Sanctification as Argumentation
What Scholars of Rhetoric Can Learn from Ernst Cassirer’s Theory of Myth
Ingår i: Shadows in the Cave. Revisiting Mats Rosengren’s Doxology. Erik Bengtson, Karl Ekeman, Mirey Gorgis, Louise Schou Therkildsen & Alexander Stagnell (eds.), Retorikförlaget 2022.
Artikel s 141-160
Erik Bengtson is Senior Lecturer in Rhetoric at Södertörn University and researcher in Rhetoric at Uppsala University, Sweden. 0000-0001-8031-1471
At the time of finishing this chapter, in March 2022, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is four weeks into its invasion of Ukraine, a neighbouring country with a population of 41 million. In the world of lived experience, in the bodies and minds of those most directly affected, this aggression has led to immense human suffering. A part of me wants to put a full stop there and simply end the text in an acknowledgement of this reality. At the same time, as a scholar of rhetoric, I am being pulled towards the shadows – towards the world of appearances. What is more, anyone trying to understand what is now happening finds themselves grappling with said shadows. Indeed, beyond the tangible reality of war, we find a very different but nonetheless real rhetorical struggle. As this volume engages with the work and thought of philosopher of rhetoric, Mats Rosengren, I will allow myself to linger in that rhetorical turmoil or as Rosengren might have phrased it – echoing Cornelius Castoriadis – in the magma of social imaginary signification.
In this realm of imaginary significations, we have seen the reawakening of a suggestive notion of the Russian state – as threatening, manipulative, inhuman, and unpredictable. This notion is of course fuelled by its most immediate historical predecessor in the western fear of the Soviet Union, as well as by fragments from a more recent history, such as the imposing of anti-gay legislations, the poisoning of political opponents, crackdowns on free media, imprisoning of protesters, the lies surrounding the seizing of Crimea in 2014, and the related destabilisation of Donbass in eastern Ukraine. But the shape of this suggestive notion today is not only an effect of history, it is very much rhetorically re-negotiated and re-constructed through current actions, symbols, and events.
In direct relation to the re-evocation of a dark image of the Russian state, I want to mention two other suggestive, social imaginaries that have emerged as poles in the discourse during these weeks: One is a mythical idea of Europe as a united continent with a common history, common values, a common identity, and a common future. The other is a complex construct of ‘the Russian people’, a people that on the one hand is imagined as consisting of brave heroes opposing the regime, and on the other, as a passive people, either due to being deceived by the propaganda or due to being deprived of hope and spirit by massive repressions – historically and presently. Regardless of its complexity, there is unity in this idea of the Russian people imagined as a place of suffering, as well as a potential agent of change.
None of these three myths, active today, were created ex nihilo, but they are still very much rhetorically created in the sense that they are brought into existence, and continue to be brought into existence, by human symbol use. What is more, these suggestive social imaginaries are not just passively existing in a sphere of ideology. On the contrary, these rhetorically shaped imaginaries seem to come to life and drive the entire debate, permeate all argumentation, lead our thoughts, and demand of us that we re-act in awe (and perhaps fear) of their presence.
With this brief discussion of current events, I want to introduce the topic of mythical notions and underline their importance for understanding rhetoric. Not only in war propaganda, but also beyond that domain. In fact, mythical rhetoric is found in all spheres of public life. Hence, I will not focus on the war in this chapter, but strive to contribute to the field of rhetorical studies more broadly by discussing how the dynamics between rhetorical argumentation and the type of suggestive notions exemplified above can be conceptualised theoretically. To be more specific, I will present a reading of Ernst Cassirer’s notion of myth, as part of his philosophy of symbolic forms, arguing for its explanatory value. In doing so, I hope to contribute to three scholarly discussions. The first one – is the discussion of myth and its relation to argumentation. The second one – concerns how the complex relation between human autonomy and heteronomy can be framed in rhetorical theory. The third one – concerns the question of how Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms can best be adapted to and utilised in rhetorical studies. For me, the heart of all three of these discussions lie in the concept of myth, but let us begin with the notion of symbolic form.
The Symbolic Form of Myth
The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s (1874—1945) major philosophical work. It was presented in three volumes in the 1920’s but rather than being limited to these specific works it is better understood as a perspective that informs Cassirer’s whole philosophical enterprise. With this philosophy, Cassirer presents a semiotic theory of the symbolic and envisions a philosophical anthropology dedicated to studying all areas of human culture. Cassirer criticises the idea that symbols are images of a reality separate from us and claims that even in the natural sciences the objects cannot be regarded as naked things in themselves, instead their very becoming, as objects, is performed through symbolic forms.
