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Mythos & Logos: Two Ways of Explaining the World | Journey to the Sea

Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Mythos & Logos: Two Ways of Explaining the World

Posted by Randy Hoyt • Mar 1st, 2009

Throughout our history, we human beings have used two different approaches to think about the world around us and to acquire knowledge of it: mythical thinking and logical thinking. In the first eight issues and twenty-five articles here at Journey to the Sea, we have explored a wide variety of material produced through mythical thinking. In this issue, I want to take a step back from these mythic narratives to contrast these two ways of thinking. Grasping the distinction between these two approaches can provide insight into and appreciation for these stories which we might otherwise dismiss as illogical — as well as help us embrace a little more mythical thinking in our own lives.

I find it useful when discussing this distinction to consider the Greek words from which our English words “logical” and “mythical” have been derived, logos and mythos. Both Greek words can be translated as something like “story” or “account”; mythical thinking and logical thinking both provide an account of the world, but they do so in very different ways. Those using logical thinking approach the world scientifically and empirically. They look for explanations using observable facts, controlled experiments, and deductive proofs. Truth discovered through logos seeks to be objective and universal. Those using mythical thinking, on the other hand, approach the world through less direct, more intuitive means. A person might gain poetic insights into the nature of the world by seeing a caterpillar emerge from a cocoon or watching a full moon rise as the sun sets. Truth discovered through mythos is more subjective, based on individual feelings and experiences.

To illustrate the difference between these two approaches, let me consider one of nature’s most perplexing conundrums: why the turtle has a shell. A recent article in New Scientist magazine demonstrates how the techniques of logical thinking have been applied to this question. Modern turtle shells are deeply infused with the turtles’ skeletons; observations made on turtle embryos suggested that the shell might have been an outgrowth from the dorsal ribs and the vertebrae. Bone fragments recently discovered in New Mexico, however, show that this hypothesis was incorrect. The fragments came from an ancestor of the turtle with something like the armor of an armadillo; since the rows of armored plates were not connected to the skeleton, the shells of later turtles could not have been an outgrowth of it. More experiments will be performed and more observations will be made to explain the turtle’s shell in terms of physical causes and effects.

An Aesopic fable demonstrates how the techniques of mythical thinking have been applied to this same question. In a previous article, I discussed this fable of Zeus and the Turtle in great detail: Zeus invites all the animals to his wedding, but the turtle skips the wedding because she prefers being in her own home than being anywhere else; as punishment, Zeus makes her carry her house with her everywhere she goes. We do not possess any description of the thought-process involved in the creation of this fable. We could guess that some ancient person might have observed the turtle’s slow pace and understood the turtle as downcast and humiliated, struggling under its great burden — or perhaps an observer saw in the turtle great determination in the face of life’s adversities. If a story already existed of a divinity punishing a disobedient creature, the observer may have retold the story with a turtle as the disobedient character to express the insights from this observation; perhaps the events of the narrative and the explanation occurred to the observer simultaneously. We cannot know for sure the origin of this story, but something like this strikes me as a possible development.

The academic discipline of mythology is perhaps best understood as the application of the techniques of logical thinking to the products of mythical thinking; this is nicely illustrated by the fact that the English word mythology is derived from both Greek words mythos and logos. My own discussion of the Aesopic fable fits nicely within this discipline because it is an attempt to explain the fable in a objective, historical fashion. But the reverse also occurs: the techniques of mythical thinking can be applied to the products of logical thinking. Fantasy authors often incorporate scientific discoveries and theories into their stories: Philip Pullman connects dark matter with Milton in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and Madeleine L’Engle examines the space/time continuum and the theory of relativity in her Time quintet. Many science-fiction authors have scientific backgrounds and use narratives to work out for themselves and to convey to others the mythical significance of findings in their various fields.

