Sunday, March 3, 2013

Today's Savage Mind

Alice C. Linsley

The Human Mind and Patterns

Proverbs 25:2 says, "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honor of kings is to search out a matter."

Plato would have approved. His philosopher-king was such a seeker. However, not all seekers of concealed things have royal blood. Seekers are found in every culture, ethnic group and social class, and they have this in common: they are great observers of patterns and seek to understand their meaning.

Jacques Derrida and Lévi-Strauss explored the "underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity." They were interested in the ways that meanings are derived from binary oppositions, their relationships and the transitions from one to the other. For example, in every society and religious group what is edible varies, but all recognize the binary opposites of raw and cooked, wet or dry, or natural and manipulated, or fresh and rotten, and Kosher or non-Kosher. The pattern is consistent and yet it is difficult to define the exact point at which wet become dry, or what is a natural object or substance becomes a product of human handling.

Derrida, a North African, Arabic-speaking Jew, essentially reintroduced an ancient epistemological approach. He identified the complexity of binary oppositions which characterize ancient worldviews.

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss believed that the primitive mind and the modern mind have the same structures or patterns. He came to this through observations of primitive peoples of the Amazon and elsewhere and his presented his findings in Tristes Tropiques (1955) and Le cru et le cuit (1964). He showed that qualities experienced as raw or cooked, and other sensible binary sets, point to a network of abstract relations which form a coherent system. These books made Lévi-Strauss the central figure in the structuralist school.

As Lévi-Strauss once said, structuralism is “the search for unsuspected harmonies” across cultures. Working among Amerindians from the 1930s onward, Lévi-Strauss found those harmonies to be evident in mythology. In this understanding Lévi-Strauss and Derrida were on the same page. In their investigations they found that myths, in Lévi-Strauss's words, “provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction.”

Structuralist theory considers how opposites generate meaning not only by what each entity represents but also through the relationship of the binary opposites. Man and woman each represent a unique idea, but the relationship of the two presents additional layers of meaning. In the Bible male and female represent a merism, that is, the binary set points beyond itself to the whole of humanity. In his Logical Investigations, Husserl set forth the theory of wholes and their parts. Today the formal theory is known as “mereology.”

Mereological thinking involves exploration of sets and their relationship. For example, when we speak of a couple, we are speaking of two people and their relationship. In the case of the sacrament of marriage we are speaking of at least 6 aspects: the man and the woman; their relationship, the relationship of each individual to their Maker, and the covenant relation made before God and witnesses.

When we speak of night and day, we are speaking of two experiences with a range of in-between experiences that we call “dawn” and “dust”. The binary set also expresses the whole range of experience. The expression “night and day” represents a 24-hour cycle. To say “they searched high and low” is to mean that they searched everywhere. 

Merisms are common in Biblical poetry. In Genesis 1:1 we read that God created "the heavens and the earth." The merism means that God created the whole universe. In Psalm 139, the psalmist declares that God knows "my sitting down and my rising up”. This is to say that God knows all the psalmist's actions. The phrase “good and evil” – as in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - is merism whereby a pair of opposites refers to all that can be known. Eve is tempted to eat of this tree so that she might become like God, knowing all things.

Levi-Strauss argued that binary distinctions generate a hierarchy of meanings and are central to cultural narratives. He was influenced by Husserl's phenomenology. On the surface the binary oppositions seem straightforward. However, Derrida's investigations reveal complexities and nuances in deconstruction of texts, ideas, myths and human customs. In the case of binary oppositions, each component of the binary set means something, and the relationship of the oppositions means something, and the hierarchy exhibited by the set means something. On deeper examination, we find complexity and nuance in the sensible pattern.

Binary sets require that we make distinctions between entities, consider the relationship of dominance and subservience, and explore reversals. In so doing, unfamiliar or hidden meanings emerge. This is what Derrida recognized in his playful and profound exploration of texts and myths. 

Derrida ascribes to objects a less substantial existence than the shadow they cast, or their trace. He explores the metaphysical aspect behind the physical. He moves behind Aristotle to Plato, and behind Plato to the ancient Nilotic mysteries which informed Plato. Derrida's reversals are a strategic intervention to free Western Philosophy from the constraints of empiricism, materialism and linear logic. His method involves neutralizing the shouting voice in order to hear resonances of underlying sounds.

As Derrida suggested: "Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition, and a general displacement of the system. It is on that condition alone that deconstruction will provide the means of intervening in the field of oppositions it criticizes" (Metaphysics).