Cassirer claims that human cognition organises the multiplicity of phenomena, unites them into a structure of laws and orders. This is done, he argues, through symbolic forms. They are the tools that humans use to form a graspable world, a world we can apprehend, and as such they must be studied. This turn from object to tool is an adaptation of Kant’s method of critique, but where Kant took as his starting point the scientific fact and then continued to investigate its “conditions of possibility”, Cassirer instead broadens this enterprise to encompass all objects of human knowledge and consequently all forms of human culture. Cassirer also provides us with a completely different understanding of the “conditions of possibility”; the schemata are no longer understood as abstract categories, they are externalised and embodied in symbolic forms.
When Cassirer in the second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, with the English title Mythical Thought, applied Kant’s method of critique to the world of myths, it was quite a bold move. He acknowledges in the preface that it even might seem like a paradoxical one, this since philosophy throughout history has been preoccupied with delimiting and liberating ‘facts’ from ‘myth’. His move does, however, become understandable when we, with Cassirer, acknowledge that myths, as well as scientific facts, receive their objectivity through a process of symbolic formation. The processes of myth and science may differ in mode, but they remain siblings in functioning as symbolic forms. In giving myth a place within the field of philosophy, Cassirer allies himself with Schelling, who argued for an appreciative attitude towards myth. Cassirer’s own point of departure is not, however, any previous philosophy of myth, but rather empirical research on actual myths.
In mapping the symbolic form of myth, Cassirer builds upon material from the study of religion, the history of religion and ethnology. Thus, the philosophy of symbolic forms is deeply rooted in studies of historical material. In some ways, Cassirer’s philosophical systematization of the rich historical and ethnological material on myths prefigures the work done by Claude Lévi-Strauss and other structuralists; the core of Cassirer’s philosophy is not however to decode any system or structure, but rather to understand human processes of grasping the world. This perspective associates Cassirer’s work not to the tradition of structuralism but rather to the understanding of communication within pragmatics and (as John Michael Krois have argued) to the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism.
By engaging studies of myths from different time periods and locations, Cassirer step by step moulds an understanding of the characteristic ways that myth, as a symbolic form, functions, especially in comparison to other symbolic forms such as science, language or developed religion.
While Cassirer’s material-based way of doing philosophy is perfectly reasonable, and for the empirically oriented scholar even admirable, it does not provide a concise answer to the burning question: what is myth? Rather than pre-establishing a unity by definition, Cassirer explores the common modalities in the diversity of symbolic expressions that are traditionally considered as myths in ethnology or the history of religion. This approach is what makes French scholar Jean Lassègue define “symbolic form” as a “proper name” describing human activities “from the point of view of tradition”. In other words, ‘myth’ (and other symbolic forms) are not primarily to be understood as names of a theoretical framework. Lassègue exemplifies this by comparing the notion ‘symbolic form’ to ‘Darwinism’. Whereas the latter is an epistemological framework that uses a method defined a priori to characterise the object that is “the evolution of species”, the former term is instead to be understood as a proper name for a certain activity, for a certain mode of signification. Hence, when I in the following, present a reading of Cassirer’s understanding of myth, it is not an exegesis of Cassirer’s thought, but an attempt to discuss how to best describe a certain type of symbolic practice, a ‘symbolic form’.
I do, however, want to make two suggestions specifically concerning the question of how to read Cassirer in a way that is beneficial for contemporary rhetorical studies: First, scholars of rhetoric should discard an understanding of the philosophy of symbolic forms as a solid and rigid system. Second, scholars of rhetoric should not view the different symbolic forms as stages in a progressive historical evolution. When we choose to not read Cassirer as presenting a finished system or a teleology of symbolic reasoning, but as providing a way of systematizing then his approach becomes a fruitful starting point for re-thinking rhetoric. Admittedly, one can read Cassirer’s work as a description of an historical development toward human self-revelation, where humanity through myth, language and science strives toward and achieves ever higher levels of consciousness (with Nazi Germany as a relapse into primitivism). But, it is just as easy – and more productive – to read him as laying the groundwork for a constructive way of approaching semiotics and rhetorical anthropology. Note that this Cassirerean form of philosophical anthropology corresponds to Rosengren’s later reinterpretation of the homo mensura statement where Rosengren moves from discussing how to interpret anthropos, to focusing logos as the tool that humans use when measuring the world. His focus on the human perspective, through the symbolic forms, is what makes Cassirer both a semiotician and philosophical anthropologist – or in other words, it is what makes his approach a rhetorical-philosophical anthropology.
Myth and Divinity
Cassirer’s discussions of myth in Language and myth as well as in Mythical thought (both works originally published in 1925) are focused on religious discourse and storytelling, including stories about personal gods and supernatural interpretations of nature. This is peculiar since it might seem like the symbolic form of myth is determined by its content, in its dealing with the supernatural, but according to Cassirer it is not. On the contrary, he states repeatedly that symbolic forms are defined by their function:
Its objectivity – and from the critical standpoint this is true of all cultural objectivity – must be defined not thing-wise but functionally: this objectivity lies neither in a metaphysical nor in an empirical-psychological “reality” which stands behind it, but in what myth itself is and achieves, in the manner and form of objectivization which it accomplishes. It is objective insofar as it is recognized as one of the determining factors by which consciousness frees itself from passive captivity in sensory impression and creates a world of its own in accordance with a spiritual principle.
