LEV SHESTOV \ Speculation and Revelation

Lucien LÚvi-Bruhl


On the Metaphysics of Knowledge
(LÚvy-Bruhl's book "Primitive Mythology")

Published in Put, no. 50 (January-April 1936)

     Lucien LÚvy-Bruhl's book that appeared not long ago, La mythologie primitive (Paris: Librairie Alcan, 1935), presents, as it were, the summation of a whole series of works on the life of primitive peoples issued by the same author and published in the course of many years in the Alcan series "BibliothŔque de philosophie contemporaine." I will not enumerate them here; they are known to everyone. This is the case not only in France but also in other countries of Europe and America, for they have been translated into various languages (among others, also into Russian), have gone through many editions, and have everywhere been very highly evaluated. Many a person, it is true, has been surprised that these books were included in a "philosophical library." It would seem that their proper place is in a library of contemporary sociology and that their author is only a faithful, though also a quite independent and very gifted, disciple of the famous Emile Durkheim. This misunderstanding will be finally dispelled by the last volume that recently appeared. In it LÚvy-Bruhl sets himself purely philosophical tasks and, moreover, of the broadest nature, without fearing even to approach a problem that philosophy, after Kant, avoided with special care - the metaphysics of knowledge. If you please, the whole meaning of the large new volume comes down to a metaphysics of knowledge. More than this - it is now obvious that all of the six huge volumes written by LÚvy-Bruhl on the mental life of primitive peoples were intended mainly, if not exclusively, to prepare the reader for that raising of the problematic of knowledge which is presented in La mythologie primitive.

     I say once again and emphasize the point: contemporary philosophy not only avoids but does not recognize and cannot endure the problematic and, consequently, also the metaphysics of knowledge. To everyone knowledge presents itself as if standing outside of all problems. When Kant "demonstrated" that metaphysics cannot be a science, he thereby liquidated in himself all metaphysical interests. It is no accident, of course, that his closest followers - Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel - dissociated themselves so decisively in this respect from Kant and strove so tenaciously to restore to metaphysics the rights taken away from it by Kant. A metaphysics that would not be a science, a firm knowledge, and that would have as its source morality and postulates based on morality not only did not entice anyone but seemed to everyone deserving of contempt. Indeed, Kant himself, in the depths of his soul, did not value it very much and preserved it only for "practical" necessities, although he did everything in his power to give it a scientific form. Least of all did it enter his mind that it is granted to his metaphysics, or to any metaphysics in general, to infringe upon the supreme rights of knowledge that are guaranteed in our world to synthetic judgments a priori.

     But now LÚvy-Bruhl, in the last of his books, has decided, contrary to all the philosophical traditions on which he himself grew up and was educated, to oppose to myth knowledge as a source of truth. And, moreover, the myth not of the cultured peoples to which we are all accustomed, which has adapted itself to us or to which we have adapted ourselves and therefore is in a certain sense acceptable, but the myth of the most primitive persons - the peoples of Australia and New Guinea. And he does this not only because these yield better to study, thanks to the abundance and authenticity of the materials at our disposal, thanks to the latest extensive investigations of documents and data collected by persons who have lived for many years in the midst of the tribes of the countries named, who have familiarized themselves superbly with the languages and customs of the natives and who have reported in their books what they saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears. He does it also because the more primitive the people and the more remote it is from our habitual ways of thinking, the greater the possibility of testing, through its thinking, the legitimacy of the pretensions of those generalizations about the fundamental principles and sources of truth that have been made on the basis of our experience.