Many of the great advances in civilization have been the product of these two ways of thinking working together. Artists, poets, musicians, and other mythical thinkers rely on the tools and techniques of logos for their own works of mythos: in a previous article, I discussed the effects of iron tools on the art of totem-pole carving. The pursuits of logos are in turn influenced by mythos: logical thinkers have figured out, for example, how to cure illnesses and prolong the average human lifespan, but they have learned through mythical thinking to value human life enough to bother. Products of logos enable us to communicate with the people who matter most to us (even when they are thousands of miles away), but mythos provides the context for us to know which people matter and what we should say to them when we do communicate. These exchanges, interactions, and dependencies demonstrate to me that mythos and logos are best seen as complementary to each other.

Though we have inherited great traditions in both mythical thinking and logical thinking, logical thinking has risen to such prominence that many no longer realize any another approach exists. The decline of mythical thinking throughout much of the industrialized world has resulted in the unfortunate loss of a sense of transcendence and of the value of human life. Some people argue that this has been responsible for much of the devastation in the last one hundred years. (I explore this connection in an article discussing Shikasta, a science-fiction novel by Doris Lessing.) I would not argue that mythical thinking can cure all of humanity’s problems — I imagine that an equal amount of damage has been done on account of both mythos and logos — but I would argue that it is now our burden and privilege to re-discover mythical thinking and to wrestle with the proper way to re-integrate these two ways of thinking into our lives.

One of my main goals with this site is the opportunity to explore for myself this integration of mythos and logos. I will continue to publish articles that explore myths and mythical thinking: the next issue will contain an article on mythical thinking in the teachings of Jesus and one on the way modern artists and authors understand their own art in mythical terms. But I would also love to hear from you: please leave a comment below discussing your own thoughts and experiences with mythical thinking. What has led you to appreciate mythos in a logos-heavy culture? In what ways have you embraced it and what value have you found in it? How do you think we should best integrate mythical and logical thinking?

Works Consulted / Recommended Reading

  • Sløk, Johannes. Devotional Language. Translated by Henrik Mossin. Danbury: Walter De Gruyter Incorporated, 1996.

Sløk approaches the issue of mythical thinking and logical thinking through the philosophy of language. (One excellent section of his book has the provocative title “The Awkwardness of Rational Language.”) He uses the mysteries related to Demeter and Persephone practiced in ancient Greece at Eleusis, a coastal city outside of Athens, as his primary example of mythical thinking throughout the book.

It has long been taken for granted that Greek society moved from mythos to logos in the sixth to fourth centuries BCE, culminating in the works of Aristotle. Recent scholars, however, are challenging this generalization and seeking to understand the importance of mythos throughout Greek society. This book contains papers delivered at an academic conference in 1996 exploring this theme.

This two-volume series explores Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from many different perspectives. In chapter seven of the second volume, titled “Theology,” Peters uses the mythos/logos distinction to discuss the  development of theology in these monotheistic religions over a period of nearly two thousand years. He shows that both have been essential to theology, with the emphasis shifting back and forth in different times and in different religious communities.

Armstrong draws heavily on Sløk’s work to define mythos and logos. She brings these concepts into the twentieth century, exploring how these two ways of thinking are reflected in fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She argues that these uniquely modern movements are the results of applying the works of mythos to the concerns of logos.

Although Carl Jung never used the terms mythos and logos, Shelburne argues that this distinction provides insight into Jung’s thought. The introduction of the book provides an excellent discussion of mythos and logos. The author briefly contrasts Jung’s view with two other views in an attempt to clarify what Jung would have thought about these two ways of thinking. The whole introduction nicely illustrates the difficulty of talking about mythical thinking in terms of logical thinking.

This is a fascinating novel in its own right, but of particular relevance here is the narrator’s distinction between classical understanding and romantic understanding. This distinction addresses aspects of the mythos/logos distinction from a different angle. The narrator introduced the concept of “Quality” as a way to overcome the classical/romantic dichotomy.

He approaches the problem through the philosophy of science, and  I found his comments on the scientific method to be particularly thought-provoking: Where do hypotheses that science tests originate? Are there an infinite number of hypotheses to any given problem? Can scientific results ever be conclusive when it is impossible to test an infinite number of hypotheses?