Let us therefore examine the discrepancy between myth, as seemingly defined by content, and Cassirer’s theoretical formulations emphasising functions. The key, I argue, is found in the relation between myth and divinity. The rendering of divinity is not only central to Cassirer’s presentation of myth, but also, I argue, what makes his thinking on myth relevant to contemporary rhetoric. Note, however, that whereas “myth” is a term that is given a central place in Cassirer’s philosophy, “divinity” is not used here as a Cassirerean terminology, but as my way of highlighting the parts of his philosophy that relates to traditional religious notions such as gods and supernatural powers. In doing so, I do not claim to lay out the truth of Cassirer’s own understanding of myth, but merely to present a reading that can be useful for contemporary rhetorical studies.
I have, in previous studies, treated Roland Barthes and his notion of myth, as presented in Mythologies. A common reaction at that time when I told people, both within and outside the academy, that I did research on myth was: “What do you mean by myth? Stories about gods?” When working with Barthes’ collection of myths, including reflections on soap powder, French entertainment wrestling, and the face of Greta Garbo, this would obviously be a misleading description. So, what about Cassirer? Looking at the empirical starting points of Cassirer’s own writings on myth, I would argue that the banal understanding of myth as stories about gods seems to be somewhat true. He does, for sure, engage with concepts such as mana, which does not fall under the umbrella of personal gods, but the examples still tend to be easily fitted into a common sense understanding of a religious or magical sphere. As mentioned, a discrepancy occurs when you instead study Cassirer’s theoretical reflections on the symbolic form of myth. In these reflections, we are not presented with any functions of myth that, in my opinion, clearly explains the delimitations that are present in the choice of empirical examples.
On the contrary, Cassirer’s theoretical reflections enables us to move beyond the sphere of gods and divinity to utilise the notion of myth in other contexts. By expanding the concept of myth beyond a traditional understanding of the religious, it becomes more generally useful for us rhetoricians and our efforts to adequately explain practices of symbolic influence beyond fact-checking and descriptions of argumentative logic.
One way to engage with this discrepancy between Cassirer’s theoretical reflection and empirical exemplification is to put the religious aspect within brackets and read his descriptions of myths as metaphorical descriptions of symbolic processes. Cassirer himself makes this kind of analogy in Language and Myth, where the coming to be of momentary gods are discussed as a clue to the coming to be of spoken concepts. Cassirer describes how a particular moment, as for example when a thirsty man gets water (sensory experience), can evoke a momentary god (meaning). Cassirer writes:
It is as though the isolated occurrence of an impression, its separation from the totality of ordinary, commonplace experience produced not only a tremendous intensification, but also the highest degree of condensation, and as though by virtue of this condensation the objective form of the god were created so that it veritably burst forth from the experience.
In this passage, Cassirer highlights the “symbolic pregnance”, the forcefulness of the sensory experience. Furthermore, this quote makes clear that intensification and condensation are functions that can institute a “signifying relationship”. Thereby, the evocation of the momentary god includes the three elements of signification: the sensory experience, the meaning, and the signifying relationship or the energy of the spirit. Cassirer presents the notion of ‘myth’ as a key to unlock the secrets of the “original conception of language”, but also as a way to explain how language functions:
The same function which the image of the god performs, the same tendency to permanent existence, may be ascribed to the uttered sounds of language. The word, like a god or a daemon, confronts man not as a creation of his own, but as something existent and significant in its own right, as an objective reality. As soon as the spark has jumped across, as soon as the tension and emotion of the moment has found its discharge in the word or the mythical image, a sort of turning point has occurred in human mentality: the inner excitement which was a mere subjective state has vanished, and has been resolved into the objective form of myth or of speech.
Here, Cassirer highlights the similarity between the birth of linguistic concepts and the birth of momentary gods. Later he continues and discusses how these births of meaning is the start of an ever-progressive objectification. This analogy has heuristic value. By using the birth of the momentary gods, as an image, and then apply the terminology of signification, we get a striking metaphor of the birth of meaning. The birth is prefigured by a symbolic pregnance, which is solved in a moment of excitement, where a spark jumps across. The temporality of this metaphor has something of an Arendtian dimension to it: Cassirer presents the birth as a beginning that is followed by a downstream, in the form of ever-progressive objectification. However, I would argue that we miss something important, in our understanding of the mythical, when we focus primarily on the similarities of the mythical birth of gods and the linguistic birth of concepts. While the similarities are real, the question of the characteristics of myth as such remain.
