Nature, Language, and Supernature

I asked  Robert J Wizard,  our Dark Overlord, his opinion on this question, which I would like to throw open to any other reader who cares to comment: “what is it about Socratic philosophy (or about all philosophy) that makes it start with pragmatic questions and end with mythical visions?”

His comment:

As far as Socratic/Platonic philosophy goes I would say, tentatively, that it is because of his epistemology, his Forms and the Form of the Good. It lent a general direction to how he tackled all problems. And, practically, Plato was reacting against the materialists of his time.

That is an answer off the top of my head.

Now as far as philosophy in general. I would say with a good degree of certainty that they follow a historical pattern. And it is somewhat contained in my initial comment. First they try to ground everything naturalistically. Then they shoot each others theories full of the holes they do contain, and then the next wave of philosophers comes in and states it is all arbitrary, there is no grounding for knowledge for reality and therefore none for ethics. Then the field dissolves itself into babbling.

After some time of this after the destruction and dust settles people go back to the myths or whatever you choose to call them. Christianity certainly worked better (speaking pragmatically) than what was running the Greco-Roman world that caused it to die. They work better (speaking pragmatically) than what passes for “philosophy” these days. One exception IMHO – like I needed to point that out.”

Your answer off the top of your head is as good as answers I have heard in school.

As for me, I wonder if it is because of the nature of the subject matter, or, if you will, the nature of reality.

Things that we can define closely and deal with daily are based on and rooted in (and take life from) things we cannot define well, and have a more abstract, perhaps even eternal character.

Philosophy is like a ladder leading from earth to higher realms. Most people can agree what distinguishes a good hamburger from a bad one: the bad one is rotten, smelly, unsightly, no good to eat, not appealing to the taste, no contributing to the health and nutrition of the body. Pretty clear, no? It only gets less clear when we start looking at the difference between taste and health, and contemplate things that taste good but are not good for us, and then we start contemplating health in the abstract, and to answer questions about that, we have to talk about the good of man, body and soul, and suddenly or slowly we find ourselves in realms where metaphors and myths are actually clearer and better than definitions and propositions.

Allow me to propose two possible theories of language.

One is that metaphors and myths are an accident of speech, or a defect, where a speaker is unable correctly to categorize two elements in his sense impressions into the correct common abstraction, and so the speaker incorrectly abstracts two unrelated things and calls them by one name: for example, the speaker looks at the sun  on Monday and then again on Tuesday, and uses one word for the two sense impressions: “Sun”. This is a correct use of language. Then the speaker feels the warmth of the sunlight, sees the sun bring grain to its fruition, sees the glint of sunlight off the limbs of a beautiful maiden bathing in a shadowy pond, and things of the sun as a warm and passionate reality that grants fertility and inspiration, and destroys darkness, vermin and evil, and the speaker calls the sun “Apollo” or “Apollyon” — according to the first theory of language, this is merely a classification error on the part of the speaker, a mental slip of the foot, and must be rectified by proper scientific thinking as soon as possible. By Theory One, for example, the invocation of the Muse at the opening lines of Homer’s ILIAD (where the poet calls on the goddess to sing him the tale of the Wrath of Achilles) is merely a nonsense phrase, a mistake, like mistaking iron pyrite for gold due to a superficial similarity of color.

This first theory is that abstractions are built, as if from the bottom up, from concrete particulars, based on more or less arbitrary categorizations of the speaker.

The second theory of speech is that words were metaphors originally, and that metaphors are both formally and causally prior to literal speech. Indeed, this second theory might be so bold as to say that literal speech is metaphorical speech, merely with very limited and sharply defined metaphors. This second theory proposes that when a child or a primitive man first experiences the sunlight, he is aware of “Apollo” the sun as both literal and metaphorical reality, and only later comes to draw a distinction, not necessarily innate, between the more literal and less literal uses of the mythic reality.

This second theory is that particulars are deduces or derived, as if from the top down, from the mythical and abstract reality that is the primary pre-linguistic reality of which the speaker is aware, and that the categorizations are not arbitrary.

If the first theory of language is correct, then philosophy is merely a word game, and attempts to climb the latter of abstraction from concrete questions to eternal questions is vanity, or arbitrary, and ultimately pointless. There are modern philosophers (Wittgenstein comes immediately to mind, as well as certain logical positivists) who affirm something very much like this.

If the second theory of language is correct, then philosophy (when done right) is a fruitful search for objective truth, and when done wrong, can be known to be wrong because its particular conclusions do not fit with the foundational underlying mythic reality.

My proposal here is that Socrates was firmly in the camp of the second theory of language, and that therefore by the nature of language, his philosophical musings always must pass from the concrete questions, “what makes this hamburger good?” to general questions “what is good?” to mythic questions “how can we, who have never seen perfect good in this life, or in this world, know and recognize as if by recollection, the nature of the good?”.

The astute reader will notice that these same debates on the nature of language agitated the schoolmen in the middle ages, and reared their heads again in the years between the wars: C.S. Lewis’ fellow Inkling Owen Barfield wrote an account of the origins of language in Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1928) — I have not read this work, but reviews I have read suggest it touches on many these same issues. Some scholars have even suggested that the beloved fictional work of Tolkien and Lewis is informed by a mythic understanding of the origins of speech — I venture no opinion, content to leave such scholarly speculations to those better studied in the fields involved.