This reversal of the subordinated term of an opposition is no small aspect of deconstruction's strategy. Derrida's argument is that in examining a binary opposition and reversals, deconstruction brings to light traces of meaning that cannot be said to be present, but which must have metaphysical existence. This is not a new idea or even a new approach to meaning. It is consistent with the binary thought and observations of the Abraham's Proto-Saharan ancestors from whom we receive the binary narratives in Genesis.

Pattern and Method

All of this is to say that binary oppositions are both pattern and method. In the field of Physics Einstein and Bohr represent the tug-o-war between determinism and non-determinism. Einstein preferred the determinism of classical physics over the complementarity and the uncertainty principle of Bohr and Heisenberg. Yet none of them could deny that all properties and actions in the physical world are to some degree non-deterministic. None can deny that every snowflake is unique. Yet every snowflake has a perfect pattern. 

Niels Bohr was right that light behaves like both waves and particles. This led him to conclude that entities could be analysed as having several contradictory or mutually exclusive properties, such as a wave or a stream of particles, depending on the experimental framework. In other words, no entity is only one thing.

In Philosophy we find Essentialists and Non-Essentialists, and Determinists and Non-Determinists. It is never wise to be dogmatic about either position because neither can function without the other. The opposites must be held together if we are to discover anything about the more difficult questions, such as "At what point does the entity cross from this to that?" This question weighs on Darwinians who are faced with identifying the crossover points from single cell to complex organism to primate to human. Despite the bluster of popular figures like Richard Dawkins, they have not been able to accomplish this. Could this be because no entity exists that does not conform to some pattern?

The Human Mind and Craftsmanship

In "The Savage Mind” (1962), Lévi-Strauss proposes a distinction between conception, design and manufacture. The craftsman works with his hands to create something that does not exist in nature using natural materials such as flint, copper, ivory or wood in different ways. Early man had to experiment, and in this sense, he was the father of all inventors and scientists. Yet Lévi-Strauss saw a difference. The savage mind is more spontaneous, and more open to divine inspiration. The scientist is methodical and, for the most part, unconcerned with the divine.

The great monuments of the ancient world - pyramids, astronomically aligned obelisks, wind towers, etc - served both practical and spiritual needs. Computers and satellites serve a practical need, but not a spiritual need. Science presents us with secular expressions of reality. The theory of natural selection would have us believe that the human mind has advanced beyond the savage mind, and yet our perceptions of pattern in nature are the same. That is assuming we are paying attention to patterns. 

One need only ask the average American high school student a few questions about the natural world and it becomes evident that they are not paying attention to patterns. Their minds are less informed about patterns in nature than the minds of the Amerindians studied by Lévi-Strauss. I recently asked 78 9, 10 and 11 grade students in a highly regarded private school these questions:

What does it mean when we speak of the moon waxing and waning?
Why is the calendar divided into 12 monthly cycles?
Why is the week divided into 7 daily cycles?
How long does it take (approximately) for the earth to complete on full rotation?

Not a single student was able to give me an explanation about the lunar and solar cycles, the 7 celestial bodies after which the ancients named the days of the week or sidereal astronomy. Yet in Abraham's time, such matters were discussed and considered important enough that the ancient Horites kept records over thousands of years. Being thus ignorant of basic patterns in nature, would it not be more appropriate to call us "savages"? 

In our day, the greater question concerns the human heart or the human spirit. If Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Derrida are correct, the experience of binary sets is universal. That being so, firsthand experience of the binary oppositions should inform us as to the true nature of reality. But here technology intrudes. Though computers represent binary language, most students have no conception of this. They use computers for entertainment and social networking. Their world has become virtual, not real. In their world the patterns are distorted. Man and woman is meaningless in their androgynous world. Homosex is a sexual preference like chocolate or strawberry ice cream. The very binary distinctions that enable us to dig deep into the meaning of things are blurred beyond recognition or entirely lost. The result is not only a loss of knowledge, but also a loss of empirical method.


Nancy Forderhase said...


This is a most interesting post. It's making me think about a lot of things from several different angles. Thanks for posting it.

Alice Linsley said...

Thanks for reading, Nancy.

Jonathan Hayward said...

I'm not sure why you're relying so much on postmodern sources, but "It's easier to turn an aquarium into fish soup than to turn fish soup into an aquarium" (Solzhenitsyn).

