Affect and Cognition in Two Theories of the Origin of Language

By Shanahan, Daniel | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Affect and Cognition in Two Theories of the Origin of Language


Shanahan, Daniel, Papers on Language & Literature


Obstacles to interactive discourse between science and the humanities litter the dividing strip that separates the often parallel roads they follow. The primary tool of the scientist, rigorous attention to empirical evidence, is often seen by the humanist to be reductive of the "higher" aspects of human existence; the primary tool of the humanist, an intuitive search for expressive representations of Truth, is often seen by the scientist to be "soft" and unverifiable. It can be difficult to find those in either lane who are willing to acknowledge, with Gregory Bateson, that while "rigor and imagination [are] the two great contraries of mental process," nonetheless "either . . . is by itself lethal"(237). But from time to time the two paths followed by the sciences and the humanities seem to converge in ways we cannot ignore, and when they do the possibility of discovering that the two form an unbroken circle is tantalizing to the optimists among us. This essay is an examination of striking similarities that emerge from a comparison of two studies of the emergence of language separated not only by differing disciplinary perspectives, but by nearly three quarters of a century in time.[1]

The two works, Ernst Cassirer's Language and Myth and Merlin Donald's Origins of the Modern Mind, have somewhat different purposes. Cassirer's book sets out to demonstrate the intimate relationship that exists between language and myth; Donald's book examines the development of human cognition from pre-hominid forms to contemporary times. But both works have important sub-textual parallels with one another. Cassirer's relatively limited focus on language and myth is part of his larger attempt to trace "the story of human mentality before the birth of that rather abstract form of conception which we call 'logic'"(Langer, "Introduction" vii); he is concerned with the human psyche's development of language before that psyche had much interest in reflecting on itself and before it was capable of the more reasoned reflection that one would find in, say, Platonic thought.[2] And while Donald's book focuses on the larger sweep of human cognitive history, language figures centrally in the panorama he traces: language and myth become pivotal elements in the developmental process he traces that ultimately produces the mind of homo sapiens. Each work, however, springs from a very different background and operates on the basis of very different premises, and it is in the uncovering of those premises where we find not only the points of non-convergence that so often spring to the foreground when two works from such different disciplines are compared, but the possibility of resolving those points of non-convergence as well.

Cassirer begins Language and Myth with a look at the recurrent notion that myth and mythical conceptions represent linguistic "mistakes," that myths such as the Greek belief in stones as the origin of human beings represent nothing more than the confusion of two names ("stones" and "men" in Greek) which are assonant. Cassirer rejects this view, arguing that myth rests not upon a mental defect, but "upon a positive power of formulation and creation"(6). Myth, he says, is never an attempt to duplicate reality, let alone can it be said that confusion makes it fall short of an imitative goal; myth, like language, "strives to 'express' subjective and objective happening, the 'inner' and the 'outer' world"(7). To put it another way, myth and language are gestalts of perception and expression.

As a second step, Cassirer argues that mythical conceptualization did not, as one might be led to assume by the way in which we experience our own perception, develop from the "inspection and observation . . . of definite forms, each with its own perfectly determinate spatial limits that give it its specific individuality"(13). On the contrary, he argues, using work done on the evolution of religious conception by Preuss and Usener, "mythic conception originally grasps .

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