In the first chapter of Before Philosophy, Henri and Henriette Frankfort pointed out that the language of myth, which they called “speculative thought,” isn’t so common these days, because science.
In our own time speculative thought finds its scope more severely limited than it has been at any other period. For we possess in science another instrument for the interpretation of experience, one that has achieved marvels and retains its full fascination.
As a result:
We do not allow speculative thought, under any circumstances, to encroach upon the sacred precincts of science. It must not trespass on the realm of verifiable fact; and it must never pretend to a dignity higher than that of working hypotheses, even in the fields in which it is permitted some scope.
Science is cool and I like it a lot. But it’s also sort of monopolized the search for truth, and that’s a problem.
For the ancients, science was no obstacle, because they hadn’t invented it yet. So “speculation found unlimited possibilities for development; it was not restricted by a scientific (that is, a disciplined) search for truth,” the Frankforts said.
Well so what?
If after reading that, you’re thinking “speculation” sounds pretty useless and science is an obvious improvement, take a pause. Any paradigm looks dumb when viewed from the comfort of some other paradigm. After all, you’re judging it by rules it never set out to follow.
Let’s explore a different way to see it. Let’s look at how the author and Archdruid John Michael Greer described the lifecycle of human civilizations. (This is going to come full-circle in about two shakes.)
In Greer’s view, the story of a civilization plays out in three broad phases:
- Unicorn time reminds me of what the Frankforts are talking about: a world teeming with elusive, emotionally-charged images of truth, which don’t all fit together, yet compel you deeply: hints of something real but inexpressible.
- Phoenix time is defined by the effort to tie up all those loose ends and reconcile the contradictions into a rich, coherent tapestry, where concrete images and abstract ideas interpenetrate in “an exuberant cultural and intellectual flowering.”
- Dragon time is when truth is guarded and catalogued in a detailed but rigid system that leaves no room for fresh visions, if they contradict what it’s already confirmed. It’s a time when abstract concepts “dominate human consciousness and suppress magic — for a time.”
Here’s Greer again:
Take a few minutes to think about these three mythological images, and to relate them to the historical periods to which I’ve assigned them; among other things, you might just begin to grasp some sense of the power of emotionally charged mental representations as a tool of thinking.
Which is exactly the Frankforts’ point.
Dragons are a drag for the other magical beasts
We live in Dragon time. I should probably say upfront that there’s nothing wrong with dragons.
In fact, if you’re creative, you probably experience all three phases whenever you’re making a new piece of work. The expansive phase, when inspiration flows freely and new ideas spring up, impalpable and fleeting. The working phase, when you’re bending those ideas toward one another, trying to make sense out of the living brew. The polishing phase, when you’re cementing what you’ve created into a finished piece and doing your best not to kill the original spark in so doing.
Where art is concerned, each phase is useful and necessary. I expect the same goes for civilizations. For worldviews though, I prefer the Unicorn. Maybe a Unicorn that’s moving toward a Phoenix. Or a Phoenix that’s in love with a Unicorn.
In any case, when the Dragon voice of modern empiricism laughs at speculative thought, looks down on ancient and tribal worldviews, and claims exclusive access to truth and knowledge, I find it constraining, dulling. When the Frankforts describe the primitive worldview of the ancient Egyptians, I feel I’ve come home.
I see value in speculative thought. Not in place of science, but alongside it, concurrently and without conflict.
As I said at the outset, science is cool. It’s invaluable. I love how clean and incontrovertibly-elucidating it has the potential to be. But when its fundamentalist disciples — those who treat it like the only thing of value, hammering it into the shape of some weird religion — use science to dismiss and ridicule the speculative thought of primitive mind, I find that just a bit outrageous.
There is extraordinary value to be found in these other paradigms. Bottom line, Dragons are not the only magical beast in the forest.