Mythos, logos, and modernity

It is said that philosophy is born just when, for instance, the Homeric myths give way to the cosmological views espoused by the Presocratics. So John Burnet: ‘With Thales and his successors [i.e., the Presocratics] a new thing came into the world.’ This new thing was logos. Rational explanations–such as Thales’ that life is water or Empedocles’ that there is life and strife or Parmenides’ on being–begin to account for what there is and how we come to understand reality.

We know, then, that mythos unto itself is insufficient for human understanding for it fails to raise us into conceptual thinking. On their own, stories do little to enhance human understanding. Yet we may also find that in the context of self-understanding a strict analysis of concepts (what is free will, say?) will prove insufficient also inasmuch as it fails to come to grips with how free will bears on my coming to be just the kind of person that I am.

The puzzle is how to reconcile mythos with logos.

In two tour de forces, Sources of the Self (1989) and A Secular Age (2007), the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor wants to tell a philosophical story. The first is a philosophical story of the emergence of the modern self (or selves); the second is the birth of secularism. In both works, Taylor thinks it necessary to perform conceptual analysis (for instance, how does the picture of the medieval cosmos differ from that of the modern universe?) as well as to show how these concepts came into being. Conceptual thinking is aided by an investigation into their genesis; lived experience is brought into focus by the changing meanings of being.

Let us say that Taylor solves the puzzle by

  • showing how mythos can be put in the service of logos: that is to say, how to track the coming into being not of concrete particulars but of the concepts that make sense (e.g.) of modern human experience.

I believe this is the route we also must follow in order to understand ourselves in connection with the modern world.