Intensification and Sanctification
Returning to the question of what makes myth into myth in Cassirers philosophy, my answer is that we need to revisit the concept of divinity, but interpret divinity as a function, not a substance. It would be a mistake to dodge the question of divinity by merely describing myth as analogue to signification. Instead, we must try to point out the uniqueness of myth. Emphasizing the difference between myth and language does not however mean that we must understand the mythical as pre-linguistic; it only means that we must try to understand the mythical without conforming it to a linguistic pattern. As I will show, we can find a unique characteristic of myth by interpreting divinity, in the standard meaning of gods and daemons, as a function.
In this process, we must acknowledge that myth, just as language, is a symbolic form in its own right and that it, just as language, has a central standing in the philosophy of symbolic forms. As an important symbolic form, it often works in combination with other forms. The intimate connection between language and myth is well-known as Cassirer devoted a publication to that specific relation, but myth can also function in relation to ritual, technology and science. Here we find a similarity between Cassirer’s understanding of myth and Barthes’ Mythologies, where the mythical dimension is not only evoked by texts, but also captures rituals, images, and bodies.
Now, let me introduce two key concepts in my understanding of Cassirer’s theory of myth: intensification and sanctification. In my view, these concepts represent the two core functions of myth as a symbolic form. Below, these will be discussed further with references to Cassirer’s text, but an initial definition is that intensification is the function where intense feelings are evoked, whereas sanctification is the function where a divinity is conjured. The two concepts are both analytically important, but in terms of the unique function of myth the latter is a key, and the former primarily a vessel.
I stated before that we are looking for an understanding of myth through function, not essence; this is what sanctification provides. Through the notion of sanctification divinity is read as a function, as the evocation of something suprahuman, the conjuring of an object understood as beyond the human sphere. In the process of sanctification, the signified gods, that are the object of mythological rhetoric, dissolve as man-made objects, and arise as suprahuman or divine agents. In this process, when human rhetoric evokes something larger than us that in turn acts upon us, the problems of agency and freedom emerge as a central axis in Cassirer’s philosophy of myth.
Against the background of this reading, myth can be understood as a specific form, which again does not mean that myth always functions separately from other forms, but only that it has a specific function, a modality of signification that is distinct in the sense that it is separate from the modality of other forms.
Let us, at this point, return to the discussion of momentary gods to add more nuance to how the process of intensification and sanctification can be understood as characteristic functions of the distinct, symbolic form of myth. In Language and Myth, Cassirer makes clear that whereas theoretical thinking is “stamped with the character of a totality” no such stamp can be found on mythical thinking, at least not in its elementary form. In fact, Cassirer argues that intellectual unity, which here should be understood as a systematic whole ordered by laws and abstract relations, is directly hostile to the spirit of mythical thought. This characteristic not only separates myth from science and logic, but also from religion, as symbolic forms. Whereas myth is opposed to intellectual unity, religion is partly defined by this very characteristic. It follows, then, that the shape of the symbolic power inherent in the different symbolic objectifications vary. Science, language, and organized religion impact us as ordering structures of relations, whereas myth primarily impact us as a condensed emotional force. After this delimiting definition, Cassirer presents a description of the spirit of mythical thought as being “captivated and enthralled” by the sensible present. The strength of this immediate experience is described as being “under the spell” of a mythical attitude. In his understanding of these processes, we note that Cassirer’s thinking evades the dichotomy between subject and object; the description of the process of intensification neither subscribes to empiricism, nor to idealism. A moment of mythical signification is both a moment of symbolic pregnance, and a moment were a mythical attitude casts a spell. To sum up, our relations, as humans, to myths are not best understood as that of subordinates to a complex structure. It is better understood as an emotional bond with what we understand as a singular and powerful entity.
The argument relating to momentary gods in Language and myth provides descriptions of, what I call, intensification:
The ego is spending all its energy on this single object, lives in it, loses itself in it. Instead of a widening of intuitive experience, we find here its extreme limitation; instead of expansion that would lead through greater and greater spheres of being, we have here an impulse toward concentration; instead of extensive distribution, intensive compression.
The evoked captivation and fascination channel through one single point. This process brings focus, it does not expand our capacity to reflect logically by establishing interrelations. Cassirer’s description of intensification, above, highlights a strong sense of receptivity, but there is also spontaneity:
When, on the one hand, the entire self is given up to a single impression, is “possessed” by it and, on the other hand, there is the utmost tension between the subject and its object, the outer world; when external reality is not merely viewed and contemplated, but overcomes a man in sheer immediacy, with emotions of fear or hope, terror or wish fulfilment: then the spark jumps somehow across, the tension finds release, as the subjective excitement becomes objectified, and confronts the mind as a god or a daemon.
