…from myth to philosophy

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“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

 

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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

aristotle: metaphysics book XII (Λ), chapters 9-10

medieval manuscript of aristotles metaphysics

Aristotle / Metaphysics Book XII (Λ), Chapters 9-10[1]

Part of the job of reading Aristotle is reading and re-reading till one reaches only a satisfactory understanding of what is ultimately being said. We already know that that the Metaphysics have to do with the question of being, and that with the question of being begs the question of a primary being, which can be said to be the ultimate cause. This means that while we are reading only two short chapters, we are also jumping three-quarters of the way into the complexity of Aristotle’s inquiry about being and a primary mover that looks like God. With all this in mind, it is also difficult to ignore a few of the points Aristotle makes in chapters 6 and 7. For instance, there’s the idea that “actuality is prior to potentiality” (1072a, 10). This in itself is interesting since we typically assume that potentiality must precede the actual, so Aristotle’s claim becomes one where potential is contained within the actual. This is a profound thought indeed, one that anticipates Bergson’s ideas of the virtual, and so on. Another point, similar in its profundity, is brought about in chapter 7, where Aristotle names a “mover, which moves without being moved, being eternal, substance, and actuality” (1072a, 25). Along with this mover, Aristotle also attributes thought, the good, the eternal, and a intricate way that it is necessary without being caused itself (1072b, 1-30). From here we move through chapters 9 and 10, where we find Aristotle trying to qualify what the nature of divine thought consists of. His opening up of the discussion starts with the tail end of chapter 8. Aristotle finds inspiration with the idea that the divine is not anthropomorphic and is better thought of as “the first substances to be gods” (1074b, 10). Aristotle continues with the idea that divine thought must be of a substance, it must also be “itself that thought thinks” (1074b, 34). This must mean that the kind of thought that the divine is, must contain thinking before thought thinks about things—the divine is thought (shades of Xenophanes’ divine). Aristotle also seems to discount the idea that this divine thought can be composite, since human thought is not necessarily composed of parts of thought. Divine thought must then be whole, and not a composite of thought units. In Chapter 10 Aristotle compares the good and the higher good (of the divine) to an army and the leader, respectively. This is a way of saying that the good depends on the higher good, and not the other way around. To suggest that order depends on the higher good suggests a telos to Aristotle’s divine, i.e.: order is informed by to good, to be what it is and what it will be. Another point Aristotle addresses has to do with the Pre-Socratic (probably Heraclitus) notion of contraries. Aristotle finds this view lacking in its lack of full explanatory evidence. There are other views Aristotle covers including Plato’s Forms, with a question of how real things (forms) actually participate with the Forms. Aristotle concludes later in the chapter that “the form and the thing are one” (1076a, 35). Characteristic of this move we find the Homeric quote at the end “the rule of the many is not good, let there be one ruler” (1076b, 5).


[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics from The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, n.d., 1692-1700.

john scottus eriugena

…buried in words & entombed in hard-to-find books, we still look for you Eriugena. Obscure as you are, we find you in all those concealed places. This contemplative circumstance is yours, it’s under your tutelage that we’ve toiled to comprehend you. Legend has it that you were stabbed to death by your students with their pens & although we have no viable proof of this, we prosper little from the knowledge that such a man as yourself would die from these the tools of scholarly labor, knowing that the only way to find you is in the many paragraphs that feature your name written by so many other pens. Eriugena, you are kept alive & breathing by the written word. Eriugena, you are our nutritor (teacher) & we are your alumni (students). Eriugena you are nothing as you are super-essential.

