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Myth

Myth And Philosophy

The relationship between myth and science overlaps with that between myth and philosophy. Yet there is an even greater array of positions held on the relationship between myth and philosophy: that myth is part of philosophy, that myth is philosophy, that philosophy is myth, that myth grows out of philosophy, that philosophy grows out of myth, that myth and philosophy are independent of each other but serve the same function, and that myth and philosophy are independent of each other and serve different functions.

The most abrupt reaction to Lévy-Bruhl's opposing of myth to both science and philosophy came from the Polish-born anthropologist Paul Radin (1883–1959), who was brought to the United States as an infant. Radin grants that most primitives are far from philosophical but observes that so are most persons in any culture. Both the average "man of action" and the exceptional "thinker" types of temperament are to be found in all cultures, and in the same proportion. If Lévy-Bruhl is therefore wrong to deny that any primitives are reflective, Tylor is equally wrong to assume that all are. But those primitives who are get credited by Radin with a philosophical prowess keener than that granted even myth makers by Tylor. Contrary to Tylor, primitives, furthermore, are capable of rigorous criticism. Likely for Radin, as definitely for Popper, the capacity for criticism is the hallmark of thinking.

A far less dismissive reaction to Lévy-Bruhl came from the German-born philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945). For Cassirer, wholly following Lévy-Bruhl, mythic, or "mythopoeic," thinking is primitive, is part of religion, and is the projection of mystical oneness onto the world. But Cassirer claims to be breaking sharply with Lévy-Bruhl in asserting that mythic thinking has its own brand of logic. In actuality, Lévy-Bruhl says the same and invents the term prelogical exactly to avoid labeling mythic thinking "illogical" or "nonlogical." Cassirer also claims to be breaking with Lévy-Bruhl in stressing the autonomy of myth as a form of knowledge—language, art, and science being the other main forms. Yet Cassirer simultaneously maintains, no differently from Lévy-Bruhl, that myth is incompatible with science and that science succeeds it. For both Cassirer and Lévy-Bruhl, myth is exclusively primitive and science exclusively modern. Still, Cassirer's characterization of myth as a form of knowledge puts myth in the same genus as science—not quite where Lévy-Bruhl puts it.

As philosophical as Cassirer's approach to myth is, he never contends that myth is philosophy. The theorists who do so are the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) and the German-born philosopher Hans Jonas (1903–1993), who eventually settled in the United States. They apply to their specialties, Christianity and Gnosticism, a theory from the early, existentialist work of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976).

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