M. F. Ashley Montagu (essay date 1949)
SOURCE: "Cassirer on Mythological Thinking," in The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp, The Library of Living Philosophers, Inc., 1949, pp. 359-77.
[In the following essay, Montagu explains Cassirer's views on mythological thinking, especially as it relates to preliterate societies.]
In Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff (1910) we learn that the study arose out of the attempt to comprehend the fundamental conceptions of mathematics from the point of view of logic. Cassirer found that it became necessary to analyze and trace back the fundamental presuppositions of the nature of a concept itself. This led to a renewed analysis of the principles of concepts in general.
In the course of his analysis of the special sciences it became evident that the systematic structure of the exact sciences assumes different forms according to the different logical perspectives in which they are regarded. Hence the necessity of the analysis of the forms of conceptual construction and of the general function of concepts; for it is obvious that the conception which is formed of the fundamental nature of the concept is directly significant in judging the questions of fact in any criticism of knowledge or metaphysics.
From such considerations with respect to the processes of knowing, and the conceptual formalization of that knowing as related to the pure sciences, Cassirer was led to a consideration of the more fundamental problem of the primitive origins of these processes and their development. The first fruits of his studies in this field he published in 1923, as the first instalment of a large work entitled Philosophie der symboliskhen Formen; this first volume was devoted to "Die Sprache," in which the nature and function of language was considered. A second volume devoted to "Das mythische Denken" … was published in 1925; and the third and last volume, entitled "Phdnomenologie der Erkenntnis," made its appearance in 1929. Of these volumes I think it is no exaggeration to say that they constitute perhaps the most important and certainly the most brilliant work in this field which has yet been published.
Before entering upon a presentation of Cassirer's treatment of the nature of mythological thinking it is necessary to present something of his views with respect to the nature of language as propaedeutic to the former.
Cassirer insists on the fact that in consciousness, whether theoretical, artistic, or linguistic, we see a kind of mirror, the image falling upon which reflects not only the nature of the object existing externally but also the nature of consciousness itself. All forms brought into being by the mind are due to a creative force, to a spontaneous act in the Kantian sense, thanks to which that which is realized is something quite other than a simple reception or registration of facts exterior or foreign to the mind. We are now dealing not only with an entering into the possession of facts, but with the lending to them of a certain character, with an integration of them in a determinate physical order. Thus, the act of consciousness which gives birth to one or the other of these forms, to science, to art, and to language, does not simply discover and reproduce an ensemble of pre-existent objects. This act, the processes which give birth to it, lead rather to this objective universe, and contribute towards constituting its being and structure. The essential function of language is not arbitrarily to assign designations to objects already formed and achieved; language is rather a means indispensable to that formation, even of objects. Similarly, in the plastic arts, the creative act consists in the construction of space, in conquering it, in opening a path of access to it, which each of these arts makes according to the manner that is specific to it. Similarly, in respect of language it is necessary to return to the theory of Wilhelm von Humboldt according to which the diversity of languages expresses the diversity of aspects from which the world is seen and conceived by the different linguistic groups, and which consequently contribute to the formation of the different representations of the world. But one cannot observe the intimate operations of the mind which are at work in the formation of language. Psychology, even after having abandoned the concepts of apperception and of association— concepts which during the nineteenth century stood in the way of the realization of Humboldt's ideas—does not provide a method which permits direct access to the specific process of the mind which ends by leading to the production of the verbal. What experimentation and introspection renders perceptible are the facts impregnated by language and by them, not the manner of formation, but the achieved state.
If one wishes to go back to the origin of language and, instead of being content with the linguistic facts and findings, one seeks to discover the creative principle, one can be satisfied only with those regions in which the formation of the language is known, in all its particulars, and to attempt by an analysis of the structure of the languages of these regions, by a regressive method, to arrive at the genetic factors of language.
Cassirer's study deals with the languages of a number of regions of this kind, inquiring into their mode of arriving at an objective representation of the world. According to Cassirer the lower animals are incapable of such objective representations; they find themselves enclosed in an environment, in which they live, move, and have their being, but which they are unable to oppose, and which they are incapable of viewing objectively, since they cannot transcend it, consider or conceive it. The impressions they receive do not pass beyond the level of urges to action, and between these they fail to develop those specific relations which result in a true notion of that objectivity which is essentially defined by the constancy and identity of the object. This transition from a world of action and effectiveness to the world of objective representation only begins to manifest itself, in mankind, at a stage which coincides with a certain phase in the development of language; viz., at that stage which the child exhibits when it grows to understand that a whole thing corresponds to a particular value or denomination, and at which it is constantly demanding of those about it the names of things. But it does not occur to the child to attach these designations to the representation of things already stabilized and consolidated. The child's questions bear rather more on the things themselves. For in the eyes of the child, as in the eyes of primitive peoples, the name is not an extrinsic denomination of the thing which one arbitrarily attaches to it, but it is rather an essential quality of the object of which it forms an integral part. The principal value of this denominative phase is that it tends to stabilize and to consolidate the objective representation of things and permits the child to conquer the objective world in which it is hence-forth to live. For this task he needs some name. If, for a multiplicity of impressions one sets apart the same name, these different impressions will no longer remain strange to one another; in this way they will come to represent simply aspects of the modes of appearance of the same thing. The loss of this conceptual and symbolic function of the word leads to such effects as one may observe in those suffering from aphasia. That which language renders possible on the plane of objects, viz., a separation or distinction between subjects and things, it permits equally in the domain of sentiment and volition. In this domain also language is more than a simple means of expression and of communication; this it is only at the beginning of human life, when the infant gives expression without any reserve to the states of pleasure and of pain which it experiences; and it is language which provides the infant with a means of getting into contact with the outside world. Language prolongs these affective states, but it does not in any way alter them. Things, however, present another aspect as soon as the child acquires representational language. Henceforth, his vocal expressions will no longer be simple exclamations, nor of pure expansiveness apart from these emotional states. That which the child expresses is now informed by the fact that his expressions have taken the form of intelligible words, the child hears and understands what he himself says. He thus becomes capable of knowing his own states in a representative and objective manner, of apperceiving and looking at them as he does at external things. He thus becomes capable of reflecting upon his own affective life, and of adopting in relation to that life an attitude of contemplation. In this way his affective energies gradually lose that power of brutal constraint which it exercises, during early infancy, upon the "self." The fact that emotion attains to a consciousness of itself, renders man to some extent free of it. To the pure emotion are henceforth opposed those intellectual forces which support representational language. Emotion will now be held in constraint by these forces, it will no longer obtain an immediate and direct expression, but will have to justify itself before language, which now assumes the position of an instrument of the mind. In this connection we may recall the Greek idea that man must not abandon his passions, that these rather must be submitted to the judgment of the Logos, to that reason which is incorporated in language.