In this latter quote, we see how Cassirer shifts from describing a process of intensification that works through an intense focus and evokes emotions, to describing the moment of sanctification, where the mythical signification is successful through the conjuring of a god. Cassirer describes how in that moment the subjective feeling becomes objectified. Something, a god, or a daemon, with its own existence, has come into being. Through its very becoming, that something acts, it confronts the mind. Cassirer later describes how these momentary gods appear to us humans “not as a creature of the hour, but as an objective and superior power”. Still, there is an aspect of autonomy, or at least anthropomorphism in that process: the gods are constructed from the material of our own emotional phantasies.
With the two functions, intensification and sanctification, Cassirer provides us with an important contribution to the understanding of myth in rhetorical studies, a contribution that is not just valuable for explaining signification in general, but constitutes myth as a specific form of signification, as a symbolic form. It is the process of focusing and evoking emotions that makes the conjuring of the divine possible – that brings the god or daemon to be. Since the deity is constructed through signification, it constitutes what we above called “meaning” or “sense”. The unique aspect of its becoming, its objectivization, is the status of the signified meaning as a suprahuman agent, a being beyond human control. It would be a misrepresentation to call these gods or divinities objects of fantasy. As described, they are an effect of a signification that feeds both on the symbolic pregnance of the sensory and a mythical attitude that grasps the sensory. We should also not focus too much on the moment of birth; Cassirer describes how the conjuring of a god is followed by adoration and cult, processes which endow it with “more and more definite form”. The myths are not to be understood as abstract structures of relations, they become objective in the sense that they acquire a life of their own through the repetition of their evocation.
To sum up, we have revisited Cassirer’s discussion of momentary gods in Language and Myth. And focusing on what myth, as a distinct theoretical concept, brings to the table, we have identified ‘strong emotions’, as well as the agency and strength of the conjured deity – not as a man-made object but as an acting subject.
Mythical Form and the Collapse of the Sign
One aspect of mythical signification that Cassirer highlights which does not come to light in the discussion of momentary gods is the tendency in the symbolic form of myth to completely deny the difference between sensory experience and the evoked divine meaning. Nevertheless, this tendency is important since this modality of signification entails the denial of the very process of signification. In other words, denying that a sensory experience signifies constitutes a key aspect of intensification. The sensory experience is intensified by the fact that the signified meaning is identified as identical with the sensory. The sensory and the divine thus become the same. Cassirer writes:
The mythical world is concrete not because it has to do with sensuous objective contents, not because it excludes and repels all merely abstract factors – all that is merely signification and sign; it is concrete because in it the two factors, thing and signification, are undifferentiated, because they merge, grow together, concresce in an immediate unity.
This collapse of the sign is described by Cassirer as an aspect of the mythical attitude, making it ready to impose a sacred meaning on any sensory experience:
All reality and all events are projected into the fundamental opposition of the sacred and the profane, and in this projection they assume a new meaning, one which they do not simply have from the very beginning but which they acquire in this form of contemplation, one might say in this mythical ‘illumination’.
The conflict between this mythical denial of signification and an acknowledgement of signification is perhaps clearest in Cassirer’s discussion of the biblical prophets’ critique of the use of images of false gods. Cassirer explains how this critique imposed a perspective of signification on something that to the polytheistic worshippers is not signification. The wooden gods are not understood as images of gods; they are revelations of gods. According to the Cassirerean perspective, a sensory experience can be captured by the mythical and then become divine.
Sanctification and Secular Gods
One could, perhaps, argue critically that my interpretation of divinity, not as the content of myth, but as the function of sanctification, does not solve the discrepancy between the empirical material of Cassirer’s writings and the need for a function that correlates with the same material. Such a critic could argue that I haven’t removed gods, as defined by tradition, as the common content of myth, only changed perspective by discussing the evocation of the gods.
This critique would be partly right; the way of bridging the content-function divide presented here is partly just a change of perspective from focusing the object towards focusing the signifying function that establishes the object. That change of perspective indeed permeates the entire philosophy of symbolic forms. Hence, there is an aspect of this reading that needs to be explicated more clearly, namely the aspect which establishes the uniqueness of the divine or sacred objects, in relation to those of other forms. Let us look at a brief quote, from a discussion of the schemata of number in myth:
However, the mind cannot apprehend and penetrate this new universality as its own creation but sees it as a foreign, demonic power.
Here Cassirer describes how we humans through the symbolic forms of myth construct entities that we then no longer understand as our creations, but instead as foreign god-like entities – acting upon us. I mentioned this aspect already in relation to our initial discussion of sanctification, but we have not drawn the full consequences thereof. And this is important. The terminology of “god” or “daemon” should not be seen as limiting the field of myth to the areas of culture where those terms are active today: that is, traditional religious spheres. Instead, these traditional examples can function as metaphors, illustrating the character that something gets when it is given the status of divinity through mythical rhetoric.
