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Article ID: 14888

VoxAcct: 188382

Section: words

Age Group: Adult

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Logos, Mythos and the Category Mistake

Author: Rhys Chisnall
Posted: January 15th. 2012
Times Viewed: 2,949

The Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle came up with an amazing thinking tool, the idea of a category mistake outlined in his book, Concepts of Mind. I would argue that this tool that has relevance to those who are interested in religion and spirituality. A category mistake is where we place something into the wrong category or where we assign something properties it does not have. The example Ryle gives is of a foreigner who while visiting Oxford University sees the colleges, offices and libraries then asks when he will see the University building. Ryle argued that the foreigner has mistaken the university, which is how the buildings and people in them are organised for another physical building. The foreigner has assigned University to the wrong category and thinks it is something extra to the viewed buildings, i.e. another building.

Ryle argued that it was preposterous to join two things belonging to different categories with conjunctions in the same sentence. So it would be silly to say, “I drove past the colleges, the libraries, the people, the offices and the university”. What we should say is, “I drove past the colleges, libraries, the people and the offices” or “I drove past the university”.

Ryle pointed out that not all nouns or noun phrases pick out actual entities or objects. For example the noun ‘nobody’ does not pick out an actual person. I argue that when we talk about spiritual energy (for example) as an actual thing or object we are making a category mistake. Perhaps the noun ‘spiritual energy’ does not pick out an actual object in the same way that ‘nobody’ does not point to an entity.

However a literal believer could argue that it is legitimate to say, “I saw the stones, heard the wind and felt the spiritual energy”. But Ryle pointed out that not all category mistakes are so easy to detect. For example, it seems we can legitimately say, “the tides and stocks are rising”. However stocks and tides are still different categories and we mean different things by using the word ‘rising’. In relation to tides, the word is used literally and in relation to stocks it is used as a conceptual metaphor. And so in our example we are using the term ‘feel’ in a different way (i.e. a different meaning) to how we are using it in relation to the other sense words in the sentence. I felt his hand and I felt nervous are two different meanings to the word ‘feel’ and allow the two categories to be linked by a conjunction.

So if we are making a category mistake, what are the categories that we are mistaking?

Perhaps the answer can be found in an epistemological position offered by the historian of religion Karen Armstrong in her books, A Short History of Myth, The History of God, and The Case for God. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and it is concerned with what knowledge is and how we can know what we know.

Armstrong argued that the ancient Greeks reckoned there were two type of knowledge referred to as Logos and Mythos; both of which were valued equally. Logos was concerned with facts and empirical knowledge. It operates within the domain of true or false. Logos is the knowledge of science and other forms of empirical investigation such a history where facts need to be checked against evidence to determine their truth. It is also the knowledge of rational investigation such as that of analytical philosophy and mathematics, which can be proven through logic. If Logos knowledge and facts turn out to be correct then they can be believed.

If Logos is about describing the world then Mythos is about making sense of it. Mythos is harder to understand than Logos and takes a mature approach. Essentially it is what things mean; it is about making sense of life and the world in a way that speaks to people: Armstrong describes it as a form of early psychology. Mythos knowledge is not about being true or false, so it is not supposed to be believed in the same way that Logos is, but rather it operates in the domain of interpretation, the figurative domain of myth, stories, music and art. Mythos is not in the field of being true or false, but perhaps is best judged or evaluated by its aptness.

We make a category mistake when we think that one kind of knowledge belongs in the category of the other. It occurs when a Christian creationists mistakes the book of Genesis which is Mythos, for history. They have moved Genesis from the domain of the figurative into the domain of being true or false. When it is checked against the world they are left in the uncomfortable position, no matter how much they deny it, that the evidence shows the myth is not history. They have thought scientifically/historically about their myth and so have ascribed to it inappropriate properties, rather like ascribing the property furious to the colour blue.

It is inappropriate and unskillful for myth to be ascribed the property of being literally true. But this does not mean that the myth does not have value. Its value lies in what it means, its pedagogical interpretation that can prepare us for life and it inevitabilities, how it creates a sense of wonder and makes sense of our relationship with the world.

So should our example of spiritual energy be in the category of Mythos rather than Logos? When we experience the ‘positive or negative energy’ of a stone circle perhaps it is a description of how we relate to our subjective feel of the place. Perhaps the spiritual energy is in the meaning that the place has for us.

When we use it to describe the vehicle of spiritual healing or magic (the term power is preferred in initiatory Witchcraft- because it more obviously connected to a state of being) , is it not the feeling of empowerment, or the rapport and relationship between healer and patient we are referring to which facilitates the powerful placebo? When we are using spiritual energy in reference to soul and spirit perhaps we are speaking about our own character, about what makes us unique as individuals, how we see ourselves, how others see us and our relationships rather than a literal thing, a something extra. Perhaps it is what the American philosopher Dan Dennett metaphorically calls the centre of narrative gravity rather than the Cartesian confusion of a ghostly consciousness.

When we imbue objects, places, feelings and characters with a spiritual energy perhaps we are ‘seeing as’. The 20th Century philosophy Ludwig Wittgenstein puts it as experiencing these things as having a quality, see-as in terms of something else- perhaps we ‘experience-as’ having spiritual energy. The America philosopher John Searle would call it aspectual shape. It is an act of imagination where we see something in the light of something else. For example spiritual energy is what Michael Tye would call a fine grained ‘fact’, i.e. a particular way of seeing things as; an adjective or perspective rather than a noun or thing.

If we see ‘spiritual energy’ and other such things as Mythos, then whether it is physical or non physical, existent or non-existent or whether it is subject to the second law of thermodynamics becomes in the words of the Buddha, unskillful questions. They are simply not relevant as meaning is not about literal fact; it is about interpretation, subjective relationships and making sense of. Logos and Mythos become two different categories, both with value and both influencing each other. For each Logos discovery there is the corresponding Mythos of meaning and making sense of. Each Mythos shapes the way we see the world and can have physiological impacts on our bodies and the plasticity of the brain, not to mention the profound effect it has on our beliefs through which we filter our experience of reality. To my mind there is a great deal of magic in the employment and manipulation of meaning.

We make category mistakes when we mistake ‘knowledge’ that is about meaning for knowledge about facts of the world. Armstrong makes a strong argument that Mythos is not something to be believed like facts, but rather experienced in the same way that art is experienced, bringing meaning into our lives. We commit to it rather than believe in it.

Science is about facts and literal description of the world, religion is about meaning and making sense of. Once we separate meaning from facts, myth from science all conflict between the two vanishes in a puff of epistemological smoke.


Rhys Chisnall

Location: Stowmarket, England


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Bio: Rhys is a member of a long established coven in the North of Suffolk. He facilitates a tranining group for those interetested in initiatory Witchcraft with his partner Martika.

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