Myth's wisdom, wisdom's myths

Enemies of Hope
March 20, 1998

Raymond Tallis is one of the most intriguing figures in the current intellectual scene. In one manifestation he is a distinguished medical practitioner: professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester, consultant physician in healthcare of the elderly in Salford, author of standard textbooks on geriatric medicine and editor-in-chief of Reviews in Clinical Gerontology. In another, apparently quite separate manifestation he is the scourge of contemporary cultural studies, the author of several books, articles and letters to newspapers and journals attacking post-modernism in an uncompromisingly polemical fashion. Though it is not entirely clear how this particular bee got in his bonnet, the frequent swipes that Tallis makes at it provide an entertaining and occasionally instructive spectacle for anyone who shares his concern about the cultural effects of the dreadful tosh that is routinely served up as "theory" in the humanities departments of our universities.

Enemies of Hope is a typical product of this second manifestation and shows Tallis once more throwing rotten eggs at his usual targets: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and the other thinkers that Tallis lumps under the catch-all category of "post-Saussurean". It is a large, wide-ranging and structurally rather messy book, at the heart of which is what Tallis himself describes as "a book review that got out of hand". Asked to review a book about myth and ritual called Origins of the Sacred: the Ecstasies of Love and War by Dudley Young, Tallis, it seems, got carried away. Commissioned to write 800 words he ended up writing 30,000. Though he is a writer of admirable power and persuasiveness, Tallis is not one who cultivates the virtue of brevity with any great success.

Unsuited for its original purpose, Tallis's review of Young now forms one layer in a clumsily over-stuffed double-decker sandwich of a book, the other layer being a critique of a heterogeneous set of theories - political, sociological, psychological, linguistic and philosophical - that Tallis sees as "marginalising consciousness". At either end of these layers (providing, as it were, the bread of the sandwich) are a prologue in which Tallis declares his allegiance to the ideals of the Enlightenment, and an appendix, in which he discusses what he calls the "philosophies of consciousness and concept" and suggests a middle way between the two. Finally, in an epilogue he recapitulates his belief in "the Enlightenment dream and the hope of progress". Tallis evidently believes that the different parts of the book go together to form variations on a single theme, but, in fact, they do not and what we have, rather, is two or three books bound as one.

In his critique of Young, Tallis is chiefly concerned to combat a kind of romanticism, the kind that insists that primitive beliefs and ways of life are in some way more healthy than those of our present advanced civilisation. Tallis interprets Young as urging us to rediscover the "wisdom of myths". "Man fishes for the logic of human desire with myth and ritual", Young says. These myths and rituals "tell a man who he is and what he values" and "bind him back through memory to the divine ancestors who call upon him to act and think in various ways". Tallis will have none of this, and attacks not only the wisdom of myths but also the "myth of wisdom". Myths, he insists, with robust common sense, are simply false. We can, if we want, interpret them as saying true things by regarding them as symbolic, but why should we? Why not endeavour rather to find out the truth through scientific investigation and attempt to convey it in straightforward, literal language? After all, has it not been shown time and time again that the knowledge of the scientist is far more reliable than the "wisdom" of the prophet?

Thus, naturally, Tallis resists Young's view that science is a kind of magic, that it provides myths all of its own and that "the scientist with his model weaves a fictional web not altogether unlike the poet's". On the contrary, retorts Tallis: "Magic may be fun for the magician, but it is based upon error, leads to incompetence and is fundamentally fraudulent. The magical and scientific accounts of the problem are not, therefore, equally valid, and it is utterly heartless and irresponsible to suggest that they are". In illustration of this "heartlessness", he tells a harrowing story of a 14-year-old Nigerian girl who, when she became pregnant, had an obstructed labour because her pelvis had not fully grown. Being treated in accordance with myth rather than science, she was subjected to "over 80 hours of screaming hell" before a western surgeon was called to operate. The baby was lost but the girl recovered, only to be ostracised by her community because she had been left with an incontinent bladder and stank of urine. Regarded with disgust and contempt by the society in which she grew up, she fled to the hospital, where her condition was once again correctly diagnosed and treated by western scientific methods. Anyone inclined to believe in the wisdom of myths, Tallis suggests, should remember this "horrific tale of abuse" and ask themselves this: "if myths are so wise, how is it that those who subscribe to them are so stupid"?

The moral is clear: science works and magic does not. As for science being a kind of myth itself, Tallis shows that Young's case for this relies on an interpretation of quantum physics that (characteristically among humanist intellectuals ignorant of science) massively overplays its acceptance of paradox. Besides, Tallis adds, why concentrate so heavily on what is, after all, a rather esoteric branch of science? Most scientific explanations do not operate at the subatomic level, and therefore do not have to deal with the "indeterminacy" of quantum events: "What many in the humanities seem to fail to appreciate is that, while the billiard-ball world of the atom is no longer in place, the billiard ball world of the billiard ball most certainly is". It is a point well made and one that would put paid to an awful lot of nonsense if it were more widely appreciated.