Perhaps some would argue that to name every object of human signification that is evoked through intensification and sanctification as divine – regardless of whether it is within a religious context or not – is to push the historical concept of divinity too far. I disagree. The process of signification that finds “a magical force inherent in things” everywhere is just as relevant today, as it has been in history. Just because Scandinavian farmers may have stopped blaming the Nordic God Freyr for a bad harvest, we cannot draw the conclusion that the “secularised” citizen has stopped the symbolic construction of suprahuman entities that are interpreted as acting upon us. One just has to open a newspaper and see how non-human entities such as “immigration” or “the housing market” continue to act upon us in a very god-like way. And if we relate back to the introduction, we can see how “the war”, and “Russia” are both treated as divine agents, as powerful gods that do things, but whom we cannot control or interact with on an interpersonal level; instead, all we can do is sacrifice to them, or appeal to them through various symbolic rituals. Consider for a moment the similarity between a press conference where the Swedish government lists the weapons and material that they are going to send to Ukraine, and a temple priest, listing the animal that is going to be sacrificed to please the temple deity. My point is that in many ways our discussions within the political sphere today are similar to how, for example, crises of nature were conceptualised in historical eras. A pandemic, a war, a draught, or a fire were commonly framed as the punishments of gods. As such, they were not completely out of human control, but merely indirectly within our grasp – as we only could hope to satisfy the deity by prayer or various forms of signalling, wishing for the desired result.
Let us consider a specific example, and in doing so we will remain in the Swedish political discourse, as pertaining to the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In that context, we can see how the inflation has emerged as a divine entity, demanding political re-actions. “Inflation” is, of course, a concept from the economical sciences. As such inflation is very much part of a totality of abstract relations and, in that context, not so much an agent as a description of certain causal effects. Nevertheless, in public debate, the notion of inflation fulfils all the criteria of a myth: it is constructed through emotional intensification, emphasizing how it threatens our way of life, and especially the life of the poor parents, the farmers putting food on our table, and hardworking ordinary people outside the major cities. Beyond the emotional, it is also described as something of a living force. It is not man made, but rather born out of the circumstances, demanding our attention. We are not in control of it, but merely subjects to its will, striving to perhaps make it calmer or soften its blows. The divinity of “inflation” also illustrates the collapsing of the sign. Its presence is signified over and over again, but the signification is simultaneously denied as the deity is understood as existing, for real, in the signs of its presence, signs that therefore are no longer understood as signs. To be concrete, when we go to the store to buy meatballs and pasta, inflation is there. As we stand by the gas pump looking at the gas meter, inflation is present – revealing its power. If we were not to notice this embodied existence, then we would be reminded by the media, by politicians or our friends on social media. They guide our attention as priests, or religious witnesses, shouting out that inflation is here among us, and will come for us. It is more than clear that the lip-service to secularism and science does not mean that sanctification has lost its grip on political rhetoric, nor that prophets or priests are no longer at work.
Returning to Cassirer and the process of sanctification, I argue that the moment when the signified object becomes an agent that talks back and acts upon us is the moment when divinity comes to be, and rhetoric becomes mythical. This reading provides an understanding of myth and divinity that is much broader than what can be captured in a traditional rendering of certain religious or mythical domains. This understanding of myth constitutes an essential contribution to the understanding of contemporary political argumentation. Cassirer led the way by applying the notion of myth on the political ideas of Nazi-Germany It is up to us to show how the same mechanisms, intensification and sanctification, can be found elsewhere as well. In our search for material we can take inspiration from Cassirer:
Any content of existence, however commonplace, can gain the distinguishing character of the sacred, provided only that instead of remaining within the accustomed sphere of actions and events it captures mythical interest and enthusiasm from one angle or another.
Sanctification and the Becoming of Subjects
In the process of sanctification, when a divine entity is conjured up regardless of whether it is within a traditional religious context or in a seemingly secular one, something else of importance happens. In the establishing of the gods that act upon us, we become subjects. Cassirer explains:
A power opposed to the seeming omnipotence of the I makes itself felt. But this power, by being apprehended as such and by imposing its first limits upon the I, begins for the first time to give it a determinate form. For only when the barrier is felt and known as such is the road opened by which it can progressively be surmounted; only when man recognizes the divine as a power superior to him, which cannot be compelled by magical means but must be propitiated by prayer and sacrifice, does he gradually gain a free feeling of self in confronting it. Here again the self finds and constitutes itself only by projecting itself outward: the growing independence of the gods is the condition for man’s discovery in himself of a fixed center, a unity of will, over against the dispersal and diversity of his sensory drives.
