herbert

    I am still reading the Odyssey and I took my son to see “Rogue One” last night (to my mind the best Star Wars film since the original) and it got me to thinking of the parallels. You could easily apply Feyerabend’s words to the Star Wars saga:

    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.”

    Microscopic daemons in the case of Star Wars.

    Was the Odyssey, then, the Star Wars of its period? Should we read too much into the saga that gripped the people of that world any more than we would like to be defined by Star Wars? The Odyssey has more recognisable human emotion than the Star Wars films ever had, with the possible exception of this latest one.

    I accept that there is a difference in that a modern audience does not think that the Force is real (most don’t in any case) whereas the original audience for the Odyssey would have accepted the Olympic pantheon as real (most of them in any case).

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  18. marc levesque

    Massimo,

    “While I do share your skepticism about Feyerabend’s and others’ take on unitary vs non-unitary conceptions of self, soul, etc., it surely is also the case that those concepts are — to some extent at the least — a cultural construction”

    Absolutely, I agree with that and most of what he says, and I also think science is very much of a culturally directed construction.

    “It then stands to reason that different cultures will have different takes on them”

    I agree, I’m thinking between different cultures at a specific time and within cultures through time. But in that, I had trouble following his example because it reminded me of an idea, one that I think he also disagreed with (at least partly), that goes something like ‘individuality evolved from our more primitive (as in more irrational) social past’.

    I’m looking forward to your next installments, and then hopefully I can comment more coherently.

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  19. SocraticGadfly

    Marc, I think I know the general neighborhood where you’re coming from. Within a mythic point of view on the world, rationality operates somewhat like a coherence theory of truth within that point of view, and so, calling the past “primitive (as in more irrational)” isn’t necessarily totally true. And, per 1600s/1700s Europe, that’s why empiricism and rationalism best work as complementaries.

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  20. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    Most definitely Star Wars is the Homeric poem of our time. Lucas was directly inspired by Homer. And I agree that Rogue One was pretty good, though for the life of me I can’t figure out why they gave only two scenes to Darth Vader and pinned much of the rest on a very uninteresting minor villain…

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  21. Robin Herbert

    I guess they are going for the banality of evil thing. Don’t underestimate how much of the evil of this world is perpetrate by just such dull, quarrelling, ambitious middle managers.

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  22. wtc48

    Marc and Robin, on understanding various cultures: there’s plenty of evidence that the barriers between geographically distant present-day cultures are very slight, so that we are all somewhat fungible in work and society, even as our languages are all more or less mutually translatable. The effect of temporal distance between us and earlier cultures is harder to evaluate, lacking time travel. Probably the word “primitive” is meaningless in understanding the intellectual point of view of people like the classical Greeks, who are relatively recent, being millennia away from the origins of civilization and even further from the beginnings of language. However, the cultural distinctions pointed out by Feyerabend are a most provocative departure from traditional points of view. Tom Holland, in his
    interesting treatment of the end of the Roman republic, “Rubicon,” characterizes the Romans as having little sense of an interior life, regarding an individual entirely in the light of reputation, which is quite a jolt to anyone brought up in the post-Freudian era.

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  23. brodix

    wtc,

    Than again it can be overdone. There are reasons why the will is supposed to govern the desires.

    Possibly much of what is described in terms of the spirits grew from the ancients experience of the interior.

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  24. Robin Herbert

    Hi, wtc48

    We don’t have a time machine, but we have the literature. It seems to me that, in the absence of any other evidence, the recognisability of the emotions expressed there suggests that there is no great psychological gulf.

    And we have the fact that other cultures, with whom we seem to share a common psychology, were separated from other cultures for as long as 50,000 years.

    Until I can see what Feyeraband is seeing in the Homeric works (rather than, as it seems, the opposite), the simplest interpretation seems to me that psychologically the ancients were not very different from us.

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  25. SocraticGadfly

    On the other hand, Robin, as an example, the fact that what the West calls schizophrenia, per the WEIRD theory, is simply not identified as such in many cultures, might militate against your reading.

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