…from myth to philosophy


“From Myth to Philosophy: Examining the Transition by Way of Metaphysics and Epistemology”

When we look to the transition from myth to philosophy, we make use of philosophy as a guide into connections that are not readily apparent. Two primary philosophical modes of inquiry are metaphysics and epistemology. The two are defined in a number of ways and this short essay will only focus on metaphysics as the study of ultimate reality, and epistemology as an inquiry into how we rationally understand things—when connected, both disciplines disclose true knowledge. When we are doing philosophy we are not only asking questions, we work to answer the questions we ask: what is ultimate reality (as with metaphysics)? How do we know things rationally (as with epistemology)?

Once we apply these questions to the transition from myth to philosophy, we immediately are reminded of the long-lived mythologist Edith Hamilton who distinguished the ancient Greek myths as inherently rational. Hamilton also distinguishes the myths as distinctly human. The Greek myths are concerned with human problems—human reality. The Greek legends are answering the ancient need for answers about the natural and human realties that could not be explained any other way. This confrontation of nothingness reveals the myths metaphysically. Likewise the myths are answering causal problems, where does war come from?—Ares! If one cause (Ares) brings about the effect of something else (war), we are answering a way we know something, and this is rational and epistemological.

Friedrich Nietzsche hails the first Greek philosopher as Thales, a Presocratic who thought the origin of everything is water. This is an empirical claim, we can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell: water. This is another way of showing how we are perceiving the world, this is a way we gain knowledge of things using our rational faculties. Therefore Thales is, not only answering epistemological questions, where does everything come from?—he answers the question scientifically, with empirical evidence, something the myths did not do. Metaphysically, he’s offering us answers to where everything comes from, and to what (empirically) does reality consist of?—water.

Turning to Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, metaphysics and epistemology gain in philosophical complexity. With Socrates we have the famous dialectic, based in dialogue, and aimed at gaining true knowledge while exposing flaws in common and opinionated reasoning. Socrates is a champion of reason in favor of goodness and true knowledge. This is epistemology and it is curiously ethical. When considering metaphysics, we immediately recognize an answer to the question: what is ultimate reality for Plato and Socrates?—the acquisition of true knowledge.

Aristotle, another scientist philosopher, categorized the way we explain things into distinct categories and components. This tendency to organize knowledge is both scientific and metaphysical. To do philosophy is to look at the components of knowledge which constitute reality. This is metaphysical. As mentioned above, to consider causation is to examine how we come to know things and how to explain things. Aristotle’s causal tools give our knowledge explanatory power. This is epistemological.

To philosophically examine the transition from Greek myth to Greek philosophy by way of metaphysics and epistemology is to see a flowing line of inquiry into the ultimate realty and into the way we rationally know things. Such thinking is abstract and takes a readjustment of our everyday understanding, thus fulfilling a demand of Heraclitus the weeping Presocratic, to find connections in what is unapparent.

…from myth to philosophy


Domenico Beccafumi, The Foundryman (Figure of Vulcan in the Metal Foundry), third plate from a series of ten scenes from the Practice of Alchemy, woodcut, 16th century.

The three questions were explained with good philosophical insight. I found problems with Archie & Archie’s so-called “criterion of potatoness.” The easiest way to think of this is by way of basic classification. Be careful to remember that our inclination to classify things is metaphysical, it is not forthcoming in nature in-and-of-itself that we need to classify thing into large, medium, and small. Yet this is not the only way in which we classify things. We might, just as well, classify the potatoes into bad potatoes and good potatoes. We might also classify the potatoes into clean and dirty, and so on. Recall that one characterization of metaphysics is that it is relational. Metaphysics works with the ways in which we see relationships between things, items, and ideas. So all this is to suggest that we often classify items by size, and our sizing might not include the category of medium, or extra-large, or too small, &c.

As for the transition from myth to philosophy, I want to encourage students to steer away from mere descriptions of the transition, and to focus more onto the philosophy at work within the transition. For example, it is a straightforward description to suggest that philosophy questioned accepted myth in a way that myth went unquestioned. This is true, philosophy is looking at the way we know the world in a far more inquisitive way them myth does. Both aim to know the world and both seek to explain the world. One framework questions, where the other framework does not.

The question remains as to how this happened, and what were the philosophical elements that are at play in the transition (metaphysical and/or epistemological)? When we take the epistemological sense of the transition we see an easy way to write of this. When we look to the myths for answers, we find stories of the gods that work to explain ways that things have happened or will happen. To say I am in love has a strong connection to the goddess of love, Aphrodite (Venus). To say the seasons are changing from summer to autumn, is to remember that Demeter’s daughter Persephone is taken back to the underworld by Hades and the transition from summer to fall is easily explained by the abduction of Persephone into the underworld.

Then to the philosophical outlook starting with Thales, for example, and the notion that everything can be traced back to water. This is similar to myth-making in that it seeks an explanation for something, so it is epistemological. It is epistemological because it is showing us a way to know and to understand the world as the myths do. Yet, as Nietzsche indicated, it was distinguished by its impulse to unify everything into one empirical explanation—that all things are one.

Here we easily see a crossover between epistemology and metaphysics, given that when we want to know about the world, we offer explanations, whether by myth or empirical evidence. Metaphysically, we are also working to see a broad-general way of understanding the world from the one to the many. In order to understand this transition from one to many, we have to make empirical leaps, say, when we seek to find a connection between a rock and its aquatic ancestry. When we take such leaps we must go beyond empirical evidence to fill in the blanks, &c. such steps of thinking are metaphysical. These are ways that reality is made up. On one hand, it is readily apparent, and on the other hand, we cannot tell where the connection is to be found.

