Walker Percy Wednesday 178



Kant believed that when “pure reason” ventures beyond the manifold of experience, it falls into an antinomy. That is to say, equally valid trains of argument lead to contradictory conclusions. Now, apart from the truth or falsity of Kant’s argument, the fact is that practicing scientists and scientifically minded laymen care very little either for metaphysical reasoning or for Kant’s a priori assault upon it. As Marcel has said, the spirit of the age is basically “ontophobic,” perhaps disastrously so. The scientist can hardly be indifferent, however, if it can be shown that the scientific method itself falls into a characteristic antinomy whenever it confronts a certain sector of reality. Such an antinomy can be demonstrated, I think, not by syllogistic argument but from the testimony of the empirical scientists themselves, when the scientific method tries to grasp the assertory phenomena of culture.

It is hardly necessary to add that my purpose in calling attention to the crisis of the cultural sciences is not to out-Kant Kant, not further to indict reason, but on the contrary to advance the cause of a radical anthropology, a science of man which will take account of all human realities, not merely space-time events.

The Antinomy of Myth

Examples of mythic assertions, S is P.

Marduk split Tiamat like a shellfish with two parts Half of her he set up and ceiled it as the sky.                                                                                                                  (Enuma Elis)

The Brahmin was his [the world’s] mouth, his arms were made the Rajanya [warrior], his two thighs the Vaisya [trader and agriculturalist], from his feet the Sudra [servile class] was born.                                                                                   (Rg Veda)

Maui, our ancestor, trapped the wandering sun and made it follow a regular course.                         (Maori myth)

( 1 ) What the scientist thinks of the assertion S is P when the assertion is proposed to him as a true-or-false claim:

The myth, S is P, is false. To say that the world was made by the Babylonian city-god Marduk from the body of Tiamat is absurd. There is not a shred of evidence to support such an assertion, and there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

(2) What the scientist thinks of the assertion S is P when the assertion is itself a phenomenon under investigation by the scientific method, to be ordered with other phenomena in the general corpus of scientific knowledge: A myth believed is true (Schelling). All societies have their myths; myths are therefore necessary for the function of a society (Malinowski, Mciver). Myth serves the function of seeing man through periods of peril and crisis (James, Malinowski). One of the troubles with modern society is the mythic impoverishment of the man of facts due to his rejection of old beliefs and the loss of archetypes. The answer is a “new mythology” (Langer). Recovery of mythic archetypes is necessary for mental health (Jung).

When myth is studied as an empirical phenomenon, it is evaluated not according as it is true or false or nonsensical but according to the degree to which it serves a social or cultural function. Thus a “genuine” culture (and a genuine myth) is a culture which is viable, satisfying the spiritual and emotional needs of the culture member; a “spurious” culture fails to do so (Sapir). It is a mistake to use rigid scientific standards and say that a myth is false; a myth may be poetically and symbolically “true” according as it satisfies the symbolic needs of world envisagement (Langer, Cassirer).

(3) Comment. The antinomy is manifest in the very usage of the word myth by modem ethnologists. As Bidney has pointed out, it is, to begin with, a value-charged term: myth means a belief which is not true. Then myth is used neutrally as a data-element along with other data-elements, canoes, baskets, dwellings. Bidney goes on to say, “The greatest myth of the twentieth century is the identification of all cultural ideology with myth in the name of social science.”

One serious consequence of this initial antinomy is a canceling of the social prescriptions of the scientist for the ills of the day. It becomes necessary for the scientist to recommend to culture or patient that which he, the scientist, has labeled false at the outset. But the fallacy of the prescription is that a myth can hardly be believed if it is believed to be false. The motto of the scientist when he is prescribing myth as a data-element necessary for mental and cultural health is: It may not be true but you had better believe it.

Another consequence is the compromise of the scientist’s own position in the face of the onslaught of the contemporary myths of fascism and Communism. If the scientist believes theoretically in the indispensability of myth for an integrated culture, it becomes difficult for him to make a coherent objection to the Nazi or Soviet ethos. The upshot is the anomalous situation, so familiar in academic circles today, of the professor who in the field and classroom recognizes only functional relationships and refuses to recognize norms, and who in private and public life is a passionate defender of the freedom and rights and sacredness of the individual.

The source of the antinomy is the arbitrary decree of the scientist that only functional relationships shall be certified among his “data” and that even ideological beliefs and assertions shall be evaluated not according to the true-or-false claim of the assertion but according to its function in the culture. The decree requires that a belief be labeled as a myth and at the same time certified as valid as a cultural function. Only two kinds of judgments about beliefs are forthcoming: false in fact and bad in function (Sapir’s “spurious” myth), false in fact and good in function (Sapir’s “genuine” myth). Thus the old-style rationalist attitude toward religion is reversed. The eighteenth-century rationalist accepted the true-or-false claim of religious belief-and usually argued against it. The modern culturologist denies the claim and accepts only a functional criterion in judging its validity. Thus C. G. Jung “accepts” the Catholic dogma of the Assumption because it validates the anima archetype, while at the same time he denies its claim to literal truth. Jung’s approach, once the total competence of the functional method is accepted, seems reasonable. I am not interested in the truth or falsity of religion, says Jung, but only in the structure and function of the human psyche. Yet such a neutrality is warranted only if the neutrality is consistent. It is not consistent when ideological belief is assigned first to the category of myth, then made to do duty as a neutral term in an objective culturology.

Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 10.58.26 AM.png