For Cassirer the construction of subjectivity is performed in relation to the divine, and thus become an effect of the symbolic form of myth. This implies that all mythical rhetoric in being mythical rhetoric involves the conjuring of a reservoir of argumentative force, filled with constitutive power. If we not only argue in line with the myths of society but in fact construct our own subjectivity in relation to these myths, then mythical rhetoric constitutes the heart of the rhetorical negotiation between autonomy and heteronomy. Are we – as humans – capable of shaping our worlds, or merely subjects to powers that rule us? Admittedly, my focus on myth and sidestepping of the other symbolic forms discussed by Cassirer deflects that the human subject is constructed in relation to these other symbolic forms as well. Nevertheless, there is something of particular value for scholars of rhetoric in a Cassirerean portrayal of the suggestive divinity of myth. As rhetoricians, we have use for an understanding of symbolic processes characterized by a) the lack of an overarching structure, b) emotional force, c) the denial of signification and, perhaps most importantly, d) the implication that the symbolic constructs – the mythical gods – act on their own accord.
Mythical Totalities and Rhetorical Argumentation
Above, I pointed out that myth, as described by Cassirer, does not abide by the notion of a systematic whole, that is, by laws and abstract relations. Instead, I argued that myth functions through intensification, through an emotionally laden acceptance of, and strong focus on, the particular sensory expression. This description is still adequate, but we must look further. While accepting that myth does not adhere to the systematism of science, or logic, we still need to account for the existence of mythical totalities. Let us therefor see how Cassirer differentiates between the mythical totality and that of science:
Myth, too, strives for a “unity of the world”/…/ Just as scientific cognition strives for a hierarchy of laws, a systematic superordination and subordination of causes and effect, so myth strives for a hierarchy of forces and gods. The world becomes more intelligible in proportion as its parts are assigned to the various gods, as special spheres of material reality and human activity are placed under the guardianship of particular deities. But though the mythical world is thus woven into a whole, this intuitive whole discloses a very different character from that conceptual whole in which cognition strives to comprehend reality. Here there are no ideal relational forms which constitute the objective world as a world thoroughly determined by law; here, on the contrary, all reality is smelted down into concrete unifying images.
Cassirer explains how mythological thinking and scientific-empirical thinking both have a drive for unity, but that the empirical-scientific thinking strives for this unity through the construction of a unity of parts related through laws located in a system. Myth instead weaves reality into a whole through concrete unifying images. The mythical whole is a conglomeration, where everything is connected to everything else through a common tonality, a common mark, not by a logical relation. It is often difficult to see the tonality of your own rhetorical milieu but imagine that you stumble into an alternative political sub-group on Twitter – or any other social media platform – a group foreign to your own political stance. As a spectator of that community, you can more easily recognize how the rhetoric of the group is in constant interaction with such a mythical whole. Perhaps the rhetoric revolves around the suggestive notion of a conglomerate of liberal-communist, trans-loving femi-Nazis trying to bring down all that is good in our society. That idea is not so much presented through logical argumentation but evoked through the use of certain terms and a rhetoric of disclosure where moments of revelation are highlighted, moments when the hostile divinity shows itself in certain events or perhaps in the wordings of some of its alleged proponents. Cassirer reflects upon the nature of this kind of mythical tonality:
For precisely through their special character all the contents of the mythical consciousness are rejoined into a whole. They form a self-enclosed realm and possess a common tonality, by which they are distinguished from the contents of common everyday, empirical existence.
A core function of mythical consciousness is that the relation from part to whole, is driven by “their special character” and “tonality”. These aspects are what distinguish myth from everyday experience and what establishes the mythical significance. In line with my reading, this special character is best understood as both a form of emotional intensity and a luring divine agency. As a function, it is both intensification and sanctification. From the idea of a common tonality follows that the emotional processes of evoking deities cannot be understood as separate processes of signification. Instead, the rhetorical processes of mythical argumentation are always combined and intertwined in a web of symbolic actions. Hence, it is important to apply a broad, and multimodal, empirical approach to understand how mythical rhetoric permeates society. It is along these lines of rendering the mythical that Roland Barthes works when he, in Mythologies, studies individual cases of mythological signification but also tries to grasp the mythological conglomeration that is the rhetoric and ideology of the bourgeoisie.
Thus far, we have focused on the rhetorical process of constructing myths, that is, on intensification and sanctification as forms of argumentation, establishing a world view. But Cassirer also presents mythical thinking as a process where the immediate impression is accepted, without a process of reflection that measures it. Then myth becomes not so much a form of argumentation as the basis for propositional argumentation. In such an understanding myth constitutes that which is taken for granted, the doxa, the unmeasured. This rendering of myth as a starting point for argumentation takes account of the fact that we do not tend to encompass myth logically, but merely feel how it overpowers us. Hence, we have two ways of conceptualizing the relationship between myth and rhetorical argumentation: myth is either understood as the basis for rational argumentation or as a form of argumentation in itself. Of course, we can also embrace both renderings and acknowledge the dynamic between myth and traditional linguistic reasoning.
