On the demon of demythologisation in our time
There’s a TED talk I saw circulating recently via the devil’s electric nervous system. In it, the Davos Alibi Bot, an imbecile named Yuval Noah Harari, develops a contrast between facts (like mountains and trees) and fictions (like God and religion). Being unaware of subtler metaphysical distinctions—gentle gradations in act-potency mixtures, for instance—and the cost of believing that being is grounded in nothing but nominalist entities, Harari unironically echoes nineteenth-century scientistic atheists who have come to think that reality can be neatly divided up into the real and the make-believe. He claims, like some demented empiricist, that what’s real is only what you get through your senses. What isn’t verifiable by the senses is “just a story” to him and nothing more.
Harari calls himself a philosopher and, given the sheer volume of unbridled hogwash that comes out of his mouth, one is tempted to believe him. But what’s especially relevant to us here, I think, is not how wrong he is in the details. Differing perspectives are everywhere and we’re all, every one of us, bound at some point to disagree with someone on something, even when we’re mostly on the same page. All of us are bound to get a few things wrong. What’s relevant, in my view, is that he is in the throws of one of the most popular demons of our time. The demon has an unwieldy name but we would do well to know what it is and how it works. After all, it is not just dishonest intellectuals like Harari who are so easily enslaved by it.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the demon of reductionism, which is undeniably present here. Reductionism, the tendency to subsume all complexity under a single, simple explanation, is part of what’s going on. But it is not the whole story. Yes, I said “story” there. After all, contra Harari, I think reality is a story. Anyway, the demon I want to name, discuss, and combat here is not reductionism but its sibling, demythologisation.
Like reductionism, demythologisation is hermeneutical. It is an approach to interpreting the world in a certain way, according to a rather fixed and decidedly unselfconscious vantage point. It is associated with the theologian Rudolf Bultmann but there have been many who have adopted this approach before him.
One famous example of demythologising is found in Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise (1677). Spinoza insists that any event recorded in the scriptures must be interpreted in a way that is consistent with natural laws. If a miracle is recorded, it must not mean that a miracle took place, he says, but that something symbolic, allegorical, rhetorical, or metaphorical is meant. Perhaps the writer simply wanted to inspire devotion in his readers by impressing them with impossibilities.
There is much in this debunking echoed in the contemporary phenomenon of fact-checking. In recent weeks I have encountered, quite by accident, three legendary stories, all of which have been fact-checked and found wanting. I don’t want to say more than this, I don’t even want to tell you which stories got fact-checked, because I don’t think truth and facts are entirely co-extensive. Truth is necessarily a story; a necessary distillation; and it by no means excludes imagination. I find more truth in Dostoevsky than in the daily news.
Granted, there are ways to demythologise that are not entirely terrible. René Girard’s unique form of demythologisation is one example. But what is interesting to me about the bad kind of demythologisation is how it plays fast and loose with a certain perceptual openness that we all naturally possess. This perceptual openness—let’s call it curiosity, for that’s its name—causes us to encounter any given thing with the intuitive understanding that there is a backstory. There’s always more than meets the eye. What is visible owes its being, and the meaning of its being, to what is hidden or perhaps not obvious.
The remarkable capacity we have for curiosity exists in us right from the start. It is not learned but a given part of our natures. To be human is to ask the question of the meaning of being. I cannot look at anything and assume that it is simply there. I mean, yes, it is there. This computer. This empty cup of coffee. The sounds of birds outside in the bird sanctuary next to my home. The feeling of a cool breeze moving around me. The distant hellish hum of a leaf blower.
Thereness is unavoidable. But to be aware of the world—I mean, really aware—is to notice that it is the hidden that makes the manifest manifest. Even my own life rests in history upon mystery upon mystery. However, as a process of shrunken thinking, demythologisation does not want anything to do with the intermingling of history and mystery. What cannot be explained according to a certain logic or in keeping with fixed terms of discussion must simply be explained away.
Think again, if you’ll forgive my simplistic distillation, of Spinoza. He says, more or less, “See that miracle? Well, it can’t be a miracle. It must be something else—like a metaphor!” And yet we know that the people who wrote down those miracles in those bible stories assumed that miracles had occurred. They perceived something, didn’t they? Demythologisers in this Spinozist vein are therefore not, in the end, revealing the hidden but turning what is supposedly hidden against the manifest.
To understand this in greater depth, it helps to notice something of how we experience the interesting. I’m thinking of the paper written by the sociologist Murray Davis, published in the journal Philosophy of the Social Sciences in 1971. The title is: That’s Interesting: Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology. In that article, Davis explores, among other things, something of the relationship between what is true and what is interesting. He does this in sociology but there’s much that those of us who are not sociologists can learn from.
Davis sets his paper up with the following statement: “It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true, but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting.” In this, we find a dialectical clash between truth, which is a question of ontology, and experience, which is a question of phenomenology. I don’t think such a dialectical clash is inevitable or that the interesting is reducible to it. Nevertheless, it is certainly one possibility in the phenomenology of trawling through the drudgery of so many academic papers and discovering something that isn’t mind-numbingly dull. What is and what seems can be placed somewhat at odds with each other even if, ideally, they should work together.