One might doubt that Tallis really needed 30,000 words to do it, but that he has succeeded in his aim of demolishing Young's view of science and his defence of magic and myth is, it seems to me, scarcely beyond doubt. One wonders, however, why he set himself this rather unambitious task and why he did not take on a more sophisticated defence of mythological thinking such as one finds in Wittgenstein's work. There, Tallis would not have found the crude misunderstandings and simple mistakes that he finds in Young, nor would he have found any tendency to elide the distinction between science and myth. What he would have found instead is a view that his arguments against Young do not, as they stand, deal with: that myths are neither true nor false, and that they provide us, not with an alternative to science but rather with something that science cannot by its nature provide, namely a framework within which to see ourselves. The distinction between saying and showing that is central to Wittgenstein's work might be invoked to avoid the kind of foolishness that incites Tallis's ire, and it would have been interesting to have his response to its application in thinking about the value of mythologies.

Having effectively demolished Young, Tallis moves through a series of rather tenuous links to a discussion of consciousness, and Enemies of Hope becomes increasingly more speculative and less convincing. The fragile thread that joins the two issues together is provided by the following chain of reasoning: Young has a pessimistic view of advanced civilisations and a distrust of science, as do the cultural critics that are Tallis's bete noire; these cultural critics espouse a point of view that challenges the Enlightenment faith in rational progress, a faith that has at its centre a belief in the efficacy of reason and the power of conscious thought; therefore, a defence of the Enlightenment has to take up the challenge of those who, for one reason or another, seek to deny either the potency or even the existence of consciousness.

And so, all too quickly, we move from dwelling at length on the weaknesses of Young's book to a speedy dismissal of large and important bodies of work. Marx, Durkheim, Freud, Saussure and contemporary cognitive science (represented here mainly by the views of Daniel Dennett) are all identified by Tallis as threatening the integrity of the "conscious agent"; Marx by attributing agency to historical forces over which the individual has no control; Durkheim by invoking sociological determinants of behaviour of which the individual is not conscious; Freud by emphasising the role of unconscious fears and motivations in individual psychology; Saussure by analysing language and thought as a structure that owes nothing to the agency of individuals; and cognitive science by reducing consciousness to physical processes. Before we know where we are we find ourselves in a terrain over which a line has been drawn that places Tallis on one side and a host of unrelated and heterogeneous theories - the enemies of hope - on the other. In accordance with a bewildering kind of intellectual cartography, Tallis seems to have provided us with a map that shows Young's credulous and anti-scientific fantasies as lying next to the views of those scientists who regard the human mind as a piece of computer software.

Behind this confusing scatter-gun approach is Tallis's conviction that, in order to defend the Enlightenment, "we must believe in the central role in human affairs played by the conscious, responsible, individual human agent, and refuse to cede this role to unconscious, social, historical or linguistic forces". Thus Dennett, in his search for a science of consciousness, is as much an "enemy of hope" as Young, who seeks rather to limit the ambitions of science, since Dennett's view, like that of all Tallis's other enemies, regards the mind in a way that is "remote from the rational agents we usually take ourselves to be".

How then are we to understand ourselves in a way that does justice both to the power of physical science and to the efficacy of the rational, conscious mind? Here, Tallis becomes rather unhelpful. "We have no way as yet," he admits, "of describing, or even conceptualising, the dialectic between mechanism and conscious choice in actions that are ordinarily seen as free I The best one can do, perhaps, is to reassert the obvious - the centrality of consciousness and deliberate choice in everyday activity - and then show why the theories that question this are mistaken." This sends him off on his favourite theme of the wickedness of the "anti-rationalist, anti-individualist and, indeed, anti-humanist" strains in post-modernist, "counter-Enlightenment" thought. But, against the background of his confession that there is no adequate way of reconciling conscious agency with physical science, this looks all too much like bluster.

In the appendix, Tallis provides a fascinating analysis of 20th-century philosophy, urging us to categorise it not in terms of "analytic" and "continental", but rather in terms of a tension between the "philosophy of the concept", represented, for example, by Frege and Saussure and the "philosophy of consciousness", represented by, say, the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. This standpoint allows Tallis to see clearly the historical importance of Frege's engagement with Husserl, but it also presents him with the deep and intractable problem of how these two kinds of philosophy can be combined. On this point, too, he is singularly unhelpful, offering only the suggestion that we regard consciousness as "totally mysterious" and that we strive to see this mysteriousness as liberating and exhilarating rather than as threatening.

At the end of this richly chaotic and passionate book, then, we find ourselves being urged to uphold the Enlightenment faith in rational progress by accepting as a datum something that is inescapably mysterious. It is not, one cannot help feeling, a defence of the "way of reason" that Voltaire would have found satisfying.

Ray Monk is reader in philosophy, University of Southampton.

Enemies of Hope: A Critique of Contemporary Pessimism

Author - Raymond Tallis
ISBN - 0 333 611098
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £47.50
Pages - 499

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments