Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Gary over at The Ontological Boy objects to my reference to the mythological matrix from which philosophy emerges. In comment to that post, Gary had connected my etymology for "argument" (from I.E. *arg, "to shine, be white, bright, clear") to the Thracian argilos, ("[white] mouse," tentatively), to which I replied:
Whenever animals move by, we are close to the mythological matrix out of which philosophy defines itself.
I've referred before to David Abram, whose remix of the phenomenological tradition is, with Harman's, the contemporary engagement with Husserl I find most fascinating. Abram's recent book Becoming Animal is just what I am talking about here. In the introduction to this work, Abram asks a crucial question:
Surely to speak, or to think in words, is necessarily to step back from the world's presence into a purely human sphere of reflection? Such, precisely, has been our civilized assumption. But what if meaningful speech is not an exclusively human possession? What if the very language we now speak arose first in response to an animate expressive world--as a stuttering reply not just to others of our species but to an enigmatic cosmos that already spoke to us in a myriad of tongues?
Because Abram is asking about different ways we as human beings might engage the world, he is vulnerable to being thought interested exclusively in the encounter between the world and the human being--of still being in thrall to the "philosophy of access" Harman wants to critique. Too strong a reading along these lines would miss the point of what Abram intends. Abram is doing (I say) in epistemology what Harman is suggesting in ontology. This is not to say that I think their two projects are fundamentally "the same" or would not need some considerable work to harmonize them. But the question Abram asks--what if human language is a response to a language that pre-exists it?--does not presuppose that human beings are the primary objects of that address.

It's fair to ask: O.K., but what kind of "language" are we talking about, and can this be anything more than metaphorical? I'll just point you to Abram's book here, but I want to underscore that this is a re-framing of the so-called linguistic turn that moves the whole thing around 180 degrees. If instead of asking whether we can know anything outside of language, we ask whether language can transpire outside of our relations with the world, we re-cast the question: one might call it now a matter of universalizing epistemology.

This is perilously close, some will say, to the way Meillassoux's "strong correlationism," as he calls it, radicalizes the correlation between human being and world. But in fact both Meillassoux and Harman do some radicalizing of their own, driving correlationism even further. Meillassoux, following Badiou, wants to radicalize strong correlationism--this is why he makes the in-itself nothing but the mathematical, or rather the mathematizable (this is an ambiguity--either in Meillassoux or--more likely--in my reading of him). Harman on the other hand wants to radicalize weak correlationism, (i.e., Kantianism)--for him there is an in-itself, strictly unknowable--in a sense it is far deeper than the mathematical and strictly unknowable, but this does not prevent us from alluding to it. I won't bother to defend these two caricatures, which leave every subtlety out. My only point here is that to radicalize meaning, as Abram does in making human language just one mode of an infinite range of manners of address, is not to reduce it to the old chestnut of anthropomorphism.

Most [Continental] philosophers know how Heidegger drew on Jacob von Uexküll's work-- the latter's A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans has recently been translated--famously drawing out a number of theses in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics to the effect that "the stone is worldless; the animal is 'poor in world;' man is world-forming." Now leaving aside whether or no the tick has an umwelt that reduces to the scent of butyric acid, the hairiness of mammals, and the temperature of mammalian blood (~37 degrees celsius), it clearly won't do to play a one-up game of worlds here. One can multiply worlds ad infinitum; the question is not whether there is a world for a Cadillac or a chihuahua or a con-artist, but whether and how fully one can represent them, enter them, move through them. And it goes without saying that one of the most effective ways, I might even say the only real way (and it is certainly not a safe way), is to listen to the one whose world it is.

I think it does not need demonstration that animals are ubiquitous in myth. I take it that even in the late and literary records we possess (e.g. Ovid), myth preserves a recollection of our relationship (and often of our attempts to reject this relationship) with the animal world. Of course, this begs the question: what, exactly, was that relationship? And, assuming (for the sake of argument) that it was one thing, why should we care; why should we hope to recapture this in philosophy?