Additionally, we see the direct ways in which Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle worked to dispel blind acceptance of mythic thinking in their philosophical methodologies. For Plato and Socrates this was accomplished dialectically. Through the art of dialogue, experts were questioned and made to feel uneasy with their alleged knowledge, their supposed expertise. Sure, Socrates was impelled to clarify the Oracle of Delphi’s claim that he was the wisest. But how was he wise, if he did not know anything? This matter had to be investigated in a rational way, by dialogue with those who, on the surface, claim to be wise. The Socratic grilling, the Socratic Method, is rational, it accepts no commonly held belief to get to the bottom of things—a.k.a. higher knowledge.

This rational methodology is different from the reason Hamilton writes of in relation to myth. Yes, the myths are rational, but they do not use rational thought to examine themselves. The myths do not cross examine their own reasoning, whereby Socrates does question the reasoning of the experts like Euthyphro, who claimed to know what holiness is, without realizing that he actually did not have a working definition of the very thing he was charging his own father with.

Then to take another example with metaphysics and Aristotle when we look at causation and his four causes. We see similarity to myth in that myths metaphysically deal with causation, i.e. what’s the cause of volcanos, perhaps Hephaestus (Vulcan) is somehow responsible, Vulcan is the cause. On the other hand, Aristotle is not just seeking the cause from one event to another, he is instead looking at causation itself. What’s the difference between someone making something, what the item is made of, what is the item’s use, what is the item’s ultimate use, and what is its goal, its telos?

Another interesting corollary is between the transition from Plato to Aristotle concerning Plato’s formalism, whereby the difference between Form and form is easily resolved with Aristotle’s rejection of Platonic formalism into the metaphysics of form and substance, which are both ways to think of items, yet Aristotle’s metaphysics is grounded in the objects rather the other-worldly Forms of Plato.

Keep in mind the best option is to work away from mere description and to focus on explaining the philosophical “how” of the transition.

–aurelio madrid

…on kant’s epistemology

transcendental idealismKant’s Epistemology
What is Transcendental Idealism?

Transcendental idealism can be understood on two ways. On a topical level it can represent the whole of Kant’s enlightenment philosophy, and in the context of his epistemology, transcendental idealism is to be distinguished from rationalism & empiricism. Kant’s philosophy is often thought of as a blend of rationalism & empiricism and transcendental idealism became a way to identify Kant’s particular contribution. However, this way of defining transcendental idealism does not actually define what the term means in Kant’s overall project (it merely describes his philosophical position as a blend of empiricism & rationalism).

The easiest route is to divide the term in half, first looking at the term: transcendental. This can be understood as a ‘going beyond’ the matter at hand. To transcend something means to ‘go beyond’ what that something actually is in experience. The classic example: ‘all bachelors are unmarried’ is one such example of this ‘going beyond’. In other words, we ‘go beyond’ experience with the epistemological claim that bachelors are unmarried—we have no need to go out into the world to have certainty that bachelors are unmarried. Such knowledge is known “beyond” experience. Now also acknowledge that what we are describing here is also the way a priori thinking is understood.
With Kant, whatever is transcendental, at the same time describes the particular way in which we think using our a priori reasoning. When we conclude with certainty that a bachelor is unmarried our thought, our cognition, our knowledge is transcendental—we ‘go beyond’ experience in order to affirm this type of a priori knowledge about the world.

Idealism, the other half of the term, is the philosophical (epistemological) position whereby the content of the way in which the world appears to us is mind-dependent. Kant’s epistemology is often characterized by the notion that the world as it is known to us is dependent on the very reasoning we use to understand it. That the world of experience, for example, has a certain causal order is not something we simply observe, but it is the way in which the world is understood by us in a rationally ordered way. Our rational mind constructs the way the world is experienced. A sequence of causal events is not just an observation it is also a construct of our a priori knowledge. This is idealistic because the way in which the world appears to me is mind dependent.

So idealism is different from realism in the sense that realism claims that if a tree falls in the forest & we’re not around to hear it, it still makes a noise. With Kant’s idealism a tree falling out of ear-shot would describe something that falls outside of the way the world appears to us, therefore it might be what Kant named the “thing-in-itself”, that part of things we’ll never have a grasp of.

How does Kant’s transcendental idealism move from Hume’s empiricism?

Hume’s critique of causality awoke Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’ because Hume was astute enough to observe that there is no necessity to be found in any causal connection. Hume is an empiricist who based all the way we know of the world is through sense experience alone. When Hume called into question the very notion of necessity as absent from causation, his empirical skepticism pointed to something we typically identify as reason itself. Kant seizes this opportunity to make a claim for the necessary connection Hume is finding absent in experience. Why?—because it is reason that supplies the connection according to Kant. Hume was on to something & Kant resolves it with a priori reasoning. This is the missing part of Hume’s critique that Kant grabs onto as obviously product of reason itself. In other words, a causal relationship is one that is considered to be a ‘category of understanding,’ for Kant, which is a fancy way of saying it involves reasoning alone to understand a cause & effect relationship at its necessary core. The necessary connection is not found in experience as Hume empirically observed. Kant agrees with this & shows that the necessary connection is not a matter of habit as Hume posited, rather it is an act of reason that supplies the necessary connection we find when one an effect causes something to happen.

Even if we understand causation rationally, we need the experience of it in order to know what to do with it. Kant shows us that we cannot have one without the other. Say for example, I already know that reason supplies the necessary connection between an effect & cause. That’s a pretty minimal way in which to understand the world, given that cause & effect relationships are everywhere. We need to think of the particular empirical manifestation of casual relationships so as to know how to understand their specific relationships & significance.

–aurelio madrid