Book Review: Language and Myth – by Ernst Cassirer – translated by Susanne K. Langer (Dover 1946, 1953)
This is an early work. The translator’s preface notes that Cassirer was interested in a theory of knowledge and wanted to include mythical knowledge emphasizing philosophical interpretations and implications of myth. Thus, the book can be considered a study in epistemology. He discovered that language is more a reflection of mythmaking than of rationalism. As she states it:
“Language as “the symbolization of thought, exhibits two entirely different modes of thought. Yet in both modes the mind is powerful and creative. It expresses itself in different forms, one of which is discursive logic, the other creative imagination.”
Conception leads to symbolic expression. The symbols become the body of the idea. Ideas become language and ideas become myth or stories, both symbolic expressions. Language and myth likely co-evolved and continue to do so. Myths are figurative. Logic and reason are more literal. Language leads to both modes of thought. She says Cassirer came to realize a true philosophy of mind requires both a theory of knowledge and a theory of prelogical conception and expression. She seems to suggest that logic is a more evolved form than myth/prelogic. Not sure I agree or if it matters.
Cassirer notes that name and etymology has always been intertwined with myth, that name and essence are intimately related. He mentions Herbert Spencer’s idea of the mythico-religious veneration of natural phenomena and philologist Max Mueller who considered myth to be attempts to account for things where language itself was inadequate. Mueller noted that etymologies and the sounds of words could support mythic relations between things. Mueller said:
“Mythology is inevitable, it is natural, it is an inherent necessity of language, if we recognize in language the outward form and manifestation of thought; it is in fact the dark shadow which language throws upon thought, and which can never disappear till language becomes entirely commensurate with thought, which it never will.….. Mythology, in the highest sense, is the power exercised by language on thought in every possible sphere of mental activity.”
For Mueller, however, he says, myth is more based on mental deception imposed by language. It is the view that myth, and all art for that matter, is an illusory imitation of reality, a form of idealization that is subjective. Myth, as a form of symbolism, is necessarily at a remove from reality and could potentially obscure what it intends to reveal. All conceptual knowledge, which derives from symbolism that builds concepts, is subject to the limitations of language. Thus, all conceptual knowledge is some level of fiction, some level of suggestion rather than fact and its value is determined by its usefulness in the “real” world. Cassirer disagrees that myth, language, art, and science are mere imitation but that they are also useful ‘ways of seeing.’ Modern writers who agree often refer to the “mythic mind.” As ways of seeing they are symbolic forms unto themselves, not imitations but organs of reality. They are ideational forms. Myth is not merely subjective imitation of the objective as Mueller would have it but a subjective reality unto itself. As such, interpretation of myth cannot be confined to mere reworking of objective reality or natural phenomena. He says: “… it is not a question of what we see in a certain perspective, but of the perspective itself.”
Without language, how can we make concepts? We can’t. Thus, all knowledge, or at least all conceptual knowledge is language-based. According to Cassirer:
“The insight into the determining and discriminating function, which myth as well as language perform in the mental construction of our world of “things,” seems to be all that a “philosophy of symbolic forms” can teach us.”
Usener depicted the study of myth as necessarily the study of epistemology, the study of knowledge itself and Cassirer sets out to see if that is true. Does knowing the origins of mythic idea lead to understanding their nature and importance? He goes through Usener’s classifications in his study of language and religion. Usener distinguished three phases in mythological conception. The first and oldest is momentary deities. These refer to spontaneous and instantaneous feelings of the holiness of something. It is intuition that appears and disappears. They do not personify a force of nature, rather they are qualities and parts of life we exalt into deified forms. Usener’s examples were Reason and Understanding, Wealth, Chance, Climax, Feasting, Wine, Or the Body of the Beloved … They arise from spontaneous feelings. Beyond the momentary deities are the special gods, or functional gods, those associated with specific groups, activities, places, and events. Everything has its divine patron in the classical paganisms. Such gods are invoked by their names, which verifies language and myth as twins. Beyond the special gods are the personal gods, which are imbued with not just names but with personalities much like the humans who conceived them. Naming precedes conception which precedes understanding.