I don't claim that our relationships with animals was of any one flavor, ever; but I do think it was once considerably more complicated; as complicated as our relationships with each other. This is just the point; when animals are experienced as just our neighbors, beings who have a right to be here, we have a far different encounter with them than when they are either pets, or rare sights in a zoo (or on T.V.).

Of course, we may repeat all sorts of misconstruing gossip about our neighbors. To take the mouse: Homer calls Apollo Smintheus, mouse, and Strabo tells us that there were several shrines that addressed Apollo with this epithet. Speculation on the origin of this name runs that a god originally blamed for bringing a plague eventually merged with the healer of it. Herodotus has an account of a king of Egypt who had formerly been a priest of Ptah (presumably; Herodotus has "Hephaestus"). Having ascended from the ranks of the priests, he disdained the soldier classes, and thus found himself abandoned by them on the eve of being attacked by Sennacherib. Going into the temple that night, he dreamed that the god told him to take heart. The next day he took with him such an army as he had been able to muster from the people, and routed the enemy, because the Assyrians' bowstrings and shield-straps had been gnawed by a host of field-mice. A similar story is found in Strabo, where the "attack" of the mice is taken as the sign that a migration is to cease; and also in a Chinese legend.

The book of Judges recounts that the Phillistines, having stolen the Ark of the Covenant, were afflicted by mice and by boils, and had to fashion golden effigies of both to appease the God of Israel (as well as returning the Ark). The Vedic god Ganesh is shown riding on a mouse. In the Taoist and Buddhist parable of the man, the tigers, the vine and the strawberries, two mice--one black, one white--stand for day and night, nibbling away at the vine on which we hang suspended. St. Gertrude often has them running up her staff or her cloak (because, say the commentators, mice stood for the souls in Purgatory, for whose welfare she had a special concern); but I have also read this symbol interpreted as "a temptation of the devil." In France, pieces of paper smeared with butter used to (may still, for all I know) be put into rat- and mouse-holes, with writing on them saying "Rats male & female, you who have eaten the heart of St. Gertrude, I conjure you in her name to go to the plain of Rocroi." Hmm.

Now if you've followed my pied-piper flute this long, you know I must be leading somewhere. But where?

Just here. The mouse has a dozen mythical associations, and more. None of them are right, and the mythological mind would not have thought of them as either competing nor as being right or wrong.

These connections don't just dead-end in a mouse-hole. They lead hook-&-eye fashion on to cats and elephants, to Apollo and the charms of music, to Aesop's fables on the strength of the small; to the brevity of life and the penances of purgatory. And if we take another step back, to "the animal" in general, we back right into von Uexküll, Heidegger, and Agamben. The question of what it is like to be a flitter-mouse.

But there is a further step. The literary remnants we have of these myths are all very late fragments of a ritual worldview in which the community between world and human was simply a lived reality. We can get some sense of the difference by comparing Pindar or Pausanius to the stories of Australian or Amerindian myth. In our Greek heritage, animals tend to be helpers, or monsters, or incidentals--a golden ram carries away Phrixus & Helle; Pasiphae becomes enamoured of a white bull & conceives the minotaur. But the coyotes and ravens, the lizards and emus and spiders, of Africa or Australia or the Americas, are themselves the actors of their stories. They have not yet been forced off-stage to make way for the heroes of the bronze age.

This forcible eviction was really the beginning of the ascent of anthropomorphism, and the universalization of epistemology I referred to above can only be the first step in correcting for it; for epistemology itself only arises in the foundering of participation. To universalize epistemology is only to make ubiquitous the unanswerable skeptical conundrum which epistemology is. What really needs universalizing is ethics.