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Nathan Coley – “Heaven is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens.”  2008

John Scottus Erigena (ca. 810–887) was an early medieval Christian philosopher. He worked under Charles the Bald (823-877) as a liberal arts teacher while writing philosophy in the only form he knew: Christian theology. The separation between theology & philosophy was not an issue for him, both were held together as one practice. For him, (philosophical) theology was the only way to heaven. He is known for his rare ability to translate Greek to Latin. This unusual skill shouldn’t obscure the fact that he was Irish. His name: Eriugena, essentially means he who originates from Ireland. His talent to translate Greek to Latin wasn’t only a linguistic skill, it also had to do with the philosophical nexus he helped to bring about from the Greek east (then Byzantium) to the Latin west (western Europe), where he called home. The Viking invasions of Ireland at the time, are what forced him to work in France. He was commissioned by Charles the Bald to translate what was then thought to be the work of Dionysius the Areopagite (unknown birth/death dates: probably 5-6th centuries), now known as Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite, not to be mistaken for St. Paul’s 1st century convert. His Greek to Latin translating extended to works by Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335-394), Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580-662) & others from the east. These Christian works from Byzantium are marked by strong neo-platonic overtones & some might say this thinking was itself influenced by explicit pagan ideals (re: Plotinus (ca. 205-270)). We’ll caution anyone led into imagining Erigena’s thought to have a purely eastern affection, since he made generous use of St Augustine’s (354-430) writings, who was also influenced by neo-platonic ideas, among other Christian leanings.

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Joseph Kosuth – “Nothing” 1968

Early on, Eriugena was distinguished by his remarkable ideas, beginning with his involvement & refutation in the 9th century Predestination controversy started by Gottschalk of Orbais (ca. 808-867). This theological imbroglio had Gottschalk whipped, embarrassed & divested of his priestly duties, ending up in a monastery in Hautvillers (northeastern France). Gottshcalk’s position was that God was fully aware of & involved in man’s destiny from birth to death (a common ‘misconception’ even to this day). This position was officially refuted by Eriugena to be the opposite, whereby god is simple & unchanging, he doesn’t, as was presumed, predestine man’s will. Man’s will is his own. This is part of Eriugena’s radical claim to fame, as it centers man as the driver of his own destiny. (This & the nexus of Eastern & Western philosophies, brings Eriugena even closer to the brilliant (neo-platonic) syncretism of Pico della Mirandola (1463-94)). For Eriugena, man already severed his intimate relationship to god after the fall. After the fall, Adam & Eve were sexualized, ashamed of their bodies & fallen from grace. It was then put to man’s own responsibility to re-establish his ties to god, back the word of god & into his ultimate innate reason that was ultimately part of god to begin with. This is the return to god & this movement of the falling away of man’s reason, to be rejuvenated via rationality, logic, wisdom & this is dialectical (note: these are three of Eriugena’s so-called primary causes that reside in man, nature & god). Man is fallen away from wisdom & the return is his desired unification with god using wisdom & knowledge. Evil then, is simply the absence of the good in man. Philosophy (theology) is the way man finds this way back to the divine, this is his return. This exitus & reditus, exit & return, procession & return, runs throughout neo-platonism, thereby exposing the history of the dialectic to originate much earlier than G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), (in fact, suggesting where Hegel found the dialectic’s already established roots). Speculative dialectics are not to be wholly confused with Aristotelian logical dialectics. This differentiation is what we find with Hegel (although it’s further confused by the fact that Hegel wrote extensively on Logic. But, as we know this isn’t a mere re-emergence, or re-instatement of the Aristotelian formal logic (that we are so attached to nowadays) it regarded more as a metaphysical, transcendental logic).

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Felix Gonzales-Torres – “Untitled (The End)” 1990

Speculative philosophy is born from the urge to bring it all together, in spite of the corporeal & fallible body. This is high idealism with a penchant for systematizing & unifying disparate parts. Hegel’s philosophy follows this speculative paradigm & is emblematic of this way of thinking. In this universal manner everything tends toward the absolute through the dialectical process that’s ideated through reason’s eventualities. We conceptualize this holistic union & can practice knowledge to become philosophically attuned as we (now with Eriugena) reach for the ecstasy of transcendence that’s nearer to god. According to Dermont Moran, Hegel considered Eriugena to be the father of German Idealism. As Hegel’s great ideology of the absolute tended away from the incidentals of everyday life, so did Erigena’s complex cosmology return us to the ‘super-essential’ realms of god & nature—away from the pleasures & pressures of the flesh.

