Page 48 - MODES of EXPLANATION

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Chapter 2
A Place in History
Alicia Juarrero
In “From modern roots to post-modern rhizomes”
(Juarrero, 1993), I explored the alleged
transition from mythology to philosophy. Supposedly, what changed with the appearance of
pre-Socratic philosophy in the sixth century BC was the
logic
of explanation deployed to
account for natural phenomena. Despite philosophy’s claim to have established a different
explanatory logic, I argued in that work that there is nevertheless a unifying thread that did
not change from mythology to philosophy: the belief that explanation really explains only
when it grounds that which is being explained in a non-phenomenal or non-sensory – call it
divine
– origin, a source that is also universal, atemporal, and acontextual. The Greek
miracle, I claimed, was in fact therefore a “miracle manqué.”
The logic of explanation of mythological and religious narratives is characteristically
the following: explaining something consists in stating its lineage or otherwise tracing its
history or trajectory back to its beginning. For a mindset embedded in a mythological culture,
doing this provides an explanation because chronological retracing corresponds to tracking
the phenomenon to its ontological ground. Herodotus slights the Egyptians by saying, “They
did not know until recently the origins of things.” A paradigmatic example of this
explanatory logic appears in ancient Greek references to the Ages of Man as golden, silver,
and bronze, the underlying assumption being that the further back one goes in time the closer
mankind is to the golden; that is, the divine. The same pattern reoccurs in Genesis’s “begats.”
Genealogy therefore constitutes the first “logic of explanation,” its supposition being that
original
or
foundational
is either itself
divine
or warranted by the divine.
Four distinct types of genealogical explanation based on temporal regression can be
identified. These include 1) the establishment of the authority of the mythological hero; 2) the
legitimacy or authority of any city, such as Athens; 3) the view that cosmology is just
theogony; and 4) wherever the authority of the narrator or the storyteller is called into
question.
Consider first a mythological hero’s authority. In the case of the Greeks, a hero’s
authority is clearly due to his pedigree. The
Iliad
refers to elders as the source of law and
reason because they are closer to the Golden Age, when things were right and gods and men
mingled freely. Ajax claims that the behavior of the Achaians is justified because it is “we
who can show of all the longest lineage” (
Iliad
2:558.40). To qualify as a mythological hero,
pedigree is therefore all important. In particular, descent from a god provides the
sine qua
non
for the role. Even the lethality of the hero’s weapons is directly related to their divine
origin; just consider the provenance of Achilles’ shield or Polyphemus’ stake. The same is
true for a city’s legitimacy or authority. For example, what makes Athens unique is that it
was founded by Athena; Argos was founded by Hera; Limnos by Hephaestos; and so on. In
each case the founder is divine.
The principle also holds true of a contemporary leader or a political figure in
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