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Mythos and Logos: An Introduction to Philosophical Approaches to Myth

Lecturer: James Kent

Originally Taught: Summer School 2020

The history of western philosophy has been marked by a grappling with the concept of ‘myth’ since Plato made use of the abstract noun mythologia. As the scholar Kathryn Morgan has argued, the familiar binary distinction that is often invoked between mythos and logos, is “a function of the rise of philosophical self-consciousness.” The aim of this course is to offer an overview of some of the notable philosophers that dealt with the ‘problem’ of myth: the early modern Italian thinker Giambattista Vico, the Frankfurt School scholars Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, and finally the German post-war thinker, Hans Blumenberg.

The intention is not to trace an explicit genealogical think between these philosophers (although many do owe intellectual debts to each other).  Rather, the goal is to examine the different ways in which these thinkers approached the ways myth shapes our history, and our capacity to be rational. These thinkers articulate heterogenous uses of the concept ‘myth’. If there is one point of affinity between them, however, it is their interest in how a renewed problematisation of myth leads to a reappraisal of how our past histories inform our agency as moral creatures. Naturally, given their different views on ‘myth’, there emerges a correspondingly different view of ‘the past’ and how it interacts with the present. As I will show, their respective discussions of myth draw out important implications for what it means to be a rational agent living in a particular historical moment.

The course is aimed at an advanced undergraduate, or postgraduate level. Many of the texts covered are demanding and will require a reasonable degree of commitment. Although some familiarity with the continental tradition would be helpful, no formal philosophical training is necessary. Seminars will be organised around a lecture (about one hour and fifteen minutes, depending on the topic) followed by guided discussion over the intricacies of each text.

Week One: Mûthos and Mythologia: Greek Conceptions of Myth

The first week will offer an overview of the development of the concept of myth in Ancient Greece, from the Homeric use of the term mûthos, meaning “true narration”, to Plato’s use of the abstract noun mythologia. The intention is to offer a broad introduction to the beginnings of the Western notion of ‘myth’, in order to contextualise the concepts, texts and thinkers of subsequent weeks. 

The focus will be on excerpts from Homer and Plato in order to highlight the transition of ‘myth’ from a broad, all encompassing form of efficacious, authoritative speech act, to something with a largely abstract, pejorative association. As is so often argued in traditional stories of historical progress, this transition was not merely an intellectual one, but a reflection of material changes in Greek culture, and socio-political life. This seminar will highlight some of those changes and draw attention to how these changing attitudes coloured Western philosophy’s subsequent understanding of myth.

Due to the fragmented nature of the excerpts of Homer and Plato, some context will be lost. Take your time with these readings, we will go over them in more detail in the class. (Please note that the secondary readings are particularly relevant for this week, but we will go through some of the major themes in the lecture too).

Reading: Homer, The Odyssey, Book Nine (trans. Emily Wilson

Plato, Republic, Book II, 376c -383c, 611b-621d

Secondary Reading: Kathryn Morgan, “Theoretical Issues,” Myth and Philosophy from the Presocratics to Plato (Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 2000), 15-45

Adam Nicolson, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (London: William Collins, 2014), 54-67.

Week Two: Frailty and Divine Providence: Vico’s Scienza Nuova

The second week will offer an overview of Giambattista’s Vico’s theory of myth, focusing in particular on his magnum opus, the Scienza Nuova (The New Science), an often overlooked classic of the early-modern period. Instead of the singular rationalising ego that discerns clear and distinct ideas that Descartes describes, Vico depicts truth and meaning as emerging out of humanity’s communal, socio-cultural practices. At the root of these practices is myth. Vico’s theory of myth can be divided into two parts; an aesthetic, and a historical dimension. The aesthetic part refers to Vico’ argument that myth is a reflection of an imaginative, poetic faculty that emerged in human life before reason. The historical dimension argues that its primary role as a mediator of human experience, leaves traces in history that subsequently contribute to myths remaining of value to a socio-cultural community.

Because Vico considered myth to offer an historical iteration of reason’s limitations and fallibility, he considered it philosophy’s role to find a ‘way out’ of those historically conditioned limitations, a case of uncovering the presence of ‘divine providence’ in the world. This involved recognising both “the boundaries of human reason [and the fact that] transgressing them means abandoning our humanity.” These ideas remain of interest because at their core is the argument that the ongoing ‘life’ of myth shows that the past is not something that is bypassed, but always ‘present’ in the present. For Vico, an engagement with myth on those terms makes up the primary work of philosophy.

Reading: Giambattista Vico, “Idea of the Work,” “Poetic Metaphysics,” in The New Science (trans. David Marsh), 1-29; 144-156.

Secondary Reading: Joseph Mali, “The Vico Road”, Mythistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 61-84.

