Terminological Anachronism: moving beyond philosophy and shamanism

While conceptualizing and beginning to write my first chapter on the "presocratics", I've been giving quite some thought to a theoretical question with crucial implications for historical writing: that of terminological anachronism. I begin by invoking a world - that of Greek antiquity - where our very notions of "religion", "science", or "philosophy" did not yet exist. Nobody would even have understood what they meant. Imagine a modern intellectual entering a time machine and arriving in Magna Graecia in the 6t-5th century BCE: he would quickly discover these concepts to be perfectly useless and even counterproductive in helping him come to grips with the world around him. Instead, he would have to learn new concepts with (subtly or less subtly) different connotations and implications that made sense to ancient Greeks but would be extremely bewildering to him. For my arguments with respect to the relative newness of "religion" (supported by a whole wave of scholarship published over the last decades), see this article I published last year, and for a more popular overview of the problem, see this one. For the parallel case of "philosophy", I have taken my cue from an (as usual with him) extremely impressive article by Walter Burkert, published as long ago as 1960, where he demonstrates that "philosophy" was not invented by Pythagoras or early Pythagoreans but has its origin in Socrates and Plato. Burkert's argument seems conclusive, but I would be grateful for any tips towards more recent treatments and perhaps critiques of Burkert. As for "science," that will come later in my project, but my working assumption is that this will be an even clearer case.

This question of terminological anachronism is not just an intellectual game but has huge implications for how we write history. My book will be a systematic experiment in "emic historiography," that it to say, in using actors' terms and categories as much as possible while steering clear (again: as much as possible) of modern terminologies and conceptualizations. It is only in this manner, I believe, that we'll be able to clearly trace the processes of transformation that happen when those new terminologies are introduced for the first time and then evolve through history towards understandings that we are able to recognize as our own. I should perhaps add that in advocating "emic historiography" here, I'm not making any arguments about the ultimate truth of those actors' categories (so-called "religionists" often evoke "the emic approach" in an attempt to suggest that not modern scholars with their etic instruments but "practitioners" are the ultimate arbiters of religious or spiritual truth, but that is not at all what I am talking about here). Instead, I am making an argument about scholarly, modern, or intellectual prejudice and its impact on our efforts to understand the past. My ruling assumption will be quite simply that nobody knows the future, and it's misleading for historians to suggest otherwise. The very term "Presocratics" is an excellent example. Even though a young Socrates may have shaken hands with a very old Parmenides, the point is that Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Pythagoras and the rest did not know the future and therefore didn't know that they were "Presocratics" - or would ever be. Most certainly they had never heard of a "philosopher" (what's that?) called Plato, and they couldn't know that they would soon be perceived as ancestors or forerunners of a great Platonic tradition - not to mention the fact that they had no idea of how its representatives (or its Christian successors - even more unimaginable to them) would start cherry-picking from their writings, guided by what they as Platonists happened to find interesting and worth retaining, while discarding the rest as irrelevant to their concerns. So the question is: how did they see themselves, and how did their contemporaries see them? Not as Presocratics. Not as philosophers either.  So they were seen - as what?

"A Shaman, or Priest of the Devil" (Nicolaes Witsen, Noord en Oost Tataryen, Amsterdam 1785, 662-663)

The most common answer that modern scholars have given to that question illustrates the very nature of the problem. Starting with Karl Meuli (in a seminal article "Scythica" published in 1935) and E.R. Dodds (in his classic The Greeks and the Irrational published in 1951), countless scholars have claimed that figures such as Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles were Shamans. But does that work? In an article for the Festschrift of Jan Bremmer, some years ago, I applauded my Dutch colleague for his contributions to "critical revision of a concept which, while originally derived from a specific Siberian context, was promoted as a universal complex of presumably archetypal patterns in a bestselling book by Mircea Eliade in 1964, and got considerably out of hand ever since". How, I wonder, is it going to get us further if we replace one anachronistic reified concept ("philosophy") by another ("shamanism")? Won't we end up in the same interpretational trap that we wanted to avoid? As always, the problem lies in our cognitive tendencies of reification: we find it very hard to use a general reified concept such as "shamanism" without slipping into the assumption that (1) there really is such a thing as shamanism in the abstract, independent of time, place, or cultural context, and that (2) we have a pretty good idea of what it is. As a result, even if we resist it, we cannot help ourselves imagining Pythagoras, Parmenides, or Empedocles as somehow similar to those folks with drums, animal skins and antlers on their heads that we have seen on pictures of their supposed Siberian counterparts, not to mention contemporary neo-shamans concerned with traveling "in their own minds" for therapeutic purposes of healing and inner transformation. This cognitive tendency is known as "prototype thinking" and is very hard to avoid.

Yulia Ustinova
A common term used in the original Greek context is iatromantis, a word that combines the terms for a healer and a seer. But how did these pre-Socratic (ouch!) personalities heal people, what did they see, and how did they see it? In this regard, I've learned a lot from a fascinating and extremely well documented book by Yulia Ustinova, Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind: Descending Underground in the Search for ULtimate Truth (Oxford UP 2009) (and for an article-length treatment, see here). Ustinova shows how pervasive was the practice of descending into natural or artificial caves or grottos in order to withdraw from external sense experiences and receive religious (oops!) revelations. In explaining what happened in these underground retreats, she does an excellent job combining deep expertise in two different fields: classics/archaeology on the one hand, and neurocognitive science concerned with altered states of consciousness on the other. The basic argument is straightforward: spending long periods of time in an underground cave means exposing oneself to severe conditions of sensory deprivation (extreme darkness, extreme silence), to which the human brain will respond by producing powerful visual or auditory hallucinations. Such visions and voices make use of the cultural materials that are already present in one's mind, and so it is perfectly normal that Greek visionaries will encounter Greek gods. But the brain is highly creative as well, and altered states of this kind are known to be experienced as so "real" that the insights revealed by divinities in this manner are bound to be taken as superior to the merely human knowledge on offer in the external world outside the cave. In addition to the conditions of sensory deprivation, we have abundant evidence for the role of mind-altering substances, with the Delphic oracle as the most famous example of all. In an extensive discussion of the long scholarly controversy (starting with A.P. Oppé in 1904) about whether or not the Pythia on her tripod was exposed to mind-altering vapours coming from an underground chasm, Ustinova comes out strongly in favour of that view. Her crowning evidence is the work of J.Z. de Boer and J.R. Hale published in 2001 here, but (according to Ustinova) still neglected by most classical scholars. If this research is correct - and it seems perfectly convincing as far as I can judge -, the Pythia was exposed to hydrocarbon gases (methane, ethane, ethylene) as well as hydrogen sulphite.

So is this all "shamanism"? I very much doubt whether it is helpful to use that term. The common denominator should not be seen as consisting in some partial similarity with Siberian practices, but in the activation of unusual mental states grounded in the neurophysiology of the human brain. Of course ancient Greek practitioners did not know about this, any more than they knew they were "presocratics". The difference is that the neurophysiological foundations of what they experienced can be demonstrated empirically and conclusively, thereby making a true contribution to our understanding of what may have been going on at the time (dare I say wie es eigentlich gewesen?). By contrast, calling them "presocratics," calling their practices "religious", "magical" or "shamanic", or calling their ideas "philosophy" contributes absolutely nothing at all. Or so I am claiming here. It only confuses us, because it leads us to mix our own preconceptions with theirs, while disregarding the fact that they knew nothing of ours.


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