     Primitive peoples, says LÚvy-Bruhl, are little concerned about the coordination of myths with the requirements of logic. So it is in Australia, and we see the same thing among the Eskimos. LÚvy-Bruhl quotes the words of the wife of a shaman: "You always wish that supernatural things should be intelligible. But we are little concerned with this matter. We do not understand, and we are no less satisfied." Having reminded himself, apropos of this, of the famous credo quia absurdum, LÚvy-Bruhl writes:
"the primitives show themselves insensitive to contradictions that we judge flagrant... this indifference is one of the traits by which their mental habits contrast most visibly with our own. Undoubtedly the fundamental structure of the human mind is everywhere the same. When the primitives have the clear and vivid feeling of a contradiction, it shocks them no less than us. They reject it with the same energy. But... frequently what, according to us, is contradictory does not appear so to them, and leaves them indifferent. They seem then to adapt themselves to contradiction and, in this sense, to be 'pre-logical' beings. This attitude is closely connected, on the one hand, with the mystical orientation of their mind, which does not attach great importance either to the physical or logical conditions of the possibility of things, and, on the other hand, with its scanty conceptual tendencies" (XI. The italics here, as in all the rest of the quotations in this article, are mine - L.S.) [1]
These words contain LÚvy-Bruhl's fundamental idea. He more than once admonishes that the only means of penetrating into the mental world of primitive man consists for us, persons of European education, in not foisting upon him our own ideas about the signs that distinguish truth from falsehood. "The logical generalization (among the primitives) can in some fashion be replaced by a common emotional element" (ibid., p. xv). LÚvy-Bruhl energetically objects to Wirz, who, following Tylor and his school, which explains the inconsistency and the contradictions in the ideas of primitive people by the weakness of their mental capacities, is of the opinion that only for this reason does the "imaginary," supernatural world find room in their mind alongside the real and natural world, and that their conviction about the existence of a supernatural world is the result of badly thought through and ungrounded considerations, which, in their turn, are generated by the wish to find an explanation for any peculiarity or any event of ordinary experience. In LÚvy-Bruhl's view, Tylor's hypothesis is arbitrary and rests only on the conviction that we are entitled to attribute the orientation of our thinking to the Papuas or the aborigines of Australia. If one renounces this conviction, then all the confusion and all the contradictions of the primitives appear before us in a completely different light.
"Their belief in an imaginary' world no longer appears to us as the conclusion of a process of reasoning. This world is only an 'imaginary' one for us. In their eyes it is real, and even more profoundly real than the world of everyday and common experience. It is also an object of experience. But this experience is supernatural and therefore of a higher value. In a word: according to Wirz as according to Tylor, the existence of this suprasensible world is 'concluded.' It seems to me, on the contrary, that it is immediately given. There where he believes he sees an operation of the understanding, I establish... a feeling, in other words, an experience very distinctly characterized by the action of the affective category of the supernatural." (ibid., pp. xliv - xlv)
What LÚvy-Bruhl calls the "affective category of the supernatural" [2] is also intimately connected with the mystical orientation of the primitives and chiefly distinguishes their thinking from our own, which is conditioned by intellectual categories: it is given not to the mind but to the will to decide what is and what is not, what is truth and what is falsehood.
"The primitives do not seek (as we do) the 'cause' of that which surprises or strikes them, in contrast with ordinary experience... Because this cause is given to them beforehand, they do not have to ask themselves what it can be, either to speculate or 'philosophize' about it. They are doubtless metaphysicians, but not out of an appetite for knowledge. They are metaphysicians by reason of a spontaneous movement, by reason of a frequent, one could say, a continuous experience that they have of a reality that transcends and dominates the ordinary course of nature and intervenes in it at every moment" (ibid. p. xix).
In this "experience," or as LÚvy-Bruhl expresses himself in other passages, in these "immediate data of consciousness" ("donnÚes immÚdiates de conscience") of primitive people, no matter how repugnant this is to all our intellectual habits, are to be sought the source and origin of the myth that fills out their spiritual life. In that which seems to us the summit of madness, the greatest absurdity, the primitives see true reality, reality par excellence.

     Among the natives of Dutch South Guinea, the Marind-anim, to whom a comprehensive investigation by Wirz that appeared a few years ago is dedicated, the idea of dema stands at the center of their entire mythology. In the language of the natives dema simultaneously has two meanings. On the one side, by this word are meant the remote ancestors (they are called the "eternally uncreated") by whom all things - living beings, plants, islands, seas, mainland, human societies - were created. At the same time the word dema is also used as an adjective and then means everything "strange, unusual, and inexplicable." And these strange and inexplicable things, as well as the eternally uncreated ancestors, participation in and communion with whose life give meaning and significance to the existence of the natives, most of all, indeed almost exclusively, attract the attention of primitive thought. That which always repeats itself and occurs according to definite rules and laws does not concern them; it is understandable of itself. What is not understandable is only the unusual. The unusual attracts them with irresistible force, and it does this precisely as a supernatural thing which is not subject to explanation, which must not be explained, that is, be reduced to the natural - that for which the person of our culture strives.

