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Cassirer and Myth written by Ed Farrell, January 15, 1998
In popular usage myth is often seen as an imaginative construct without truth or, if truth is allowed, a conditional sort of truth based on naively or unconsciously held beliefs. This usage has a double lineage. The first is in Bullfinch and various others whose interest in myth began and ended in the allusive references to Greek and Roman mythology found in English and continental European literature of the 16-19th centuries. As the small population of traditional, Latin-read-and-bred, classically educated readers gave way to greater numbers of less pedigreed readers in the 19th century, the myriad references to classic myth in Dryden, Pope, Milton, Goethe, Moliere, and the rest became a kind of code that needed deciphering rather than the intellectual shorthand of people who used it as a common frame of reference. And so we got Bullfinch and others who gave us a mythology that is really more like a dictionary of technical terms designed for non-technical readers. And through their hands the term "myth" has taken on a twice-removed connotation that in our day has made it seem very distant and academic, even when found in children's stories.

The other lineage plots through Frazier, Freud, Jung, and Joseph Campbell, all of whom in one way or another saw myths as the "working-out" of common, fundamental human desires and fears that remain stubbornly unconscious and inarticulate, if not actively supressed, in everyday life. This lineage spun off an only slightly less disparaging view of myth in that it posits direct relations between myth and everyday human behavior. However, inasmuch as the peddlers of this sort of myth often either demonize or romanticize the portion of the human psyche that creates myth, we still have a very dubious relationship between myth and truth.

Cassirer's approach to myth has the virtue of insisting that it be placed alongside science and art as a common creator of symbolic forms, which allows mythical thinking to be evaluated on its own terms, without reference to psychology. Here is a small piece of his analysis:

Whereas scientific cognition can combine elements only by differentiating them in the same basic critical act, myth seems to roll up everything it touches into unity without distinction. The relations it postulates are such that the elements which enter into them not only enter into a reciprocal ideal relationship, but become positively identical with one another, become one and the same thing. Things which come into contact with one another in a mythical sense--whether this contact is taken as a spatial or temporal contiguity or as a similarity, however remote, or as a membership in the same class or species--have fundamentally ceased to be a multiplicity: they have acquired a substantial unity. [...]

Whereas scientific cognition seeks a synthesis of distinctly differentiated elements, mythical intuition ultimately brings about a coincidence of whatever elements it combines. In place of a synthetic unity, a unity of different entities, we have material indifference. And this become understandable when we consider that for the mythical view there is fundamentally but one dimension of relation, one single "plane of being."

Ernst Cassirer, Mythical Thinking (Volume 2 of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms), 1925


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