Thanks to its regulative powers, language transforms sentiments and volitions, and organizes them into a conscious will, and thus contributes to the constitution of the moral self. There is still another domain into which one can gain entry only through the medium of language, it is the social world. Up to a certain point in the moral evolution of humanity, all moral and intellectual community is bound to the linguistic community, in much the same way as men speaking a foreign language are excluded from the protection and advantages which are alone enjoyed by members of the community considered as equals. And in the development of the individual, language constitutes for the child, who is beginning to learn, a more important and a more direct experience than that of the social and normative bond. But when for his characteristic infantile state he commences to substitute representational language, and experiences the need of being understood by his environment, he discovers the necessity of adapting his own efforts without reservation to the customs characteristic of the community to which he belongs. Without losing anything of his own individuality, he must adapt himself to those among whom he is destined to live. It is thus through the medium of a particular language that the child becomes aware of the bond which ties it to a particular community. This social bond becomes closer and more spiritualized during the course of its development. When the child commences to pose the questions—What it is? and Why?—not only is he going to penetrate into the world of knowledge, but also into a conquest of that world and a collective possession of it. Not only does the tendency to possess a thing begin to give way before the desire to acquire knowledge, but what is still more important, the relations which hold him to his environment are going to be reorganized. The desire for physical assistance begins to transform itself into a desire for intellectual assistance; the contact of the child with the members of its environment is going to become a spiritual contact. Little by little, the constraint, the commands and prohibitions, the obediences and resistances, which up to now have characterized the relations between the child and the adult gives way to that reciprocity which exists between the one who asks and waits for a reply, and the one who takes an interest in the question asked and replies. Thus arise the bases of spiritual liberty and of that free collaboration which is the characteristic mark of society in so far as it is human.
Finally, Cassirer assigns a capital importance to language in the construction of the world of pure imagination, above all to that state of conscious development wherein the decisive distinction between the real and the imagined is not made. The question that has so much occupied psychologists, whether the play of the child represents for it a veritable reality or merely a conscious occupation with fictions, this question, asserts Cassirer, is malposed, since the play of the child, like the Myth, belongs to a phase of consciousness which does not yet understand the distinction between that which is real and that which merely is simply imagined. In the eyes of the child the world is not composed of pure objects, of real forms, it is, on the contrary, peopled by beings who are his equals; and the character of the living and the animate is not limited for him, to that which is specifically human. The world, for him, has the form of Thou and not of That. This anthropomorphism of the child arises out of the fact that the child speaks to the things which surround him, and the things speak to him. It is no accident that there is no substitute for dumb play; when playing the child does not cease to speak of and to the things with which he is playing. It is not that this activity is an accessory commentary of play, but rather it is an indispensable element of it. The child views every object, all beings, as an interlocutor of whom he asks questions and who reply to him. His relation to the world is above all else a verbal relation, and Cassirer asserts that the child does not speak to things because he regards them as animate, but on the contrary, he regards them as animate because he speaks with them. It is much later that the distinction is made between that which is pure thing and that which is animate and living. The most developed of languages still retain traces of this original state. The lack of such distinctions is strikingly evident when we study the languages, the mental instruments, of the simpler peoples, a study which is obviously necessary for any true understanding of mythological thinking.
Cassirer's approach to mythology is that of the neo-Kantian phenomenologist; he is not interested in mythology as such, but in the processes of consciousness which lead to the creation of myths. It will be recalled that he was originally concerned with inquiring into the bases of empirical knowledge, but since a knowledge of a world of empirical things or properties was preceded by a world characterized by mythical powers and forces, and since early philosophy drew its spiritual powers from and created its perspective upon the bases of these mythical factors, a consideration of them is clearly of importance. The relation between myth and philosophy is a close one; for if the myth is taken to be an indirect expression of reality, it can be understood only as an attempt to point the way, it is a preparation for philosophy. The form and content of myth impede the realization of a rational content of knowledge, which reflection alone reveals, and of which it discovers the kernel. An illustration of this effect of myth upon knowledge may be seen in the attempts of the sophists of the Fifth Century to work from myth to empirical knowledge, in their newly founded scientific wisdom. Myth was by them understood and explained, and translated into the language of popular philosophy, as an all embracing speculative science of nature or of ethical truth.
It is no accident, remarks Cassirer, that just that Greek thinker in whom the characteristic power of creating the mythical was so outstanding should reject the whole world of...
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