     Apropos of this, LÚvy-Bruhl rises up anew and even more energetically against Tylor and his theory of animism. "The facts [relating to the life of primitive peoples] have shown that it [animism] is ill grounded. The primitive mentality, oriented otherwise than our own, is above all intensely mystical" (ibid., p. 80). It may be that in certain cases primitive persons experience a desire to "explain" facts that startle them.
But it is precisely this explanation that the primitives do not have to seek. They possess the principle of it, if not the details, in advance. At the same time that the affective category of the supernatural comes into action, the explanation is already suggested to them. The mysteries, the enigmas of nature do not constrain them, do not even invite them to an intellectual effort. Mystically oriented as they are, these minds are prepared immediately to recognize, behind the beings and facts of our world, invisible forces and powers. They feel the intervention of these powers every time something unusual or strange happens to strike them. In their eyes the "supernatural" envelopes, penetrates, and supports nature. Hence, the fluidity that nature can still present. The myths do not properly have as their object to explain it. They simply reflect the "supernatural." It is from it that the mythical themes do disconcerting to our mind arise. [Ibid., p.80]
What LÚvy-Bruhl calls the "fluidity of nature" is one of the most characteristic peculiarities of the conception of the world held by primitive peoples.
We must throw into relief the contrast between this "supernatural" and actual nature, where the sequences of phenomena are regular, even if their determinism is not rigorous, as the representations of the primitives imply. The mythical world ignores even this relative fixity. Its fluidity consists precisely in the fact that the specific forms of plants here have just as little stability as the laws of phenomena. At every moment anything at all can happen. Likewise, every living being can at every instant assume any new form whatever, either through its own power or through the activity of a dema. Everything depends upon the mystical forces in play and only upon them. [Ibid., p. 37]
LÚvy-Bruhl especially insists on this characteristic feature of the thinking of primitive man. In myth as well as in folklore, to which a considerable part of the second half of his book is devoted, and which, as he rightly notes, it is quite impossible to separate from the myths which generate it, a great deal is told about such transformations. "We find them fabulous and quite incredible. But this is only because we do not have, as the natives do, the experience, the immediate feeling of the reality of the mythical world and of what it contains" (ibid., p.36).

     Through these words the attitude that LÚvy-Bruhl has adopted in regard to the ideas of primitive people immediately become clear. Not only does he not permit himself to judge them according to the criteria of truth worked out by us which we have always arrogantly regarded as perfect, but he raises the question whether our "experience," that which we generally call experience, suffices to penetrate into the mental world of primitive man and to appreciate the reality revealed to him. In another passage, where he quotes tales of the natives according to which coconut trees or bows, underwater rocks or the wind, can assume the form of a man, etc. - all such things as appear to us completely absurd - and where he stresses again that here there manifests itself "a mental habit constant among the primitives and connected with the mystical orientation of their minds," he writes.
How did they come to this? Do they not see, as we do, that yams are plants that grow and ripen? That the rock is a mass of immoveable material in the water? That the wind which whips the waves has neither a head nor limbs? - Of course, they do. These external qualities do not escape their attention any more than they do ours. But, for them, neither living beings nor objects are "monomorphic." They do not dispose themselves, ne varietur, in the fixed framework of an intelligibly organized nature. On the contrary, the myths have accustomed their minds to regard nature as "fluid," and living beings and objects as passing indifferently from one form to another or, what is not very different, as possessing two forms, of which one is the human form .. . - Whether it changes forms, or whether it has several of them, is unimportant; its mystical essence remains intact. Here is an attitude that we have great difficulty in grasping and, above all, in preserving for more than a moment. [Ibid., pp. 99-100]
It is through this same "mystical orientation" that LÚvy-Bruhl explains the so-called phenomenon of totemism which Durkheim in his day discussed so thoroughly and which in more recent times was the object of cultivation, on the one side, of Spencer and Gillen, and, on the other, of Strehlow. One of the latest investigators of the life of the Australian natives, Radcliffe-Brown, is of the opinion that "the problem of totemism is only part of the more comprehensive problem of the relationship of man to nature that is expressed in rituals and myths" (ibid., p. 82). Agreeing with Radcliffe-Brown, LÚvy-Bruhl explains that totemic ceremonial becomes more comprehensible when we, in order to fathom its meaning, recall the mystical orientation of primitive people. "Indeed, nowhere does the latter manifest itself more clearly than in myths and ceremonies" (ibid., p. 83).

