Academic Mythologies

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Listen to two Christians or two Buddhists, or two Freudians, or two literary critics talking.  In each case, they speak as if what they are saying is deeply felt and obviously true.  In each case, their shared belief system is enshrined in the language they use, and the world of language has replaced the world of experience.  This is rather remarkable.

 

Although we seldom think about it, we inhabit the world of words as much as we inhabit the world of things, and from our earliest experience the world is shaped by our expectations, by the notions of reality that are shared by our culture and enshrined in our language.  As someone has said in a witty parody of Haeckel’s Biogenetic Law:  “ontology recapitulates philology,” our notions of reality restate the content of our language.  As C. Wright Mills says, we all live in second-hand worlds.

 

There are certain things that we must know about the world if we are to survive, and the source of that knowledge is ultimately experience.  primitive people learned that fires burn, that material bodies have weight, and that food rots.  They didn’t directly learn what “burning” is, what “weight” is, or what “rotting” is and eventually gave names to them.  In fact, we didn’t begin to understand such things until after 1600, when oxidation, gravity, and micro-organisms began to take their place in the evolving conceptual and linguistic structure that we call “science.”  This structure is also based on experience, but on experience narrowly controlled, focused on verifiable facts, and directed so as to exclude sources of error; consequently, it is self-correcting over time.  These are the characteristics that set it apart from mythologies.

 

Ironically, in the acquisition of our first experimental knowledge as emerging human beings we were protected by such “sources of error,” which are probably “hard-wired” into us as natural patterns of thinking.  There is the fallacy of hasty generalization.  It isn’t desirable to stick your hand into the fire twice to learn that it causes pain . . . a single experience will tell you that.  We took this pattern further, and if we found that a certain plant made us sick, we shunned plants with similar unusual features, perhaps the shape or color of the leaves or berries.  This is faulty analogy, but it sometimes may have kept us from poisoning ourselves.  Then we took it further yet and began to eat plants with liver-shaped leaves because we believed that they would help in whatever functions we attributed to the liver at the time.  This is magical thinking, and it has no virtues at all, though it appeals to our desire to find “explanations” that connect things.

 

Such reasoning, if you can call it that, didn’t seem to present any practical problems for our ancestors, nor were there problems with the other un-analyzed “facts” of life:  burning, weight, and rotting.  These were just aspects of the world, like the leaves and berries themselves.  But the pattern of analogy that underlies much of this thinking also led to other questions.  We make statues—carvings or clay models—of people and animals.  Who made us?  We teach our children how to plant and plow,  and how to make pots.  Who taught these essential things to our ancestors in the beginning?  Here we have the genesis of mythology and primitive religion.

 

As we elaborate these stories, they become more a part of our lives, like the leaves and berries, and we treat them as if they, too, are among the facts of the world.  Ultimately, we pass them down with the rest of our cultural baggage, protected by the fallacious authority of tradition.  We “know” them to be true because they are enshrined in our language, they are part of the way we view the world, they answer certain needs, and they give us a secure place to which we can retreat in times of uncertainty.

This process of living with concepts until they become a part of everyday reality is the substitution of the world of language for the world of experience, and it occurs in every society.  The interpenetration of symbol and fact becomes so great that people in primitive cultures often cannot separate them.  The anthropologist, Edmund Carpenter, gives many examples of this in his fascinating book, Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!  Perhaps the most striking is the following account:

Akiga, a Tiv of Nigeria who had received a Western education, heard that his father had killed & flayed one of Akiga’s sisters, and given her skin to Akiga’s brother to wear at a ceremonial dance. In his autobiography, Akiga tells how he went to the dance, but saw nothing more than his brother dancing, holding a woman’s filter & his father’s pipe. Yet the following day, the people who had gone to the dance were full of the story of how the brother Hilehaan had danced in his sister’s skin. They weren’t trying to deceive anyone; they were talking among themselves, discussing the important event they had witnessed. They had obviously perceived “the skin of the sister” (in the filter) “who had been flayed by her father” (in the father’s pipe). Only the Western-minded Akiga saw just a filter & a pipe.

The same phenomenon occurs with some of the academic disciplines that people immerse themselves in.

The Freudians are a wonderful example of this.  They, too, have their mythology, which is readily assumed to require no more proof than does the existence of the soul or the presumed therapeutic value of some “natural” herb.  This academic mythology is similar in many ways to the earlier mythologies which have prepared the way for it.  In the eyes of the converts it gives assurance, makes connections, provides “answers,” and has a kind of authority.

 

Somewhere in his General Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud says that he cannot prove the things that he is about to say, but that if we find them congenial we should bear with him.  In actual fact, hundreds of studies performed since the 1940s have shown that people who receive Freudian therapy do not improve any more than people who receive no treatment at all.  Freud based his hypotheses entirely upon his experience with a small number of patients, and they had no checks and balances, no tests of validity.  It isn’t science, but a kind of psychological philosophizing, and it has its appeal for people who want simple, sweeping “answers.”

Patients undergoing Freudian “analysis” are gratified because someone is listening to them.  It is a central tenet of Freudian therapy that the patient’s problems are manifested in coded thinking and in behavior that requires a therapist’s explanation.  Over time, the patients learn to characterize their problems in Freudian terms, and the newly acquired ability to talk easily about them within the dimensions of the Freudian system is confused with self-understanding.  Both therapists and patients end up speaking the same language, dependent upon the system for support.  This is, in fact, a kind of brainwashing.

 

In what essential way do the art critics differ from the Freudians?    They share notions of what art is and how one might reasonably talk about it, notions never tested but assumed to be true because they are uncritical, and it is convenient—and profitable—to do so.  They fail to note that the ability to speak in vacuous, abstract terms does not mean that there is any validity in the things that are said, probably because they are educated in a milieu in which such talk is common.  After a time, these notions become immune to criticism.  Card castles of words become the houses they inhabit, and at last, they are completely at home there.  The windows through which they see the world are just the paintings on the walls.

 

And, of course, we can say the same things about the Christians, and the Buddhists, and many others.

 

Note

The complete text of Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me! can (or could) be found at faculty.virginia.edu.  It is, to a great degree, a collection of anecdotes, many from other cultures, some of these are from his own experience, and many from the news reports of our own culture.