What is clear, however, is that myth, as such, is not bound by the schema of rule and law, but by the strength of its unique, individual presence. It does not dissolve into disconnected particulars since it is governed by another universal principle than that of logic. Still, mythical rhetoric constitutes a negotiation of our world view, and the fact that its modus operandi is difficult to grasp makes it more – not less – important to understand. On a societal level, the myths concern our understanding of our being in the world. And that understanding, in turn, shape how we argue rationally. While the classical tradition and pragmatic rendering of the discipline of rhetoric is often concerned with adapting to such norms, rhetoric (as a scholarly discipline and as practice) must not limit itself to merely following the existing myths of society. We can also, as I have argued elsewhere, explicitly thematize the foundational questions of how we construct our worlds and then use our conceptual tools to cause friction and thereby facilitate critical thinking. In doing so, rhetoric as a scholarly practice and as a political artform can be put to use in an ongoing strife towards increased autonomy, understood as a communal form of self-determination. Through the function of intensification and sanctification, Cassirer has given us important tools for that intellectual work.
In combining Cassirer’s notion of myth with a rhetorical understanding of argumentation, we need to make another point explicit: the mythical totality described by Cassirer should not be understood as static. In line with the general take of the philosophy of symbolic forms, it must be considered as an everchanging totality, an ongoing formation and reformation. Hence, we should not conceptualize myth as the foundation for argumentation, but rather as a material in motion, and a potential resource for argumentation.
In the first volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Cassirer states the following about language that I take to be equally true for myth:
It is from the interpenetration of these factors and their varying relations with one another that the ‘form’ of language arises, which, however, should be regarded as a form not of being but of movement, not as static but as dynamic. Accordingly, there are no absolute oppositions but only relative oppositions – oppositions of meaning and of direction.
Hence, we cannot understand cultural mythologies as coherent systems but must rather view myths as ongoing processes and as constantly changing blends of mythical elements. That principle is clearly opposed to certain followings of Saussure where ideology is being presented as a whole and conceptualised as a static structure that controls the connotative meaning of the signs. While a post-structuralist understanding changes this, the theoretical foundation is still oriented towards freezing the moment and thereby capture the structure, separating between the synchronic and the diachronic study of symbol use.
Cassirer, on the contrary, does not fall into the trap of the later structuralists. While he shares Barthes’s interest in the relationship between the part and the whole, the “whole” in Cassirer’s understanding of myth is conceptualized differently; it is not a form of structuralism, but a deeply historical and temporal understanding of the dynamic of symbolic processes. To Cassirer, the parts are not just parts of a whole that in turn consists of several parts, but the whole is rather to be understood as something impregnated in the part. Following a Cassirerean understanding of myth, this whole tends to appear in the form of a suggestive image, or an emotionally laden metaphorical transference.
Let me exemplify. On 1 March 2022, when the image and video of Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on a big screen, talking to the European Parliament was spread through news reports and social media, that image embodied or revealed (remember myth denies signification) an emotionally laden myth of Europe united. The mythical message was strengthened by the fact that members of parliament had decorated themselves with Ukrainian flags, a flag that also was placed centre stage – next to the flag of the EU, visually presented as equals and through the similar colours as sharing essence. This could be described as form of visual argumentation, but we can also consider this image – at that specific time in history – as a form of mythical rhetoric. The image-event conjures an idea of a strong united Europe where Ukraine is not only part, but in fact constitutes its emotional centre – the true bearer of its values. Through the process of sanctification that very Europeanness also becomes a god demanding of us to act in accordance with its godly will. As that god came to acquire an objective existence through intensity and iteration, another aspect of the relation between myth and argumentation comes to the fore. Namely, that the realm of myth constitutes the material for emotionally charged argumentation. It provides a basis and a starting point for pathos-filled reasoning. These two aspects illustrate the way that this understanding of myth can inform the debate within rhetorical studies on autonomy and heteronomy, or in the less political terminology that we commonly find in Cassirer-scholarship, between spontaneity and receptivity.
As humans we are subject to the myths and symbolic structures that surrounds us, and, at the same time, we as humans take part in the autonomous constitution of these myths and symbolic structures. We are defined by spontaneity as well as receptivity. This duality of the human position has – of course – been conceptualized in various ways by many great thinkers. And, though I would argue that Cassirer’s conceptualization of this position merits further attention and constitutes suitable philosophical foundation for contemporary rhetoric, I will refrain myself from such programmatic statements in this text. Instead, I will brace myself and make the simple point that through myth and its functions, intensification and sanctification, Cassirer provides a fruitful way to conceptualise autonomy and heteronomy within the realm of rhetorical argumentation. In utilizing Cassirer’s understanding of myth, we not only get a tool for studying argumentation beyond the rational, but also for studying autonomy and heteronomy as dimensions within the symbolic.
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This work was supported by Birgit och Gad Rausings Stiftelse för Humanistisk forskning, and the research program: Human, Energy Systems and Society (MESAM) at the Swedish Energy Agency.
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