Monday, October 18, 2004

Language and Myth (Cherie)

Author: Ernst Cassirer
Title: Language and Myth
Translater: Susanne K. Langer
Published: 1946
Length: 103

Cassirer uses mythopoeic thought that is that man lives through a mythic state of mind that developed from language as a conceptual system. The argument opens with a critique of theories about the origins of myth. It explains how our understanding of myth is based in unsubstantiated terms created out of deficiencies in language. Cassier’s points out that causes in nature confront the mind and when this happens, man attempts to attach these ideas symbolically to a concept. This concept is derived from a fundamental set of properties that gathered symbolically within the mind and therefore precede language. He draws this conclusion largely upon the ideas of Kant and what he coined the Copernican Revolution. This generation of a world created out of the single moment when the mind attempts to affix language to what it sees is not fixed as in Kant, but is instead conceived out of assigned properties or objects of influence that have been assigned importance to that human utterance. In other words the symbolic forms are not objects for intellectual comprehension that have been made visible to us through the moment, but through language itself they been given meaning and therefore have become real. Therefore looking back upon history through the lens of the modern is most difficult, particularly in the sense of the modern associations to the context of the word or its origin. Even looking at primitive societies fails to complete the sense of value assigned by a particular society. The society itself forms preferences and influences over the individualized thought. It is founded upon the land, culture, and basic needs of a given group. Cassirer uses the examples of agriculture and dancing to demonstrate this concept. In one particular case the word for dancing is not merely a sense of movement, but it is a representation for the primitive execution of some cause and effect. The participant is expressing, not representing. It is the ritual being produced at that moment that defines the word and therefore cannot be applied to our modern sensibilities of the same action.

Cassirer draws upon Usener’s ideas of myth, art, language and science in order to produce a world view of inter-related forms of spirit. He states that, “all theoretical cognition takes its departure from a world already preformed by language.” It is the noticing that constitutes the function of denoting. He delves into the ideas of Genesis and the moment of creation labeling it at one point a "veritable monkey puzzle". He continues to state that the only notable world worth viewing is reflected in language developed from religious myths, the holy, and magical; these conceptions are directly linked to our modern associations. These associations have been formed through primitive cultures’ words that are linked to moments which sought to define the image of god. He argues that the words are permanently dependant upon theological concepts. Therefore, the genesis of human language can be formulated through metaphor, and the nature of linguistic phenomena as it is connected with learning. Ultimately, Cassirer seems to be stating that it is through naming that the world makes sense to man; it is the implication that symbolic mechanisms come automatically within the very act of "naming" and do not occur on an animalistic level. It is the emotional impact of experience that allows a person to formulate their own sense of identity on the experiential level.

Associated Applications: Social Linguistics, Mythology, Religion, Anthropology

Keywords: Mythological, Religion, Language, Word-Magic, Philosophy of Origins, Metaphor, Mode of Thought

Referenced works: Plato, Kant, Max Muller, Usener, Herder, Humboldt, Gabelentz, Eckhardt, Spieth, Eve Tribe

Final thoughts: Cassirer is very approachable, although the text seems to be too general to apply any firm conclusions. It would be interesting to reread this after retuning to Latour’s immutable mobile. Just one more stop in along Foucault’s excavation, although I feel that he would have probably buried some of Cassirer’s concepts of singularity in concept. However I do believe that they share similar ideas power and how it is exercised through language and the teleological perspective that influences a subject’s point of view.

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