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The mimetic, the mythic and the theoretic

Prof Rajeev Bhargava, CSDS and the Institute for Social Justice

The article was originally published by The Hindu

Those immersed in myths, rituals should value the social uses of reason, but secular rationalists must also acknowledge the role of myth and ritual in their lives

One of the least understood functions of critical reflection is to reconcile conflicting viewpoints, to find common ground between positions that appear to be polar opposites. One such opposition exists between the secular and the religious. Since religion is usually associated with myth and ritual, and the secular with science and reason-directed theory, I wish here to question the polarity between myth and ritual on the one hand and science/theory on the other.

To do so, I take help from the work of the evolutionary psychologist, Merlin Donald. He argues that over time, sequentially, human beings have developed three distinct cultural capacities by which to understand the human and non-human world. The first such capacity, called mimetic, developed almost two million years ago, stored directly in skills and is largely performative. Here, we use our bodies not only to communicate with each other by expressive gestures (anger or joy on our face; eyebrow and head movements to say ‘no’) but also to collectively enact past, present and future events (the coronation of the king, the shraddha ceremony for ancestors, wearing white clothes in mourning rituals).

A second capacity that developed 1,00,000-2,50,000 years ago is our ability for grammatical language and to construct oral narratives. To tell stories, folk tales and moral fables; to freely use our imagination to make sense of how we and our world originated and what might happen to us when we or our world dies; to imagine ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, utopias or dystopias on or beyond earth. These are fact-defying, imaginative constructs, replete with fictitious events, fantasy, archetypical figures, heroes and villains. Donald calls this capacity mythic.

Finally, a third capacity developed 3,000-5,000 years ago, with which we are able to step back and look beyond what we experience and live, conceive a world outside or deep within us, a world unearthed by disengaged reason, free of our own personal, subjective properties — an objective world. It is a form of abstract thinking that takes us beyond our immediate context and allows us to think with a greater degree of generality. Dependent on the written word, it encourages us to think about thinking: to discern the internal structure of arguments, to unearth the assumptions and presuppositions of our thought. This is thinking with controlled imagination, with constraints of evidence and rational argument. In short, the world of science, argumentative philosophy, and abstract reasoning — which Donald calls ‘the theoretic’.

Compartmentalising our lives

That these three capacities can sometimes work against each other is not in question but what creates polarity between them is an ideology that makes them mutually exclusive, which claims that each succeeding capacity is superior and properly emerges when the previous, inferior capacity is abolished. Thus a move to a higher theoretical stage of reason-based science and philosophy necessitates leaving behind a lower mythic and mimetic stage. A theoretic culture is achieved by eliminating the vestigial elements of the mythic and the mimetic.

Despite this ideology, some of us try to resolve this conflict by compartmentalising our lives. This has taken two forms. One is found in the lives, for instance, of some scientists, engineers, doctors and economists. In their research or techno-professional life, they allow the supremacy of hard-nosed reason. In their personal, social and political life, they let religious myths and rituals rule. The other is found in educated, anti-religious, secular-minded persons. They dismiss myths and rituals as features of a bygone era and live most aspects of their life as if governed by reason alone, but they allow the mimetic to survive in sport, theatre and dance and the mythic to endure in novels, poetry and films, in art and entertainment.

But such solutions are patchy and unsatisfactory. They continue to be mired in deep misunderstanding. In fact, as Donald tells us, these three capacities have emerged sequentially — one came after and on the shoulders of the other but without destroying its predecessor. It modified, not replaced it. Moreover, they are not hierarchically related. Each makes a distinctive and complementary contribution to human understanding. The truth is that all of us, regardless of whether we are religious or secular, partake in all three cultures — mimetic, mythic and theoretic. Each one of us deploys these three cultural capacities to varying degrees. The modern mind remains a complex mix of mimetic, mythic and theoretical elements.

Take the mimetic. We have wedding rituals to reinforce mutual commitment; commemorative rituals such as keeping a two-minute silence at 11 o’clock on January 30 each year to not forget Gandhi’s sacrifice. Why? Because rituals play a crucial role in underlining the collective significance of an act or bring stability in human interactions that are ephemeral and may otherwise fall apart. Ever seen a singles tennis match ending without the ritual of players hugging each other or shaking hands to express that their rivalry is over and they are friends once again? Modern, secular lives are also governed by myths. Our popular culture is mythic — it cares two hoots for reason or evidence, fictitiously connects disparate events, and influences us by heroic exemplars such as the mythical angry young man. Why, even ‘scientific’ economics generates myths such as that of the rational economic man!

In short, secular rationalists — theoretically minded scientists and professionals — would do well to acknowledge the continuing hold of myths and rituals in their lives. But equally, those immersed in religious myth and ritual must value not only scientific reason but also the social uses of reason in clarifying meaning, unearthing beliefs and pictures that have receded into the background, finding or generating common ground for discussion and mutual understanding, for reconciliation.

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