Rethinking Philosophy: A Reflection on Philosophy, Myth, and Science

By Korab-Karpowicz, W. J. | Philosophy Today, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Philosophy: A Reflection on Philosophy, Myth, and Science


Korab-Karpowicz, W. J., Philosophy Today


What is philosophy? What is myth? What is science? None of these questions can easily be answered. Different philosophical schools define philosophy in accordance with their various philosophical standpoints. The numerous traditional stories to which the term "myth" is commonly applied cover an enormous area, so that it may be mistaken to look for some general definition of all myths. Some scientists maintain that there is no single category "science" and that a general characterization of science cannot be established.

The purpose of this essay is to establish a relationship between philosophy, myth, and science in reference to a historical perspective. If for methodological reasons we now disregard the above mentioned terminological difficulties and refer to a common-sense view of myth, philosophy, and science, it remains unquestionable that myth existed long before philosophy and modern science began as late as the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, this historical perspective is not introduced to affirm the positivistic view, according to which the history of humanity should be described in terms of three stages: theological (mythical), metaphysical (philosophical), and positive (scientific); nor is it presented to say that the positive one represents the final achievement of the human race. On the contrary, I will attempt to show that by departing from myth and original philosophy, modern men and women have concealed from themselves an intensely rich experience of life. In order to regain the love of wisdom, we need first to look backwards in order to move forward.

Myth and Its Dimensions

To some scholars myths are simply the imaginative products of a primitive mind. They are traditional stories, the narratives that are told in archaic, non-literate societies. To others, myths are sacred tales, revelatory and exemplary, because they are either literal or symbolic representations of reality and determine exemplary models of human actions. It is acknowledged that myths constitute a very complex and at the same time uncertain category.1 I will propose a definition that will at least in part pay tribune to the complexity of myth: myth is a wholeness attuned to the world as a whole and disclosing the world in its completeness. In order to make this statement more clear, I need first to explain what I call "mythical attitude."

"Mythical attitude" is an expression by which I characterize the way in which a member of a mythical archaic society relates to the world. It is commonly agreed upon that for the archaic human being the world is not what it is for us today. For archaic men and women the world as a whole is "thou. The world is unique and has an unprecedented character of a person, or even of a relative. Nature is the manifestation of the divine and is revered. Winds, rivers, headlands, mountains, springs, and animals are all personified and become subjects of myths. The natural world is permeated by forces which are depicted in divine and human terms. A member of a mythical society does not feel separated from, but rather engaged with, the world. "Thou" is not intellectually reflected upon, but experienced as life meeting life.3 Mythical attitude is thus one that can be best characterized by the word "engagement." Further, it is neither the attitude of a rational, disinterested observer nor of a self-interested hedonist, which can both be attributed to the modern individual. It is also not the attitude of a believer, based on faith.4 It is rather the attitude of an engaged devotee or lover.

Whether it is about the creation of the world, an animal, or an institution, a myth narrates something as if it would really happen. For the archaic human being myths are true stories that concern themselves with realities.' Consequently, the world as "thou" reveals itself in myth firstly as a cosmological representation in which supernatural powers, miracles, and gods are believed to truly exist.

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