Monday, October 23, 2006

Critique of My False Analogies

Dear Reader,

You are not in as much luck as I predicted. Not only the title of the previous post is confusing, but also the initial parts of my explanation. The second half of the essay, which explains why this principle is necessary to understanding the ancient Greek philosophers, is largely correct, but the preceding explanation of what those two cultures were is misleading. I conflated four different pairs of ideas and omitted a far more direct explanation necessary to understanding that first principle.

Rather than retract, revise, and republish the previous post, we will find it more useful to critique it instead. I am not interested in striving to create an illusion of perfection in my writing. If we are fortunate and disciplined enough, our ideas begin in obscurity but develop greater wisdom and suppleness over time. That is certainly my aim, and exposing my weaknesses is a better way to foster my own development than hiding them.

So what is wrong with the previous attempt to explain the ancient Greek transition from a Mythos culture to a Logos culture?

I tried to explain the dichotomy between the two kinds of cultures by analogizing to three other dichotomies: between the rationalist left-brain and the intuitivist right-brain, between the conscious and the unconscious parts of the mind, and between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. None of these analogies is quite right, and the poor fits confuse. In her comment on my essay, Linda Yaw noted some of the implications of these conflations and questioned whether she was understanding the idea correctly. Her comment helped me realize that although she was understanding what I wrote, what I wrote was not quite right. I will try to improve my explanation first negatively in this post, by explaining the kind of confusion I created, and then positively in the next post, by explaining the difference between the two kinds of culture directly with minimal recourse to analogies to other dichotomies.

The dichotomy between rationalism and intuitivism is not accurate because it is an effect, not a cause, of the difference between Logos and Mythos cultures, nor is it a parallel dichotomy. In a Mythos culture, the emphasis is on traditional wisdom, values, and other norms that have accumulated over long periods of time, rather than on the use of any particular mental faculty. In such a culture, rationalism and intuitivism will have whatever balance of emphasis they naturally acquired within that culture over time. In the case of Greek Mythos-culture, the balance was fairly even, with different aspects of the culture favoring different mental approaches. In a Logos culture, however, the emphasis is on rationalism above all else, leading to a radical imbalance that ultimately erodes all traditional wisdom, values, and other norms. It is not the rationalism per se that leads to this result, as rationalism was already present in the preceding Mythos culture, but rather how and why it is used, which I will explore in the next post.

The dichotomy between consciousness and unconsciousness is far more misleading and yet also paradoxically points to the true issue. All individuals and cultures operate consciously, but that consciousness grows from a far greater unconscious realm: all cultures, so this applies to both Logos and Mythos cultures. With respect to this dichotomy, the difference between them is one of attitude. A Mythos culture reveres and operates consciously within its traditional, inherited, natural, unconscious matrix, but a Logos culture despises and struggles to escape from that matrix. That quest for freedom from the unconscious is ultimately futile and does violence to the integrity of the culture itself, since consciousness is not possible without a healthy unconscious foundation, which I will explore in the next post.

The least revealing analogy was unfortunately the clearest, between the Apollonian and Dionysian. This dichotomy, popular and seemingly coherent though it is, is far more complex and means something quite different than authors or readers realize. It is usually taken to be a richer, more poetic, more mythologized version of the dichotomy between rationalism and intuitivism; that was how I meant it, and that usage was wrong for the reasons described above. The more serious error is that Apollonianism and Dionysianism, although intended to describe the differences between left-brained and right-brained mentalities, do nothing of the sort. Instead they describe a whole-brained mentality's wistful, romanticized fantasy of what those two modes might be like; the truth of the two half-wit, crack-brained mentalities is far darker and more dysfunctional than the Apollonian and Dionysian fantasies allow. All three mentalities, the whole-brained and both half-brained imbalances, exist in both Logos and Mythos cultures, but in different ratios. A Mythos culture will have whatever proportion of these three mentalities in its population that naturally developed there, but a Logos culture will tend to elevate left-brained mentalities to domination over the right-brained, with the whole-brained mentalities marginalized. None of this corresponds to a simple Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy, even if that dichotomy had any validity outside the realm of poetry. Explaining Logos and Mythos culture using these terms was quite unhelpful.

Stripping these three false analogies back out of my explanation, we are still left with the original pair in the dichotomy underlying this first principle: Mythos culture and Logos culture. Aside from the confusion introduced by trying to explain them in terms of three supposedly analogous dichotomies, the most important problem is that in doing so I danced around the heart of the matter. Rather than draw further analogies to other dichotomies I will do better to explain Mythos and Logos cultures in terms of what they have in common; they are cultures first of all, so explaining them should begin with the nature and function of culture before contrasting their divergent expressions of it. I hope my next post will explain this crucial first principle underlying ancient Greek philosophy far more clearly.

Yours truly,

Postscript: And I hope I get my explanation of the second principle right the first time.