Thursday, 20 October 2016

Rewriting the History of the Human Mind: J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being

(Notes on J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being)

The argument of the book is quite technical, but it is easy to explain the nature of the argument, and why I came to write it. 

I studied ancient history and languages at UCL as a mature student in the early 1990s. Before deciding to study ancient history, I had a long standing interest in both art and philosophy, and in the art and thought of the European renaissance. I read the two volume edition of Frazer’s Golden Bough in 1987, and was struck by the fact that the idea of ‘Being’, which connects ideas of magic and religion in the European renaissance, principally among the platonists (Ficino, etc), was not discussed. At all. Not even to dismiss any notion of its importance as an idea.

I found this omission to be very strange. Being and its close partner ‘plenitude’ was important enough a cultural idea for A. O. Lovejoy later to later write about its extensive history in the west through two and a half millennia (The Great Chain of Being, 1936).

Frazer was extremely well read, and it seemed impossible that he did not know or understand the importance of the idea of Being in the history of civilisation.

Most readers of Frazer read The Golden Bough, and none of his other writings. At the time I knew of no other works. I wondered what else he had written, and if he had perhaps discussed the idea in another book. In which case the omission of a discussion of Being in the Golden Bough might be explained. Since I’m discussing thoughts about Frazer which occurred to me in 1987, there was no internet to search, so I did a trawl through his publications in the catalogue of the National Library of Scotland (I was living in Edinburgh at the time).

And there it was in the catalogue: ‘The Growth of Plato’s Ideal Theory’. A slim book emerged shortly afterwards from the stacks, first published in 1930, close to the end of his long career.

Frazer wrote this text as an essay in 1879, to compete for a fellowship at Cambridge. He won, and it is not surprising that he did. The essay is an extraordinary piece of work, and a tour-de-force by a twenty-four year old. It was clear from a cursory study of it that he knew the work of Plato inside out.

Plato of course represents the nominal beginning of the articulate discussion of Being in the western tradition. So Frazer certainly did know something of the history of the idea of Being, and the importance it formerly had in the ancient world. And long before he began to write The Golden Bough.

So the mystery had deepened. He knew Plato’s arguments about Being and the importance of these for a philosophical understanding of the world. And he also knew, or should have known, that Plato had defined two different kinds of magic in the Laws, one of which was explicitly drawn from the idea of Being itself (the passage is quoted in the book).

I engaged with the argument of his essay very closely. And it became clear what he was doing. There are three major themes in the essay. The first of these themes is how the human mind understands objects and ideas which are presented to it. As a disciple of John Locke, he understood human thought in terms of the association of ideas, which was one of Locke’s major contributions to philosophy. So when Plato spoke of ‘Being’ and related concepts, Frazer understood him to be falsely imagining that, what he could conceive of, therefore had some kind of objective reality. As a result, he was converting a discursive epistemology into a false ontology. Plato made this ‘mistake’ over and over again.

A second major theme of Frazer’s essay is the notion that Plato did not have a logically coherent and doctrinal definition of Being at the time he was writing his dialogues. Hence, the apparent changes in Plato’s point of view when dealing with questions concerning ultimate reality, can be explained in terms of a process of development. In short, he changed his mind, according to where he was in terms of his intellectual progress. As a result, much of Frazer’s essay is critically concerned with the contemporary discussion of the order in which the dialogues were composed. This order was supposed to be established on the basis of style, and the sequence in which various questions in the dialogues were discussed and apparently dismissed. One of these questions involved the plausibility or otherwise of what Frazer called ‘Plato’s Ideal Theory’ (his theory of the Forms). Then as now this procedure was inconclusive, and the order of dialogues proposed by Frazer is as problematic and unconvincing as any other which has been proposed.

The third theme does not occupy much space in his essay, since his conclusion is that the whole subject of the idea of Being is not worth discussing, since, as he says, ‘nothing can be predicated of Being’.

This is a staggering assertion, given the amount of words which have been written on the idea of Being over the past two and a half thousand years. Frazer takes his cue for this both from Locke’s doctrine of the association of ideas, and from the apparently unresolved questions about Being which appear in the Platonic dialogues. For Frazer, there is simply nothing to say on the question of the reality of Being.

This nearly clears up the mystery. But it leaves us with another mystery. It is one thing to come to the conclusion that nothing sensible can be said about the nature of Being; it is another to then entirely ignore the discussions about Being which had been taking place across the entire period of time covered by The Golden Bough, and also to ignore the fact that the nature of Being had in the past been understood to underpin ideas about magic and religion.

Not only did he not engage with these ideas, he wrote about the human race as if there never had been an idea of Being in support of the phenomenal aspects of human culture.

The consequence of this is that, for more than forty years, what Frazer was writing was a species of literary fiction, resulting from a Lockean reinterpretation of the evidence. Thus, The Golden Bough is essentially a study of human culture, with one of its most important and perennial features written out, and replaced with another understanding of how things came to have meaning: the idea that the vastness of human experience was, for the most part, built on mistaken notions of sympathy and contagion.


An early samizdat-style text of Thomas Yaeger’s J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being was available on the web for about six years as a series of linked HTML files, from January 1999 to 2005. This is the first time it has been formatted as an eBook, and given a formal commercial distribution.

Title: J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being
Author: Thomas Yaeger
ISBN: 9781310105470
Published by the Anshar Press, April 4, 2016
Format: ePub format eBook

Size: 23 thousand words. 

Title of this article amended Jan 24 2017, to more clearly distinguish it from another more concerned with the philosophical background to The Golden Bough. TY.

No comments:

Post a Comment