The act of naming something is a kind of conceiving, a kind of mental creation. He talks about “ideational synthesis” our ways of making concepts. This comes about normally through discursive thought. He also talks about two logical modes of thought: the individualizing mode of history vs. the generalizing mode of science. History seeks out the “here and now” while science seeks out general rules.
As well as logical conception there is also mythical conception. Linguistic conception is more aligned to mythical than to logical conception, he notes. Mythical and linguistic conception do not proceed discursively. In logic, everything is categorized and related specifically. Mythical-linguistic thought does not proceed discursively but “under the spell of a mythico-religious attitude.” According to Usener when explaining the momentary gods:
“In absolute immediacy, the individual phenomenon is deified, without the intervention of the most rudimentary class concept; that one thing you see before you, that and nothing else is the god.”
Cassirer mentions Hamann’s dictum: that poetry is “the mother tongue of humanity,” that the origin of language derives from the poetic aspect of life. Myth is entwined with poetry. Before logical thought comes mythical images. Language also has practical aspects related to what the people do. Cowherders have well-developed cowherding words and ideas but poor agricultural ones. Likely too, their myths involve cows and not agriculture. Usener thought that all general terms in language went through a mythical phase. One example he used is that of nouns that are gendered, being once strongly associated with or as gods and goddesses.
“… it is evident that myth and language play similar roles in the evolution of thought from momentary experience to enduring conceptions, from sense impression to formulation and that their respective functions are mutually conditioned.”
Cassirer was insightful enough to notice the magical powers of words, that words are rooted in mythico-religious ideas. Later writers like David Abrams also noted the animism embedded in everyday language. In many religions, including shamanistic, Ancient Egyptian, and even Judeo-Christian ones, the Word is considered sacred and co-emergent with God or gods. The Word is the first way Chaos is transmuted into Cosmos. Modern sybils and mages may meditate and do magic rituals in order to “receive” special words related to their rites.
In particular, the name of someone was magically powerful. Isis was able to gain power over the great sun god Ra simply by knowing his secret name. Magicians will recall the magical powers of the Hebrew letters. In Tantra it is sometimes said that the seed syllable of a deity is itself the simplest form of that deity. The Ancient Egyptians considered one’s magical name, the Ren, as a component of one’s soul. New initiations and rites of passage often involve new names. Roman slaves were denigrated as nameless, or at least were not allowed legal names. Deities are addressed in certain ritualistic ways including the magic of their names. The names of heroes and kings are remembered and recited. On the other hand, in some eastern teachings it is said we can be attached to names which increases delusion. Particularly, we succumb to nama rupa, name and form, mistaking names or labels or symbols for the things they represent. Babylonians described Chaos as the time and realm where things were unnamed.
Discursive thought does not just define terms but also establishes and examines relationships between words and ideas. It also explores similarities and differences via metaphor (as does myth). It is analytical and synthetical. It looks at the parts and the whole. Mythic conception, however, does not involve such relationships between words and ideas and is a wholly different kind of thinking. It is not logical but imaginative. Whatever momentary god enraptures us with its mystery and awe inspires our imagination. It is far more a subjective reality than an objective one. Magic suggests that what is named becomes real, that a symbol does not just point to a reality but is also a reality. In some contexts, this is considered dangerous. Mistaking a symbol for what it represents, for its meaning, is useless in logic and discursive thinking but standard practice in mythical thought.
