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Saturday, October 18, 2008


In my earlier essay "Cassirer vs. the Great Divide," I referenced Ernst Cassirer's proposition that human beings' abilities to express concepts and to discern facts were separate but complementary attributes of human nature as such. However, not for the first time I find myself arguing with people on the subject of this complementarity. For those of my opponents who constantly argue that facts alone are of consequence, I've devised the term "naive positivists," to indicate that they're basically aligned with the philosophy of positivism even if they've no actual acquaintance with any philosophical movements whatsoever.

I'll first point out that an appreciation for the necessity of factual nature is not limited to human experience. Many if not all animals are ceaselessly engaged in testing their environment in their efforts to learn what elements of that environment may help or harm them. To pick one example, the arctic wolf that tests a snow-drift with a cautious paw is certainly performing his own test of his surrounding reality, even if he lacks the advanced tools of the modern scientist.

What clearly (to me) separates human beings from other animals is that in addition to gleaning facts based on immediate sensory experiece, humans possess a higher level of cognition that allows them to form concepts through which sensory experience (and maybe non-sensory as well, depending on one's philosophical outlook) is organized. This cognitive ability has nothing to do with the oft-touted "experimental method" of science, which is at base only an elaborated version of the wolf's cautious-paw test. If the cognitive ability to form concepts is not present, the human being is not able to extrapolate his findings into any greater structure of understanding.

Now, inasmuch as conceptual formulation is communicated through human language, and not all linguistic functions are identical, it follows that some formulations will be different from one another.

Cassirer's insufficiently-appreciated contribution to modern philosophy was to articulate the notion of what he called "symbolic forms" of human endeavor through which human beings organize their concepts in order to better communicate them. Cassirer recognizes art, science and myth/religion as distinct "symbolic forms." Naive positivists generally are of the opinion that because facts alone matter, and science is the unquestioned form through which facticity can be determined, science in effect is the sole mode of right knowledge. What makes this a naive belief is a willed ignorance as to the evolution of human cognition through the two main linguistic functions with which I'm concerned, the metaphor and the metonymy.

Northrop Frye's book THE GREAT CODE contains a useful contrast of the two, where he speaks (on page 7) of "the metaphor, with its sense of identity of life or power or energy between man and nature ('this is that')" and contrasts it to the "relationship that is rather metonymic ('this is put for that.') Metaphors are defined by a posited similarity between two or more "heterogenous natures"(as Carl Jung calls them), while metonymy functions by contiguity and implied homogeneity. "Your eyes are like sapphires" is a metaphor that draws together two heterogenous natures; "she sets a good table" is a metonymy in which "table" stands in for "everything that's on the table." Of the two symbolic forms I'm concerned with here-- myth and science-- myth is essentially governed by metaphor while science is governed by metonymy.

One may imagine early primtive humans' reactions to any aspect of nature-- for simplicity, I'll use the sun, as it's an aspect of nature one cannot readily lay hands on-- as an attempt to conceptualize the phenomenon of the sun within a relateable human cosmology. This is of course not "failed science," as early interpreters of myth thought. Aspects of the sun's factual nature-- that it appears to coast across the sky and descend into darkness-- are never meant to be "explained" by, say, the myth of Ra the sun-god crossing the sky in a sun-boat. The sun-boat is a poetic metaphor for the unknown nature of the sun, but its unknown nature is worth speculating on only insofar as the culture can imagine the sun's nature being metaphorically relevant to mankind. For other astral phenomena that have no discernible impact on the human situation, such as the movements of the stars, human culture must attempt an even more elaborate conceptual framework to give such an unknown nature human relevance.

Now, when the Greek proto-scientist Aristarchus argued for the notion that the earth revolved around the sun (and he is to my knowledge the earliest so credited), he had no more ability to minutely examine the sun's nature than did the Egyptian myth-maker, and whatever instruments Aristarchus may have used to make his determinations would not have matched the complexity of modern fact-finding technology. What Aristarchus did was as much a conceptual speculation as that of the Egyptian myth-maker, but one aimed in the opposite direction. Rather than seeing the sun as something distinct from ordinary experience, he viewed the sun as being contiguous with earthly rules, as just one more object that could be measured. This is in essence metonymy, which argues for association on the basis of contiguity. The sun is not a phenomenon distinct from other phenomena, or even associated with only a few other especially-relevant phenomena, as Ra's boat may be associated with Horus or Bast or other gods given some role to play in the solar procession. "The sun" for Aristarchus signifies not just the ball of glowing light in the sky, but "is put for" the totality of scientific laws governing the physical universe which simply happen to eventuate in the particular phenomenon that Aristarchus is studying.

Cassirer, of course, would never have denied that the fact-finding metonymic power of science should be in any way denied. But he was concerned that the efforts to see the linguistically-opposed were being dismissed as mere "delusion," as if they had no integrity of their own simply by virtue of being concerned with expressing human relevance rather than finding facts. Carl Jung went perhaps a bit farther in his statements for the relevance of myth:

"Myth is not fiction; it consists of facts that are continually repeated and observed over and over again."

Obviously Jung, considered by many to be a flawed empiricist, makes the "over and over" remark as a riposte to those who would consider either archaic myth or Jung's own myth-oriented psychological interpretations as inconsistent whimsical fantasies. Jung is claiming that myth-symbols are valid because they recur "over and over," just as empiricism claims validity for the fact of, say, the heliocentricity of the galaxy based on experiments that can be performed "over and over." I won't get into an extended analysis of Jung's claim here, but I believe that Cassirer's position is the more tenable, if only because, by viewing myth as a distinct form from science, Cassirer can focus more on the metaphorical linguistic origins of myth rather than trying to discern in various myths a "metonymy" for the "laws" of a hypothetical "psychological universe."

But whichever of them is more right, clearly either is closer to the truth than the naive positivist who apparently thinks that human nature can and/or should be defined by the ability to continually test reality through experimental method-- which, as I've noted before, is not sufficient to account for the gap in cognition between human beings and other reality-testing members of the animal kingdom.


Charles R. said...

Here's a good entry for the differing theoretical approaches to metaphor and metonymy you might find useful.

science is governed by metonymy.

I get why you're saying this, but it's a pretty outdated view of science. Are there any positivists any more? They pretty much defeated themselves, like a snake eating its own tail. The last great movement of positivism was probably Behaviorism, which was thoroughly trounced by the arrival of cognitive science, a more metaphorical discipline you're not likely to find outside of literary criticism.

There's an excellent discussion of the role of metaphor in science in Metaphor and Thought (ed. Andrew Ortony), which contains some famous essays from Richard Boyd and Thomas Kuhn. That book is also a great resource for much of the past 50 years of scientific research in metaphor. You'd probably dig it.

Gene Phillips said...

Positivism as a disciplined philosophy has declined, but it's still around in the diluted form of people who like to think that once they've accumulated a handful of scientific facts, they've got factual truth, in which no intrusive conceptual framework does or can intrude.

I think that though science does use metaphors as well as metonymies, its basic structure still depends more on contiguity than on similarity and association. Of course, as one gets into scientific disciplines whose subjects are not objects to be measured by hand-- say, quantum physics rather than classical macroscopic physics-- metaphor certainly becomes more central as a heuristic way of describing what can only be inferred from the evidence.

I have reservations as to how well the concepts of cognitive science apply to literary analysis-- as yet no one's succeeded in forging a poetics based on cognitive science-- but it is interesting that Lakoff reputedly insists on the centrality of metaphor in culture, much as do both Aristotle and Cassirer.