16 Responses »

  1. Thanks for this VERY thought-provoking article, Randy! These different binary tools for viewing the world – your mythos/logos here, Pirsig’s Romantic/Classical, and others as well – can be really useful in jiggling our brains to get us to reach down, if we can, to the assumptions we make that are so basic that we rarely think about them – or can barely even manage to think about them, since they are our grounds for thinking itself.

    One of the fundamental oppositions that has helped me see things in new ways is the split between orality and literacy (Walter Ong’s book Orality and Literacy is a great introduction to that topic). It’s a chicken-and-egg question: did the Greek develop the technology of written language because their logos efforts needed to be able to write things down, or is it that the logos effort itself in some sense driven by the invention of writing…? Whichever way you think it started, it’s pretty clear that the inventions of writing and philosophy fed on one another in classical Greece, with all kinds of consequences for us today, in the hyperliterate world in which we live.

    To this day, I can still remember picking up – entirely by chance – a book in the library, The Muse Learns to Write by Eric Havelock, and feeling it cause a mental earthquake for me. He is more famous for Preface to Plato (also a great book), but it was that little volume The Muse Learns to Write which really rocked my world and set me off on a whole new way of thinking about human culture. It was the book which launched me into reading Ong and McLuhan et al.

    Another great book that pushes at the idea of literacy and orality as a kind of generalizing principle, a lens through which we can observe all kinds of cultural phenomena in new ways, is The Alphabet versus the Goddess, by Leonard Shlain. He is a wonderful writer and a great speaker… and I had the odd experience of hearing him give a talk at the University of Oklahoma, and realizing that while his ideas and thoughts were of HUGE importance to me, elucidating in all kinds of ways how I think about the world, they really did not strike a chord with other people in the audience. Which is something very interesting in and of itself: why is it that one kind of message reaches (DEEPLY reaches) some people in an audience, while that same message just bounces off the minds of others in that audience…? It was a kind of disconcerting experience – I had thought to myself, “Well, after people at the university hear Leonard Shlain speak, they will realize at last that we need to totally overhaul the way we have organized our approach to learning and education…” – but no such luck. Still, it was a great talk and that book (Alphabet versus the Goddess) is a treasure trove of fascinating stuff to think about.

    Thanks for this article here, which helped me think about the mythos/logos distinction you draw hear echoes so strongly with some of the ways I see the back-and-forth of our ways of being in the world! :-)

  2. Oooh, I love Laura’s reading list! I have the Ong at home and hope to read it sooner rather than later. Of course, both Tolkien and Barfield discuss these same concepts in “On Fairy Stories” and Saving the Appearances respectively. In regards to the por quois story of the turtle, the reference Tolkien makes to Thor in his essay might be relevant (which came first, a god with particular features, or a human blacksmith who was so large and thunderous that he loaned the god his features–or did they happen simultaneously?). Barfield talks about the evolution of consciousness from a state of mind in which there is very little division between an individual and their environment (making “logos,” as used here, impossible), to a primarily logical thought process, where meaning is devalued in the face of fact.

    Excellent article!

  3. Alana,

    I’m curious to know more about what Barfield has to say here; I really do need to check out Saving the Appearances. Is his book primarily historical, describing how this division occurred? Or does he provide some analysis, indicating that this is a bad division and we need to somehow overcome it? Most of the material I have read on mythical thinking / logical thinking comes at it from the first perspective, though (from what little I know of Barfield) I would guess that he (at least in some way) reflects the second perspective.

  4. Hi Alana, from what you said here – “very little division between an individual and their environment (making “logos,” as used here, impossible)” – I think you will really see big connections with Ong. He reports on work done by all kinds of anthropologists, and I think it was one of the Soviet guys, maybe Luria, who would ask his non-literate informants a question like “Are you a good person?” and the person would say, “My neighbors will tell you I am a good person” or “They say that I am” and so on (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea).