Week Three: Walter Benjamin on Myth and Storytelling

The third week will discuss Benjamin’s conception of myth and compare it to his discussion of storytelling. The main texts discussed will be his essay Critique of Violence (1921) and The Storyteller (1936). For Benjamin, the ‘violence’ of myth is something that “bursts” into human life “from the ambiguous sphere of fate.” In contradistinction, storytelling refers to the exchange of human experiences deposited in the oral traditions left to history, a domain in which the “exchange [of] experience” could temper the often terrifying presence of fate in earthly life. Benjamin insists that the capacity to tell stories is, “the securest among our possessions”, embodying the most powerful disenchantment of “the nightmare which myth had placed upon [humankind’s] chest.”

In this lecture, I propose that a way to conceive of the relation between ‘myth’ and ‘storytelling’ in Benjamin’s corpus can be grounded in his theory of language, specifically its mimetic origins. Benjamin’s account of mimesis can be understood as an attempt to outline the ways in which the original matrixes of relations that were established between the body and the world (i.e. forms of experience), were deposited in language, and therefore continue to mediate meaning in linguistic exchange. I will suggest that comparing these two categories help distinguish more precisely what Benjamin meant when he deployed the term ‘myth’ and, further, how he understood the ways in which humans seek to liberate themselves from it via the telling of stories.

Reading: Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: Volume 1, “Critique of Violence”, trans. Edmund Jephcott, 236-252

Selected Writings: Volume 3, “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”, trans. Harry Zohn, 143-166.

Secondary Reading: Gary Smith (ed), “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Myth,” in On Walter Benjamin: Critical Essays and Recollections (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 292-328.

Week Four: The Dialectic of Enlightenment: Horkheimer and Adorno on Myth and Rationality.

The fourth week will discuss Horkheimer and Adorno’s now famous argument regarding the dialectic of enlightenment by focusing on their treatment of myth. I suggest that the arguments regarding myth in Dialectic of Enlightenment can be divided into two not entirely reconcilable parts. The first approaches myth allegorically, as an insight into the emergence of human subjectivity. The second deals with Horkheimer and Adorno’s recognition that myth provides fragmented historical insights into real forms of life that past humans were deeply attached to, and which they abandoned only with great reluctance.

This latter perspective on myth allows us to the see the historically determined ways in which myth (and thus reason) came to be entwined into socio-cultural systems of domination. This also highlights the extent to which myth reflects momentary glimpses of other forms of human life, that were extinguished in the passage of time. My contention is that the authors offer an understanding of myth, not just as a reflection of domination, but also a locus in which humans come to engage with both the disasters and irretrievable possibilities of their pasts as a source of rational, and therefore moral, engagement.

Reading: Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, “The Concept of Enlightenment” and “Excursus I: Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott, 1-62.

Secondary Reading: Lewis, Pericles. “The ‘True’ Homer: Myth and Enlightenment in Vico, Horkheimer and Adorno.” New Vico Studies 10 (1992): 24-35.

Week Five: Hans Blumenberg and the Work of/on Myth.

The fifth week will centre around Hans Blumenberg’s discussion of myth in his Work on Myth. While the other thinkers discussed in this course understood that myth was not simply a manifestation of straightforward irrationalism, this did not preclude their approach to myth being structured around a liberation from it. Hans Blumenberg, however, can typically be read as either explicitly resistant, or at best ambivalent, to framing myth in this manner. Blumenberg’s fundamental claim regarding myth is that it is created to alleviate anxiety (Angst). He speculates that early hominid creatures, maladapted to the rigours of life on the savannah, were overcome by the totalising effect of an “indefinite anticipation”, or anxiety. Blumenberg calls the initial situation that had to be overcome the “absolutism of reality” (Absolutismus der Wirklichkeit).

Blumenberg’s suggestion is that a model that posits myth as a form of relief from anxiety must acknowledge that it succeeds, therefore, in establishing a form of leisure that allows for more complex forms of reflection. What this implies is that the ‘end’ of myth, wherein we are liberated from its grasp by reason, is in itself a fundamentally mythic image and desire. Ultimately, for Blumenberg, a critique of myth was not focused on a question of how to liberate ourselves from it. Rather, it attempted to recognise the ways in which the intellectual and political hopes of liberation and enlightenment were in themselves predicated on, and conditioned by, the history of mythic images that have been conjured by human beings in the passage of history.

Reading: Hans Blumenberg, “After the Absolutism of Reality”, “To Bring to an End, If Not Myth, Then at Least One Myth,” Work on Myth, trans. Robert M. Wallace, 3-32; 627-637.

Secondary Reading: Robert M. Wallace, “Translator’s Introduction” to Work on Myth, vii-xxxvi.