Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Language, Mimesis and Myth

In trying to describe such an evolutionary order, I have found Merlin Donald's scheme of the evaluation of culture particularly convincing. Donald shows how, in the coevolution of biology and culture, three stage of human culture—mimetic, mythic, and theoretic—developed over the last 1 or 2 millions years. The evolutionary process starts from the baseline of episodic culture, which we share with other higher mammals—that is, the capacity to recognize what episode the individual is in and what happened before in similar episodes that might give us a clue as to how to act now even though lacking what is called autobiographical memory in which the episodes are strung together in a larger story. We then proceed to mimetic culture, possibly as long as 2 millions years ago with such species as Homo erectus, in which we use our bodies to enact past and future events as well as gesture for communication. Mimetic culture, though primarily gestural, was by no means silent, and in all likelihood involved music as well as some beginning of linguistic capacity, though very simple ones. Dance may be one of the earliest forms of such mimetic culture, and dance is basic to ritual in almost all tribal societies, so, thought we can only imagine what it was like, some kind of religion may well begin in those early days. What is important to remember about Donald's scheme is that though he speaks of stages, earlier stages are not lost, but only reorganized under new conditions. Thus even in our highly verbal, and, to a degree, abstract culture, gestural communication remains basic, not only, obviously, in intimate life but in public, in our grand spectacles of sport or politics.

Sometime between 250,000 and 100,000 years ago full grammatical language developed, making complex narratives possible. Perhaps fully developed autobiographical memory depends on grammatical language and narrative and so emerged only then, or perhaps it was already foreshadowed in the mimetic stage. Donald calls the new stage mythic. Myth greatly extends the capacities of mimetic ritual in terms of what it can enact, but it does not replace it. All cultures that we know of have narrative culture intertwined with mimetic culture. I have tried to illustrate religions that are primarily mimetic and mythic under the rubric of tribal religion, being fully aware of how treacherous the word "tribe" is. But even when religions move to include a theoretic dimension, mimetic and mythic culture in reformulated ways continue to be more central; humans cannot function without them [Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), xviii-xix]

But it appears that what provided solidarity before the appearance of modern language was also more than language. Donald uses the metaphor of "language piggybacking on culture" to suggest that the appearance of language required the prior development of a complex culture in terms of which the move to language would make sense. It is the development of mimetic culture over a long period of time that in Donald's view provided greatly increased cognitive resources including the solidarity that grooming no longer, and language has not yet, provided.


Donald describes mimesis as an increase in conscious control over action that involves four uniquely human abilities: mime, imitation, skill, and gesture. Mime, he says, is the imaginative enactment of an event. Although apes have a rudimentary ability to mimic, mime involves acting out a sequence of events as in the pretend pay of children, a form of action that breaks with the here-and-now concreteness of episodic action. ... (Ibid., 124-5)

"... Modern humans developed language in response to pressure to improve their conceptual apparatus, not vice versa." Myth is a profoundly ambiguous word, so it would be well to be clear what Donald means by it:

Mythical though, in our terms, might be regarded as a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors. The mind has expanded its reach beyond he episodic perception of events, beyond he mimetic reconstruction of episodes, to a comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe. Causal explanation, prediction, control— myth constitute an attempt at all three, and every aspect of life is permeated by myth.

(Ibid., 134)

Religious reality is a realm of experience, to be sure, but it is also a realm of representation. In fact, experience and representation belong inexorably together. George Lindbeck has described the current major alternative theories of religion in ways that will be helpful to our exposition. The first theory of religion he describes is what he calls propositional. It sees religion as consisting of a series of propositional truth claims, stated conceptually. ... I believe that Lindbeck is right in arguing that the propositional theory of religion is inadequate as a major approach to religion and largely abandoned by scholars today. To identify religion with a set of propositions whose truth can be argued would be to make it into what more accurately should be called philosophy. ...

Lindbeck's second theory of religion is the widely influential experiential-expressive approach. This view assume that there is a general human capacity for religious experience that is actualized differently in different religious traditions. The experiential-expressive view in its modern form Lindbeck traces to Friedrich Schleiermacher, and in recent times it was widely propagated by Paul Tillich. The emphasis on B-cognition and the felt-whole in the discussion so far largely belong in the category of the experiential-expressive theory of religion. In one understanding the deep structure of religious experience exists generically in the human psyche. Particular religions are the surface manifestations of this deep panhuman experiential potentiality.

