Brett Williams's Reviews > Before Philosophy

Before Philosophy by Henri Frankfort
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it was amazing

Answers to so many questions

This book explains how utterly different ancients were from us in how they saw the world and themselves in it. And how - without assistance by unnatural applications of reason and science – we’re precisely the same if allowed to be. It raises questions of how we can possibly save our natural world and truly believe in a spiritual reality if we and the natural world are subjected to modern thinking found to be so successful.

Focusing on Sumer and Egypt we find the ancients didn’t separate man from nature. Man was part of society embedded in nature, dependent on cosmic forces. Long before scriptural declarations of conquest over nature, man was not in opposition. They obviously struggled “against” a “hostile” environment, but this account is our language describing their situation, not their state of mind. Reminiscent of Campbell’s clarification between modern and ancient perspectives as “it” vs. “thou,” our authors describe this difference as “subject” vs. “object.” The ancients had one mode of expression, thought, and speech – the personal. Everything had a will and personality revealing itself. The ancients could reason logically, but such intellectual detachment was hardly compatible with their experience of reality. Impersonal laws (physics) did not satisfy their understanding. When the river doesn’t rise, it’s not due to lack of rain – the river refused to rise. You’d not hurt yourself in a fall – the ground chose to hurt you, or not. The ancient view was qualitative and concrete, not quantitative and abstract.

In science we apply a procedure, progressively reducing phenomena until subjected to universal laws. We “de-complicate” systems to understand them. There’s a hierarchy of complexity making planetary motions simpler systems than say, living cells, thus more or less complete theories of each, but we’ve proven since Galileo initiated modern science that we’re so close to the truth of nature (the judge of our understanding) that our theories earn acceptance through success of their predictions. We really did build Voyager to that understanding and it really did what we thought it would when released to nature’s command - eight billion miles from earth, still obeying our grasp of nature. Furthermore, accurate theories are able to predict things never dreamed possible when created. Relativity still yields such surprises. We see phenomena as manifestations of general laws, not by what makes them peculiar.

The authors term the ancient mind as “mythopoetic.” That perspective is why scriptures were written when they were and not anymore - writings imbibed with mystery and inflation of life, assumed lost to critical reason and economic forces. But the mythopoetic mind is still here, the natural mind we are born with. It’s why we have palm readers, cults, astrologers, ghosts, Creationists, pet psychics, TV conversations with the dead, best selling books on how to “know” God, and beliefs that flying jets into buildings will send their pilots to heaven. All expanding lives otherwise sterilized by 9-to-5, traffic jams, poverty. In Mexico, women are advised to remain inside during a solar eclipse, lest they become spontaneously pregnant. As my Aunt said of the Space Shuttle Columbia, “If God wanted us to be in space he’d given us wings.” If God wanted us to drive cars he’d given us wheels, or to live under roofs, he’d have put shingles on our head. What some battle as absurd is also quite natural, dangerous and capable of elevating life, avoiding deconstruction and reductionism applied to humans made of more than carbon and water. A dilemma revealed by this book. And if evolutionary biologists are correct, this behavior may have a lot to do with our messy brain structure, a condition we’re stuck with.
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Finished Reading
August 23, 2014 – Shelved

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