The dialectic, as it is for our reading of Eriugena, has significance in the the way we view man’s place in the cosmic order, this to be centered & pivotal due to man’s intellectual ability to want to return to god’s goodness via his independent will & his wise reasoning. This, again, is the return & going back to god as extending from the fall. But, it’s also about regarding god as expressed in everything, suggesting god’s immanence, & this immanence eventually led to the conflation of Eriugena’s thought with pantheism. This immanence—or better named: theophany—is manifested in our very desire to quest for ultimate transcendence to god’s order. In other words, this theophany is one way god shows himself through us. Philosophy is a theophany of god. it’s how he appears to us, for Eriugena.

The theophany of god extends outward in a circular motion till we find theology in its outermost expression (or non-expression, as the case may be) taking us into another critical (non) component to Eriugena’s cosmology & that is: nothingness. This way of considering what god is not, is known as Eriugena’s negative theology, his apophatic theology. This is a definition of god in all that he is not. This gives full credit to the notion that god is nothing. This nothingness of god thereby positions god as super-essential, meaning that he’s beyond any nothingness we can conceive of. And this means god had to create all the known universe, earth, nature, mankind, creatures &c. out of nothing, that this nothing is included in all things. Yet, this nothing should never be defined as simply another element co-existing with god & the rest. The nothing is to be looked at as a privation of essence, before being & as non-being. Nothing is an essential lack of that which precedes being & since god is the creator of all as made manifest by his ‘word,’ the nothing includes that with cannot be defined by us & so it’s ultimately un-knowable by definition. Nothing is considered to be non-being. We can’t give Eriugena’s full argument for the nothing in this short space, but we’ll at the very least acknowledge it’s constancy throughout neo-platonism & throughout recent philosophy with its notable (at least for our usage) attention given by Hegel & Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).

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Timur Si-Qin – “Legend” 2011

Since we didn’t mention it earlier, all of this talk of nothing, non-being, privation &c. is found in Eriugena’s masterpiece the “Periphyseon,” or “The Division of Nature.” Indeed, this is his very cosmology where he attempts the ominous task of classifying nature as god’s creation, from his creation to nothingness itself. For Hegel, the abstract nothing is given primacy in his work on logic, as much as negation is given prominence in the dialectical movement itself. The basis of abstract thought determination as identified by Hegel is dialectically resolved by the recognition of the mind’s ‘restless’ becoming of thought by means of its very conceptualizing against & with the nothing. Thought becomes thought determination as being itself is confronted with the very nothingness of being. Hegel states in his “Encyclopedia Logic”:

All that really matters here is consciousness about these beginnings: that they are nothing but these empty abstractions, & that each of them is as empty as the other; the drive to find in being or in both [being & nothing] a stable meaning is this very necessity, which leads being & nothing further along & endows them with a true, i.e., concrete meaning. (EL/139-40)

Hegel softly echoes Eriugena’s epistemology as god is understood by man to be super-essential being, a.k.a. nothing, so should man understand his own mind & his own perception as having these qualities dialectically—being & nothing in tandem—becoming universal knowing. In the Periphyseon Eriugena writes, paraphrasing Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite:

Everything understood & sensed is merely the appearance of the non-appearing, the manifestation of the hidden, the affirmation of the denied, the comprehension of the incomprehensible, the expression of the ineffable, the approach of the inaccessible, the understanding of the unintelligible, the body of the incorporeal…” (P/140)

Then even closer to Hegel’s concept of thought apprehension—by means of this dialectical movement of the mind from the emptiness of nothing with being becoming universal meaning—we find Eriugena’s medieval elaboration of man’s mind coming to know itself, the world & god (through reason & negative theology).

…for the human mind both knows itself & does not know itself. It knows that it is, but it does not know what it is. […] It is more praiseworthy for the mind not to know what it is than to know that it is; just as negation is more closely & fittingly related than affirmation to the praise of divine nature, & it is wiser to be ignorant of it than to know it; for ignorance of it is true wisdom since it is known better by not knowing. (P/244)

Just as man can conceive of god by understanding what he is & better, by what he’s not, so can man use this apophatic way to his own mind. Man is a microcosm of the universe, therefore his own mind, his own epistemology characteristically shares in the ontology of his known & unknown world. This way of knowing the mind is not only dialectical, but it’s simultaneously metaphysical.