     Unfortunately, space does not permit me to dwell in greater detail on what LÚvy-Bruhl relates about totemism, even though all this is just as important and significant as what we have heard from him until now about myths. For the same reason I cannot linger on those chapters of his book that are devoted to the folklore of primitive peoples. Everywhere LÚvy-Bruhl perceives and shows us in an extremely convincing fashion what an enormous significance myth has in the existence of primitive persons. Their whole life is in the power of myth. "This is one of the points where the difference of orientation between the primitive mentality and our own makes itself felt most clearly. The primitive mentality moves in a much more fluid world, where invisible powers constantly intervene in the course of phenomena, where nothing is therefore impossible from the physical point of view" (ibid., p. 289). That which we consider miraculous and incredible occurs for the natives on the same plane of reality on which everyday phenomena are observed. "Not that they also do not judge these things extraordinary. But the extraordinary is a part of what happens normally. From the mystical orientation of their mind, and from the habits that this imparts to it, it comes about that the immediate data of experience are much more numerous for them than for us" (ibid., p. 295). On the following page LÚvy-Bruhl repeats again,
In this way their experience, which in very large part is not distinguished from ours, contains besides many data which escape the white man and which the native only can see and feel. Nothing makes him distrustful with regard to that portion of experience which, according to us, is chimerical... When in a myth or tale a wolf takes off his skin and turns out to be a man, the Eskimo knows that the same transformation has taken place many times. This detail thus does not detain him for a moment. The question "Is this true?" does not come to his mind, since, in his experience, facts of this kind are ordinary. If one puts such a question to him and he understands it, he is as surprised at it as we are at his "credulity." [Ibid., p. 296]
This, LÚvy-Bruhl repeats for the third time and insists, is not that "anthropomorphism" by which until now people have "explained" all the phenomena of the life of primitives. "They," he writes,
have neither a "botanical" idea of plants nor a "zoological" idea of animals... It is only when people will have begun to distinguish animality from humanity, when they will have adopted the habit of clearly separating one from the other and finally of opposing them, that there will be place for an anthropomorphism. Then it will become possible to attribute to an animal, more or less seriously, such qualities, such properly human defects. One will delight in this the more he becomes convinced that it is only a game, and that the distance between man and animal is insurmountable . ... But the myths and the primitive stories which speak of men-animals and of animal-men do not pretend to be ignorant of this distance. For them it is truly unknown. They cannot, therefore, owe anything to anthropomorphism. They precede anthropomorphism, and far so. [Ibid., pp.310-11]
Such is the role of myth in primitive societies and such, according to LÚvy-Bruhl, is its meaning. I have said before that LÚvy-Bruhl sharply condemns the attempts of earlier schools to subject the mystical orientation of primitive man to criticism on the ground of criteria of truth worked out by us. But he goes even further. The study of the spiritual world of primitive man pushed him to a still more difficult and serious question: Ought we not to proceed the other way around? Are we not obliged to test our own ideas about what truth is by that which we learn from the "backward," even the most backward, representatives of mankind? We recall what he says about the "affective category of the supernatural" that is absolutely foreign to our thinking, as well as about the "experience" and "immediate data of consciousness" which, among the natives, go far beyond what we call immediate data and experience, and, so to speak, flow beyond them. We recall that he scrutinizes with the most strained attentiveness the notion, which is for us completely fantastic, of the "fluidity" of those frameworks into which we have placed all the phenomena of nature. LÚvy-Bruhl tirelessly repeats: "To our mind, on the contrary, this fluidity appears incompatible with the conditions of the real, both logical and physical. All of us, ignorant and learned alike, feel that we live in an intellectualized nature, whose structure is made of necessary laws and fixed forms, corresponding to concepts" (ibid., p. 314). Nevertheless, "few people among us show themselves insensitive to the charms of these tales... Whence comes this so lively and general impression? Precisely from the fact that they put us in contact with the fluid world of the primitive mentality, that they introduce us to the milieu of extraordinary beings who are possible only in this world" (ibid., p. 315).

