Myth, Science and Unicorn Mind

Myth, Science and Unicorn Mind

In the first chapter of Before Philosophy, Henri and Henriette Frankfort pointed out that the language of myth, which they called "speculative thought," isn't so common these days, because science.

In our own time speculative thought finds its scope more severely limited than it has been at any other period. For we possess in science another instrument for the interpretation of experience, one that has achieved marvels and retains its full fascination.

As a result:

We do not allow speculative thought, under any circumstances, to encroach upon the sacred precincts of science. It must not trespass on the realm of verifiable fact; and it must never pretend to a dignity higher than that of working hypotheses, even in the fields in which it is permitted some scope.

Science is cool and I like it a lot. But in our society, it's also sort of monopolized the search for truth, and in my view, that's a problem.


For the ancients, science was no obstacle to speculative thought, because they hadn't invented it yet. As a result, "speculation found unlimited possibilities for development; it was not restricted by a scientific (that is, a disciplined) search for truth," the Frankforts wrote.

Now, pause. If after reading that last statement, you're thinking that science sounds like an obvious improvement to the aimless meanderings of ancient fancy, hold up. Any paradigm looks dumb when viewed from the terms of some other paradigm. You're judging it by rules it never set out to follow. Bear in mind that the "disciplined" search for truth is not the only way, nor the only valid way, to search.

Once again, there's more than one way to think.

I've said that before, but it bears repeating. So, with that in mind, let's explore a different way to see it. Let's look at how the author and Archdruid John Michael Greer described three different modes of consciousness. Through the vicissitudes of Western history, civilizations have cycled time and again from concrete to abstract worldviews. What begins with a focus on sensory experience becomes a passion for categorization, flowing from conceptual disorder, to emotional imagery, to abstract thought.

Greer is not such a fool as to presume that every culture follows the same trajectory; in fact, in his critique of Oxford's Owen Barfield (20th century) and Italy's Giambattista Vico (17th and 18th century), he landed a square punch on the modern myth of progress:

[Barfield] was committed to a linear view of history, and in particular to the kind of linear view, still very popular today, that placed modern industrial humanity as the vanguard of the species, moving ahead of anyone else through the gateway that led to the final consummation of human destiny. By definition, therefore, every other culture has to be somewhere back along the route that leads to us, and no other culture could possibly have gotten to where we are before we did.

This is bunk, in other words. The idea that we're the culmination of some universal movement from barbarism to enlightenment is a big mistake. I only wish it were as unpopular as it is untrue.

In any case, no pattern of civilization is universal, and the three modes that Greer floated above are no exception. Still, they can be observed in places, and where they can, they're instructive. Here in the modern era, we "think abstractly, analytically, sorting out our perceptions into one or another scheme of categories," Greer wrote, whereas "people in dark ages think concretely, synthetically, relating their perceptions to one or another set of compelling images." In between, for example, in the Renaissance, "concrete representations and abstract concepts are both strongly present in human consciousness, interpenetrate each other, and produce an exuberant cultural and intellectual flowering."

Greer named these phases after three magical beasts.

  • Unicorn time reminds me of what the Frankforts are talking about: a world teeming with elusive, emotionally-charged images of truth, which don't all fit together, yet compel you deeply: hints of something real but inexpressible.
  • Phoenix time is defined by the effort to tie up all those loose ends and reconcile the contradictions into a rich, coherent tapestry.
  • Dragon time is when truth is guarded and catalogued in a detailed but rigid system that leaves no room for fresh visions, if they contradict what's already confirmed. It's a time when abstract concepts "dominate human consciousness and suppress magic—for a time."

Here's Greer again:

Take a few minutes to think about these three mythological images, and to relate them to the historical periods to which I’ve assigned them; among other things, you might just begin to grasp some sense of the power of emotionally charged mental representations as a tool of thinking.

Which is exactly the Frankforts' point. Analytical thought is not the only kind of thought, nor the only kind of value. The dragon thinking of disciplined, comprehensive analysis has strength and worth, as we well know: this is the thinking of modern science. Even so, the fertile chaos of unicorn thinking, and the emotional richness of phoenix thinking, also have strength and worth.

Dragons can be a drag for the other magical beasts.

We live in dragon time. I should probably say right out, there's nothing wrong with dragons.

If you practice art, for example, you probably experience all three modes of consciousness any time you're making a new work. The expansive phase, when inspiration flows freely and new ideas spring up, impalpable and fleeting. The working phase, when you're bending those ideas toward one another, trying to make sense of the living brew. The polishing phase, when you're cementing what you've created into a finished piece and doing your best not to kill the original spark in so doing.

Where art is concerned, each phase is useful and necessary. I expect the same goes for worldviews, though I must say I myself prefer a unicorn. Maybe a unicorn that's moving toward a phoenix. Or a phoenix that's in love with a unicorn.

In any case, I appreciate dragons just fine, up until the dragon voice of Western empiricism laughs at speculative thought, looks down its snout at ancient and Indigenous worldviews, and claims exclusive access to truth and knowledge. And when science's fundamentalist devotees—those scientismists who treat empiricism like the only thing of value, hammering it into the shape of some weird religion—use the idea of science as grounds to dismiss and ridicule the speculative thought of direct mind, I find that just a bit outrageous.

When the Frankforts described the worldview of the ancient Egyptians as they understood it, I felt I'd come home. I see value in speculative thought. Not in place of science, but alongside it, concurrently and without conflict. I believe there's extraordinary value to be found in multiple ways of knowing.

Bottom line, dragons are not the only magical beast in the forest.

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