In his A Language Older Than Words, which despite all my many difficulties with it is still written the way I believe philosophy ought to be written (with urgency and beauty), Derrick Jensen quotes Jeannette Armstrong, poet, teacher and activist from the Okanagan tribes. As I re-read this post, I saw that Armstrong provides a blunt response to the question I asked--"what kind of language are we talking about here, and can this be anything more than metaphorical?" and she does so in expressly philosophical terms. For now I am going to let her have the last word on the dispute between Gary and me:
Attitudes about interspecies communication are the primary difference between western and indigenous philosophies. Even the most progressive western philosophers still generally believe that listening to the land is a metaphor. It's not a metaphor. It's how the world is.


  1. Thanks for the response. Your posting is leading my thoughts down pathways I have not walked before. Even though I am not familiar with most of the authors you mention, I will do my best to speak to your concern. The connection between language (or the many languages, human and non-human)and thought and the many existing things is certainly of interest to me. I haven't thought much about animals and myth in relation to all that, but I will now. Maybe I can think of something worthwhile. Perhaps Oistros, the gadfly, will have something to say.

  2. I think it would help if, at first, I try to disentangle what I think this young philosopher is expressing in this blog posting from my understanding of that one particular phrase that I found disconcerting. He says, “Whenever animals move by we are close to the mythological matrix”. Then he goes on, referencing various authors, to speak of language. I will keep in mind that his young man is a musician, if I am not mistaken. He wants human beings to enter into a dialogue with animals. It’s a rather lovely idea. I get the feeling that it will be a rather musical synthesis composed out of the primal sounds that are the material substrate of all language. The sensitivity of this philosopher-musician to sound will make this a rather numinous happening, if I am not mistaken. The Mysterium Tremendum of sound that is the primal stuff of all language will capture us. Again, it is an attractive idea. It takes a musician’s sensitivity to be well taken. This is the realm of marked, holy sound. The animal that is man joining the other animals on this sometimes noisy earth, these vibrations of χαος.

    Sound is the material substance of language. Those numinous things are the matrix that holds language. It is in these sounds that language finds it numinous being. This is Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy. Animals help us remember that primal thing. I hope I have been faithful to the idea expressed in that blog. Now for my unease with it.

    The phrase “the mythological matrix out of which philosophy defines itself” is something else again. Now we are not talking of language and the special music that is that thing, but of philosophy. The so-called linguistic turn did put language at the heart of philosophy. More than that, it seemed to be saying that philosophy was no more than language. And using the ideas expressed above that it is of the primal, numinous sounds of the earth. I will agree that philosophy, the thing itself, is a numinous, holy thing. I do not, however, think it “defines itself out of” that mythological substrate of primal sounds. The linguistic turn should not take us there, even if it is an enchanting place of holy speaking. Just what philosophy is, however, aside from all that is for another time. I suspect I will have to steer a dangerous course between Scylla and Charybdis to reach that thing of philia and sophos.

  3. Let’s suppose that this one has now succeeded in joining his voice with the voices of nature, especially the voices of animals. He has become then a sort of human-animal being, somewhat like those Egyptian gods we all wonder about and slightly fear. The difference has been bridged. How will we react to that? Usually, in our history, a man-beast thing is feared. And, of course, at times it has been elevated to divine status, maybe because of that fear; but all that was in the distant past. As for today, the thought of it, it seems to me, still causes a bit of unease. A monster may lurk in it as it may in genetic manipulation. One does not blithely cross such boundaries. Nonetheless, such a being may show us the way out of the bind we have put ourselves in with our aggressiveness toward nature.

  4. Gary,

    your comments here and your several posts re. myth (too many to link to) on T.O.B. have all been very engaging. It's interesting to consider the recoil you indicate here. Wittgenstein says somewhere in the Investigations, "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him," which of course suggests that it is possible that the lion is speaking all the time. But why would we not understand?

    Abram will say, and probably Derrick Jensen too, that the problem is the very line we have tried to draw, and reinforce over and over, between human and animal. I am far from convinced that the answer (if this is really how to diagnose the "problem" at all) is simply to erase the line. I think human beings may just be "the animal that sees itself as different from other animals". But then again, I think of Levy-Bruhl's (now much-contested) example of the Bororo people claiming that they are red parrots.