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Mark Mumford – “Nothing Ever Happened Here.” 2002

Once the moment of metaphysics is brought to the fore, we are drawn from the 8th & 18th centuries to Heidegger’s 20th century involvement with the nothing. In his destabilizing essay “What is Metaphysics?” This assuredly after god & after the absolute, instead we are looking through the nothing as it’s in contrast to being (Dasein) phenomenologically—through the anxious experience of our being. This confrontation is with the very question of what is there as being, or what being is not. This isn’t a negation of being, rather, nothing is repellent to being & is transcendent as it can only be, since we are being & not nothing. It’s almost as if this repellence is what confirms being in the existential anxiety of being. Our being can only confirm itself against nothing to become nothing less than being. Heidegger poetically writes of this:

Being held out into the nothing—as Dasien is—on the ground of concealed anxiety is its surpassing of beings as a whole. It is transcendence.

Our inquiry concerning the nothing is to bring us face to face with metaphysics itself. (WM/106)

These considerations are metaphysical (briefly think of how this concept relates to religious practice in general) & this nothingness proposition is fundamental in our way of contemplating an idealistic way of knowing. We’ll have to admit that Heidegger’s nothing, Hegel’s nothing & Eriugena’s nothing vary in their subtleties. Heidegger’s nothing is in contrast to a simple negation of something (being) & it’s very close to Hegel’s in that Hegel thought of being as essentially co-defined with the nothing. Oddly, for Hegel at the very basis of an abstraction of being we can barely distinguish it from nothing, yet we have no choice but to choose being from the two, since it’s the only primary abstraction of thought that is manifestly there for us & this is where meaning arises in its becoming—as it becomes self-determined thought, as it knows itself, as it’ll self-consciously know the world & as the world is reflected in this movement back to knowing objectively.

For Erigena, as we’ve alluded to already, nothing is also as complicated as the others, in that it’s non-essential, non-being, & privative. This still continues to define god as super-essential, so that if god is everything & nothing, he’s only that as far as our comprehension can conclude. If we were to then draw our own conclusions about all three views, we’ll have to transcendentalize a point of refuge with these thoughts, into the realm of that which cannot be comprehended. If we have an answer for everything, then we know nothing about our limitations. If we can see our limitations, then we can then imagine our possibilities.

Certainly, Eriugena was radical for his controversial views on predestination. Popular Christian opinion makes constant use of god’s active participation in the lives of men. We rarely (never) hear talk of god as letting man to his own devices. Man thus, in Eriugena’s context has to activate his own free-will to realize god’s theophany as reason toward a higher good. Aside from this, we’ll have to embrace Eriugena’s apophatic, neo-platonic ideas as vital for the basic philosophical issues they help to uncover. Common thought is normally concerned with what is, rather that what is not. If we cut off our ability to conceive of that which is mysterious & unknown, then what possibility is there? Positivist thinking destroys the nothing because thought ‘must always be about something.’ Although both Eriugena & Hegel had the dialectic as teleological & headed into reason, god & the absolute, we can see the break from this in the very conception of having to regard that which isn’t, in order to grasp the basic structure of metaphysical thought that’s so maligned in the scientific way of limiting the world—as Heidegger helps us to see. What are we without metaphysics?—a dry materialism only that proffers tangible facts, thereby cutting its imagination off from the dream of the unknown. That which we cannot know has everything to do with what we know, this is a universal way of opening the movement of thought into itself, throughout the world & into the void of the future.

Aurelio Madrid

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Ad Reinhardt – “Abstract Painting” 1963


Works Cited / Bibliography

Carabine, Deirdre. John Scottus Eriugena. New York: Oxford U. Press. 2000.

Eriugena, John Scottus. (P) Periphyseon – On the Divison of Nature. Trans. Myra L. Uhlfelder. Indianapolis: Bobs-Merrill Co. Inc. 1976.

Hegel, G.W.F. (EL) The Encyclopedia Logic. Trans. T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting, H.S. Harris. Indianapolis: Hackett Pubs. Co. Inc. 1991.

Heidegger, Martin. (WM) Basic Writings, What is Metaphysics? Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper Perennial – Modern Thought. 2008.

Moran, Dermot. The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena. New York: Cambridge U. Press. 1989.