I mentioned I’ve been reading Before Philosophy by Henri and Henriette Frankfort, et al. And I mentioned it’s one of my favorite treatises on mythology. What I didn’t mention is the lights-on moment I got the first time I picked up this book, which is … well, apparently I’ve got a primitive worldview. I think I see the world from a mythological frame of mind, rather than from a contemporary empirical one. Well that explains some things, I thought.
In today’s post, I want to start compiling the passages I like best, the ones that define what it means to interact with the world mythologically. Here goes.
There’s more than one way to think
The Frankforts’ goal in Chapter I, “Myth and Reality,” is to make the case that while the ancients hadn’t yet invented philosophy, they did engage in speculative thought. By “ancients,” they mean ancient Egyptians. By “speculative thought,” they mean thinking.
These days, we generally equate thinking with abstract analysis. But the Frankforts aren’t talking about that. Instead, they’re talking about a kind of thinking that’s “wrapped in imagination,” an “intuitive, an almost visionary, mode of apprehension.”
That doesn’t mean they’re talking about fantasy: a “mere irresponsible meandering of the mind, which ignores reality or seeks to escape from its problems,” the Frankforts said. Speculative thought is “distinct from mere idle speculation in that it never breaks entirely away from experience.” It does transcend experience, “but only because it attempts to explain, to unify, to order experience.”
Speculative thought, in other words, has a serious goal. But instead of working along disciplined, abstract lines, it speaks a language of images and makes intuitive leaps.
This kind of thought assumes personhood
For me, this is a big one. I see personhood in everything. Back to the Frankforts:
“The fundamental difference between the attitudes of modern and ancient man as regards the surrounding world is this: for modern, scientific man the phenomenal world is primarily an ‘It’; for ancient — and also for primitive — man it is a ‘Thou.'”
What does it mean to see the world as Thou? To explain that, the Frankforts contrasted three ways of interacting with the world:
- When you (a subject) examine something (an object). This interaction is “the basis of all scientific thinking; it alone makes scientific knowledge possible.”
- When you understand someone. This is “the curiously direct knowledge” we get when we confront another living being and recognize “its fear, let us say, or its anger.”
- When I participate with Thou. This third interaction “hovers between the active judgement and the passive ‘undergoing of an impression’; between the intellectual and the emotional, the articulate and the inarticulate.” It’s not strictly active or passive. It’s reciprocal. Because it assumes that the world — existence itself — is alive.
The Frankforts quoted Crawley: “Primitive man has only one mode of thought, one mode of expression, one part of speech — the personal.”
Lest it go unsaid, this way of thinking is not reducible to anthropomorphism. It’s not that “primitive man, in order to explain natural phenomena, imparts human characteristics to an inanimate world,” but that “[he] simply does not know an inanimate world,” the Frankforts said.
Here’s where it gets good:
“The world appears to primitive man neither inanimate nor empty but redundant with life; and life has individuality, in man and beast and plant, and in every phenomenon which confronts man — the thunderclap, the sudden shadow, the eerie and unknown clearing in the wood, the stone which suddenly hurts him when he stumbles … ‘Thou’ is not contemplated with intellectual detachment; it is experienced as life confronting life, involving every faculty of man in a reciprocal relationship.”
When I read that last bit, I thought oh wow. They just described how my mind works.
People keep telling me I’m logical — to the point that I’m sick of it, because usually it feels they’re saying I’m all mind, no heart, no skin. I admit, I love to argue: that’s something I as a small kid deliberately set out to learn how to do. But all my life, as long as I can remember, I’ve seen the world first and last in this personal way. I’ve assumed a Thou, never an It. I’ve analyzed a lot and had fun analyzing, but my most important thoughts — the ones most valuable to me — have happened in images, in leaps, clothed in feeling.
This first chapter was, by itself, enough to put the Frankforts’ book on my favorites list. It’s an amazing thing to find out that someone understands you. That there’s a name for you. It makes you feel that you exist.