    So, instead of a separate, individual identity, these people had a constructed identity, one that was inseparable from social context. The whole notion of an individual identity (along with “objectivity” and all such logos-related phenomena) that we take for granted is something that actually has evolved in the history of culture, in the history of language – a change that has take place by means of the technology of literacy and of writing, and the disembodiment that writing makes possible, the disembedding of words from their social context.

  5. Laura–the person who first recommended the Ong to me said the same thing, re: Barfield! So it’s definitely something I need to move up my reading list. Have you read Do Kamo by Maurice Leenhardt? It’s about myth and identity in Melanesia, and I suspect is a study of many of those same ideas (based on the sections I’ve read).

    Randy–I addressed this somewhat over at MythSoc, but Barfield does use both techniques. He analyzes the development of language and thought, leaning heavily on Ancient Greek, and actually goes through not only the history of the evolution of consciousness, but where he thinks it’s going (and where he thinks it ought to go). He comes out of the tradition of Rudolph Steiner, so there’s a bit of anthroposophy involved.

  6. Randy,

    My dissertation mentor turned me on to your site, and it is great to find you and your work. I’m going to put you on my blogroll. Check out my blog for my own work in searching for a new synthesis between mythos and logos! Glenn Berger

  7. I have come to think of mythos as the ACTUAL societal and cultural pressures that have been built up over the history of humanity with each of us having our own unique mythos to “keep us in line” so to speak. The “pressures” that I speak of push us but do not actually force us to act out in ways that society accepts.

    Certain aspects of the mythos are common to all humans but are unique because of gender, color of skin, sexuality, place of residence, and a million other variables, some tiny, some not so tiny.

    Break too far out of the cultural mythos and you become insane or an enemy of the state; perhaps an outcast, if you are lucky.

  8. Hi Randy,

    Nice site, insightful. I’ve just done a page on this topic, from a slightly different perspective. find it here


    I’m going to add you to my blogroll if you don’t mind


  9. “What has led you to appreciate mythos in a logos-heavy culture?”

    It is just another myth in our culture. We BELIEVE it to be too rational.

    Our daily life is full of myths. Our knowledge about surrounding reality is more than often insufficient to make logical conclusions or presumptions.

    Pop-culture, advertising, political campaigns, media news … all rely on mythical thinking.

    Almost nothing has changed from the times of Socrates. People think, that they are rational, but they very seldom torture themselves with logical thinking when they are not forced to.

    Mythical thinking is more natural for us. I do my best to be aware, when I base on mythical or logical reasoning.

  10. @Timo, I think you are absolutely right: mythical thinking is very much alive. Do you think it is a good thing? Do you think we should strive to think mythically more often? You mention at the end of the comment that you try to be aware of which way you are thinking: is that so that you can avoid thinking mythically or for some other reason?

    Thanks for the comment!

  11. I don’t believe I could avoid it.

    Nor do I believe, that anything is good or bad. A thing can only be good or bad for something.

    I don’t believe, that mythical thinking is endangered either (Do I believe in anything?). Mythical thinking is absolutely necessary in certain situations.

    E.g. You must master mythical thinking, if you want to master (Finnic or other) epic singing (unless you want to be a disguised parrot).

    Still I hate the daily practice of presenting mythical arguments for the logical ones in politics.

    People should be aware, that there is nothing wrong with mythical thinking in the spheres, where it works well and they could admit themselves, that they think this way all the time.

  12. there is a terrific British play called ‘Jerusalem’ which is now on Broadway. If you cannot see it, then I am sure the script is or will be available soon. I have been thinking about the play for a while now and this led me to your website. Thanks for all this, fascinating stuff!

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  14. My thinking is that after the demise of postmodern thinking, our attention should not be on an dichotomy discourse between Logos and Mythos but more towards a ‘oscillation’ condition between Logos and Mythos.

  15. Thank you for this great article. I enjoyed reading it. Would you please enlighten me on the possibility of using myth as prophecy: is there anything like a prophetic myth?

  16. There are certainly myths that have prophets and prophecies in them. Is that what you mean? Or is there something more specific?