     In the closing pages of his book LÚvy-Bruhl speaks about our folklore - the folklore of the civilized peoples - universally known tales such as "Little Red Riding Hood," "Puss in Boots," "Cinderella." In these tales, he writes, "we are in a world as fluid as that of the myths of Australia and New Guinea, and no less incompatible with the laws of nature and the logical demands of our thinking. However, we do not turn away from these tales as from puerile, insipid, or grotesque fictions. Whence does it come that, on the contrary, we find in them an always renascent interest?" (ibid., p. 316). LÚvy-Bruhl responds to this question as follows: "What would need to be explained is not that in so many more or less primitive societies people believe, in all simplicity, in the truth of the majority of these tales but, on the contrary, why in our society they have for a long time ceased to believe in them" (ibid., p. 317). Fully aware, obviously, of the enormous responsibility that he takes upon himself, LÚvy-Bruhl proposes an "explanation" for which, one must suppose, even the most devoted and sincere friends of his writings will not forgive him. I shall quote it in its entirety - it deserves this all the more since in it was obviously expressed his most intimate and secret thought which led him to the world of primitive men, a world with which philosophically minded people have to the present time so little occupied themselves:
The reason for this lies undoubtedly, at least in part, in the rational character of the civilization which classical antiquity established and bequeathed to us. The uncontrollable and unverifiable data, i.e., those of mystical experience, through which the activity of invisible and supernatural powers is revealed, found themselves gradually excluded from the experience regarded as valid. In other words, the domain of reality tended, in a more and more precise fashion, to coincide with that of the laws of nature and of thought. What found itself beyond these frontiers would henceforth be rejected as impossible... That is to say, for minds that were oriented in this way... the mythical world, and the world of folklore which is not really distinct from it, had to cease forming part of reality.

Nevertheless, history shows that this mental attitude is far from general. It Was established only in some societies, and it cost them centuries of effort. But even here it was very far from being universal or unshakeable. What does this indicate except that it demands strict discipline and that the human mind, if it obeys its originally dominant tendencies, is not very sensitive to the impossibilities of the mythical world and does not dream of excluding from reality the data of mystical experience?

So this exclusion, although it is rational, or rather because it is rational, requires, even where it is habitual, a constraint and, according to the current expression, a driving back. These tendencies, left to themselves, would push the mind into a completely different way. In order to resist this without weakening, it must watch its slightest steps and constantly do itself a kind of violence.

Here is found the profound reason of the charm that draws it to the tales of folklore and the allurement of their language. As soon as we lend an ear to them, this constraint is suspended, this violence makes a truce... When we listen to these tales, we voluptuously abandon the rational attitude, we are no longer subject to its demands... We feel that we have become again like the men who formerly (as still today in so many regions) considered the mystical part of their experience as also real, and even more truly real than the positive. This is more than a recreation. It is a relaxation (une dÚtente) of the soul. [Ibid., pp. 317-18]
I have set forth, so far as this was possible in a short notice, the content of LÚvy-Bruhl's remarkable book. Knowledge, which discloses itself to us as constraint, as violence upon the spirit; myth as the atmosphere in which the suppressed spirit becomes free and relaxes; and, in connection with these, a new "experience," new "immediate data of consciousness," a new reality, and new possibilities that reveal themselves to him in whom the "affective category" breaks through the intellectual categories inculcated by the centuries - these are the results at which the famous French scholar arrived after long years of study of the spiritual life of primitive peoples.

     There is no need to speak of the profundity, audacity, originality - more precisely, of the utterly extraordinary character - of LÚvy-Bruhl's ideas; everyone, even if he has little familiarity with contemporary philosophical tendencies, will himself easily note all this. In his book is laid the foundation not of the "theory" of knowledge, to which we have been accustomed, but for a metaphysics of knowledge, which has not existed among us to the present time and in which we see with superstitious fear a threat to the basic tenets of our conception of the world. And when the age-old fog of "theory" and "knowledge" is dispersed, reality appears before us entirely otherwise than we knew it before. One can say even more: We discover for the first time reality, and indeed that reality which is most necessary to us - not that which is fettered by unchangeable laws, even the law of contradiction, but "fluid" reality.

     LÚvy-Bruhl's book, which (according to our opinion, of course) discloses the dependence of being on knowledge, a dependence that we were unable and did not wish to see, at the same time changes in a radical fashion our approach to ontological problems. Without a metaphysics of knowledge or, more precisely, so long as, instead of striving for a metaphysics of knowledge, we shall be content with a "theory of knowledge" which checks and tests the data of experience, the book of being will remain for us a book with seven seals.

[1] Throughout this essay Shestov paraphrases rather than translates his quotations from LÚvy-Bruhl's work. I have substituted for his paraphrases a more precise translation of the French text of La mythologie primitive (translator's note).

[2] With regard to the "affective category of the supernatural," compare the introduction to LÚvy-Bruhl's Le surnaturel et la nature dans la mentalitÚ primitive.

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