Cassirer suggests that since Usener’s time etymology studies came a long way. He notes various ethnic studies which indicate that animism, that all objects (and ideas) contain magical spirits (ie., mana). Such ideas inform ritual prescriptions and taboos. He mentions Marett’s early 20th century idea that this “Taboo-Mana Formula” was regarded as the “minimum definition of religion.” Mythic thought takes impersonal forces and personalizes them, with names and attributes and finally with stories where they have anthropomorphic characteristics. Thus, such forces take form as they are named and given attributes. However, he notes that while what is considered as divine may have attributes in its various parts, when considered as a whole it is without attributes. Thus, the divine becomes something that is beyond words and concepts. This idea is most common among so-called mystics who are said to attain some kind of ineffable unity with the divine. Thus, the beginnings of divinity and how it is considered holistically are at odds. The way he says it is that language, originated co-emergent with myth and its attributes, leads eventually to that last step where divinity transcends language. This is true of ancient thought as well as modern thought. Ancient Egyptian priests spoke of the “hidden god,” or the unknown god without attributes or name. Ancient Greek philosophers recognized the unity of Being that transcended the parts of Being defined as the various gods. The relationship of the One to the Many was a key study of theirs. This might be seen as the Primum Mobil or as the idea of monotheism embedded in a polytheistic belief system. Cassirer seems to suggest that it is a natural progression, an evolution of sorts, where polytheism eventually becomes monotheism. Thus, the assumptions (false in my opinion) that monotheism is somehow superior or more evolved than polytheism. In Babylon, Egypt, and India the declaration “I am …” identifies the hidden holistic God with the Self.
“It is only by this transformation of objective existence into subjective being that the Deity is really elevated to the “absolute” realm, to a state that cannot be expressed through any analogy with things or names of things.”
I should note that Buddhists would call this an erroneous view, that of the extreme called eternalism – the notion that there is an eternally existing unchanging God or Self. The opposite extreme is called nihilism – the notion that there is no meaningful existence of any thing or idea. He notes that the Upanishads liberated the previous Indian notions of the Vedas that exact ritual and exact word was a necessity of true religious thought. The Upanishads are less concerned with the relativism of ritual and more concerned with the absoluteness of Being itself.
The last chapter is called – The Power of Metaphor. Cassirer notes that metaphorical thinking shows both the similarities and differences of myth and language. As often noted, metaphor links language and myth. He notes that Mueller and his school saw mythology as appearing as a result of language. The “root metaphor” that underlies all myth was a verbal phenomenon. Other say myth preceded language. Cassirer sees them as two gradually diverging notions with the same root. He sees myth and language as co-emergent. Usener noted:
“Sense impressions are what the self receives from its encounter with the not-self. And the liveliest of these naturally strive for vocal expression.”
Thus, Usener has it that vocal expression derives from his notion of the momentary gods defined as “the spiritual excitement caused by some object [or event].”
Again, Cassirer contrasts logic with myth-language, with both linguistic and mythic conception. Logic yields to further analysis, but mythic and linguistic conception do not. Logic is basically a system of rules for handling concepts. Logic is quantitative but myth and language are qualitative such that every part of the whole contains the whole in a sense.
Sympathetic magic as the magic of analogy is based on the idea that a part can suffice for the whole. A simple example is sprinkling water on the ground to make rain. Another is the notion among some Native Americans that the corn god lives in every grain of corn. Thus, one of the main types of metaphor is substitution of a part for the whole. Language itself has a metaphorical function. That function is not a part of language but inherent in all language. Thus, metaphor is inseparable from language. Language is conceived on the basis of sense experiences and so the meanings to words are also given on the basis of sense experiences. He gives several examples. One is the Egyptian sun god Horus. The sun flies across the sky like a bird flies across the sky. Horus is represented with the head of a hawk. Of course, the sun is not a bird but like a bird in the sense that he flies across the sky every day. Language and myth feed one another and are fed by one another.
In contrast, in logic words are relegated to mere conceptual signs. Art also was once bound up inseparably with myth (and shamanism). Words were once wholly word magic and pictures wholly picture magic. Yet there is one form of word exploration that retains its relation to the mythic realm, that of poetry, particularly lyrical poetry. Lyrical poetry lives simultaneously in the realms of language and myth, without being under the exclusive control of either.
Overall, this is a quite interesting foray into the nature of both myth and language.