Generally, Davis finds, “A new theory will be noticed only when it denies an old truth, proverb, platitude, maxim, adage, saying, commonplace, etc.” What he does not say, but which is fundamental to understanding how we experience the world, is that the denial of the old truth is always, in some sense, parasitic upon that old truth. The denial is only interesting because it is in rivalry with some or other more established perspective that has been taken for granted. A man who walks into a business meeting with pencils shoved up his nose and wearing underpants on his head is likely to be more noticeable than his colleagues because everyone is dressed normally. At a Halloween party, though, he would stand out less because the norm for a Halloween party includes a certain baseline expectation of oddness.
That said, the formula for what is interesting is this: things are not as they appear. It can also be put in this way: You thought X; but X is false and Y is true. In philosophical language: ontology is otherwise than phenomenology. Here’s Davis’s research as an example: it looks like theorists are respected because of their truth-telling but they are only held in high esteem because they’re interesting. In other words, in a phenomenology of the interesting, the truth is, at least potentially, different from the appearance. The map is different from the territory.
There is something psychoanalytic about the division the above formula presumes. Appearance works at the level of the conscious, while truth is equated with the unconscious, which is, by definition, what we do not (currently) know. In other words, Davis intimates that the typical interest-grabber assumes that none of us really has any idea what’s going on and must therefore find it out from some or other expert. In a certain sense, this is, of course, true. It is not difficult to amble around the world in a state of almost complete oblivion, as is demonstrated very well by so many people I know and exemplified by the average South African government official, although in the latter case, I’m not sure any real consciousness exists.
However, where this conception of interestingness is potentially misleading is that it may get us to think that the truth is somehow only the other of experience. It's as if there’s what I experience, some phenomenon, and then there’s what is true, which I can’t experience but can grasp in the abstract. Interestingly, Harari’s formulaic thinking is somewhat the reverse of this. He assumes that what we experience is true while what we know abstractly isn’t. But, arguably, he’s caught in the same dialectical trap. If experience and truth are set against each other, which is a trick of a certain mode of perception, we may very well be forced to choose one over the other. If the map looks different from the territory, we may feel the need to discard either the map or the territory.
Hopefully taking you on a somewhat argumentative scenic route shows the precise problem with demythologising but it’s time to spell it out. In the end, it does not so much set truth against experience as set one experience, the experience of the interesting itself (one kind of map) against another, the numbed experience of what we have gotten used to (another kind of map). The contest is not between truth and appearance but between what grabs our attention now versus what used to grab our attention. The trouble is not, then, that demythologising replaces the map with the territory in the way that the interesting seems to substitute truth for experience. Rather, demythologising substitutes a different experience for a habituated experience; it calls the new experience “true” when it is merely a mind-tickling novelty.
In reality, and this to my mind is the truly interesting thing, the real truth must accommodate both. Phenomenology and ontology ought to be friends; they ought to be partners in the pursuit of the real, not enemies endlessly trying to outcompete each other for our attention. But how are we to get past the competitive compulsion inherent in demythologising and interest-seeking?
To answer this, and as I begin to move towards a conclusion, I’d suggest that we ought to have a deeper appreciation for the fact that perception is always, as the phenomenologist Max Scheler has shown, caught up in the reality of values. Values aren’t feelings, although how we feel about things grants us a certain access to values, similar to how ears grant us access to sound. Values aren’t post-rationalisations but an intrinsic, pre-cognitive part of the world of meaning, experienced as interwoven into our primary encounters with the world. Values aren’t added like flavouring but are embedded in the given. Perception is valueception.
It’s vital to notice this because some sort of valueception is at work in any demythologiser. I’d say it’s warped and distorted. The demythologiser is not merely pitting one thing against another and declaring it true against the falsehood of some other thing. To think that is to misunderstand the meaning of the phenomenology of the interesting I touched on above. He is evaluating the world, pitting one set of values against another. By doing so, he is not simply dividing truth and falsehood; he is telling you what he perceives and what he doesn’t, as well as pointing out what he values and what he doesn’t. I, of course, am doing the same here. Harari, for example, is a class act of declaring, boldly and loudly, that his perception is disastrously half-baked. And that’s putting it mildly. But, of course, I have my own blindspots. I just don’t know what they are—yet.
Can we not—I think we can—become better attuned to the world so that we appreciate not just how we value things but so that we learn to discover what is actually valuable? I believe we can learn to love mountains; to love them for their sheer mountainishness and not just for the brute fact that they are mountains. We can also learn to love stories; to appreciate what they are and what they mean and how they illuminate the world.
The answer to demythologising is not blind credulity and it is not some simplistic adherence to one’s default ideology. The answer is to become a grand appreciator of being in the world. It is to become better attenders of the real. It is to learn how things fit together and how we fit together with things. It is to learn that self-cultivation and world-cultivation are, in some ultimate sense, the same thing.
There is, in the end, no values-free existence. But the possibility of learning to notice and appreciate what is truly valuable is one we should embrace. The ultimate risk of the demythologiser is not that he gets the facts wrong, then. The risk is that he cuts himself off from a fuller and more meaningful existence. By tearing up the storied world, which amounts to tearing up the world itself, we would be left with only the bare facts and an ever barer life.