We may have lost some of the gains of science; such is the damned backswing as discussed at

But really restoring ancient minds would represent a real achievement greater than the establishment of a scientific mind. The questions you pose are in part cultural, and I'm not sure I'd subscribe to the answer you gave about the week. In Genesis and subsequent Biblical usage, the cycle of weeks is established in relation to creation. In the (etymological origin of) the English name of the days of the week, we have Sun's Day, Moon's Day, Tiw's Day, Wotan's Day, Thor's Day, Freya's Day, and Saturn's Day. (I remember once contemplating a fiction of a dark world where there was a concept of Loki's day, which was not fixed to any particular time or astronomical cycle, but instead represented a movable day of disaster.) These are the names of pagan gods, several of them nordic. Now you may say that the ancient mind did not too sharply distinguish between deities and astronomical features, but the English names for the days of the week (whose origin I do not know) represents something that was not Christianized as, for instance, Domandi (Lord's Day) for Sunday or Sabbato (Sabbath) for Saturday in Spanish.

And I'm not sure we should just judge youngsters on their knowledge of astronomical phenomena. Youngsters recognize and know how to use a dizzying number of technologies by ancient scholars; and usually they know how to use running water and electricity without electrocuting themselves. Not that I think extensive knowledge of technology is normative for healthy human function: "Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis" at and also say, "Whoa... we've been awfully successful at achievements that matter less than you might think."

I'm wary of even speaking of a neo-primal appearance among youngsters. Ignorance of science and the natural world, maybe, but a proper reincarnation of ancient living is something I'm much more hesitant to acknowledge.

Alice Linsley said...

Thanks, for your thoughtful comment, Jonathan.

"In Genesis and subsequent Biblical usage, the cycle of weeks is established in relation to creation."

The whole of the Biblical worldview is rooted in the understanding that God created all things. Romans 1:20 is Paul's answer to why all people in every time and place are responsible for this knowledge as well as the recognition of God's eternal power and divine nature.

"The questions you pose are in part cultural."

Everything has a cultural context, but that doesn't mean there isn't a pattern.

The culture of these students is Evangelical Protestantism and they attend a Christian school where Astronomy and Geology are not taught because the school is committed to Young Earth Creationism. I wasn't concerned about their scientific knowledge as much as whether or not they were thinking about what the Bible reveals and the context of the Biblical writers.

jdwoods76 said...

Tragically, many of today's children do not see any patterns in nature because they don't see nature anywhere at all. Living in a virtual reality, as you noted, they are even shaky about seeing simple cause-effect relationships in their daily lives. One of the educational gurus du jour, Sir Ken Robinson, has many brilliant insights into our educational system; hopefully,he's referring to the "more spontaneous mind" here:


Alice Linsley said...

John, Thanks for the link.

So true. After this same group of 78 students could not answer the 4 questions, I told them that they needed to disconnect, turn off, put away their electronic devices for a while and spend some time studying the stars. One sweet girl came about a week later and told me "Mrs. Linsley, last night I went out and looked at the stars and it was beautiful!" One could be discouraged or pleased. 1 student out of 78 connected, if briefly, with something natural and awesome.

Jonathan Hayward said...

I posted "Why Young Earth Creationists Aren't Completely Crazy" at In a nutshell, young earthers drew a line in the sand at a point when a line in the sand was (and is) necessarily. They just dug in at one point; Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind suggests that before a certain point, it was nor a particularly Evangelical line in the sand. (My own history of beliefs about the origin of creation appear in and, much more recently, My beliefs about Creation itself appear more directly in"> and indirectly in the multifaceted critique in Between them is the suggestion that understanding Creation does not tout court translate to learning science; Solomon is credit for three thousand parables about aspects of nature, but this is not science in the modern sense, and not just because he wasn't shaped by Newton, Darwin, and other important scientists. (I don't agree with Darwin--but I think it silly not to accord him as a great scientist important in the understanding of Western history.

Alice Linsley said...

Church historian Mark Noll also said, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

The scandal of Young Earth Creationism is that it is neither science nor good Bible interpretation. Additionally, it holds a racist position.

At the back of Young Earth Creationist books such as Coming to Grips with Genesis: Biblical Authority and the Age of the Earth by Terry Mortenson, one finds the 12 Affirmations and Denials. Affirmation XII claims that the diversity of languages and skin color came about as a result of divine judgment at the Tower of Babel.

XII. We affirm that all people living and dead are descended from Adam and Eve...and that the various people groups (with their various languages, cultures, and distinctive physical characteristics, including skin color) arose as a result of God's supernatural judgment at the Tower of Babel..."

This is easy to refute since the evidence of many languages, skin colors and genetic diversity before the time of the Babylonians is overwhelming and cannot be denied by reasonable persons.The spread of the Ainu is but one example. Other examples involve the dispersion of the Proto-Saharans and the Kushites. These peoples represent a range of skin color, eye color, hair type and languages before the construction of the pyramids and ziggurats.