Lindbeck, however, opts for a third theory as most promising, what he calls the cultural-linguistic theory. The cultural-linguistic theory, which derives from cultural anthropology, particularly from Clifford Geertz, takes symbolic forms as primary, seeing them not so much as expressions of underlying religious emotions, but as themselves shaping religious experiences and emotions. I would agree that the cultural-linguistic approach is a valuable corrective to the experiential-expressive approach, but I don't think we have to choose between them. It seems to me that we can view them as coordinate approaches and that we need to move back and forth between them to understand the phenomenon of religion. Thus when I characterize widely different expressions as examples of Being cognition, I am not arguing that there is a subsistent reality of Being experience that simply comes out in different forms on different occasions. Rather, I am recognizing that there are some common human experiential potentialities that have recognizable similarities, but are inchoate until given shape by symbolic form. Once so shaped, their similarities are always qualified: the difference may be crucial. I am also in full agreement with Lindbeck that cultural traditions not only shape, they even call forth, emotional experiences. In short, we can see them as equally essential, like the Aristotelian notions of matter and form, and do not have to choose one approach as primary. (Ibid., 11-12)

Using evolution as the grand narrative, language, culture and religion have to evolve into existence, for apes do not really have either of these (and no, communicating via grunts while it might be basic communication is not language). According to Bellah, language follows after culture, and religion and culture flow from ritual, which comes from the mimetic stage of human development. Language is therefore a human element invented for the purpose of grasping the reality perceived. Flowing from mimesis and mythos, language consists of symbols invented by Man to attempt to grasp a perception of the world. Language is thus sensate from its beginning, and abstract thought arose only later in an attempt to go behind the already existing symbols.

It is therefore unsurprising that Bellah, when discussing Lindbeck's taxonomy of theories of religion, rejects the propositional approach and chooses and combines the theories of religion being experiential-expressivist and of it being cultural-linguistic. After all, in the evolutionary framework, religion is purely a human development stemming from ritual. It is a questing for meaning in the dark, a totally subjective search for a story to make sense of the world (i.e. myth). While religion is somewhat "denigrated," philosophy (as theoretic thought (p. 240)) fares slightly better, since of course philosophy is the precursor of all sciences to some extent. Yet even philosophy is merely a human effect to grasp at reality, a reality that has no relation whatsoever with words. Rather, we create a relation through symbolism, such that words symbolize what we perceive reality to be.

Religion therefore is not concerned with reality per se, but rather reality as symbolized in story. Philosophy is concerned with reality, yet it does so through the use of symbolic language. Both can never achieve the truth, because of the limitations of language, although it can be argued that philosophy, or rather science, is seen to approximate reality well enough for most secularists.

From a Christian point of view, there are of course a lot of problems with this evolutionary picture. Christianity claims to be an objective revelation from the God outside creation, outside of our creaturely points of view (extra nos). If the foundation of Christian knowledge is revelation, then the evolutionary picture painted here by Bellah cannot apply to Christianity. Either Christianity is false and Bellah right, or Bellah is wrong and Christianity right, on the matter of Christianity. Concerning other religions, the Christian faith have always viewed them as idolatry so it is relatively irrelevant whether they stem from ritual or not.

Principially, if Christianity is true, then revelation is true. If revelation is true, then language cannot be mere symbolics, a "piggyback[ing]" on culture (p. 131). In the beginning, God speaks. Language comes from the God who speaks, and therefore language is composed by God to be an adequate vessel of describing reality, not just signifying it. The God who composed language(s) and gave it to Man is the God who creates all things and thus the Creator and the Composer of language are one and the same Being. Language actually corresponds to reality, and abstract language do correspond to abstract objects. Does this mean that language is infallible? No, because sin distorts our use of language as well. But distortion is not destruction, and therefore language while not infallible is nonetheless still adequate. Does this mean that language connects us to God? Language is ectypal not archetypal and therefore, while perfectly suited for us, does not establish an ontic continuity between Man and God.

We see that the Christian view of language totally contradicts the evolutionary view of language. Christianity is a top-down religion, with God as the revealer from the top, while in evolution Man is the discoverer from the bottom. Naturally, a discoverer is always limited to approximation since he does not have full knowledge, whereas a revealer knows all things and therefore there is true correspondence. Humans of course do not know all things, but we are using the tool by the God who knows all things, and thus we "discover" knowing that the tool given is not a mere approximation.

Perhaps an analogy here would help. The evolutionist would have humanity like a man trapped in a huge maze without maps or tools. Such a person would blunder along trying to figure out the workings of the maze. Man under His creator however is like a man in the maze with a device that, because it has been programed with the maze layout, can show the man the way out, yet it shows only the direction not the entire map. So while the man in the evolutionary scenario can only approximate a way out (until he finds a way out i.e. gains complete knowledge), the man under His Creator knows the way out, yet He does so step by step (i.e. without complete knowledge). The competency of language therefore is not because of Man, but because of God who composes it.

Going back to Lindbeck's theories of religion, it is evident that the rejected first option must be the Christian option, though certainly it is not in line with the supposed "established" theory of evolution. Christianity is propositional, though not merely made of propositions (a common straw-man). Language, culture and true religion did not arise from play or ritual, but rather are all given by God to Adam and Eve in their created state in the Garden of Eden.

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